The skirt-lifting incident

Caterina SforzaThere’s a famous story about Caterina, the Countess of Sforza, told by Machiavelli in Chapter III of The Discourses. He tells a thinner, less explicit version in Chapter VII of The Florentine Histories. It’s known to historians of the period and place as the “skirt-raising incident.” The story would be repeated by other, later writers such as Francesco Serdonati in his 1596 book, Vite de cinque donne illustri italiene, in a biography by Fabio Oliva and again by Traiano Boccalini in 1612.*

Here’s what Machiavelli wrote of the incident in The Discourses:

Some conspirators of Forli killed the Count Girolamo, their lord, and took his wife and children, who were of tender age, prisoners. Believing, however, that they could not be secure if they did not obtain possession of the castle, which the castellan refused to surrender, the Lady Catharine, as the Countess was called, promised to the conspirators to procure its surrender if they would allow her to enter it, leaving them her children as hostages. Upon this pledge the conspirators consented to let her enter the castle; but no sooner was she within than she reproached them for the murder of the Count, and threatened them with every kind of vengeance. And to prove to them that she cared not for her children, she pointed to her sexual parts, calling out to them that she had wherewith to have more children. Thus the conspirators discovered their error too late, and suffered the penalty of their imprudence in perpetual exile.

It’s part of a longer story about Caterina and the Sforza family and their relationship with the town of Forli that is woven through The Discourses (and mentioned albeit without detail or this incident in The Prince.) Machiavelli appears to have been the first writer to change what was likely a gesture of defiance into a skirt raising, bringing sexual politics into the event.

Machiavelli’s original source was possibly at letter from Giovanni Corbizzi, one of Lorenzo de Medici’s correspondents, written in spring, 1488, at the same time the events were happening. Other contemporary records have similar reports of Caterina’s defiance and challenge, although none have the skirt raising until after Machiavelli.

But we know from several sources of the era that the bare bones of the story – Caterina’s feckless husband was assassinated by residents of Forli, she, her children and other family members were captured, and she convinced them to let her into the family castle to “negotiate” surrender with its loyal defenders, but once inside shouted her defiance from the ramparts and swore vengeance.

In an account from 1498, Leone Cobelli says she made “four figs” at them – the fig being a hand gesture equivalent to the “bird” or upraised middle finger of today. That might be considered obscene, but it is a far cry from raising your skirts to show your genitalia. Did Machiavelli invent the event or simply embroider it, taking his cue from historical sources?

And what about the contemporary records that say Caterina claimed from the ramparts that she was pregnant – carrying the heir who would rain vengeance upon the conspirators if they harmed her children? Or her claims she had her eldest child safely in the hands of a loyal ally who would carry out her revenge? Or that once in the castle, she had the bombards turned towards the town and threatened to level it if they harmed the children? Machiavelli doesn’t mention these, although other sources do, some of which were written during the events.

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Tim Parks translates The Prince

The PrinceIs Machiavelli still relevant in the post-truth era? Can he help us understand the rise of modern demagogues like Donald Trump? I believe so, but in great part it depends on the translation.

Many readers were introduced to Machiavelli’s masterwork, Il Principe, through the translations of late 19th and early 20th century editors like William Kenaz Marriott. Thanks to the lapse of copyright, the 1908 Marriott translation is easily the most commonly version reprinted today and most discount editions are simply reprints of his work. Some are a bit rough because they’ve been ported from paper to digital format and back to paper without careful proofreading.

Some are the result of OCR (optical character recognition) scanning of an old text. When OCR works well, it’s a great, time-saving tool. But in my own experience, a murky or aged text can baffle the software: is it an “o” with a broken or faint right side? A “c”? An “e”? A “d” missing the stem? Scanned text requires a keen editorial eye to find these errors, and that’s not always provided in public domain editions.

Not that Marriott’s version is per se wrong: merely outdated and somewhat florid by today’s literary standards. The same is true of the Dacres version – translated in 1640 – and the Neville version – translated 1675 – both of which can also be found among the public domain editions. Purple prose from any era can distract the modern reader from the message. Like the King James Bible versus, say, a modern translation, it can feel archaic, stuffy, formal. That can dilute the relevance of Machiavelli – and his punchy practicality – to modern politics.

Some subsequent editors appear to have used Marriott as the base for their own later translations. Most of the editions I’ve read have been crafted by academics rather than politicians or historians who might have a better grasp on the implementation, not just Machiavelli’s theory.

Some translators focus on the individual words or grammar, rather than the overall sense and the message within them. The results may be technically or linguistically correct, even paralleling Machiavelli’s own style, but often come across as stilted and fusty as Marriott.

