Be Like the Fox

This post was originally written in 2017, and you will note the reference to Trump as president below . .  .


If you wanted to be an English aristocrat in the Victorian age (or perhaps most any age) one needed to hunt foxes.  For years this perplexed me.  Sure, foxes eat chickens sometimes and maybe cause a bit of mischief, but they posed no real threat to anyone.  They did not seem like noble quarry.  But then I realized that foxes were not hunted because of the damage they did to farms (like you would hunt wolves or wild hogs), or the danger they posed to the hunters (like lions or bears), but because they were so clever at avoiding traps.  To hunt a clever beast, one had to display their own cunning.

Machiavelli has always beguiled his admirers and detractors alike.  Reading him can feel like a bracing tonic, but then he leaves you cold with his “Machiavellian” calculations.  He seems both clear and contradictory.  We may wonder if we can read him as anything more than a guilty pleasure.

We need not look further than his “It is Better to be Feared rather than Loved” chapter from The Prince.  In his typically realistic/pessimistic way, he says that the love of the people will never be constant, whereas fear will keep them bound to the ruler.  This seems to fit within Machiavelli’s general framework, but we should recall that as an avid student of history, Machiavelli would surely know that fear never works beyond the short-term.  The most successful rulers throughout history may not have people “love” them in the sense in which we use the word, but they did establish relationships and a series of mutual benefits for the ruler and ruled.

Erica Benner makes the bold suggestion that not only is Machiavelli giving bad advice in this notorious chapter, he knows he is giving bad advice.  In fact, he wants his audience (the D’ Medici’s who ended Florence’s Republic) to take this advice and make themselves odious to the people.  He hopes, in fact, that the Republic he loves might be restored through the stupidity of those that read him.*

Ordinarily I would suspect some show-off chicanery with this analysis, but Be Like the Fox surprised me with its even-handed and careful approach that remains accessible to someone like me.  She begins by suggesting that we should not view Machiavelli primarily through the lens of The Prince, but rather through the body of his other work, and especially, his life as a diplomat.  The book weaves biography and analysis gracefully.  Diplomats, especially Renaissance diplomats, often had to speak elliptically and carefully.  The message lay not so much in what was said but in how it was said.  Perhaps Machiavelli’s writings evidence some of this same character.

At his best, Machiavelli bring us back to questions of purpose in political action.  Benner includes an example from Machiavelli’s own life to illustrate this.  Early in his marriage Niccolo had a brief affair with his cousin Bernardo’s female servant and got her pregnant.  She admitted to Bernardo that Niccolo was the father.  From his diaries, we know that Bernardo considered carefully what to do.

Privately he approached Niccolo and mentioned the pregnancy and, in neutral tones, the accusation. “What will happen to the Machiavelli name,” Niccolo, “when word of this gets out?”  Niccolo sympathized with the poor girl and his cousin.  He blamed himself . . . because, he said, a friend of his had seduced the poor girl while he and his wife were away from the house.  Niccolo offered to try and track him down.  Of course, after a few days he reported that the “man” was a scoundrel and would never fess up.  But . . . since he recognized that the fault in the end lay with him, he agreed to provide for a large dowry for the girl so she could get married . . . quietly.  After all, no one wanted a scandal to tarnish the Machiavelli name.

If the cousin’s goal was to bring Machiavelli to repentance, this method may have hindered that cause.  If he desired a quiet solution to the outward problem itself, this worked. Would a direct attack on Niccolo bring about a quickening of his conscience, or merely a stubborn defense that would leave him (Bernardo) holding the bag for his pregnant serving girl?  Benner tells this story early in the book to illustrate the point of much of Machiavelli’s writing.

Benner supports her analysis of The Prince especially through the life of Cesare Borgia, whom many suspect Machiavelli admires on their first reading.  As the son of Rodrigo Borgia, a.k.a., Pope Alexander VI, Cesare had enormous advantages.  “Fortune loves and impetuous youth,” Machiavelli writes.  Cesare had a string of great victories throughout Italy based in part on his charisma, luck, and a talent for acquisition via dubious means.  Yet Machiavelli consistently notes that,

  • People who use deception to great effect always assume that everyone else will be honest.
  • People who thrive on conquest often have a hard time building a stable network of alliances, and making and keeping friends.
  • People who have the smile of Fortune rarely realize that Fortune has a fickle streak.  One must do the work of real relationships to create a truly stable state.

