Lessons from History

It is common practice to look back and conflate the events of the past with those of the present, seeking parallels, resonance, and answers from previous events that help explain today’s. We learn from others, from their experiences, and we like to find commonalities in our shared experiences, even from our or other’s historic past. We see ourselves reflected in our past and we sometimes mistake that reflection for the reality.

Machiavelli did it in both The Prince and The Discourses, didactically using examples from classical Greek and Roman texts to explore the events, politics, and governance in his contemporary Italian states, and drawing conclusions on his modern events from parallels in the past. That was one of his great achievements: to explore how people behave similarly in similar situations across the ages, and thus extrapolate how we will behave under similar conditions in the future. This is why his books remain relevant today. In The Discourses, he warned in what could be seen as prescient to the current US administration:

Whoever desires to found a state and give it laws, must start with assuming that all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature, whenever they may find occasion for it.
Discourses on Livy Book I, Ch. 3

It’s a losing battle to argue that the US administration isn’t filled with evil, vicious, self-serving people, because all the evidence points otherwise. But I digress.

Legend, mythology, poetry, and literature in every culture has always provided examples from which to learn. From the earliest stories of Gilgamesh and the Bible to modern novels, we learn that human behaviour has not changed in any dramatic manner, and we can always discover our modern selves in reading about our past. And we may find new ways of seeing events and issues from another perspective. An article in The Atlantic noted,

…beyond providing an introduction to troubling issues, historical fiction can offer the chance, if taught conscientiously, to engage students with multiple perspectives, which are essential to understanding history; to help students comprehend historical patterns and political analogies; and to introduce students to historiography—how history is written and studied…
Humanizing history not only means it’s easier for students to connect the historical dots, research shows that it also encourages empathy. Being told a story via historical fiction helps students identify with the characters’ points of view, and that ability to recognize different outlooks… is an essential historical skill…

If anything, history and literature have show us that humans today remain as greedy, parsimonious, warlike, loving, compassionate, lustful, treacherous, loyal, curious, wise, affectionate, and pigheaded as we were at the dawn of recorded history. This also is why classical philosophy and — some non-supernatural parts of — religion still have relevance today, too: human behaviour has not changed in the millennia since we started writing about it.

Machiavelli wrote,

To exercise the intellect the prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have conducted themselves in war, and discover the causes of their victories and defeat, so as to avoid the latter and imitate the former.
The Prince, Ch. 14

Of course, all such comparisons are at least partially epigonic, because despite parallels, changes in cultures and technologies over time have created situations and events that cannot be duplicated nor simply overlaid on the past by mere ideological association. Looking back can offer many lessons, but one must be wary of aligning the past too closely with the present, and confusing allegory and metaphor with current reality. It’s far too easy to make false equivalences or grand generalizations from a cursory knowledge of the past.

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Fortuna: Why Plans Fail

Niccolo Machiavelli used two words in his book, The Prince, to describe the factors that influenced events. In English these are virtue or character (virtu), fortune or chance (fortuna). Only virtue is internal – our nature – and although it manifests as voluntary action, it can only be somewhat, but not entirely controlled.*

The other – chance or fortune – can make the best-laid plans of mice and men go aft agley, as Robert Browning wrote, regardless of our efforts to the contrary.

In Chapter 25 of The Prince (What Fortune Can Effect In Human Affairs And How To Withstand Her), Machiavelli tried to explain why a leader with free will, with all the means, the desire and resources at his disposal would not always succeed in his endeavours. Virtue alone cannot always win. Luck – chance, fortune, randomness – often simply threw a monkey wrench into the gears.

Machiavelli describes fortune in two metaphors. First as a river that can overflow its banks, treacherously destroying the countryside. That river can be carefully managed by planning for the inevitable flood. Today we would call them worst-case scenarios:

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.

Machiavelli is saying rather simply: plan for disaster. Prepare for the downturn, the recession, the changing politics, the loss of funding, the changing market. Have alternatives and contingencies ready. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – for example, don’t base your budget or economic forecasts on the price of oil alone.

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Two New Posts on the Municipal Machiavelli

I added two posts today to my blog about Niccolo Machiavelli, the 16th century political philosopher. These are:

Machiavelli: The Graphic Novel – a short piece about the recent publication of Don MacDonald’s exciting new graphic book.

and

Atheist Machiavelli? A longer piece on the debate about whether Machiavelli was atheist, pagan or Christian.

Enjoy! I have a couple of new books about Machiavelli on order, too, which I hope to review this summer.

Reward or Punishment?

Which works best in compelling behaviour of your subordinates: the carrot or the stick? Science has come up with the answer in a new study about how to get results from people.

