lunes, 1 de febrero de 2016

Machiavelli And Renaissance Italy by J. R. Hale



J. R. Hale’s Machiavelli And Renaissance Italy was originally part of a Teach Yourself History series, published by Penguin Books in the 1960s. A twenty-first century reader will first of all be impressed by the book’s size, since it appears to be short, and by its laudable aim of opening up otherwise specialised knowledge to a wider audience. The same reader, however, is also going to be surprised, because this is no small sketch to expand an icon into a mere outline. On the contrary, this text deals admirably with its subject and in some detail. It is, in the end, actually quite a long read because of the book’s intensity and the level of detail presented. The picture that it paints of its subject, however, will appear doubly surprising for anyone who can associate Niccolo Machiavelli only with The Prince.

J.R.Hale’s book is a biography first and a history second. By its end, we have a thoroughly rounded portrait of Machiavelli, who turns out to be a rather complex, somewhat vulnerable, if also self-confident conservative. He is best known for a treatise on cut-throat politics, presenting a prescription that many others have dissected and some have tried to follow, believing it to provide a recipe for success. Machiavelli the politician, however, was only partially successful in the pursuit of his own career, and spent much of his life sidelined by the higher and mightier, often frantically trying to prise himself through any crack that might lead back inside the power structure. The creative or academic side of Niccolo Machiavelli’s genius, however, seems to be largely unknown to modern audiences, but Hale’s book deals admirably with all of Machiavelli’s achievements.

Machiavelli was an historian. Indeed, he was commissioned to write a history or Florence. He was also a linguist of sorts, a bit of a pedant in the area, if truth be told. Like all such types, he was right, sometimes. What is less obvious from our distance in time is that he was also a poet and a playwright, with some of his stage works being quite well known to contemporary audiences, since they received numerous performances.

But it is the political polemic that is The Prince for which we know Niccolo Machiavelli. He wrote the work after analysing the habits, achievements and tactics of one Cesare Borgia, with whom he served during the prince’s more successful times. Now Cesare was not noted for his negotiating skills. He was indeed a man of action. He was usually up for a fight, in fact whenever the opportunity arose. For him, it seems a quick war held the same kind of space in his life as his next meal. Machiavelli‘s own account of a conversation with Cesare relates that: “(Lucca) was a rich city, and a fine morsel for a gourmand”. Then, commenting on Cesare’s methods, Machiavelli records that a certain Messer Ramiro had been cut in two and left in the piazza at Cesena so everyone could see the handiwork. His death “was the pleasure of the prince, who shows us that he can make and unmake men according to their deserts”. So Cesare ate cities as snacks and half people for dessert. He was moderately successful for a while, it has to be said, and so it is no surprise that Machiavelli should incorporate his policies and practices as prescriptive method in his own manual on statecraft.

But the methods never did transfer easily. To survive, he tells us, states need money, since states are only respected if they have armies. Likewise, political power, it seems, can only accrue via wealth and the ability to buy force. And it was money that eventually deserted Machiavelli when paid employment as a diplomat dried up to nought. The Medicis did not trust him, even though his own role had always been that of a pen-pusher, a statesman of sorts, a civil servant. And so, when the work in politics dried up, he turned his hand to history

Not, of course, that he had ever been separated from it. Machiavelli lived in an age of princes and emperors. Two of the latter invaded the Italian peninsula from the north during his lifetime, one French and the other a variety of Hapsburg. Medicis came and went and came back again. Popes did the same, but not in the same identity, since they came from different families, or indeed with even the same goals, except the advancement of the family interests they represented. In Machiavelli’s day popes behaved like the emperors they are and every war was self-evidently just, as long as there was profit to be had. And just to underline the fact that times have hardly changed, Machiavelli saw a religious fundamentalist capture the popular imagination via a puritanical message, only to be destroyed by that same popular imagination when it moved on. At the turn of the sixteenth century, it seems that austerity fuelled by a guilt complex had only temporary caché.

J.R. Hale’s book is thus a brilliant reminder that within every icon there is a story, and that history is populated by real people, characters who drive events and create the future. These real people sometimes become eternalised as icons, fixed in their own times, but able to be transferred to any other to serve the needs of whoever needs their support. If only such iconic figures had known that at the time, then they might have behaved differently. When the icons are again reduced to mere people, however, they once again become interesting, full, engaging individuals, and this is what we discover via Hale’s book on Niccolo Machiavelli.

And if we feel that Machiavelli has nothing to say about the politics of today, then reflect on these words of his: “From some time past I have never said what I believe, nor believe what I say, and if I do happen to speak the truth, I wrap it up in so many lies that it is difficult to get at it”.

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