In other words, The Prince has much more implied criticism of Cesare Borgia than praise,

Benner illustrates this with other events in Machiavelli’s life.  We assume that Machiavelli just cared about results and not about methods, but Benner argues this would make nonsense of many of his experiences and other writings.  When Pope Sixtus IV (seemingly) supported the failed assassination attempt of Lorenzo and Guillamo d’ Medici, it left Florence in a vulnerable position despite the fact that Lorenzo survived.  Lorenzo’s ruthless revenge not just against the assassins themselves, but the entire Pazzi family from whence they came (which included a few clergy) gave the Pope ammunition to take control of Florence regardless of the failed plot.

Lorenzo scrambled and tried to isolate the pope by getting Naples to break free from their alliance with the Pope.  He thought he scored a major coup for Florence and saved the city.  But then . . .

  • The Pope was still furious because of the treachery of Naples
  • Venice, as an side player in this whole affair, got angry that no one included them in the conversations and joined the Pope against Florence.
  • Meanwhile, Naples had only signed a non-aggression pact with Florence, which meant that they offered no military assistance, leaving Florence in exactly the same position as before.

Slipshod diplomacy made for now diplomacy at all.  Thus, Machiavelli concludes that, “One must things by their methods, and not merely by their results alone,” a conclusion that may surprise us.**

In his fun From Barbarians to Bureaucrats Lawerence Fairley makes the point that companies go through  many of the same life-cycles as civilizations, and uses A.J. Toynbee’s analysis to aid him.  One stage belongs to the “Barbarian.”  Fairley writes that one may be a “barbarian” leader if,

  • You love competition, and the ‘thrill of victory.’  You cannot shrug off losing.
  • You are action-oriented.  You don’t care so much for ideas or systems, but results.
  • You like being in charge and like making decisions
  • You may not have come up with the vision, but want badly to see it through and have definite plans for doing so.
  • You don’t have tons of patience for those who seem to be standing in the way of your mission.
  • You see the ‘struggle’ in absolute terms of us/them, good/evil, etc.

Certainly Cesare Borgia fits this bill, as I think, does our current president.  Fairley points out that we can have good and bad “barbarian” leadership, with each style obviously having its strengths and weaknesses.  Cesare Borgia’s problems came directly after the fighting stopped, as did Alexander the Great’s, as perhaps did Donald Trump’s?  With Cesare, Machiavelli seemed to indirectly counsel that the worst thing one could do with a barbarian was prolong the fighting, which plays directly to his strengths.  The true barbarian, however, will never handle peace well.  Let Cesare stumble over his own feet.  Let Fortune abandon him.  Perhaps Machiavelli would counsel Trump’s political opponents to lay low and let Trump defeat himself.^

In hindsight, of course, some of Machiavelli’s advice looks less and less “Machiavellian.”  In  Debriefing the President, John Nixon writes of his experiences at the CIA and especially about his time spent with Saddam Husssein.  In the midst of his criticism of Clinton, Bush the Younger, Obama, and George Tenet, he reveals changes in his opinion.  He admits that he thought the best intel the U.S. possessed pointed to a stockpile of W.M.D’s, and so initially supported the war.  But he concludes that Iraq and the Mideast would be much better off today with Saddam in power.

Well, obviously.  But Nixon makes this claim more interesting with Saddam’s own words and history, much of which he missed himself as an intelligence analyst leading up to the war.  Saddam’s greatest threat was not the U.S., he argues, but Sunni-based Islamic terror, because he relied on the Sunni’s for nearly all his power in Iraq.  Thus, Saddam would have opposed Al-Queada and especially ISIS, as mortal threats to his regime.  Perhaps the fighting would have happened regardless, but Saddam may have appeared vulnerable enough for more open fighting, which would have played right into the U.S.’s tactical and technological advantages.

Maybe so, though this is much easier to say in 2017 than it was in 2003.  Still, I surmise that Benner would concur with Nixon that the best policies come from taking a lesson from the fox, who lives not by paying attention to ideology, but by finding the best way to avoid traps.^^


*Other aspects of The Prince suggest something similar.  He discusses in one chapter that there are two kinds of kingdoms. One type is easy to conquer because they are divided, but this same type of kingdom is all the more difficult to hold precisely because of its divisions.  Was this a word of warning for his D’ Medici enemies who had taken advantage of Florence’s internal divisions?

**Machiavelli argues that Florence survived only because of the serendipity of Turkish activity right at this moment.  The Italian city-states agreed on little besides the fact that Turkey was their greatest enemy.

^This is the conventional view.  But it may be that Trump is actually doing a good job fulfilling his basic promises, as the irrepressible and always enjoyable Camille Paglia points out in her interview here.

^Here I speculate on Benner’s and Nixon’s position, and do not necessarily mean to give my own.  Machiavelli’s work forces one to answer many questions about Christianity’s relationship to politics–but I haven’t come up with an answer yet!