The Municipal Machiavelli Machiavelli's The Prince Rewritten for Municipal Politicians Sat, 21 Feb 2015 16:09:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Machiavelli and Marx Sat, 21 Feb 2015 16:09:43 +0000

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.

Machiavelli believed chance or luck – fortuna – played a decisive role in history. Marx did not. Machiavelli thought that, despite local differences, the motivations behind events, desires and politics were essentially the same everywhere. Marx thought that history was a series of waves of class struggle, each one working towards improvement of the human condition to the point where class would finally disappear. However, Marx thought that such revolution was inevitable – it was fated to happen. It hasn’t (yet), at least not on the worldwide scale he envisioned.

Marx also went on at length in several of his publications about freedom and how important it was. Freedom from exploitation was at the top of his list, and he saw the only way to achieve it was through the class struggle that led to a proletarian (communist) state. He saw history as a series of steps, each one ascending to this goal.

For Machiavelli, the modern notions of liberty and freedom simply didn’t exist – they are a construct of the 19th century, not the 16th. Machiavelli believed in freedom with limits and responsibilities set out by just laws. His biggest concern was that actions of leaders and individuals should ultimately benefit the state and if not, then those actions should be curtailled (sometimes with the ultimate sanction: death). He is not opposed to repression, as long as that repression is done for the greater good – but wrote that a stable (i.e. good) state will not need to resort to it.

Machiavelli also did not share Marx’s notion of evolving states – another 19th century idea. For him, history was more static. His Discourses use the Roman Empire as a model for his theories – noting that, while distant in history, the events and motivations behind them were essentially the same as those in his own world.

Machiavelli was inescapably Christian. It was impossible for anyone in his time and place not to be so, although he clearly had ideas about the differences between the spiritual versus temporal authority of the church (his criticism was often indirect). He, however, was not an absolutist: he tried to define and redefine morality based on what was best for the state. What was ultimately ethical was what proved the best for the greater good.

Marx was an atheist or perhaps better described as a humanist (he is, oddly, rather optimistic about human nature and its inherent goodness), yet he also had absolute moral views in his objection to exploitation and the suffering it caused.

Machiavelli and Marx both recognize that evil exists, but where Machiavelli tries to find ways to mitigate it through practical means, Marx unrealistically assumed that human nature would eventually overcome it.

Some have even described Machiavelli as a pragmatist compared to Marx the idealist.

Some political writers have tried to pair Marx and Machiavelli as revolutionary brothers from different ages, but I don’t think the two shared common definitions of the term ‘revolution.’ Machiavelli’s view of the world was that humans are prone to fall prey to their passions, and that collectives aren’t any more moral or less prone to passion than individuals.

What they do share in common is that they are both largely unread by the people who either embrace or demonize them. We’ve all heard the terms Machiavellian and Marxist used to describe people, ideas and events – usually disparagingly, and usually without a proper understanding of what either stood for. This is in large part because those who later adopted their words often changed, condensed or altered them into mere epithets that in no way reflect the depths or complexities they stand for.

What two epithets come to mind with Machiavelli and Marx? “The end justifies the means,” and “Workers of the world unite…” respectively. Neither of which encapsulate even a tiny fragment of their views (and the former are actually not even Machiavelli’s own words!).

They also have in common that they wrote about the conditions of their own times and looked for immediate ways to deal with them. And in their writing, they attempted to expose the mechanics of those politics to outsiders; to shine a light on what had been before them only the purview of the elite. They pulled aside the curtain.

Marx has also become closely – and unfortunately – linked to the Soviet version of communism. While his work may have inspired people like Lenin and Trotsky, the mantle they later wore as ‘communism’ was not what Marx envisioned. That’s too bad because from what I’m reading, his ideas still have resonance today.

I am still learning and reading, so these are but a few of my thoughts. I read some much better posts and papers on Marx and Machiavelli online, and from them I drew some of these ideas, but I don’t agree with all their conclusions, nor all their interpretations of Machiavelli. It’s a big topic. I recommend you read them yourselves. Here are a few of them:


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Machiavelli and Xenophon Fri, 29 Aug 2014 19:18:46 +0000

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.”

Machiavelli seems to be arguing not so much against Xenophon, but rather that the later interpretation of his works by his fellow humanists ignores that part of Xenophon’s descriptions that didn’t fit well into the “noble prince” viewpoint. In the end of Chapter XIV of The Prince, he wrote:

And whoever reads the life of Cyrus, written by Xenophon, will recognize afterwards in the life of Scipio how that imitation was his glory, and how in chastity, affability, humanity, and liberality Scipio conformed to those things which have been written of Cyrus by Xenophon. A wise prince ought to observe some such rules, and never in peaceful times stand idle, but increase his resources with industry in such a way that they may be available to him in adversity, so that if fortune changes it may find him prepared to resist her blows.

But cunning alone is not enough: you need force, as he wrote about the “unarmed prophet”  – Savonarola – who he argued failed because lacked force (arms) to keep his followers loyal – in Chapter VI:

If Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus had been unarmed they could not have enforced their constitutions for long — as happened in our time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was ruined with his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.

In the Discourses, Chapter XIII, Machiavelli wrote:

Xenophon shows in his life of Cyrus this necessity to deceive, considering that the first expedition that he has Cyrus make against the King of Armenia is full of fraud, and that he makes him occupy his Kingdom by deceit and not by force. And he does not conclude anything else from such action except that to a Prince who wants to do great things, it is necessary to learn to deceive. In addition to this, he made Cyraxes, King of the Medes, his maternal uncle, to be deceived in so many ways, without which fraud he shows that Cyrus could not have achieved that greatness he attained. Nor do I believe anyone will ever be found of such fortune to have arrived at great Empire only by force and ingenuity, but indeed only by fraud, as did Giovanni Galeazzo in order to take away the State and Dominion of Lombardy from his uncle Messer Bernabo. And that which Princes are obliged to do at the beginning of their expansions, Republics are also obliged to do until they have become powerful so that force alone will be enough.

And in Chapter XX:

It is also to be seen how much people desired this virtu in great men, and how much it is praised by writers, and by the biographers of Princes, and by those who describe how they should live. Among whom Xenophon makes a great effort to show how many honors, how many victories, how much fame came to Cyrus by his being humane and affable, and by his not giving example of himself either of cruelty or haughtiness, or of luxuriousness, or of any other vice which stains the lives of men. Yet, none the less, seeing that Hannibal had acquired great victories and fame by contrary means, it appears proper to me to discuss in the following chapter whence this happens.

In the Oeconomicus, Xenophon posited the notion that a ruler could not simply be taught to rule well: he needed to have a good character and an appropriate education, too. But Xenophon’s Cyrus turns the Persian’s civic education (rigorously taught to citizens from an early age) from the general-welfare-minded to the individualistic: focused on personal ambition and achievement. Cyrus’ goal, as Newell states, was not virtue for its own sake, but to craft citizens of “surpassing nobility” who can excel at noble and good things because they are driven by ambition. The pursuit of personal ambition and material wealth, inimical to the Persian civic education, was turned on its head, and encouraged.

Cyrus wasn’t greedy for material things himself, but appreciated his subjects’ competition for them as part of the race to the top. Ambitious effort should be rewarded.

Don’t be fooled: Cyrus was a tyrant and capable of deception and cunning – as Machiavelli well knew. Cyrus used fear as a tool to control his subordinates, even against his lifelong friend, Araspas. He fostered envy and distrust among them in order to make sure none ever grew strong enough to challenge his rule (many centuries later, Hitler would use the same methods in his Nazi government).

What begins with optimism and exemplary princely rule ends in corruption and autocracy, as the greed of Cyrus’ self-centred subordinates dominates their actions. Xenophon’s point was that, freed from the concerns of the general good, and from philosophic considerations about what being a good citizen means – conventional morality – people degenerate into selfish, avaricious squabblers with no concern for the state, just their own well being. Once again, one is reminded of the final year of the Third Reich.

One might remark that the attitude the subordinates showed – individual greed versus greater good – has resonance today among many ultra-right conservatives, like the Tea Party who see the greater good as merely a welfare state to eradicate.

