Monday, May 3, 2004

Daily Dose of Sanity

Thanks to the gentle urging of my Faithful Correspondent, I have added the link to Minnesota Public Radio’s Writer’s Almanac hosted by Garrison Keillor. This link provides the narrative to this daily radio program that acknowledges the birthdates of famous (and not-so-famous) writers, and concludes with a poem. It is an oasis of calm and literacy in a day of tumult and stress.

Today, by the way, would have been William Inge’s 90th birthday. You’ve heard of Inge, haven’t you? I understand there’s a festival or something somewhere that honors him…

And it’s also another famous writer’s birthdate:

It’s the birthday of Niccolo Machiavelli, born in Florence, Italy (1469). He was a prominent statesman, but in 1512 he was accused of conspiring against the government. Florence had just fallen into the hands of the Medicis, and Machiavelli was seen as a threat to their rule. He was tortured and imprisoned for three weeks, and then sent into exile. He went to live on his family farm and began writing a pamphlet to try to gain the favor of the Medici family. That pamphlet became his masterpiece, The Prince (1532), which is full of practical advice on how rulers can stay in power. Among other things, he advocated killing potential rebels, and said that it’s better to be feared than to be loved.

Machiavelli has never had a good reputation. Shakespeare referred to him as “Murderous Machiavel,” and others in the sixteenth century called him “Old Nick,” a nickname for Satan. In 1827, poet and philosopher Lord Macaulay wrote that he doubted “whether any name in literary history be so generally odious.” Twentieth-century philosopher Bertrand Russell called The Prince “a handbook for gangsters.” Some people say Machiavelli was a big influence on dictators like Hitler and Stalin. Today, the word “Machiavellian” has come to mean “marked by cunning, duplicity or bad faith.”

Machiavelli’s main point in The Prince is that the most important task for a ruler is to keep his country secure and peaceful, using whatever means possible. Sometimes, this means doing things that most people would consider immoral, but Machiavelli said that that’s just part of the job.

He was cynical about human nature: he argued that it was natural for most people to be selfish, and so a great ruler has to accept that he lives in an immoral world. He wrote, “A man who might want to make a show of goodness in all things necessarily comes to ruin among so many who are not good. Because of this it is necessary for a prince, wanting to maintain himself, to learn how to be able to be not good and to use this and not use it according to necessity.”

He also argued that most people value their property more than the lives of their friends and family, and so in some situations it’s okay for rulers to kill their citizens, but it’s almost never okay to take away their property. He wrote, “Men must be either pampered or crushed, because they can get revenge for small injuries, but not for grievous ones. So any injury a prince does a man should be of a kind where there is no fear of revenge.”

Despite Machiavelli’s hopes, The Prince didn’t win over the Medicis. A few years later, a new republic was established in Italy, but his name had already become so associated with evil and violence that he wasn’t able to get another government job for the rest of his life. He wrote two more books, and died in 1527.

Does Old Nick sound like anyone we know…?