Machiavelli, the Great Recession, and the Cloaks of State

Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli. Source: USA Today book review.

Author’s note: In preparation for publishing a collection of essays and short fiction, this post has been edited.

The year 2013 was the 500th anniversary of Niccolò Machiavelli’s book The Prince. One might think that the arguments it introduced have long since been settled, but there will never be an end to this ancient debate: What are the rules of political power?

The question had an urgency for me as I worked on the next-to-last draft of my first novel. What does “freedom” mean to a slave girl who has escaped from the theocratic Ottoman Empire of the 1600’s? And what does it mean for a boy whose life so far has been waged on the Protestant side of the Thirty Years War, whose family has been killed by forces of the Holy Roman Empire?

But there was also a more conventional urgency to the question, as citizens the world over surveyed the ongoing fallout of our modern Great Recession, and the response by our national political leaders.

So I looked back at The Prince, the treatise that helped launched the modern absolutist state. Written in 1513 after its author was exiled, imprisoned and tortured by the Medici family, it was first published posthumously in 1532.

Before Machiavelli, says the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “In a sense, it was thought that rulers did well when they did good; they earned the right to be obeyed and respected inasmuch as they showed themselves to be virtuous and morally upright.”

As St. Augustine asked in City of God, “If it does not do justice, what is the government but a great criminal enterprise?”

After Machiavelli … well, here’s where it gets interesting. Again, the Stanford Encyclopedia:

“For Machiavelli, there is no moral basis on which to judge the difference between legitimate and illegitimate uses of power. Rather, authority and power are essentially coequal: whoever has power has the right to command; but goodness does not ensure power and the good person has no more authority by virtue of being good. Thus, in direct opposition to a moralistic theory of politics, Machiavelli says that the only real concern of the political ruler is the acquisition and maintenance of power. … Only by means of the proper application of power, Machiavelli believes, can individuals be brought to obey and will the ruler be able to maintain the state in safety and security.”

It should be obvious to us all that rulers before Machiavelli were rarely virtuous or moral. It was that very fact which led him to write The Prince. In today’s parlance, we call his philosophy realpolitik, “politics based on practical and material factors rather than on theoretical or ethical objectives.” Again, from the Encyclopedia:

“Without exception the authority of states and their laws will never be acknowledged when they are not supported by a show of power which renders obedience inescapable. The methods for achieving obedience are varied, and depend heavily upon the foresight that the prince exercises. Hence, the successful ruler needs special training.”

Now, regardless of what the modern citizen of Western Civilization thinks of these ideas – and they elicit an almost universal hatred, at least in public discourse – Machiavelli himself was not the personification of evil. He had a wife and kids, he wrote poetry, and, as a book review of Miles Unger’s biography notes, “Rather than planning to write an ageless best-selling book, Machiavelli hoped to impress the new ruler of Florence, so that he might regain a salaried government job.”

If the book had stayed within Italy’s borders, history would be different. But the ideas spread, as ideas are wont to do, and the German princes took hold to disastrous effect. German historian Friedrich Meinecke, whose The Doctrine of Statism in Modern History was published in English in 1957, wrote that Machiavelli’s ideas were nothing new to Italians; he simply confirmed what already existed.

“In Italy the theorists’ doctrine, that raison d’état stood above statute law, had not really said anything new, but had only confirmed an existing situation. For here Roman Law, which was saturated with the spirit of the ancient raison d’état, and which absolved the rulers from being bound by the laws, had continued to remain alive; and the early decline of the feudal system, the early appearance of violently energetic city-tyrants and rulers, had not permitted here the formation of that tough crust of law founded on custom and privilege, which in Germany obstructed the rise of the modern State. Whatever rights and customs there were seemed to someone like Machiavelli so much the reverse of dangerous, that his raison d’état was capable of recommending that they should be respected as much as possible.”

So what if the Germans had a “tough crust of law” that “obstructed the rise of the modern State”? The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) destroyed old customs and laws, and Teutonic princes justified their will-to-power by invoking a different idea of justice: the public welfare. Thus, notes Meinecke, “it was perfectly permissible for the demands and necessities of the ‘public good’ to violate statute law and the laws which the State had made” and Machiavelli’s ideas “became a weapon which the modern State could brandish with full conviction and with a good conscience.”