Machiavelli understood the need to use both reward and punishment to run the state, but felt Xenophon didn’t emphasize sufficiently the need to use a firm hand to keep the ship of state on course. For Machiavelli, Xenophon was too ambiguous when describing what Paul Rasmussen in his book, Excellence Unleashed, has called the “morally dubious aspects of Cyrus’ rule.”**

Blogger Brieanah wrote,

Whether Machiavelli’s deception works towards virtue as Xenophon’s does is another matter, but both discuss the need for a ruler to know how to use deception and manipulate peoples… Both The Education of Cyrus and The Prince have a complete understanding of what a good ruler must do in order to maintain a state; since peoples will always turn out “bad” unless they have been made good by a necessity. For Cyrus, the practice of good rule seen was valued as important as the appearance of it. Therefore his ideas of virtue, seeing laws, and common religion were all observed by him in order to influence the mode of the state towards the good. Machiavelli understood similar ideals, however he instead stressed the necessity for appearance over direct action. Therefore, his ideal prince would simply need to appear to have whatever qualities the people needed him to have so that the state could move towards the best mode.

Machiavelli and Xenophon looked through the same lens to see the form of the ideal state and its ruler, but drew different conclusions about what they saw and how to achieve it. Where Xenophon was more idealistic, Machiavelli was, as ever, more pragmatic.

* Source: Machiavelli and Xenophon on Princely Rule, by W. Newell, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, published in The Journal of Politics, No. 50, Feb. 1988, available on JSTOR. See also: Thoughts on Machiavelli by Leo Strauss.

** This post was sparked by a review of a new book on Xenophon aimed at the business-management reader: Larry Hedrick’s Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great: The Arts of Leadership and War. The review by Richard Feloni, on Business Insider, noted:

Niccollò Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” a guide for the ideal ruler, made his name synonymous with a ruthless pragmatism based on the manipulation and total defeat of an enemy. But the ancient book that significantly influenced Machiavelli, Xenophon’s “Cyropaedia” — which translates to “The Education of Cyrus” — depicts a leader who believes quite the opposite…
Xenophon depicts Cyrus as a leader who kept a cool head and knew when to be severe and when to be compassionate. The book survived antiquity and became a favorite of not just Machiavelli, but also Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson.

Feloni is not accurate in his simplistic reduction (reductio ad absurdum) of Machiavelli’s political philosophy. However, the review includes an overview of the leadership precepts derived from Hendrick’s book, attributed to Cyrus:

  • Learn from the failures of those who came before you.
  • Minimize hierarchical distinctions.
  • Lead from the front.
  • Celebrate your team’s greatest assets.
  • Immediately follow up a victory by pursuing another.
  • Understand your followers’ motivations.
  • When giving orders, be brief and to the point.
  • Reward your followers for their loyalty.
  • Give your team a cause to fight for.
  • Keep emotion out of your decision making.
  • Do not make your allies expendable.
  • Negotiate even in situations of mutual distrust.
  • Remain innovative.
  • Practice courtesy and self-control.

While I cannot speak to the rest of the book’s content (I have only read the review, although I have since ordered a copy), these precepts strike me as sensible and laudable. Whether they accurately capture Xenophon’s views I cannot say.

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How to Run a Country Thu, 28 Aug 2014 13:49:06 +0000

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.

Reviewing the book in The National, Jonathan Gornall wrote,

One clear point to be taken from books such as this is that, given sufficiently self-serving decontextualisation and manipulation, almost any example of ancient “wisdom” can be co-opted in the service of a modern cause.
Examine selected elements of the book through the prism of modern Middle Eastern politics, for example, and it can appear to shed new light on the machinations of the Arab Spring – of which, one could easily claim, Cicero would not have approved.
“Among the crowds are those who would destroy our country through revolution and upheaval,” he writes, “either because they feel guilty about their own misdeeds and fear punishment, or because they are deranged enough to long for sedition and civil discord.”

For the modern reader with a gnat-like attention span, perhaps any short, readable introduction to the prolific and – by today’s standards – verbose Cicero is a good thing. But to me it’s like being offered a mere dozen salted peanuts from a jar brimming with them. No matter how tasty those few are, I crave more; I want a handful all to myself. Too few is far more unsatisfying than too many.

And that’s how I feel about this book: too few nuggets dug from the mother lode. Sure, some are shiny bits, but surely there must be more to mine than these. Cicero had a lot to say about so many things. I am left craving more of his words.

And as for its advice on governance: Freeman’s introduction with his list of ten principles Cicero followed is the only part that really offers concise comment on governance (and the words are Freeman’s views, not Cicero’s). The rest are just really parts of larger pieces from Cicero’s corpus, some little more than epithets, and sometimes unrelated to governance entirely.

The Bryn Mawr review noted:

Freeman arranges his excerpts – some no more than a few sentences, others a few pages – thematically rather than chronologically, and allows them to stand alone with little or no historical context… The passages themselves provide an interesting mix of approaches: some are quite abstract or general, while others show Cicero’s interactions with specific people and events; some passages will be well-known to readers familiar with Cicero, and others are more obscure.

Another annoyance: the chapters that follow the introduction do not always match Freeman’s ten precepts. For example, Freeman writes in precept number 5:

Intelligence is not a dirty word. Those who govern a country should be the best and the brightest of the land. As Cicero says, if leaders don’t have a thorough knowledge of what they’re talking about, their speeches will be a silly prattle of empty words and their actions will be dangerously misguided.

True enough (and I heartily agree with that headline), but the corresponding translations are labelled “persuasion” not intelligence, and the text is a piece on the art and skill of oratory (from Cicero’s book, On the Orator). This book was meant to teach the techniques of persuasion (and what we would today call propaganda) through the use of words, style, stance and rhetoric. He describes several models for speakers depending on context and content (Cicero expounded further on this in his later work, Orator).

Yes, Cicero maintains that the best orators must have an ethical and moral philosophy, but the book is not about the intelligence of leaders, their vision, or their farsightedness. And to compound it, the art of oratory today – what little there is – is not what it was in Roman times when it was one of the foremost skills of any politician. Several competing schools developed around different modes of oratory and rhetoric; their differences and relevance are today almost meaningless except to academics.

And where Freeman’s precept that “immigration makes a country stronger” may be true (likely his own political view), the quote from Cicero (from In Defence of Cornelius Balbus) relates to the granting of Roman citizenship – which was not necessarily tied to immigration and could be granted to people and communities outside the nominal (and shifting) boundaries of the empire for political reasons or the result of a treaty.

As much as I enjoy reading any translation of Cicero, I sometimes had to stop and wonder what the point was in some of the excerpts. Cicero seems to ramble on, off-topic now and then – but I realize that it only seems so because I am reading the excerpt out of context.

No matter how fulsome the jacket reviews are, no one will get an introduction to Cicero’s political views here, merely a patina of them. These are intellectual snacks, not the main course. Perhaps, as the Bryn Mawr review concludes,

Freeman’s book is an entry-point, an introduction; while it is simply too short (the translations occupy 67 pp.) to provide much traction for students in a typical college course, I certainly hope it will be successful in introducing Cicero to a wider audience.

As do I.

While I don’t think this volume lives up to the standards of the first, I like Freeman’s translations. He has a nice, easy touch and a colloquial feel – most of my current translations are 19th-century works and have that verbal density that makes readers balk at trying to digest them. For nothing else, anyone unfamiliar with Cicero should read this book and get a sense of him.

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The Soviet Machiavelli Wed, 13 Aug 2014 18:25:26 +0000

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.

Suslov's funeral

Who was Mikhail Suslov? Almost no one in the West seems to know him, yet he was one of the most powerful men in the Soviet Union. His state funeral, in 1982, was one of the largest parades ever staged in the USSR, but most onlookers in the west – those few who even noted the event shown on TV news – scratched their heads in perplexed wonder. Even many Russians didn’t know the man being honoured, despite his decades as a leading Party apparatchik.

The CIA website gives grudging admiration to Suslov’s ability to survive in the tumultuous Soviet political sphere:

Mikhail Suslov, the Politburo member who served as the party’s top watchdog over ideological matters, was a typical Stalinist. He managed to retain his position and his restrictive influence over information flows, both during and after the de-Stalinization campaign of 1956-1962. Khrushchev evidently thought Suslov would generally follow his (Khrushchev’s) lead. He was mistaken; Suslov showed himself to be a tough and resourceful character. After Khrushchev’s fall from power in 1964, Suslov gained almost total domination over Agitprop. The next party chief, Leonid Brezhnev, was too lazy and too submissive to others’ opinions to make a serious effort to curb Suslov.

Suslov was hardly ever seen by western eyes; just a tall, gaunt figure lurking in the background at Party events, seldom photographed (in a cult where having one’s beaming face photographed for the media at every possible occasion was almost obligatory). He was unknown for his writing outside the USSR (many other Soviet leaders had prodigious bodies of works under their names, albeit often the product of state ghost writers).

