Sunday, 16 February 2014

On the dangers of reading carelessly and how it tarnishes reputations

In the Summer of 1512 events of political and social order conspired to make life miserable for the official in charge of the militiamen who defended Florence’s thankless citizens from the armies of Pope Julius II. His Holy League descended upon the city-state’s north-west region, the Porta al Prato, determined to conquer it before entering triumphantly through the republic’s walls, in order to restore its rule to the progeny of Lorenzo de’ Medici. The official, known for his mistrust of fickle mercenaries, conscripted farmers and peasants from the countryside and armed them with long pikes, thinking these inexperienced soldiers could withstand the attack of professional Spanish soldiers armed with cannons and falconets. But after one day of bombardment, a breach on the fortifications was opened and the infantry marched in, unopposed since the false peasantry, studious to avoid danger, threw down its weapons. Even so, the vicious Spaniards did not spare their lives, and by the end of the day some 2,000 Florentines and Pratesi had been murdered. The events that followed would have demoralized even a Job and forever inscribe upon his macerated soul an understandable disillusionment with mankind: a group of Medici supporters, greedy of gain, stormed the Pallazo della Signoria and easily seized control of the republic; not only the citizens but Piero Sodini, then ruler of Florence, proved to be false when he resigned and fled into exile, leaving the militia official alone to bear the brunt of reprisals. Arrested and subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques for his alleged involvement in an anti-Medici conspiracy, his detainment ended three weeks later, without him having confessed anything, after which Homeland Security deported him. Relocating to a quiet place in the countryside, poor Niccolò Machiavelli decided to stake his rentrée into political life on a book based on the fact that all men are “thankless, fickle, false, studious to avoid danger, greedy of gain.” Thus was born The Prince, arguably the greatest book ever written by a shell-shocked war veteran.

Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. This is basically the only thing I knew about The Prince prior to reading it. But after finishing it, I felt short-changed because I couldn’t find it anywhere. So I looked it up online. It turns out it really isn’t anywhere to be found in the book. For years it’s been misattributed both to Sun Tzu and Niccolò Machiavelli, without basis, which means it really was invented by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo in The Godfather: Part II. There are certain books that are such a part of our culture that we think we need not read them, that we have received them via osmosis. It is amazing how often we think we know a book we have not read, only to be sobered by the experience of reading them. Actual reading is always fundamental.

Like I wrote before, The Prince was Machiavelli’s attempt to return to political life after being removed from his governmental post. You have to give him credit: he was crafty. In a land and time ruled by power-thirsty war lords, what would be the best way of ingratiating oneself with them? How about writing a manual on how to obtain and secure power? Machiavelli even dedicated the book to his nemesis, Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici:

It is customary for such as seek a Prince’s favour, to present themselves before him with those things of theirs which they themselves most value, or in which they perceive him chiefly to delight. Accordingly, we often see horses, armour, cloth of gold, precious stones, and the like costly gifts, offered to Princes as worthy of their greatness.

However, since Machiavelli didn’t have much to offer Lorenzo in a way of tribute, he scribbled down a pamphlet and presented it to him. It’s no wonder Lorenzo wasn’t impressed. I presume that for a man who had already achieved power on his own, taking lessons on how obtain it was not a priority. Especially from the guy who had been in charge of defending the city Lorenzo now ruled. Now, like many people today when I think of someone from the Middle Ages, I picture a rude, fanatical, rapist, racist, slow-witted man-child. It’s a fact they did not have videogames back then to help them improve brain memory and hand to eye coordination. But there’s being slow-witted and then there’s thinking Lorenzo would take advices from the guy who defended the Prato. Right, so The Prince didn’t land Machiavelli that much desired job as political pundit at Rai 1. But after his death in 1532, the pamphlet gained wider circulation and it’s now considered a fundamental text on political thinking.

Let me drop the snarky circumlocution for a moment and say that The Prince didn’t sweep me off my feet. I don’t even see what all the fuss is. It’s a very dry book. It’s not a struggle to remain focused on its seventy pages, but one is forever expectant of a pithy maxim or advice that you can quote to your workmates to look smart. And it never comes. Machiavelli only wished he could have come up with a line as cool as keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. No Oscar for you, Niccolò, you’re no Tonino Guerra, that’s for sure.

The book will be of tremendous import, though, to those who want to know, once and for all, no more beating around the bush, which type of princedom is better: hereditary princedoms or new princedoms? I’ll be honest – I had never entertained this question before; I mean, everyday stuff piles up, the bills, the kids, there’s so much stuff distracting you, you know, distracting you from the real perturbing existential questions: is there a God? Is life worth living? Was Capitu really unfaithful? Are hereditary princedoms better than new princedoms? I think fear stopped me from asking myself this; as Nietzsche wrote somewhere, when you gaze at princedoms the princedoms gaze back. I’m not going to spoil this part of the plot for the reader, but I swear you’ll never guess the answer. But the question of the princedoms only prepares the ground for even more radical questions, like how to govern each regime. But the real core of the book, and what made me realize I was reading a masterpiece, are the lessons on how to actually acquire princedoms. This was when I understood The Prince is such a bestseller. In spite of my personal feelings, this is a tremendous books, and I want to help you understand why. Although shrouded in controversy, The Prince, it turns out, is nothing but a self-help manual for a happy, successful life. Like Rhonda Byrne, Paulo Coelho or Dale Carnegie, Machiavelli has life-changing exercises that can help you make new friends (or subjects), stimulate your emotional intelligence, improve your sales, and navigate the murky waters of modern morals, which he helped invent.

As a dyed-in-the-wool humanist, Machiavelli does not not get all the credit he deserves for the prominent place he placed morals in his political system. This is important, many people deny the existence of morality, like B.F. Skinner and his Behaviourism for instance. Not so with Machiavelli. Like all of history’s wise men, from Buddha to Nelson Mandela, he knows morality is inescapable. In particular he’s concerned with how to alleviate cruelty in this world. Although his seminal book on that topic is no doubt Two Concepts of Cruelty, in The Prince he also expounds on it with certain panache. For him it’s paramount to know when cruelty is appropriate. For instance, the parable of Agathocles, the tyrant of Syracuse, is well employed to illustrate the upside of cruelty. Agathocles was a man of low origins who rose to power in the army until he became Praetor. Then, in a bid to obtain all the power at once, he convened the senators to discuss public matters, and finding them all together he ordered his men to murder them all. This was good because in one single act of violence he took care of all his problems. It would have been a lot worse if he had named himself ruler and then had to face a conspiracy here, a betrayal there, stretched out into years of paranoia and persecutions that only foster insecurity and fear-mongering amongst his subjects:

Those cruelties we may say are well employed, if it be permitted to speak well of things evil, which are done once for all under the necessity of self-preservation, and are not afterwards persisted in, but so far as possible modified to the advantage of the governed. Ill-employed cruelties, on the other hand, are those which from small beginnings increase rather than diminish with time. They who follow the first of these methods, may, by grace of God and man, find, as did Agathocles, that their condition is not desperate; but by no possibility can the others maintain themselves.

This, incidentally, in Machiavelli Studies, is what we call diachronic cruelty (taking place across a stretch of time) and synchronic cruelty (taking place at one point in time).

