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Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Machiavelli in England, Part 2

Algernon Sidney (1623-1683), English Machiavellian
As promised, here is the continuation of my paper on Machiavelli.


The Discourses

So much, then, for The Prince, with its advice on how to rule a state newly founded or conquered. What about old and established states?

This is the subject matter of the Discourses which was printed in 1531, though it had probably been written around 1517. As I mentioned, the work is a commentary on the first ten books of Livy’s history of Rome. Therefore, it concentrates — with occasional digressions — on the earlier history of Rome, i.e. the time of the kings and the early Republic. Since the Roman Republic lasted from the sixth to the first century BC, Machiavelli fairly looked on it as an exemplar of a stable state. (By “stable” he meant that it maintained its integrity as a state with a certain form of government, not that there were not times of upheaval and change. The idea is merely that for those five centuries, Rome remained a republic and was not conquered by foreign powers.)

What was the secret of the Romans’ success, and how might this success be repeated in the modern world? Well, to begin with, it must be noted that Machiavelli followed a certain tradition in political thought. He largely followed ancient writers on the subject, and in particular he was greatly influenced by Polybius, the Greek historian of Rome. Much like Machiavelli, Polybius was concerned to find out the secret of the Romans’ success, and of how in the space of fifty-three years, Rome emerged from a backwater city-state on the Tiber, to become master of the Mediterranean.

Polybius identified three basic forms of government: monarchy (“rule by one”), aristocracy (“rule by the best”), and democracy (“rule by the people”). In looking at the histories of various ancient city-states, he believed he could divine a sort of natural life cycle to all these forms of government. Each of these forms, on its own, tended to degenerate into a bad version of itself. Thus, monarchy degenerated into tyranny, aristocracy degenerated into oligarchy (“rule by the wealthy”), and democracy degenerated into anarchy (“rule by none”). When a form degenerated into its bad version, it would be replaced by another form. For example, when a monarch inevitably became a tyrant, he would be overthrown by a conspiracy of leading citizens. The ensuing aristocracy would degenerate into oligarchy, its members would take to squabbling amongst themselves, upon which the people would overthrow them and set up a democracy. This would in turn degenerate into lawless anarchy, until a demagogue or strong man emerged from among the people to impose order by force, thus returning the state back to monarchy.

The Holy Grail of political theory was figuring out a way of escaping from this dreary historical cycle and instituting a stable and flourishing state without degeneracy. Polybius (and Machiavelli) saw the answer in a mixed constitution like Rome’s republican one, in which all three good forms of government co-existed. Aristocracy was represented by the Senate, in which laws were proposed and debated. Democracy took the form of the popular assemblies, which could not propose or debate legislation, but had the power of accepting or rejecting what was proposed. Democracy was also represented by the tribunes of the people, who had veto power over the actions of both Senate and magistrates. Finally, the power of monarchy resided in the magistrates, particularly the two annual consuls, who executed the laws that were proposed by the Senate and adopted by the people, and who led the legions in war.

There were enough checks and balances in the Roman constitution that although every now and again one of the elements threatened to degenerate, the other elements could turn it round. Among such checks were annuality (magistrates elected annually), collegiality (magistrates elected in pairs to act as checks on each other), and division of responsibilities (e.g. one consul would lead the armies in war, while the other stayed behind to look after affairs in the city).

To really understand Machiavellian republicanism, we must first get over a certain modern political prejudice. Today, when we ask ourselves what an ideal state would be, we tend to have a vision of stability, of a happy and well-fed people, getting along in harmony with each other, and in which there are few if any major changes to the system of government. “If only we could tweak the constitution a bit,” says this habit of thought, “if only we can get the clockwork of government just right, the whole machine should run on its own, with little interference.”

Machiavelli would never understand this kind of thinking. For him, thanks in part to the whims of fortune, change is an inevitable and even desirable element of human affairs. In addition, Machiavelli accepts that there will always be opposed interests within a state. Thus, the goal of a well-ordered republic is to provide an outlet for the play of healthy struggle between these opposed interests. This gives the state a creative energy. If we look again at the clockwork metaphor, even a clock must work by the fine balancing of forces and counter-forces, of various parts impacting and operating on one another. A state without such opposed energies would be dead. As Adam Ferguson, a Scottish republican, later put it in 1767, in criticizing our the steady-state view,

“our notion of order in civil society is frequently false: it is taken from the analogy of subjects inanimate and dead; we consider commotion and action as contrary to its nature; we think it consistent only with obedience, secrecy, and the silent passing of affairs through the hands of a few. The good order of stones in a wall, is their being properly fixed in the places for which they are hewn; were they to stir the building must fall: but the order of men in society, is their being placed where they are properly qualified to act. The first is a fabric made of dead and inanimate parts, the second is made of living and active members. When we seek in society for the order of mere inaction and tranquility, we forget the nature of our subject, and find the order of slaves, not that of free men.”  

Politics is not physics. It is radically indeterministic (thanks to fortune), and its main components — citizens — are active, not passive.

And for Machiavelli, because history is always moving, and because citizens are (hopefully) active rather than passive, so too a state is always moving, and is always either advancing or in decline. Where it is in decline, it needs to be brought back to its founding constitutional principles, to “get back to basics” as we might say, whether this was to be done by the people or by a strongman of the type portrayed in The Prince. This is the core of the idea of revolution — the Latin roots of the word mean a “turning back”. Whereas we tend to think of political revolution as a break with the past, Machiavelli and his early modern followers thought of it as a return to the past. And when you think of a wheel revolving, it’s typically not something that only happens once, but happens periodically, with regularity. This idea that a state must periodically return to its founding principles would end up having a profound historical influence, as we’ll see.