The online Marxist Archives list only two of his works, both from 1949. A glance through “The Defense of Peace and the Struggle Against the Warmongers” gives a taste of his literary and political style:

Having taken the path of military-political conspiracy against peace and the security of the peoples, the ruling circles of the U.S. and Britain drive at full speed preparing a new war and are declaring with increasingly cynical shamelessness and insolence, their claims for world domination, the “American leadership of the world,” reviving the insane plans of German fascism and forgetting the historical lessons given to crazy pretenders for “world domination.”

The entire policy of the Anglo-American imperialist bloc serves the aim of preparing a new world war. It finds expression in the unrestrained economic, political and military expansion carried out by the U.S. on all continents in an attempt to seize military-strategic raw materials and other resources essential for war preparations. The U.S. imperialists are netting the entire globe with military, naval and air bases, and are preparing springboards for a new war. The support rendered by the Anglo-American imperialists to all outmoded reactionary regimes (the Franco Government in Spain, the monarcho-fascist Government in Greece, Chiang Kai-shek in China, and so on), to the remnants of the destroyed exploiting classes, spies, saboteurs and murderers in the People’s Democracies, to reactionary forces all over the world-all this serves the aim of preparing a new war. U.S. imperialism has become the center and mainstay of world reaction.

Suslov’s narrow chest wasn’t bedecked with racks of medals and ribbons handed out by the kilo to other leaders: only two appear in the photos I have seen where is is shown wearing any. Most of the time he is shown simply, but elegantly dressed in a modest suit.

Yet Suslov survived six decades in Soviet politics, four of them in its top levels – one of the most ruthless venues for power. And he prospered there. Depending on your source, he may have been the power behind the throne for much of that period, the kingmaker who made – and unmade – many of the top Communist leaders.

Mikhail Alexandrovich Suslov was born on November 21, 1902, in Shakhovskoye, a village in Russia west of the Volga, not far from Lenin’s own birthplace. He died of a stroke (or heart attack?) on January 25, 1982, in Moscow.

Suslov joined the Communist Party in 1921 and over the next two decades, rose quietly but indefatigably through the ranks, surviving purges, challenges and threats, until, eventually, he was made a member of the Politburo and Secretariat of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

In 1921, Suslov was sent to Moscow for his education, where he studied economics. For a short while, after graduation, he was a teacher of economics, but his real career lay in the Party ranks. Suslov left his job as a teacher to enter politics full-time in 1931.

He was chosen to supervise Stalin’s purges in the Urals and Ukraine in the 1930s. He was so successful in following Stalin’s wishes – always a path to advancement in that era – he was sent to the Caucasus to deal with similar matters there. He quickly rose to become a ruling member of the local Party apparatus. He was a regional party secretary in Rostov in 1937 and first secretary in Stavropol by 1939.

When World War II broke out, Suslov was picked to supervise Stalin’s deportation of ethnic minorities to Siberia.

In 1941, he was named to the party’s central committee, moving inward from the periphery to the centre of power. He rose rapidly in the political hothouse.

He quickly took over the role of the Party’s leading theoretician, and was known for his strident condemnation of any deviations from Soviet policy by Party members both domestically and internationally. He was particularly vocal in his anti-Yugoslav/anti-Tito propaganda in 1948.

In late 1944, the All-Union Communist Party denounced Lithuanian Communists for their apparent lack of zeal in implementing the land reform and “insufficient determination in uncovering Lithuanian-German bourgeois nationalists.” A bureau for Lithuanian affairs was organized, with Mikhail Suslov as its chairman. Suslov’s talent for previous hard-line repression in the provinces made him the obvious choice to re-impose Soviet rule. He became known as the “Second Hangman of Lithuania:

Mikhail Murav’ev, the suppressor of Lithuania’s Insurrection of 1863, hung, killed, jailed or deported to Siberia around ten thousand Lithuanians. For his merits, the Tsar conferred upon him the title of ‘Graf.’ The Lithuanian nation ‘baptized’ him The Hangman. The number of Suslov’s victims in Lithuania is ten-fold. The new Russian Tsar bestowed on him the title of Hero of Socialist Labor, the Order of Lenin, and several other orders. For a long time now the Lithuanian nation has considered him The Second Hangman.

Suslov proved merciless in his repression of all attempts at resistance. He sent entire villages to prison camps in Siberia.

In the post-war years, Suslov flourished. In 1947, he was appointed by Stalin as head of the important Agitprop Department of the Central Committee where he, “…personally scrutinized publications to ensure conformity. According to Fedor Burlatsky (1988), he would also comment on everything written by members of the Central Committee departments. In 1969 he directed the dismissal of the progressive Novy mir editorial board”.

In 1946, Suslov condemned the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), established by the Soviets in 1942 to mobilize international Jewish support for the Soviet war effort. The JAC’s leadership included the USSR’s top 25 writers, artists, doctors, scientists and government officials. After the war ended, responsibility for the JAC was transferred to Suslov. In November 1946, he made a secret report to the Politburo, warning the JAC was becoming increasingly nationalistic and Zionist in its support for “the reactionary idea of a single Jewish nation.”

Suslov recommended the JAC should be “liquidated”, but Stalin, wary of events unfolding on the international stage, was not ready to act. Events in the Middle East suggested that the Soviet regime could extend its influence, and this was not the time to alienate international Jewish opinion.

His next step up the ladder came in 1952 when he was appointed as a secretary to the Politburo. Stalin, Khrushchev, Malenkov and Brezhnev were among his peers. He was now at the pinnacle of Soviet power and he meant to stay there.

His first act  – possibly under direction from Stalin – was to remove the editor of The Communist, the principal ideological and theoretical organ of the Russian Communist Party. Suslov publicly criticized its editor, P. Fedoseev, for propagating the economic theories of the then-disgraced N. Voznosensky, former head of Gosplan. Once a favourite of Stalin’s, Stalin soon disagreed with Voznosensky’s liberal approach to market economy and rejected his ideas. Voznosensky became persona non-grata and was removed from his post in 1949, more than three years before Suslov’s denouncement.

Although his protector, Stalin, died in 1953, Suslov managed to hold onto his seat in the struggle that followed. He was appointed chairman of the politburo’s Foreign Affairs Committee in 1954.

In their book, The Unknown Stalin, Roy and Zhores Medvedev put forward the theory Suslov was Stalin’s “secret heir,”and this was exposed by Khrushchev in his ‘secret speech’ of 1956. For a while, Suslov was demoted to secondary positions and his influence curtailled, but he managed to ride out the storm by supporting Khrushchev and rise again to prominence.

In 1955, Suslov was elected a full member of the Central Committee – the Presidium. He was re-elected to the Central Committee in 1956, when Khrushchev was appointed First Secretary. He stayed in it until his death, 26 years later.

Suslov had assumed a pivotal position in the ruling clique as the party’s ruling theoretician and foremost reactionary.

Suslov maneuvered behind the scenes – possibly having a lead, but hidden, hand in the coup that replaced Beria with Nikita Khrushchev in 1953. Although he was one of Stalin’s handpicked henchmen, Suslov managed deftly to survive the de-Stalinization campaign of 1956-1962 by throwing his support behind Khrushchev, at least ostensibly. When Khrushchev’s opponents – like Molotov – were removed from power, Suslov moved in as the leader of the conservative faction.

He would not be a supporter for long. He tried to have Khrushchev deposed several times, and when the latter became estranged with Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung, Suslov tried to interpose himself as the peacemaker between them, heading a delegation intending to heal any rift between the two nations in 1963. It failed – probably because Mao had detested Suslov since their first meeting in 1957 – and he later criticized Mao’s cult of personality, and advocated a harder line against China.

Suslov also opposed Khrushchev’s attempts to have the gulag inmates rehabilitated and released from exile: he and Malenkov tried to sabotage the plans, but others informed on their efforts and they failed.

Khrushchev’s  de-Stalinization had created a “relaxation of traditional ideological demands” that weakened Soviet control on its subject nations and led to clashes to restore control in East Germany, Poland and Hungary. Suslov became the party’s voice for military preparedness and pro-active security, and counselled against improved relations – détente - with the United States during his entire career.