In fact Machiavelli was very much against violence as a tool to maintain power. He was prescient in sensing that violence would, in the future, become economical, political, social, abstract and formless. He asks us to imagine for instance a scenario where a city is under attack from outside forces. Say, Portugal from the IMF. Obviously this is a situation that is quite challenging to the Prince: on the one hand, he has to implement self-destructive austerity measures that weaken the economy, lead to massive unemployment, force people to emigrate in droves, and cause citizens to live in an endless state of fear and anxiety over a bleak future; on the other hand, he has the rabble to keep in order and to deter their attempts to fight the IMF back. How to balance this precarious situation? Former case studies show us what happens when the Prince is forced to use violence against the population. Naomi Klein, in The Shock Doctrine, gives us a good description of how Pinochet did just that when the IMF got in his country, and as we all know he’s not in power anymore. There are lessons to learn from that: disappearing people, forming death squads and other exaggerated measures can work in the short-term but will not help a Prince remain in power for long. And this is what we want to avoid. An overthrown Prince means an unruly populace, prone to dangers and anarchy and more instability. It’s not to their advantage, even if they think so. Pinochet’s mistake, of course, is that he did not apply Machiavelli’s ideas. A Prince in Pinochet’s situation could easily avoid problems “now, by holding out hopes to his subjects that the evil will not be of long continuance; now, by exciting their fears of the enemy’s cruelty; and, again, by dexterously silencing those who seem to him too forward in their complaints.” This is what is being done in Portugal to great success: 1) promise the people that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, even though that tunnel’s exit keeps moving farther and farther ahead, from 2013 to 2014 to 2015, but it’s important not to lose hope; 2) engage in a campaign of media terror, never allowing people to forget what the markets, the ratings agencies, international organizations and other countries will do to them if they even think of not honouring their international commitments. There’s a third part that needs a bit more of explanation. It may seem that at the end Machiavelli is advocating what we nowadays would call censorship. But let’s pay attention to the expression “dexterously silencing.” Now dextrous, according to the dictionary, means:

skillful or adroit in the use of the hands or body.
having mental adroitness or skill; clever.
done with skill or adroitness.

So far from defending a violent repression of the media, what Machiavelli is saying is using creative cunning to deflect criticism. What he clearly meant was what we nowadays call PR, planting pundits on television to subtly shape public opinion, putting a positive spin on things, etc. Hardly a call for murdering journalists or shutting down newspapers. His reliance on cruelty has been greatly emphasized. We have evolved past that. One of Machiavelli’s problems is that his thinking was so ahead of his time he lacked the linguistic concepts for what he wanted to express; it was that damned “prison house of language” that Nietzsche warned us all of.

For a while, though, many of Machiavelli’s concepts were not properly understood and he was unfairly associated with ugly and extremist ideas. In my opinion this is the result of reading quickly and haphazardly. I think it's very easy to see things through the prism of our ignorance and prejudices. It's much harder to try to see things from outside the mental antechamber we inhabit. Hopefully this post will set some things straight. Many take him to task for things he never said. Like Eskimos having a thousand words for snow, people only using ten percent of their brain, and Lewis Carroll being a pedophile, it’s one of those clichés that refuses to go away. I know I’m fighting windmills here, but I’ll repeat it nevertheless: nowhere and no point did Niccolò Machiavelli write that the ends justify the means! It’s not in The Prince. So let’s get rid of that rumour once and for all! Because of this he often gets characterised as a forerunner of Fascist and Nazi philosophy, which is a flimsy claim. In fact Machiavelli was opposed to Hitler’s ideas. In The Collected Letters of Niccolò Machiavelli vol. IX (edited by Steven Milner, 1987, OUP), he confides  to his long-time friend Simone Weil (dated July 12, 1943) his optimism for “[a] future world where all sexes and races, regardless of religion, political and intellectual prejudices, can commune around the great humanitarian endeavour of a fairer, nobler society where man can develop in peace his tendencies for rationality and (...) altruism while keeping the freedom to retain his individual dignity as an autonomous human being.” Although he was never a Marxist, because he saw in it ideas that precluded human freedom, he was not oblivious to the class dynamics that shaped society.

Princedom lies either through the favours of the people or of the nobles. For in every city are to be found these two opposed humours having their origin in this, that the people desire not to be domineered over or oppressed by the nobles, while the nobles desire to oppress and domineer over the people.

What The Prince does, then, is offer a way of subverting the rigid class strata by empowering the wretched with the conceptual tools to achieve their self-rule. Or as Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize laureate, theoretician of welfare economics and author of Development as Freedom, once said, Machiavelli was “the first and most profound thinker to offer sound man-made techniques to emancipate mankind from divinely-mandated would-be dictators.” Let’s not forget that The Prince was a product of the Humanism of its era. Applying the tenets of Humanism, namely putting man in the centre of the universe and celebrating unrestricted mental and emotional development, Machiavelli could not ignore society’s march towards a more open and rational model. In one of the final chapters he even states that Fortune alone can’t control man’s fate and that he can do something for himself, without relying on deities, chance or Fate. That’s a radical leap in human thinking when we consider that at the time people still thought time was circular.

