Just a brief post to announce my first national magazine publication: https://thehumanist.com/magazine/november-december-2018/arts_entertainment/how-to-change-your-mind-what-the-new-science-of-psychedelics-teaches-us-about-consciousness-dying-addiction-depression-and-transcendence
So, who is this Machiavelli guy anyway? And why does he have such a bad reputation?
To figure out what made him so bad, I had to drag him out of my dustbin of history—the vague recollection of a history major who took a Renaissance history course way back in 1988. All I could think of was his reputation for writing an allegedly nasty little book, The Prince.
But surely a book with a bad reputation wasn’t enough to give him such notoriety, to make him worthy of study, was it? Of course not. Machiavelli was more than a one-hit wonder. He played a central role in establishing the foundations of humanism, especially when it came to our modern understanding of history.
Reimagining the study of history
Along with contemporaries like Leonardo Bruni, Francesco Guicciardini and Jean Bodin, Machiavelli’s histories reimagined the past and gave back to history its “causal autonomy,” autonomy medieval scholastics usurped in their need to root through Greek and Roman classics for evidence of God’s divine plan, according to historian Eugene Rice’s The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559.
“Recourse to God’s providential plan or to direct intervention by God in order to explain historical events became rarer,” Rice writes. “The explanations advanced by Bruni, Machiavelli, and Guicciardini are usually natural rather than supernatural, involving causes rooted in the appetites of individuals or in the ambitions of particular social or political groups.”
Before the Renaissance, Rice says, medieval scholars “divided history into an age of darkness and error and an age of light and truth.,” For medieval scholars, studying both ages revealed the progress of God’s divine plan for humanity — it was bleak before Jesus came along.
Renaissance historians, according to Rice, split history into three distinct periods: ancient, medieval and modern. By doing so, these historians exercised a value judgment against medieval thought, one that “reversed the traditional metaphor of light and darkness. Antiquity, so long considered dark because it was the time of pagan error, became in this new vision of the past an age of light; while the period after the decline of Rome was branded an age of cultural decadence and barbarism. Correspondingly, the humanists represented their own age as a new historical epoch of a special kind: a renaissance — an age of light after darkness, awakening after sleep, rebirth after death.”
This new way of thinking about history contextualized it. It made the past, past, as William Faulkner might say. It alleviated medieval thought of its provincialisms and anachronisms.
Eliminating anachronism helped uncover fact from fiction and began to hold truth to power. It allowed humanist scholars and educators like Lorenzo Valla and Desiderius Erasmus to develop methods of textual analysis to uncover inconvenient truths. Valla notably exposed false claims of fiefdom in the Donation of Constantine, a forged document that allegedly granted the papacy extensive property in Italy, thus strengthening the Church’s political power. In turn, Erasmus argued against a scriptural basis for the doctrine of the Trinity, an idea within Christendom that was controversial until “interpolated into the New Testament after the Council of Nicaea,” Rice says.
This form of textual criticism “is the concrete embodiment of an historical sense and represents the beginning of modern ‘scientific history’,” Rice says. Such criticism further secularized the study of history. “Instead of being an illustration and justification of God’s ways to man, history was, in [the Renaissance historians’] view, a guide to life.”
Machiavelli is explicit about this view in The Prince, “As for intellectual training, the prince must read history, studying the actions of eminent men to see how they conducted themselves during war and to discover the reasons for their victories or their defeats, so that he can avoid the latter and imitate the former. Above all, he must read history so that he can do what eminent men have done before him: taken as their model some historical figure who has been praised and honored; and always kept his deeds and actions before them.”
This is a key reason we still study history. Or should. To remember the past in order to avoid its mistakes, to improve our leadership skills in whatever field we’re in. But, to study history is more than that. It takes us away from ourselves into other lives, as novels or movies or art does. It takes us away from provincialism, away from seeing the world in the narrow scope of home. It takes us away from a dangerous anachronism — the past is dead: how I cringe at evangelicals wanting to live as if we were in the first century or at the voices of Southerners who want to preserve “heritage,” who don’t want to rid themselves of old times not forgotten, for whom the past isn’t dead, it’s not even the past.