The results – after much progress toward “enlightened despots” – were the American and French revolutions. In 1774 the First Continental Congress was established in the British colony of America, and Americans embraced an idea called “the consent of the governed.” In 1789, French revolutionaries introduced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, proclaiming “liberty, equality, the inviolability of property, and the right to resist oppression.”

As the Declaration of Independence says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed…”

Once again, war destroyed old customs and laws.

1) Machiavelli insisted that citizens of the State have no moral basis on which to judge the difference between legitimate and illegitimate uses of power; that the State can violate its own laws as long as its goal is “the public good.”

2) Americans insisted that the State is granted power by citizens, which it shall use to secure certain natural rights that belong to all human beings; and the State’s powers can be revoked by citizens who no longer consent to be governed.

Fast forward to the 21st century.

After more than 200 years of “progress” by “enlightened” socialists – including an epic world war with Soviet Socialists on one side and National Socialists on the other – Socialist Europe finds itself on the brink of another revolution.

America, thanks to “enlightened Progressives” like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Barack Hussein Obama, has become Socialist enough to entertain the idea of a Socialist president.

But in what direction has this “progress” taken us? In the era of “open borders” and “undocumented immigrants” can ordinary citizens still consent to be governed? Or is citizenship a moral and political anachronism, while the State can violate its own laws as long as its goal is the “public good”?

In America, the State has upheld a Constitutional right to privacy, but the “public good” demands CCTV cameras on every corner, full body scanners at airports, police drones over your neighborhoods, and “stingray” devices that police use to intercept your cell phone calls.

The State has upheld the Constitutional right to personal protection, but the State can also arbitrarily criminalize the most popular form of self-protection (the semi-automatic rifle or handgun) for the “public good.”

What about the pursuit of happiness? If your “happiness” is a freezing cold 32-ounce soda on a hot and humid New York summer day, the State can ban the sale of sugary drinks in the name of the “public good.”

Let us end with a look back at 1666, from Gustav Freytag’s 1859 reprint of “Images from the German Past”, a cutting satire on “the woes of the German people in the seventeenth century and its lifelessness and rigidity after the Thirty Years War.”

In the book (as described by Meinecke), a young and promising lawyer is taken into secret chambers to view the devices of State.

Pretend that you are this young counselor, and look closely at the cloaks of State. Beautiful on the outside but shabby on the inside, they are embroidered with phrases like “the welfare of the people shall be the supreme law.” Politicians wear these when meeting with constituents. Another – labeled “good intentions” – is worn while voting for new insupportable taxes, infuriating citizens with endless regulations, starting unnecessary wars, or declaring eminent domain for the “public good.”

Try on the eyeglasses of State. Gnats can be made into elephants, or little kindnesses on the part of the Prime Minister can be made into supreme acts of mercy.

Observe, but do not taste, the iron instrument with which the President can enlarge the gullets of his advisers so they can swallow great pumpkins.

Finally, a ball of knotted wire, furnished with sharp needles and heated by a fire within so that it draws tears from the eyes of the beholder, represents the Principles of Machiavelli. The politician keeps this in hand too; but she does not use it while her constituents are docile, because she does not wish to publicly ruin her good name unnecessarily.

Then naturally too, the politicians are using their own private ratio status for enriching themselves quite shamelessly.

Having looked behind the curtain of 1666, can you deny that what you see are the same tools of power used by our new absolutists? Some of the details are different, but their will-to-power remains the same. The pendulum is swinging back toward Machiavelli, and our modern princes are brandishing his weapons “with full conviction and with a good conscience.”

The Kidnappings that Launched a Thousand Ships

As the process of writing my novel comes to an end, I don’t waste much time on books that lend nothing to the story. I’m making an exception for Herodotus.

In my story, an ancient unreadable manuscript finds its way from Istanbul to the Baltic. (Sorry, no spoilers here. You’ll have to read the book…) In an earlier draft, this manuscript was an ancient version of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which told the tale of an even more ancient migration from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. My fevered author’s brain imagined that my book could mirror a mythic reversal of that epic journey.

Alas, my storytelling skills were not up to the challenge.

But my interest in that ancient world has not waned, and thus I bought a copy of Herodotus: The Histories for fifty cents at a garage sale.

