Thursday, 17 June 2010

On Machiavelli, Romance, Love, and the desolation of hope

(Dusk and Dawn, and Lorenzo De Medici by Michelangelo, Crypt of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence)

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was an Italian renaissance Philosopher and Court Politician in the Florentine republic of the late 15th and early 16th centuries. He was highly schooled and became a wily and pragmatic, if not ruthless military tactician. He was however at heart a devout man of the people, and his hand in the ejection from Florence of the Medici family (*), was in measure driven by his belief that the people deserved a firm but fair hand in the execution of the affairs of state.

His name of course has become synonymous with a REALPOLITIK, or the ruthless and pragmatic approach to the rule of law. Ever the reasoned pragmatist, there was no Romantic inclination in his breast for the wanton desires of a ruling elite. This pragmatic and politically 'realist' approach to all affairs of human endeavour, is born out most perniciously in his most remembered work "The Prince", distributed in his own life to only a few of his closest friends, but of course has now become his quintessential opus.

It is somewhat not surprising that in his lifetime his only publicly available publication was "the art of war", in this he enjoys a camaraderie of sorts with the great Taoist general of the spring and autumn period Sun Tzu, albeit not in the same league philosophically or militarily.

Within his writings there is great power. A pragmatic ruthlessness that any robot would be proud to call his own. The subjugation of ethos and pathos to the pragmatic and efficacious elevation of the functionally required. Without doubt, this approach to politics can be radically and ruthlessly efficient. All that must be sacrificed in order to adopt such a policy, is the Romantic, and in so doing, sow the seeds of the desolation of hope.

Hope is a seed, planted in the present and nurtured for a future not yet realized. It is an imaginary ideal, that fosters the great confluence of all that we are as human beings. Our dreams, wishes, desires, emotional proclivities married to the realistic understanding of present circumstance and the confines of the pragmatic parameters of a realized existence. It is a going beyond, a reaching for that which does not as yet exist. It is a transcendent possibility, that exists only because we dare it to.

In this regard Hope transcends the present. Breaking the shackles of a pernicious realism bound within the confines of a realistic present. Machiavelli's great Power was the realization that the manipulated artifice of 'what is' will always have greater impact upon the present than the Romantic ideal that appeals to some 'other' future, not yet realized.

The appeal then for the Romantic is purely in the transcendent, the breaking away from the present into some as yet hopeful but unrealized future. Both have there power, both appeal to a different approach to life. But it appears that both preclude each-other. For one is a transcendent, ever hopeful process of growth, the other a frantic and constricting decomposition upon the present. Which approach one chooses to employ in ones life will for the most part depend on whether one is content with ones lot.

Little girls are ever the Romantics, always looking to the far horizon for some unrealized truth or possibility. Little boys are ever the Pragmatists, always existing in the present so as to maximize there personal power and with it the control of there environment. One is a constriction the other an evocation. True power however comes in the understanding of the balance between these two competing principles, not as Machiavelli, nor the Romantics , would have us believe in the exercise of one over and against the other.

How one employs these two and personally decides the midpoint in the fluctuating and dynamic balance, often depends on the circumstance one finds oneself in. If one is content with ones lot, then where is there room for Romance?.....or indeed HOPE, for to be content with ones lot, is to be in a place from which one does not wish to leave, and thus the employment of a Machiavellian realpolitik is the predominant spirit. Conversely if one is discontent with ones lot, then an Appeal to a more Romantic sensibility is likely to ensue, as it is by its very nature Transcendent and appeals to the possibility of Hope and change for an as yet unrealized future.

Both of these choices are imbalanced and blinkered, however, for although they employ a measure of control in ones life, and place the hand upon the tiller, yet they deny the wind itself. For what defines us as Human beings is not control, but often who and how we are when we are beyond control. When the measure of our lives is taken beyond the ability for our senses and sensibilities to predict and control, what we do in such moments defines us as human beings.

What does one do when faced by the gust of Love?...that great Tempest that carries some between the Scylla and Charybdis, whilst smashing others upon sirenic rocks. Does one surrender to hope and the romance, or constrict and adopt a pragmatic and Machiavellian approach?.....certainly the inclinations for either will be born of the circumstance one finds oneself in. Yet, in the end....what choice is there in a storm?, but to ride it out, and Hope that you survive. For there are powers that are so great that no amount of Realpolitik, nor Romantic Idealism can fathom or control.

So in conclusion, let me recap. We have seen the competing themes of Romantic Idealism and Pragmatic Realism, as a polemic of a countenanced Balance, which affords personal power only in the recognition of the balance of both depending on personal circumstance, desire and want.

Yet, we have taken note that this fool-hardy and arrogant assumption, that in the adoption of either of these positions, or a concoction of both, we are somehow immune to the machinations of powers beyond our control, as was evidenced by the example of Love, (and further that a clinging to the misguided belief that in the execution of some personal balance of these two polemical principles, one is able to chart some safe course), is to risk through pride and haughtiness of spirit our very humanity in the face of powers and times beyond our very control.

What can best be said at such times is that we remain open and humble in the face of these powers, retaining all humanity and possibility in an authentic and sincere manner so that in calmer waters we might once again regain the composure of our own personal tiller, and avoid the crushing rocks of the desolation of Hope.


(*) As a quick addendum, i wanted to say how greatly i admire much of what the Medici family have done, and what they stood for, both in Florence, and through out Europe. They were magnificent patrons of the arts, at a burgeoning moment in time, when art and thought could well have been plunged back into another dark age, they stood as beacons for the enlightenment of humanity at the forefront of the Renaissance. They will always live within my heart, and i will never forget the assistance they offered me in a time of great need in Barberino Val d'Elsa. It will never be forgotten. The disturbing of the bones in the Crypt of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, was also somewhat disturbing for me, and will also, not be forgotten.

© Richard Michael Parker 2009

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