During the Hungarian uprising of 1956, Suslov supervised Yuri Andropov, then the Soviet ambassador to Hungary, on how to repress the Hungarian freedom movement. After Andropov returned to Moscow, in 1957, Suslov recommended him for the job of Head of Central Committee Department for Relations with Communist and Workers Parties in Socialist Nations. Later, Suslov would pull some strings to get Andropov appointed head of the KGB.

When Khrushchev faced a conspiracy in the Politburo in 1957, Suslov helped quell the opposition. In propping up Khrushchev, the conservative Suslov further cemented his position as defender of the status quo. But he later turned on the increasingly eccentric and voluble Khrushchev, and helped organize the subsequent coup that installed Leonid Brezhnev at the top of the Politburo, in 1964.

The break between Suslov and Khrushchev likely began with Khrushchev’s public declaration that the USSR had achieved socialism, in 1961, combined with Khrushchev’s mishandling of the Berlin and Cuban Missile Crises. As ideologue, Suslov – and many other Politburo members – did not want to announce socialism as a Soviet achievement yet, because it simply had not been reached. It was seen as an important stage along the journey to Communism (and that journey to socialism was justification for many of the party’s policies and actions).

Worse for the nation, the growing conflict with the West was causing significant stress on the economy, putting socialism in a bad light, not the shining goal it had been previously.

Khrushchev wanted a PR coup to boost his flagging popularity, so he overrode his party’s objections and declared it. Suslov, the party’s top watchdog over ideological matters for much of his time in the Secretariat, was not impressed with Khrushchev’s incursion into his realm. Khrushchev evidently thought the quiet Suslov would follow his lead, but he was wrong. Shortly after, Khrushchev was ousted and Brezhnev inserted as leader.

Officially, however, it was Khrushchev’s failed policy over the belligerent Chinese Communists that brought him down. Suslov, of course, had been the author of the policy Khrushchev had flouted (Suslov and Andrei Gromyko were the only Soviet officials who took part in all of Khrushchev’s talks with Mao Tse Tung and Zhou Enlai) . Suslov allied with Shelepin, Brezhnev and Malinkovsky to bring him down, making a secret speech of his own in which he criticized Khrushchev’s one-man rule. Many of Khrushchev’s policies and appointments were reversed after he was ousted.

Prior to 23rd Party Congress, a power struggle broke out between Suslov and Shelepin as to which of the two might be elected as First Secretary, replacing Khrushchev. This allowed Leonid Brezhnev to move in and consolidate power, taking the position for himself. The ever-adaptable Suslov then hitched his wagon to the dull-witted Brezhnev’s rising star.

His greatest advantage was his intelligence. he was widely-read, well-spoken and intellectually sharp in an environment where those aptitudes had been liabilities. Few of his fellow politburo members were as sharp, and, not wanting to be seen as ill-educated or dull, they let the articulate Suslov take the lead on intellectual and international issues.

Suslov’s position as the chief ideologue was fixed in the Soviet firmament. He concentrated his attention on relations between the Soviet Communist Party and other communist parties around the world.

Tall, lanky and looking intellectual behind thick-framed glasses, Suslov gathered his resources quietly, didn’t make waves, and built himself a power base that lasted until his death in 1982. According to some analysts, Suslov essentially ran the Party between 1952 and 1982, although he never assumed a public face in that role. One note of interest: in the invective-dense conversations of Politburo members, Suslov was one of only three members who never cursed (Andropov and Gromyko being the other two).

Suslov was able to gain almost total control over Agitprop, tightly controlling the Party’s direction through its release of information both internally and externally. As one writer described him,

Suslov was such a master of propaganda that the Western politicians seemed like rank amateurs in any ideological confrontations with him.

As the Party ideologue, Suslov had control over much, if not all, of the Party’s information flow and output, but he also took control over the output from the intelligentsia.

Writer Vasiliy Grossman submitted his novel about Stalingrad and Stalinism, Life and Fate, for publication in 1960. However, despite promises of publication, in February 1961, the KGB seized the manuscript, and confiscated all known copies from Grossman’s flat. Suslov told Grossman that his novel was “more hostile to the ideals of the Russian Revolution than was Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.” He declared that Life and Fate could not be published for at least 250 years (it was published in the West in the 1980s).

Suslov suffered a political setback that to Politburo men might have proved fatal, when he attempted to rehabilitate Stalin in the late 1960s. Although party chief Leonid Brezhnev was generally too self-indulgent and lazy to make a serious effort to curb Politburo members, Suslov’s efforts upset the Central Committee elite (then basking in the entitlements they accorded themselves). They, along with foremost members of the Soviet intelligentsia, launched a protest that forced Brezhnev to step in and stop Suslov’s project.

Despite this setback, Suslov, an unapologetic Stalinist, retained his Politburo seat and worked to regain his influence. The State’s ultra-orthodox advocate for ideological purity, he became increasingly rigid in his stance.

Brezhnev, who disliked anything intellectual, recognized he was no innovator in Marxist-Leninist theory, and increasingly relied on Suslov’s analyses of theoretical issues. Suslov’s dogmatism and caution suited Brezhnev, although Suslov’s unyielding view often exacerbated the Soviet Union’s relations with reform-minded communist parties, such as the Yugoslav and Italian parties. Brezhnev turned to Suslov to advise him on China policy as soon as Khrushchev had been removed.

Brezhnev basically turned over the responsibility of administering the party and state apparat to Suslov, including the Department for Liaison with Socialist Countries. Suslov also managed the personnel policy, using his power to position his own people  – preferably ideological hardliners like himself – in key roles, and to remove those who (like Alexander Yakolev, later a Gorbachev supporter) opposed him.

Suslov spent much of the 1960s supporting, funding and encouraging Communist parties around the world, particularly those in capitalist nations looking to foment an uprising (he always believed the use of force by those parties was justified). That included supplying and arming Communist, but nationalist, German rebels in the former Saarland, in 1965. He was supportive of Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution, but did not get along well with the independently-minded Che Guevara.

In 1967, Suslov, declared that Communism had grown faster than any other ideology in history, faster than the great religions of the world had spread. Since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, he argued, Communism had spread from Russia to the “people’s democracies” of Eastern Europe and to China. By Suslov’s count, seven million Communist militants were active in 27 developed capitalist countries and in 47 national liberation movements. He predicted the excesses of capitalism would continue to push the historical dialectic in the direction of Communism, as Karl Marx had foretold.

However, he may have been feeling unease as the grip on some of the client states continued to weaken. Suslov was one of only four Politburo members (out of 11) who opposed the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.

An odd occurrence happened in January, 1969. Twenty-two-year-old Viktor Ilyin apparently decided to kill Brezhnev to let Suslov take his place. On January, 22, he fired at Brezhnev’s motorcade as it was driving into the Kremlin’s gate. He succeeded in killing one of the chauffeurs and wounding a cyclist, but Brezhnev escaped. Suslov was never indicted for involvement in the case, although in Stalin’s time, he would have been purged.

In 1970, Suslov made a speech declaring “the general crisis of capitalism” favoured a rapid increase in industrial strikes. He argued that, in 1965, a total of 26 million people went on strike in Western nations, but by 1969 the figure had grown to more than 60 million. And in the ten months up prior to his speech, the total had passed the 63 million mark. He warned the non-Communist nations were doomed to defeat against the increasing impact of subversion and revolution. He also chaired the Politburo meetings in the mid-1970s.

Around that time, a young Mikhail Gorbachev came to the attention of Mikhail Suslov and Yuri Andropov – the two top Politburo members. They brought him to Moscow and took him under their collective wing and got him elected to the Central Committee in 1971. They also arranged foreign trips for their rising star – a rare privilege in the USSR. Gorbachev was appointed a party secretary of agriculture in 1978. He became a candidate member of the Politburo in 1979 and a full member in 1980. Suslov became Gorbachev’s political mentor (in part as a counterbalance to the Brezhnev clique).

In 1975, Brezhnev suffered a stroke that incapacitated him while he recovered. Suslov and Andrey Kirilenko assumed many of his functions until he recovered. Brezhnev never fully got his health back, and Suslov never fully relinquished his control.

Suslov’s last known major political gambit came in 1979 when he prepared a plan to assassinate Pope John Paul II, the Polish Pope elected in 1978. KGB files from the former Communist Czech secret service revealed the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Moscow became greatly alarmed at John Paul II’s election. Because party chief Leonid Brezhnev was terminally ill at that time, Suslov prepared the plan himself. He was evidently deeply concerned that John Paul II could establish close relations with the Russian Orthodox church in the Soviet Union and undermine the regime.

