12 Books of Christmas: Discourses on the First 10 Books of Titus Livy

My friends’ children are one by one tipping over some kind of invisible cognitive line into what I might cynically call the Age of Reason. I had a quite lengthy discussion with one recently which ranged over a number of topics and throughout I was struck by the idea several times that the mechanisms and stratagems being used on both sides of the conversation were fully adult. From a structural point of view her ability to converse is complete, and it brought to mind some discussions I’ve been reading online about what the voting age should be; answers range from 14 to 30. Her ability to articulate a position based on what she knows was a timely, if unknowing, advocation for a lower age. 

The primary argument that carries real weight about retaining the current voting age is the fear of childish ignorance, and if there’s any question that I know more on every topic than this young woman, I would regard that as a catastrophic failure in my life to date. Yet, one of the frequent activities I found myself engaging in while living in the UK was explaining to the English the problems with the First Past the Post electoral system, the relative role and power of the House of Commons versus the House of Lords, and the difference between a parliamentary and presidential political system with the attendant inability to separate executive and legislative powers. These are all such fundamental concepts that I’m deeply concerned that someone without that knowledge has the right and expectation to participate in elections. What the heck do they use as the basis of their voting decisions? It doesn’t seem controversial to say that ignorance played a substantial, a determining role, in several key international elections recently and it’s not easy to see what more damage high school voters could have done to the world.

These discussions prompted me to think in more detail about what the real cognitive difference is between an adult and a child, and how that transition is managed. For me, the big difference is that as a youth I was completely undiscriminating in what I read and consumed. I learned what I liked by trial-and-error, and the things I tried, I tried pretty thoroughly. I devoured all the philosophy I could, starting with the ultimate big-hitter, Aristotle, but I read Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine too. I read histories of the world, I read romance novels, science fiction, books on quantum theory and astrophysics, detective stories. The difference is now I only read things I’m reasonably likely to like – my world has definitely shrunk, even as my understanding of the things included in it has deepened. Viewed in that light, a voracious, experimentalist, critically consuming a range of media, may be indeed more rather than less qualified to make a decision.

It was in that spirit that I came to really dislike the term Machiavellian. Machiavelli is most famous for his posthumous work, The Prince, a guidebook for ruthlessly ruling a society. It’s a classic for a reason, but it’s only one part of Machiavelli’s political philosophy. The larger part of his political thought is contained in The Discourses, where he looks at the latter days of the Roman republic and at the state of contemporaneous Italy and offers a much broader view on the proper functioning of a society and its political structures. If The Prince is your only exposure to Machiavelli you will believe he supported unlimited power for the individual ruler, but if you read only The Discourses you will see Machiavelli as an advocate for direct democracy. Neither is a true position, because both are highly contingent and provisional positions. More important than understanding his ultimate position is understanding that Machiavelli was really always calling for societies to fully understand their objectives so that their methods could be appropriately selected.

I think it’s unequivocally true that we in “the West” are engaged in a cultural civil war, and that with the emergence of Trump the war is moving from a Cold War into an open phase. In the past few months I’ve seen pieces suggesting the creation of a register for US college professors who “discriminate” against right-wing students, a piece suggesting that we cap the number of women in STEM because they can’t hack it anyway, a suite of US cabinet appointments who’re anti-LGBTQ – and a few sanity pieces about the true nature of anti-Political Correctness rhetoric. Machiavelli can help us understand how people like Trump come to power and how to combat them. In Chapter 34 of Book 1 he suggests that it is not the dictator with whom we should find fault exactly, but “it is the magistracies created and the powers usurped in unconstitutional ways that hurt a republic, not those which conform to ordinary rule”. Machiavelli is warning us that an attack on the system of government, such as the blockading of Supreme Court nominees, the decision by successive presidents to go to war without the consent of Congress, the creation of the FISA court and extra-judicial surveillance, represents the real danger to the US and hence to the rest of us. It’s not enough to fight the figurehead, we must fight the creeping advancement of hate in the small areas too.

That, I think, is the real meaning of “Real Politik”, and the main lesson I personally have taken from Machiavelli’s writing. In all things, Machiavelli calls on the reader to understand what their objectives are, and only then prescribes an appropriate response. Machiavelli doesn’t advocate the pursuit of absolute power for its own sake, he isn’t a monster – but he is an enabler who explains how to achieve that power if you wish it. What this also provides is the toolkit for understanding how to combat such tendencies, and in fact, huge portions of The Discourses warn of how a well-functioning system is vulnerable to being undermined and how to prevent that attack from succeeding. Machiavelli has never exactly been irrelevant, but I definitely think the world as it is may be the perfect time to rediscover his genius.

Althusser, Louis, and François Matheron. Machiavelli and Us. London; New York: Verso, 1999.

Machiavelli, Niccolò, Julia Conaway Bondanella, and Peter E Bondanella. Discourses on Livy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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