Saturday, November 15, 2008

Week 11, Machiavelli, Erasmus

Notes on Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince

2521-23. In his chapter “Cesare Borgia,” Machiavelli argues that Cesare or “Duke Valentino” combined the cunning of the fox and the martial audacity of the lion; he played the cards Fortune dealt him, and played them well. He weakened the Orsini and Colonnesi factions in Rome and called on the French to help him put down the rebellions that arose. More broadly, he managed to scatter such factions by appealing to men of rank and rewarding them without reference to which party they served. He took Romagna, shrewdly employing the cruel Remirro de Orco, who, we are told, “in a short time rendered the province peaceful and united, gaining enormous prestige” (1523). He then ordered that henchman to be cut in half and displayed in the public square, lest the people’s hatred flow towards him rather than towards the now-powerful de Orco. He assuaged public feeling against him, that is, not with kindness but rather with a well-directed act of violence—a political “holistic remedy,” with cruelty curing outrage over cruelty. But in the end, illness and bad fortune got the better of Cesare, something that can happen even to the best of Machiavellian princes. Cesare made the most of his opportunities, and that is the best anyone can do.

2524-26. In his chapter, “On the Things for Which Men, and Especially Princes, Are Praised Or Censured,” Machiavelli says pointedly that “if a prince wishes to maintain himself, he must learn how to be not good, and to use that ability or not as is required” (2524). A vital question is, how can the prince use both his virtues and his vices to get and retain power? There are virtues that weaken a prince’s grasp, and vices that strengthen it. To be overly generous is a mistake, says Machiavelli in his chapter “On Liberality and Parsimony,” because generosity commits the prince to a ruinous economic policy based on unfair taxation. Liberality is not a renewable resource. It makes people like you at first, but then they keep asking for more until you have nothing left to give, and then they will begin to despise you.

2526-28. In his chapter “On Cruelty and Pity,” Machiavelli says that cruelty is sometimes necessary on the principle of sacrificing one person for the greater good of the many. He argues further that men are generally “ungrateful, mutable, pretenders and dissemblers, prone to avoid danger, thirsty for gain” (2527). In a word, people are selfish. Love establishes obligations that are easily abandoned, but fear induces the dread of punishment—a far more consistent motivator. Still, the prince must not become the object of hatred, which means that he must respect the property rights of his subjects and take care not to provoke the nobles or the populace beyond necessity. In military matters, cruelty may be excused on the grounds of immediate necessity. It is in the prince’s power to make people afraid, but love is something they have in their own power—the prince cannot control it. And control is the name of the game in politics: you don’t want to be defined by others, and you don’t want to be forced to act in ways that harm your interests or those of your subjects. Aristotle said that politics was the art of helping others achieve the good life and that as such it was among the most honorable of pursuits. Machiavelli’s view is not without idealism, but his understanding is that humans are flawed and selfish by nature and that this badness in us will come out under the pressure of circumstances. It takes craft and “art” to harness the subjects’ desires and make them useful. What’s needed as well is an honest assessment of one’s own powers, virtues, and limitations: if a ruler is of a generous and forgiving nature, he or she had better know how those qualities can affect the ability to govern. How are others likely to respond and in what circumstances?

2528-29. Should the prince keep his promises? In his chapter on that subject, “In What Way Faith Should be Kept by Princes,” Machiavelli says that promises are contingent upon circumstances. Others will break their promises whenever it suits them, so the prince has the right to do the same. It is his prerogative to behave like an animal—specifically, now like the audacious lion and now like the cunning fox. This is an amoral, bold application of the Renaissance idea that man is a microcosm containing within himself all elements of God’s creation. On 2529, Machiavelli says people often act like simpletons thanks to their selfishness and shortsightedness, so it will always be easy to find some way of deceiving them. Pope Alexander VI, Machiavelli points out, always deceived people, and never seemed to run out of eager dupes. It is only necessary to seem virtuous, to keep up an appearance of virtuousness, since doing so establishes cover for the times when it is, unfortunately, necessary not to be good. It’s interesting to speculate on what Machiavelli would say to President Lincoln’s democratic-spirited dictum, “you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” He might sympathize with this notion to some extent: after all, Machiavelli favored republican rule in Florence, so he believed the people should govern themselves without the aid of princes. And a prince who behaves with notorious wickedness and faithlessness might eventually make himself hated and so lose his grip on power.

