I have a friend who used to tell me, exasperated with my tendency to do this, that there are two types of people in the world: those who don't divide the world into two types of people and those who do. I'm going to start doing something I used to do in my class, which I affectedly call 'dualities.' The reason I call them 'dualities' is because I believe that more than anything else, it's the divided self, the tensions between our ideals and our realities, that creates new and better thoughts. Every thesis has an antithesis, every pleasant fantasy has a nightmarish mirror image, every person has a mother and father.
Dividing the world into two camps can, obviously, be a very dangerous slippery slope, and if we indulge in what's generally referred to as dialectical thinking, it's very important to understand that it can never be anything more than an intellectual game we can use to theorize about the world and there is absolutely no scientific value to it without going through the exact same process scientists do - thousands of trials and errors through which recorded data and statistics. Sometimes there aren't two sides to every issue, sometimes there are three or four, so sometimes there will be trialities or quadralities, and occasionally, the opposing point of view is based on sand, so those we will call 'monalities.'
So let's get to our first duality:
Venial Sins vs. Mortal Sins
I joked with my producer and editor this week that one out of every five of these podcasts would be about The Godfather. The editor told me he had no idea if I was serious but he was behind the idea.
I'm pretty sure that in the last podcast I completely forgot to talk about the core of The Godfather's appeal. The core is this: it's the key movie, one of the key works of art ever made in any form or time period, that explains to us the appeal, the inevitability, the temptation, perhaps even the necessity, of evil.
Evil will always be with us. Everything that's created will be destroyed, and every morally good objective in life requires some things actions along the way that wade into, to say the least, moral grey areas. If the world is already filled with murderers, do we simply work to make a world without unjust murders and all the nearly as grisly things which accompany it, and if we do, what are we prepared to do to make it happen? If we're on the right, are we prepared to advocate for authoritarian methods? If we're on the left, are we prepared to advocate for terrorist methods? And if those methods fail to rid the world of murder, are we prepared to take those matters into our own hands and be the change we wish to see in the world? Or, do we just shrug and accept that injustice is simply part of the world that we can't change? Certainly the latter path is easier, which means that most people will choose it over the former, which makes life for those who choose the path of activism will become that much more exponentially difficult.
So if, as the statistics tell us, 1% of the population is psychopaths, if 7 or 8% of the population have narcissistic tendencies, wouldn't it stand to reason that maybe we should all make 1 in every hundred decisions the way a psychopath would, and in 7 or 8 in every hundred the way a narcissist would? We'd still acting ethically more than 90% of the time, but at least we know that we'd be harder to exploit.
But once you taste from the tree of knowledge, it's almost impossible to go back to the way things were. Without ethical considerations, it becomes much easier, perhaps much more pleasant, to live life than it was when you were concerned about ethics. No matter how Catholics or ex-Catholics think of the Church's stance on various sins, there's a reason Catholics talk about venial sins as well as mortal sins. If, at the end of a day, you try to remember it detail by detail, I doubt any person could get through a single day of their life without committing a dozen venial sins, but when one comes to rely on these sins rather than do one's best to avoid them, one becomes in danger of committing much worse acts.
But it still remains true, in order to live through our days, we have to sin, and the more we sin, the easier we find it to thrive. Those who truly thrive in life are, usually, not the best of us. There are of course many exceptions, but if the idea of living your life in moral grey areas it usually takes to achieve great success fills you with excitement, you're probably not the person we can best rely upon to look after our interests.
But there do exist people of means and power who do genuinely care about those under them, and through the ages there have been Washingtons and Lincolns and Roosevelts and Johnsons and Obamas; and Clemenceaus and Gladstones and Atlees and Brandts and Nehrus and Ben Gurions and of course Mandelas who used levers of power, often truly destructive levers, to the purposes of good. And while these men through history are rare, the fact remains that because they backed up their good with the capacity to do evil, their achievements are far longer lasting. Even the famously socialist French prime minister Leon Blum delayed helping the Spanish Republicans for years because he knew that the sooner he got involved the easier the facsists would find it to depose him and his reforms. They did what they thought was necessary to extend human rights to poeple who had none, and let others wring their hands about the consequences. And this brings us to our second duality.
