May 14, 2015

Machiavelli was Funny!!

Five hundred years ago, in a letter dated December 10, 1513, Niccolo Machiavelli announced to his friend Francesco Vettori that he had written a "little study" on politics.

That letter, one of the most celebrated in all of Renaissance literature, not only provides an important timeline indicating when Machiavelli likely penned what would become known to the world as The Prince but reveals something that many of his critics don’t know: that he was well-loved by his friends for his bawdy, ironic, self-deprecating sense of humor.

Yes, Machiavelli was funny!

In fact, there's a lot of evidence in his correspondence which suggest that he was a very likable, down-to-earth guy who was probably a blast to hang out with in local taverns and bars. But it’s his poems, tales and plays that give us the clearest glimpse of his dark humor and wit.

In his comedic play, Clizia, for example, he mocks the folly of an older man’s pursuit a beautiful younger woman, and in the novella Belfagor he has his protagonist choose between the torments of hell and "the anxiety of the marriage yoke." Anyone who’s been married for long enough can see the humor in that, right?

Even the dark and brooding German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche found humor in Machiavelli’s prose, noting that in The Prince, he “lets us breathe the dry, refined air of Florence and cannot help presenting the most serious matters in a boisterous allegrissimo, perhaps not without a malicious artistic sense of the contrast he risks—long, difficult, hard, dangerous thoughts and…the very best, most capricious humor.”

But the most startling example of Machiavelli's vivid imagination and lascivious wit can be found in a letter he wrote to his friend Luigi Guicciardini. In it, he tells a tale about an encounter he supposedly had with a grotesque old hag who he was tricked into having sex with one day in Lombardy.

“Damn it all, Luigi!” he begins. “You see how fortune can bring about in men different results in similar matters. You, when you have had her once, you still get the urge to have her again.” He then recounts his own recent foray in a dimly lit room, only to discover, after the fact, that he had been sorely duped.

“My God!” he writes. “The woman was so ugly that I almost dropped dead.” On the top of her bald head, he said, “were a number of lice taking a stroll”; her “eyebrows were full of nits;” “one eye looked up and the other down”; her “nostrils were full of snot and one of them was cut off” and “her mouth looked like Lorenzo de’ Medici’s” but “it was twisted on one side and drooled a bit since she had no teeth to keep the saliva in her mouth. And I swear to God!” he quips, “I don’t believe my lust will return as long as I am in Lombardy.”

Did this actually happen?

Who knows. But that’s not the point. What matters is that Machiavelli could find humor in even the grimmest of situations. That he was a master at this is reflected in a letter he wrote near the end of his life in which he cites the lines from one of Petrarch’s sonnets: If at times I laugh or sing/ I do so because I have no other way than this/ To give vent to my bitter tears.

Aww, poor guy.

But here’s the bottom line: there’s a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt, as humorist Erma Bombeck observed. And that's a fate (especially as parents!) we can’t ever escape.

So what do we do?

Laugh and sing, my friends. Laugh and @&% sing — just like Machiavelli!

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January 9, 2015

On Machiavelli and George Clooney

So you might not think that Machiavelli and George Clooney could be mentioned in the same book but they are in Machiavelli for Moms, along with many others, including:

Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Jim Hensen, Harry Houdini, Thomas Jefferson, Steve Jobs, Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln, Vince Lombardy, Steve Martin, John Quincy Adams, Lorenzo de'Medici, Jopseh Campbell and James Madison. And that's not all. Also mentioned are Cicero, Thucydides, Richard Nixon, Steve Martin, Gene Wilder, Erma Bombeck, Dr. Spock, Emile Zola, Sir Issac Newton and Machiavelli's literary hero, Dante!

To learn more about Machiavelli for Moms click here.

May 2, 2013

Three Myths about Machiavelli: Or, Why Does Everyone Think He's Such a Meanie?

MYTH 1: The Prince is a Guidebook for Tyrants.

When Machiavelli sat down to write his little primer on politics, he couldn’t have known or even imagined that it would become the most infamous political tract of all time, one that would, in one way or another, influence some of the greatest political thinkers of all time, from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, and Montisiqueu to James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams. Instead, he intended it to be a sort of glorified job application in which he sought to dazzle and impress the Medici princes who held power in Florence with the vast knowledge he had acquired through years of experience and study.

In his dedicatory letter to Lorenzo de’Medici, he writes:

Those who desire to win the favor of princes generally endeavor to do so by offering them those things which they themselves prize most, or such as they observe the prince to delight in most. Thence it is that princes have very often presented to them horses, arms, cloth of gold, precious stones, and similar ornaments worthy of their greatness.

Wishing now myself to offer to your Magnificence some proof of my devotion, I have found nothing amongst all I possess that I hold more dear or esteem more highly than the knowledge of the actions of great men, which I have acquired by long experience of modern affairs and a continued study of ancient history.

His overtures, however, went unanswered and it’s not certain if Lorenzo even bothered to read his little gift.

Nevertheless, The Prince addressed an immediate crisis that Machiavelli had seen with his own eyes – the disunity and ruin of Italy – and was meant to be a kind of "how to" book, a pragmatic master plan, a pithy and pungent no-hold-barred call to action for a cunning and ruthless new ruler endowed with the ambition to create a strong, unified state, one that – and this is important – is “distinguished from tyranny by the fact that it serves what Machiavelli calls the ‘common good.’" And by that term he has in mind, according to historian Paul Rahe, “war, conquest, and empire aimed at satisfying at the expense of outsiders the ambitions of the citizens and their longing for power, glory and wealth.”

