Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Prince

I have arrived in Shenzhen, China, for the International Botanic Congress. I meant to upload a few pictures of the Luohu district today but it seems as if my cell phone does not want to talk to my laptop, so perhaps I can do that when I am back.

On the flights I was unable to get much work done beyond making corrections to a manuscript, so I read a book and watched movies of varying quality: Star Wars Rogue One, Suicide Squad, and Throne of Elves. It is all a matter of expectations; they weren't high, so I enjoyed all three, although the last of them partly for being so different from how a European would have done it, and while happily ignoring the humongous plot holes of the second. The funny thing about Rogue One is that it is actually in part a reasonably good attempt at rationalising why the heck the Empire would have built the Death Star with such an idiotic weakness, although it still remains implausible that nobody else noticed it during construction and just added another wall on the way.

Ah well. Anyway, the book I read nearly through on the flights - because it is not actually all that long - is Machiavelli's Il Principe. The book needs no introduction as it is a classic, but I had never read it until I happened to pick it up in a German retranslation at the last book fair I visited.

The scholar who wrote the foreword stresses that Machiavelli's reputation is undeservedly bad, that his work is really a groundbreaking piece of political philosophy. With Il Prinicipe and its sister work on republics he is considered to have pioneered political writing that sees humans as capable of influencing history within certain realistic limitations instead of being the passive objects of divine providence, and that argues for a pragmatic approach to politics instead of an unachievable spiritual ideal or political utopia.

And yes, I can see where that is coming from, although given my political socialisation I always remain sceptical of seeing history as a chain of outstanding people having influential ideas. (I think it is much more likely that if Machiavelli had not written this book others would still have organically moved towards more pragmatic political philosophy, as that was simply the Zeitgeist.)

But I can also see clearly where his bad reputation comes from. Not only is he fairly open about criticising past politicians and military leaders, including popes, for their personal and public failures, which would obviously invite opprobrium. He also matter-of-factly advises the audience to betray their allies for political gain and to murder the entire family of a previous ruler so that their bloodline is extinguished and no remaining heir can challenge the new order.

Again, both Machiavelli and the author of the foreword argue that this is just realistic. If you want to secure power and strengthen your state then this is what you must do. Machiavelli also doesn't see any issues with such behaviour because he has a very dim view of humanity in general. For example, to him it is no problem to break treaties because your treaty partners are, well, humans and as such should be expected to break the treaty themselves at the first good opportunity. That's just how dastardly humans are, fide Machiavelli at least.

Now realism is one thing. I can understand Machiavelli's advice in many cases, for example when he considers whether it is more important and easier to have the general population on one's side or the nobility (in today's context, the one percenters), and how to achieve either. And I also understand that one has to be realistic about the established rules one is subject to; if everybody habitually lies then a single honest person will indeed perish where another liar may have prospered. But I think he and that modern scholar miss to what a large degree opportunistic breaking of rules changes the rules for the worse, and what the consequences are.

Be it keeping true to treaties or showing mercy to one's enemies, the point of following rules or gentlemen's agreements is that only then can you expect that others will follow them to your benefit. When, for example, it became customary in the early to high middle ages of Germany that nobles competing for the crown would not eradicate the opposing family but instead force the male members to retire into monasteries, and only kill them if they blew that chance by coming back and raising another army, the idea was presumably that once the shoe is on the other foot one would also be given the chance to leave politics instead of coming home to find one's wife and underage children face down in puddles of blood, as Machiavelli would have it.

In other words, I am coming away from Il Principe with the impression that he was too clever by half. He took pragmatism just far enough to come out on the other side and fall back into short-sightedness.

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