Category Archives: Literature

On “The Prince” by Nicolo Machiavelli

machiavelli

Image from Jacobin

Anyone interested in change should be interested in Machiavelli.

That many of the observations in The Prince have been cited by leaders with questionable methods in fields such as business and war means the 16th Century Italian adviser has a negative reputation. But investing time in reading the source text on which most of Machiavelli’s reputation is based (i.e. not including The Discourses) will reveal more subtlety, wisdom and honesty than you might expect.

For anyone at any level who is interested in driving or influencing change, it provides plenty of practical advice:

[N]othing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

From within this setting derives much of Machiavelli’s advice about how to work with different groups of people in the new order. This includes both people who have become “enemies” and, perhaps a harder group to manage, those who were supportive of change. In the latter’s case, Machiavelli recommends you, first, understand the motivations for their support:

[H]e must well consider the reasons which induced those to favour him who did so; and if it be not a natural affection towards him, but only discontent with their government, then he will only keep them friendly with great trouble and difficulty, for it will be impossible to satisfy them.

and then understand the implications:

and you are not able to keep those friends who put you there because of your not being able to satisfy them in the way they expected, and you cannot take strong measures against them, feeling bound to them.

A risk of not addressing either enemies or supporters quickly enough is the emergence of factions, on which Machiavelli has a clear view:

I do not believe that factions can ever be of use; rather it is certain that when the enemy comes upon you in divided cities you are quickly lost, because the weakest party will always assist the outside forces and the other will not be able to resist.

As well as considering external circumstances, there is equally sound advice for the ‘Prince’ or leader of change, especially in how they should carry and prepare themselves:

But to exercise the intellect the prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have borne themselves[,] to examine the causes of their victories and defeat, so as to avoid the latter and imitate the former; and above all do as an illustrious man did, who took as an exemplar one who had been praised and famous before him, and whose achievements and deeds he always kept in his mind

and

he ought to be a constant inquirer, and afterwards a patient listener concerning the things of which he inquired.

Machiavelli is clear this holds at all times, not just at times of change:

A wise prince ought to observe some such rules, and never in peaceful times stand idle, but increase his resources with industry in such a way that they may be available to him in adversity, so that if fortune changes it may find him prepared to resist her blows.

Such diligence can help prepare for whatever eventuality may arise, which it surely will:

And in examining [great leaders’] 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.

Preparation will also allow “evils to be foreseen” and an ability to “distinguish the character of troubles, and for choice to take the lesser evil”. Ultimately, building such foundations will also help with sustainability:

 Nothing can be so uncertain or unstable as fame or power not founded on its own strength.

Of course, all of these insights aimed at ‘princes’ are equally useful for those seeking to influence change: they help provide an insight into the way leaders may be thinking, and therefore an indication of how influencers should accordingly position themselves.

The Prince is only short. Even then, a reasonable proportion is taken up with describing the actions of various leaders drawn from Italian history and beyond that can (unless interested) easily be passed over. Investing time in reading it, and putting to one side what you think Machiavelli might represent, is time well used.

“Somewhere in the world life must be tremendously diverting”

Impressive sounds, some of them, seeming to assure you that somewhere in the world life must be tremendously diverting, exceptionally exciting, and all good clean fun in the meantime… And even, now and then, truth reaches you with the penetrating power of a very quiet voice.

- from “Largo by the Sea (A Prologue)” in Varmints, by Peggy Bennett.

(Thanks to the excellent Neglected Books for uncovering this.)

 

 

 

 

 

“Failure all the way down”

“Fail better,” Samuel Beckett commanded, a phrase that has been taken on by business executives as some kind of ersatz wisdom. They have missed the point completely. Beckett didn’t mean failure-on-the-way-to-delayed-success[.] To fail better, to fail gracefully and with composure, is so essential because there’s no such thing as success. It’s failure all the way down.

- Stephen Marche, writing in the New York Times

Mark Twain’s ‘returns of conjecture’ from ‘investment of fact’

One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.

This was Mark Twain on science in “Life on the Mississippi”, but he could well have been talking about any aspect of the modern world.

It’s a human folly to interpret new information in a way that confirms everything you already think. In danger of repeating this folly, though, the Twain quotation hits home with me for two current reasons.

First, I recently reflected on my relationship with news and decided to make a conscious and proactive choice to opt out of the news, social and other media. This was because:

I’d grown tired of most sources of media. Their focus seemed only to be on trivial, untrue or highly creative interpretations of things to do with politics and policy, or fanning the flames of these things with news stories and opinion pieces. I’d also grown increasingly tired with social media, the majority of which was people sharing either trivial, untrue or highly creative interpretations of things relating to politics and policy, or sharing a news story or opinion column that had fanned the flames of their outrage. On top of this, I found myself frustrated with the never-ending wealth of blogs, reports, videos and so on which offered organisation x’s perspective on the latest thing y or z.

This clearly reflects Twain’s observation. In this case, ‘trifling fact’ was the latest policy idea or something political that had happened, and the torrent of interpretations, opinions and perspectives were the ‘wholesale returns of conjecture’.

The second is on the nature of evidence.

Instead of considering, questioning and reflecting on new evidence – what it might actually tell us, what limitations it has, what our interpretations of it might reveal of our own assumptions – our current policy and political approaches tend to use any new evidence as the jumping off point for any number of other directions. As I intimated before, this is because we don’t live in a rational, evidence-led vacuum that is protected from the whims of politicians and public opinion. This in itself is fine (well, it’s reality); Twain’s observation reinforces to me we should invest more in what is currently ‘trifling fact’ than where most effort is made – on ‘wholesale returns on conjecture’.

First World War historiography

The First World War is fascinating enough, but the historiography of the First World War – the history of its history – is also fascinating.

Here are two recent historiographical accounts of the First World War I found particularly interesting.

Simon Heffer, writing in the New Statesman:

The historiography of the war began when the war did.

William Philpott, writing in the TLS, on three recent histories of the First World War:

Describing it [WWI] is straightforward, but explaining it is difficult, understanding it, even more so. In the centenary free-for-all there will be rehashing alongside reinterpretation, and expertise or originality may not count for much.

Thoreau on progress

People familiar with John Gray’s writing will know Gray thinks human progress is less a fact than a myth.

He means specifically progress in human affairs, rather than in technology or medicine, for example, and it’s a view I suspect Henry David Thoreau would also subscribe to now.

Here is Thoreau writing on what I take to be the myth of progress in Walden:

While civilization has been improving our homes, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. It has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings.

and

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at.

To me it seems Thoreau is picking up on two separate things here: one is the quality of men who have risen to lead, and the second is the quality and type of institutions through which such men govern and to what end. In both points, Thoreau reaches a Gray-like conclusion on the myth of progress.

In Civil Disobedience, his famous ‘political’ essay, Thoreau takes things further: he advocates nonviolent means as the most effective way of creating social change, especially against the law and political institutions.

Though at the heart of Thoreau’s writings is the individual rather than the collective, there is something in what he has to say about ‘the machine’ which is relevant if we are to understand the myth of progress and to proceed anyway:

All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough to counterbalance the evil. But when the friction comes to have its machine, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.

On Walden

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Image from the Thoreau Reader

Image from the Thoreau Reader

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau moved to live in solitude in the woods outside Concord, Massachusetts. Walden is his account not only of the rhythms and patterns of the time he spent there, but a series of reflections on wider themes, particularly the rhythms and patterns of mankind.

Reading Walden and other biographical details of Thoreau, I personally found it hard to like him. He feels too critical of fellow men and too impressed by his own actions and way of doing things.

Nevertheless there is a kernel in his thinking I found to be very attractive. This was the sense of focusing only on the things that matter in life to you, and not being distracted from them by “pretty toys”.

