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Archive for the ‘Philosophers’ Category

Oxford English Dictionary defines Machiavellianism as “the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct.” In social psychology, a Machiavellian person is one who has a high tendency to deceive and manipulate others for personal gain. In middle school Mr. Snarey told us that to be called Machiavellian means that you are cynical, immoral and mean.

This guy seems like a real jerk. (Machiavelli, not Mr. Snarey). I’ve been researching important stuff for an evil antagonist in a new fiction novel and Machiavelli kept bubbling to the surface of my mind. I went to the library to find out a little more about him. It was there that discovered (after a whole bunch of other people discovered it and wrote books about it) that poor Machiavelli has been undeservedly demonized. Well, sort of undeservedly, at least. I think. Maybe.

It is true that Niccoló Machiavelli encouraged the odd broken promise. Point in case: In the early 1500’s Cesare Borgia supported Julius II for papal election in return for appointment of the head of the papal armies. Once elected Julius II reneged on his promise because he didn’t like Borgia’s dad, Pope Alexander VI. Machiavelli, then the secretary to the committee in charge of foreign policy and military of Florence, commended Julius’s decision and denounced Borgia for being too cocky, relying on “good fortune” for success rather than good strategy. Borgia never regained power.

This is a good story to start with in an attempt to understand Machiavelli’s point of view. Born into a Florentine middle class family in 1468, Machiavelli would never be invited to rule any land. His role would forever be as an advisor and as a go-to guy, much to his bitter disappointment:

It is the duty of a good man to point out to others what is well done, even though the malignity of the times or of fortune has not permitted you to do it for yourself, so that of the many who have the capacity, some one, more beloved of heaven, may be able to do it.

And so he studied history. Machiavelli loved to pore over accounts of past military exploits and political maneuvers. He made note of what worked and of what didn’t, and painstakingly compiled them into various how-to books both for leaders and hopeful leaders–The Art of War and The Prince–as well as a book for citizens working toward a liberty filled free state–The Discourses on the First Decade of Titius Livius.

There are many quotes that one might take from Machiavelli’s work that, out of context, sound horrible:

–If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.

 

–A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise.

 

–It is much more secure to be feared than to be loved.

 

–Men are so simple and so much inclined to obey immediate needs that a deceiver will never lack victims for his deceptions. (all quotes found here)

But, what is important to remember is that Machiavelli always stated what he believed to be the truth, not what he believed would be popular.

Many writers have dreamed up ideal countries, but the gulf between them and reality is so great that to neglect what is actually done for what should be done is simply to invite self destruction.

Furthermore, Machiavelli was ultimately interested in creating a peaceful and power balanced republic. He had this to say about his work The Discourses:

First, I never urged immorality for it’s own sake, but only as necessary in the pursuit of a strong, united state. Second, the ideal form of such a state is a republic.

According to Patrick Curry in Introducing Machiavelli, Machiavelli was a “classical pagan.” He longed for the days when humanity worshipped gods and goddesses who were imbued with “vigour, prowess, bravery, pride, courage, and strength.” He called these abilities “virtú” which stand in direct opposition to Christian virtues:

If our religion [Christianity] demands that you be strong, what it asks for is strength to suffer, rather than strength to do bold things…Christianity turns people away from this world, away from the collective responsibilities of citizenship, towards individual salvation. That is the effect of its “truth.”

Machiavelli never argued that Christianity is untrue or wrong. His concern was with the effects of religion on civic spirit, the desire to work together to create a smoothly running collective body rather than an actual moral code. To him, religion was simply a good inspiration in keeping men good and shaming the wicked. To him, the public had a responsibility toward keeping those in power checked, and those in power had a responsibility to protecting and caring for their people.

