Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, December 16, 2013

MACHIAVELLI: The Prince (Safety and Security vs. Freedom)

Americans love personal freedom. We love it so much that we tend to think everyone else must love it too. This is partly true, partly not true. In the Great Books we see examples of civilizations which didn’t think of personal freedom in the same terms we do. In Exodus we read that Pharaoh ruled Egypt as absolute dictator. In Herodotus’ Persian Wars we read that Xerxes ruled the Persians as absolute dictator. Modern readers often wonder why the Persians and the Egyptians didn’t rise up and throw off tyrannical rule. Maybe they didn’t want to. Maybe they loved safety and security more than they loved freedom. This is exactly what Pharaoh of Egypt and the King of Persia offered their people: safety and security in exchange for freedom. In contrast, the ancient Hebrews and Greeks wanted freedom more than they wanted safety and security. In Exodus Moses leads the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of a promised land. In The Persian Wars Herodotus tells how the Greeks astonished the world by standing up to, and defeating, the vast Persian army and navy. Great Books authors generally take strong stances in these two opposing values of security versus freedom.
Machiavelli seems to agree with Hobbes: safety and security are the most important things. Hobbes wrote that “During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man.” Machiavelli believes the ruler’s job is to be that “common power” which holds a nation together. It’s not an easy job to keep men from fighting “every man against every man.” That’s why Machiavelli thinks “it is much safer to be feared than loved…” This was also the philosophy of Pharaoh and Xerxes. Most Americans believe freedom is more important than safety. Many of us think that way because we’ve been safe and secure for so long we don’t seriously consider what the alternative would be like. Hobbes tells us what it would be like: “Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man… there is no place for industry, no culture, no navigation, no building, no arts, no letters, no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short.” This bleak view is what Machiavelli’s ruler hopes to avoid. But ruling people takes a certain kind of ruthless wisdom and courage. Machiavelli says a ruler must “be a fox in order to know the traps, and a lion to frighten the wolves.” Hobbes may have had this concept in mind when he wrote that “I know that Aristotle in the first book of his Politics, for a foundation of his doctrine, makes men by nature, some more worthy to command, meaning the wiser sort, such as he thought himself to be for his philosophy; others to serve, meaning those that had strong bodies, but were not philosophers as he…”
Aristotle the philosopher says this about safety and security versus freedom: “…is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” Machiavelli read Aristotle and agrees that some are born to rule, others to be ruled. The prince is born to rule. He may read Aristotle or Hobbes but Machiavelli thinks a prince should “ask about everything, and listen to opinions, and afterward deliberate by himself, in his own way.” Being wise in “his own way” is the key factor to being a good ruler. Why? Machiavelli explains that “a prince who is not wise in his own right cannot be advised well.” Even Aristotle or Hobbes can’t help a prince who isn’t already wise as a fox and strong as a lion.

Monday, December 09, 2013

MACHIAVELLI: The Prince (An Immoral Book?)

The Prince may seem vaguely familiar to some readers, especially older readers. Corleone. That’s it. The Godfather. The Godfather was one of the most popular movies in American history. It is currently ranked as the second greatest film in American cinema (behind Citizen Kane) by the American Film Institute. The Vito Corleone family was from Italy. Machiavelli was from Italy. This kind of stuff was in the Corleone bloodline. Machiavelli’s book isn’t about how to be a successful mafia godfather in modern America. But it is a book about how to get (and hold on to) power. And it’s a serious book, a great book. A good question for Great Books readers: is it an immoral book?
First let’s define a couple of terms. What do we mean by “immoral?” Merriam-Webster defines “immoral” as “not morally good or right: morally evil or wrong; conflicting with generally or traditionally held moral principles.” Now let’s consider a word that sounds similar but has a different meaning: amoral. Merriam-Webster defines “amoral” as “having or showing no concern about whether behavior is morally right or wrong.” By these definitions is The Prince an “immoral” book or an “amoral” book? Let’s analyze this passage from Machiavelli’s work.
“…the Romans did in these instances what all prudent princes ought to do, who have to regard not only present troubles, but also future ones, for which they must prepare with every energy, because, when foreseen, it is easy to remedy them; but if you wait until they approach, the medicine is no longer in time because the malady has become incurable; …Therefore, the Romans, foreseeing troubles, dealt with them at once, and, even to avoid a war, would not let them come to a head, for they knew that war is not to be avoided, but is only put off to the advantage of others; moreover they wished to fight with Philip and Antiochus in Greece so as not to have to do it in Italy; they could have avoided both, but this they did not wish…” (p. 205)
We see how methodically Machiavelli’s mind works. He thinks like a doctor diagnosing a disease. The Romans faced the same problems all powerful countries face. They had many enemies and many potential enemies. How did they handle them? They “dealt with them at once and… would not let them come to a head.” Machiavelli approves of this method. How do we know? Because, he says the Romans “knew that war is not to be avoided, but is only put off to the advantage of others.” The Romans wanted to fight in Greece so they wouldn’t have to fight in Italy. Today we fight in Baghdad so we won’t have to fight in Boston tomorrow. The idea of pre-emptive war is troubling to many Americans. Do we have the moral authority to attack another country not because of anything they’ve actually done but because of something they may (or may not) do in the future? Machiavelli would respond: that’s not the right question. Your first concern is preservation. Leave morality to philosophers and theologians. Your job (if you’re the leader of a country) is to get power and hold on to it. If you want to study the relationship between politics and ethics, read Plato or Aristotle. If you want to be a successful leader then read my book, The Prince. You may have fine moral ideas and want to accomplish many good things. But without power you won’t accomplish anything. First get power. That’s the only way you can really change the world. Machiavelli would not consider The Prince to be an immoral book but he might concede that it’s amoral. There’s no room for moral/immoral distinctions in politics; or in the mafia. In The Godfather Michael Corleone knew that the Tattaglias posed a mortal threat to his “business” and his family; if not now, then in the future. No hard feelings; he just did what he had to do. Machiavelli would have approved.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

