05 September 2008

Blogging the Discourses: Greetings & Book One, Preface

The Preface to Book One of the Discourses begins with an observation on envy:
[T]he envious nature of men has always made it no less dangerous to find new modes and orders than to seek unknown waters and lands, because men are more ready to blame than to praise the actions of others … .
Machiavelli evidently places significant political importance on envy (defined as a “feeling of discontent and resentment aroused by and in conjunction with desire for the possessions or qualities of another”) given that he dedicates all of Book Three, Chapter Thirty to the subject. Envy also plays a role in numerous political vignettes related throughout the Discourses, including:
  • the calumnies of Manlius Capitolinus (Book One, Chapter Eight);

  • the conspiracy of the Latins and Campanians against Rome (Book Two, Chapter Fourteen); and

  • the ruin of Girolamo Savonarola (Book Three, Chapter Thirty).
Machiavelli chooses, however, to introduce envy in a decidedly non-political way, as a commentary on how it affects writers like himself. This seems like a strange choice at first, since the book focuses on politics and the fate of peoples instead of on the afflictions of a single author.

But Machiavelli asserts that envy affects political innovators much as it does their literary counterparts. The literary innovator, he says, is like a conquistador, exploring heretofore unknown intellectual territory. And because “men are more ready to blame than to praise the actions of others,” whatever the context, he claims that both explorers and authors risk much in seeking new lands.

So, writing just decades after Italian daring and Spanish money first uncovered the Western Hemisphere, and almost contemporaneously with Cortés’ conquest of Mexico, he boasts that only a brave and fearless man such as himself would strike out to publish something truly new:
[N]onetheless, driven by that natural desire that has always been in me to work, without any respect, for those things I believe will bring common benefit to everyone, I have decided to take a path as yet untrodden by anyone, and if it brings me trouble and difficulty, it could also bring me reward through those who consider humanely the end of these labors of mine.
Nevertheless, Machiavelli never takes the time to explain why we tend to assign blame more readily than praise, despite the important role this tendency plays in his worldview. He merely assumes it as a given. And although his characterization of envy’s power may be correct, it would be beneficial to know why we so often criticize innovation, so that we may better understand its role in influencing world affairs.

In fact, one reasons we criticize innovation has nothing to do with envy. We readily find flaws in something new and untested because it often arrives plagued by errors and inconsistencies. Only through empirical observation and refinement does the innovator sculpt a work of art from the raw materials of his first effort. Any lawyer who has ever drafted a brief can attest to this phenomenon—as can anyone who bought a 3G iPhone on the release date. Consequently, many new things probably merit criticism.

Moreover, criticism is more fun to give and to read than praise. Case in point: restaurant reviews. Although we find positive reviews useful in guiding our dining choices, they do not evoke the joy we derive from reading a devastating critique. We laugh as the reviewer rips into a new offering, dismantling months or years of careful preparation by the restaurateur with just a few columns of text.

This power of critics to destroy is all the more ironic considering that most of them, save those that were once masters of the art they review, cannot hope to imitate even the least of the artistic efforts subject to their judgment. (Maybe recognizing this harsh reality secretly inflames their envy for a talent they can never have?) Criticism, therefore, allows those without artistic ability to participate in the development of an art to which they would otherwise be unable to contribute. It also lets the critic vent his envy by tearing others down to make a name for himself. He becomes the kingmaker, even though he can never be the king.

An unlikely source—a cartoon, no less!—illustrates these psychological impulses with startling prescience. Ratatouille, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Film of 2007, centers on a Francophone rat’s efforts to run a pedigreed Parisian restaurant with the help of a hapless line cook, and concludes with the visit of the influential (and therefore feared) food critic, Anton Ego.

An earlier critical review by Ego, written before the rat’s arrival on the scene, had cost the restaurant its coveted five-star status. Ego therefore arrives for his meal like a shark smelling blood in the water, relishing the opportunity to gut a wounded culinary institution already in its death throes. But after sampling a stupendous and unusual meal of ratatouille (a traditional French peasant dish), and learning that a rodent had prepared it, Ego is rendered speechless. He leaves without saying a word and returns to his office to write his review.

The viewer expects Ego to place the final literary nail in the restaurant’s coffin, but he waxes philosophical on the nature of critique instead, writing:
In many ways the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.

The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.
This is, of course, essentially Machiavelli’s point in the Preface. But the surprising beauty of Ratatouille consists in how it goes further, demonstrating how innovators can use the inherently envious nature of critics to their advantage.

Every so often, Ego notes, the critic can further his own ambition by supporting the new rather than criticizing it. As a champion of something new, he can expose it to the public eye in the hopes of riding the coattails of its success. He therefore becomes, in some sense, a “discoverer” just like the innovating artist or conquistador. By the same token, however, supporting the new also invites great risk, because the critic will share in the innovation’s failure in the same measure as he will share in the benefits of its success:
[T]he bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things …the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something …and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.
The critic, then, can prove a powerful ally if the innovator can convince him to risk his reputation and throw his weight behind a novelty. Through the critic, the innovator can link the “new methods and systems” he has created to established practice, and legitimizes them. In the case of Ratatouille, Ego writes a glowing review naming the rat as the “finest chef in France,” lending his credibility to the rodent’s humble origins.

The Greeting and Preface also allude to this point, although less directly than the cartoon food critic. The Greeting dedicates the Discourses to Cosimo Rucellai and Zanobi Buondelmonti, members of the notable Rucellai family of Florence. The Rucellai, however, were not politically powerful at the time. Rather, they busied themselves with philosophical and cultural pursuits—in other words, literary critics of Machiavelli’s era.

Perhaps, as Professor Mansfield has suggested, Machiavelli dedicates the Discourses to them in the hopes that one day they will arrive in a position of political power and assist him. But perhaps Machiavelli also knows what Anton Ego knows—that sometimes an innovator can harness critics’ natural envy and ambition to his own advantage. Perhaps his careful flattery is an attempt to pitch his work as an innovation they should support and profit from, or as something whose success might help propel them to power as a notable patron of the arts:
Hence … I have chosen not [as recipients of this book] those who are princes but those who for their infinite good parts deserve to be; not those who could load me with ranks, honors, and riches but those who, though unable, would wish to do so. For men wishing to judge rightly have to esteem those who are liberal, not those who can be … .
This may also explain Machiavelli’s comment that the Discourses “could also bring me reward through those who consider humanely the end of these labors of mine”—that is, through sympathetic critics like Rucellai and Buondelmonti.

Regardless of Machiavelli’s motivation, his instincts appear to have prevailed, as he is ultimately, albeit posthumously, more successful than Anton Ego’s rodent protégé. In the movie, envy ironically ruins both the restaurant and Ego. The former head chef, thirsting for vengeance after his displacement by the upstart rat, tells the public about the rodents in the kitchen. The restaurant is shut down. Ego’s reputation meets the same fate:
The food didn’t matter. Once it got out there were rats in the kitchen, the restaurant was closed and Ego lost his job and his credibility.
But that aside, both Machiavelli and Ratatouille illustrate how innovators can turn the envious nature of their potential critics to their advantage. The critic gains a stake in the innovator’s success, and the two rise and fall together.

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