Also in 1979, Suslov encouraged invasion of Afghanistan to overthrow former poster-boy for Communism, Hafizullah Amin, whose bent for modernization was upsetting the conservative religious community in Afghanistan, and replace him with Babrak Karmal – someone Suslov saw as more compliant towards Soviet goals and less likely to cause trouble. But the Afghanis wanted no part of a Soviet puppet regime and war broke out.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, Suslov fought to curb any attempt at moderation by the Polish Communist Party to find a political compromise to social conflict with the Solidarity movement. In 1980, Suslov visited Poland to give a stern warning to the Polish party, and when he returned to Moscow, published a statement in TASS on the danger in the Polish Communist Party of revisionists who sought to “paralyze” the party’s role as “the leading force in society.” That was followed by a letter from the Central Committee to the Polish Communist Party deploring how the Polish Communist Party leadership had surrendered “one position after another to the counter revolution.” In 1981, following a recommendation by a Politburo commission chaired by Suslov, martial law was declared in Poland to suppress the Solidarity movement.

According to Andrei Gromyko, in 1980, Suslov was adamant the USSR had to respond to the pleas for help from the Soviet’s puppet government in Afghanistan, and act in accordance with the Soviet-Afghan treaty to save the government from being overthrown. He convinced Brezhnev troops were required, and Brezhnev convinced the rest of the Politburo. In June, 1980, the Assembly of the Central Committee unanimously approved the decision of the Politburo.

Two days before he died, Suslov maneuvered to protect his boss, Brezhnev, from a political scandal that involved his aging party-girl daughter, Galina Churbanova, and her flamboyant consort, Boris Buryatia (Galina’s high-flying antics while she was married to the Deputy Minister of the Interior were a constant source of embarrassment for Brezhnev). The KGB had traced a theft of diamonds to Boris, who was running a successful diamond-smuggling operation with Galina.

When KGB Gen. Semyon Tsvigun – the number-two man at the KGB, and Brezhnev’s brother-in-law – tried to arrest Boris, Suslov intervened. He confronted Tsvigun and advised him to commit suicide rather than embarrass the Leader. The general shot himself on Jan. 19. Two days later, Suslov suffered a heart attack and died on Jan. 25.

One day later, during Suslov’s state funeral, the KGB arrested Boris. The next day, Yuri Andropov moved into Suslov’s former office.

Mikhail SuslovSuslov’s death was followed by a bitter internecine battle among the aging leaders (the ‘gerontocracy’) who remained. Yuri Andropov, KGB head, secured Suslov’s role as head of Soviet ideology (quickly bumping Konstantin Chernenko from the spot) , using his power to sideline his opponents Kirilenko and Chernenko. Chernenko took over as General Secretary in 1984, when Andropov died, to be succeeded by Gorbachev, in 1985.

Shortly after that, the USSR fell apart and Communism ceased to be a major political or economic power anywhere (even in China, where, although it pays lip service to the name, it has been gradually replaced by a market economy since 1975).

Suslov was perhaps the most powerful man in the USSR and held his power for longer than most of its leaders. He survived – and prospered – in the most competitive, voracious political environment of our time. He played kingmaker, he ruled the administration, he set policy and procedure. Yet despite four decades climbing the Party’s hierarchy few of us in the west even recognize his name.

Surely no modern politician deserves more to be called a Machiavellian. However, despite how the doomed Soviet regime regaled him at his funeral, many of Suslov’s acts are now embarrassments, even seen as criminal, not accomplishments to celebrate.

I first wrote about Mikhail Suslov in early 2005 on my former blog. This post is an updated edition of that earlier piece. This material comes from a variety of printed and online sources, but I have since lost my notes indicating the sources. I have tried to provide links to online sources where I could find them. My printed sources go back to the mid-1980s, however. I apologize to any authors from whom this material was copied without a link or recognition.

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Quintus Cicero’s Letter on Elections Tue, 05 Aug 2014 13:03:04 +0000

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.

Carol Herman, reviewing the book in the Washington Times, notes:

Quintus‘ advice is blunt and to the point. A few of the choicer observations, highlighted by Mr. Freeman in his introduction are: “Make sure you have the backing of your family and friends.” “Surround yourself with the right people.” “Call in all favors.” “Build a wide base of support.” “Promise everything to everybody.” “Communication skills are key.” “Don’t leave town.” “Know the weaknesses of your opponents — and exploit them.” “Flatter voters shamelessly.” “Give people hope.”

You can read some excerpts of Freeman’s book on the Foreign Affairs website. One example is:

…as regards the Roman masses, be sure to put on a good show. Dignified, yes, but full of the color and spectacle that appeals so much to crowds. It also wouldn’t hurt to remind them of what scoundrels your opponents are and to smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, sexual scandals, and corruption they have brought on themselves.

The Latin text can be found here with a translation at the Perseus Library. Fortunately, Freeman’s handy translation is available in book form for those of us who struggle to keep in mind our amo, amas and amat (let alone struggle with Classical Latin) or who simply prefer to read a printed copy.

Freeman writes,

“…idealism and naivete are left by the wayside as Quintus tells his brother — and all of us — how the down-and-dirty business of successful campaigning really works.”

Rome and Roman politics, of course, are not modern, municipal politics, so the reader looking for advice has to keep in mind the two millennia that separate us. However, both Cicero and Machiavelli resonate in today’s political arena. That is made clear in Michael Den Tandt’s article, Rob Ford, Anthony Weiner emblematic of the moral decline of politics, in which he writes of Toronto mayor, Rob Ford’s political situation:

But here’s where the cynical posture misfires, in the context of a Rob Ford. Even Quintus Cicero and Machiavelli, for all their gimlet-eyed pragmatism, held that a politician should at least appear to be good. In other words they advocated deception as an act of persuasion, while still taking as given that successful politicians must be perceived to be truth-tellers, even when they are not.

And Scott McLemee, writing in Inside Higher Ed, commented:

Whoever wrote the document, and for whatever reason, it’s silly to think anyone in the 21st century will read it as a guide for planning a campaign. Somebody who doesn’t already have an instinctive understanding of the points it makes won’t last long enough to become candidate for city council, much less president.
No, its appeal is for the electorate, as a reminder of what we’re up against. Politicians may come and go, and campaigns ebb and flow — but election-year cynicism is forever.

Not all reviewers are complimentary towards Freeman’s translation, however, and some see the letter as a satire rather than advice (intended to amuse, like the Municipal Machiavelli is).

Garry Wills, writing in the New York Times,

The classicist Michael C. Alexander, author of “Trials in the Late Roman Republic” (1990), makes a further and convincing argument in the journal Athenaeum. Since Cicero was often reviled in this period, Alexander argues that the booklet by “Quintus” makes a satirical case that Cicero, for all his pretensions to virtue, had acted vilely. Seen in this light, the letter is a satire not only on Cicero, but on election practices of the Republic (pilloried by men like Plutarch, whose attacks Shakespeare repeated in “Coriolanus”), and a spoof of the whole “advice” genre.

The book makes pseudo-didactic distinctions, breaking things into useless sets of three where nothing is gained by such anti-Ockhamite multiplication of entities. Three types of opponents are listed, for instance, but the response is the same for all three — blunt their hostility with feigned good will. The book reminds me of a satirical essay I read in high school, “How to Pound Sand.” So far as I know, that essay was never compared with “The Prince.”

And Mary Beard, in the New York Review of Books, wrote:

For decades, if not centuries, Quintus Cicero’s advice has been adjusted in English versions to match our own political systems and processes. Freeman’s translation is no different. Even the idea that the politician should give people hope, a cliché of modern media politics, looks different in the original Latin from the modern English. Freeman’s version has: “The most important part of your campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill toward you.” It is, for us, an instantly recognizable thought. But what the original Latin actually says is this: “In seeking election you must take care that the state has a good hope of you, and a good opinion of you”—which is quite different from (indeed the reverse of) the modern idea of bringing hope to the people…
Most reviewers of How to Win an Election have been struck by its modernity… It is, of course, true that we have in some ways learned how to operate our own political system from the Romans. But we have also learned to reconstruct the Roman political system in our own image—which is exactly what Freeman’s How to Win an Election does.

Whether revisionist or realistic, the letter is worth reading today. You can make up your own mind about the validity of its advice, and decide whether it is a self-help guide or a satire.**

* It is also known as De petitione consulatus, or “On Running for the Consulship.” There is no evidence Machiavelli ever read the work. However, Machiavelli likely read the De Officiis - On Duties - by brother, Marcus, for whom this letter of advice was intended.

