Niccolò Machiavelli only mentions Lucius Aelius Sejanus (aka Sejanus; 20 BCE – CE 31) once in his works: in a single paragraph found in his Discourses, Book III, Chapter VI—Of Conspiracies. Even then, Machiavelli only mentions him in passing in a very short list of conspirators (trans. Marriott, emphasis added):
We see, however, that the great majority of conspirators have been persons of position and the familiars of their prince, and that their plots have been as often the consequence of excessive indulgence as of excessive injury; as when Perennius conspired against Commodus, Plautianus against Severus, and Sejanus against Tiberius; all of whom had been raised by their masters to such wealth, honours, and dignities, that nothing seemed wanting to their authority save the imperial name. That they might not lack this also, they fell to conspiring against their prince; but in every instance their conspiracies had the end which their ingratitude deserved.
This oversight surprises me because the life and actions of Sejanus seem a rich topic for Machiavelli to have elaborated on, especially in his chapter on conspiracies. Yet Machiavelli has no more to say about the second-in-command under the Roman emperor Tiberius who came within throwing distance of overthrowing the emperor. Sejanus was a master conspirator until, of course, his final, failed gamble. But he came so very close to winning.
Niccolo Machiavelli and Michel de Montaigne never met, nor could they have — Machiavelli died six years before Montaigne was born, and they lived about 1,200 km (800 miles) apart — but imagine the conversations they could have had if they had lived at the same time and close enough to visit one another, to have dinner together.
Imagine the hard-nosed philosopher of the body politic and the curious philosopher of inner space, together, discussing humankind, discussing ways of living, ways of governing, discussing the classics, faith, duty, laws, and, of course, their writing. One a middle-class republican, the other the scion of minor nobility in an absolute monarchy, but both keenly aware of events and issues around them, and both skeptical about power and faith, both with personal experience in government and war.
There are scholars and readers who have suggested Machiavelli wrote The Prince as a satire, along the lines of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. That he was pointing out how leaders should not behave, a sort of tongue-in-cheek work.
As early as 1958, Gerald Mattingly wrote an article suggesting this in The American Scholar, Autumn edition. More recently, Erica Benner has also raised this idea*. It makes a sort of sense, since in many ways the advice in The Prince contradicts pretty much everything else Machiavelli wrote. And in his plays and poetry, Machiavelli certainly wrote a lot of satire.
Some have suggested that he was using irony, identifying the worst methods and tactics in the hope that tyrants who should follow his advice would get into trouble in their kingdoms. That their rule would implode as the people rose up against their repression. Sic semper tyrannis, as Plutarch has Brutus saying as he stabbed Caesar.
Perhaps he hoped that the young and feckless Lorenzo de Medici, Florence’s ruler to whom Machiavelli dedicated his book, would take his advice and thus bring about the end of Medici rule in that city. the republic would return to Florence. After all, it was because of the re-appearance of this family that Machiavelli had lost his job after 14 years. And he was imprisoned and tortured following the Medici return. It would be fitting revenge, some suggest. And it might get Machiavelli a republican job again.
Or perhaps he was writing a cunning satire on the popular “mirror for princes” book, a burlesque that subtly made jest of the prim, sanctimonious Christian morality that filled those works. He knew from his close relation to the Church and the Borgia pope was corrupt. By mocking the lessons in Christian morality he was mocking the church’s hypocrisy.
I don’t think so.
Machiavelli was above all a realist. He was also a historian and a keen observer of human behaviour. He knew what trouble could arise from the overthrow of the current ruler. Better the devil you know, I imagine him thinking. Continue reading “Machiavelli’s Prince as satire”
My first read/edit of The Municipal Machiavelli and its makeover into Machiavelli for Mayors is almost finished. I have to read through a couple of appendices and the bibliography to complete that phase. It’s just shy of 78,000 words at present. I have been contemplating reducing it to around 75,000 by removing a couple of the appendices (they will still be available online).
