Machiavelli’s Relevance

I always enjoyed teaching a graduate course in business ethics which was required for the M.B.A. our university offered. It was usually filled with people who were “out there” in the “real” world working hard to better themselves; they were hoping the M.B.A. would give them a leg up. These were older, experienced students who drew on multiple experiences and were sure to have important and interesting things to say. One of the things I did each semester was to require that each student pick a book from a list, read and critique it, and present their results to the class as a whole. One of the books was Machiavelli’s The Prince. Strange choice, some would say. But, aside from the obvious parallels with today’s politics, the students were amazed at the relevance of that book to the world they were becoming increasingly familiar with, the world of business.

Accordingly, I thought it might be worth putting down here a few of the more pithy comments Machiavelli wrote and ask the reader whether or not he or she agrees that Machiavelli, like any great thinker, had things to say that are still pertinent today. First, a comment from Machiavelli’s Discourses on Titus Livius to set the tone:

“I believe it to be most true that it seldom happens that men rise from low condition to high rank without employing either force or fraud., unless that rank should be attained either by gift or inheritance.”

Now, from the more popular Prince:

“. . .there is such a great difference between the way we really live and the way we ought to live that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal will learn to accomplish his ruin, not his salvation. Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good.”

” . . .to be feared is much safer than to be loved. For it is a good general rule about men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, fearful of danger and greedy for gain.  . . . since men love at their own inclination but can be made to fear at the inclination of the prince, a shrewd prince will lay his foundations on what is under his own control, not on what is controlled by others.”

“. . .those princes have accomplished most who paid little heed to keeping their promises, but who knew how to manipulate the minds of men craftily. In the end they won out over those who tried to act honestly.”

“. . .you must be great liar and hypocrite. Men are so simple of mind, and so much dominated by their immediate needs, that a deceitful man will always find plenty who are ready to be deceived.”

“Nothing is more necessary than to seem to have . . .  virtue. Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see but few can test by feeling. Everyone sees what you seem to be, but few know what you really are . . .  I will venture to say that when you have [the virtues] and exercise them all the time, they are harmful to you; when you seem to have them, they are useful. It is good to appear merciful, truthful, humane, sincere, and religious; it is good to be so in reality. But you must keep your mind so disposed that, in case of need, you can turn to the exact contrary.”

“There are three sorts of brains: one understands on its own, another understands what others tell it, and the third understands neither itself nor other people. The first sort is superb, the second sort is very good, the third sort useless.”

Was Machiavelli serious, or was he being satirical? Scholars still disagree.


Twain On Cooper

Book Cover for a Child's version of the Leatherstocking Tales (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Book Cover for a Child’s version of the Leatherstocking Tales
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

I think everyone who ever wrote a book of any sort wants a review. I have had a number of them, mostly mixed — including a couple that seemed to have been written by a person who never opened the book! But what the author fears worse than anything is the scathing review. One can only imagine how James.F. Cooper might have felt had he read Mark Twain’s review of his “Leatherstocking Tales.”  As it happens, Twain wrote it long after Cooper’s death, largely in response to such exaggerated praise as that of Wilkie Collins who called Cooper “the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction in America.” Twain’s review essay is  not only scathing, it is hilarious! Cooper’s tales were read and enjoyed by young and old alike, all over the world. Hawkeye was the Indiana Jones of Cooper’s day.  Not only Collins but many other reviewers praised the author to the skies and couldn’t find enough compliments to heap on the books themselves. But not so Mark Twain who couldn’t find anything good to say about Cooper or his books. In this famous (infamous?) essay review that focuses on Deerslayer, Twain begins by chastising several reviewers (including Collins) for praising the books without having read them (!) and then tells us that “in two-thirds of a page Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.” He then goes on to list twenty-two “rules governing the art of romantic fiction. Cooper violated eighteen of them.” (Actually, all twenty-two, as it turns out.) But then Twain gets rolling and the results are very funny. One portion of the review is especially delightful and I copy it here for your enjoyment. It focuses on one suspenseful episode in Deerslayer that Twain thought especially objectionable. Of special concern to Twain is Cooper’s “flawed inventive faculty” — which had been highly praised by one reviewer. The scene is a river flowing from a lake on which the Hutter family is fleeing in their floating home to escape angry Indians who are in hot pursuit.

Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians. He bends a “sapling” to form an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in its foliage. They are “laying” for a settler’s scow or ark which is coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled against the stiff current by rope whose stationary end is anchored in the lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour. Cooper describes the ark, but pretty obscurely. In the matter of dimensions “it was little more than a modern canal boat.” Let us guess, then, that it was about one hundred and forty feet long. It was of “greater breadth than common.” Let us guess then that it was about sixteen feet wide. This leviathan had been prowling down bends which were but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where it only had two feet of space to spare on each side. We cannot too much admire this miracle. A low- roofed dwelling occupies “two-thirds of the ark’s length” — a dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us say — a kind of vestibule train. The dwelling has two rooms — each forty- five feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us guess. One of them is the bedroom of the Hutter girls, Judith and Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime, at night it is papa’s bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream’s exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians — say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat. Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze there? Did they notice that they could make money by climbing down out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper’s Indian’s never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them.

The ark is one hundred and forty-feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety-foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him and when he had got his calculations filed down to exactly the right shade, as he judged, he let go and dropped. And missed the boat! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in he stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The error lay in the construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.

There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did — you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still further astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat — for he was Cooper Indian. In that matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper’s inadequacy as observer.

Cooper was fortunate not to have lived long enough to read this essay, which Twain wrote to get some pocket money and in response to learned critics who, he was convinced, totally lacked critical acumen.  His essay was itself criticized by other readers as a “deliberate misreading” of the tales that was “devastating.” To be honest, the essay used Cooper as a foil and Twain turned his comic genius loose against a writer who was defenseless (given that he was on the other side of the grass). In the end Twain had written what his critics called a “satirical but shrewdly observant essay” on Cooper’s romantic, sometimes flowery style which Twain simply didn’t like: he preferred his own more economical and straight-forward style. It is hilarious and worth reading, but it certainly does not stand as an example of a fair and honest appraisal of an author’s writing — which is what a review ought to be, one would think. Still….

A Swift Cure For Inept Politicians

There is nearly universal agreement that our Congress is currently unable to function as the founders had intended — witness the recent Senate vote on background checks for gun purchases, which flies in the face of 91% of the people in this country those officials supposedly represent. Given that there is no clause in the constitution that allows for the disbanding of the group, sad to say, I sought a solution elsewhere. I found it in Jonathan Swift’s remarkable book Gulliver’s Travels. In the third of Lemuel Gulliver’s trips, he visits the city of Lagado on the island of Balnibarbi. While there he visits an academy, as I have mentioned in a previous blog. During that visit he encounters an “ingenious doctor who seemed to be perfectly versed in the whole nature and system of government.” That eminent doctor cured incompetent legislators in the following manner, which we would do well to imitate:

It is allowed that senates and great councils are often troubled with redundant, ebullient, and other peccant humors, and with many diseases of the head, and more of the heart; with strong convulsions, with grievous contractions of the nerves and sinews in both hands, but especially the right; with spleen, flatus, vertigos, and deliriums; with scrofulous tumors full of fetid purulent matter; with sour frothy eructations, with canine appetites and crudeness of digestion, and besides many others too numerous to mention. This doctor therefore proposed that upon the meeting of a senate, certain physicians should attend at the three first days of their sitting, and at the close of each day’s deliberations feel the pulses of every senator; after which, having maturely considered and consulted upon the nature of the several maladies, and the methods of cure, they should on the fourth day return to the senate house, attended by their apothecaries stored with the proper medicines; and before the members sit, administer to each of them lenitives, aperitives, abstersives, corrosives, restringents, palliatives, laxatives, cephalagics, icterics, apophlegmatics, acoustics, as their several cases required; and according as these medicines should operate, repeat, alter, or omit them at the end of the meeting.

This project could not be of any great expense to the public and would in my poor opinion, be of much use in the dispatch of business in those countries where senates have any share in the legislative power; beget unanimity, shorten debates, open a few mouths which are now closed, and close many more which are now open; curb the petulancy of the young, and correct the positiveness of the old; rouse the stupid, and damp the excitable. . . . .

He likewise directed that every senator in the great council of a nation, after he had delivered his opinion and argued in the defense of it, should be obliged to give his vote directly contrary; because if that were done the result would infallibly terminate in the good of the public.

Given the immense popularity of Gulliver’s Travels, which had been in print for 50 years when the founders of this country declared independence from England, I suppose we can account for the fact that the above advice does not appear in the constitution or any supporting documents because it was supposed everyone had read the book.

