Friday, November 30, 2012

Machiavelli - Four Possible Interpretations

Few authors have been as reviled as Machiavelli - although, to a few, he presents an ideal path to success, if not the only path. Who was Machiavelli, and what was he trying to accomplish when he wrote his most famous work, The Prince?

Born on May 3, 1469, he spent almost his entire life in Italy, and most of that time in Florence, his hometown for which he had great affection. He did make brief trips to France, Spain, and Germany as a diplomat. The family into which he was born was not wealthy.

During Machiavelli's lifetime, Italy was not united into a single nation-state. That wouldn't happen until the 1860's. Instead, there were many small, independent kingdoms and republics. They occasionally engaged in war with each other, and sometimes formed coalitions to fight against another similarly-grouped band of monarchies and republics. Machiavelli seems to have longed for the unified nation-state.

He held a variety of political appointments over the years, and languished in the intervals between such offices. He desire to be part of the political process was great, and being outside the process for any length of time was torture to him.

His career prospered when the Borgia family had control in Florence; although Cesare Borgia was known for ruthlessness, Machiavelli seems to have believed that Cesare's tactics were justified, given the dangers posed by Italy's political situation. When the Borgia family was removed from power in Florence in 1512, he lost his position in the city's government, and was later accused of plotting against the Medici family, who'd taken control in the city. Machiavelli did, in fact, oppose Medici rule.

Machiavelli was eventually tolerated by the Medici. He obtained a minor post, allowing him some small participation in the city's affairs. When the Medici were overthrown, Machiavelli hoped to have a role in the new republican government being formed in Florence. But the meager role the Medici had allowed him to hold in the government was enough to make him suspect; the new government denied him a post because of his association with the Medici. He died soon thereafter, on June 21, 1527

The seemingly harsh tone - or, conversely, realistic perspective - of The Prince has made the book controversial over the centuries. Machiavelli's name has become an adjective. The reader must decide whether Machiavelli is truly endorsing what he presents, or merely describing a pragmatic Realpolitik.

In the universe of interpretive possibilities regarding The Prince, four loom large: first, that the text is prescriptive, in the sense that it is instructing the ruler how he can achieve maximum effectivenss; second, that the book descriptive, in the sense that it is reporting how, in fact, effective princes have conducted themselves in office; third, that it is largely ironic, meant to show how repulsive political behavior can be; fourth, that it is designed as a sort advertisement or solicitation to gain the attention and favor of the Medici and win for Machiavelli a position in their government.

Clearly, there are many possible variants and mixtures of the four above-listed interpretations; and there may well be other interpretations at which we have not here hinted. But, in the main, these four cover the majority of tenable understandings of The Prince.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Islam Expands

When Muhammad died in 632 A.D., his young movement had solidified its power in the Arabian peninsula. Having marched with his army from Medina - former called Yathrib - he defeated the city of Mecca with his army of 10,000 men and made it the capital of his movement. He rapidly conquered most of the rest of Arabia and then died. But his organization would continue to grow. As historian Harold Lamb writes:

What this man of Khoraish had not accomplished in his life came to pass after his death. Desert men wearing motley helmets, mounted on little horses and thin camels, went out to conquer. The fire of fanaticism burned in them and spread from land to land with amazing speed.

Lamb refers to Muhammad's tribe, the Quraysh, by a variant spelling; the reader will remember that transliteration of names originally written in alphabets other than ours yields sometimes numerous alternate orthographies.

Under the Companions, who had been the comrades-disciples of the Prophet, the rush of conquest began. In less than a century the banners of Islam had been carried east as far as the Indus and the outposts of Cathay. The swords of Islam were flashing in the deep gorges of the Caucasus. Egypt had fallen to them, and all the north of Africa, and Andalus - modern Spain.
The scimitar was one of the weapons of choice for Islam: a curved sword. Lightweight versions were used by mounted soldiers; in combat, to slash at an enemy, and in surprise raids on civilians, when at a full gallup bands of soldiers could ride through a village and kill many in mere minutes, often decapitating them in a single swing. Heavier version of the scimitar were used by infantry - soldiers on foot. Ceremonial versions were used, and are still used, for public beheadings ordered by Muslim authorities. Peaceful cultures which had existed for over 500 years - the Copts in Egypt, the Syriac Church - disappeared in the swings of scimitars and streams of blood.