by Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
Published in Church and Life (1841) 27.9.2012 – 17.10.2012 No 15 Pg 2
One of the most controversial figures in political history is the Florentine, Niccolò Macchiavelli (1469 – 1527); a man who fractures public opinion, being both vehemently despised and similarly passionately revered. Macchiavelli’s reputation for political subterfuge was largely earned because of the publication of a single tract, titled: The Prince (Il Principe, 1532); a text in which Macchiavelli outlines how a non-heriditary Prince can establish authority over a newly acquired state. Macchiavelli’s advice to ‘Prince-new’ which included the use of cruel and ruthless actions, affronted people not only of his Age, but people up to the present Age. So reviled did Macchiavelli become that a sobriquet for the devil, ‘Old Nick’ was derived from Macchiavelli’s first name – Niccolò.
Whether one believes Macchiavelli to have been history’s supreme pragmatist or not, even those who despise the man, recognize Macchiavelli’s place in political philosophy; built upon intuitive insight into human behaviour and societal interaction.
In his Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Macchiavelli in Hell (1989), Sebastian de Grazia provides a myriad of examples of Macchiavelli’s gift of observation. At one point, de Grazia writes: “Desires, appetites, and passions are dangerously deceptive. All deceive the senses and reason, and so does memory. Memory is short and its transmission from one generation to another, faulty. Whenever a form of government changes, say from kingship to republic, one finds a memory gap between those who establish the new form and the succeeding generation. The authority of the new form is lost once ”that generation that had established it was exhausted.” Regimes topple because one generation does not remember what the previous one suffered and learned and transmitted in principles of law, custom, and religion. Too long a time has passed without concern for fundamental beliefs: “men begins to vary customs and transgress the laws.” (de Grazia, 1989, p. 260).
This observation has more than a little importance for contemporary society; a society that sees too often ‘change’ as being an indicator of progress; a society where managers are judged by the amount they have done – rather on whether their actions were indeed necessary or not. The rise and fall of managers on the corporate ladder; is change-driven – because ‘change’ is readily observable, and supposedly highlights the use of initiative by the manager. Yet Macchiavelli provides us with a rather cautionary point for consideration when it comes to changing the memory and identity of institutions.
Generations come and generations go, and no one in recent and verifiable times at least has ever lived long enough to see the coming and passing of more than a handful of these generations. The problem of mortality, is that no single manager can see and act upon an institution with personal terms of reference that extend for more than a few decades. Thus leaders and managers at best can make patch-work quilts of institutions knitted from what personal experiences they bring to the position, as well as what they know of the institution’s history of which they find themselves at the helm. Macchiavelli enters our discussion once more at this point. Institutions, regimes and governments, collapse if they do not pay particular attention to thei underlying principles and the history that has kept them thus far, secure and functioning. A failure to promote these ideals with the populace, creates problems in the long term. It is when generations lose this sense of shared memory and identity, that the fabric which binds them, tears apart – and with it the seeds of advancement. Thus in what is seemingly a paradox – Macchiavelli builds a thesis by which the memory of the past informs and strengthens the steps required to journey into the future. If a people do not know who they are; then there is little a leader can do, other than to seek out a common enemy, or implement cruelty and coercion to unify them; because the natural tendency is toward self-interest. A clear example by which memory and identity are defiled in the eyes of the people who comprise the State, is when a leader by his actions turns his back on what the society holds as sacrosanct. In Macchiavelli’s words: “May princes know then that they begin to lose [their] state at that hour they begin to break the laws and those customs and usages that are ancient and under which men have lived for a long time.” (de Grazia, 1989, p. 150). A leader may be able to fool a part of society, the young most commonly who may not have acquired a sense of societal memory – but those who are older, will remember – and will challenge. The proof of Macchiavelli’s insight can be seen in the Cambodian dictator, Pol Pot, and his actions specifically wiping out generations of people in order to change a political, cultural and spiritual paradigm.
For Macchiavelli the most important facet that holds society together is (oddly enough for a man who has had is name given to the devil) – religion. As Macchiavelli notes: “… truly, never was there an ordainer of extraordinary laws to a people who did not recur to God …” (de Grazia, 1989, p. 150). He writes: “Those who are ungrateful to God, it is impossible that they not be enemies to [their] neighbour”; and more: “How can those who scorn God respect men?” (de Grazia, 1989, p. 82). Macchiavelli could be held up now as a hypocrite, for he clearly states in his philosophy as dearest to him civic responsibility; in fact, to Macchiavelli: “the greatest good that one can do and the most gratifying to God, is that which one does for one’s country”.(de Grazia, 1989, p. 381). God is most pleased according to the Florentine, if one strives to preserve the common good, in the framework of a stable political state.One wonders how Macchiavelli would respond to the political events of our time, particularly the London Riots, where people who live in conditions vastly superior to those of the past, and comparatively better than those in the
majority of the world; riot and destroy cities, merely for the sake of so doing. Macchiavelli would have understood such events, if they were based on necessity, for example, the pressing need for food. But how would he assess a situation where the streets are filled with healthy and educated people – who begin turning on their own; who are not stealing out of need, to survive – but are stealing wants, so as to acquire. Burned in the minds of many people who witnessed the 2011 London Riots is a CCTV image of a young man being helped to his feet, then dusted off; blood pouring from his broken jaw. This visibly injured and shaken man, gives a quick look of thanks to those whom he believes have come to his aid; yet all the while, unbeknown to him, but seen by us from the safety of our homes, he is being robbed – his backpack emptied of its contents. This is not some scene from a morality play – it is unfortunately, the reality for some; evil masked as The Good Samaritan.
Possibly Macchiavelli would probably point to his personal thesis on memory and identity – of the need for every society to educate its people in the importance of law, custom and religion. Most likely, Macchiavelli would suggest, that the citizens of one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities – having little shared collective memory act according to pure impulse; rather than according to custom and law. Macchiavelli may also point out that when God is removed from the shared consciousness of society, and materialism becomes an idol, that laws lose their mettle – for every man begins to reason that they are un-hindered to exercise personal freedom, accountable to no one, either in the here or the thereafter; and as such the social contract that should hold society together, loosens its grip.
Macchiavelli concludes: a man unafraid of God – will have no fear of any human legislator; and his obedience to the latter will be tenuous; a mere act of tolerance; thus he endorses hard-arm tactics in order to keep the lowest common denominator in check. If a riot is calmed only by increased police presence – are the people, indeed law-abiding or lawless? For where one man’s conscience is ill-informed, disaster may eventuate, from his singular action; but in a society of men of poorly formed consciences, who lust for the material and reject altruism; such a society, creates the the seeds and potential for widespread distrust, anarchy and riot. Such a society teeters like a drum of gasoline; awaiting only the tiniest of sparks to ignite a furnace.