** I hope in the near future to do a more in-depth comparison of some of Quintus’ advice with similar comments in The Prince.

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Han Fei’s Ten Lessons Thu, 03 Apr 2014 15:47:55 +0000

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.

1. To practice petty loyalty and thereby betray a larger loyalty
Any politician’s larger loyalty must lie not with a small handful of people who helped it or the individual politician get elected, but to the nation, province or municipality at large. That also relate to any political body’s or party’s – and that includes a municipal council’s – greater loyalties.

To be loyal to a special interest group or a coterie of supporters at the expense of the community’s needs will lose the support of the larger community.

2. To fix your eye on a petty gain and thereby lose a larger one.
Scoring short-term political gains against opponents or other parties are minuscule, petty victories. They stand to lose the larger victory gained from creating a cohesive, cooperative, consensual government – or council. The short term gain may be easier to accomplish than the larger gain, but it places the larger gain much further away, if not entirely unreachable.

And more to the point, greater goals require consensus. Councils and other tiers of government are often accused of “block voting” – a term cast in unfavourable light in election campaigns, but often a reality in practice because blocks are required to achieve goals.

To avoid blocks in non-partisan organizations (like municipal councils), one has to avoid creating factions. And to avoid factions, one has to avoid chasing petty and selfish gains and concentrate on the greater good of the community.

3. To behave in a base and willful manner and show no courtesy to the other feudal lords, thereby bringing about your own downfall.

Change feudal lords to staff and fellow politicians, and this line makes itself clear: to act in an autocratic and self-serving manner, to dictate rather than lead, to ignore or show discourtesy to staff will create a sullen, rebellious workforce and subversive colleagues. This will hinder, not work towards your goals.

Staff and bureaucrats are not servants. They deserve respect. They should be asked for advice or comment, not dictated to. And they should never be micro-managed by anyone on council.

And bureaucrats should never, ever be blamed for something a government – or any single politician – initiates.

Civility towards other politicians, even those in other parties, is also a key to developing consensus. You don’t have to compromise political ideas or sell out your goals to be civil.

4. To give no ear to government affairs, but long only for the sound of music, thereby plunging yourself into distress.
Change that to the sound of sycophants, or yes men, and it works nicely. Those outsiders who praise you may not be doing so for altruistic reasons. They may be after something more tangible than just to bask in your presence.

At the same time, those in government who speak, even critically, could be offering better and more sound advice with few if any strings attached, since they have already gained the seat of power.

Greene has a chapter titled, “Never Put Too Much Trust in Friends, Learn How to Use Enemies.” In it he writes,

‘Be wary of friends – they will betray you more quickly, for they are easily aroused to envy. They also become spoiled and tyrannical. But hire a former enemy and he will be more loyal than a friend because he has more to prove. In fact, you have more to fear from friends than from enemies.’

French King Louis XIV (1638-1715) commented,

“Every time I bestow a vacant office, I make a hundred discontented persons and one ingrate.”

Machiavelli wrote,

“Princes, and especially new ones, have found more faith and more usefulness in those men whom, at the beginning of their power they regarded with suspicion, than in those they at first confided in.”

5. To be greedy, perverse and too fond of profit, thereby opening the way to the destruction of the state, and your own demise.
Well, perhaps it’s not always about profit, but rather about not spending: parsimony when largess is called for.

When a government holds the budget reins too tightly and refuses to grant small favours to the many impoverished yet deserving community groups who are requesting support, it loses the support of the people themselves.

What do we gain by withholding $100 or $200, even $1,000 from community groups – except for bad relations and public scorn? The group gains a lot from that paltry sum, and in turn repays the benefactor with respect.

I can remember when a local council refused similar, small requests because they were made “outside the budget process.” That incompassionate view regards process as superior to people. And the people will remember that small, but bitter act of unkindness.

6. To become infatuated with women musicians and disregard state affairs, thereby inviting the disaster of national destruction.
Women musicians provided the aesthetic and cultural background to the Chinese court, but in themselves wielded no power or control. Today it might be the glitter of the office, or the title and attention that comes with moving in higher political circles. It might be the attraction of a position with a larger authority – during or even after a political career. Or just the self-satisfaction of being asked to attend functions in some official role.

Even just to be recognized by a stranger as a politician or member of a council is what drives some people to get involved.

And for some, the sound of their own voices is the sweet music they hear. Or it could be the urging of their friends and family that encourages them to run for office. But those are selfish reasons; not for the greater good.

Politicians all have some ego invested in their role, but we must beware of treating the glitter as the metal itself. We are there to serve, not to marvel at the brightness of our own reflections.

7. To leave the palace for distant travels, despising the remonstrances of your ministers, which leads to grave peril for yourself.
Do not to leave local affairs in the hands of others, and spend too much time focusing on issues outside your own border or jurisdiction. Ministers might be translated as staff, or might be other members of government. Or perhaps distance suggests chasing lofty but unrealistic goals while the day-to-day stuff is overlooked. Too much forest, not enough trees?

In another section (the book titled The Two Handles), Han Fei writes,

“Government reaches to the four quarters, but its source is in the centre…Things have their proper place, talents their proper use… If the ruler tries to excel, then nothing will go right…. He establishes the standard, abides by it, and lets all things settle themselves.”

By which I read that the leader’s – the prime minister’s, the premier’s or the mayor’s – behaviour and actions are the standard for the rest of council. Other politicians abide by the examples the leader sets for us. And if the leader himself or herself does not abide by the rules, then neither will the rest of the politicians.

After all, if the leader breaches rules of conduct – what compels the rest of the politicians to adhere to it, outside their own personal moral compass?

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.
Loyal ministers might be either staff or politicians – who they would be loyal if treated with respect and compromise. Leadership is always an exercise in restraint, in compromise and sharing. When a leader treats it as a divine mandate, or considers himself or herself infallible, autocracy occurs. Revolt and unrest follow.

And Han Fei is clearly saying that when you are at fault, you cannot continue in that direction except at the risk of your reputation.

Reputation is also a chapter Greene’s work: So Much Depends on Reputation – Guard It With Your Life. He says,

“Reputation is the cornerstone of power. Through reputation alone you can intimidate and win; once it slips, however, you are vulnerable and will be attacked on all sides. Make your reputation unassailable. “

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote,

“It is easier to cope with a bad conscience than with a bad reputation.”

In Wielding Power, Han Fei writes,

“In ferreting out evil within the palace and controlling it outside you, you yourself must hold fast to your standards and measurements.”

Standards upheld by the leader are those the rest will see as the path to tread.

9. To take no account of internal strength but rely solely upon your allies abroad, which places the state in grave danger of dismemberment.
Internal strength can be found in government caucus, or in council; the allies abroad are the special interest groups or supporters outside the council, those who hover around in close proximity, trying to influence or steer the government.

Outsiders may advise, but they do not govern. When politicians give them more attention, respect and listen to them more closely than they listen to the other elected members of government, the outsiders soon steer the ship of government. The result is factionalism and Balkanization of goals within the government as outside interests compete for attention.

These ‘allies abroad’ often want more than they have: power, authority, control invested in government. If you are perceived as their ally – or puppet, depending on circumstances – they demand you help get them more of what they demand.

In the book, Facing South, Han Fei writes,

“This is where rulers go wrong: having assigned certain ministers to office, they then try to use unassigned men to check the power of the assigned. They justify this policy by claiming that the interests of the assigned and the unassigned will be mutually inimical, but in fact the rulers find themselves falling under the power of the unassigned.”

Government has to rely on its own ‘inner strength’ – that is to let the elected officials run the country or town. When special interests are thwarted, it often leads to a flurry of angry accusations and self-righteous indignation. A wise politician ignores the noise and carries on.

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.
Civility, respect, courtesy, compromise, compassion – these are things that can bind a person to a leader better and more strongly than force, power, fear or anger. And it’s not just in the leader that these are necessary: for a government, or council, to operate as a group, everyone has to practice them. But they are crucial to the leader if he or she wishes to avoid rebellion fomenting in the ranks.

Spying on other members of government – reading their private emails , for example –  is not a courteous, respectful act. It is a show of distrust, disrespect, suspicion. The head of government’s role should be to create consensus and find compromise, not sow discord and distrust.

Courtesy also needs to be given to higher tiers of government, and to respect the roles of others on the political stages, be it at a municipal or national level.


