Here and there – The facts of political life


In order to encourage young lawyers to meet the facts of life head on, and to be able to recount them without bullshit, I used to give three books to my articled clerks on their admission into the legal profession: Gowers, The Complete plain Words; Clausewitz, On War; and Machiavelli, The Prince.  I don’t suppose any of them read all three, or anything like it, but I wanted to convey a hard-headed message – if they didn’t like it, they may have needed to rethink their future.

This came back to me when I read Be Like the Fox, Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom, by Erica Benner.  It seemed to me to have a lot in common with another book I had recently acquired, Ike and McCarthy, Dwight Eisenhower’s Campaign against Joseph McCarthy, by David Nicholls.  They both have respectable publishers – in order, Allen Lane and Simon & Schuster.  The academic credentials of the authors are elliptically expressed.  The title is catchy.  The style is a kind journalese that may leave some feeling like they’ve been talked down to.  In the first there is direct speech. In each, the author feels the need to tell us about their own journey of discovery, which can be a very troubling symptom. There are floods of notes.  Above all, extravagant claims are made for the book by the usual tame suspects in the blurbs, and by the author.  And in each case, I was left wondering what all the fuss was about – worse, I wondered how I got to be suckered once again, when I’m old enough to know better.

Erica Benner’s book is readable enough, if you go for that chatty style in the historical present, and you suppress your fear of another populist outbreak,  but you would have to be a bloody idiot to believe the blurb that says she has succeeded ‘brilliantly in overturning centuries-old received views.’ We can leave that puffery to the commercial conscience licence of Allen Lane.  But in the Preface, the author says this:

His [Machiavelli’s] design was to write for a tyrant those things that are pleasing to tyrants, bringing about in this way, if he could, the tyrant’s self-willed and swift downfall.’  In other words, the book’s most shocking advice was ironic.  Its author wore the mask of a helpful adviser, all the while knowing the folly of his advice, hoping to ensnare rulers and drag them to their ruin…..Machiavelli’s self-proclaimed realism, his book’s main selling point,  was a fraud.  And Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, and England were among its first victims.  Cromwell had taken the Prince at face value…..and in doing so, had walked straight into Machiavelli’s trap.

These statements are not small. They are large.  Is Ms Benner intent on eulogising a fraud?  (‘Fraud’ is her word.)  Where can you buy the crystal balls that allow you to divine Machiavelli’s real intent or purpose?  Was poor King Henry VIII really a flop?  Was the English Reformation a mistake?  How fared the nation of England in suffering through its victimhood?   And why didn’t Machiavelli’s fraud work earlier on seriously bad princes like Napoleon, Stalin or Hitler?  Why did five, twenty, and fifty million people have to die before they walked into Machiavelli’s trap?  Just how Machiavellian was Ms Benner’s version of Machiavelli?  Are we all just sad victims of a dilettante prankster?

And that’s before you get to the subtitle.  What did ‘freedom’ mean in Renaissance Italy?  As Bertrand Russell remarked of Machiavelli (in his History of Western Philosophy), ‘The word ‘liberty’ is used throughout as denoting something precious, though what it denotes is not very clear.’  My suspicion is that ‘freedom’ in Machiavelli means the kind of  pompous hypocrisy denoted in that word by the conspirators in Julius Caesar – as they pulled their hats down over their ears and hid half their faces, and then set out about murdering the man who was in their way.

Well, all this stuff is irrelevant to us in the Anglo-American scheme of things.  We don’t go big on theory.  We don’t trust ideologues.  And philosophy, especially political philosophy, has even less going for it than economics.  We prefer experience, evidence, tradition and something like natural growth.  Evolution hadn’t even been invented when Machiavelli was floating his theories.  But they have taken effect, and not noticeably to our benefit.

The Prince was mainly about contemporary or recent rulers in Italy.  The Discourses was more about republics, the form of government more favoured by the author.  If you know anything about the Medicis, Borgias, or Renaissance popes, you know that praise, much less idolatry, is out of the question. In the eyes of most, Cesare Borgia was a model of depravity.  Here is part of what Jacob Burckhardt had to say about the ‘great criminal’ Cesare Borgia.

‘Every night four or five murdered men are discovered – bishops, prelates, and others – so that all Rome is trembling for fear of being destroyed by the Duke’ (Cesare).  He himself used to wander about Rome in the night-time with his guards, and there is every reason to believe that he did so not only because, like Tiberius, he shrank from showing his now repulsive features by daylight, but also to gratify his insane thirst for blood, perhaps even on persons unknown to him….those whom the Borgias could not assail with open violence fell victim to their poison.

