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Reliving Machiavelli in Florence

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So he left jail, impoverished but not broken, retreated to his small farmhouse, and set out to write. The Prince came out as history -- not political theory. Rousseau actually branded it a "satire." Gramsci called it "a living book" -- a celebration of a utopian Prince "via so many passionate, mythical elements that come alive in the conclusion, in the invocation of a really existing prince." So Machiavelli in fact designed the myth of the founder and the redeemer of a free republic -- imagining that the redemption of the state would be at the same time his own redemption after he was stripped of his job of secretary by a laconic communique and later accused of being a conspirator. 

It has been a blessing to re-read The Prince alongside The Discourses -- which, in time, became the intellectual and political guide of all who cherished the ideal of republican freedom in Europe and the Americas. The Discourses is Machiavelli's fusion of Polybius and Aristotle. The Romans had found out that a great empire was doomed if it did not keep Aristotle's balance of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Machiavelli went one step ahead; every real republic is actually doomed. In a free republic like in Ancient Greece and Rome, or Florence before the Medici, too much prosperity, success, greed -- and overextension -- distorts men's drive towards self-enrichment (or dissolves it into complacency) rather than keep it at the service of the state. 

The real rot comes from within -- not from an external power. Think of the late Soviet Union. Think of the current decline of the American Empire. But then again, mediocre exceptionalists never got the picture; Leo Strauss, at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, taught that Machiavelli was "a teacher of evil."  

As the rot from within grows, that's where the Prince steps in. He's like the Last Man Standing -- very far from the idealized figure of a philosopher-king or a Platonic teacher. He's the ruler who pulls a corrupt society out of its devious, self-destructive ways and hurls it back towards sound political life -- and preeminence. (Machiavelli was specifically thinking of someone to save Italy from foreign invaders and its own deaf, blind and dumb rulers). 

And if the Prince must resort to violence to defend the republic, it must never be gratuitous, but always subordinated to a well-argued ragion di stato (the 2003 bombing and occupation of Iraq obviously does not qualify). The Prince anyway is not a political messiah; rather a mix of the fox ("in order to recognize traps") and the lion ("to frighten off wolves"). The most apt contemporary version would be Vladimir Putin. 

In that fateful day in May 1498, Machiavelli saw in Savonarola's burning how religious fundamentalism is incompatible with a successfully commercial and politically viable society (House of Saud princes never read The Prince). And then he displayed to us the wall of mistrust between ethics and the science of government -- as if drawing an abridged road map for the future global hegemony of Western civilization. 

It's curioser and curioser how the Medici dynasty rejected The Prince at the time; after all, that was the ultimate handbook on how to become a (political) Godfather, in the post-Renaissance and beyond. In parallel, I always wondered what wise Ming dynasty courtiers would have made of The Prince. Probably, imperially, ignore it. 

So this is how I celebrated the half-a-millennium anniversary of The Prince; sharing a few glasses of Brunello, as if we were in a Florentine osteria in the early 16th century, with the spirit of a very distinguished senior civil servant of the Florentine Republic who was thrown out of office exactly as he was admitted; poor, incorruptible and with his dignity intact. I could not but admire his wry smile dying in his lips and barely hiding his pain -- but then again, he knew we're nothing but playing a small part in this whole human, all too human, comedy. 

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Pepe Escobar is an independent geopolitical analyst. He writes for RT, Sputnik and TomDispatch, and is a frequent contributor to websites and radio and TV shows ranging from the US to East Asia. He is the former roving correspondent for Asia (more...)

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