Machiavelli and the Wars of the Roses

There is one characteristic of this Roman constitution that Machiavelli identified as an advantage, which Ricardians might wish to reflect upon. One of the benefits of the Roman Republican system, according to Machiavelli, was that it provided an outlet for the aristocracy to exercise their virtù in martial exploits. As a famous philosopher (Friedrich Nietzsche) once said, “in times of peace the warlike man attacks himself”. Imperialism was indispensable to the Roman system, because without being able to turn that competitiveness and aggression outward, the state would eat itself in aristocratic rivalries.

Can the Wars of the Roses be cast in a similar light? The feudal system was predicated upon a ruling class whose main social function was warfare. It is notable that so long as the nobility of England was kept busy killing Frenchman, they weren’t busying themselves with killing each other and destabilizing the state back home. I frankly don’t know enough about the Wars of the Roses to be able to assess whether this is a plausible viewpoint. However, at least on the surface, the late feudal nobility of England does seem to fit the Machiavellian/Polybian pattern of a degenerate aristocracy.

As long as an aristocracy is just that — rule by the best, the virtuous — then they will have a certain political legitimacy, a right to take a leadership role in the state. They are unlikely to be overthrown by either an angry people or a power hungry monarch. But when they lose that legitimacy, the form of government upon which it is based falls apart. The benefit of a mixed constitution is that there are other stabilizers; the other elements of the constitution can pick up the slack — or at least that is the hope. Did this happen in England after the Wars of the Roses? Well, England at the time did not quite have an ideally mixed constitution. The democratic element was practically non-existent, Parliament being more of a talking shop, and only summoned when the king felt he could use some advice or more money. And the Crown was too weak to act as an effective check on the nobility, at least until it was worn by someone who could reassert effective rule. The throne simply waited for a man with few enough scruples to realize its full potential. That man ended up being Henry VII, who did everything he could do to squeeze out the traditional aristocracy and bring in a civil service beholden to none but himself.

Machiavelli would say that, when a form of government breaks down, a new founder is required, someone who will sweep aside the old institutions and build anew. Put another way, the book England needed in 1485 was The Prince, not the Discourses. Now, was Richard III that ruler? Shakespeare’s caricature notwithstanding, probably he was not. To be fair to Richard, he did not rule long enough for us to really assess how effective he would have been. But he did make some crucial errors that a true Machiavellian prince would never make, including trusting too much in the traditional nobility, people like Stanley and Buckingham. As we know, Henry VII’s policy was much different in this regard.

Machiavelli in England

To reiterate, we seem to be presented with two Machiavellis, the Machiavelli of The Prince, and the Machiavelli of the Discourses. If you take any university course in the history of political thought, you are most likely to learn more about the first one. He is also the one most prominent in English literature, as Shakespeare’s famous reference in Henry VI, Part 3 illustrates.  He was also known to his English audiences in Tudor and Stuart times by the infamous play on his name: Nicholas “Make-Evil”.

In a way, this is rather appropriate, because frankly, the fact is, in Tudor times, Machiavelli would only have been known by his name. The first evidence of his works actually being read by anyone in England was at Cambridge in 1573. He first makes his appearance upon the English stage in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta in 1588. However, none of his works was translated into English until 1636, so Shakespeare, unfamiliar with Italian, could have had only the vaguest idea of what Machiavelli was about. If he read Machiavelli at all it was probably through a badly bowdlerized and liberally edited French “translation” of 1577. And I’m unsure even about how good Shakespeare’s French was.

Once Machiavelli was translated into English, it was the Discourses that had by far the most influence on English political history. This is, of course, because it became available in English just in time to be taken up by the commonwealthmen during the Civil War period. Political thinkers like Marchamont Nedham (1620-1678), James Harrington (1611-1677), and Algernon Sidney (1622-1683) took up various of the republican themes to be found in the Discourses. These Commonwealth republicans came to see themselves as fighting for a semi-mythological “ancient constitution” that they believed had been lost during the years of Tudor and Stuart despotism. They were engaged in revolution, but as noted earlier, theirs was a revolution in the sense of a “returning”, a restoration of traditional institutions. They were bringing the state back to its original principles.

(As a side note, Ricardians might be amused that in his semi-fictional utopia The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), James Harrington portrayed Henry VII as Panurgus, a historical king of Oceana. In a good dictionary you’ll find that the adjective “panurgic” means “subtle, crafty, knavish”).

For these English Machiavellians, it became not only possible, but desirable, to imagine an England without a king. Most importantly, they took up the ideal of republican liberty as being the “rule of laws, not of men”, where no citizen was in a position to dominate over any other with arbitrary power. They were ultimately unsuccessful (indeed, Sidney was martyred for his republicanism, executed after laughably rigged treason trial), but their legacy lived on in at least two respects.

In effect, far from being a blueprint for despots, Machiavelli’s political views became a weapon in the struggle against Tudor and Stuart absolutism. While Henry VII might have been the sort of ideal Machiavellian king for troubled times represented in The Prince, the thinkers of the commonwealth better represented the Machiavelli of the Discourses. Which of these two Machiavellis ultimately had the greater influence in England?

First, although the parliamentarian “Grand Old Cause” of eliminating hereditary monarchy did not become a reality in England, they did manage to eliminate arbitrary monarchy. In the Glorious Revolution of 1688 the king became, in theory at least, subject to the rule of law, and the commonwealthmen became Whigs, supporters of limited constitutional monarchy. If we define a republic in its broadest sense as a form of government in which no one is above the law, then to that extent Britain is a republic.

