Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Machiavellian Book Review

Recently, I've been engaged in reading a transcription of a series of lectures by Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones during which Dr. Jones lectured on all manner of doctrine, ranging from the doctrine of the Word of God to eschatology. It's a 1200 page tome, and once I got to the section on the fall (200 pages in) I decided to take a break and read something else for a while. I wanted something that kept with the theme of man's fallen nature. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli struck me as a near-obvious choice.

The Prince was written in 1513, though not published until almost 20 years later. Machiavelli had been involved in a Florentine government that was opposed to the rise of the Medici family, and once that opposition failed, Machiavelli found himself without a job. A prolific writer, Machiavelli wrote The Prince and dedicated it to the newly empowered ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de Medici (for you Reformation fans, that's Pope Leo X's nephew).

"Machiavellian" is a pejorative word that (without looking it up) is used to describe someone who ruthlessly seeks to acquire power without regard to morality, loyalty, or anything akin to scruples. Now, I know that eponymous words like "Machiavellian" often fail to fully reflect the complexities of the personality behind the name (after all, Calvinism is nothing more than TULIP, right? And didn't that Ludd guy hate all new innovation?), so I went into The Prince with a semi-open mind. Below are some of my observations from this well known but relatively little-read work.

The Prince reads as two parts Italian history lesson and one part application of said history. Ostensibly, the purpose of the book is to inform the new prince Medici how to maximize his chances at a long, successful reign. Based on the Introduction and concluding chapter of the book, however, I think it was more of a lengthy resume/writing sample to the new ruler. But what makes Machiavelli's work so, well, Machievellian?

We get our first inkling of the Machiavellian Machiavelli on page 8 (all references are to my copy which is a translation by the aptly named Peter Constantine), wherein we read: "you cannot avoid offending those whose new ruler you are." This is axiomatic to Machiavelli, and the rest of the book seems to be an attempt to explain (1) how to maintain status as a ruler, and (2) if some people must be offended, then how should one determine who to offend and how.

Case in point is when Machiavelli advocates taking land from large estate holders at the edge of a province in order to set up colonies. p. 11. This, it is argued, does two positive things: (1) it endears the ruler to the poor people to whom he gave land, and (2) it saves money on military because the colonists will fight to keep their land, meaning that the Prince will not have to man the edge of the province with paid soldiers. Of course, the flip side is that the Prince essentially stole (that's "redistributed" for you Obama fans) from the rich to give to the poor. But by doing so the Prince only offends the few, and pleases the many while protecting his ability to rule.

There is a certain unintended-comedy factor in The Prince. For instance, the four greatest examples of princes throughout history "who have become princes through their own skill," according to Machiavelli, are the following: Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, and Theseus. However, "[o]ne ought perhaps not to count Moses, as he was a mere execetor of the will of God; he must nevertheless be admired, if only for the grace that made him worthy of speaking to God." p. 26.

The greatest example of unintended comedy was this tidbit: "His Holiness Pope Leo has found the pontificate in a most powerful condition . . . he will make it even greater and more revered through his goodness and his many other virtues." p. 55. Ummm, yeah.

Cruelty, Machievelli tells us, can be either good or bad depending on how it is used. Cruelty should be done only at the beginning of a reign. When a prince conquers a new state, "he must weigh all the acts of cruelty that are necessary and execute them all at a single stroke so they will not have to be repeated every day." p. 43. This is beneficial because the less cruelty "is tasted, the less it offends; while benefits must be dispensed little by little so that they will be savored all the more." p. 43. "[M]en must either be flattered or eliminated, because a man will readily avenge a slight grievance, but not one that is truly severe." p. 11. That's Machiavellian for, "kill your enemies and take care of your friends."

The vast majority of The Prince contains nothing akin to Machiavellian plotting. Part of me expected page after page to be dripping with vitriol, but that's not the case. In fact, some of Machiavelli's observations about nations and people are quite profound. For instance, Machiavelli devotes several pages to the issue of conspirators. The upshot of those passages is that a prince shouldn't spend all his time worrying about conspirators because conspirators usually fail, and when they succeed in overthrowing a prince they end up being eliminated. Ultimately, argues Machiavelli, perhaps alluding to Aristotle, "a prince cannot avoid assassination resulting from the deliberations of a determined mind, becuase he can be assaulted by anyone who does not care about dying himself. A prince need not fear this unduly, because such men are very rare." p. 93. Perhaps in this same vein, Machiavelli advocated arming the citizenry. p. 98.

