Sunday, July 6, 2014

Machiavelli




"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...

...For those who look on such collisions as rare, exceptional, and disastrous, the choice to be made is necessarily an agonizing experience for which, as a rational being, one cannot prepare (since no rules apply). But for Machiavelli, at least in The Prince, The Discourses, Mandragola, there is no agony. One chooses as one chooses because one knows what one wants, and is ready to pay the price. One chooses classical civilization, rather than the Theban desert, Rome and not Jerusalem, whatever the priests may say, because such is one's nature, and--he is no existentialist or romantic individualist avant la parole--because it is that of men in general, at all times, everywhere. If others prefer solitude or martyrdom, he shrugs his shoulders. Such men are not for him. He has nothing to say to them, nothing to argue with them about." 

--Isaiah Berlin, The Question of Machiavelli

"A number of formulas have been invoked to account for the declining influence of Machiavellism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The simplest and most capacious is simply that the world has been Machiavellianized. When moral principles ceased to be independent, unchanging public rules controlling the behavior of those who professed them--when principles were replaced by ideas of interest, progress, or class solidarity--then Machiavellism lost most of its point. The modern political liar isn't Machiavellian; he doesn't even want to deceive; he's simply telling his constituency what it wants to hear: that's his business. Machiavellism is possible only in an age of public morality, or at least of moral expectations--and that's not our own."

--Robert M. Adams, The Rise, Proliferation, and Degradation of Machiavellism: An Outline

Isaiah Berlin was a diplomat, writer, and one of the leading philosophers of the 20th century. Robert M. Adams was a celebrated academic. He translated The Prince for the Norton Critical Edition, which also contains both the essays quoted above. 

Their essays read well together. One is gleeful. One is bitter. But both seem to suggest that it's Machiavelli's world, and we're just livin' in it. 

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