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Machiavelli and Xenophon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Machiavelli book on the shelves

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

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

Bloomsbury.com describes the book as:

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

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

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

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More thoughts on translating Machiavelli

NY Times Review of BooksTim Parks, one of the most recent translators of Machiavelli’s The Prince (this is one of my personal favourites), has recently had an article published in the NY Times Review of Books. Parks’ piece is called “Reading it Wrong,” and it’s about the difficult nature of translating a foreign language in a way that both resonates with the reader and retains the sense of the original.

Parks is mostly discussing how Italian translations of English works have changed the way Italian readers see those works, in part because of small editorial decisions and the perceptions of the translators. But he also discusses what happens in the translations of Italian into English.

I quote his comment at length because it speaks to one of the chapters I wrote here about how translators have created an impression of Machiavelli based on how they handled certain key words and sentences.

Interestingly, exactly the opposite occurs with Machiavelli in English. Again expectation is everything and Machiavelli is celebrated of course for being Machiavellian. Received opinion must not shift. So when having considered the downfall of his hero and model, the ruthless Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli rather ruefully writes: “Raccolte io adunque tutte le azioni del duca, non saprei riprenderlo.” (Literally: “Having gathered then all the actions of the duke, I would not know how to reproach him.”) The translator George Bull gives, “So having summed up all that the duke did, I cannot possibly censure him.” Here the word “censure” has a strong moral connotation, made stronger still by the introduction of “cannot possibly,” which is not there in the Italian. In line with the author’s reputation for cynicism, Bull has Machiavelli insist that he has no moral objections to anything Cesare Borgia did. Actually, Machiavelli simply says Borgia didn’t make any big mistakes. The true scandal of Machiavelli is that he never considers moral criteria at all—he doesn’t feel they are applicable to a politician fighting for survival. But it is easier for us to think of an evil Machiavelli than a lucid thinker deciding that good and evil do not come into it.

In other words, the morality of the translators impresses itself on the translation and has coloured the way readers and audiences have perceived The Prince for generations. I suggest that more people are familiar with the moral “sense” of Machiavelli as portrayed by these translators than with his actual works.

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Enhancing my interpretation of Machiavelli

Since I first wrote my book reinterpreting Machiavelli’s The Prince for municipal politicians, I have been reading the works of other writers, and adding quotations from them to my chapters to further buttress my interpretation of Machiavelli’s words. These recently have included William Shakespeare and Francis Bacon, among others.

I recently turned to reading Balthasar Gracian for his words from The Art of Worldly Wisdom. Gracian’s 1647 book of 300 aphorisms is not specifically meant for leaders, but rather is advice and observations for the middle-to-upper classes and professionals of his day. He writes on behaviour, attitude, leadership, friendship, gossip, wisdom and more. There are some elements of faith in it, but it is not a religious or moralizing book, and not specifically political.

Some of it, however, complements Machiavelli’s words quite well, and I am assembling a selection of aphorisms to add to this book. Gracian’s book has had many appreciative fans since it was first published, and a recent translation by Christopher Maurer was a bestseller a few years back.

Despite its age, much of what Gracian says is common sense and still applicable today. I recently posted a blog piece, listing several of his aphorisms that I felt were worth weighing when pondering local issues and social media threads. With 300 of these aphorisms, it is, of course, possible to pick something that would be applicable in almost any situation.

Gracian, however, was not a fan of Machiavelli.He was an ordained Jesuit priest and would probably have found Machiavelli’s comments about separating the church from the state offensive. Machiavelli’s distinction between morality and politics would also have run counter to Gracian’s Catholic education.

Balthasar wrote an earlier book, The Hero, which was a response to The Prince, and offers a more moralistic guide to behaviour for leaders, with less emphasis on governing a state and acquiring power.During this period, there were other Spanish authors who wrote counterpoints to Machiavelli and similar guides, as this essay notes. The author, Angelo J. Di Salvo, writes,

The Spanish guides are most probably a product of the conflict between Medieval and Renaissance political, economic and religious conditions, and, in particular, they were mostly produced as a reaction to Machiavelli’s ragion di stato. The writers of these works also offered their solutions to the abuses as well as the corruption of the modern European states. These works were written by humanists, royal counselors, former soldiers, writers of religious literature, and authors of secular literature such as Gracián and Quevedo. First and foremost, they promote the concept of the prince as the representative and upholder of Roman Catholicism. Several treatises combine the concept of the ideal Christian prince with the practical advice garnered through the writer’s own experiences in court and in the battlefield. As a rule, these guides support the ideal of a prince who will embody and reflect the Christian virtues, and, thus, enable him to be a model for his subjects. In this capacity, he/she may direct the reform of Christian society.

The difficulty to collating other writers with Machiavelli is that political and social conditions in their countries were, for the most part, greatly different from Machiavelli’s Italy.Often there are no direct parallels between situations.

In England and Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, strong monarchs governed a cohesive and relatively stable state, and were not under attack by external forces. In both, as well, the relationship with the church and religion were quite different than among the city states of Italy (where the Pope fielded armies). Finally, Spain was one of the military contenders in Italy for ownership of some of these states, and Spanish writers and leaders had a vested interest in contradicting Machiavelli’s call for an Italy united against the “barbarian” invaders.

Political conditions in Spain, however, were very different from those in Italy. First, the nation had been united by what Spaniards and Machiavelli himself considered to be model princes, Ferdinand and Isabell; second, the monarchy and the Church consolidated their power and influence with the introduction of the Inquisition; third, there was no internal strife in Spain except for that represented by the Moriscos; fourth, foreign powers did not vie for control of Spain as was the case in Italy. Another model prince, Charles V, increased the power of the monarchy and expanded its empire. In addition, Machiavelli’s political theories threatened Spain’s hegemony in Italy.

Despite the differences and the antagonism, there are often remarkably similar words of advice in these authors, although sometimes cloaked in moralizing. My task is to select which fit, rather than trying to force them. I hope to post some of Gracian’s most relevant aphorisms within this work, in the next a week.

In Christopher Maurer’s book, A Pocket Mirror for Heroes (which includes content from The Hero and other works by Gracian), Balthasar is quoted as saying The Prince was better suited for governing “a stable than a state.” I’d like to read more about Gracian’s thoughts on Machiavelli. He seems to have been part of a general anti-Machiavellian movement among Catholic writers of the time, but it is also part of the dialectics where arguments were presented in classical rhetorical form.

Renaissance political ideas penetrated to a large extent the political thought of the Catholic Reform and this Antimachiavellism resulted from the widespread triumph of Machiavelli’s ideas in Western Europe.

It’s an interesting comment that Machiavelli’s ideas triumphed in Western political thought despite what seems to have been a concerted and aggressive assault on them by writes in numerous nations. I will have to pursue that line of thought some time.

Gracian would also write El político Don Fernando el Católico in 1646, a book specifically about governing, dedicated to his ruler, King Ferdinand. It was a more direct counterpoint to Machiavelli. However, I have not found an English translation, and while I have found Spanish editions, my own my Spanish is not competent to tackle something that complex and that old. If anyone has an English translation or can point me to one online, please contact me.

I continue to read books about Machiavelli, about reactions to his works, and about that historical period in general. I will no doubt find more to add to this work (and will list major sources in the bibliography). I recently added one of Machiavelli’s most important letters to a page here, and am working on another page about Machiavelli’s use of rhetoric in making his arguments. This might take a while to complete, because there is much to read, and I was not schooled in rhetoric or oratory, so I have to educate myself further in these fields.

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