Remembering Swift

With apologies to Jon Stewart and Tom Lehrer, the greatest satirist who ever lived was Jonathan Swift. He is best known from the watered-down versions of his classic Gulliver’s Travels that has been turned into a children’s book — or from one of the terrible movies starring buffoons like Jack Black that trample on the greatness that was Swift. But Swift was above all things a cleric and a moralist and his satirical writings — of which Gulliver was merely one small portion — were almost always written to draw attention to a wrong with an eye to remedying the situation. And in Swift’s age, the latter seventeenth century and the early eighteenth, there was much that was wrong.  Swift saw it through the eyes of a brilliant, witty misanthrope. Human foibles drove him wild even though he was an amiable friend and companion with a small group of close friends and the two women who worshipped the ground he walked upon. And the Irish loved him and regarded him as their champion — as indeed he was.

Jonathan Swift (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Jonathan Swift (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Swift could be downright acerbic in his observations, as when he wrote the following in voicing his conviction that humans don’t bear a close look because the deeper you probe the worse they seem to be: “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.” But he could be not only witty but wise and very timely — which is why he is worth reading even today. He noted, for example, that “. . . if we take an examination of what is generally understood by happiness, as it has respect either in the understanding or the senses, we shall find all its properties and adjuncts will herd under this short definition, that it is a perpetual possession of being well deceived. . . .This is the sublime and refined point of felicity, called the possession of being well deceived; the serene peaceful state, of being a fool among knaves.” Those of us who are not rich and who like to believe that the rich are not truly happy can take comfort in the conviction that their “happiness” is a “deception.”

Swift generally pilloried the vanities and stupidities of his age, always with an eye toward the need for bringing reason to bear on the frailties and weaknesses of humans. He was, among other things, a deeply religious and a wise man who knew the absurdities of many of the religious as well as most of those of the wealthy and famous. Of religion, for example, he said “We have just religion enough to make us hate but not enough to make us love one another.” When he turned his attention to the politicians and academics around him he could be particularly scathing. In fact, the major portion of his classic about Lemuel Gulliver focuses on the politics and politicians of his day many of whom he knew close up. He also knew and hated the pretense he found in the universities. In the third trip Gulliver made, for example, after being lowered from the flying island he visited an academy in the city of Lagado and was confronted by a variety of dusty and smelly academics who were intent on such esoteric pursuits as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, building houses from the top down “like bees and spiders,” plowing fields with the snouts of hogs, making silk from spider webs, and curing colic with a pair of bellows. These were busy little men and women involved in absurd intellectual games while those around them went without food and shelter and agriculture suffered. We can agree that even in our day there is much being done in the academies of learning that has little to do with what is going on in the real world. One must wonder, for example, how research on the “Use of the Past-Perfect Participle In Late Elizabethan English” will help improve the lot of humankind. And it could be said that the entire attempt to land a man on the moon or a rover on Mars takes millions of dollars away from the genuine human needs here on our planet where many people don’t have food to put on the table — or a table, come to that. Swift was above all else a moralist.

Indeed, Swift’s “Modest Proposal” of eating all the small children in Ireland was an attempt to draw attention in England to the plight of the poor in Ireland where he was Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin until his death. But those in his day who read his works (always written anonymously) were afraid of the Dean and kept him from the posts he dearly wanted back in England. They knew who wrote them, and they read his works with great glee, laughing up their collective sleeves, but never realized that it was they who were being made to look foolish. In the end, Swift concluded, satire is a mirror in which the viewer sees everyone but himself. Indeed.

Censoring Comics

This week’s “Doonesbury” deals with a young woman who visits an abortion clinic in Texas. The comic shows the young woman being grilled by a middle-aged man who has no medical background and an episode in which the doctor “by the power vested in [him] by the GOP base” probes the girl with a 10 inch “shaming rod” required by a new Texas law — an act which Trudeau rightly insists amounts to rape. The comic was preceded by considerable controversy which resulted in a large number of newspapers across the country deciding not to run the series. It is graphic and very pointed and one can understand the expressions of concern, if not the outrage. But the notion that a newspaper must withhold the comic in order to please a vocal minority is troubling. Indeed, censorship is troubling.

The criterion John Stuart Mill employs to limit government interference in the actions of individuals would seem to be the only sensible one to apply in cases of censorship. Mill insisted that as long as a person isn’t harming anyone else the government should leave them alone. By analogy, unless a comic (in this case) can be shown to harm someone, it should be left alone. That is a very generous notion, though somewhat unclear since the term “harm” is vague. Some cases are clear — cases of overt violence for example. But what about covert or potential violence? Or what about mental harm? Some would argue that a comic depicting a young woman attending an abortion clinic and being subjected to what many would characterize as brutal treatment by insensitive males amounts to mental harm to those who read the comic — either because she is attending an abortion clinic in the first place or because of the brutal treatment she receives once she is there.