Of course some parts of his oeuvre are dated, if you will. That is to be expected. Some of his ideas on social cohesion and peace nowadays seem a bit absurd, even naïve. For instance, he came up with a concept we nowadays would call perpetual war, that is, keeping war going on forever to keep the minds of citizens “so completely occupied with it, that they had no time think of changes at home.” The idea is to start a war, any war, to keep people distracted. It can work on several pretexts, but Machiavelli particularly favoured one type, one for which he coined the term pious cruelty, although we also know it by another name, attributed to King Ferdinand of Spain, that is, using a noble pretext for war to keep the minds of the subjects occupied and justify anything. It achieved excellent results in getting Spain rid of the filthy Moors. The strategy involves using warm and consensual soundbytes that made people all giddy inside, like security, freedom, religion, a better tomorrow, and it can be used for anything, from driving the Moors out of Christian Spain or bringing Democracy to Iraq.

Using the same pretext [King Ferdinand] made war on Africa, invaded Italy, and finally attacked France; and being thus constantly busied in planning and executing vast designs; he kept the minds of his subjects in suspense and admiration, and occupied with the results of his actions, which arose one out of another in such close succession as left neither time nor opportunity to oppose them.

Yes, Machiavelli invented the War on Terror. Yes, he understood that one of the best ways to maintain power was to invent enemies to sic the populace on. That only means something if we allow it to mean something. Many great men sadly entertained less positive ideas in their lifetime. Martin Heidegger was a Nazi, Sartre whitewashed Stalin’s crimes, Foucault thought the Iranian Revolution was a bitching idea! But let's not be so quick to judge others. Let's read carefully before we start throwing out accusations left and right. That's how reputations are ruined and people hurt. Hardly the basis of tolerance and understanding. Furthermore, one moral lapse should not denigrate all the good a person has done, or trivialize the relevance of their ideas for living thinkers. For instance, without Machiavelli, Umberto Eco couldn’t have written Inventing the Enemy. More about it next time.


  1. This is written in a true Machiavellian spirit.

    1. I did try to inhabit the work. Some people do close reading, others do close reviewing.

  2. I appreciate this post Miguel. You described very eloquently how this work is not exactly what many folks think it to be. While a mixed bag in terms of morality, it is very a cornerstone in rationalist thinking in terms of governance as well as understanding government and politics.

    1. What is interesting, is that this really is a work inspired by humanism. The message of this book is that people can make something of themselves thanks to their will and effort, without divine intervention or fate. That was a truly innovative idea. But it's sad it was used to justify coups...

  3. What about Cesare Borgia? Since I've read Puzo's The Family, I've been keenly interested in this particular family, I believe he's referenced by Machiavelli in The Prince, I even thought He is the Prince - or the next best thing to it, since he died in 1507. And speaking of Puzo, the plot of The Godfather, the book, encompasses the stories of the first two movies, which was a nice surprise when I first read it, maybe its a hint as to why both movies won the Oscar for best Picture and Best Writing, Screenplay Adapted From Other Material of their respective year. Here's a bonus of De Niro's auditioning for the part of Sonny Corleone.

    1. The Borgia are briefly mentioned in The Prince, not enough to warrant reading the book just because of it. Surely you can find more interesting books about them.

  4. It is amazing how often we think we know a book we have not read, only to be sobered by the experience of reading them. Actual reading is always fundamental. Ain't it the truth?

    This was an immensely enjoyable post, Miguel. You could build a career (or a book?) around making these delightful correctives to received ideas.

  5. The series on Portuguese poetry would make a good book, too. For what audience, I know - but it would be a good book!

    1. Oh, I wish my thoughts were original or articulate at all, and not just a bunch of superficial cliches gleaned from simple readings. Alas, I'm not the essayist I wish I were.