Divine Reliance vs. Self-Reliance:
And here is our first quote about Machiavelli:
"It is necessary, therefore, if we discuss the matter thoroughly, to inquire whether these innovators can rely on themselves or have to depend on others: that is to say, whether, to consume their enterprise, have they to use prayers or can they use force? In the first instance, they always succeed badly, and never compass anything: but when they can rely on themselves and use force, then they are rarely endangered. Hence it is all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed. Besides the reasons mentioned, the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. And thus it is necessary to take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force."
When you rebel against something so long entrenched, and nothing in human history was so entrenched as the Medieval Church, you can only rebel by turning the ideas you resent against themselves. When the human mind wasn't advanced enough think of the self apart from being a creation of God, it could only conceive of self-reliance in terms of the most atrocious sinning, and the sins can only committed by the world's most powerful people, who are the nearest human incarnations to God that the people surrounding them can conceive. Humanity was only emerging from the Middle Ages - murder in the name of Crime or the State was a terrible sin, but murder in the name of the Church was to save souls, and what's loss in this world compared to the eternal rewards of Heaven?
Machiavelli was a contemporary of Martin Luther, and greater notions of free will so much beloved of Protestants were beginning to marinate in the human mind. A hundred fifty years later, John Milton would express this notion still much better. Free will would still be couched in sin, but this most religious of poets would make Satan into his most interesting, and beloved character in his famous epic poem - Paradise Lost. So think of these famous lines from Paradise Lost and how they elucidate that concept from Machiavelli:
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; the almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in hell:
Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.
So this brings us to our second duality:
Virtue vs. Fortune or to use Machiavelli's terminology: Virtu vs. Fortuna
One does not want to traffic in stereotypes, and yet when we're talking about how linguistic meanings have changed, we have to talk about inner lives, about differences not only of historical periods but geographic spaces as well. The Northern European philosophical terminologies with their heavy metaphysics was only beginning at this point in history with Luther - before the individual could be saved by faith alone, the individual's consciousness and the troubles of one's conscience was not nearly as important as the priestly absolution of it. Your ethical actions, your inner experience, belonged to God from birth to death, so the only part which belonged to you was your sensuality - the part that God said was forbidden, but because it was so forbidden, perhaps the urges to sensual pleasure felt that much more powerful.
And so virtu does not mean Christian virtue, but classical virtue. Every person who ever studied a bit of classical music knows the term 'virtuoso', which means something closer to mastery of dexterity rather than good behavior. And fortuna does not mean Christian fortune, in which all fortune that matters is salvation or perdition, but classical fortune, the wheel of fate, which always shifts and arbitrarily distributes good luck and bad luck. So what matters to Machiavelli is the dexterity to stay abalance in circumstances of fortune that are always shifting. It's as though thinking before Machiavelli was in basic geometric shapes, and with Machiavelli, we're now thinking in fractals.
Not being a mathematician, I'm going to leave the definition of fractals to the internet and some odd website that calls itsel the 'fractal foundation.'
(ahem) "A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop. Driven by recursion, fractals are images of dynamic systems – the pictures of Chaos. Geometrically, they exist in between our familiar dimensions. Fractal patterns are extremely familiar, since nature is full of fractals. For instance: trees, rivers, coastlines, mountains, clouds, seashells, hurricanes, etc."
So from a physical standpoint, fractals are the diverse and many, far too many to count, geometric patterns that produce nature. if you take this from a metaphysical standpoint, fractals are literally an order that is so complex that it seems like chaos, and what better definition of nature can there be than that? So in Machiavelli, we are seeing political fractals; those weird cosmological shapes by which the most gifted politicians know exactly when and how to strike and when and how to wait.
