Advice for the Ruthless, Jamming, 04/04/2017

It’s weird to read Machiavelli. Especially the Discourses on Livy, where he’s blatantly a democrat, constantly praising the transparent, free institutions and citizens of Republican Rome.

Niccolò Machiavelli has a reputation as an absolute bastard, a villain’s villain. But that reputation is based on one book, The Prince. For centuries, that book was taken literally by its readers and in its reputation.

One of my favourites of Shakespeare's plays is Richard III, whose
lead character is a textbook example of the popular meaning of
'Machiavellian.' But the Italian himself was a democrat and,
unfortunately for his reputation, a master of a far-too-subtle irony.
I've seen four or five different versions of Richard III over the
years in theatre and film, and McKellen's is still so good. He's my
favourite King Lear as well.
So its advice to rulers seeking to establish an unassailable tyranny was considered a serious and straightforward statement of Machiavelli’s own political beliefs. That’s how the phrase “Machiavellian” came to have such a chilling meaning.

Yet when you look at Machiavelli the man, you see someone who worked for the government of a free city for most of his working life. He lost his diplomatic job when the Medici-controlled Papacy returned dictatorship to Florence. Someone who devoted to evil would have been a faithful servant of the Medicis instead of a determined opponent.

I say determined. After the Medici family overthrew Florence’s republican government, they arrested Machiavelli as a political prisoner and tortured him.

The popular reception of Machiavelli is as the writer of a handbook for tyrants. Yet his most famous and intelligent readers – Spinoza, Rousseau, and Diderot, as well as Louis Althusser and Antonio Negri – knew better.

Democrats give the ruthless advice only with irony. The Prince isn’t a sincere work to attempt to get back into the good graces of the Medici family. You should read it as an early, sustained, and frankly brilliant work of philosophy and trolling.

Of course such ruthless behaviour is fit for a Medici. The Prince is a demonstration that such ruthless figures as monarchs and dictators are unfit to rule at all.

As much as I can have a good time taking in the fragrant garlic cheese
of a quality episode of House of Cards, it is easy to tire of such
straightforwardly evil and devious characters. I loved the first
season because the story was Frank Underwood's struggle to crush
and dominate his enemies. But in the second season, he didn't have
to struggle at all. You just watched him destroy, and I felt bored.
Machiavelli’s works are remarkable because, when he does give advice to monarchs and tyrants, he’s simultaneously philosophical and practical. He’s a thoroughly material thinker, one of the earliest such people in the Western tradition.

He’s a practical writer because he really is dispensing advice. ‘If you want to rule as a tyrant, do these sorts of things in these kinds of contexts. . . . If you want to rule as a democrat, do these sorts of things in these kinds of contexts.’

He’s a philosophical writer because he examines the fundamental political and social causes of why his advice is so effective. He examines the social processes and moral concepts for why one kind of ruler and government gains his people’s love through one path, but a different kind of ruler needs another method.

Machiavelli unites all the different levels and processes of how to achieve some political end, and such a comprehensive how itself becomes a why. It’s a model for practical philosophy.

The tyrant lies to his people and holds them in fear, but always has to guard against his people with personal militaries and police precisely because they fear him. A democratic government is capable of being sincerely loved, as long as their rule continues to enable people to live freely and happily.

The choice is clear, but you’re still free to make a bad decision.

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