Wednesday 20 May 2020


Finished April 20
Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching People What to Fear by Patrick Boucheron, translated by Willard Wood

This is a close look at Machiavelli's life and writings. It's split into six sections covering different periods of his life, with each section having five chapters.
The introduction starts with a quote from Trump, one that could have been written by Machiavelli. It was a statement made in March 2016 "Real power is -- I don't even want to use the word -- fear." It definitely relates to both men. It speaks to the fact that we really don't know how to feel and think about Machiavelli. This book stays in that uncomfortable zone of thought. It is a deep analysis of the man and his writing, some drawn from a series of talks on French public radio about using Machiavelli to sharpen our understanding of our own times. It shows how people can be so worried about a pending threat that they don't realize that it has already happened.
Youth - this section begins by setting the context for Machiavelli's life, a time period of great upheaval. Those times we are drawn to reading him are also times like these, which should alert us to that in our time. It also talks about how his name became associated with the practice of violence and tyranny, one that he didn't actually profess, but that his worst opponents assigned to him. One of the works he drew on here was a diary kept by Machiavelli's father, showing that the house owned thirty books (an extravagance at that time) and valued education. One of the books was Lucretius, and Machiavelli read it and transcribed it, a very humanist book
A Time for Action - This section talks about the influence of Savonarola's rise and fall, Machiavelli's first government role, first secretary to the second chancery. He created a team of young men that would stay with him for nearly fifteen years. It also marked the beginning of his travels away from Florence to observe what happened elsewhere, and allow him to compare. It also had him writing: dispatches, reports, and diplomatic letters, forming a base for his later work. It is said that this time and place in history invented diplomacy, so it was a valuable experience. It also brings us to the beginning of his exile when the Medicis were reinstalled as rulers and he was implicated in a conspiracy.
After Disaster - His first writings from exile are covered here, where he spent time conversing with the men of his community and his evenings reading. The Prince is looked at, with his intentions to "write something useful for discerning minds," and his determination to look at the truth of the way government worked. He wasn't describing good government, but more the government that he had observed and these are principalities, not republics, an important distinction. He talks here about self-preservation, what a ruler needs to know how to do to stay in control. He ends this famous work by calling on patriotism to deliver Italy from barbarians, the French, but also this is a cry to be noticed, to be brought out of exile.
Politics of Writing - The Prince gained some attention, but the Pope warned the Medicis against him, so he turned to theatre successfully. In the plays, he used the same themes as his previous work, but added humour and variability to them. This section also talks more about his personal life, his marriage and family and draws from personal letters written to his wife and his friends. His work also ventured beyond the diplomatic language of the time to include idiom and street language.
Republic of Disagreements - This section ventures into his orations, beginning with those on the Roman republic. They can be seen as a counterbalance to the Prince in that he acknowledges the role of the voice of the people. He notes that although the general populace is ignorant, it is capable of truth, and they don't want to be dominated. One of the points he makes is that which damages the public spirit "to make a law and not observe it, particularly when it is not observed by the person who devised it." This section also looks at his work Art of War, and the role of military force and his arguments against the dependence on mercenaries. It also reveals his idea of peace as violence in abeyance, useful for its vagueness of threat. Here, this book also tackles the common line "the end justifies the means" as being associated with Machiavelli. He never wrote such a line, and it doesn't fit with his philosophy. For him "The end will always occur too late to justify the means of an action. To govern is to act blindly within the indeterminacy of the times."
Never Too Late - The final section of the book begins with the death of Lorenzo de' Medici at the age of twenty-seven, and the ascendency of his cousin Giulio, who provided more opportunity for Machiavelli, beginning with  a commission to write a history of Florence. When Giulio became Pope Clement VII, Machiavelli had more opportunities, including diplomatic missions and travel. This takes us to the capture of Rome in May 1527 and the topple of the Medici reign, but now that the republic was restored, Machiavelli's services were not wanted, and he died soon after. But the body of work he created survived and was interpreted in various ways by various parties. Boucheron points out the Machiavelli often comes up when a storm is threatening. His quarrel "is rekindled every time a Caesar subjects Europe anew to servitude and war." We may not have reached that point, but the truth of Machiavelli's words are worth considering.

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