After that is done, I will do a second read looking for some specific items, and a final spell check. Then I will format it for production – a PDF and an ebook. I’ve used Word for the writing but will use QuarkXpress for the layout and formatting. After that, I have to consider options for releasing it online. I will likely consider both iTunes and Amazon. Any recommendations or suggestions about ebook production and publication will be appreciated.
I have two recently published books about Machiavelli on order (Viroli’s The Quotable Machiavelli and Benner’s Be the Fox) but I don’t expect either to provide any significant changes or updates to my text.
I have also been reading translations of Xenophon’s Cyropedia (The Education of Cyrus) and Herodotus’ The Histories. I have been thinking of adding one or two relevant quotations from them to the text to reinforce a couple of points. But I’m still iffy about that. It’s probably long enough, and with sufficient cross-references as is.
There’s a famous story about Caterina, the Countess of Sforza, told by Machiavelli in Chapter III of The Discourses. He tells a thinner, less explicit version in Chapter VII of The Florentine Histories. It’s known to historians of the period and place as the “skirt-raising incident.” The story would be repeated by other, later writers such as Francesco Serdonati in his 1596 book, Vite de cinque donne illustri italiene, in a biography by Fabio Oliva and again by Traiano Boccalini in 1612.*
Some conspirators of Forli killed the Count Girolamo, their lord, and took his wife and children, who were of tender age, prisoners. Believing, however, that they could not be secure if they did not obtain possession of the castle, which the castellan refused to surrender, the Lady Catharine, as the Countess was called, promised to the conspirators to procure its surrender if they would allow her to enter it, leaving them her children as hostages. Upon this pledge the conspirators consented to let her enter the castle; but no sooner was she within than she reproached them for the murder of the Count, and threatened them with every kind of vengeance. And to prove to them that she cared not for her children, she pointed to her sexual parts, calling out to them that she had wherewith to have more children. Thus the conspirators discovered their error too late, and suffered the penalty of their imprudence in perpetual exile.
It’s part of a longer story about Caterina and the Sforza family and their relationship with the town of Forli that is woven through The Discourses (and mentioned albeit without detail or this incident in The Prince.) Machiavelli appears to have been the first writer to change what was likely a gesture of defiance into a skirt raising, bringing sexual politics into the event.
Machiavelli’s original source was possibly at letter from Giovanni Corbizzi, one of Lorenzo de Medici’s correspondents, written in spring, 1488, at the same time the events were happening. Other contemporary records have similar reports of Caterina’s defiance and challenge, although none have the skirt raising until after Machiavelli.
But we know from several sources of the era that the bare bones of the story – Caterina’s feckless husband was assassinated by residents of Forli, she, her children and other family members were captured, and she convinced them to let her into the family castle to “negotiate” surrender with its loyal defenders, but once inside shouted her defiance from the ramparts and swore vengeance.
In an account from 1498, Leone Cobelli says she made “four figs” at them – the fig being a hand gesture equivalent to the “bird” or upraised middle finger of today. That might be considered obscene, but it is a far cry from raising your skirts to show your genitalia. Did Machiavelli invent the event or simply embroider it, taking his cue from historical sources?
And what about the contemporary records that say Caterina claimed from the ramparts that she was pregnant – carrying the heir who would rain vengeance upon the conspirators if they harmed her children? Or her claims she had her eldest child safely in the hands of a loyal ally who would carry out her revenge? Or that once in the castle, she had the bombards turned towards the town and threatened to level it if they harmed the children? Machiavelli doesn’t mention these, although other sources do, some of which were written during the events.
Is 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. Continue reading “Tim Parks translates The Prince”
Whilst perusing the Net for some material for my book on Machiavelli, some time back, I came across this maxim: “Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.”
It’s attributed on many, many sites to Machiavelli in his most famous work, The Prince.
Sounds pretty Machiavellian, doesn’t it?
Well, it isn’t. Machiavelli never wrote those words.
Sun Tzu wrote that, “All warfare is based on deception.” (Book 1, 18), which is close. Sun Tzu went on to add in the next two lines (19 and 20),
Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.
In The Art of War, Book 4, Machiavelli wrote, “It may also be well to do with cunning that which happened to Fabius Maximus at home,” which follows with the example of Fabius’ cunning use of cavalry to beguile an enemy encampment.