Maurizio Viroli writes in Niccoló’s Smile, that late in his life Machiavelli had a dream:

In his dream, he had seen a band of poorly dressed men, ragged and miserable in appearance. He asked them who they were. They replied, “We are the saintly and the blessed; we are on our way to Heaven.” Then he saw a crowd of solemnly attired men, noble and grave in appearance, speaking seriously of important political matters. In their midst he recognized the great philosophers and historians of antiquity who had written fundamental works on politics and the state, such as Plato, Plutarch and Tacitus. Again he asked them who they were and where they were going. “We are the damed of Hell” was their answer. AFter telling his friends of his dream, Machiavelli remarked that he would be far happier in Hell, where he could discuss politics with the great men of the ancient world, than in Heaven, where he would languish in boredom among the blessed and saintly.

I’m still a little up in the air about how I feel about Machiavelli, I suppose. Was he misunderstood pragmatist telling it like it is? Or was he a manipulative mastermind, paving the way for Hilter, Mussolini, Thatcher, Saddam, Osama bin Laden, Gaddafi…the list goes on and on…

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I’m reading an interesting book at the moment entitled The Incarnation of Ahriman: The Embodiment of Evil on Earth. It is a collection of lectures by Rudolf Steiner about Ahriman, the specter of ultra domination who has already incarnated or will be incarnating soon, here in the West.

In the first lecture, which is all I have read til this point, Steiner speaks about a mistake that folks in the modern world make, namely the idea that we live in a dualistic world. Steiner makes the point that in ancient times, people believed in a trichotomous cosmology. In other words, humans were made up of three parts–body, soul and spirit. Your body is your physical body, your soul is your intellect and your spirit is the supernatural part of you that interacts with spirit realm.

It isn’t too difficult to see why the Catholic church would work really hard to nix that last little bit about every human having his/her very own link to God…the priests wanted a corner on the God market. At some point during the 8th or 9th century it became heretical to believe in three parts. This was enforced rather vehemently by some powerful groups.

Steiner points out that this switch to an erronious dualistic view is apparent in most popular modern work. He points to Milton’s Paradise Lost and Goethe’s Faust to show the how conflict has taken on the duality of good v. evil. This duality is also present and prevalent in the even more modern stories by JK Rowling, Tolkien, Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer, Philip Pullman, etc., etc., etc.

In Steiner’s world view, things are a bit different. Rather than one horrid source of evil striving to possess the souls of the multitudes fighting against one source of goodness, Steiner believes that there are two sources of evil, Lucifer-who urges humanity to throw caution to the wind and be free from the annoying rules and ethical boundaries and self discipline…”let them eat cake!”–and Ahriman–whose goal is to divert power away from the “natural” divine sources toward himself, a task that can only be completed by divorcing a human being from her own beliefs and intuitions.

Between these two powers of decay is the balancing point. For Steiner, the balancing point is Jesus. Jesus personifies the calm compassion that it takes to remain unswayed by ultimate hedonism or by ultimate domination of spirit. Steiner is not the first to corollate Jesus with the fulcrum between two parts. Here is the ancient symbol of the vesica piscis:

Notice the (for lack of better term) football shape between the two circles with equal radiuses. That shape is the pictorial form of the middle path. The dualism (two circles) automatically creates a third form, the point that lies in the middle of the two. Between any two poles (heaven/hell, good/evil, black/white, Lucifer/Ahriman, etc.) lies a middle point. The trichotomy can’t be escaped, no matter how hard those fundamentalists try.

(Grønbæk Kirke-Jesus in a vesica piscis surrounded by symbols)

Personally, I prefer to think of the vesica piscis as the middle path, rather than labeling it Jesus right away. It is the point that is neither too far in one direction or too far in the other. Our job as humans is to always check for drift and adjust course if necessary.

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(Watermelon Monster from the Buson YŌkai Emaki-1754)

We see nature around us, and we see also that man enters into his physical existence through the forces of this same nature. We know through our study of Spiritual Science that we do not rightly regard nature if we only pay attention to its external physical features. We know that divine forces permeate it and we only become aware of our origin from nature in the true sense of the word when we perceive this divine element that weaves and works within it. -Rudolf Steiner

I was camping this weekend, wading around in these big rock bowls carved out by the flowing water. If I stood in the same place long enough little tiny fish came over and nibbled on my skin (a little disturbing, but cute). My partner pointed out the St. John’s Wort growing by the waters edge. I got a little sunburnt on my pasty neck. When the sun went down a bat flew by my ear and I heard strange rustlings in the grass. It was super fun.