* Of course, you can’t take always Han Fei simply at face value. As a Legalist he was an opponent of the Confucianists, and discredited their talk of loyalty, compassion and kindness. Han Fei was mostly be in the might-makes-right camp, and would be considered very right wing today. Where Confucianists were moralists who believed humans were basically good and a leader needed a benevolent hand to rule, the Legalists were more pessimistic. They believed people were basically bad, evil or lazy (or all three), and need to be ruled by force and strength. The Legalist approach is similar in many ways to what others have reduced Machiavelli’s dictum to: “the end justifies the means.”

Feeling unappreciated in his homeland, Han Fei left Han, he went to Ch’in (Qin) where he was arrested, To avoid execution, he was convinced to commit suicide. His Legalist doctrine, however, quickly developed a strong following among the expansionist Ch’in Dynasty, which unified China shortly after Han Fei’s death. The Ch’in persecuted the altruistic Confucianists, executing many and destroying their texts.

** The 1939 Liao translation has them thus:

  1. The first is to practise loyalty in small ways, which betrays loyalty in big ways.
  2. The second is to esteem small advantages, which hampers big advantages.
  3. The third is to force personal bias, assert oneself, and behave discourteously before feudal lords, which leads to self-destruction.
  4. The fourth is to neglect political counsels and indulge in the five musical notes, which plunges one into misery.
  5. The fifth is to keep covetous and self-opinionated and rejoice in nothing but gain, which is the root of state-ruin and self-destruction.
  6. The sixth is to indulge in women singers and neglect state affairs, which forecasts the catastrophe of state-ruin.
  7. The seventh is to leave home for distant travels and ignore remonstrances, which is the surest way to endanger one’s august position at home.
  8. The eighth is to commit faults, turn no ear to loyal ministers, and enforce one’s own opinions, which destroys one’s high reputation and causes people to laugh at one.
  9. The ninth is not to consolidate the forces within one’s boundaries but to rely on feudal lords abroad, which causes the country the calamity of dismemberment.
  10. The tenth is to insult big powers despite the smallness of one’s own country and take no advice from remonstrants, which paves the way to the extermination of one’s posterity.

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Machiavelli and the Elizabethans Sun, 16 Mar 2014 22:35:50 +0000

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?

While the treatise is a fascinating work of Tudor politics (as is Gardiner’s life and role in the politically-shifting Tudor reign), it is more interesting to me for its proof that Machiavelli’s works were read in England well before they were translated into English. Or at least before any known translation. The first documented translation of The Discourses was by Edward Dacres, in 1636, followed by his translation of The Prince in 1640. By then, Charles I was on the throne and England braced for civil war. Another Cromwell would read The Prince.

But clearly, Machiavelli was widely known in Elizabeth’s England. His Art or War had been translated into English as early as 1560 (translated by Peter Whitehorne) and the Florentine Histories was translated by Thomas Bedingfield in 1595. How widely read they were is unknown, but neither book has ever had the same popular interest as his two “major” pieces: The Prince and The Discourses.

However, mostly Machiavelli was known through his critics, in particular that of Innocent Gentillet, who published his damning Discours contre Machievel in 1576 (in French). Gentillet was the prime force that made the popular the association of Machiavelli with Satan among Elizabethan dramatists and poets (q.v. Machiavelli and the Elizabethan Drama, by Edward Meyer, 1897). Gentillet was translated into English by Simon Patericke in 1577.

Meyer combed Elizabethan literature and uncovered “no less than 395 references to Machiavelli” but he notes that the maxims attributed to him were “in four cases out of five not to be found in his writings at all, but were all perverted from the same in a manner infinitely unjust.” Hence his attribution of Gentillet’s influence.

As Meyer also points out, there were French translations of The Prince in 1553 and 1586 which reached England, as well as several Latin translations dating from 1560 to 1599. Outside of court circles and some merchants, Italian would not have been a common tongue for the English. Latin, of course, was still used in church services and taught in schools and universities – many scholarly, medical, philosophical and theological works were still written in Latin – but during Elizabeth’s reign, prayer books and church services were done in English.

Meyer suggests there may have been an earlier English translation  of  The Prince “for this most widely read of all Machiavelli’s works would hardly have remained unenglished, when less important works… had been published.” However, this version has never been found. Any reasonably well-educated person in Elizabeth’s time could have read either a Latin or french version, however.

A 1588 criticism of Machiavelli by English scholar and physician, John Case, suggests he was familiar with these works. However, Case commented on his satisfaction they had not yet been translated into the vernacular so English people had not yet been influenced by them. This suggests that no popular version was available, but there may still have been hand-copied translations in circulation.

It is well-established that Machiavelli was known – through his critics, if not necessarily through his own words – by the great Elizabethan dramatists. There are three references to Machiavelli in Shakespeare alone (q.v. this article):

Three of them are in plays of Shakespeare; what is interesting is that two of the three are from the lips of Shakespeare’s greatest Machiavel, Richard III (when he was still Duke of Gloucester):
Alencon! that notorious Machiavel!
It dies, an if it had a thousand lives. (Henry VI, Part I)

I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school. (Henry VI, Part III)

The third reference is by the Host in The Merry Wives of Windsor:
“Am I politic? am I subtle? am I a Machiavel?”

Shakespeare’s image of the Machiavel as (to use his adjectives) “subtle,” “notorious,” and “murderous” was standard-issue Elizabethan. Machiavelli himself was believed to be “a man inspired by the Devil to lead good men to their doom, the great subverter, the teacher of evil, le docteur de la scélératesse, the inspirer of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, the original of Iago” (Isaiah Berlin, The Question of Machiavelli).

But not all despised or ridiculed him. Francis Bacon, the great Elizabethan philosopher and statesman, clearly respected and admired Machiavelli. In De augmentis scientiarum (Book 7, ch. 2, and Book 8, ch. 2), he defended Machiavelli as one who spoke truthfully, rather than with evil intent:

We are much beholden to Machiavelli and other writers of that class, who openly and unfeignedly declare and describe what men do, and not what they ought to do. For it is not possible to join serpentine wisdom with the columbine innocency, except men know exactly all the conditions of the serpent; his baseness and going upon his belly, his volubility and lubricity, his envy and sting, and the rest; that is, all forms and natures of evil.

But while Machiavelli may have been read by others, my question is: did Queen Elizabeth herself read him? I suspect so. She was fluent in French, Italian and Latin, so could have read a copy, had one been found in her father’s library (assuming Mary did not have such heretical books burned).

But is there proof of a copy? Perhaps. Princeton University has a 1532 bound edition of The Prince and The Discourses stamped with a Tudor Rose that has an inscription (apparently written after the fact) that it belonged to Elizabeth. However, tempting as it is to believe, that has not been proven, yet it fits. (q.v. Machiavelli In the British Isles)

Elizabeth did not license The Prince or The Discourses for publication during her reign, although she did allow The Florentine Histories and The Art of War to be printed in England. So she was at least aware of Machiavelli.

My suspicion is fueled by wording in two speeches Elizabeth gave, one in 1576 at the close of Parliament, and the other in 1586 “in answer to a petition from both Houses of Parliament.” I also wonder about a reference in a speech from 1601, her “Golden Speech.” (q.v. Queen Elizabeth I: Selected Works, Folger Library, ed. Stephen May, Washington Square Press, 2004).

While not quotes, they seem (to me) to echo sentiments in The Prince. For her 1576 speech, Elizabeth wrote,

Can a prince, which of necessity discontent a number to delight an please a few, continue so long time without great offence, much mislike, or common grudge? Or haps it oft that princes’ actions are conceived in so good part and favourably interpreted?

In 1586, she wrote (in words that presage modern paparazzi and bloggers),

…we princes, I tell you, are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world duly observed. The eyes of many behold our actions; a spot is soon spied in our garments, a blemish quickly noted in our doings. It behooveth us to be careful that our proceedings be just and honorable.

And in 1601:

Of My selfe I must say this, I never was any greedy scraping grasper, nor a strict fast holding Prince, nor yet a waster. My heart was never set upon any worldly goods, but only for my Subjects good. What you doe bestow on Me, I will not hoard up, but receive it to bestow on you againe; yea Mine owne Properties I account yours to bee expended for your good, and your eyes shall see the bestowing of it for your wellfare… And if my Princely bountie have beene abused, and my Grants turned to the hurt of my People contrary to my will and meaning, or if any in Authoritie under mee have neglected, or converted what I have committed unto them, I hope God they will not lay their culps to my charge.