Of course, it isn’t always easy to make a 16th century work (and an early 16th century one, at that) read like a modern book. It’s not simply the language that has changed, but the cultures, technologies, religions, social interactions and attitudes, foods, clothing… pretty much everything. To make the ideas and the words relevant to modern readers, a translator must present them in ways that not only make sense to us today, but provide a comfortable read that doesn’t have us always hunting end- or footnotes to clarify a phrase or word.

And no translation is ever perfect: each one will be spiced by the translator’s own views, background, understanding, opinions and education. A translation is always an interpretation. You need to choose one that speaks to you in a meaningful way.
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A Machiavellian Mis-quote

Machiavelli, The Prince, Ch. XVWhilst perusing the Net for some material for my book on Machiavelli, some time back,  I came across this maxim: “Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.”

It’s attributed on many, many sites to Machiavelli in his most famous work, The Prince.

Sounds pretty Machiavellian, doesn’t it?

Well, it isn’t. Machiavelli never wrote those words.

Sun Tzu wrote that, “All warfare is based on deception.” (Book 1, 18), which is close. Sun Tzu went on to add in the next two lines (19 and 20),

Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.

In The Art of War, Book 4, Machiavelli wrote, “It may also be well to do with cunning that which happened to Fabius Maximus at home,” which follows with the example of Fabius’ cunning use of cavalry to beguile an enemy encampment.

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Server upgrade coming

Sometime in the next two weeks, I will be amalgamating servers for the several sites I manage and conflating them onto one, new and (I hope) faster and more efficient server. There may be some downtime while the files and databases migrate, like virtual birds, to their new home.

I hope that the digital gods of server migration allow my moves to go smoothly. I would sacrifice a virtual dove to propitiate them, if I could only find their virtual altar… would that I were the digital Odysseus…

For most users, it will, I expect, be but a momentary blip in the service, a temporary lapse of rant soon reconstructed. No more than a couple of hours of downtime while the ether is busy with transient bytes flitting hither and yon. My biggest concern is the Blue Agave forum which operates on an Invision system… the transition to the current servers wasn’t all that smooth when I moved a few years back. But we’ll see how it evolves… I might need the aid of Invision’s tech team, too…. but that should not concern you.

If things don’t go smoothly, and it takes longer than expected, it may be the result my clumsy handling of the tools (while still technically inclined, my edge has, I admit, lost some of its crispness as I age). Or it may be some deeper, larger problem that requires tech support to save me from myself and the quicksand of SQL content.

I can migrate the static files easily enough, but depend somewhat on online tools to make the transition for the blog and WordPress databases. And then there’s all that PHP stuff…

Anyway, things may appear and disappear, and off error pages emerge, but take heart that I am not vanished from the network, merely taking the high road to the deep north, as Basho did, but of course virtually, and expecting to return momentarily. Should my site appear gone, take heart that it has not shuffled off this mortal coil, but merely retired momentarily to a far, far better place…. and will reappear when the digital stars align.

Refresh, refresh, refresh and return and it will all be made clear. I hope. If not…. well, I can always start afresh.

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Atheist Machiavelli?

Don MacDonald's artA recent article in the Catholic Journal by William Borst suggests Machiavelli was “(m)ost likely an undeclared atheist…” but the author gives no reference from Machiavelli’s works for this statement. I would argue that, while he may have been critical of church politics at times, he carefully did not express any solid statements about faith that allow us to label him in any way as either believer or atheist.

He certainly wrote about secular topics, politics and war in particular; in The Prince he separates theology from politics, by not putting the Christian stamp on his advice and referring back to scripture for his authority. His prince does not manage by the grace of God but by the realities required by pragmatic politics. It could even be called situational ethics. But was that being an atheist? Not by the standards of his time.

First, it’s important to appreciate that atheism as we understand it today is a relatively modern perspective on religion. During the Renaissance and the later Reformation, the term atheist was applied to people who challenged church doctrine, dogmas or politics: that taking a stance against previously accepted wisdom or presenting natural law instead of divine law, was godless or denied God’s involvement. It did not mean a lack of belief in God; that sense comes later, in the late 18th century. Most of those accused of atheism in the 16th and 17th centuries were still believers in God, but not in all human interpretations of the divine or its will.

