So we've adopted an every week format which I pretentiously call 'dualities' to frame the discussion we'll have. 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 create new thoughts. Perhaps these thoughts are no better than the thoughts before, perhaps they inadvertently create their own dualities, or perhaps these dualities lead us right back to where we were before. Sometimes there are not two sides to every issue, but three or four, necessitating trialities or quadralities, and sometimes there is only one side to an issue because any argument against it people have come up with so far is bullshit, and those are therefore monalities. But for the moment, this tension between polls seems like the best way to frame our discussions.
So here are the dualities for this week:
The Two Machaivellis:
So I was planning on a third week on Machiavelli, but then I realized that I didn't have enough material for a third podcast on Machiavelli, but I had a little bit of material left over that would frame this week's discussion a little too perfectly. It's perhaps the subject any podcast about politics or history has to inevitably get to in contemporary America - the battle of the sexes, and particularly how it's been framed as a battle by Hollywood.
So I want to talk this week about three classic movies which you could have seen in the last few weeks around Baltimore, and if you'll indulge me one super long quote from the penultimate chapter of The Prince and one super short one from the end of the chapter, you might be stunned by how perfectly Machiavelli frames our discussion.
"It is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them; and because of this they would have us believe that it is not necessary to labor much in affairs, but to let chance govern them. This opinion has been more credited in our times because of the great changes in affairs which have been seen, every day, beyond all human conjecture. Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half our actions, but that she leaves us still to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.This is the Machiavelli whom I think is of genuine use to the world. Yes, he thinks like a mafioso, but at the turn of the fifteenth century, thinking like a mafioso was an astonishingly forward-thinking notion. Everybody was being ruthless anyway, so you might as well redirect your ruthlessness toward the long-term goal of stability.
I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defenses and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valor has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and forces have not been raised to constrain her.
And if you will consider Italy, which is the seat of these changes, and which has given them their impulse, you will see it to be an open country without barriers and without any defense. For if it had been defended by proper valor, as are Germany, Spain, and France, either this invasion would not have made the great changes it has made or it would not have come at all. And this I consider enough to say concerning resistance to fortune in general.
But confining myself more to the particular, I say that a prince may be seen happy to-day and ruined to-morrow without having shown any change or disposition or character. This, I believe, arises firstly from causes that have already been discussed at length, namely, that the prince who relies entirely on fortune is lost when it changes. I believe also that he will be successful who directs his actions according to the spirit of the times, and that he whose actions do not accord with the times will not be successful. Because men are seen, in affairs that lead to the end which every man has before him, namely, glory and riches, to get there by various methods; one with caution, another with haste; one by force, another by skill; one by patience, another by its opposite; and each one succeeds in reaching the goal by a different method.
One can also see of two cautious men the one attain his end, the other fall; and similarly, two men by different observances are equally successful, one being cautious, the other impetuous; all this arises from nothing else than whether or not they conform in methods to the spirit of the times. This follows what I have said, that two men working differently bring about the same effect, and of two working similarly, one attains his object and the other does not.
Changes in estate issue from this, for if, to one who governs himself with caution and patience, times and affairs converge in such a way that if his administration is successful, his fortune is made; but if times and affairs change, he is ruined if he does not change his course of action. But a man is not found sufficiently circumspect to know how to accommodate himself to change, both because he cannot deviate from what nature inclines him to do, and also because, having always prospered by acting in one way, he cannot be persuaded that it is well to leave it; and, therefore, the cautious man, when it is time to turn adventurous, does not know how to do it, hence he is ruined; but had he changed his conduct with the times fortune would not have changed."
Machiavelli always refers to fortune as a feminine thing - likening fortune to an ebbing a flowing river. This ebb and flow of a river, the slipperiness of the bank, the violent floods that bring about rebirth, the drinkability that gives life to people, animals, and plants, seem to have a kind of feminine connotation in mythology. On the other hand, seas - with their undrinkable saltiness which never seem to move from one place, their wrathful storms, their waves that move consistently and tides that are predictable - seem to be portrayed as masculine gods. Think of Poseidon, or Lyr in Celtic Mythology, or the Dragon Kings of the Four Seas in Chinese mythology. But Celtic mythology has at least four different river goddesses, Indian mythology has at least three. Satis was, at least in late Ancient Egypt, the Egyptian nile goddess, who brought about the annual flooding of the Nile, and therefore the destruction that enables rebirth. Or just remember how in the Grapes of Wrath, Mama Joad likens a woman's view of life to an ebbing and flowing river? This masculine/feminine duality with seas and rivers is obviously not consistent; the most obvious example is Poseidon, who seems to be the CEO of all bodies of water, and Greek mythology is intricate and androgynous enough that there are masculine gods of everything, and just as many goddesses of everything too. But in just all these mythologies, the male water gods seem to have more power than the women, each of whom seems to control but one river while Poseidon and Lyr get every sea, everywhere. Apparently even in ancient times, there was a 23% pay gap.
But this archetypal, and by modern ears, stereotypical, world of myth is where Machiavelli draws his feminine metaphor for fortune. And Machiavelli's readers would know that Fortuna is the Roman goddess of fortune, luck, and fate. By modern standards, the description here is a little bit sexist, but not stunningly so by modern ears:
So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valor has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and forces have not been raised to constrain her.This is a little sexist. This is a sentence that likens women to the manipulative temptress who tries to break through your defenses, but it's not the other way around, so I'm not sure this would qualify as sexist by anything but the standards of anything but the 21st century. The reason to talk so much about Machiavelli is because, in some ways, he is a moralist whose words we ought to heed in our own time. Machiavelli is helpful to us today not because he advised against evil and morality, but because by advising a kind of indifference to traditional morality, because a greater, long-term morality was at stake that could provide greater dividends of peace in the future. Machiavelli was, in some ways at least, the first thinker to realize that the greatest danger to the world, then as now, was fanaticism; the moral certainty that you are right and that what you believe is the incontrovertible truth and therefore everyone who disagrees with you is morally inferior to you. Machiavelli says, don't focus on what seems immediately right, focus on what is practical. Before Machiavelli, discussions of politics were grounded in the Greeks, who focused not on the practicalities of governance but on ascertaining what's the ideal forms of government. Only in Machiavelli do we see a politician instructed to delay gratification, to put his ideals or pleasures as a long-term goal rather than something that can be achieved immediately; and it can't be a complete coincidence that Machiavelli came up with his ideas in the same period that mankind finally began what in our lifetime seems like a permanent advance out of the dark ages.
But then there is the other Machiavelli whom we've not talked about too much in the last two weeks, the much more famous Machiavelli who still shocks the world with his ruthlessness, whose medievalism can never be doubted, and who says, and I quote:
For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her.This passage is shocking today. The idea that it is necessary to 'beat' women is incredibly shocking, but still more shocking is the euphemistic 'ill use', because in thinking about it for less than a second, we can pretty much guess what kind of 'ill use' Machiavelli meant. And don't think that this was completely un-shocking at the time, when laws of honor were supposed to prohibit such conduct in courtly circles, or at least let people be in denial when ladies of high birth were treated that way.
So here we are, five hundred years later, faced in our time with the extremely uncomfortable truth for many of us various forms of liberals that for the better part of this half-millenium, these liberal notions of individual rights and security were still only meant to accommodate a very small class of people, and the state of everybody else was still barely any better than animals, and perhaps treated worse than animals because of how much utility their lords could derive from their productivity. Does this invalidate liberalism, does this make liberalism an antiquated notion? Many people would argue that it does, that liberalism is a sham that allows injustice to be perpetrated from century to century when what we need is solutions now before more people die and suffer. Nothing tried yet has nearly so productive a track record, but you'd have to be willfully blind to understand people's lack of patience with liberalism's gradual and always shifting and ebbing reforms, or even their insistence that liberalism all just a superstructure or a myth meant to blind people to the reality of how people suffer from it. So this brings us to our second duality:
Margaret Dumont vs. Groucho
I think it was while I watched President Groucho Marx bounce a ball against his desk while the cabinet of Fredonia look on for an indefinite amount of time that I became convinced that Duck Soup is the most eerily prescient movie ever made for our historical moment.
There was a New Yorker cartoon last year that showed,... I forget which Founding Fathers, but two of them, and one said to the other, "What if a potential tyrant rises up, but no one can stop him because it's kind of funny."
So Donald Trump turned out to be exactly as authoritarian in outlook as we feared, but our saving grace is that he also turned out to be the dumbest man on the planet. Our American system knows exactly how to deal with demagoguery, but it presupposes that the demagogue is an intelligent, educated man duping a public less intelligent than he. The founders had no conception of how to get rid of a man-child puppet of another dictatorship who while he's in a bad mood might order a nuclear attack while his Chief of Staff is asleep.
The Marx Brothers were brothers, and you really get the sense that the routines of all three of them, particularly the silent Harpo, are just extensions of the ways they annoyed each other as children. At the time, the mirror scene between Groucho and Harpo was thought of as revolutionary, but it's hard to believe that every person didn't do something like the mirror routine at some point in their childhoods.
Or think of the scenes when Harpo drives the Street Vendor crazy by switching his hat when the vendor isn't looking; and think to yourself how many times childhood friends or siblings would try to pull that trick on you. Harpo's is a silent clown, but more importantly, he's basically an overgrown child, who's routines are literally to annoy the people around him until they go absolutely insane.
Groucho on the other hand, is, like our President, stuck in adolescence - and while he does it 1000x better than just about any teenager, he's the class clown always cracking wise. And like our President, the usual subject of his jokes are women, whom he seems to hate and fear almost savagely.
It's 1933, the year Hitler came to power, and of all the volleys in the Jewish invasion of American culture, the Marx Brothers were, are, and will always be the single most important volley.
In the same way that race, sex, and gender permeates nearly everything in our zeitgeist, 1933 was permeated with questions of social class.