In a passage that would make Michael Moore start up a new documentary, Machiavelli notes that "many judge that a wise prince must skillfully fan some enmity whenever the opportunity arises, so that in crushing it he will increase its standing." p. 99. A Reaganite example of picking good fights to build prestige, Machiavelli cites King Ferdinand (of, in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, fame) as having casually attacked Granada. p. 103.

There's something for modern day politicians in Machiavelli. Reagan would be proud of the fact that Machiavelli supported low taxes and freedom of business. p. 107. Bush would appreciate the rather pithy, "he who has good arms will always have good friends." p. 86. Obama would love this nugget: "It's vital to always bring hope and change to the people." Okay, I made that one up.

I can't say I vehemently disagreed with anything Machiavelli wrote (given the context of each statement---he primarily makes historical observations and then applies them per his interpretation) until I reached the penultimate chapter, where Machiavelli preached the devil's doctrine of free will. "Fortune seems to be the arbiter of half our actions, but she leaves us the other half, or almost the other half, in order that our free will may prevail." p. 115. Gee, thanks for that tidbit. On the flipside, Machiavelli notes that "man cannot deviate from that to which nature inclines him." p. 117. Though that sounds more palatable, Machiavelli just hacks me off with "God does not want us to do everything, lest he take from us our free will and that part of the glory that belongs to us." p. 121. That's only slightly more blasphemous than Machiavelli's observation that the campaign of the House of Medici is at least as righteous as that of Moses, for God did not "look upon [Moses, Cyrus, or Theseus] with more benevolence than he looks upon" Lorenzo de Medici. Right.

I must also condemn the mysogony present toward the end of the book, as well, for while most of the book is dry with histories of Italian city states, it closes with madness. Machiavelli endorses the impetuous man over the cautious man. The reasoning? Simply "because Fortune is a woman, and if you wish to dominate her you must beat and batter her." p. 118. Now that's Machiavellian! However, I wonder if such language reflects more on the intended audience or the author?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Thunder in the Morning

Thunder in the Morning

This morning the first sound to which I awoke was thunder; a soft rain followed. When I arose to ready myself for a trip to the hospital, I heard another sound I do not usually associate with rain. Raindrops tapping the skylight, especially soft raindrops, produce a quite pleasant sound—relaxing, rhythmic, even soothing. Thunder as well, at least distant thunder, also calms the soul like a pink promise on a blue horizon; of course if the rain drives harder and faster, or the thunder rumbles closer and louder, the dark immediacy of stormy weather deforms the placid soul into a dark and troubled Galilee upon whose windswept waters the Master sleeps.

I often hear and envision natural phenomena as living metaphors of my life. Today it was the soft rain as a calming metaphor of my tender affections for my ailing father; the approaching thunder—the dark portent that he might worsen; the pink streak piercing the dominant blue—a ray of hope upon life’s horizon that he might not lose a leg, that his artery might not burst. You see, I struggle with that malady called “the pathetic fallacy,” the false notion that “to her fair work does nature link the human soul that through me runs.”[1] Wordsworth had the same disease; ‘twas his faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes,” and that birds “hopped and played” with “pleasure.”[2] Byron, too, imagined “a pleasure in the pathless woods.”[3] But Darwin would slaughter the Romantics’ pathetic fallacy. Like a blind seer, in 1824 a young poet scarred a Somersby stone with the inscription, “Byron is dead,” and as an older man who knew Darwin well, Tennyson would write of “nature red in tooth and claw.”[4]

But I have forgotten my point—that other sound I heard this morning; not the soft raindrops, not the distant thunder, but that other sound.

I hear it on sunny days, especially at dawn, when Venus, the last goddess of velvet night, like a mother in travail, spreads her silver arms and dies, giving birth to a golden son. That’s when I hear the sound, that sound that seemed so out of place and time this morning.

Usually she darts away from portentious thunder, folds her wings to the ominous wind, and silences her song in the threatening rain. But, today, she sang. Oblivious to Wordsworth or Darwin, she sang. She sang despite the thunder, sang despite the clouds, sang despite the rain. Just outside my window in the face of the coming storm, she sang.