Calling Machiavelli an atheist today is an example of presentism: “…in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past.” As I read him, Machiavelli knew far too much about church politics and history – some of it from personal experience – to be anything but cynical towards the divinity of either.*

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Machiavelli: The Graphic Novel

MachiavelliDon MacDonald’s historically-accurate  graphic novel about Machiavelli has finally been released and can be purchased though his website. He describes it as a ” …historically accurate graphic novel; hand drawn, hand painted and set in Renaissance Florence.”

If you’ve followed the story on MacDonald’s blog, and seen the artwork, you’ll know his engaging style and storytelling. It’s a great addition to the literature about the Florentine political philosopher, and I hope it will make Machiavelli accessible to a new audience. And, perhaps, help clarify who Niccolo really was.

MacDonald gave a TED talk about his interest in Machiavelli and you can read a transcript or watch the video on his own website. In that talk, he says Machiavelli was not particularly Machiavellian in the modern, pejorative sense of the word:

…in popular depictions of Machiavelli, like The Borgias on TV, the old caricature persists. Machiavelli is portrayed as a paragon of his own adjective, always in the shadows, ready to whisper the some sort of dark advice into the ear of power. But Machiavelli was not particularly Machiavellian, actually.

It’s a good talk and worth reading. I recommend both the book and his website to all my readers.

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Reward or Punishment?

Carrot or stick?Which works best in compelling behaviour of your subordinates: the carrot or the stick? Machiavelli wrote in Chapter 17 that a Prince who cannot be both loved and feared, is more effective if he chooses to be feared rather than loved. Use the stick, he tells us.

And science has shown that this advice was probably correct. In a story posted on Science Daily,

A simple experiment suggests that punishments are more likely to influence behavior than rewards. The results stem from a study involving 88 students at a university.

In fact, the study found that punishment was two to three times more effective in getting results than giving rewards. Jan Kubanek, PhD, a researcher in anatomy and neurobiology is quoted as saying about the results:

…our study suggests that negative feedback may be more effective than positive feedback at modifying behavior. Our study showed that such feedback does not have to be harsh, since it appears that we tend to react in the same manner to any amount of negative feedback. From an evolutionary perspective, people tend to avoid punishments or dangerous situations. Rewards, on the other hand, have less of a life-threatening impact.

Harsh is, of course, relative and in Machiavelli’s day all forms of punishment were much harsher than those we mete out today. Thomas More questioned leniency for crimes we consider minor today and counselled for harsh measures:

‘I would gladly know upon what reason it is that you think theft ought not to be punished by death: would you give way to it? or do you propose any other punishment that will be more useful to the public? for, since death does not restrain theft, if men thought their lives would be safe, what fear or force could restrain ill men? On the contrary, they would look on the mitigation of the punishment as an invitation to commit more crimes.’
Thomas More, Utopia, Book I

In those days, heads rolled considerably more often from their perch on the neck; today in the municipal or corporate world, such methods are frowned upon. Even simple defenestration is not accepted. Instead, we simply fire someone. But the symbolic effect is the same.

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Machiavelli and Marx

I started reading Karl Marx’s Capital, vol 1. recently and that got me wondering about what similarities or differences there were with or between these two great political philosophers, Machiavelli and Marx.

Form my admittedly limited and autodidactic education in political theory, the first thing that strikes me is the scope. Machiavelli aims his works at the individual leader – the eponymous prince – as the engine of social and political change. Marx, on the other hand, looks at the masses – the proletariat – and sweeping tides of history. He is often speaking to the crowd – although ironically it was the intellectual elite who mostly read his work.

(Gramsci, as I understand, makes an argument in The Modern Prince that the revolutionary socialist party can stand in for Machiavelli’s prince as the sole actor thus take advantage of Machiavelli’s advice, but I don’t think so because it involves group dynamics… it’s an argument for another post, though…)

Many of Machiavelli’s concepts – like virtu, a term undefined but rooted in morality – are personal, not group attributes. He focuses at his widest on small groups to manage events and activities – a single leader and his advisors (whose role is to mitigate the ideology of the individual leader towards common and sustainable goals).

Marx, on the other hand looks at the larger picture, a scientific analysis of events and trends. He disdained the ‘great person’ theory of history. His concepts like revolution and even capitalism would have no place in Machiavelli’s vision, any more than Niccolo’s self-reliant city republican state would have in Marx’s.

Machiavelli doesn’t address class except in general terms – the need for the leader to have the people on his side. Class is taken more or less for granted, although he does distinguish between the strata within the upper class (the hereditary rulers versus those who take or assume power; most of whom are members of an upper crust of rich and powerful families like the Medici and the Borgia).