Consider this quote about the four ancients whom Machiavelli considers the greatest men in history, and let's note, as the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper did, that they were all at very least, semi-mythological.
".In examining their actions and lives one cannot see that they owed anything to fortune beyond opportunity, which brought them the material to mould into the form which seemed best to them. Without that opportunity their powers of mind would have been extinguished, and without those powers the opportunity would have come in vain.
It was necessary, therefore, to Moses that he should find the people of Israel in Egypt enslaved and oppressed by the Egyptians. In order that they should be disposed to follow him so as to be delivered out of bondage. It was necessary that Romulus should not remain in Alba, and that he should be abandoned at his birth, in order that he should become King of Rome and founder of the fatherland. It was necessary that Cyrus should find the Persians discontented with the government of the Medes, and the Medes soft and effeminate through their long peace. Theseus could not have shown his ability had he not found the Athenians dispersed. These opportunities, therefore, made those men fortunate, and their high ability enabled them to recognize the opportunity whereby their country was ennobled and made famous."
Fortune has to favor people in order to become successful, but they need the virtue, or more to the point, the virtuosity, to know exactly how to exploit fortune to their advantage. Consider the mythical leader my generation considers to be our modern Moses or Theseus: Barack Hussein Obama. Conventional wisdom would have dictated that he would lose to Hillary Clinton in 2004, and that he was well-disposed to be a Presidential candidate in 2016 or 2012. But President Obama knew that truth of Democratic presidential candidates from time immemorial. Democrats fall in love, not in line, and you have to run when you're still mysterious and don't have a long track record to pin yourself down upon in the liberal imagination, before which your record can be hairsplit into shreds. This is why Hillary Clinton lost twice. Had she run in 2004 when her political career was new and shiny, who knows, she might have won. John Kerry was considered similarly bright and shiny in 2000, the dream candidate everyone longed for against the too worn and well known Al Gore and Bill Bradley. Al Gore was considered such a candidate in 1992, one of a half-dozen who could have beaten the little known Bill Clinton. But President Clinton, like President Obama, knew that familiarity only works to the favor of conservatives. Among the temperamentally progressive, fortune favors the barely known - the exciting newcomer who can conjure the ideas of untried possibilities. Both Clinton and Obama exploited not just political chaos, but the longing for political chaos, to become the closest thing America has to a prince.
"Those who by various ways become princes, like these men, acquire a principality with difficulty, but they keep it with ease. The difficulties they have in acquiring it arise in part from new rules and methods which they are forced to introduce to establish their government and its security. And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take lead in introduction of the new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders under those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe new things until they have long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack, they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered with them."
I saw a Canadian documentary about Machiavelli from the 90's which claimed that the 90's was a particularly Machiavellian era because Bill Clinton was President. The 90's were about as un-Machiavellian as any era can possibly get. The reason to use comparisons from recent history is that it's in everyone's memory. Every era is a Machiavellian era. What changes from era to era is not the rules but the stakes, and compared to Machiavelli's own time and place, the stakes of politics in ours are, even in the era of Trump, relatively low.
We'll get to talking about higher stake history, but for the moment, let's just talk about the Obama debate - the vituperation against it, the halfhearted defenses, and the unbelievable miracle it seemed in 2011 that Obamacare passed at all.
(More about difficulties of passing Obamacare)
(More about difficulties of passing Obamacare)
Sometimes the stakes are higher.
"It is necessary, therefore, if we desire to discuss this matter thoroughly, to inquire whether these innovators can rely on themselves or have to depend on others: that is to say, whether, to consummate their enterprise, have they to use prayers or can they use force? In the first instance they always succeed badly, and never compass anything; but when they can rely on themselves and use force, they are rarely endangered. Hence it is that all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed. Besides the reasons mentioned, the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. And thus it is necessary to take such measures that whne they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force.
If Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus had been unarmed, they could not have enforced their constitutions for long. Which happened in our time to Friar Girolamo Savonarola who was ruined in his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believe or making the unbelievers to believe. Therefore, such as these have great difficulties in consummating their enterprise, for all their dangers are in the ascent, yet with ability they will overcome them. But when these are overcome and those who envied them their success are exterminated, they will begin to be respected, and they will continue afterwards powerful, secure, honored, and happy."
(later in the episode)
Promotion of Virtue by Vice
Do not assume that Machiavelli was a complete realist. Even Machiavelli had his moments when he was taken in at times by the same naiveté as the rest of us. Consider his admiration for the Germany of his time. Here's what Machiavelli has to say of the German-speaking lands of 1500, and while you're listening, think of the Northern European lands of a half-milenium later:
"The Cities of Germany are absolutely free, they own but little country around them, and they yield obedience to the Emperor when it suits them, nor do they fear this or any other power they have near them, because they are fortified in such a way that everyone thinks the taking of them by assault would be tedious and difficult, seeing they have proper ditches and walls, they have sufficient artillery, and they always keep in public depots enough for one year's eating, drinking, and firing. And beyond this, to keep people quiet and without loss to the state, they always have the means of giving work to the community in those labors that are the life and strength of the city, and on the pursuit of which the people are supported;...
It's hard to not hear Machiavelli describe the Germany of this time without thinking that he's describing European social democracy circa 1500. But the German-speaking lands were literally on the precipice of 150 years of theological bloodshed, culminating in the Thirty Years War, whose casualties to Northern Europe were proportionally worse than even World War II or the Black Death.
History never stops, and just when you think you've solved history's problems, a new one is created. The only option left to us is to use the vices of individuals as the means to check one another. Machiavelli knew this just as well, so consider what he says in his other book - the Discourses on Livy in a passage which seems much more like a response to Plato's Republic.
"Desiring, therefore, to discuss the nature of the government of Rome, and to ascertain the accidental circumstances which brought it to its perfection, I say, as has been said before by many who have written of Governments, that of these there are three forms, known by the names Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy, and that those who give its institutions to a State have recourse to one or other of these three, according as it suits their purpose. Other, and, as many have thought, wiser teachers, will have it, that there are altogether six forms of government, three of them utterly bad, the other three good in themselves, but so readily corrupted that they too are apt to become hurtful. The good are the three above named; the bad, three others dependent upon these, and each so like that to whch it is related, that it is easy to pass imperceptibly from the one to the other. For a Monarchy readily becomes a Tyranny, an Aristocracy an Oligarchy, while a Democracy tends to degenerate into Anarchy. So that if the founder of a State should establish any one of these three forms of government, he establishes it for a short time only, since no precaution he may take can prevent it from sliding into its contrary, by reason of the close resemblance which, in this case, the virtue bears to the vice.
I say, then, that all these six forms of government are pernicious--the three good kinds, from their brief duration the three bad, from their inherent badness. Wise legislators therefore, knowing these defects, and avoiding each of these forms in its simplicity, have made choice of a form which shares in the qualities of all the first three, and which they judge to be more stable and lasting than any of these separately. For where we have a monarchy, an aristocracy, and a democracy existing together in the same city, each of the three serves as a check upon the other."
So who that has even a passing knowledge of the Federalist Papers can hear this passage and not think of James Madison? Surely the idea for three branches of government to check and balance each other had to be derived in part from this. In the American system, in any democratic system, human vice, human sin, is the engine that people use so that worse vices and sins are never perpetrated. In the 20th century, we had a great experiment to base a system of government on human virtues, and the experiment covered half the world - the death toll was well over 200 million. It would seem that history shows, over and over, that if there is no political check on the most altruistic human urge; the urge to share with and give to and save others, this will to kindness will either be exploited, or turned into the urge to hurt those who don't have the exact same altruistic urge that you do.