”My take on this is that the system has not broken down. It was built broken. It was designed that way. It’s functioning according to the original plan. Democracy was never the intention. Thwarting democracy was.

The mercenary soldier: An Italian condottiere as in a drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci

The mercenary soldier: An Italian condottiere as in a drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci

The U.S. founding fathers were clear in The Federalist Papers about their purpose in the Constitution. It was to block “faction,” by which they meant the will of the majority, through electing “representatives” rather than direct participation, à la New England town halls. “Democracies have ever been found incompatible with … the rights of property,” wrote James Madison. Garry Wills says the founders’ goal was to prevent “not faction, but action,” which is exactly what we see there now: stalemate or, at most, tiny, irritating, frustrating, nearly pointless action on health care.” ( Rick Salutin, Globe and Mail )

The influence of Machiavelli? In his own lifetime he was considered a failure. Certainly, no soldier prince arose to liberate Italy. After his death, however, it was otherwise. In 1552, the Vatican  placed Machiavelli’s works on the Index of Prohibited Books, because ”they teach men to be good for their own advantage in this world, a doctrine worse then heresy”.  Despite this ban, Machiavelli’s books were widely read and his political teaching became influential.  It would likely have confirmed him in his pessimistic view of human nature had he known that most statesmen and thinkers would seize on the elements of repression and guile in his teachings to the exclusion of the civic sense and patriotism he equally taught.

The Prince: Cesare Borgia combined the qualities of lion and fox and became the model for Machiavelli's ideal ruler

The Prince: Cesare Borgia combined the qualities of lion and fox and became the model for Machiavelli's ideal ruler

In France, several Kings studied Machiavelli as a means of increasing their absolutism, though it cannot be said that he did them much good.  Henry III and Henry IV were murdered, and in each case their blood soaked person was found a well thumbed copy of ”The Prince”. Louis XIII was following Machiavelli( 1469-1527) when he caused his most powerful subject, the Italian born adventurer, Concini, to be treacherously killed. Richelieu affirmed that France could not be governed without the right of arbitrary arrest and exile, and that in case of danger to the state it may well be that a hundred innocent men should perish. This was ”raison d’etat”, an exaggerated version of certain elements in ”The Prince”, to which Machiavelli may not have subscribed.

”Machiavelli’s cardinal achievement is his uncovering of an insoluble dilemma, the planting of a permanent question mark in the path of posterity. It stems from his de facto recognition that ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration, and that not merely in exceptional circumstances, as a result of abnormality or accident or error—the clash of Antigone and Creon or in the story of Tristan—but (this was surely new) as part of the normal human situation.” ( Isaiah Berlin )

Charles VIII of France: Invaded italy and caused the downfall of the Florentine Republic

Charles VIII of France: Invaded italy and caused the downfall of the Florentine Republic

In England, Machiavelli had little direct influence. England had never been defeated as Florence had been, and the English could not grasp the kind of desperate situation that demanded such unscrupulous political methods. The political diseases Machiavelli had first studied scientifically were now called after his name. Machiavelli this became saddled with a lot of actions he had never advocated, including atheism and most treacherous ways of killing, generally by poison or assassination.

The eighteenth century, with its strong belief in man’s good nature and reason, tended to scoff at Machiavelli. Frederick The Great even wrote an ”Anti-Machiavel”, in which he stated that the ruler is the first servant of his people. He also rejected the idea of breaking treaties. However, later Frederick began to question whether honesty was really the best policy given the continual dangers of being betrayed and forsaken often brought about by envy and jealousy. In old age, Frederick became a confirmed Machiavellian, ” Rulers must always be guided by the interests of the state. They are slaves of their resources, the interest of the state is their law, and the law may not be infringed”.machiavelli8

During the nineteenth-century, Germany and Italy both sought to achieve national unity, with the result that writers now began to play up Machiavelli’s other side, his call for regeneration.According to Hegel, the necessity of evil in political action becomes a superior ethics that is unconnected and exclusive to the domain of individual morals. Liberty and the law are basically identical and the state swallows up evil. Bismarck was apparently a close student of Machiavelli but Marx and Engels paid little attention to him. Machiavelli’s main impact was on Benito Mu

ini, who in 1924, wrote a thesis on ”The Prince” , which he described as a statesman’s essential vade mecum. However, Mussolini’s failures resulted in Italy again experiencing the trauma of 1494 and 1512 and discrediting Machiavelli’s theory that it is possible for one man to effect a heart transplant on a whole people.

Machiavelli’s policy of political duplicity was found wanting in the past but still partly valid in the age of internet and mass media. His insistence on the need for military preparedness has proved of durable value and is likely to continue to remain one of the West’s core beliefs. Also his technique for solving political problems through a study of the past is practiced to some extent by every self-respecting foreign minister of our time.

”Rushdie brilliantly describes the imprisonment and torture of Machiavelli, and the influence of the dungeon on Machiavelli’s ideas. “He had served the people and they had paid him in pain, in that lightless subterranean place, that place without a name in which nameless people did nameless things to bodies that were also nameless…’ ” ( Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence )

The evil that can be attributed to Machiavelli was probably defensible on his part by the context of sixteenth-century Italy. The ethic of patriotism remains a somewhat poisonous double edged sword, used and abused in present day politics with much the same manipulative flavor that machiavelli would have regarded as poisonous but necessary in defense of the survival of the state. Imaginative as he was, he could sense the horrors ahead; the ending of political liberty and of freedom of the press, which put the lights out in Italy for 250 years. He taught that it is a civilized man’s first duty to save civilization at all costs. The institutions and their survival are paramount, and supercedes the will of the citizenry that is subject to their authority. He may have been mistaken, as his judgement was marred by what he saw and experienced; the thud of enemy boots, and the pillage, profanation and rape by foreign troops. This imagery and fear has been clearly inculcated in modern societies through principally television and other news sources which, have sometimes acted to form a consensus that state sponsored violence, and restraint of personal liberties may be necessary conditions and permanent circumstances.

”If what Machiavelli believed is true, this undermines one major assumption of Western thought: namely, that somewhere in the past or the future, in this world or the next, in the church or the laboratory, in the speculations of the metaphysician or the findings of the social scientist or in the uncorrupted heart of the simple good man, there is to be found the final solution of the question of how men should live. If this is false (and if more than one equally valid answer to the question can be returned, then it is false) the idea of the sole true, objective, universal human ideal crumbles. The very search for it becomes not merely utopian in practice, but conceptually incoherent.” ( Isaiah Berlin )

”Uh-oh, I think I’m kvetching, too. It’s so comfy. But the situation is daunting. The privileged use the reps and parties they installed back at The Creation to engineer ever more power (these days, via tax breaks, budget cuts, deregulation etc.), further increasing their leverage and gaining more resources with which to pressure reps and parties not to alter the system in ways that could jeopardize their power. It’s not that nothing can ever change; but the longer it goes on going on, the harder any changing becomes.” ( Rick Salutin )

Related Posts

This entry was posted in Art History/Antiquity/Anthropology, Feature Article, Literature/poetry/spoken word, Miscellaneous and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>