Today is the birthday of Niccolò Machiavelli. He was born on this day in 1469. Even though the adjective ‘Machiavellian’ has become a pejorative term to describe someone who aims to deceive and manipulate others for personal advantage. Even though the Devil may be called ‘Old Nick’ in his honour. I’d like to argue that he may have made some good points.
Machiavelli lived through a time of enormous political unrest. New leaders were constantly rising to power, only to be immediately knocked down by someone else. He wrote his most famous work, ‘The Prince’, for Lorenzo II de’ Medici (father of Catherine) at a time when the Medici family were newly reinstated as rulers of Florence. Machiavelli had lost his job in the upheaval. He had been accused of plotting against the Medicis, he had been arrested, he had been tortured. He had been released and he had banished from the city. He was hoping to win Lorenzo’s favour. It is a political treatise offering advice on how a new prince might retain his power. Machiavelli knew that a prince should be both loved and feared, but if it is not possible to have both, it is best to be feared. He advised that the prince kill not only his enemies, but anyone who might be powerful enough to become an enemy.
His belief was that, sometimes, violence is necessary to maintain a stable society. That if you do something awful, most people will not notice if it achieves a result that is good. That there is no point imagining an ideal society where everyone is lovely because it’s not going to happen. He thought that religion was a bad thing for leaders because it made them lazy. Those who left everything up to the ‘Will of God’ never achieved anything. On the other hand, religion was a good thing for the geneal populace because it made them easy to manipulate. You could say anything was the ‘Will of God’ and they’d be fine with it. Some of his observations are based on the life of Cesare Borgia (brother of Lucrezia). He tells the story of how Cesare appointed a deputy to do his more unpleasant jobs. When his deputy was hated for it, he had him killed. Not only that, but he had his body cut in half and left in the town square along with a butcher’s block and a blood-stained knife. Of course, I’m not in favour of people who lie, cheat and murder their way into a position of power. But, let’s face it, destroying the opposition and having a good scapegoat is the way people get into postions of power.
Unfortunately Lorenzo didn’t like his book and Machiavelli continued to live on his farm outside the city, which he didn’t like very much at all. That’s when he wrote his comedy ‘La Mandragola’. I’d like to tell you about that because it sort of illustrates his political thoughts in microcosm and in a much less violent way. Everyone in the play does something completely immoral and yet everyone ends up happy.
The protagonist, Callimaco, falls hopelessly for a lady named Lucrezia who is young and beautiful. She is marries to an old man called Nicia who is a complete idiot. They have no children and Nicia is desperate for a son and heir. Callimaco’s scheming friend, Ligurio, devises a plan that will allow Callimaco to spend the night with Lucrezia which also involves a corrupt priest. Our hero poses as a doctor who can offer a solution to the couple’s childlessness. He convinces Nicia to drug Lucrezia with mandrake, claiming it will increase her fertility. However there is a caviat. The mandrake will undoubtedly kill the first man to have sex with her. Callimaco helpfully suggests to Nicia that an unwitting fool be found for this purpose. The ‘mandrake’ will be, in fact, just a big glass of wine and the ‘unwitting fool’, Callimaco in diguise. Lucrezia, being a religeous lady is reluctant but is eventually convinced by her mother and the priest to comply. The priest tells her that, like eating meat on a Wednesday, it is a sin that can be easily washed away with holy water. She allows a disguised Callimaco into her bed and, believing that the events which caused her to break her marriage vows were due to divine providence, accepts him as her lover on a more permanent basis.
Callimaco is happy because he gets to keep seeing Lucrezia. Lucrezia is happy because she has a nice new lover and has been told it’s not a sin. Nicia is happy because he will get his son and heir. Lucrezia’s mother is happy because she will have a grandchild. The priest is happy because he got a big bribe for taking part in a lie. Ligurio is happy everyone is pleased and that means he can get himself a free lunch whenever he wants.