Sometime in the next two weeks, I will be amalgamating servers for the several sites I manage and conflating them onto one, new and (I hope) faster and more efficient server. There may be some downtime while the files and databases migrate, like virtual birds, to their new home.
I hope that the digital gods of server migration allow my moves to go smoothly. I would sacrifice a virtual dove to propitiate them, if I could only find their virtual altar… would that I were the digital Odysseus…
For most users, it will, I expect, be but a momentary blip in the service, a temporary lapse of rant soon reconstructed. No more than a couple of hours of downtime while the ether is busy with transient bytes flitting hither and yon. My biggest concern is the Blue Agave forum which operates on an Invision system… the transition to the current servers wasn’t all that smooth when I moved a few years back. But we’ll see how it evolves… I might need the aid of Invision’s tech team, too…. but that should not concern you.
If things don’t go smoothly, and it takes longer than expected, it may be the result my clumsy handling of the tools (while still technically inclined, my edge has, I admit, lost some of its crispness as I age). Or it may be some deeper, larger problem that requires tech support to save me from myself and the quicksand of SQL content.
I can migrate the static files easily enough, but depend somewhat on online tools to make the transition for the blog and WordPress databases. And then there’s all that PHP stuff…
Anyway, things may appear and disappear, and off error pages emerge, but take heart that I am not vanished from the network, merely taking the high road to the deep north, as Basho did, but of course virtually, and expecting to return momentarily. Should my site appear gone, take heart that it has not shuffled off this mortal coil, but merely retired momentarily to a far, far better place…. and will reappear when the digital stars align.
Refresh, refresh, refresh and return and it will all be made clear. I hope. If not…. well, I can always start afresh.
A recent article in the Catholic Journal by William Borst suggests Machiavelli was “(m)ost likely an undeclared atheist…” but the author gives no reference from Machiavelli’s works for this statement. I would argue that, while he may have been critical of church politics at times, he carefully did not express any solid statements about faith that allow us to label him in any way as either believer or atheist.
He certainly wrote about secular topics, politics and war in particular; in The Prince he separates theology from politics, by not putting the Christian stamp on his advice and referring back to scripture for his authority. His prince does not manage by the grace of God but by the realities required by pragmatic politics. It could even be called situational ethics. But was that being an atheist? Not by the standards of his time.
First, it’s important to appreciate that atheism as we understand it today is a relatively modern perspective on religion. During the Renaissance and the later Reformation, the term atheist was applied to people who challenged church doctrine, dogmas or politics: that taking a stance against previously accepted wisdom or presenting natural law instead of divine law, was godless or denied God’s involvement. It did not mean a lack of belief in God; that sense comes later, in the late 18th century. Most of those accused of atheism in the 16th and 17th centuries were still believers in God, but not in all human interpretations of the divine or its will.
Calling Machiavelli an atheist today is an example of presentism: “…in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past.” As I read him, Machiavelli knew far too much about church politics and history – some of it from personal experience – to be anything but cynical towards the divinity of either.*
Don MacDonald’s historically-accurate graphic novel about Machiavelli has finally been released and can be purchased though his website. He describes it as a ” …historically accurate graphic novel; hand drawn, hand painted and set in Renaissance Florence.”
If you’ve followed the story on MacDonald’s blog, and seen the artwork, you’ll know his engaging style and storytelling. It’s a great addition to the literature about the Florentine political philosopher, and I hope it will make Machiavelli accessible to a new audience. And, perhaps, help clarify who Niccolo really was.
MacDonald gave a TED talk about his interest in Machiavelli and you can read a transcript or watch the video on his own website. In that talk, he says Machiavelli was not particularly Machiavellian in the modern, pejorative sense of the word:
…in popular depictions of Machiavelli, like The Borgias on TV, the old caricature persists. Machiavelli is portrayed as a paragon of his own adjective, always in the shadows, ready to whisper the some sort of dark advice into the ear of power. But Machiavelli was not particularly Machiavellian, actually.
It’s a good talk and worth reading. I recommend both the book and his website to all my readers.