Thoreau has found that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” and that a “stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed under what are called the games and amusements of mankind”. As a result, he feels that “men come tamely home at night only from the next field or street… their shadows morning and evening reach further than their daily steps.”

Where I found Thoreau most appealing was in his encouragement that the ability to change away from this can come from ourselves. He notes we are all “sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones” and that we must therefore:

Learn to reawaken ourselves and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn… I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour… Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.

Though it may not take as radical a solution as being alone in a secluded wood for two years, this essence of Thoreau’s thinking makes Walden a worthwhile, if not challenging, study.

(For readers who may not read it all, the sections on Economy, Where I Lived, Reading and the Conclusion contain Thoreau’s most pertinent arguments relevant to the themes I highlight above.)

“Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it…”

How can she get away with it?” Lavender said to Matilda. “Surely the children go home and tell their mothers and fathers. I know my father would raise a terrific stink if I told him the Headmistress had grabbed me by the hair and slung me over the playground fence.”

“No he wouldn’t,” Matilda said, “and I’ll tell you why. He simply wouldn’t believe you.”

“Of course he would.”

“He wouldn’t,” Matilda said. “And the reason is obvious. Your story would sound too ridiculous to be believed. And that is the Trunchbull’s great secret… Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it’s unbelievable. No parent is going to believe this pigtail story, not in a million years. Mine wouldn’t. They’d call me a liar.”

[…]

“I don’t think she’s mad,” Martilda said. “But she’s very dangerous.”

- from Roal Dahl’s Matilda.

(For more information about #justiceforLB, the summary is here and all information and reaction on Twitter is channeled through @JusticeforLB.)

Banker, confectioner, tile maker

In [Gujerat], a banker who was having his house re-roofed had a quarrel with a confectioner. The confectioner came to an agreement with the tile makers who refused to provide the banker with tiles.

- E.A.H. Blunt, via Francis Fukuyama in Origins of Political Order.

The Origins of Political Order, by Francis Fukuyama

For anyone with more than a passing interest in how political institutions are created, maintained and changed (not Russell Brand, then), there is a great roll call of names and their works to be read: Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Hume, Jefferson, Rousseau, de Tocqueville, Maine, Weber, Marx, Durkheim, Huntington and so on.

What I’ve always found fascinating is that, apart, essentially, from details, the fundamental components of what forms a successful political institution have been known for a (relatively) considerable period of time. It is seemingly more a case of implementation now.

Francis Fukuyama* notes this point as made by Alexandre Kojeve, who said that history had ended in 1806 when Napoleon defeated the Prussian monarchy at the Battle of Jena-Auerstadt. Fukuyama summarises Kojeve’s point as being:

Everything that had happened since 1806, including the sturm und drang of the twentieth century with its great wars and revolutions, was simply a matter of backfilling. That is the basic principles of modern government had been established by the time of the Battle of Jena; the task thereafter was not to find new principles and a higher political order but rather to implement them through larger and larger parts of the world.

What’s more, Fukuyama basically agrees with Kojeve’s assertion:

The three components of a modern political order – a strong and capable state, the stat’s subordination to a rule of law, and government accountability to all citizens – had all been established in one or another part of the world by the endof the eighteenth century. China had developed a powerful state early on; the rule of law existed in India, the Middle East, and Europe; and in Britain, accountable government appeared for the first time. Political development in the years subsequent to the Battle of Jena involved the replication of these institutions across the world, but not in their being supplemented by fundamentally new ones.

The remarkable thing about Fukuyama’s book is that, by the time you reach this section (page 420 of 483), he has detailed exactly how these three components have developed and when, where, how. Furthermore, his starting point is the descent of man from primates and their exit out of Africa.

The disciplines that The Origins of Political Order brings together means it is a quite incredible book. The stuff you learn (or, at least, I learnt) about whole swathes of history and countries is remarkable. It’s a book I recommend without hesitation to anyone who has an interest in the foundations of how we’ve come to be where we currently are.

*If I may, I suggest you ignore any association between Fukuyama and the neo-cons that might linger in your mind.

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