Still, while Machiavelli is at his core idealistic as our editors say, there’s no denying the realist edge in his political theory—he says in this chapter that “the crowd is always caught by appearance and by the outcome of events, and the crowd is all there is in the world. . .” (2529). There’s little hope in such a sentence that “the crowd” is ever going to break out of its cage of illusion and see people and events for what they really are, so how much danger is the artfully deceptive prince really in here? The suggestion is that people want to be deceived, especially when the deception is pleasant and seems to offer them advantages and all the good things in life. The world turns on appearances, not truth. And as for those few who are able to see the deceitful, sometimes immoral or amoral prince for what he really is, “there is no place for the few when the many have room enough.” That idea is as old at least as Herodotus—I recall the example of the King who explains to his subordinate his principle of ruling. He points to a field of waving grass or flowers and suggests that the tallest ones must be cut down because they stand out too much. The intellectuals, the prideful and self-sufficient, the ones who see the truth too clearly, are dangerous. The notion that people judge only by success or failure gives us a whole theory of history—if you start a war, for example, you will be judged on the basis of success on the battlefield. If you lose, almost everyone will say that your cause was unjust and you should be punished; if you win, those who think such things will mostly keep quiet, and will be little heeded if they choose to speak out against you. In sum and in keeping with the “situational morality” Machiavelli has been positing, then, we are led back to the insistence the prince need only seem “compassionate, trustworthy, humane, honest, and religious” (1529). Above all, religious because when people believe you’re pious, they will credit you with all the other good qualities Machiavelli names.

2530-32. In his chapter, “Fortune Is a Woman,” Machiavelli’s remark, “la Fortuna ed una donna” implies aggression, true enough, but it also alludes to the capacities of a canny suitor. Boldness may imply humility, it may that one subject oneself to the storms of Lady Fortune. Stand up, keep up your half of the bargain by exercising free will, the field for which is open and subject to negotiation. The bold, even violent, prince gets the reward, while the passive are sheep to be directed and mobilized. Machiavelli insists that the prince must attend to circumstances, and not be a creature of habit. As Pater says, “failure is to form habits.” Flexibility is needed, and so is aggression when warranted. Fortune favors energy and youth, and sometimes smiles upon those who know better than to expect consistency from her, those who are willing to stand up, assert themselves, and fight, taking charge of circumstances to the extent possible. Life is full of uncertainties, and passion must go forth to meet them. But this audacity must be backed up with intelligence and talent: I suppose the assertively superior “blond boy” in Golding’s Lord of the Flies would not overly impress Machiavelli because he lacks the cunning of, say, a true Machiavellian like Cesare Borgia. (That doesn’t keep me from thinking of the kid when I see certain prominent politicians from time to time—after all, it takes a lot of arrogance to suppose you have the talent and the right to “rule the earth,” and then expect others just to fall in line behind you.)

2532-34. In his chapter, “The Roman Dream,” Machiavelli answers the question, “is there an ethics in this text?” in the affirmative. The ethical dimension has to do with the liberation of Italy from Spanish (and French) influence and its unification. Viva Italia! This goal, we are to understand, justifies the sometimes unpleasant means Machiavelli advocates, and the realization of the dream will require both looking back to the ancient Roman virtues and a strong man to gather and deploy great power in the present. At heart, Machiavelli is an admirer of republican virtues and of pan-Italian sovereignty, and it seems unfair to use his name as a byword for the cynical, selfish pursuit of “power for power’s sake” we sometimes ascribe to him.

