Have You Been Smoking? You Smell Like Niccolo

For most of you Niccolo Machiavelli probably doesn’t make your list of most admirable people, heroes of history, or role models. That is unless you’re a current or aspiring tyrant, warlord, or Fortune 500 CEO. His best known work is The Prince, which reads like a medieval version of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War,[1] but even more heartless. While you might find your jaw dropping every few pages reading Machiavelli, he is like a blazing fire from which you cannot avert your eyes. What we see in Machiavelli is the double-edged sword of a classical education. Classical education is like a weapon—in the right hands it can accomplish much, but in the wrong hands it can become quite dangerous. Machiavelli is nothing short of brilliant, and his works go on to later influence the course of western civilization,[2] impacting the likes of Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Frederich Nietzsche, and Francis Bacon.

Machiavelli’s brilliance must be understood though in the context of the realpolitik. Realpolitik refers to “politics based on practical and material factors rather than on theoretical or ethical objectives.”[3] Essentially, it is a view of the world that is utterly devoid of God, of purpose, and of values. The only thing that matters is the preservation of self and of the state, which exists to serve the purposes of its leader. This is what Machiavelli is all about and he is thoroughly consistent in his presentation to politicians on how to achieve this end. Reading Machiavelli is one of the most fruitful endeavors one can undertake in seeking to understand the complexity of historical and our contemporary geopolitical landscape.

So what value can be gained from the reading of Machiavelli? I think the primary benefit for us is in seeing the power of a classical education. In a letter to Francesco Vettori, written December 10, 1513, Machiavelli demonstrates the awe that he has for the classical authors. He tells Vettori,

“When evening comes, I return to my home, and I go into my study; and on the threshold, I take off my everyday clothes, which are covered with mud and mire, and I put on regal and curial robes; and dressed in a more appropriate manner I enter into the ancient courts of ancient men and am welcomed by them kindly, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born; and there I am not ashamed to speak to them, to ask them the reasons for their actions; and they, in their humanity, answer me; and for four hours I feel no boredom, I dismiss every affliction, I no longer fear poverty nor do I tremble at the thought of death: I become completely part of them.”[4]

As a student of the classics it is hard to imagine, despite the author, that the heart of a lover of these ancients would not resonate with the above sentence. What reverence Machiavelli had for the ancient ones! Would we not delight to have such a student in our classroom, wholly and voraciously devouring every word of every text that we assign!

In The Prince Machiavelli actually gives us solid counsel regarding these ancients, saying,

“…since men almost always tread the paths made by others and proceed in their affairs by imitation, although they are not completely able to stay on the path of others nor reach the skill of those they imitate, a prudent man should always enter those paths taken by great men and imitate those who have been most excellent, so that if one’s own skill does not match theirs, at least it will have the smell of it; and he should proceed like those prudent archers who, aware of the strength of their bow when the target they are aiming at seems too distant, set their sights, much higher than their designated target, not in order to reach to such a height with their arrow but rather to be able, with the aid of such a high aim, to strike their target.”[5]

This is right in line with what we hope that our students will gain from their classical education. We hope and pray that they will read the men and women who have gone before them, and that even if they never achieve what those authors did, that the lives of the students might “have the smell of it.”

Previously I have written about the dangers of classical education, and this only confirms what I was saying.[6] What we are doing is dangerous. We are equipping students, if they will accept it, with weapons of warfare—with the basic knowledge, the logical precision, and the aromatic rhetoric of persuasion—to shake the foundations of the world they live in. The Realfrage[7] is whether they will use these weapons to push into the darkness with wisdom and virtue? Or will they adopt the hopeless realpolitik of Machiavelli? May we proceed in our educational endeavors with fear and trembling, fortified by the armor of God, empowered by His Spirit, equipping his saints!

[1] Machiavelli actually has a work entitled The Art of War, but it seems to bear little resemble to Sun Tsu’s eastern classic.

[2] “Miguel Vatter, has said that only The Communist Manifesto even remotely competes with The Prince in terms of its influence on modern political thought.” “Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’, an evil work of genius, still fascinates 500 years on”, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/machiavelli-s-the-prince-an-evil-work-of-genius-still-fascinates-500-years-on-1.1622244. Accessed February 20, 2018.

[3] “Realpolitik”, Meriam-Webster Dictionary Online. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/realpolitik. Accessed February 20, 2018

[4] Niccolo Machiavelli. “The Private Letters: To Francesco Vettori in Rome”, The Portable Machiavelli. Trans. and ed. by Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), 69.

[5] Niccolo Machiavelli. The Prince, The Portable Machiavelli. Trans. and ed. by Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), 93.

[6]See “What Scares Me About Classical Education.”

[7] I’m going to go ahead and coin a new term here for fun. Realfrage refers to the “asking of a question that is ‘behind’ other questions. It is the question that gets to the core of an issue rather than dancing around the periphery.”

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