Second, the ideas of the commonwealthmen crossed the Atlantic in a purer pre-Whig form and provided support for the American colonists in their Revolution. Indeed, in this connection, one notable historian has called Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government (1698) “the textbook of revolution”. In an age where the works of English Machiavellians like Sidney were in the process of being forgotten back in England, John Adams wrote in an 1823 letter to Thomas Jefferson:

“I have lately undertaken to read Algernon Sidney on government. ... As often as I have read it, and fumbled it over, it now excites fresh admiration that this work has excited so little interest in the literary world. As splendid an edition of it as the art of printing can produce—as well for the intrinsic merit of the work, as for the proof it brings of the bitter sufferings of the advocates of liberty from that time to this, and to show the slow progress of moral, philosophical, and political illumination in the world—ought to be now published in America.”

For his part, Jefferson too was, through the filter of writers like Sidney, a Machiavellian. As one of its founders, Jefferson introduced Sidney to the curriculum of the new University of Virginia. But Jefferson’s Machiavellianism was a mixture of both of the two Machiavellis we’ve seen. From the Discourses he borrowed much of his republicanism, his hatred of monarchy, and the ideal of the rule of laws rather than of men. However, more notoriously, he seems to have taken to heart the idea that every now and then a state becomes decadent and needs to be returned it to its founding principles. The difference is that Jefferson did not see this renewal — or this re-founding — as being accomplished by the virtue of a ruthless monarch such as that portrayed in The Prince, but rather through popular revolution, by the sovereign people. Thus, in one letter Jefferson speculated that a new revolution is perhaps necessary every fifteen years or so (indeed, he saw his own popular election as president in 1800 as just such a “revolution in the principles of government”). And of course, there is this infamous passage in a letter of 1787: “What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

(This is somewhat reminiscent of the old joke that government is like underwear; it needs to be changed frequently or it starts to stink.)

These ideas about periodically returning the state to first principles were not merely the idle speculations of philosophers. They made their way into legislation too. There is, for example, Article XV of the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, which states that “no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”

Some Ironies

In taking our leave of Machiavelli, we might reflect on several ironies surrounding his life and legacy that we’ve come across at various points.

First, considering Machiavelli’s subsequent renown as a political theorist, he was better known by his Florentine contemporaries as a playwright and man of letters.

Second, he was himself an utter failure as a practical politician.

Third, as Shakespeare’s ignorant reference in Henry VI, Part 3 illustrates, the English-speaking world has tended to look on Machiavelli as an apologist for absolutist tyranny and dirty hands politics, thanks to bad translation, and to certain pungent lines from The Prince being taken out of context by people unfamiliar with the larger body of his work.

Fourth, while caricatures like Shakespeare’s are drawn almost entirely from The Prince, Machiavelli’s greater and more considered political work is the Discourses, as demonstrated by the influence it began to exert almost the moment it became available in English.

Fifth, the effects of Machiavelli’s political ideas have arguably been felt most acutely not in his native Florence, or even in Italy, but rather in England and her trans-Atlantic colonies.

And finally, sixth, his Discourses, by a circuitous route, has ended up being an inspiration for the toppling of the very tyrannies Machiavelli has been unjustly thought to support.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Machiavelli in England, Part 1

The following is the text of a paper I delivered on Machiavelli to the Richard III Society of Canada yesterday. I’m not entirely happy with the way it’s organized, but I was under time constraints, so it is what it is. Since it is rather long, I’ve divided it in two, with the second part to follow in the near future.

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Much ink has been spilled by literary scholars in examining the extent to which Shakespeare’s Richard III was consciously intended to be a representative of Machiavellianism, mainly on the basis of the following famous lines of Gloucester’s from Henry VI, Part 3:

"I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down."
(Henry VI, Part 3, III.ii.191-195)

Whether or not this was Shakespeare’s intent, in this paper I will argue that, despite the popular view, Richard is not a Machiavellian character, for several reasons. First, Shakespeare’s knowledge of Machiavelli’s political theory was about as deep as a puddle, so that when he mentions Machiavelli, he is really doing little more than name-dropping. Second, when one looks at Machiavelli’s political theory, Henry VII is probably a better match for a true Machiavellian prince. Along the way, we’ll encounter a few ironies about Machiavelli’s life and work. I’ll also examine the legacy of Machiavellianism in English political history. One thing we’ll learn is that the popular view of Machiavelli — as exemplified by Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III — is based in large part on ignorance of his works. The real Machiavelli was not who you might think he was.

Machiavelli, the Man

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a citizen of Florence, where he rose to high office in the Florentine Republic, travelling on many diplomatic missions. His experience taught him much about statecraft, or so he would have liked his readers to believe. In reality, as a politician he was largely a failure. After the battle of Prato (1513), the Republic was overthrown, the Medici returned to rule Florence, and Machiavelli fell from favour. Indeed, because his loyalty was suspected by the new regime, he was tortured and imprisoned, before being forced into retirement. In his retirement he took up writing. (For those interested in how Machiavelli was tortured, the strappado was employed on him. It was a cunningly simple method: the victim had his hands tied behind his back and was then suspended by the wrists. Great strength was needed to hold oneself in such a position as to avoid having one’s shoulders dislocated.)

Machiavelli was not happy in retirement; he tried desperately to find employment again, but nobody was much interested in his services. Thus, in some ways, Machiavelli’s knowledge of politics comes less from his having been an actor in them, and more from his experience as an anxious and unwilling spectator watching from the sidelines.

The Renaissance Italy of Machiavelli’s time was very chaotic, with perpetual warfare between states, and Florence was no exception. What Machiavelli saw was that a certain degree of ruthlessness and ethical “corner-cutting” were necessary in circumstances of strife and warfare. Sometimes it seemed as if, despite the moralizing sermons of priests and the tidy logical arguments of theologians, worthy political ends could only be served by rather shabby and unworthy means. This is very much the Machiavelli of The Prince and forms much of the basis of the popular view of his work. As we will see, there was quite a bit more to his philosophy of government than this caricature implies.

So far we have noted one irony about Machiavelli: he was a political theorist who was a failure in politics. To this we can add two more. First, in his own time, at least in terms of his literary output, he was really better known to his contemporaries as a playwright and man of letters than as a political theorist. As I said, his fellow Florentines were largely uninterested in what he had to say about politics. Second, for our times, although Machiavelli the political theorist is best known by The Prince, if he were alive today he would most likely recommend that we read his Discourses on Livy instead.

The Two Machiavellis

Most political philosophy courses limit discussion of Machiavelli to The Prince. But I think the true political philosophy of Machiavelli is to be found in the Discourses. Here’s why: The Prince was basically written with an ulterior motive, to toady to Lorenzo d’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, in the hopes of getting a job. It’s written in a style flattering to princes, and is basically a handbook of advice for a prince, providing justification for him to do whatever he finds necessary to secure his rule (although, as we will soon see, there is a little bit more to it than this). Machiavelli was in the political wilderness at the time, and he wasn’t taking his forced retirement very well. He wanted back in the game.

Also, as shocking as the advice of The Prince was — and continues to be — to so many of its readers, it would have seemed like a book of commonplace platitudes to a real prince in Renaissance Italy (or even in the late medieval England of Richard III). To much of what Machiavelli has to say, we can picture Lorenzo d’ Medici replying, “Well duh! Tell me something I didn’t know.” Some princes were certainly bad at executing such advice, but none of them would have likely thought the advice was immoral or forbidden, at least in private. In short, I find it hard to imagine that Machiavelli had much to teach the Medici or the Borgias about Realpolitik.

I contend that in The Prince Machiavelli had other motives than to give us his fully worked-out political philosophy. Or rather, in it he was giving us his view of “the politics of the possible”, politics for an imperfect world, far from Machiavelli’s ideal. For that ideal, we have to turn to his Discourses.

As it purports to be a commentary on the first ten books of Livy’s history of Rome, which mostly deals with the early years of the Roman Republic, it should come as no surprise that the Discourses advocates republicanism rather than monarchy. There are no ulterior motives in it, and the work is dedicated to two fellow citizens of Florence, friends of Machiavelli’s. He believed that monarchy was suited to certain abnormal circumstances, but that once those circumstances had passed, a monarch should hand over some or all of his power to others.

How are we to reconcile these two seemingly opposed works, the one masquerading as a handbook for autocratic princes, the other advocating a republic with a democratic element? In order to answer this question, we should first get ourselves familiar with the works themselves.

The Prince

The Prince wasn’t printed until 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death, but it had circulated amongst his friends in manuscript form as early as 1513. A small clue to the work’s real concern, and to its relationship with his Discourses, occurs in the first chapter, where he distinguishes between long-established states, and those states that are newly founded or conquered. For the most part, Machiavelli is only concerned with the latter. Long-established states offer few problems for the philosopher to grapple with, and he points out that a hereditary monarch from an old ruling family would have to be very incompetent indeed if he had to worry about his throne: under such a regime internal opposition faces almost insuperable resistance from the people’s love of habit and tradition, while the people’s loyalty to the ruling family forms a bulwark against the plots of foreign enemies. In short, the hereditary monarch of an established dynasty has a stock of political capital left to him by his illustrious ancestors.

So we can assume that in The Prince, Machiavelli’s advice is mainly aimed at the founder or conqueror of a state. These represent rather special circumstances, historically speaking, and so his counsel is correspondingly extreme. Interestingly though, for our purposes, it was these special circumstances in which both Richard III and Henry VII found themselves. So as I describe The Prince, I leave it as an exercise for you to consider which of these respective monarchs was a better representative of Machiavelli’s ideal.

Incidentally, Machiavelli’s own ideal prince was Cesare Borgia. In the following rhapsody on Cesare, we are given a list of many of the qualities and deeds Machiavelli would like to see united in the ideal conqueror or founder prince:

“So anyone who decides that the policy to follow when one has newly acquired power is to destroy one’s enemies, to secure some allies, to win wars, whether by force or by fraud, to make oneself both loved and feared by one’s subjects, to make one’s soldiers loyal and respectful, to wipe out those who can or would want to hurt one, to innovate, replacing old institutions with new practices, to be both harsh and generous, magnanimous and open-handed, to disband disloyal troops and form new armies, to build alliances with other powers, so kings and princes either have to win your favour or else think twice before going against your wishes ― anyone who thinks in these terms cannot hope to find, in the recent past, a better model to imitate than Cesare Borgia.” (Prince p. 27. This and subsequent citations of Machiavelli’s writings are from his Selected Political Works, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1994.)

Virtue (virtù) and Fortune (fortuna)

Throughout Machiavelli’s philosophy of politics, we see repeatedly the subtle interplay between two great historical forces: Fortune (fortuna) and Virtue (virtù). They seem at first sight like straightforward concepts, but in Machiavelli’s philosophy they have a somewhat different ― and highly sexist ― twist. Let us first look at the concept of virtue.

When we think of virtue or the virtues today, in our (post)Christian world, we often tend to think of a certain constellation of particular virtues. Prominent among these might be humility, charity, forgiveness. However, since Machiavelli was consciously following an older, Roman, tradition, these Christian virtues would not have been to his purpose.

To get an idea of what Machiavelli had in mind, it might help to look at the etymology of the word “virtue”. It comes from two very closely related Latin words: vir (“man”) and vis (“power, force”, in the direct, physical sense). Thus, whenever we encounter the word virtù in the text of The Prince, we might best translate it as “manly virtue”. In particular applications, it often tends to mean something like “boldness” or “strength”. So Machiavelli’s ideal prince will be someone abounding in the manly virtues, meaning that he is bold, strong, even ruthless. He is not the turn-the-other-cheek, forgive-your-enemies type.

However, to use philosopher’s jargon, such virtue is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a successful ruler. Virtue alone is not enough. This is because although a virtuous ruler has some of what it takes to move history, history also has another prime mover: fortune. There is an irreducible element of blind luck in all human affairs. This puts limits on how far politics can be reduced to a science, since not all events are predictable. Thus, besides virtue, a ruler must depend on a certain amount of good luck, an example of this being advantageous birth and family connections.

As has already been shown, for Machiavelli, virtue is masculine. Similarly, fortune, being fickle, changeable, and inconstant, is feminine (indeed the Latin and Italian noun fortuna is feminine). When it comes to dealing with fortune, part of the virtue of a successful ruler consists in boldness, in seizing the opportunities that fortune provides. The following passage likening fortune to a lady illustrates rather starkly both the aspect of fortune as opportunity, and the brutally masculine nature of virtue:

“I do think, however, that it is better to be headstrong than cautious, for fortune is a lady. It is necessary, if you want to master her, to beat and strike her. And one sees she more often submits to those who act boldly than to those who proceed in a calculating fashion. Moreover, since she is a lady, she smiles on the young, for they are less cautious, more ruthless, and overcome her with their boldness.” (Prince pp. 76-77)

It is perhaps no coincidence that Lorenzo d’ Medici, the man from whom Machiavelli was shamelessly soliciting employment, would also have been one of fortune’s youthful favourites, dying in 1519 at the age of 26. In any case, Machiavelli’s imagery here is ugly, and perhaps says something about Italian culture at the time. As Robert Burton wrote in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), “England is a paradise for women and hell for horses. Italy is a paradise for horses, hell for women.”

Of course, it is not always opportunity that fortune throws in one’s path, and so boldness is not the only virtue required of a prince in dealing with her. Since she is predictable in her changeability, fortune also offers adversity, and so prudence is the effective virtue with which to ride out such adversity. Here, instead of a lady, the image of fortune for Machiavelli is that of a river: although we never know exactly when, sooner or later a river will overflow its banks. The prudent prince will build embankments to prepare for inevitable flooding.

Politics and “Dirty Hands”

The Prince has become a byword for moral bankruptcy in politics. It is taken to claim that any conduct is excusable, even laudable, so long as it is done for politically expedient reasons, for reasons of state. It was a long-standing maxim of politics that salus populi est suprema lex — “the well-being of the people is the highest law”. But does this mean that so long as lawbreaking is done for the supposed good of the people, anything goes? Or, to put it another way, is it the case that sometimes politics will require of public figures certain actions that would be grossly immoral if done in private life? This is, in essence, the problem of “dirty hands” in politics. Machiavelli has long been read as claiming that politics inevitably requires rulers to get their hands dirty. However nice morality seems, it is a luxury a prince can ill-afford. Is this a fair characterization of Machiavelli’s public morality? On the basis of passages like the following, it would certainly appear so:

“You should therefore know there are two ways to fight: one while respecting the rules, the other with no holds barred. Men alone fight in the first fashion, and animals fight in the second. But because you cannot always win if you respect the rules, you must be prepared to break them. A ruler, in particular, needs to know how to be both an animal and a man.” (Prince p. 54)

In other words, follow the rules, except when they stand in the way of your winning, in which case, disregard them. This would seem to indicate a cavalier attitude towards rules, to say the least. One of the first lessons a child learns about ethics and moral conduct is to ask themselves the golden question: “What if everyone did that?” That, for example, was the way I learned that littering was wrong. What if everyone ignored the rules when they were no longer convenient? Well, the rules would simply disappear. Take the sports analogy: if all the competitors in a game habitually broke the rules when it suited them, nobody would trust anyone else to follow the rules. In such a situation you’d be a sucker to continue observing the rules. The game would dissolve, and whatever benefits one gets from playing the game would disappear with it.

When it comes to nations rather than, say, baseball or hockey teams, the stakes are rather higher. In sports I can take my bat and ball and go home, but international relations is a true prisoner’s dilemma: when trust in the rules breaks down, everyone is ultimately worse off than they would be if everyone stuck to them. The alternative to playing the game is no holds barred warfare, an outcome that ultimately benefits nobody.

Is there anything that can be said in Machiavelli’s defense here? Perhaps. First, we must remember what was noted earlier, that The Prince is mainly concerned with new rulers who have recently conquered or founded states or dynasties. For one of these, once he has seized power, the trick is to keep it. He will often be a stranger in a strange land, surrounded by people of doubtful loyalty. And since hostile neighbours will be aware of his weak domestic position, they will likely try to foster disaffection with his rule and give succour to his enemies. The new ruler is in danger from both internal and external opponents. Therefore, it is imperative that he sweep away all the old institutions and interests. He must be quick and ruthless in crushing opposition to the new regime. In a sense, he must create a new state.

The nuance in the Machiavellian exercise of power lies in thoroughness and speed. First, once the decision is made to eliminate enemies, it must be done thoroughly; no loose ends must be left:

“There is a general rule to be noted here: People should either be caressed or crushed. If you do them minor damage they will get their revenge; but if you cripple them there is nothing they can do. If you need to injure someone, do it in such a way that you do not have to fear their vengeance.”  (Prince pp. 9-10)

Second, it must be done in such a way that it isn’t dragged out. As his position rests on a relatively shaky foundation, the new prince cannot afford to make himself hated by a wide constituency. If he must get his hands dirty, he is advised to be quick about it, otherwise he risks making himself hated, and people who would otherwise accept his rule begin to feel insecure and may come to believe it worthwhile to risk opposing him:

“Well-used cruelty (if one can speak well of evil) one may call those atrocities that are committed at a stroke, in order to secure one’s power, and are not then repeated, rather every effort is made to ensure one’s subjects benefit in the long run. An abuse of cruelty one may call those policies that, even if in the beginning they involve little bloodshed, lead to more rather than less as time goes by. Those who use cruelty well may indeed find both God and their subjects are prepared to let bygones be bygones…. So the conclusion is: If you take control of a state, you should make a list of all the crimes you have to commit and do them all at once. That way you will not have to commit new atrocities every day, and you will be able, by not repeating your evil deeds, to reassure your subjects and to win their support by treating them well. He who acts otherwise, either out of squeamishness or out of bad judgment, has to hold a bloody knife in his hand all the time.” (Prince pp. 30-31, my italics)

It is interesting that many modern books on management give similar advice. For example, if a company proposes downsizing, it’s better to get all the layoffs done at once. “Get the misery out the door,” as the saying goes. If layoffs are done repeatedly over extended periods of time, the remaining employees feel unsafe, and morale and loyalty suffer. If it is all done at once, there is shock, followed by relief (that it’s not me), followed by forgiveness and forgetting.

