Category Archives: Books and online resources

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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Machiavelli and the Elizabethans

Stephen GardinerIn 1555, Bishop Stephen Gardiner wrote a treatise to King Phillip II of Spain, in which he borrowed (aka plagiarized) extensively from Machiavelli’s The Prince and The Discourses. Gardiner did not credit Machiavelli or attribute any of his quotes, but rather copied some of Machiavelli’s content verbatim or very closely.

This was less than two decades after Machiavelli’s works had been first printed, and before Pope Paul placed it on the Index librorum prohibitorum, effectively banning it in Catholic countries (but also making it more interesting, as any banned book inevitably becomes, thus guaranteeing its publication and translation).

Some two decades earlier, in 1536, Cardinal Reginald Pole wrote his Apologia ad Carolum Quintum. Pole claimed that The Prince was a satire, albeit an evil one (one that exposed the aracana imperii, or secrets of rule). He denounced Machiavelli as being “in league with the devil” and that Il principe was “written by the finger of Satan”:

In the Apologia ad Carolum Quintum (1539) Reginald Pole claimed to know, on the basis of a conversation with Thomas Cromwell some ten years earlier and subsequent inquiry into Cromwell’s views, that Machiavelli’s Il Principe had been the inspiration behind Henry VIII’s decision to break with Rome, declare himself head of the church, and seize the property of the English monasteries.*

That suggests The Prince was well known by Cromwell, and possibly even by Henry himself. Who supplied Cromwell with a copy of the work is unknown, but Pole had been in Italy in 1529. However, 1529 is too early for a printed copy: the first printed edition of The Prince was 1532. Perhaps he obtained a hand-copied edition.

Pole’s Apologia, however, was not published until 1744. It might have been shared among his peers and fellow theologians, but it did not have a wider reach for another two centuries (when it provided leverage for the popular notion of a Machiavellian Henry VIII).*

Nonetheless, this and other contemporary denunciations helped bring Machiavelli’s The Prince to the attention of the English court very soon after its first publication (q.v. The Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli, ed. John Najemy, 2010). Ideas spread rapidly during the Renaissance.

By the time of Gardiner’s writing, Machiavelli had been denounced many times, by many more critics (especially by church allies and defenders). He was even declared a “literate atheist” in 1557. That same year, the Inquisition demanded the “utter destruction” of all of Machiavelli’s works. Ironically, this helped spread them faster in an era of intellectual curiosity and questioning or authority (it was the Reformation, after all, so anything the church opposed was consumed with relish by advocates of reform).

Gardiner – Bishop of Winchester under Henry VIII, and later Lord Chancellor to Queen Mary – was a staunch Catholic, but obviously both curious and intellectually intrigued, even by a writer which his fellow theologians like Pole denounced. He died shortly after writing this final work, so his motives were never questioned. However, in Gardiner’s defence, he was writing before Machiavelli was placed on the Index, so there was no official proscription yet.

He wrote this piece in English – surprisingly not in Latin which was the lingua franca of governance and church then, and a language in which Gardiner was fluent. The treatise was translated into Italian posthumously, in 1556, for presentation Phillip II (Queen Mary‘s Spanish husband; Mary was herself to die shortly afterwards, in 1558), then in Brussels. Phillip II, however, could not speak either English or Italian, but was fluent in Spanish, Latin and French.

The translator was George Rainsford, a courtier in the late Henry VIII’s circle. The English version of Gardiner’s work hasn’t survived, but there are two copies of the Italian translation intact (q.v. A Machiavellian Treatise by Stephen Gardiner, by Peter Donaldson, Cambridge University Press, 1975). The treatise is titled “A Discourse on the Coming of the English and Normans to Britain,” and when sent to Phillip II, it was paired with a piece Rainsford himself wrote, called “Ritratto d’Inghilterra” or “Portrait of England.”

Gardiner’s part is structured as a dialogue between two men, in which “Stephano” teaches “Alphonso” about the English historical experience in Machiavellian terms. It is essentially a guide for Phillip II in how to rule England using the techniques Machiavelli described in his books as used by people such as Caesare Borgia.

