Tim Parks translates The Prince

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

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

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

Not that Marriott’s version is per se wrong: merely outdated and somewhat florid by today’s literary standards.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are the ten faults:

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

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

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Chanakya: The Indian Machiavelli

ChanakyaChanakya has been called the “Indian Machiavelli” because his writings have a political pragmatism similar to that seen in Machiavelli’s own work. He has also been called “Kingmaker” because, as one book description notes,

Striving to make Chandragupta`s position secure in an unstable and dangerous time, Chanakya championed a policy of realpolitik. He deployed a large network of spies, ensured testing for the king`s food and shelter; averted disasters through keen detection like that of ants carrying rice through cracks in flooring. He was not averse to spreading rumors to win over an opponent to the king`s side. Behind all this was the burning desire to stir the country`s ruler to sweep away the vestiges of Greek rule that remained behind Alexander`s invasion and return from India.

According to Wikipedia, Chanakya lived c. 370–283 BCE and was an Indian teacher, philosopher and royal advisor to the first Maurya emperor Chandragupta. He was also “a professor of economics and political science at the ancient Takshashila University.”

Chanakya played an important role in the rise of the Maurya Empire,  which ruled most of the Indian subcontinent. Chanakya was chief advisor to both Chandragupta and his son Bindusara.

Chanakya is traditionally identified by two other names: Kautilya and Vishnu Gupta. In the 4th century BCE, he wrote the ancient Indian political treatise called Arthashastra. This has been variously translated as “science of politics… to help a king in “the acquisition and protection of the earth,” “treatise on polity,” “science of material gain,” “science of polity,” and “science of political economy.” You can read it in several places, including here (PDF version here).

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