The kidnapping of Helen brought about the Trojan War, but Herodotus tells us what brought about the kidnapping of Helen. And so, without further ado…

“Herodotus of Hallicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds — some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians — may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two people’s fought with each other.

“Learned Persians put the responsibility for the quarrel on the Phoenicians. These people came originally from the so-called Red Sea; and as soon as they had penetrated to the Mediterranean and settled in the country where they are today, they took to making long trading voyages. Loaded with Egyptian and Assyrian goods, they called at various places along the coast, including Argos, in those days the most important place in the land now called Hellas.

“Here in Argos they displayed their wares, and five or six days later when they were nearly sold out, a number of women came down to the beach to see the fair. Amongst these was the king’s daughter, whom Greek and Persian writers agree in calling Io, daughter of Inachus. These women were standing about near the vessel’s stern, buying what they fancied, when suddenly the Phoenician sailors passed the word along and made a rush at them. The greater number got away; but Io and some others were caught and bundled aboard the ship, which cleared at once and made off for Egypt.

“This, according to the Persian account (the Greeks have a different story), was how Io came to Egypt; and this was the first in a series of unjust acts.

“Later on some Greeks, whose name the Persians fail to record — they were probably Cretans — put into the Phoenician port of Tyre and carried off the king’s daughter Europa, thus giving them tit for tat.

“For the next outrage it was the Greeks again who were responsible. they sailed in an armed merchantman to Aea in Colchis on the river Phasis, and, not content with the regular business which had brought them there, they abducted the king’s daughter Medea. the king sent to Greece demanding reparations and his daughter’s return; but the only answer he got was that the Greeks had no intention of offering reparation, having received none themselves for the abduction of Io from Argos.

“The accounts go on to say that some forty or fifty years afterwards Paris, the son of Priam, was inspired by these stories to steal a wife for himself out of Greece, being confident that he would not have to pay for the venture any more than the Greeks had done. And that was how he came to carry off Helen.

“The first idea of the Greeks after the rape was to send a demand for satisfaction and for Helen’s return. the demand was met by a reference to the seizure of Medea and the injustice of expecting satisfaction from people to whom they had refused it, not to mention the fact that they had kept the girl.

“Thus far there had been nothing worse than woman-stealing on both sides; but for what happened next the Greeks, they say, were seriously to blame; for it was the Greeks who were, in a military sense, the aggressors. Abducting young women, in their opinion, is not, indeed, a lawful act; but it is stupid after the event to make a fuss about avenging it. The only sensible thing is to take no notice; for it is obvious that no young woman allows herself to be abducted if she does not wish to be. The Asiatics, according to the Persians, took the seizure of the women lightly enough, but not so the Greeks: the Greeks, merely on account of a girl from Sparta, raised a big army, invaded Asia and destroyed the empire of Priam. From that root sprang their belief in the perpetual enmity of the Grecian world towards them — because the Persians claim Asia and the barbarian races dwelling in it as their own, Europe and the Greek states being, in their opinion, quite separate and distinct from them.

“As to Io, the Phoenicians do not accept the Persian account; they deny that they took her to Egypt by force. On the contrary, the girl while she was still in Argos went to bed with the ship’s captain, found herself pregnant, and, ashamed to face her parents, sailed away voluntarily to escape exposure.

“So much for the what Persians and Phoenicians say; and I have no intention of passing judgement on its truth or falsity. I prefer to rely on my own knowledge, and to point out who it was in actual fact that first injured the Greeks; then I will proceed with my history, telling the story as I go along of small cities of men no less than of great. For most of those which were great once are small today; and those which used to be small were great in my own time. Knowing, therefore, that human prosperity never abides long in the same place, I shall pay attention to both alike.”

Passing the serpent’s jaws into Valhalla

Valhalla, a board game from Tara Hill Designs

Valhalla, a board game from Tara Hill Designs

On a ship out of Lubeck, headed downriver to the Baltic and bound for Castle Gottorp, two of the hands find time to play an ancient board game.

Valhalla is a game of both chance and strategy, in which the players overcome physical obstacles, attacks by their opponents and the whims of the Gods in order to reach a joyous afterlife in Odin’s hall – Valhalla. The game is loosely based on Senet, which originated in ancient Egypt and was adopted by the Greeks and later the Romans, until it may have made its way north into medieval Scandinavia.