Finally, there is probably no way out of the dilemma that The Prince as a whole raises: amoral or even immoral means can sometimes achieve worthy goals, but aren’t they a shaky foundation for perpetuating such goals? And if we try to lie and kill our way to the good society, aren’t we likely to lose sight of the end-point, instead getting lost in the wicked pursuit and worship of power itself? That said, Machiavellian analysis is still useful because politics is played as a game and staged as a spectacle. You and I wouldn’t want our friends applying Machiavelli to their own conduct and deceiving us because we had granted them our trust, and we wouldn’t care to be always acting in a purely Machiavellian “princely” fashion, doing good or ill to suit the circumstances and make gains in reputation and wealth. But it makes sense to bear in mind that not everyone is so idealistic—many are perfectly willing to behave that way. Unfortunately, in grand matters of state, entities usually behave that way, pursuing their own advantage at the expense of others and by means of duplicity. There’s much to be said in favor of Machiavelli’s attempt to balance genuine regard for political and moral ideals with a hard-edged capacity to see things as they are and to acknowledge the consequences of that disposition. Machiavelli’s analysis of princely authority, whatever its actual aims, should teach us to bear in mind that what politicians (even ones in democratic countries) give out as the “reasons” for their actions may not be—and often aren’t—the ones that actually motivate them. Machiavelli, in offering his vision of how the mind of a capable ruler works, is useful to anyone who doesn’t want to be treated like a simpleton or a child in matters of politics. It’s true that unbounded cynicism is shallow and self-defeating—it’s one of the easiest attitudes to adopt and it makes us seem “hip,” perhaps; but automatic acceptance of everything the government says at face value is stupid and ultimately disastrous to a people’s liberty. A government that repeatedly lies to and otherwise abuses its citizens without fear of being stripped of power will eventually lose all respect for them and stop maintaining even the sham appearance of “self-government.” Machiavelli sought to hold on to at least some degree of idealism while not giving in to naïve passiveness in the face of power. At least, that’s one positive way to read The Prince, for our own benefit.

Notes on Baldesar Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier

2552-53. Duke Federico of Urbino is praised as an example of the perfect Renaissance prince: courageous, generous, and prudent. He is also said to have been the possessor of a fine palace and a collector of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew manuscripts. His son Guidobaldo (or Guido for short) succeeded him, but has been kept from living an active life due to his frail health. His excellence consists in not being “overcome by Fortune.” That is, he bears up under the strain of many difficulties. He also values the excellence of his courtiers, which speaks well of him.

2554. The Duchess Elisabetta Gonzaga is the center of the courtly circle, serving more or less in the place of the ailing Duke. Everyone looks to her as the model of perfect conduct and aristocratic excellence. This is not to say that she is intimidating or rigid; quite the contrary. The narrator says that there was no one “who did not esteem it the greatest pleasure in the world to please her and the greatest grief to displease her. For which reason most decorous customs were there joined with the greatest liberty, and games and laughter in her presence were seasoned not only with witty jests but with a gracious and sober dignity….” she combines a free spirit with an intuitive understanding of propriety, and the result is a graceful social circle in which everyone is encouraged to be honest and to strive towards perfection. Those around her take part in pleasurable conversations that don’t sacrifice the Renaissance goal of constantly improving on one’s capacities and cultivating one’s faculties.

2555-57. Count Ludovico argues in favor of nobility as the first requirement for a proper courtier. His reasoning is that “noble birth is like a bright lamp that makes manifest and visible deeds both good and bad, kindling and spurring on to virtue as much for fear of dishonor as for hope of praise.” People of ordinary birth, he believes, do not have this incentive but will be satisfied to live in the manner of their parents and grandparents. He argues explicitly that nobility is innate: “nature has implanted in everything that hidden seed which gives a certain force and quality of its own essence to all that springs from it, making it like itself…” (2555).