Marx is all about class and class struggle. Both saw the masses could overthrow a leader and do so easily given the right circumstances – Machiavelli had personal experience seeing the Medicis, Savaronola, then the republic overthrown – but the circumstances for both were different and the results of such revolution more so. Marx saw the proletariat rising to take control itself; Machiavelli saw one leader (or family) replace another.

Of course they are separated by more than 350 years. Machiavelli wrote at the dawn of the modern era, when printing was just getting its start and its impact was not yet fully felt. Marx wrote in the heyday of the industrial revolution when technology was rapidly changing societies and economies.

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Machiavelli and Xenophon

XenophonMachiavelli read Xenophon and was so impressed by him that Niccolo cited Xenophon’s works eight times in The Prince – more times  than he cited Plato, Aristotle and Cicero combined.*

Xenophon was author of many works including histories and philosophical dialogues, However, it is his CyropaediaThe Education of Cyrus – that was an important guide for Renaissance humanists in the art of princely rule. Along with Aristotle’s Politics and Plato’s Republic, it formed a trilogy of political guides. But whereas Aristotle and Plato focus on the ways to create the best state, the Cyropaedia focuses on how to establish personal rule. Civic community versus personal ambition.

The Cyropaedia is, I believe, the first comprehensive examination of personal rule. Xenophon’s shorter piece, Hiero, examined (and defended) tyranny, but was presented as a dialogue, not a lengthy history (with moral, political and philosophical components) as the Cyropaedia was.

Xenophon gently suggests that there is a conflict between the moral restrictions demanded by a state focused on the greater good and the personal needs of its citizens to grow, to acquire and to succeed. And in lowering its standards to allow personal growth and success, the state fails.

Machiavelli was ambivalent about the popular interpretation of “just empire” of Cyrus, as contemporary humanists moralized about it, and whether the generous and affable character of Cyrus really contributed as much to his achievements as his cunning, his treachery and his use of force (both direct and indirect).

He argued the point obliquely in Chapters 15-19 of The Prince. There, Machiavelli contrasts the methods of Hannibal and Scipio in managing their armies: the former with severity and force, the latter with kindness and generosity (Machiavelli says Scipio was too easily influenced by Xenophon’s Cyrus), noting that Hannibal was the more successful of the two.

He is suggesting that Cyrus’ successes were worth celebrating precisely because of the methods he used to rise to the top and manage his state effectively – and they should not be overlooked when reading Xenophon. And, as Paul Rasmussen wrote, for Machiavelli, morality was not iron: it was “malleable” in the service of the ruler, and a “‘just’ regime is one in which the citizens feel secure in their pursuit of their own selfish interests.”

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How to Run a Country

How to Run a CountryPhilip Freeman’s second book has been billed as a “sequel to How to Win an Election” reviewed here in an earlier post. Like the first book, this is a short (132 pages in a small format) book with a mix of English and Latin content derived from the writing of Marcus Cicero. I personally don’t feel it lives up to the first in either layout or content. But it has its strengths.

The first book juxtaposed the Latin and English texts on alternating pages, making it reasonable for anyone who might want to attempt to translate the former themselves or just for curiosity’s sake. However, the second book lumps the Latin at the end of the book, making readers all too aware that only slightly more than than half the little work is in English. And anyone wanting to attempt translation and compare their translation to Freeman’s,  has to jump back and forth to do so.

Where the first book was one cohesive piece of writing (a single letter by Quintus Cicero, to his older brother, Marcus), this one is a mix of bits and pieces from the elder Cicero’s letters, speeches and texts.

The actual amount of Cicero is itself minimal. Freeman selects snippets – sometimes as little as a single paragraph – from Cicero’s volumes of writing. He cobbles his translations together under a dozen themed categories – natural law, leadership, persuasion, war, tyranny and so on – and introduces each category with a brief note on either Cicero’s life or Roman history and politics.

Most annoying is that the translations lack citations to identify the source – you need to hunt through the Latin original to find out what original document Freeman is drawing from. For someone like me, who wants to see the entire work (or learn if it is in one of my existing translations), it means paging around to get all the information.

There is a lot to learn from reading the classical authors, but care has to be taken not to turn them into some sort of Nostradamus, making every quotable line into a prediction. Hindsight does that to us. We want to have the past mirror the present to justify our acts, our decisions and our perspectives (this is why tacking words like “ancient” and “traditional” onto quack medical products gives them an air of legitimacy).

While some of their words are timeless, the writing of people like Cicero was mostly about contemporary times, events and politics, and has a specific context. It’s far too easy to lift quotes from that context and drop them into current events as if the original context and the new were the same. Cicero’s Rome and the modern world have things in common, but many more differences.

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