Had it been exposed before his death, there is good reason to believe other members of the English court would have felt it treasonable. Many in the court feared that Phillip would become king of England when Mary died. Had Gardiner lived, he could have faced serious consequences – even execution – under Elizabeth.

Gardiner read Machiavelli. Who else in his circle also read him? How widespread was knowledge of Machiavelli in Tudor England?

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Re-thinking Machiavelli’s dedication

Machiavelli’s dedication in The Prince has often been overlooked or dismissed as merely a job application to the ruling Medici, a self-aggrandizing piece appended to the work. But in his book, Machiavelli’s The Prince: A Reader’s Guide, Miguel Vatter argues differently, and offers new insight into the dedication.

Before we reconsider the dedication, we need to know what it says. like most works of translation, that can vary either grossly or subtly, depending on the translator.

Here is the entire dedication, translated into English in two versions. First from this site:

Those who desire to win the favour of princes generally endeavour to do so by offering them those things which they themselves prize most, or such as they observe the prince to delight in most. Thence it is that princes have very often presented to them horses, arms, cloth of gold, precious stones, and similar ornaments worthy of their greatness. Wishing now myself to offer to your Magnificence some proof of my devotion, I have found nothing amongst all I possess that I hold more dear or esteem more highly than the knowledge of the actions of great men, which I have acquired by long experience of modern affairs and a continued study of ancient history.

These I have meditated upon for a long time, and examined with great care and diligence; and having now written them out in a small volume, I send this to your Magnificence. And although I judge this work unworthy of you, yet I trust that your kindness of heart may induce you to accept it, considering that I cannot offer you anything better than the means of understanding in the briefest time all that which I have learnt by so many years of study, and with so much trouble and danger to myself.

I have not set off this little work with pompous phrases, nor filled it with high-sounding and magnificent words, nor with any other allurements or extrinsic embellishments with which many are wont to write and adorn their works; for I wished that mine should derive credit only from the truth of the matter, and that the importance of the subject should make it acceptable.

And I hope it may not be accounted presumption if a man of lowly and humble station ventures to discuss and direct the conduct of princes; for as those who wish to delineate countries place themselves low in the plain to observe the form and character of mountains and high places, and for the purpose of studying the nature of the low country place themselves high upon an eminence, so one must be a prince to know well the character of the people, and to understand well the nature of a prince one must be of the people.

May your Magnificence then accept this little gift in the same spirit in which I send it; and if you will read and consider it well, you will recognise in it my desire that you may attain that greatness which fortune and your great qualities promise. And if your Magnificence will turn your eyes from the summit of your greatness towards those low places, you will know how undeservedly I have to bear the great and continued malice of fortune.

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New Machiavelli book on the shelves

New Machiavelli bookA new book on The Prince arrived at my mailbox, last week: Miguel Vatter’s Reader’s Guide to Machiavelli’s The Prince. Vatter is professor in the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He has written about Machiavelli before.

I’ve been reading it since its arrival and am, so far, impressed by its scope and approach.

Bloomsbury.com describes the book as:

…a clear and thorough account of this key philosophical work. Setting Machiavelli’s text in its historical and philosophical context, the book offers a detailed review of the key themes (epistemological, social, ethical and theological-political) and a lucid commentary that will enable readers to rapidly navigate the text. Geared towards the specific requirements of students who need to reach a sound understanding of the text as a whole, the guide explores the complex and important ideas inherent in the text and provides a cogent survey of the reception and influence of Machiavelli’s work. This is the ideal companion to study this most influential of texts.

It’s a book about Machiavelli, his times, his sources, and his political ideas – much like those titles by Mansfield, Viroli and others. It is not a chapter-by-chapter guide to The Prince, which is what one might expect from a title that extolled a book as a “Reader’s Guide.” It’s a thematic approach: Vatter organizes Machiavelli’s chapters by broad theme (I had hoped for an annotated version (similar, for example, to Gardner’s annotated Alice in Wonderland, or the annotated Sherlock Holmes).

Nonetheless, it’s a welcome and important addition to the bookshelf and adds to the conversation about what relevance Machiavelli has to modern politics.

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