HENRY JAMES: The Beast in the Jungle (6: Fate and Mathematics)

The theme of Fate floats through this whole story like a fog. It sets the tone and blurs the actions of the characters. It lurks in the background like a beast in the jungle. And fog is a good artistic image of Fate. But is it an accurate description? Is Fate like a fog, the way it is for John Marcher? Or is Fate more like a beacon shining in darkness, as it is in Sophocles’ story of Oedipus the King? An oracle had predicted that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus did everything within his power to prevent this from happening. But hard as he tried, he only assured the very Fate that he was trying to avoid. Sophocles made Fate as clear as a lighthouse beacon cutting through the fog.
Can fate possibly be as clear as mathematics? We can try a simple experiment. The simplest mathematical relationship is x = y. Show me what x is and I can show you what y will be. If x is an optimistic outlook, then y will be the optimistic fate. John Marcher’s outlook on life (X) was a good indicator of what his fate (Y) would be. Of course real life is never that simple. Some people are born with good health or a good mind, for example (let’s call these “a”). If we add in these “a” factors, our formula becomes X + a = Y. But what if someone is born with poor health or has bad habits? Subtract the negative factors (call these “b”). Now we have the formula X (a – b) = Y. Life is even more complicated than that. No man is an island. Some people live in good societies, some don’t. This social effect gets multiplied in urban environments and creates possibilities far beyond the capacities of any one individual. In The Beast in the Jungle, for example, John and May go to the opera. Let’s call positive social factors “c”. Plugging c into our equation we now have X (a – b) x c = Y. Social factors can also be destructive or divisive. So we need to divide by the bad social factors (called, “d”). What we finally end up with is something like this: X (a-b) x (c/d) = Y. Or, X plus (a) minus (b) times (c) divided by (d) = Y. My attitude plus my personal gifts minus my personal vices times my social advantages… etc. And presto! Fate is mathematical.
No one is convinced by this argument. Why not? There are too many variables in life to reduce it to a mathematical formula. John Marcher and May Bartram are not just variables in a mathematical equation. They’re human beings with personal emotions and private reasons of their own making. This is exactly what Dostoyevsky was protesting in his story Notes from the Underground: don’t turn me and my life into a formula. I’m a man, not X or Y. Mathematics is like a stone wall. What stone wall? To quote from his story: “What stone wall? Why, the laws of nature, of course, the conclusions of natural science, mathematics… Good Lord, they’ll scream at you, you can’t possibly deny that 2+2=4! Never does nature ask you for your opinion; she does not care a damn for your wishes or whether you like her laws or not. You are obliged to accept her as she is…” But Dostoevsky responds: “…what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic if for some reason I don’t like those laws of 2+2=4? No doubt I shall never be able to break through such a stone wall with my forehead, if I really do not possess the strength to do it, but I shall not reconcile myself to it just because I have to deal with a stone wall and haven’t the strength to knock it down.” (GB 2nd Series, Vol. 1) That’s a valiant attitude; but he may end up beating his head against a stone wall of truth forever. Both Oedipus and Marcher found out their fates the hard way. For Sophocles fate was a beacon of truth shining in the darkness. Henry James thinks fate is more like a beast in a foggy jungle.