Indeed, the shock and relief are a side benefit: remaining employees will probably increase their productivity after being shaken from their complaisance. This is the idea behind Machiavelli’s notorious advice that it is better for a ruler to be feared than loved, for fear is more in the ruler’s control: “I conclude, then, that, as far as being feared and loved is concerned, since men decide for themselves whom they love, and rulers decide whom they fear, a wise ruler should rely on the emotion he can control, not the one he cannot” (Prince p. 53).

Monday, February 7, 2011

When Tom Met Sally

I recently posted something celebrating the rhetorical skills of Thomas Jefferson. It subsequently occurred to me that some might get the mistaken idea that I like Thomas Jefferson. I can assure you that I foster a very active loathing of him. I believe he was the most overrated of the Founding Fathers, and his rhetoric seldom matched the reality of his conduct.

Other than his (co)authorship of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson did very little good for America. Yes, there was the Louisiana Purchase. But I would argue that buying a chunk of cheap real estate from someone who was desperate to unload it is hardly the stuff of which heroes are made. Whoever had happened to be President at the time would probably have ended up acquiring the Louisiana Territory. And given how bad Jefferson was with finances, someone else might have been able to drive a better bargain. One thing that the Purchase did accomplish was to increase the number of slaveholding states relative to free states, hardly a shining legacy. Furthermore, hypocrite that he was, Jefferson acquired the territory after having previously claimed the Constitution denied the federal government the right to make such purchases. With Jefferson it always seems as if the rules changed when he stood to benefit from a change. In any case, the Purchase made him look good at a point when his government was in trouble.

Unlike many of the other Founding Fathers, Jefferson had nothing to do with the drafting or ratifying of the US Constitution. Indeed, some might argue that he did his utmost as a politician to destroy it, and he certainly expressed an attitude towards that document that was at best ambivalent.

As a human being, Thomas Jefferson was a man of underwhelming moral integrity. Of his many defects of character (and believe me, they were legion), the worst was his hypocrisy, manifested particularly in his attitude towards slavery, and towards blacks in general. In this spirit, and in honour of this province’s Black History Month, I would like to explore this theme a bit.


It is no secret that Jefferson was a slave owner. The exact extent of his slaveholdings are possibly less well-known. At any given time Jefferson may have been sovereign lord and master of up to 200 souls. Jefferson was not alone among the Founders in this, but it is worth contrasting his conduct as a slaveholder with some other Founders.

James Madison, whose estate was also dependent on slaves, was nevertheless active in the movement to free slaves and resettle them in Africa. His personal letters were frequently filled with disgust at the institution of slavery and with worry about his own implication in it. Unfortunately, Madison died heavily in debt and never felt himself in a financial position to divest himself of his nefarious property. I do not claim this as an excuse for his not freeing his slaves; on the other hand, I believe that if he had managed to pay off his debts, he probably would have divested himself. In other words, his dislike of slavery was at least to some extent genuine, as evidenced by the considerable time and interest he devoted to the resettlement project.

George Washington was a more interesting case. He was a large property owner and he owned many slaves. Like Madison, he displays in his letters considerable angst over both the institution of slavery and his involvement in it. Unlike Madison, Washington actually took steps to free many of his slaves. His efforts were complicated by several factors, some of which were to his credit. For example, not all of his slaves were his to free; many were “dower” slaves, technically belonging to his wife’s estate. This limited his ability to free slaves, since these had in many cases intermarried with his own slaves, and he had no wish to break up families. There is one letter in which he reluctantly decides to sell some slaves to pay off debts, but in it he shows a solicitude about who they were sold to and gives instructions that, again, families are not to be broken up. Finally, although he sincerely wished to free his slaves, he did not want to leave them at the mercy of a hostile society. In his will Washington indeed freed most of his slaves, setting aside land for them and making quite extensive provisions to see that they were taught trades so that they would be able to provide for themselves.

From reading Washington’s private thoughts and sentiments on his experience as a slaveholder, one gets the impression that for a man like him, slave ownership was a curse, a sort of moral trap: it was economically easy and tempting to get into at the beginning, but became a burdensome inheritance, surprisingly difficult to disinvest in for those who had genuine moral concern for the lot of slaves.

Despite some high-minded rhetoric, much of it for public consumption, there is little indication from his private conduct that Jefferson felt any scruples about his role as a slave owner. Of his large herd of human chattel, he only freed five slaves in his will, three of whom were the children of Sally Hemings (about whom, more later). Interestingly, he did not free Sally. Some have claimed that, like Madison, he was too deeply indebted to be able to free his slaves. But Jefferson had champagne tastes and never seemed to lack money for the finer things in life. Many remarked on his rather extravagant lifestyle, for his private life resembled more that of a French aristocrat’s than of the austere republican, man-of-the-people persona he carefully cultivated for political reasons. Rather than free his slaves, he preferred to have them break their backs building his beloved Monticello.

Jefferson’s Racism

The Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. (yet another dubious gift from Franklin Roosevelt) bears the famous inscription, taken from Jefferson’s “Autobiography”: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people [African-American slaves] are to be free.” A heart-warming thought, but like so many Jeffersonian quotes in circulation, this coin has been clipped, and quite willfully. Here is the passage in its original form:

“Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably and in such slow degree as that the evil will wear off insensibly, and their place be pari passu filled up by free white laborers.”

This hardly accords with the sort of image the Memorial was intended to project, but it is more in keeping with the rest of Jefferson’s writings on the subject. First, note that Jefferson’s scheme is primarily a project of “ethnic cleansing”, as it were: move blacks out of America and replace them with whites. Second, as humanitarian as the African colonization project might seem at first sight, it was rather inhumane from another point of view. As Alexander Hamilton (who unlike Jefferson, was a true abolitionist) rightly noted in criticizing Jefferson on this score, resettling freed slaves somewhere in West Africa would in effect mean moving them to a land that was alien to them, where they would have a hard struggle ahead, and would more than likely be killed off by the natives already living there.

Third, Jefferson did not believe in the moral, intellectual, or biological equality of the races. For proof of this, I would direct the reader to “Query XIV” of his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781). There, one can find such gems of Enlightenment thought as the following: “They [negroes] secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour.”

The fact is, Jefferson did not care much for black people, because he hardly considered them human. As a matter of fact he seems to have considered them somewhere between men and orangutans, for he argued in the same place in his Notes that the superior physical beauty of Europeans was shown by the preference black men showed for white women above their own kind, similar to “the preference of the Oranootan [orangutan] for the black women over those of his own species.”

Love’s Proper Hue

Of course, Jefferson did like at least one black person. Her name was Sally, and in fact, he liked her very much, enough to father children with her — though not enough to free her in his will. Visitors to Monticello often noticed the number of conspicuously light-skinned slave children on the plantation. Writing in his journal in 1786 after a visit, the Comte de Volney “was amazed to see children as white as I was called blacks and treated as such.”

Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings is no secret. Indeed, it was fairly well-known in his own time, thus the famous political jingle of the time (sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”): “Black is love’s proper hue for me, and white’s the hue for Sally”. Although DNA testing can never confirm beyond a doubt that Jefferson was the father of Hemings’ children, the evidence is about as clear as it can get. And yet there are still those who publish books and articles trying to clear Jefferson’s sainted name from the charge of miscegenation, as if we should think any less of him for having a relationship with a black woman.

What is troubling about the relationship is not Sally’s race, but the fact that she was his slave. We can never know what Sally’s feelings were towards her master. Was it love? Or did she simply not have a choice? Also troubling is the fact that Jefferson showed no interest in freeing her. And as Volney’s remark indicates, his children by her were simply accounted as part of the plantation’s stock of human chattels. He did free them in his will, but why not earlier? These are the real misdeeds that Jefferson’s defenders should be trying to excuse (if they can), instead of bending over backwards to deny a relationship that had been common knowledge since at least 1802.

St. Domingue

His slaves were not the only people this apostle of liberty failed to free. Jefferson preached the rights of man to whoever would listen, and much to the consternation of his political enemies, was always willing to justify the worst excesses of the French Revolution as the necessary price to be paid for the emancipation of the French people.

Unfortunately, this same logic did not apply to another revolution closer to home, the slave uprising in St. Domingue that established the world’s first black republic, Haiti. One would think that Jefferson would see in Toussaint L’Ouverture a kindred spirit, a brother in arms for the grand cause of liberty. Instead, events in St. Domingue scared Jefferson half to death, and rightly so. After all, the example might give American slaves clever ideas about liberty and the rights of man. So disturbed was he by this prospect, that he offered France America’s assistance in putting down the uprising: “Nothing would be easier than to supply everything for your army and navy, and to starve out Toussaint,” he wrote to the French charge d’affaires. Clearly Jefferson thought L’Ouverture was a black man who hadn’t learned his place. Later, in 1804, Jefferson signed off on a bill prohibiting all trade with Haiti.

As readers of this blog may have guessed by now, I have little patience with hypocrisy. Being the fallen creatures that we are, none of us is completely free of this vice, I’m sure. But I am always eager to root it out wherever I sniff its telltale stench, and I reserve a modicum of grudging respect for people who flaunt their misdeeds. I cannot abide someone who preaches high moral purpose while practicing its opposite. Among such hypocrites I account Thomas Jefferson one of history’s most deplorable.

Since, as Rochefoucauld well expressed it, “hypocrisy is the homage which vice renders to virtue,” there is, I suppose this to be said in Jefferson’s favour: few men have been more extravagant in bending the knee.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Of Beauty

February 1, 1757

My Dear Mr. Avenger,

Some time ago I sent you some of my Thoughts on the Sublime. I must admit my shame that in that Epistle, I most unjustly accus’d Scotchmen of having Souls of too heavy a Nature to understand such a lofty subject as the Sublime. For there has just come into my Hands a Manuscript, being a first attempt at an “Essay upon Taste” from an Acquaintance in North-Britain, one Mr. GERARD [Alexander Gerard, later published as An Essay on Taste (London: A. Millar, 1759) — Ed.].

The work is express’d in a nervous Style, too direct, and perhaps too philosophical for my complete Approbation, but nonetheless wrote in proper English, without those Scotticisms which too often infect the literary Productions of our North-British Brethren. But most importantly, it contains more of Truth than of Falsehood or Folly, and has many judicious things to say on that peculiar Sense or Faculty, thro’ which is discover’d those peculiar Characters of the Sublime and Beautiful in Objects of Judgment.

De gustibus non est disputandum, “of Taste there is no disputing” is an Observation worn to a Proverb, so interminable are the Contentions to which Judgments of artistic Merit seem apt to give rise. In a similar Vein we might say that there is no disputing Philosophers’ Opinions about Taste itself, so many and divers are the Theories offer’d to explain the original of this peculiar sixth Sense that is the patrimony of our Species.