I found the game online a couple of years ago and downloaded the instructions (which are apparently no longer available).

The game board is in the pattern of a serpent, representing the Midgard Serpent which dwelt in the deep ocean and encircled the world. Along the serpent’s back are three rows of 12 spaces each, some of which are marked with runes representing various special conditions. The first row is the home harbour, where each players pieces begin the game. The second row is the open ocean, where each side battles for position. In the middle is an island with a ship yard where players must go for repairs if their ships are damaged. The third row represents the final leg of the journey, where players may form blockades, take shelter in a safe harbour, or be washed up on the rocky shoals, sending them back to the repair yards. Once past the serpents jaws, your ships pass into Valhalla, at which point they leave the board. The first player to remove all their ships is the winner.

In my novel, Ulf is the educated son of a Swedish nobleman who has abdicated his birthright to become an apprentice trader. Thadeus, a giant of a man whose birthright and interests are inferior to those of his opponent, collects various games and asks Ulf to play his latest acquisition.

Ulf sat down with his back against the bulkhead, sheltered from the southwest wind that drove the fluyt forward from the rear quarter. The surface of the river rippled and the small bow wave gurgled against the hull. The canvas, not yet filled with wind, luffed and flapped, reminding him of servants at home drying the household bedsheets. Ahead, the river began a wide turn to the east, past the old island fortress of the first Lubeck settlement. Cows meandered among a few black stones, but nothing remained of the citadel that Ulf had read about in his father’s library. On both sides of the river, workers were already in the fields. On the western shore a small caravan of wagons, loaded with grain, eased their way toward a local jetty where an old bark and her crew waited.

He was tired from the early morning work of outfitting the ship for sea, but cool air and the sun in his eyes conspired to keep Ulf awake. He closed his eyes for a moment and listened, hoping no one would bother him, and pulled the collar of his fine leather coat tighter against his throat to keep out a sudden gust of wind. He pulled his cap down tight and settled himself more snugly against the bulkhead, feeling the alternating mixture of warmth and wind.

He heard heavy footsteps on the wooden deck, and opened his eyes as a pair of legs lowered themselves down next to him.

“Aaah, so there you are!”

Recognizing the voice of crewman Thadeus Schynnagel, Ulf groaned in disappointment. The man was constantly enticing him to play one game of chance or another. He had given in a few times on the condition that no money would exchange hands.

Thadeus lowered his considerable weight onto the deck and tossed a red velvet bag into Ulf’s lap. “I’ll bet you’ve never seen this game before. Want to play? Just for fun, of course.”

“I was resting before we reach the open sea and I have to stand watch. Can we play later?”

“We need a stable surface and the river is calm today.” Thad retrieved the bag and dumped its contents onto the deck. “I found this in Lubeck. It cost me all the money I had. Very nice quality, don’t you think?”

Ulf took the rectangular board in his hands and turned it over. Carved into the soft spruce, the body of a serpent formed a playing area of three rows, tail to snout, across its surface. Evenly spaced holes pierced the snake’s body, apparently for inserting the oval tokens that Thad now held.

“Do you want dark or light?”

Do I have to choose?”

“No, but that way is more complicated.”

Ulf watched the man’s thick fingers place the twelve pieces onto the board, surprised again at how deft such a big man could be.

“Throw the four rune sticks.”

Ulf picked them up, cupped his hands, shook and threw the sticks. Two of them landed face down.

“Two points,” said Thad, pointing at the runic symbols. “The sun and god runes are face up. The gift and fate runes are face down. The most points you can get are five. Now move that ship two spaces, out of the harbor.”

Ulf selected the ship at the head of the line and moved it two spaces. “How do you win the game?”

“By moving all your ships off the board, past the serpent’s maw, here.” Thad pointed to the other end of the writhing snake. “Now it’s my turn. I’ll tell you the rules as we go along.”

The runes clattered. “The serpent is Jörmungand, who dwells in the deep oceans and encircles the earth. You command the white ships, and our two fleets do battle in the open ocean, here.” He pointed to the middle row of peg holes. “I threw a three, so my ship defeats yours in battle and you must make repairs at the island shipyard. So I will move your ship there now.”

“And what happens to that ship?”

“After one turn, you can move it back into the harbor if you roll the right number. For now, throw the runes and move the next ship in line.”