I’ve had to quit drinking alcohol. And quit smoking cigarettes. And, since “the Great Liver Cleanse” of summer 2010 I can’t even drink a proper cup of coffee anymore. I find myself searching for the next best mood mender, or whatever you want to call it. It apparently needs to be something that doesn’t harm me or make me irritable. I’ve decided that my next vice will be to become obsessed with finding God.

No, no…that will never do! says the guru in my head. One who is obsessed will never reach enlightenment! You must touch God lightly, for she is like a watermelon seed–once you squeeze…squirt, gone!

This afternoon I went to my favorite Rosen bodywork practitioner. I’ve told her about my quest to find God and to become like Jesus. (She does Vipassana meditation. I don’t know exactly what that is, but it sounds serious). I told her I’d like her to help me release the anger that’s trapped inside my body. I told her my latest favorite quote from the Brahma Kumaris anger management handout: How can there be peace on earth, if the hearts of men are like volcanoes? (This is one of those instances where the word man=humanity, in case you wondered if women could have volcanic hearts as well. There is a well known study–ok it’s an article I found online–that says that girls are getting more and more aggressive. My favorite quote: “And it spoke to me about how this new American girl is wrestling with the same issues the American boy has been.” Gosh! What an insight! Amazing. I wonder if they might even someday find that girls from other countries experience similar things as boys from their same countries too? The world is wild and strange.)

Anyway, I said to my Rosen practitioner “how can there be peace on earth, if the hearts of man are like volcanoes?”

“That is why there will never be peace on earth,” she answered quickly with a wry, Vipassanic smile. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t joking.

There is peace in nature though. I know that animals can be vicious (I’m glad those crazy fishes didn’t have teeth!). That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about balance. I feel top heavy. My head is way bigger than my body and I have to walk really fast to keep up with it, so that gravity doesn’t make it smash to the ground.

I will practice slowing down. I will practice slowing down. I will practice slowing down.

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest-a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty.-Einstein

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(Socrates and his wife Xanthippe, who is emptying a chamber pot on his head)

So, most people who read the previous post, in which I make the point that if-God- hadn’t-wanted-us-to-talk-about-people-why-would-ze-make-it-so-fun? point, agreed that Jesus was probably a funny guy, and that they, too, like funny things. I’ve pondered and pondered over the last 48 hours and the story that comes to my mind in (partial) answer to the above question is one that my mom emailed to me many weeks ago. Please be warned, it is not for sensitive eyes:

In ancient Greece (469 – 399 BC), Socrates was widely lauded for his wisdom. One day the great philosopher came upon an acquaintance who ran up to him excitedly and said, “Socrates, do you know what I just heard about one of your students?”

“Wait a moment,” Socrates replied. “Before you tell me I’d like you to pass a little test. It’s called the Test of Three.”

“Test of Three?”

“That’s right,” Socrates continued. “Before you talk to me about my student let’s take a moment to test what you’re going to say. The first test is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?”

No,” the man said, “actually I just heard about It.”

“All right,” said Socrates. “So you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Now let’s try the second test, the test of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about my student something good?”

“No, on the contrary…”

“So,” Socrates continued, “you want to tell me something bad about him even though you’re not certain it’s true?”

The man shrugged, a little embarrassed.

Socrates continued. “You may still pass though, because there is a third test – the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my student going to be useful to me?”

“No, not really.”

“Well,” concluded Socrates, “if what you want to tell me is neither True nor Good nor even Useful, why tell it to me at all?”

The man was defeated and ashamed. This is the reason Socrates was a great philosopher and held in such high esteem. It also explains why he never found out that Plato was banging his wife.

Well, there it is. A parable worthy of the new testament. Funny, instructional, with an ironic twist. I’ll leave you with a quote from Abraham Lincoln to hammer it home:

I never had a policy; I have just tried to do my very best each and every day.

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