28 February 2009

Timo Laine's Machiavelli "webliography"

A university student in Finland, Timo Laine, has posted an excellent Machiavelli "webliography," complete with links to online libraries containing his works in both Italian and English. I highly recommend it to those looking for an easy way to find Machiavelli's works online in a searchable-text format.

Aside from this impressive resource, Mr. Laine has also posted some of his own writing on Machiavelli. Although I have not yet had the chance to explore further, I am looking forward to the opportunity.

26 February 2009

Isaiah Berlin: The Question of Machiavelli

The nonpareil Isaiah Berlin wrote an incisive essay on Machiavelli in the November 4, 1971 issue of The New York Review of Books. It is excellent.

The following quote does not do justice to the full work or even the thesis, but it does provide a taste of both:

Machiavelli's cardinal achievement is his uncovering of an insoluble dilemma, the planting of a permanent question mark in the path of posterity. It stems from his de facto recognition that ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration, and that not merely in exceptional circumstances, as a result of abnormality or accident or error—the clash of Antigone and Creon or in the story of Tristan—but (this was surely new) as part of the normal human situation.


For those who look on such collisions as rare, exceptional, and disastrous, the choice to be made is necessarily an agonizing experience for which, as a rational being, one cannot prepare (since no rules apply). But for Machiavelli, at least in The Prince, The Discourses, Mandragola, there is no agony. One chooses as one chooses because one knows what one wants, and is ready to pay the price. One chooses classical civilization rather than the Theban desert, Rome and not Jerusalem, whatever the priests may say, because such is one's nature, and—he is no existentialist or romantic individualist avant la parole—because it is that of men in general, at all times, everywhere. If others prefer solitude or martyrdom, he shrugs his shoulders. Such men are not for him. He has nothing to say to them, nothing to argue with them about. All that matters to him and those who agree with him is that such men be not allowed to meddle with politics or education or any of the cardinal factors in human life; their outlook unfits them for such tasks.

I do not mean that Machiavelli explicitly asserts that there is a pluralism or even a dualism of values between which conscious choices must be made. But this follows from the contrasts he draws between the conduct he admires and that which he condemns. He seems to take for granted the obvious superiority of classical civic virtue and brushes aside Christian values, as well as conventional morality, with a disparaging or patronizing sentence or two, or smooth words about the misinterpretation of Christianity.[foonote omitted] This worries or infuriates those who disagree with him the more because it goes against their convictions without seeming to be aware of doing so—and recommends wicked courses as obviously the most sensible, something that only fools or visionaries will reject.

If what Machiavelli believed is true, this undermines one major assumption of Western thought: namely, that somewhere in the past or the future, in this world or the next, in the church or the laboratory, in the speculations of the metaphysician or the findings of the social scientist or in the uncorrupted heart of the simple good man, there is to be found the final solution of the question of how men should live. If this is false (and if more than one equally valid answer to the question can be returned, then it is false) the idea of the sole true, objective, universal human ideal crumbles. The very search for it becomes not merely utopian in practice, but conceptually incoherent.


25 February 2009

Thoughts on the Praetorian Guard and Chapter XIX of The Prince

After a hiatus, I am making a detour from the Blogging the Discourses posts.

The question on my mind today: How does a state protect its leader without creating an organization that will kill or depose the leader to further its own interests?

The creation of a group of armed men dedicated to the protection of the head of government also involves the creation of a group that can murder that head of government at will.

To further complicate matters, this group of armed men can, in most cases, be destroyed only with another body of armed men dedicated to the protection of another individual or group of individuals, e.g., the legions of Septimius Severus. Thus, the new body of armed men immediately takes the place of the body they eliminated. (Note that this body may be loyal to the one that first commanded them, but may not share that loyalty with his or her successors.) This dynamic appears to derive from the fact that one man alone, no matter how well-armed, cannot physically destroy or politically eliminate a group of armed men. The leader's protective detail thus effectively holds him or her hostage, unless some other force restrains them.

So what can counterbalance the power of the leader's bodyguard?

Loyalty to person: As noted above, personal loyalty to the leader is one such force. This dynamic is often seen in the retinue of a military strongman, whose troops are loyal to him (or, far less often, her) based on years of military service together. Thus, the strongman usually is the founder of his own bodyguard, much like the Emperor Augustus enjoyed the full loyalty of the Praetorian Guard he created. Roman history alone, however, suffices to demonstrate how this loyalty often will not extend to the original leader's successors.

Loyalty to regime:
Loyalty to the ideals of the regime is another counterweight. Most Western democracies seem to exhibit this dynamic. The U.S. Secret Service could assassinate the President any time it pleased, but that scenario seems almost unthinkable in the present day. The Secret Service agents are loyal to the United States of America; they do not kill even Presidents they might personally or politically despise. This stands in sharp contrast to the aggrieved bodyguard Julius Martialis, who assassinated the Roman Emperor Antonius Caracalla after the latter had caused him personal offense.

Money: Cold, hard cash can sometimes buy the allegiance of the bodyguards. There is something weak inherent in using bribes, however, and the practice usually demonstrates the leader's political vulnerability. Unlike loyalty to the leader's person or to the regime, a ruler who pays for his bodyguards' allegiance may be defeated at the auction by a higher bidder, e.g. the bidding war between Titus Flavius Sulpicianus and Didius Julianus for the empire of the assassinated Pertinax.

Other armed men: You can, of course, use other armed men to break the power of a bodyguard. But inherent in this method is the danger of replacing the old guard with these new men. If the newcomers are loyal to you, then you have simply founded a new bodyguard whose forbearance (you hope) will last through the end of your reign. But it appears more difficult to break the old guard without creating a new one in its place. Indeed, this state of affairs -- where the bodyguard no longer serves on the basis of loyalty -- recalls Machiavelli's commentary in Chapter XIX of The Prince on the reign of the those emperors who could safely ignore the needs of everyone but the Roman legions.

One apparent exception to this rule is Constantine's extirpation of the Praetorian Guard after his victory at the Milvian Bridge -- he dispersed the troops, who had fought against him, to the far corners of the Empire, and razed their barracks. What sort of power structure replaced them, however, lies beyond my knowledge.

Size restrictions: Keeping the bodyguard small is other methods of checking its power. Restrictions on size function as a brake on the sheer amount of manpower the bodyguard can muster to control politics. After all, deposing a leader does not often further a group's self-interest unless they can control the aftermath of the deed, as Brutus and Cassius found out to their detriment. The Emperor Augustus is reputed to have kept his Praetorian Guard small for this reason.

Rotating the group's membership: Augustus also took pains to keep most of his bodyguard outside the Roman capital, and to rotate those members serving within the walls of Rome with those outside. This presumably keeps the bodyguard less organized, and less likely to choose a leader whose authority over the others could be used to strike against the ruler.

This topic feels ripe for further study. I am unaware of any serious publication examining the relationship between leaders and their personal bodyguard, although I am sure one must exist. If anyone knows, please tell me. Otherwise, go out and write something!