Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Reading :: Thoughts of a Statesman

Originally posted: Wed, 29 Jun 2005 20:08:03

Thoughts of a Statesman

by Niccolo Machiavelli

The link above is to a great online library in which older works have been scanned and turned into PDFs along with the embedded machine-readable text. So, for instance, you can read the scanned page from this 1882 book, then highlight lines and copy them. Or you can use the find-as-you-type feature in MacOS X's Preview to find relevant passages. What a time saver.

The book itself is "a compilation of some of Machiavelli?s most famous thoughts arranged by the editor of the 1882 edition of his works," originally appearing in vol. 2 of The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings of Niccolo Machiavelli. Let's call it a book anyway. It's a 32-page "collection of maxims, extracted from the works of Machiavelli ... to show the injustice of the charges against the writings of Machiavelli, resulting from an unfair prejudice and imperfect understanding of his sentiments" (from the prefatory note, p.435). It even comes with a fake-but-accurate letter purportedly written to Machiavelli to his son, sounding for all the world like the last chapter of Latour's Pandora's Hope:

I know that some one has poured out his venom against my writings because he has formed his judgment upon each one separately, instead of all together, and has looked more to the words than the spirit; as if one could judge correctly of a work or a science or art from a single part, and not the whole together, or could judge of the colors without regard to the drawing. (p.435)

Poor Machiavelli!

The maxims which follow are decontextualized, but they do point to the fact that Machiavelli was not simply a schemer. When reading The Prince, sometimes it's easy to forget that Machiavelli believed "That government alone is durable which rests upon the free will of the governed" (p.439). Other bon mots:

Whoever is harsh and cruel in commanding is badly obeyed by his subjects; but whoever is kind and humane meets with ready obedience. (p.440)

To command a multitude it is better to be humane than proud, and merciful rather than cruel. (p.440)

We ought to attach little value to living in a city where the laws are less powerful than men. That country only is desirable where you can enjoy your substance and your friends in security, and not that where your property can be easily taken away from you, and where your friends, for fear of their own property, abandon you in your greatest need. (p.444)

It is the laws that make men good. (p.444)

A good prince must preserve perfect justice in his states, and in giving audiences he must be affable and gracious. (p.446)

Those provinces where there is money and order are the nerve and sinews of the state. (p.450)

Those only deserve to be free who apply themselves to good works, and not to evil ones; for liberty badly employed injures itself and others. (p.452)

And so forth. The great thing about lists of maxims is that they have already done the hard work of pulling out great quotes. The problem is that these quotes become detached from the overall argument. In this case, the editor has selected many, many quotes in which Machiavelli agrees with common wisdom and morality. But that means that Machiavelli's most interesting moments -- and his method -- become lost, and his observations become banal. When they are reintegrated into the overall arguments that Machiavelli advances, they again become vital and original.

Take the statement that "It is the laws that make men good" (p.444). In itself, it seems a fairly banal observation, in consonance with the church of Machiavelli's day (though contrasted to the book of Hebrews, which states that the Law was given in order to expose and multiply sin). But integrated into Machiavelli's overall political philosophy, it becomes a pragmatic statement: one must establish a law to which men can relationally calibrate themselves. It is the difference that makes a difference, to paraphrase Bateson.

In all, it's an interesting document. I've not flinched from recommending Machiavelli, but I'll recommend this one with a caveat: read it after reading Machiavelli's major works.

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