And as she sang, I heard yet another strange and wonderful sound, an old voice newly awakened upon the troubled waters of my soul, that said, “Why are you afraid? Peace, be still.”

[1] “Lines Written in Early Spring,” William Wordsworth
[2] “Lines Written in Early Spring,” William Wordsworth
[3] Childe Harold, Canto iv, Verse 178
[4] In Memoriam (54 - 56 fragment)

The Unexpected Burden, the Unexpected Blessing

James and Solomon both teach us to expect the unexpected; our lives are mere vapors, and we are fools if we boast today what we shall do tomorrow or even a moment from now. In fact Jesus Christ once called a man a "fool" because he did not expect the unexpected. Of course the unexpected is not always a burden; sometimes the unexpected is a blessing; sometimes the unexpected is both a burden and a blessing. Such was my experience this morning–the unexpected burden and the unexpected blessing.

Hungry, I took a brief respite from writing to hurry through the drive-in window at McDonald’s for a sausage biscuit (with strawberry jam) and a medium orange juice. I whirled out of my driveway onto the street and immediately noticed the neon-orange sign–"Workers Ahead." I slowed appropriately and, as I drove by the workers and their three trucks, I noticed they were using picks, hoes, and a power-washer to clean and clear the crevices between the slabs of concrete that comprise our street. Once they cleaned and cleared the crevices, a third crew poured hot tar into the crevices to seal them and prevent future encroachment by grass and weeds, dirt and debris. Just as I approached the last vehicle, a UPS truck, with characteristically hurried pace, swept around the corner toward the narrow passage between the trucks parked on one side of the street and my slow-moving VW on the other. UPS drivers may be hurried drivers, but they are generally good drivers, and he cautiously slowed down and we passed one another without incident.

As I rounded the next corner and topped the hill, a struggling life caught my eye, a wounded bird flapping one wing desperately on the merciless concrete. I thought to myself, "the UPS truck hit her." In a split second I decided I would put the poor bird out of its misery and run over her–"she’ll never know what hit her." Another moment’s reflection and I changed my mind, but I had already passed the bird, so I stopped, looked in my rearview mirror, and backed my car up. I couldn’t see the bird beneath the horizon of my door, but I was sure that enough distance separated my deadly tires from her delicate feathers as I continued in reverse. Sure enough, the tragic image of the fallen bird slowly rose through my right window; I hugged the curb and got out of the car.

My first impression was that the flapping bird had only one wing, the other severed, I surmised, by the UPS truck. I gently nudged the torso with my foot, but the bird wouldn’t budge. I knelt down beside her for closer inspection. It was a one-winged mockingbird, a fledgling adolescent. I then discovered her other wing, halfway submerged in the hot, black tar the workers had poured. I gently encompassed her body with my right hand, and with my left I freed the threatened wing with a firm but gentle pull. I foot-nudged the bird again, but still she would not move. Stooping down once more, I lifted the bird’s body to see that her left leg was also tar-stuck. I gently pulled a second time, and the grey leg and pink claws (invisibly covered with black tar) emerged more easily from the quagmire. Still the young bird would not fly. I looked again–the right leg was stuck in the tar as well. I pulled a third time, nudged the bird, and she flew toward the nearest tree.

I never saw such a beautiful mockingbird, the round, white dots upon the grey wings, beating staccato to a newly composed symphony of freedom. My heart was touched. Her unexpected burden had become my unexpected burden, and my unexpected blessing, her unexpected blessing.

It’s a lot like life, isn’t it?

When we encounter an unexpected burden, we should face it–slowly–think about it–carefully–do something about it–wisely. Had I gone with my first thought–the UPS truck hit her–I would have been wrong. Had I gone with my second thought--the bird has only one wing--I also would have been mistaken. Had I reacted instinctively rather than deliberately, I would have killed the beautiful, young mockingbird and never seen her silver wings fly through the opal sky to the emerald tree. My deliberate caution and careful analysis had transfigured the moment and brought life out of the jaws of death. OK, perhaps that's a little too dramatic, but nonetheless instructive about unexpected burdens, and how such burdens may portend unexpected blessings.

Remember, when you encounter an unexpected burden today,


God can transfigure your black-tar burdens into silver-winged blessings.