On any view, the bloodlines were less than charming, and the Borgias were not nice people to have dinner with. If Machiavelli says he sees nothing to reproach in Cesare Borgia, and he does, he is obviously taking the mickey – unless he is morally insane.  Some have called it satire; others call it comical irony.  While Burckhardt may be out of fashion, he did understand Italy at this time, and he thought the real reason for Machiavelli’s sympathy for Cesare was that Cesare was the only one who could have secularised the Papal States.  (Now there is a proposition to conjure with!)

We are looking at the difference between facts in history and politics, and values in ethics or morals. That’s what I wanted my new lawyers to come to terms with – together with the dangers of talking in such abstractions.  Can you have any politics without any morals at all?  Even Stalin and Hitler found room for loyalty to the nation and party, and obedience to the leader.

This realism had its upside.  Machiavelli criticised the Church because by its conduct it had undermined religious belief.  But there was a downside.  A prince should seem to be religious – an implacable law for American presidents – but the Prince emphatically rejects morals for princes.  Rulers who are always good will fail.  They must be as cunning as a fox.  In the year of Our Lord 2016, this attempt to divorce morals from politics came home to bite us all.  And the point was made by people who worked on the equally objectionable principle that the ends justify the means – a notion that figures largely in Machiavelli’s writings.

Russell introduced the subject this way (back in 1946, the year after I was born).

His political philosophy is scientific and empirical, based upon his own experience of affairs, concerned to set forth the means to assigned ends, regardless of the question whether the ends are to be considered good or bad.  When, on occasion, he allows himself to mention the ends that he desires, they are such as we can all applaud.  Much of the conventional obloquy that attaches to his name is due to the indignation of hypocrites who hate the frank avowal of evil-doing.  There remains, it is true, a good deal that genuinely demands criticism, but in this he is an expression of his age.   Such intellectual honesty about political dishonesty would have been hardly possible at any other time or in any other country…..

This assessment looks fair and sensible to me, and I doubt whether Ms Benner would dissent from it.  But it is not a bookselling headline.  How then does Ms Benner unveil her revelation?

But he has learned to avoid lecturing princes on what they should and should not do.  Instead, he gives free reign to his old talent for ambiguous writing, so useful when writing diplomatic dispatches.  [35] He adopts the persona of a cold-blooded adviser to new rulers, one who teaches them to use other princes, foreign peoples, and their own subjects to serve their soaring ambitions.  Yet his writing turns hot, nearly bursts into flame, when he describes how free peoples avenge themselves on those who attack their freedom….On closer scrutiny, though, one begins to notice hesitations and caveats that compromise the praise…..Yet the book’s long discussion of Cesare’s career teams with insinuations that undercut the praise….look more closely and you start to notice details that subvert the artist’s glowing portrait….When reading the Prince, one often has the impression that the book speaks in two different voices, sometimes in the same sentence…..If the louder voice of the amoral adviser goads princely readers to accumulate more and more power, the Prince’s lower register voice – Nicco beneath his bestial disguise – constantly hints that well-ordered republics are stronger, safer, and more natural for the human animal.

Now, whether you regard ‘bestial disguise’ as an improvement on ‘fraud’ may involve issues of taste as much as judgment, but there is nothing new here.  When you could be killed or mutilated for saying the wrong thing, it was natural to equivocate, or be deliberately ambiguous, or to speak with a forked tongue.

All of Machiavelli’s books were banned; he had already been tortured not for what he said, but because someone else put his name in a list; and that most notorious controversialist of the Renaissance, Galileo, had sought to pull off the same stunt by dressing his heresy up in a dialogue.  He said that he just wanted to show both sides.  Well, as we know, the Inquisition did not buy that argument, and Galileo was convicted of being ‘vehemently suspect of heresy.’  Two could play the ambiguity game – but it was and is a well-worn game.

Well, if nothing is new, what’s all the fuss about?  The author’s argument begins with the reference to the ambiguity of diplomacy.  I have included the footnote [35] for which the citation is:

‘35 See Benner, Machiavelli’s Prince.’

Passim? The whole bloody book?  Has it all been said before? Is the good book right after all – is there nothing new under the sun?

So, give us a break Mr Allen Lane, and go a bit easier on the bullshit.

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