Mach II


In my last blog, I discussed the continuing relevance of Niccolò Machiavelli’s political insights.  The man is fast becoming one of my heroes.  In that blog, I highlighted his little book The Prince.  But he also authored a lesser known study, entitled The Discourses, in which he expounds upon Livy’s first ten books of the history of Rome.  Both of these works by the astute Florentine should be required reading in American education, if for no other reason than they demonstrate that “new” political issues are actually “old” ones. Contrary to the belief of many Americans, the founding of this nation was hardly the re-creation of the world. Human nature has not, so far as I can tell, improved an iota throughout the centuries.  Nations and empires still rise and fall, and for many of the same reasons.  A primary cause of their demise is none other than the character of their people. 

Machiavelli points out in The Discourses that there were those who sought “supreme power” in Rome by attempting to ingratiate themselves to the people by offering them “numerous [material] benefits.” In one such case, he tells us that the people refused the proffered benefits, because it seemed they were extended “as the price of their liberty.” “But if this people had been corrupt,” he hastens to add, “they would, so far from refusing this offer, have accepted it. . . .” 

In another instance, a man who had been a great Roman patriot sought “to stir up disturbances in Rome against the Senate and the political institutions of his country,” all of which were honorable and functional at the time. Not only was this patriot executed by the people because of the way he undermined their institutions, but also riveting is the fact that not one of his friends “made the slightest effort in his favor; nor did any of his relatives make any attempt to support him.” Machiavelli reasons that the people's disapproval followed because “the love of country had more power over [the citizenry] than any other sentiment. . . .” 

Then, as was his style, this legendary student of politics concludes, first, “that the means of attaining glory are different in a republic that is corrupt from what they are in a republic that still preserves its institutions pure;” and, second, “that men in their conduct, and especially in their most prominent actions, should well consider and conform to the times in which they live.” Almost as a coup de grâce, Machiavelli notes, “To usurp supreme and absolute authority . . . in a free state, and subject it to tyranny, the people must have already become corrupt by gradual steps from generation to generation.” 

Let me paraphrase these insights: corrupt, not virtuous, citizens succumb to offers of public largess and fail to uphold the sanctity of their political institutions, such that when tyranny rears its serpentine head and venomously strikes they are defenseless and have no one but themselves to blame.

I try not to delude myself. I realize that Machiavelli’s words may be subject to various interpretations, depending upon one’s political orientation.  We may comprehend his meanings in different ways, much like we view one and the same picture and see contrasting images. This fact brings to mind the drawing, featured below, in which one observer sees a glamorous young socialite while the other an ugly old woman. It is worth remembering that the art of interpretation involves both subject and object.  We always bring ourselves to the task. 

Even so, Machiavelli’s words compel us to re-examine our own political landscape and to raise questions about it. What, for example, does it say about contemporary America that so many of our citizens regard their food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare as “rights” instead of as “privileges,” which are earned by careful planning and hard work?  Mind you, we heard our own President discounting individual effort by declaring that successful entrepreneurs cannot take the credit for building their businesses. He has also insisted that every American is ipso facto entitled to healthcare. Are we Americans, as Machiavelli puts it, trading “giveaways” for our liberty? Are we corrupted?

There were times during our history when the idea of a government-sponsored hand-out was considered shameful. Yet those times seem a distant memory.  Would Machiavelli applaud this development as a positive step forward?  I sincerely doubt it.  There is something about entitlement programs that tears at the heart of self-esteem and depresses incentive. 

A few weeks ago I stood behind a woman at a local grocery store who was purchasing a yard-long birthday cake along with various ice cream novelties. Obviously she was throwing a party. She appeared to be in her late thirties, nicely dressed, and attractive.  I was shocked when she paid for the items with a Lone Star card and demonstrated not an inkling of embarrassment or humiliation about it. She held her head high, almost as if she were mocking the system. Who knows what her circumstances were?  But nothing about her or her purchases appeared desperate to me.  The scene reeked of abuse. And, again, at the local YMCA where I exercise, I have noticed children, with a parent or grandparent, eating breakfast or lunch, depending upon the time of day.  Since I have never observed any money changing hands, I asked the lady at the reception desk about the practice.  She responded acridly, "Oh, kids are brought in from all over the city so they can eat at taxpayer expense." She added, "My grandchild is the only one in his school class who pays for his meals, because I insist."

Machiavelli explores why a people fall into the clutches of political tyranny.  He believes it is because they become corrupted.  And why, we may ask, does this happen? Because they turn their backs on righteousness; i.e., values such as honesty, hard work, frugality, self-sacrifice, respect for the other, and a compelling sense of personal responsibility. When our civil society was imbued with Christianity, these values predominated in our citizenry. But there are many pulpits among us now that no longer blaze with righteousness but have, instead, become part of the problem. Many clergy have, believe it or not, adopted, or decided to acquiesce in, the wretched welfare values of this culture rather than to supplant these deleterious values with redemptive ones. 

For those American citizens, like me, who feel as if they are “resident aliens,” perhaps the better part of valor is to learn again how to say “NO!” – to emphasize to our elected representatives that we want government to cease and desist trying to save us with its misguided “politics of faith" and its false demagogic messiahs, and also to let our clergy know that we don’t intend to honor the smallest vestige of popular culture in either our worship or daily service. What is more, there should be a process for calling out and challenging principals, teachers, and university professors if and when they preach Marxist or some other half-baked political ideology instead of teaching. 

A corrupted people can indeed be transformed.  The current state of our own citizenry is no exception.  But in order to do so the uncorrupted must be resolute and must act.  How about you?  Do you have the courage to stand up and to be counted? 

September 28, 2013