WAKE OF LIBERTY recommends a reading and interpretation of Old Nick’s texts in a way that turns their content on its head.
In this case, according to Erica Benner’s article in the Guardian (see below), what Machiavelli seemingly touts and promotes in his books, all his ‘advice’ to despots on how to crush the opposition and implement their rule, is a tongue-in-cheek warning to his readers, an exposition of how things work in the minds of despots and all those who enable them.
It is, in fact, a cautionary tale with a postmodern twist. If one were to read between the lines, seeing through the book’s framing device, the technique becomes evident. The central message confronts itself, turning the text into its own rebuttal, and Machiavelli finds himself warning against his own advice. He makes his case genially and surreptitiously, without a hint of schmaltz.
Having based part of WAKE OF LIBERTY on Machiavelli‘s texts and discourses, I stand behind this groundbreaking interpretation. Cooley, one of WOL’s two main characters in The French Revolution Tour, is a Machiavellian ghost, among other things, and very adept to making frightful remarks. Every misanthropic statement he makes concerning the necessity of violence in the human condition — how civilization hinges on the death and destruction of all opponents, leading to the rewriting of history in terms that please the victor — is accurate, at least when taking history into account.
Nevertheless, Cooley’s words, like Machiavelli‘s, are as much ‘advice’ to the cynical as they are ‘warning’ to the wise. One can fully embrace them, or simply guard against them.
The answer is in the reader. It’s always in the reader.
Some say this is a cheat, this channeling of nefarious opinion; a way of staying on the fence, playing both sides, getting away with despicable commentary. If one wishes to warn against the foul among us and their flagrant methods of conducting politics and business, one ought to expose them outright, they say.
If one is keen on exposing devious behavior, one ought to paint the culprits as villains, and damn them. Punish them through one’s discourses, standing up for what’s right. Not offer advice for their benefit.
It’s a naive way of approaching the issue, this indignant disapproval of Machiavelli’s approach, typical of the do-goodery that deems itself the hero and savior of the world. The Superman Complex. Too full of itself, it assumes right by way of entitlement, which is a surefire way of being displaced down the line by something more fitting and in touch with the times. Preachers and bigshots come and go, but analytical thought remains.
A more apt way to tackle contentious and controversial issues is to assume the nature of whatever one is dealing with, without getting bogged down in the moralisms of the day, at least not in terms of taking a stance against any given position. Let the ethics of the thesis be insinuated, at best. Steer clear of all highhanded denunciation, in fact, flip it. Immerse the argument in its own logic, let it play out in full, even tout it on occasion, giving it an air of authenticity and sheer momentum.
It’s an approach that allows the reader to understand the true intent of the argument, its elemental nature, offering ways with which to observe it, analyze it, and dissect it. It allows the reader to understand how it works, why it does what it does, what ruses it employs to get its way and how it’s likely to play itself out.
In other words, make the argument authentic. Study the phenomenon in its natural habitat, this thing, whatever it may be, interpret its motives as they stand, and choose a course of action based on an understanding of what it is and how it works (or malfunctions).
The risk behind this approach is that people often fall for the nasty and tempting parts, embracing the questionable elements of what is presented to them rather than shy away from them. They ‘take the advice’ rather than ‘heed the warning,’ and go for broke, and broke is how they end up more often than not.
And the world has to go through wave after wave of despotism, flagrance, and arbitrariness, suffering assault after assault on all things decent.
Then again, whatever is unable to hold its own cannot stay relevant for long.
If there were no merit in Machiavelli’s discourses in and of themselves, they would have been forgotten long ago.
But they endure. There’s something about them that gives them value, keeping them relevant to this day, and for centuries to come.
And the world they discuss, it, too, like the arguments they use, hinges on the merits of whatever is able to hold its own. The tests to which our everyday reality and history are subjected, through dark texts and premises, among other practices, are not a bane. They’re an exercise, painful and grueling, even scary at times, but necessary.
In other words, it’s a risk worth taking, this framing of the world through dubious and disconcerting content — a pain worth the agony. Our very own game of thrones.
The approach is vexing, but it allows the system to be tested to the full extent of its aptitude, keeping its players sharp and fit. The despots i.e. those who follow the nefarious advice rather than heed the stark warning, get excited by what they read, pushing the limits of cynicism, displacing all those weak enough to stand up for themselves. The rebels, on the other hand, meaning all those eager to guard themselves from such advice, become vigilant and conscious, aware of how to counteract the despots, pushing the limits of restoration, strengthening the foundations of tomorrow’s causes.
In the process they become despots themselves, if not all of them, then some of them, and plenty of their heirs, their progeny and successors. The game is thus repeated down the line.
The process is endless. Like a spiral, it propels humanity forward through fire and ice, gauntlet and pantheon, keeping its members fit and its causes evolving. Its debts moving and its prizes shifting. The world is in constant flux, always up for grabs, everyone giving it their all for a chance at victory.
Way ahead of his time, old Niccolò Machiavelli gave us something that endures to this day. We still haven’t figured out his intent, but maybe that’s beside the point. Maybe we should embrace both interpretations — his text was a primer for authoritarianism, his text was a warning — and pay attention to how people take charge.
Make no mistake, the princes are coming!
This is a #WAKEOFLIBERTY report.
For the Guardian article, click below: