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Saturday morning quotes 8.33: Plague & Justice

January 15, 2022

We check in with the voluminous writings of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527), famous poet and astute advisor to the ambitious and powerful over the past 500 years. Machiavelli was also the lyricist for one of our favorite madrigals by Philippe Verdelot (c. 1480 – 1530) which was arranged for solo voice and lute by Adrian Willaert (c. 1490 – 1562), so we feel his observations on effective governance fit well into a blog that focuses on music and cultural history of the 16th century.

Machiavelli’s work has been taken out of context for centuries to the point that his name has morphed into an unpleasant adjective, Machiavellian, that essentially means not-so-nice. One online dictionary lists the following synonyms for “Machiavellian”: cutthroat, immoral, unconscionable, unethical, unprincipled, unscrupulous. But Machiavelli the man, the poet and the philosopher did indeed have principles, and held the abstract concept of justice in very high esteem as an essential ideal.

“…What is most pernicious is to see how the promoters and princes of parties give decent appearance to their intention and their end with a pious word; for always, although they are all enemies of freedom, they oppress it under color of defending the state either of the best or of the people. For the prize they desire to gain by victory is not the glory of having liberated the city but the satisfaction of having overcome others and having usurped the principality of the city. Having been led to this point, there is nothing so unjust, so cruel, or mean that they do not dare to do it.”
– Niccolò Machiavelli, Florentine Histories, Book III, Ch. 5.

For all the lip-service given to Machiavelli by proponents of unrestrained self-interest, at least Machiavelli recognized the importance of studying historical examples as a means to inform those who would govern equitably in the present age by avoiding grave mistakes made in the past.

“Machiavelli does not see history as irrelevant to political problem-solving. He approaches political problems through history because he sees a clear historical understanding of present problems as a sine qua non for finding well-considered solutions. And since different parties start from their own partial and partisan views of a conflict’s history, anyone who hopes to persuade them to adopt a wider view must start by showing what is wrong with their narrower ones.”
Erica Benner, Machiavelli’s Ethics, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2010, p. 306 – 307.

Machiavelli is remembered for his Il Principe, which offered advice to his (current) monarch on how to both attain and maintain power in an environment of constant upheaval. Dynastic rule was the order of the day, and democracies were viewed with great suspicion. Even in the best of modern democracies, the two-party system amounts to dynastic rule justified by tradition.

“Now, the maintenance of autocratic rule in dynastic monarchies is a far easier business than it is in the newly established. All that is needed is the avoidance of a breach with tradition in institutions, and opportunism in the face of events. A ruler of quite mediocre sagacity can usually cling to his throne, unless some outside and overwhelming force displace him, and even if he is displaced, a reverse to the intruding victor will generally lead to his restoration.”
– Niccolò Machiavelli, Il Principe, 1513.

You the reader can choose to absorb these words and meditate on their relevance today. Or you can choose to escape to the world of 16th-century nymphs and shepherds by checking out the song by Machiavelli/Verdelot/Willaert, and just enjoying life. But please keep your eyes and minds open and observe the unjust, cruel, and mean measures taken by those in power as they make the Machiavellian most of the plague.

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