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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Of Humanity according to Machiavelli

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli is credited as being a definitive work on the nature of human beings. Although its misanthropic vein is unmistakable, this was quite possibly a result of Machiavelli's false imprisonment and torture for supposedly conspiring against the ruling Medici family. Written approximately 500 years ago, several of the important themes of the book are as relevant today as they were then. However, it still begs the question of whether or not "mankind" is by design, a collection of malicious creatures with a behavioural predictability that makes them appear to be rational. It may sound strange, but the "misanthropic vein" is what I love about this book.

Malicious, is perhaps not the ideal word to describe the depiction of "the people" by Machiavelli, but I suppose I do have a reason for using that word. As you go through the book, you cannot but help to notice the fact that all the advice that he gives "a prince", or a ruler, who wants to maintain his position deals with countering, avoiding, or engaging people/enemies/allies-gone-bad in a rather absolute manner. My use of the word absolute aims to create the impression that in the event a man is to rule without any opposition. Furthermore, the manner in which these topics are dealt with seem to focus on how terrible a human being can be, and what people are capable of when "the going gets tough". No stories of bravery and valor here, I'm afraid...just a bunch of examples of how you can whip a country into shape if you acknowledge the fact that people are not nice to begin with. Methinks this sort of thing could come in handy in every day life, really. He he he. No, I'm not saying that because of the things going on in my life at the moment. Not at all. I've been fascinated by The Prince from the first time I read it. It's not the most extreme form of literature out there, by the way, but we'll look at that in a bit. I just think that it seemed so true. I mean, all the descriptions of what to do to maintain control of a populace that's always guided by emotion and a severe lack of reason when together, I thought that was brilliant. Also, in my own life, I've had to ask the question if it's more important to be liked or to be respected. I've chosen the former, and it's never worked for me. Check out this little bit that's been quoted from the translation of this book:

In answering the question of whether it is better to be loved than feared, Machiavelli writes, “The answer is of course, that it would be best to be both loved and feared. But since the two rarely come together, anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved.”

The beauty of identifying that it is better to cause fear to maintain control is something that I may well devote myself to in the near future. Like I said, I tried the "love" thing and all it got me was an extra-large helping of being screwed. And if you think about it, isn't this so true? Some of you may even have this kind of experience with your teachers in school. Remember them coming across as people to be feared? Remember the beatings with a ruler, after being sternly asked to hold out your hand? Remember? What about your parents?

Now, all this fear in some measure, of course. Too much of anything can make you an addict. But too much fear-causing can make you dead too...because there's only one of you. He he he. Well, that's what happened to the guy who wrote the next book I'm going to talk about.

The Book of Lord Shang, written by Shang Yang around 340 BCE, also lists ideas that may seem extreme or othwerise uneccessarily brutal in its efforts to 'control' a populace and 'rule' the court effectively. It makes sense on paper, no doubt. On the other hand, it seems like a life spent creating a specifically brutal form of rule that subjugates the people, forcing them to lead miserable existences. This book eventually got the author killed, rather brutally too, I imagine. But, as with The Prince, there were some good sections in it. A little out there, I thought, but what the hey, eh? A good idea is a good idea.

And, both these books deal with the same theme: Mankind is not to be trusted. And there was a point in my life when I used to worry about this sort of thing, always seeking out the humanity in my fellow man. But, after years of getting my hand bitten, I think it's about time I altered my approach. I'm no prince. Neither am I a man in any position of power. At least not on the scale as presented in these books. But, the applications to my daily life are painfully obvious to me. Until a couple of months ago, I used to feel sad about having to reprimand people and telling them how to do something so that it was done right the first time around and benefitted all involved. Boy, was I an idiot! It doesn't work. Or, maybe it does and I'm just an idiot. Well, if this is the case, then allow me to be an obnoxiously annoying idiot. I'm kind of looking forward to it, actually.

I know I got sidetracked there, like I usually do, but I just wanted to say that if you haven't read these books you must. At least The Prince. It's a classic. I recommend them, if nothing else, as a glimpse into the real nature of people. Prepare to be shocked. But I'm sure you'll enjoy it, whether or not you're like me.

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