Author Archives: ichadwick

About ichadwick

Freelance writer and editor, book author, public relations/communications consultant. Former journalist/reporter. Currently municipal politician. Interests include ukulele, tequila, history, science, Shakespeare, animal behaviour, politics, English and urban growth.

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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The Soviet Machiavelli

Mikhail SuslovA 1982 obituary in the New York Times quietly noted that,

Mikhail A. Suslov, chief ideologist of the Soviet Communist Party and one of the most powerful men in the Kremlin after Leonid I. Brezhnev, died Monday at the age of 79, the official press agency Tass announced today.

For most people in the West, this announcement went unnoticed. Who, after all, was Mikhail Suslov? He wasn’t in the news, never got his photo taken, never made headlines or showed up at many public events (certainly none in the west).

Even in the secretive Soviet Union, Suslov was a cypher. The ‘eminence grise‘ of Soviet politics, once described by the CIA as the “high priest of Soviet Communism.

But Suslov was the power behind the throne; in fact behind several thrones. He had been appointed National Party Secretary by Stalin in 1946 and survived three-and-a-half decades of intrigue, outlasting all of his compatriots in one of the most challenging – and often lethal – political environments. He was enrolled in the top echelon, the politburo, in 1952, becoming a full member in ’55.

The Harvard Crimson noted at the time of Suslov’s funeral,

With the ease of a charioteer covering dead-laden ground, Suslov survived Stalin’s purges and reached the Soviet hierarchy’s highest plane of power. Widely acknowledged as the kingmaker to the Communist party’s inner circle, Suslov was instrumental in the ascendency of Chairman Nikita Khrushchev to power in 1958, and again for his downfall in 1964. The many machinations of power politics never seemed to daunt the Soviet minister, whose ferocity found outlet for endeavor in uncounted tasks during the more than 40 years he serve the Kremlin.

In a piece titled, A Communist Purist, Theodore Shabad wrote,

As the leading ideologist and spokesman in relations with foreign Communist parties, Mikhail Andreyevich Suslov was among the Soviet party’s top leaders… in length of continuous service, he was senior member of the inner circle of the leadership… he was regarded as the guardian of Communist purity, watching over signs of Western inroads into the arts, literature and morality… Mr. Suslov’s career as the Soviet party’s principal liaison officer with the world’s Communist leaders spanned the end of the Stalin era, the period of Nikita S. Khrushchev and the Brezhnev years. He presided in effect over the disintegration of the once monolithic Communist system into an array of nationally oriented parties with varying degrees of allegiance, if any, to the Kremlin.

He was the ultimate Machiavellian in a very Machiavellian system. And this is his story.

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Quintus Cicero’s Letter on Elections

How to Win an ElectionIn the summer of 64 BCE, Marcus Tullius Cicero ran for the office of consul in Rome. It was a bitterly-contested fight.

His younger brother, Quintus, wrote him a letter – called the Commentariolum Petitionis –  to advise him how to win that election. That “Little Handbook on Electioneering” is today a classic of politics and campaigning in which Machiavelli would have reveled.*

The short ‘book’ is controversial today, not simply for its content which espouses some “dirty” politics in order to win (along with some basic and valid advice), but because of its authorship. Some scholars doubt that Quintus is the author. As Wikipedia tells us:

Many scholars believe that it was not in fact written by Quintus for the purposes proposed, but in fact by a Roman in the Early Roman Empire, between the periods of Augustus and Trajan, as a rhetorical exercise. Such exercises were not uncommon in that time period. Others claim that it was in fact written by Quintus, but with the view to be published, perhaps as a piece of carefully distributed propaganda.

But for non-scholars, it is the frank content that holds the interest more than the authorship. We can measure today’s political campaigns by Quintus’ suggestions. As Peter Stothard writes in the Wall Street Journal:

Quintus’s election book is frank about the gullibility of the masses and firm in its requirement that they be deceived in their own best interests. Rome was a “cesspool of humanity,” and its would-be leaders could be excused of behavior to match. An assumed personality need not be maintained for long. But Marcus, his brother advised, must make himself seem to be a man of the people while reassuring the wealthy that the “new man” knows his place. There has been much modern argument about how democratic Rome really was. “How to Win an Election” shows that a campaigner’s concerns have remained just as constant as the debate about whether any democracy is ever democratic enough.

The letter is available in a modern translation by Philip Freeman (Princeton University Press, 2012) and is well worth reading by anyone interested in politics and history – and in Machiavelli. It is instructive to see that many of Niccolo’s ideas were presaged by a Cicero. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Freeman wrote in the LA Times,

Quintus was in many ways the first political consultant, and his little-known book remains a mostly undiscovered treasure. For centuries his concise guide has been read only by Latin scholars, but it deserves a much wider audience.

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Han Fei’s Ten Lessons

Han FeiLong before Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his now-famous work of political philosophy, The Prince, there was another man writing in a similar vein in China. And his words have important lessons that can prove useful, even today, for our own politicians.

Han Fei was a prince in the Han Kingdom in the third century BCE. He was a member of and spokesperson for the “legalistic” school. In his short life he wrote 55 books – short essays we would probably call chapters today – assembled into the Han Feizi.*

One of the few English-language versions of Han Fei Tzu is Burton Watson’s translation (Columbia University Press, 1964). Reading it today, I am fascinated at the relevance of these ancient words to today’s politics. Even though he was writing in a vastly different political climate, a different culture and a different technological era, like Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, his comments on politics and leadership still resonate in today’s world.

One of his books was called The Ten Faults, and I reproduce here the opening synopsis of that book from Watson:**

These are the ten faults:

  1. To practice petty loyalty and thereby betray a larger loyalty;
  2. To fix your eye on a petty gain and thereby lose a larger one;
  3. To behave in a base and willful manner and show no courtesy to the other feudal lords, thereby bringing about your own downfall;
  4. To give no ear to government affairs, but long only for the sound of music, thereby plunging yourself into distress;
  5. To be greedy, perverse and too fond of profit, thereby opening the way to the destruction of the state, and your own demise;
  6. To become infatuated with women musicians and disregard state affairs, thereby inviting the disaster of national destruction;
  7. To leave the palace for distant travels, despising the remonstrances of your ministers, which leads to grave peril for yourself;
  8. To fail to heed your loyal ministers when you are at fault, insisting upon having your own way, which will in time destroy your good reputation and make you a laughing stock of others;
  9. To take no account of internal strength but rely solely upon your allies abroad, which places the state in grave danger of dismemberment;
  10. To ignore the demands of courtesy, though your state is small, and fail to learn from the remonstrances of our ministers, acts which lead to the downfall of your line.

Change a few words – ministers to councillors, music to sycophants, feudal lords to staff… you can see how well these ideas and admonitions fit into today’s local political arena. So here is my modern analysis of Han Fei’s words.

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