When I read history or watch a well put-together documentary series like Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War: A Film, I see the world as it was, and how it got to the present. I wince when I hear President Johnson declined to reveal that he learn Nixon has colluded with. South Vietnamese President Thieu to stall peace talks until after the U.S. election. For Johnson, that would reveal his less-than-scrupulous methods of getting the dope on Nixon’s treasonous act.
I choke up watching veterans touch The Wall and trace their fallen brothers’ names. I feel their anger and the increasing anger of the anti-war movement at a government that for more than a decade lied to perpetuate a war they knew was unwinnable. I see the roots of our current divide and worry that we might not ever heal from this gaping wound. Finally, I see the depth of humanity, its folly and its triumphs — the sorts of things Machiavelli saw and wrote about in his time with perhaps the hope someone might learn from them.
Part III coming soon.
So, why am I reading Machiavelli’s The Prince? First, I watched this video.
Why did I watch this video? In part, I’ve come to enjoy these short School of Life videos. They are entertaining, funny and informative. And, they are short enough to listen to on break or while washing dishes or eating lunch.
Machiavelli came to mind, however, because of current politics. It seems a moment when politicians and public officials, no matter their political leanings, devote themselves to maintaining power over the consent of the governed rather than governing by consent to further a just society. To maintain power, they operate by Machiavelli’s notion that the ends justify the means. They connive, lie and cheat for the sake of power.
We usually find this appalling. And yet, we see it as necessary, because we hold two conflicting notions in our heads — our leaders should play nice, so to speak, but simultaneously be effective. We also encounter this conflict personally.
Machiavelli says effectiveness comes when we cast niceness into the dustbin of history. Why? What does it mean to be “nice”? What exactly are we casting out? Isn’t it good to be polite, well-mannered, agreeable? Churlishness from anybody, as Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics, is off-putting, but so is excessive niceness. Such niceness lends itself to servility and roadblocks effectiveness.
This notion troubles me. I’m often told “You’re so nice.” It’s a learned trait, overdone, in my case. Niceness is probably overdone by many of you, especially if like me you grew up in the South and, when you were rude or belligerent, had someone in your family — for me, my mother — tell you “Be nice” or “Don’t be ugly.”
This admonition was more than it seemed, more than a cue to be better behaved, to socialize properly, to play well with others. It meant be agreeable at all costs, be polite at all costs, be passive at all costs, be submissive at all costs. Niceness in this mode was allegedly honey to the fly.
This is a path, however, to losing self-respect, according to psychologist and social critic Jordan Peterson.
“It’s impossible to respect yourself until you grow teeth,” he says in a lecture available on YouTube. “And if you grow teeth, you realize you’re somewhat dangerous, or maybe somewhat seriously dangerous, and then you might be more willing to demand that you treat yourself with respect and other people do the same thing.”
In college, a friend told me I needed to summon my dark side. Because I was raised “to be nice” such a suggestion made me squeamish.
Age and experience have put me more in touch with my dark side. Journalism has put me in touch with other’s darker natures. Still, I think I overdo niceness. I often find myself passive when I should be assertive and active. Such passivity holds me hostage to Fortune.
So, reading Machiavelli appeals to me. While I don’t want to become a churl, I need more teeth, and Machiavelli is a dentist ready to pull the rotten teeth and replace them with strong ones. I need to be more effective as a person, to challenge Fortune so she doesn’t wash willfully over me like the Brazos River overflows its banks during a flash flood.
“[Fortune] shows her potency where there is no well-regulated power to resist her,” Machiavelli writes, “and her impetus is felt where she knows there are no embankments and dykes built to restrain her.”
End of Part I
So, who was Machiavelli anyway? I’ll explore that in Part 2
Just a brief note: My short story collection About Jake and Other Stories is available now as an e-book on Amazon. Look for a paper version soon.
Here is the link: About Jake and Other Stories
Hope you enjoy it.
If you’re anywhere near my age, you know Talking Heads was a pretty good band from the ’80s. Their sound is electronically funky and weird, fun to listen to. On the other hand, when you find yourself following talking heads in large chunks of dialogue, you find yourself in a not so beautiful place. You find yourself lulled mad by a monotonous drone.
