Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Is fortune a woman who needs to be beaten into submission? A few thoughts on Machiavelli

Warning: This post contains content that is sexist in nature. If you are offended by sexist content, read no further!

"For we see men, in those activities that carry them towards the goal they all share, which is the acquisition of glory and riches, proceed differently. One acts with caution, while another is headstrong; one is violent, while another relies on skill; one is patient, while another is the opposite: and any one of them, despite their differences in their methods, may achieve his objective... This happens solely because of the character of the times, which either suits or is at odds with their way of proceeding... If the times and circumstances develop in such a way that his behavior is appropriate, he will flourish; but if the times and circumstances change, he will be destroyed for he will continue to behave in the same way...

I conclude, then, that... men flourish when their behavior suits the times and fail when they are out of step. I do think, however, that it is better to be headstrong than cautious, for fortune is a lady. It is necessary, if you want to master her, to beat and strike her. And one sees she more often submits to those who act boldly than those who proceed in a calculating fashion. Moreover, since she is a lady, she smiles on the young, for they are less cautious, more ruthless, and overcome her with their boldness." 

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Over the past week, I have been filling in a gap in my philosophy education by reading Machiavelli's The Prince. For a whole bunch of reasons (I have never officially taken a political philosophy course, I have always felt Machiavelli to be crass and well, evil, compared to people like Kant and Aristotle, who write about seemingly more lofty things), I had, until last week, never read any Machiavelli.

To my great surprise, I found myself immensely enjoying what he has to say. If you are not familiar with The Prince, it is basically a handbook on how to attain power and glory and hold on to it. Machiavelli had written it with the aim of presenting it as a gift to the Medici family, who had newly risen to power at the time. The entire book is infused with an "ends-justify-the-means" morality; which means that for the aspirant to power, promises can (and should) be broken, opponents can (and should) be killed (although it is generally ideal to try to do most of your killing at the beginning of your rule, and to refrain from killing thereafter, in order to prevent being hated by your subjects), wars should be waged if they are advantageous, and so and so forth.

So why would a supposedly yogic yoga practitioner like me--who is supposedly devoted to such high-minded ideals like ahimsa and satya and all that good stuff--enjoy reading such a crass book? Well, to be very honest, I derive a certain wicked pleasure from contemplating all that bad stuff that people do to gain power and hold on to it; the pleasure is probably enhanced by the fact that I am not made of stern enough stuff to actually do shit like that. So yes, there is something voyeuristic about all of this. Actually, I also believe that many people, if they are honest with themselves, would also admit that it is this kind of voyeurism that attracts them to works such as these and also perhaps gangster movies like The Godfather.

Perhaps more significantly, I also find Machiavelli's willingness to call a spade a spade very refreshing. Over the years, certain moral theories have always rubbed me the wrong way, because I always had the feeling that there is something disingenuous about them. Take, for instance, Aquinas's Just War Theory. However you cut it, war is an evil (how can it not be, when it involves sending a whole bunch of young people to kill another bunch of young people whom they would otherwise have nothing to do with?); why try to make it sound noble by calling it just? Machiavelli, on the other hand, simply tells it like it is: Throughout The Prince, he never pretends that it is moral to kill people or break promises, or incite your subjects to fight wars they wouldn't otherwise fight, or curry favor with those whose goodwill you wish to secure. He is simply saying that if you want to gain and hold on to power in this world that is filled with wicked and self-serving people, this is what you have to do, whether you like it or not.   

As for his rather politically incorrect remark that fortune is like a woman who needs to be beaten into submission... hmm, where do I begin? While I am not advocating beating women (or men) into submission, I also can't help feeling that Machiavelli might be on to something here. I mean, do you sometimes get the sense that the course of our lives are decided largely by how decisively and, dare I say, aggressively, we act on something at a particular crucial moment?

Let me give you a very mundane example. I was recently talking with a friend. She was happily married for many years to this guy with whom she had a couple of beautiful children, and whom she still thinks of as a great guy (they recently had an amicable divorce because of certain circumstances beyond their control; I won't go into the details here). Out of politeness, I asked her how they had originally met. She told me that he was a regular customer at this restaurant where she worked as a server many years ago. She had initially disliked him; she thought he was loud and obnoxious and arrogant. One day, when he was there with some friends, his friends dared him to go up to her and ask her out on a date. And he did. And she said yes, in order not to embarrass him in front of his friends. The rest, as they say, is history ("I found out that he wasn't the asshole that I thought he was, that he was actually pretty smart, and that we actually had a lot in common...").

Anyway, the moral of the story is this: Imagine what would have happened--or rather, not happened--if our friend hadn't decisively screwed up his guts and gone up to her and asked her out, facing the very real risk of public rejection and humiliation in front of his friends? Well, he would have deprived himself (and her) of many years of happiness, and a couple of beautiful people would not have come into existence. Or, to use Machiavelli's language, if he wasn't headstrong enough to beat and strike the iron of fortune at the decisive moment (i.e. when she is hot), he would have missed out on the opportunity.

This, of course, is just one very mundane example. But then again, what use is philosophy if one cannot use it to shed light on our mundane lives? Anyway, maybe you will agree with me, maybe you won't. But I think I have said enough for now. Maybe I'll go read some more Machiavelli... This is fun.       

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