Machiavelli & civil disobedience

Mistrust, suspicion, refusal to really listen to others: these are symptomatic features of the world as Machiavelli (and Hobbes, coming next) knew it, a world full of testimonial injustice. Not to mention intrigue, plot, war, and violence. The more things change…

Niccolo Machiavelli praised virtu’ in a leader: manliness and valor are euphemistic translations, ruthless efficiency might be more to the point. The intended implication of “manly” is not so much machismo as hu-manity, with a twist. Machiavelli’s manly prince judiciously wields and conceals the guile of the fox and the brutality of the lion, all the while brandishing an image of kindhearted wisdom. A wise prince, he said, does whatever it takes to serve the public interest as he sees it. But does he see it aright? Hard to tell, if you can’t believe a word he says. But Skinner and others think he’s gotten a bad name unfairly. (See videos below.)
A new detective mystery starring Nicco has recently been published, btw, and was featured on NPR. “What would happen if two of the biggest names of the Renaissance — Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci — teamed up as a crime-fighting duo?” Beats me, may have to read The Malice of FortuneOne of our groups, I think, is doing a midterm report on Superheroes & Villains. Room for one more?

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I’m a bit puzzled by the sentimental fondness some seem to feel for “machiavellian” politicians. Haven’t we had enough of those? Wouldn’t we rather be led by Ciceronians and Senecans and Roosevelts, evincing qualities of compassion and (relative) transparency? Don’t we wish them to affirm and work for the goals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor’s great post-White House achievememt?


But, Bertie Russell agrees that Machiavelli has been ill-served by invidious judgments that assimilate him to our time’s conventions and accordingly find him objectionable, instead of appreciating his fitness to live and serve in his own day. Russell praises his lack of “humbug.” Give the devil his due.

“I never say what I believe and I never believe what I say,” declared Machiavelli. “If I sometimes say the truth, I conceal it among lies”… more»

  1. Text to Text | ‘The Prince’ and ‘Why Machiavelli Still Matters 

    The political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli wrote “The Prince” as a manual on leadership and governing during the late Italian Renaissance, …
  2. In Tuscany, Following the Rise and Fall of Machiavelli

    Five centuries after “The Prince” was written, visiting spots in and around Florence that track the arc of Machiavelli’s life.

Arthur Herman makes the case for assigning Machiavelli to Team Aristotle.

Looking for a firm modern presidential declaration of anti-Machiavellian sentiment? Jimmy Carter said: “A strong nation, like a strong person, can afford to be gentle, firm, thoughtful, and restrained. It can afford to extend a helping hand to others. It is a weak nation, like a weak person, that must behave with bluster and boasting and rashness and other signs of insecurity.”


We’re talking civil disobedience too, today. Again Nigel slights the Yanks, in not mentioningThoreau“If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.”  And,

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them?

So, here’s my Discussion Question today: Have you ever engaged in an act of deliberate law-breaking, in order to challenge what you considered an unjust law? Are there circumstances in which you would do so? Would you risk arrest on behalf of social justice, climate change, or anything else? Will you at least support those who do? Are you a compliantist, a gradualist, or a transgressive reformer?

Russell, incidentally, himself a civil disobedient in the great tradition of Socrates, Gandhi, King, et al – (“On April 15 1961, at the age of 89, Bertrand Russell gave a speech calling for non-violent civil disobedience in his campaign for British unilateralism, i.e. to get Britain to unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons and membership in NATO”) –  gives Thoreau only passing attention as an American representative of the romantic movement of the 19th century.

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