Here’s a little piece I posted about the research on the Municipal Machiavelli today, in part based on a recent article in Science Daily and on Chapter 17 of The Prince:

www.ianchadwick.com/machiavelli/reward-or-punishment/

The Soviet Machiavelli

I’ve written a new piece for my Municipal Machiavelli blog about the late (1982) Mikhail Suslov, the “Soviet Machiavelli.” You can read it here:

www.ianchadwick.com/machiavelli/the-soviet-machiavelli/

Suslov was the power behind the Soviet throne; in fact behind several thrones.

From joining the Party in 1921, he rose to the top echelon. He was appointed National Party Secretary by Stalin in 1946, joined the the politburo in 1952, and finally became a full member in ’55. He survived three-and-a-half decades of intrigue at the highest level, outlasting all of his compatriots in one of the most challenging – and often lethal – political environments.

He was involved in – and aided – the rise and fall of many of its members, including Khrushchev, Brezhnev and eventually Gorbachev and played a major role in drafting Soviet international policy.

Yet despite six decades as a rising Party apparatchik, he is almost unknown in the West. It’s a fascinating story and a glimpse into one of the most secretive lives in a secretive culture. Anyone with a taste for politics should look further into this relatively unknown history.

Montaigne and Machiavelli

Michel de Montaigne mentioned Machiavelli only twice in his Essays, both in Book Two. This tells us he was aware of the latter, but not whether he was intimately familiar with his works. Nor does it tell us which of Machiavelli’s writings he is referring to (by this date, all of Machiavelli’s major works were in print). Machiavelli himself had died in 1527, some 50 or more years before Montaigne penned this part of his essays (first published in 1580).

The first mention is in Chapter XXXIV: OBSERVATION ON THE MEANS TO CARRY ON A WAR ACCORDING TO JULIUS CAESAR (emphasis added):

‘Tis related of many great leaders that they have had certain books in particular esteem, as Alexander the Great, Homer; Scipio Africanus, Xenophon; Marcus Brutus, Polybius; Charles V., Philip’de Comines; and ’tis said that, in our times, Machiavelli is elsewhere still in repute; but the late Marshal Strozzi, who had taken Caesar for his man, doubtless made the best choice, seeing that it indeed ought to be the breviary of every soldier, as being the true and sovereign pattern of the military art. And, moreover, God knows with that grace and beauty he has embellished that rich matter, with so pure, delicate, and perfect expression, that, in my opinion, there are no writings in the world comparable to his, as to that business.

It is unclear to me where Montaigne is referring to that Machiavelli is “still in repute.” It depends on the book in question: the reputation of The Prince was vastly different from that of The Art of War.

The second mention comes in Chapter XVII: OF PRESUMPTION (emphasis added):

Machiavelli’s writings, for example, were solid enough for the subject, yet were they easy enough to be controverted; and they who have done so, have left as great a facility of controverting theirs; there was never wanting in that kind of argument replies and replies upon replies, and as infinite a contexture of debates as our wrangling lawyers have extended in favour of long suits:
“Caedimur et totidem plagis consumimus hostem;”

[“We are slain, and with as many blows kill the enemy” (or),
“It is a fight wherein we exhaust each other by mutual wounds.”
—Horace, Epist., ii. 2, 97.]

The work here may well be The Prince – the main object of controversy in Machiavelli’s writings and the subject of several counterpoint books within its first century. Montaigne rather sardonically comments that in reputing Machiavelli. those authors open themselves up to the same sort of argumentative treatment; and those subsequent attacks in turn to other challenges – ad nauseum.

A little later in that chapter, Montaigne wrote what strikes me as a comment that parallel’s Machiavelli’s own political words (emphasis added):

Our manners are infinitely corrupt, and wonderfully incline to the worse; of our laws and customs there are many that are barbarous and monstrous nevertheless, by reason of the difficulty of reformation, and the danger of stirring things, if I could put something under to stop the wheel, and keep it where it is, I would do it with all my heart:
“Numquam adeo foedis, adeoque pudendis
Utimur exemplis, ut non pejora supersint.”

[“The examples we use are not so shameful and foul
but that worse remain behind.”—Juvenal, viii. 183.]
The worst thing I find in our state is instability, and that our laws, no more than our clothes, cannot settle in any certain form. It is very easy to accuse a government of imperfection, for all mortal things are full of it: it is very easy to beget in a people a contempt of ancient observances; never any man undertook it but he did it; but to establish a better regimen in the stead of that which a man has overthrown, many who have attempted it have foundered. I very little consult my prudence in my conduct; I am willing to let it be guided by the public rule. Happy the people who do what they are commanded, better than they who command, without tormenting themselves as to the causes; who suffer themselves gently to roll after the celestial revolution! Obedience is never pure nor calm in him who reasons and disputes.

I’ll need to do some more reading about the similarities between the two in the near future.