She also wrote in a speech in 1563:

Since there can be no duer (1) debt than princes’ word, to keep that unspotted for my part, as one that would be loath that the self thing that keepeth merchant’s credit from craze should be the cause that princes’ speeches should merit blame, and so their honor quail; an answer therefore I will make and this it is: the two proceedings that you presented me, in many words expressed, contained these two things: my sortie in marriage, and of your cares the greatest, my succession, of which two the last I think is best be touched, and of the other a silent thought may serve, for I had thought it had been so desired as none other tree’s blossoms should have been minded (2) or hope of my fruit had been denied you.
(1 duer, i.e. “more due”, more befitting.
2 or, unless. Some transcribers change “or” to “ere”, which gives a subtle difference in meaning, but the manuscript clearly reads “or.”)

In several of Elizabeth’s speeches she talks of a prince or princely duty, in the third person, as if she was reading from a text about such matters. Modern interpreters have compared her actions to several Machiavellian themes: the lion and the fox, and how it is better for a leader to be feared than loved. And in her own speeches she echoed Machiavelli’s sentiments that a ruler needs the support of the people; power did not ride from just catering to special interests.

Of course that’s post hoc attribution, but it’s hard not to wonder whether Machiavelli was part of Elizabeth’s political education, given the historical connections from Pole through Cromwell to Gardiner and the dramatists of the later 16th century. Machiavelli was evidently known in Elizabethan England; I like to believe he was part of Elizabeth’s reading as well.

* Pole himself had been in Padua in 1527, where he was likely first introduced to Machiavelli’s ideas. He returned to England and had his conversation with Cromwell. He left to study in Paris, in 1529, where he was asked by Henry VIII to get support from the University of Paris for his divorce, which he claims to have resisted. He returned to Italy again in 1532, the year The Prince was first published. In 1536, Pole wrote a controversial work (published 1539) titled “De Unitate Ecclesiae” (Defense of the Unity of the Church) in which he argued against the divorce of his king, Henry VIII and launched a scathing attack on Henry’s policies. (q.v. this translation of the Defense)

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Re-thinking Machiavelli’s dedication Tue, 07 Jan 2014 14:37:40 +0000

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.

And then from this site the (public domain) Marriott translation:

To the Magnificent Lorenzo Di Piero De’ Medici:

Those who strive to obtain the good graces of a prince are accustomed to come before him with such things as they hold most precious, or in which they see him take most delight; whence one often sees horses, arms, cloth of gold, precious stones, and similar ornaments presented to princes, worthy of their greatness.

Desiring therefore to present myself to your Magnificence with some testimony of my devotion towards you, I have not found among my possessions anything which I hold more dear than, or value so much as, the knowledge of the actions of great men, acquired by long experience in contemporary affairs, and a continual study of antiquity; which, having reflected upon it with great and prolonged diligence, I now send, digested into a little volume, to your Magnificence.

And although I may consider this work unworthy of your countenance, nevertheless I trust much to your benignity that it may be acceptable, seeing that it is not possible for me to make a better gift than to offer you the opportunity of understanding in the shortest time all that I have learnt in so many years, and with so many troubles and dangers; which work I have not embellished with swelling or magnificent words, nor stuffed with rounded periods, nor with any extrinsic allurements or adornments whatever, with which so many are accustomed to embellish their works; for I have wished either that no honour should be given it, or else that the truth of the matter and the weightiness of the theme shall make it acceptable.

Nor do I hold with those who regard it as a presumption if a man of low and humble condition dare to discuss and settle the concerns of princes; because, just as those who draw landscapes place themselves below in the plain to contemplate the nature of the mountains and of lofty places, and in order to contemplate the plains place themselves upon high mountains, even so to understand the nature of the people it needs to be a prince, and to understand that if princes it needs to be of the people.

Take then, your Magnificence, this little gift in the spirit in which I send it; wherein, if it be diligently read and considered by you, you will learn my extreme desire that you should attain that greatness which fortune and your other attributes promise. And if your Magnificence from the summit of your greatness will sometimes turn your eyes to these lower regions, you will see how unmeritedly I suffer a great and continued malignity of fortune.

With Vatter’s comments in mind, I will look further into the dedication and interpretations of it this winter. I plan to add a new chapter to my Municipal Machiavelli on the dedication within a few weeks, explaining how it serves the general theme of municipal governance.

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New Machiavelli book on the shelves Sun, 22 Dec 2013 16:52:10 +0000

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. 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.

Vatter makes some salient points about politics and governance in Machiavelli’s view, when he writes about,

“…the other belief of the Renaissance, namely that what call “the state” is itself a work of art, a technical achievement, and not the name for an “ethical” or “moral” way of being together with others, as the ancients understood it. Art or craft is a function of two things: luck, or the contingency of one’s situation, and virtue, the capacity to make something out of that situation.”

State as art: hence the term statecraft. Vatter writes that Machiavelli was the first to treat the creation and development of the state as as empirical science, “where rules are hypotheses that need to be falsified or verified by experiment, by contrasting them with test cases to see where they can fail, or to see where and why previous rules fail and other hypotheses emerge.”

As a municipal politician, I am keenly aware that any “state” is the product of human activity that changes according to both circumstance and the ability of its leaders to manage circumstances: their “virtue,” or capacity. Machiavelli used the word “virtu” many times throughout The Prince; a term that is open to many interpretations and has itself been the subject of books and scholarly articles (see my bibliography).

In all political levels, including municipal, there’s always a process of experimentation. In every council I have covered, in every one I’ve served on, there’s always a “first time” event where something arises that has not arisen in that form previously.

Conservative politicians fall back on old and tried approaches; eschew novelty and avoid challenge. Bold, forward-thinking politicians take an untried approach. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. What matters is that we try. You reach for the brass ring, not hide from it.

A good politician, as Machiavelli knew, takes risks by travelling along the path not trodden: experimentation is a necessary part of the process, not something to avoid, to shun. Boldness sparks innovation, change, improvement and eventually accomplishment. Politicians afraid to walk outside the known paths, afraid to try new ideas, new processes or explore new directions, are not good for their constituents.  They are merely placeholders for better ones to come later; rubber stamps for the status quo

Vatter is the first author I have read who says Machiavelli was deeply influenced by the rediscovery of Lucretius’ (Titus Lucretius Carus) poem, On Nature. Historian Stephen Greenblatt has written an entire book  – The Swerve – on the impact of On Nature (also called On the Nature of Things) to the Renaissance development of humanism. I also picked that book up on the weekend.*

At the end of several chapters, Vatter throws in some “study questions” aimed at engaging readers (and students) to further debate Machiavelli’s work and its context.

I am still reading the book, but based on what I have read, I would recommend it highly to any reader interested in modern politics and Machiavelli.


Other authors may have mentioned Lucretius, but until I read Vatter, I did not notice the reference nor was aware of his importance to Machiavelli. Because I have not read it, I feel compelled to obtain a copy of the poem and study it further.

Machiavelli’s attitude towards the church and Christianity was also apparently influenced by reading The Golden Ass (also known simply as The Ass and The Metamorphoses) by Apuleius, according to this reviewer. Without mentioning Apuleius, Haggman argues similarly that Machiavelli had discrete views pertaining to his concept of “virtu” based on religious perspectives:

Machiavelli believed that there could be a pagan virtue, which was a public virtue, and a Judeo-Christian virtue, mostly a private virtue. Deception was allowed for the well-being of the state.

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How to Read the Municipal Machiavelli Wed, 29 May 2013 11:17:00 +0000

This site is designed to provide two things: my rewrite of and comments on Machiavelli’s 1513 book, The Prince, and to provide space for recent posts and essays about topics related to Machiavelli and his position in politics, society and on the internet today.

My book was written in mid-2012, intended for publication. I have, however, not found a publisher yet, so I wanted to make the work available to readers who have an interest in Machiavelli and interpretations of his works.

The book is linked through the menus above, grouped by chapters that parallel the chapters in The Prince itself. Each chapter has its own page. Another menu includes the main appendices and addenda, including my bibliography. The “Misc” menu includes essays I wrote about Machiavelli, mostly after I wrote the book.

The posts below are shorter pieces written as I continue my research online and find issues I believe are relevant to understanding Machiavelli, renaissance politics, modern issues and the problems of translating from other languages.

This summer I expect to produce an e-book version for sale on iTunes and other online sites. For my biography and to read my other posts on issues not related to Machiavelli, please see my blog.




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