Let me explain: a couple days ago at my local library, I turned in unfinished John Scalzi’s The End of All Things. I still had a couple of renews left on the book, the sixth in the Old Man’s War series. But, I lost interest midway through the novel, so there was no reason to renew or read on.
This is a shame, because I’ve loved the other books in the series. Like any great series, Old Man’s War has an engaging cast of characters, great individual story lines and a compelling narrative arc that stitches each novel together into a unified whole. As a bonus, the series is punctuated with bits of Scalzi’s wry but affable sense of humor.
And, at first The End of All Things seems to have this, too. It follows from the action of The Human Division. Earth’s been betrayed by its presumed defender, the Colonial Union. The Colonial Union has a shaky relationship with the alien-run Conclave and no longer has a resource in the Earth for its Colonial Defense Force. And, something sinister is in the works, the result of collusion between humans and aliens. That collusion is discovered, investigated and, I assume, thwarted in The End of All Things, which Scalzi structures as a series of four linked novellas, told in a variety of voices, beginning with Rafe Daquin, pilot of the starship Chandler and a brain in a box. Daquin’s voice — which is all he has, of course — comes across with a sense of humor about his situation as he outlines his compulsion to tell his story — to help the Colonial Union, and maybe, just maybe get a fresh body.
“I’m not a writer or an orator,” Daquin reports. “I’m not a storyteller. I’m a spaceship pilot, so let me just get that right out there.” His story isn’t going to be “classic literature” (though the voice is reminiscent of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye); instead, you’ll have to bear with him because his story is going “to skip around. I’m going to get lost telling the story and come back to points and then get lost again. I’m doing this off the top of my head.”
That last sentence is classic Scalzi humor. But the voice and its narrative thrust is what drives this first novella. It’s highly readable, entertaining stuff. Just the kind of thing you’d expect from Scalzi.
Where the book lost me is in the next section, told from the point of view of one of the aliens of the Conclave. This should be the most compelling and interesting part of the novel, but no matter how hard I tried in reading it, this portion didn’t and couldn’t hold my interest.
Primarily, it’s because the narrative and a compelling voice gets lost in lengthy bits of dialogue. About 90 percent or more of the section is dialogue, or rather talking heads. None of the characters — alien or human — are distinct, other than some science-fiction babble of made up measures of time and new words for food. (Of course, not to single Scalzi out, this is a problem of much science fiction, whether on the page or screen, especially handling aliens, which aside from outward appearances are all too human.) Still, this section pretty much violates everything we writers have been taught about dialogue.
Dialogue in fiction and nonfiction has many roles, one of which is to give characters or subjects a voice, so we as readers get a feel for who they are. In other words, it characterizes characters and shows (remember, show, don’t tell) relationships between characters.
Dialogue can also be used to move the action along, but as Hallie Ephron notes in her book Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, “Not everything your characters say belongs in dialogue. It’s better to summarize and fast-forward through the necessary but unexciting bits than risk bogging down your story with trivial talk.…Only use dialogue when it’s dramatic, when it moves the story along, or when it develops characters and their relationships. Never force a character to deliver a speech about himself or another character, or why something is happening.”
As I say, almost the whole of the middle section of The End of All Things uses dialogue primarily to summarize and present what could be best left to expository or descriptive narration and makes scenes of potential political intrigue boring. Scalzi also could show us his science-fiction writing chops and give us the unique voice of an alien species tasked to be an ambassador caught up in an intrigue between human factions. The only time within the section the alien ambassador seems alien is when it describes to another alien how the young of its species are cannibalistic, and how this is a good thing for the species.
The section reminds me of soap opera characters narrating their actions at the first part of the show — just in case you missed the last episode — as if we’re not intelligent enough to pick up the story through visual clues or through regular dialogue. Get on with the show. As a reader and writer, it’s frustrating to see good writers like Scalzi do this sort of thing.
Scalzi’s not, of course, the only writer guilty of this. It seems to appear often in genre writing. China Mieville, for instance, does it in his otherwise superb novel The City & The City, a blend of science fiction and mystery. As the novel climaxes hero Inspector Borlu confronts villain Professor Bowden and in a long expository dialogue, Bowden explains his villainy:
Borlu, I can kill you where you stand and, do you realise, no one will even know where we are. If you were in one place or the other they might come for me, but you’re not. The thing is, and I know it wouldn’t work this way and so do you but that’s because no one in this place [the novel is set in two cities that share the same dimensional space; it is illegal for each city’s citizens to even acknowledge the other’s existence], and that includes Breach, obeys the rules, their own rules…
…And so on for a full paragraph. Soap opera villains do this, as do comic book villains and many villains in TV crime dramas. They explain their madness. It’s distracting, and often boring.