Returning to our Manuscript, Mr. Gerard is of the Opinion that Beauty consists in Ease of Apprehension, or what he calls a “facility in the Conception of an Object” [Ibid. p. 31 – Ed.]. When we behold an Object of Beauty, we feel a sense of Pleasure at the Ease and Immediacy with which we comprehend its Characters. (Indeed, I dare say, we derive Pleasure not merely from the Object it self, but we are also well-pleas’d with ourselves and our own Cleverness, for being so quick of Apprehension.)

And yet, we are still led to ask, “What is it in this Object, what are the peculiar Characters that impress themselves in such an efficient Manner upon the Mind of him who apprehends?” For it is not enough to say that the beautiful Object strikes us with Pleasure by being easily comprehended. What we wish to know is ― Why is this Object easy of apprehension, while that Object is difficult? For it would seem to be therein that the Beauty of the Object lies; therein lies the Cause of our Judgment of the Object’s Beauty.

In considering of this facility of apprehension, Professor HUTCHESON wou’d identify it with the Pleasure arising from the apprehension of a Contrast in those Objects which display either Uniformity amidst Variety OR Variety amidst Uniformity [Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry concerning Beauty, Order, Harmony and Design (1725) – Ed.]. Whether this be the case I confess I know not, tho’ how a Fly, afloat in the midst of a Soup Bowl ― a seeming Instance of his Variety amidst Uniformity ― may be call’d beautiful is quite beyond my understanding. Such a singular kind of “Beauty” hath no Charms for me.

Gerard and Hutcheson seem to lavish their utmost Attention on this feeling of Pleasure to which Beauty gives rise, and to the seeming facility for experiencing it, a facility with which the Human Mind seems uniquely endow’d. They expend too little Effort in trying to understand the Characteristicks which are the Cause of the Pleasure. It is not enough to tell us that we experience Pleasure when we apprehend the Beauty of an Object. Again, we wish to know in what consists the Beauty of the Object that is the Source of our Pleasure.

If Beauty be a Quality found in Objects of Beauty, then according to the most ingenious Philosophers, amongst whom must be number’d Monsieur DES CARTES and the celebrated Mr. LOCKE, it must either be a primary or a secondary Quality. The former are those Qualities which inhere in Objects themselves, independent of Observation, such as Solidity, Extension, Motion, Number, and Figure. If a Ball is round, it retains this Figure whether there exists anyone to observe this Rotundity.

Secondary Qualities are better describ’d as a Power in Objects of producing certain Sensations in the perceiving Subject, Examples of these being Colour, Taste, Sound, and Smell. A Ball is not red because there is “Redness” inhering in it. Rather, given a certain Quantity of Light, and competent Powers of Sight in the Observer, there is somewhat inhering in the material Constitution of the Ball ― somewhat in the Complexion of its primary Qualities ― that, combin’d with all of these Conditions, produces in the Observer a Sensation of Redness.

Now, there can be little doubt that if Beauty be a Quality, it must be of this latter, secondary kind, tho' it may be of a more complex Nature. If, for example, a Painting strikes us as beautiful at least in part because of the particular Contrast between certain of its Colours, the which being secondary Qualities, then the Beauty of the Painting must needs be, to that extent at least, dependent upon the Nature and Configuration of its secondary Qualities.

This dependency of secondary Qualities upon the Senses and Apprehension of him who perceives them, wou’d to untutor’d Minds seem to make it bootless to dispute Judgments of Taste. As Mr. HUME remarks, “no Objects are, in themselves, desirable or odious, valuable or despicable; but that Objects acquire these Qualities from the particular Character and Constitution of the Mind, which surveys them” [David Hume, Essays, “The Sceptic” – Ed.]. And yet, we need not be too disturb’d by this, for, says he, “Though Colours were allowed to lie only in the Eye, would Dyers or Painters ever be less regarded or esteemed? There is a sufficient Uniformity in the Senses and Feelings of Mankind, to make all these Qualities the Objects of Art and Reasoning, and to have the greatest Influence on Life and Manners.”

A Man’s Faculties are as an Instrument, so attuned as to vibrate in Harmony with those of others, when pluck’d by the Fingers of the same Player. We need not doubt the existence of Musick or of the Player because some few of these Instruments are out of tune. But who is this Player?

I am of the Opinion of my Lord SHAFTESBURY, that all Matter, taken by itself, is dead, a shapeless Chaos. It is only given Form ― only becomes Intelligible ― by some Mind. This is the Foundation and Original of the Plastick Arts, and indeed of all the Arts generally. But just as there are Minds that form, so is there too some Mind that additionally forms those Minds that form [see Shaftesbury, Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), Vol. II, “The Moralists; a Philosophical Rhapsody” ― Ed.]. All the World and every thing in it is a single Masterwork, wrought by the Supreme creating Mind. “The Spirit of Man is the Candle of the Lord,” as the Scripture teacheth [Proverbs 20:27 ― Ed.]. ‘Tis the Lamp He hath given us, by which we may illuminate his Work. ‘Tis the Spark of His divine Fire. We are so form’d as to be able to understand His Creation, and to grasp the Beauties it contains, since we are, after all, a Part of it. As intellectual Creatures, we are in the singular Position of being, at one and the same Time, both Figures upon His Canvas and Connoisseurs of its grand Design.

Here is as good a Place as any for me to end this rhapsodizing, being by my Nature ill-suited to play the Enthusiastick.

I am, Sir,
Your humble Servant, etc.
Jos. Darlington, Esq.
Darlington Close,
Horton-cum-Studley, Oxon.

P. S. Mrs. Darlington also wishes to be remember’d to the Venerable Mr. Avenger, and sends her Compliments to Mrs. Avenger.