But no matter how we define “harm” the fact remains that no one forces anyone to read the comic. And that seems to me to be the crux of the situation. If there were graphic pictures that might offend a significant number of citizens prominently displayed on the street corner, the case could be made for censorship on grounds of mental harm, perhaps. Something that one cannot help but see is a better candidate for censorship than a book, movie, or comic that one must go to and view on purpose. No one is forcing anyone to pick up the newspaper and read the comic. That would seem to make it impervious to Mill’s rule — or anyone else’s.

The major newspaper in Iowa, the Des Moines Register, was among those that decided not to run the comic. There was such hue and cry over the act (in Iowa!) that the paper ran an apology and decided to run the entire series in the Sunday edition of the paper. Now that shows courage, because it is almost guaranteed to raise an even louder hue and cry. But people have been forewarned and, again, they don’t have to read the paper on Sunday if they don’t want to. As long as seeing the offensive material is voluntary, it seems to me, it should be deemed safe from would-be censors.

One of the keys to a “free press” which we rightly prize in this country should be the license to print anything worthy of serious thought and consideration regardless of whether it offends some or even many. That’s one of the criteria of “free” in this case, i.e., not restricted by narrow-minded readers who would have the paper print only items that meet with their approval. The editors decide and, if necessary, they warn us and in the end we determine whether we want to see the “offensive” material and judge for ourselves. In this case, the “Doonesbury” series is brilliant and satirizes the recent laws in Texas in a fashion they richly deserve. That’s the cartoonist’s job and in this case (as in most) Trudeau has done it well. Reader beware!

Our Brave New World

One of my favorite books of all time is Huxley’s Brave New World. It’s not so much that the book is great literature, because it isn’t. But it remains a favorite because I have never ceased to be amazed by the things that Huxley saw so clearly nearly one hundred years ago. I don’t mean that he predicted we would be able to ride in helicopters one day. I mean he saw clearly what our culture would become: hedonistic and self-obsessed.

The book predicts a day when citizens can flee from pain and anxiety by popping a pill. The citizens of BNW fill their lives with endless diversions and vapid gratifications, immediate and shallow — but certainly not fulfilling. It’s all about doing their thing, whether or not it’s worth doing. Indeed, that question is never raised.  History is bunk, of course, because the only thing that matters is the present moment and the pleasure that can be milked from that moment. The citizens of BNW have “. . .no time, no leisure from pleasure, not a moment to sit down and think.”

There are no meaningful human relationships, and communities are tied together artificially by means of community sings, free sex, and heaps of Soma. The community matters because the brave new world cannot stand individuals, that is, those who stand apart. If the individual dares to assert himself he is deported to an island where he cannot bother others who are intent on making sure they never have time to think or feel much of anything.

Aside from contraceptive pills and tranquilizers, I have always thought the first real step we took in our culture toward the brave new world was the credit card. It came on the scene in a large way in the 1950s and within ten years had pretty much become a necessity in every pocket or pocketbook. In itself it is merely a convenient way to make purchases. But its significance is worth contemplating: it means immediate gratification. We no longer have to wait for anything, we can have it now. “Has any of you been compelled to live through a long time-interval between consciousness of a desire and its fulfillment?” asks Huxley. Not any longer! It doesn’t matter if we can’t pay, we have plastic. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. Anticipation greatly increases the delight from receipt of the thing long awaited. We tend to forget that.

But now we simply charge it and take it home. We don’t have to wait another minute. If the credit limit is reached, we merely switch to another company and wait until the new card fills. Credit card debt in this country is staggering — something like $20,000.00 on average. It tells us something about ourselves that we might not care to know. We are rapacious in our desire to have things and own stuff, as though our very sense of self worth is tied up with what we own. The one who dies with the most toys wins, as the saying goes.

In the end, Huxley saw clearly what was coming, and we have realized in so many ways precisely the delights that those denizens of the ant-heap in Huxley’s world reached out for and grabbed with little or no real effort. And we have become just as shallow. It is ironic that many who read Huxley’s book fail to see its implications.

I recall vividly some years ago when I directed a required Freshman college course and suggested that we read BNW. An alarming number of the 300 students couldn’t make the connection. Indeed, a number of them simply couldn’t understand the words on the page — even the page in their “cheaters.” But that’s another story. For the most part, those who could grasp the meanings of the words Huxley wrote insisted it was science fiction, certainly not something we need to take seriously. Jonathan Swift once said that satire was like a mirror in which each reader saw everyone except himself. In that sense, Huxley wrote a satire. But it is one in which we need to admit that we are very much in the frame.