Still, I have to say, as I typed this excerpt from The City & The City, I caught unique speech patterns from the professor. He seems to be unraveling as his plot unravels. Or maybe he’s buying time? So, there is some redemption to this and shows that even as Mieville slips into a clichéd genre convention, he’s a capable writer.
But, generally, long swaths of reported speech like this should be avoided in fiction, and nonfiction, as well. Long quotes in nonfiction should convey some important information that otherwise can’t be summarized. Otherwise summarize. Or find your book back on the library shelves, unfinished.
The News: A User’s Manual
Alain de Botton
Paperback, 272 pages
If the Beatles’ song “A Day in the Life” were sung today, instead of singing “I read the news today, oh boy,” John Lennon might just sing “I saw the news today, oh boy!”
“Oh, boy!” Indeed.
On its Web site, CNN’s breaking news around 10 p.m. CDT July 9, 2018, is a photo of Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court Justice nominee, at a podium presumably at the White House or on Capitol Hill or somewhere in D.C., the president smiling smugly in the background, Kavanaugh’s family off to one side, wife smiling lovingly.
This is important news, right? At least for the U.S.? Then why do I almost automatically disengage from it? Why don’t I click the photo to read or listen to the story that follows?
Below the photo is a headline: “Trump’s Supreme Court pick is a DC insider who worked for special counsel Ken Starr during the Bill Clinton investigation in the 1990s.” That headline is among many about Kavanaugh.
Twelve hours later, Kavanaugh’s nomination is no longer the lead story. The lead is about the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in a cave in Thailand. Scrolling down, however, I can pick from five different headlines analyzing Kavanaugh. Still, I find myself uninterested enough not to click any of the links.
It’s not that I’m politically apathetic. I vote, I sometimes follow political news and even comment here and there, usually on Facebook.
The problem: There’s already so much analysis about Kavanaugh, just from this one source, it’s numbing. My problem, as with many of us who follow the news regularly, or not so regularly for that matter, is that it’s the same story different name as the last nominee. I could begrudgingly switch to the Fox News Web site, and though they’re likely to praise the nomination, the analysis, in general, will be similar. I’m disengaged because I’m bored with the analysis, no matter who’s presenting it; it will continue in the days, weeks and months leading up to the justice’s confirmation — and then continue afterward until his first decision, which, in turn, will get analyzed … well you get the picture.
This sort of disengagement is addressed in Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual, an analysis of how news, as it’s presented now, affects us, and how the news could be better and serve us better as consumers of it — and as providers of it, better present it.
“We regularly come across headlines of apparent importance that, in private, leave us disengaged,” De Botton writes. “Boredom and confusion may be two of the most common, but also two of the most shameful and therefore concealed, emotions provoked by so-called ‘serious’ political stories presented by the news organizations of modern democracies.”
De Botton is an essayist, philosopher and public intellectual known for such books as Essays on Love, How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy. He also runs the School of Life, a school, as its Web site notes, dedicated “to developing emotional intelligence,” a sort of self-help school that promotes philosophy, art and literature over pop psychology as practical sources for changing lives and making one’s way in the world a bit more tolerable.
On the surface, in De Botton’s estimate, the news, no matter what’s covered — politics, crime, celebrities — doesn’t make our lives more tolerable. Even just a casual perusal of the news is likely to cause us fear or anger, despair or apathy or lust or envy, depending on the stories we follow, or where we happen to catch the 24-hour news cycle. Some news might elicit all these emotions at once.
The medium in which the news is presented doesn’t seem to matter. De Botton draws examples from print, TV and presumably online — given that most print media (or what once was print) is now followed online. (The book was published on the cusp of social media’s dominance as an outlet for news, even individually created “news,” and smart phone technology, but with minor adjustments, De Botton’s critique easily applies to those media as well.)