Ulf picked up the runes and dropped them, differently this time, the ends perpendicular to the deck. One of them stood for a moment and then toppled. He read the names out, feeling the familiar sense of pride in his memory.

“Tiewaz and Hagalaz.”

“Zero points. No move.” Thad threw the runes. “Four tails up. Five points.” His first ship, already in the lead, landed in mid-ocean.

Ulf could see how the game would play, and allowed his mind to wander, only uttering sounds if necessary. He already, unfortunately, had Thad’s friendship. He didn’t want to encourage intimacy. He mentally put his opponent onto the ocean-island shipyard and left him there, sailing eastward to Alandia with captain Wisna, a woman he could fall in love with if she didn’t have the soul of a man. The wind whipped the hair about his eyes, obscuring the outline of the City of Sle, where the long cold days aboard ship would fade into warm beds and meade, and the hard weeks of battle would be proudly exaggerated by warriors.

Absently, he threw the runes and moved his ships and wished for a cup of mead in his hand. The desire was almost overwhelming, and Ulf despaired that it would keep him from his rightful place when Jens was gone. More than once since taking the apprenticeship, he had neglected his duties in favor of a strong drink. He also desired the authority that Jens had promised, but not the responsibility, and in this way he was not like his father. Also unlike his father, he was unaware of the truth of his desires, and the character flaw infected even his dreams.

The dreams had been with him since childhood. Always a subordinate, never a leader, he was still clever. While his brothers excelled in war and in the administration of the family estates, Ulf excelled only in learning. He learned to read long before his brothers, spent his days in the family library, and by the time he was thirteen he had finished every book his father owned. His mother regretted allowing him to read so much, and one failed attempt at restricting it had damaged their relationship forever. Ulf was aware of the rift, but wrongly attributed it to his father’s interference.

The dream of Wisna was a constant reminder of Ulf’s second-citizen status. Watching his dream from the outside, one might think that Ulf was a trusted lieutenant or skillful advisor, and sometimes the dream started out that way. But eventually, and always, his status waned and as the day awoke he was pulling at the oars with the others as they entered the harbor. Wisna laughed at him and put a boot into his chest as she strode toward the bow, leapt over the side, and left her crew to beach the ship and unload.

“Fate,” said Thad as the runes toppled to the deck yet again. “Hagalaz, the hailstorm. Looks like you have to go back a space.”

“Stop gloating,” said Ulf. “My luck at games is terrible, but it is offset by the luck of my birth.”

“What luck? You think it lucky to be born a nobleman?” Thad chuckled deeply. “There are some who count as nothing the status given by birth, while others depend on nothing else. You seem to be of the latter sort, and yet your station in life gives you no pleasure. As for myself, I care not for my lineage and I am a happy man.”

“That’s because you have no lineage worth caring about.”

“As if you do? What did you have to do with it? Did you choose your parents? Did your father choose his? No. A true man makes his own way, highborn or not. Any man who says otherwise is a liar or a fool. Or a noble. That’s one which has escaped to Valhalla. Five to go.”

Directly below them, in the head, Ulf heard someone grunting with great effort. It took equal effort for him not to compare the activity to Thad’s ridiculous talk about nobility. He watched the other man’s huge hand move a piece off the board, out of the serpent’s reach, and wished he had the stones to call out the man’s stupidity. He took his turn instead.

Hagalaz was the only rune face up. “Fate,” said Thad.

“That’s it,” said Ulf. “I quit.” He stood up into the wind and stretched.

“You can’t quit now!” Thad said in frustration. “Who quits a game just because they are losing?”

“We’re approaching Travemunde. I’ll be needed on watch.” The Bay of Travemunde was visible and getting larger just off the starboard bow. In the distance, on the port side, the red brick of the lighthouse stood watch over the gateway to the Baltic.

“Not for another hour at least. We still need to drop off our pilot.”

Ulf let his irritation get the best of him. “I don’t care about the stupid game. I didn’t want to play it in the first place.” Before the idea of kicking the game overboard was fully formed, his foot lashed out and the pieces scattered.

Thad bellowed something unintelligible as the board disappeared over the side.

“I’m sorry!” shouted Ulf. “I didn’t mean …” But he didn’t have time to finish the sentence before Thad picked him off his feet and threw him into the river.