If you are tired of the dreary political discourse of our time, one remedy is to get perspective.
In particular, the perspective that comes from raising a few old fashioned questions, which are also urgent questions. What is our situation? How did we get here? Why are we this way? Where are we headed?
Starting September 14th, we will raising these and related questions, with the help of one of the greatest thinkers on political things, Machiavelli.
It sometimes seems that the popular solution to all political problems is innovation. Innovation is a word we use all the time. We teach it to our kids, we dream about it. But innovation is an idea with a long history. People did not always believe in innovation. What is the origin of this idea? When did people start thinking innovation could be the solution to all of our most human problems?
This is where Machiavelli enters the picture.
To understand the origin of an idea we use all the time, an idea we take for granted without thought, could offer just the sort of perspective we are looking for, rising above the dreary din of our media environment. A vantage point in which we can glimpse, perhaps for the first time, what the political problems really are, and what alternatives may exist for us, even today.
Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) is like most authors of the great books. His work is overshadowed by a reputation which precedes him. A reputation he may not even deserve.
Many know Machiavelli as a teacher of evil, his name being synonymous with deception in politics, in which ends justify the means. We call a deceptive leader of this kind “Machiavellian.”
Machiavelli’s famous book is the slim one entitled “The Prince” (Il Principe).
But the work widely agreed to be his best, and one that reveals his true thoughts about political things, is “Discourses on Livy.”
Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy shows readers the actions of founders and reformers of republics, and discusses the elements of republics. Although the book is dedicated to “those who deserve to be princes,” today we might say that all citizens of republics feel at one time or another that they deserve to be in charge, or at least feel that they know enough to judge their political leaders. Even for citizens, then, the Discourses is an education in the necessities required for securing republican liberty. By revisiting the origin of modern politics in its raw and shocking originality, we confront challenging questions about our own modern, democratic republics and leaders.
Machiavelli reframes the themes of necessity, virtue, and religion and morality, “without any respect,” and in doing so invites discussion. We wonder if “new modes and orders” are the cause of, or the result of, innovative political actions. This call for innovation can be said to be the beginning of progressive politics, our hope that we can always improve government (as opposed to merely preserving existing laws.)
But there are problems that arise. If we can improve republics, what are the guiding standards for improvement? Political stability, wealth equality, maximum individual freedom?
The Discourses feels relevant to contemporary political questions because it transcends ancient and contemporary assumptions about good government, and demands thoughtful engagement in the problems of politics.
Put Machiavelli together with slow, unhurried conversation, in concert with thoughtful readers like yourself, and you have a truly unique opportunity to encounter the real Machiavelli beneath the mask of the reputation that precedes him – and, in this way, we might even discover what genuine innovation is.