For instance, here are some headlines De Botton cites early on from the BBC that could have come across our newsfeed on Twitter or Facebook or on TV at any time and pretty much from any source, local, national or international:
- “COUNCIL SPENDING ‘LACKING CLARITY’”
- “ANTI-TAX GROUP LEADS CONSERVATIVE CHARGE”
- “SYDNEY MAN CHARGED WITH CANNIBALISM AND INCEST”
Only the third headline might command our attention, but probably just insofar as to cause us anger or outrage at such hideous acts. The story itself would in print probably run three-to-four-hundred words in length or gain a minute or two of broadcast time, and then it would become a mere piffle in our minds. Just a few of us, including the journalist reporting it, would follow the story from arrest to prosecution to sentencing — unless the Sydney man happened to hold celebrity status or the story itself, especially in trial, were to reveal gory, gruesome and macabre details. Otherwise, it’s water-cooler talk.
Which, is the issue, De Botton says. What’s the point?
De Botton offers possibilities to improve news and its presentation, primarily suggesting news dig deeper into the “whys” of events or people it reports on are important. Why should we care about a war in Africa when we’re drinking our coffee in our kitchens in the U.S.? What if we see the every day lives of those caught in the war, to see the universals in their lives, then maybe we might just care some? Or we might see a crime as more than just an event in which in which we can express our self-righteous outrage at the perpetrator.
“The tragedies of others should remind us of how close we ourselves often are to behaving in amoral, blinkered or violent ways,” De Botton writes. “Seeing the consequences of such impulses harrowingly played out in the lives of strangers should leave us feeling at once scared and sympathetic rather than hubristic and self-righteous.”
While on one hand De Botton’s suggestions for how news should be gathered and presented is highly idealistic — especially to the reporter, the journalist who is frantically trying to daily fill column space or airtime with something to keep his job — on the other hand, his ideas are intriguing and his critique of the news is spot on in the way it influences those who consume it.
As reporters, we often just go about writing the city council story, knowing the city’s budget will usually fall short or that the next Supreme Court justice will influence the workings of the nation one way or another. We will too often go just to the people in power to get some quotes and then go onto the next story and talk to more talking heads. We ask the same questions and get the same narrative. We don’t always go out with our notebooks to understand the whys of a story, to dig out what a story means, if anything at all.
The kind of journalism De Botton seems to advocate does exist in longform magazine writing, it existed at its best in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s as The New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, et al, emerged. But then, that style peaked by the ’90s. Still, those journalists ferreted out meaningful stories by training literary lenses on their subjects.
Is this the kind of journalism consumers of news now want? Do they have the attention span to read such stories, to watch a lengthy documentary film? Perhaps after reading De Botton’s book, they will want more of that kind of journalism, rather than what they are getting?
I want to think that’s what news consumers want — news with meaning and richness of texture, news that looks at the world in its ordinariness as an artist does. It’s why I am encouraged when I read a great narrative piece in a magazine, online, or even in a newspaper. It’s why I was encouraged that until a few weeks ago CNN had a great show that showed us the world through its people, its food and its culture in the late Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.”
I would like to see De Botton’s idealistic approach put to the test. It might be more encouraging and less “Oh, boy!” than you think.
I found the post below on French novelist Honore de Balzac’s alleged coffee-drinking habits last night when the SO and I were texting about headaches. She had a sinus headache and I recalled how often as a kid I had bad headaches fairly frequently. As I thought back, many of these headaches probably came as a result of caffeine withdrawal. I became an addict early on, probably around age 4 or 5, when my grandmother would dilute a cup of coffee with cream and sugar and let me dunk cookies — usually Nilla Wafers — in it. From there I extended my addiction to sodas (Cokes, Dr Peppers, Big Red) and iced tea.
I thought about this essay this morning when I was sipping on my third cup and reading, or rather, trying to read—the caffeine was doing its job, making me jumpy and making it hard for me to concentrate on the words on the page. This morning I couldn’t imagine how Balzac could have drunk 50 cups, much less three, per day and still write. Then again, I went to my computer and did some writing, adding a page to my much-neglected novel.
Anyhow, again, I hope you check out this post on Balzac and coffee. A debate about coffee and Balzac: http://airshipdaily.com/blog/01282014-balzac-coffee