June 3, 2010

Hey, not to forget the Florentine secretary

Do you remember the famous Machiavellian “eulogy” of mankind in the seventeenth chapter of The Prince, entitled “Concerning cruelty and clemency, and whether it is better to be loved than feared?” If you don’t, here is how it goes—brace yourselves, it’s not exactly what we could call an optimistic perspective on human nature, nonetheless please read carefully the following passage (I’ll explain why later on …):

Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you.
and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.
Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women. But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.

The whole thing couldn’t have been formulated in a more straightforward and clear language. I said I would explain later why a careful reading of the above passage was needed. Well, you can find the reason here (Jeremy Rifkin’s “fresh ideas about human nature” …):

The new understanding goes hand-in-hand with discoveries in evolutionary biology, neuro-cognitive science and child development that reveal that human beings are biologically predisposed to be empathic. Our core nature is shown not to be rational, detached, acquisitive, aggressive and narcissistic, as Enlightenment philosophers claimed, but affectionate, highly social, co-operative and interdependent. Homo sapiens is giving way to homo empathicus.
Fresh ideas about human nature throw into doubt many of the core assumptions of classical economic theory. Adam Smith argued that human nature inclined individuals to pursue self-interest in the market. Echoing Smith's contention, Garrett Hardin wrote a celebrated essay more than 40 years ago entitled "The Tragedy of the Commons". He suggested that co-operation in shared ventures inevitably failed because of the selfish human drives that invariably surfaced.
If this is universally true, how do we explain hundreds of millions of young people sharing creativity and knowledge in collaborative spaces such as Wikipedia and Linux? The millennial generation is celebrating the global commons every day, apparently unmindful of Hardin's warning. For millennials, the notion of collaborating to advance the collective interest in networks often trumps "going it alone" in markets.

And so on. At this point, as Norman Geras puts it, one might well reply, “Not to forget the dark side, hey.” That is, “Hey, not to forget the Florentine secretary.” And you wouldn’t even need to read the eighteenth chapter (“Concerning the way in which princes should keep the faith”)—the one which “has given greater offence than any other portion of Machiavelli’s writings,” in Laurence Arthur Burd’s words—to believe me:

A prince, therefore, being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast, ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves. Those who rely simply on the lion do not understand what they are about. Therefore a wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep faith when such observance may be turned against him, and when the reasons that caused him to pledge it exist no longer. If men were entirely good this precept would not hold, but because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them. Nor will there ever be wanting to a prince legitimate reasons to excuse this non-observance. Of this endless modern examples could be given, showing how many treaties and engagements have been made void and of no effect through the faithlessness of princes; and he who has known best how to employ the fox has succeeded best.
Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.
For that reason, let a prince have the credit of conquering and holding his state, the means will always be considered honest, and he will be praised by everybody; because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the world there are only the vulgar …

And so on, just in case …

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