Friday, February 22, 2013

The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom by James Burnham

James Burnham's The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom (1943, 305 p.) came into my possession in 2001 upon purchase from Great Expectations Bookstore in Evanston, Illinois. It languished--or should I say waited for me--on my shelves until last summer, when it made the cut to India. It proved its merit, and I can only regret the wait. 

Burnham, better known for his The Managerial Revolution and then later as a writer at William F. Buckley's National Review, writes at a midway point in his odyssey from Trotskyite to Buckleyite. In this work, Burnham, starts by dismissing the claims of Dante's De Monarchia as anything other than at attempt to cover a naked political agenda. After dismissing Dante, he moves into a discussion of Dante’s fellow Florentine, political realist, Niccolo Machiavelli. Burnham argues that only by knowing politics as it's actually practiced, and not how we might wish it practiced, can we obtain and hold a measure of freedom. 

After discussing Machiavelli, Burnham moves forward a several centuries to discuss lesser known political thinkers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, names familiar but not often read: Mosca (theory of the ruling class), Sorel (myth and violence), Michaels (iron law of oligarchy), and Pareto (famous for several things, but here about elites and beliefs). Each of these thinkers, early practitioners of political science as a discipline, looks at the stark realities of politics. For instance, the dominance of elites, the role of political parties (and elites within those parties), and beliefs based on something other than empirical science. In other words, how politics, even in nascent democracies, works. 

Burnham's argues that only by understanding how politics actually works can we preserve a measure of freedom, and his point convinces. Naive understandings of our political system only lead to frustration and failure. These individuals and their successors, the men and women who have studied politics since this was written (and even earlier, as Pareto is the most recent thinker considered) give us greater insight into our ways of practicing politics. Of course, ideas and even ideals are important, and perhaps Burnham undervalues these, but they do not overcome many hard realities. Machiavelli, ever the fascinating character, sets the tone not as a purveyor of evil, as the naive suppose him to be, but the consummate realist. Burnham and his thinkers add to this tradition, and by doing so can help us become wiser about the political world in which we live.  



The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

First edition dust jacketIn 1972 the naturalist writer and novelist Peter Matthiessen joined an expedition to go deep into the Nepalese Himalayas with biologist George Schaller to study the bharal, an ancestor of both sheep and goats, and to perhaps catch a glimpse of the elusive snow leopard. Matthiessen’s book is in essence a diary of the arduous trek into the deep mountain wilderness beginning in late September and ending near the beginning of December. This is not an Into Thin Air account of a trek gone bad. Matthiessen and his group all survive, although conditions prove arduous, and the book contains no cliffhangers. Instead, it’s a description of the land, plants, animals, people, and culture of the region. If this was not enough—and it’s quite a lot—it’s also a reflection by Matthiessen on himself and his life. He undertakes this journey less than a year after the death of his wife from cancer, and he recounts their relationship in life and death. 

Matthiessen’s writing in The Snow Leopard (1978, 294 p.) is spare, concise, and yet detailed. Through the journey we learn a great deal about Matthiessen’s present and past. Matthiessen spares neither his environment nor himself as he reports about both about his surroundings and his own thoughts. Mathiessen is a student and practitioner of Zen Buddhism and his prose style reflects this clear, clean aesthetic. This serves him and his readers well because he’s also going deep into the culture of Tibetan Buddhism, a culture steeped in detailed mythology and symbolism that contrasts markedly with the sparse Zen aesthetic. Despite this contrast, Matthiessen’s sympathy for Tibetan Buddhism and the surrounding culture remains palpable. 

By the end of the journey and the book, the fact that Matthiessen observed only signs of the snow leopard’s presence and never any direct observation does not concern us (or him). We understand that this outcome is fitting. Matthiessen’s own journey and ours remain incomplete. We struggle with emotions, with failures, and with coming to grips with the now. We can think of Matthiessen’s book as a meditation: detailed, observant, honest—one that combines mindfulness and insight. Like the mountains that he describes, one leaves the book with a sense of awe at what Mathiessen has accomplished using only the humble tool of prose. Matthiessen won the National Book Award for Cotemporary Thought for this masterpiece in 1979 and for Nonfiction on 1980 with the publication of the paperback edition, and reading it now almost a quarter of a century later, it still merits it accolades. 

Cross-blogged in Steve's View from Abroad.