Nonetheless, he advises, effort can largely make up in a nobleman for the lack of certain qualities he really ought to have: “those who are not so perfectly endowed by nature can, with care and effort, polish and in great part fix their natural defects.” What is needed, he says, is “that certain grace which we call an ‘air’” (2555). It is perhaps worth quoting the Italian here: the courtier should have “una certa grazia e, come si dice, un sangue, che lo faccia al primo aspetto a chiunque lo vede grato ed amabile.” (See the Biblioteca Italiana online edition of Il Libro del cortegiano, Book 1.) If he has this sangue or air, everyone will find him likable and pleasant to be around. And to his friendly opponent’s argument that noble birth is really not so important after all, Ludovico replies without hesitation, “I deem it necessary to have him be of noble birth… because of that public opinion which immediately sides with nobility” (2556). It is a matter of popular bias, we might say—the nobleman or noblewoman makes the best “first impression” (2557).

2557-58. Ludovico continues his list of requirements with the thought that “true profession of the Courtier must be that of arms,” and he must be loyal “to whomever he serves” (2557). But this military capability must not be taken too far—it is appropriate only on the field of battle, and not in polite social situations, as the anecdote told about the soldier Berto who prided himself on his fierceness suggests.

2558-59. Should a courtier praise himself? Well, he should have qualities worth praising, but he must not trumpet his own virtues directly. There is an art to speaking well of oneself without sounding conceited. As Dante had long ago pointed out, when you praise yourself, no one wants to believe you, but when you speak ill of yourself, almost everyone wants to believe you. The key thing is to do more than you claim you can do, and moderate your speech.

2559-61. A courtier’s physical appearance is also very important, and Ludovico insists that he must avoid appearing overly feminine in bearing or speech, as was sometimes fashionable at court. We may recall that Shakespeare’s plays often make fun of such courtly effeminacy—Osric in Hamlet is a good example, as is Oswald in King Lear. And the French come in for a good deal of mockery on that account, as in Henry V. The courtier must also be well versed in the handling of dueling weapons and an excellent horseman as well as a hunter, among other exercises. In sum, he should be expert in everything he does without being ostentatious.

2562-64. The Count is asked how exactly a person might come by this “grace” he talks about, but he professes not to be interested in that question. He will offer illustrations of “what a perfect Courtier ought to be” (2562), and that is all. The only hint he will offer is that one who seeks “to acquire grace in bodily exercises” should “begin early and learn the principles from the best of teachers” (2563). Above all, staying clear of pomposity or affectation is necessary. Coining a term, the Count says we must “practice in all things a certain sprezzatura, so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it” (2563). Again, the Italian may be worth quoting: “usar in ogni cosa una certa sprezzatura, che nasconda l’arte e dimostri ciò che si fa e dice venir fatto senza fatica e quasi senza pensarvi.” If we can do this, considerable “grace” will attend our person and actions: “Da questo credo io che derivi assai la grazia.” The only genuine art, apparently, is “art which does not seem to be art” (2564): “arte che non pare esser arte.” We can readily appreciate this notion in our modern consumer culture since so much involving fashion, after all, is about seeming artless while actually taking care to get just the right look and make just the right “statement” in public. (How many person-hours have been spent trying to achieve that “disheveled” look with regard to hairstyle?) Ludovico’s promotion of sprezzatura, like most of the other things he says, amounts to an admission that courtly life revolves around spectacle.

And it would not be advantageous if the spectacle began to seem unnatural, forced, or “practiced.” Who is the “audience” here? The Duke’s subjects in general, other rulers’ subjects when they have dealings with the Duke, and, of course, the courtiers and courtly ladies themselves. A courtier’s role is to embody, and to body forth, the goodness and grace of the sovereign. Outward appearances, as any good Neo-Platonist would say, mirror the inward goodness of a person’s soul, and the courtier is the ruler’s outward appearance, somewhat as Christ is God’s “Word made flesh.” This frame seems appropriate since Castiglione is writing in a materialistic, competitive age that still convincingly speaks the language of a profoundly Christian ethical and symbolic universe. In the end, I’m not sure we can separate the courtly spectacle from the “reality” of political power at court: courtiers are essential mediators between the ideal aims of power and its actual deployment in a complicated, compromised world.

Notes on Desiderius Erasmus