Saturday, March 9, 2013

Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince, translated by Tim Parks

I first encountered The Prince in the spring of 1972, a time when we might say an archetypical Machiavellian figure occupied the White House. I read it as an assignment in my introduction to political theory course. I don't remember a great deal about the book (although I do remember the "C" I took in the course!) Anyway, the topic of political theory took with me anyway, and I've returned to Machiavelli again by assignment and of my own volition. Why? He is (perhaps along with Thucydides) the supreme political realist. As James Burnham made clear in The Machiavellians, a keen understanding of how politics really works, as opposed to how we would like it to work, provides us with a knowledge that we can ignore only at our peril. Not that we shouldn't think or work for a better political system, but that we had better understand how it really is working.

As a paper for a course in Renaissance history I wrote about the mirror of princes literature that preceded Machiavelli. These were medieval tracts that advised rulers to act according the Church and Aristotilian stardards. In other words, to act like goody two-shoes. Then comes Machiavelli like a Tammany Hall ward captain at Girls State, pulling the would be leader aside and telling her, "Hey, kid, listen up. If you wanta' get ahead here, here's whatcha' gotta' do". The intuitive ruler always knew these things, or at least some of them, but never before had anyone of any noteriety ever stated the real practices so blatantly. (And, by the way, while Machiavelli didn't offer his advice to young ladies, he did write The Prince to try to woo the Medici family into retaining his services. It didn't work.)
I'd seen that #JLF speaker Tim Parks had recently completed a translation of the The Prince and that Jared Diamond (who looks quite mellow) had given The Prince a shout out in an interview asking what he'd recommend to the president to read, so I took up Parks's translation. Parks, a Brit who lives and writes in Italy, and whose book Teach Us to Sit Still I greatly enjoyed, has performed a great service and provided us with a very useful translation. I don't have any expertise on translations, but Parks explains his intent in the introduction--to give a sense of the "handbook"style that Machiavelli wanted to use to convey his practical wisdom--and it works very well. For instance, Machiavelli's famous description of fortune (fortuna) as a woman was not written--nay, was intentionally not written--to be politically correct. Parks recognizes this and translates the passage with the machismo that Machiavelli no doubt intended to convey. This everyday, contemporary English gives this translation a feel that matches its practical usefulness for today.

I was going to go on to discuss Machiavelli, who still intrigues and puzzles me. However, such an understaking isn't easy, as he has perplexed and challenged thinkers since he published The Prince. But good luck rode to the rescue, and I happened upon this piece by Isaiah Berlin, the British political philosopher and historian of ideas, in which he thourghly reviews the literature on Machiavelli and arrives at his own assessment. I can't do better and won't try, except to say that the "evil Machiavel" is worth the read to challenge and inform you. Here's a teaser snippet from Berlin's article that I'll close with: 

But the question that his writings have dramatized, if not for himself, then for others in the centuries that followed, is this: what reason have we for supposing that justice and mercy, humility and virtù, happiness and knowledge, glory and liberty, magnificence and sanctity will always coincide, or indeed be compatible at all? Poetic justice is, after all, so called not because it does, but because it does not, as a rule, occur in the prose of ordinary life, where, ex hypothesi, a very different kind of justice operates.

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