His republicanism, as Rahe explains: inflames appetite; it sanctions and encourages licentiousness; and then, by means of laws and orders and channels appetite in such a way as to sustain liberty and encourage expansion.

Bottom line: Machiavelli made it clear throughout his career that he hated tyrannies, and so for this and other reasons, it seems safe to say that he didn’t intend his little masterpiece to be a guidebook for tyrants.

MYTH 2: The Ends Justify the Means

Machiavelli didn’t actually write this infamous phrase in The Prince. What he wrote was more along the lines of: "in considering the actions of must consider the final result." That’s not to say, however, that he wasn’t concerned with ends and means. In his Discourses on Livy, a longer and more thoughtful book, he writes, “while the act accuses him, the result excuses him, and when the result is good, like that of Romulus, it will always excuse him, because one should reproach a man who is violent in order to ruin things, not one who is so in order to set them aright.”

That’s a little arcane. But Machiavelli’s referring here to Romulus' murder of his brother Remus, an act that, according to mythology, led to the founding of the ancient city of Rome. So what’s the difference between justifying such an act and excusing it? Well, according to Peter Bandanella:

Machiavelli seems willing to excuse some shocking acts (such as the murder of Remus by Romulus) if the deed is done for an extremely important and moral cause (in this case, the foundation of the city of Rome, and implicitly its empire). To justify such an action as the killing of a brother means to render such an action just, and Machiavelli certainly does not believe that what Romulus did was just. But he is willing, in this particular and limited case, to excuse what Romulus did, not because it was just but because excusing an action means to recognize that an action is wrong but was committed under extraordinary circumstances that attenuate its wrongness.

In other words, justifying such an act assumes that no moral wrong was committed whereas excusing it concedes that a wrong was committed but its wrongness is attenuated or “excused” by the greater good or “end” that is served. Either way, the point remains that Machiavelli never wrote that phrase about the ends justifying the means to which he partly owes his sinister reputation.

MYTH 3: Machiavelli was a Meanie.

Machiavelli’s personal letters contain some of his most beautiful writing and reveal him as a loving father, loyal friend, and deeply thoughtful, sensitive man. (Of course, some of his letters are quite lurid but that’s a story for another day.)

In any event, in a letter to his son Guido, Machiavelli discusses the problem posed by a mad mule. “Since the young mule has gone mad,” he writes, “it must be treated just the reverse of the way crazy people are, for they are tied up, and I want you to let it loose...take off its bridle and halter and let it go wherever it likes...The village is big and the beast is small; it can do no one any harm.”

Here again, we see that there is more to Machiavelli than his brutal realism. And by that I mean that if he was as hard-hearted as his critics portray him to be, he would’ve instructed his son to simply destroy the poor beast, don’t ya think? Either way, the point remains that Machiavelli wasn’t a meanie. In fact, when it came to his family, friends, and even a mad mule, he could be, and probably often was, a real softie!

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April 22, 2013

On Parenting, Politics, and Machiavelli's Intent in Writing "The Prince"

SOME SCHOLARS argue that Machiavelli's intent in writing The Prince was driven by his desire to trap Lorenzo de’Medici by offering carefully crafted advice designed to undo the ruler if taken seriously and followed. Others claim that it's a cautionary tale intended to warn men of what tyrants could be and do. Still others posit that Machiavelli was a supremely passionate and pragmatic patriot who loved his city more than his own soul. And others still yet think that the author of The Prince wrote a satire for "he surely could not have literally meant what he wrote.”

Despite these benign scholarly interpretations, Machiavelli’s name today is a byword for treachery, mendacity, and a cunning and ruthless disregard for moral standards. The Oxford Dictionary defines a “Machiavellian” as an outrageously unscrupulous schemer. The term is also used to describe a personality characterized by dishonesty, cynicism and manipulation -- all of which, though understandable, don’t fully or fairly represent who Machiavelli was as a man or what his intent was in writing The Prince.

So, for the sake of debate, let me ask: to what, precisely, does Machiavelli owe his sinister reputation?

To this, you might cite such maxims as: If you must commit a crime do not advertise it beforehand since otherwise your enemies may destroy you before you destroy them. Men should either be caressed or annihilated. A wise ruler cannot and should not keep his word when it would be to his disadvantage. It is better to be feared than loved. And that infamous phrase that has been grossly mistranslated for centuries: The ends justify the means.

And you’re right: these and other similarly shocking statements help explain how Machiavelli earned his sinister reputation. But they also help prove the point that for some five hundred years this guy has gotten a bad rap.


Because they all have one thing in common: “they’ll all designed,” as Isaiah Berlin observed, “to create or resurrect or maintain an order that will satisfy what the author conceives as men’s most permanent interests." And,” Berlin adds, the “end is always the same: a state conceived after the analogy of Periclean Athens, or Sparta, but above all the Roman Republic.” Such an end, then, which men naturally desire, “excuses” any means.

So what does this have to do with parenting? Quite a bit, I would submit, because when it comes to imposing order and stability in our homes and ensuring the happiness and well-being of our subjects (or kids) the achievement of this "end" justifies or excuses any means.

Let me back this up with a quick example. Say your little prince or princess wakes up with the flu. Your ends, then, is caring for your child, right? But here's the thing: you have to go to work and you’re out of vacation days. So what do you do?

Well, some moms might call in and say that they're sick in order to stay home with their child. Is it morally right to deceive their boss? No. But if in judging the means (deceit) you look only at the ends (a well-cared for child), then I would submit, and I think other moms might agree, it’s excusable. Right?

Either way, it's important to note that Machiavelli never actually wrote "the ends justify the means" in The Prince. What he wrote was more along the lines of "in considering the actions of must consider the final result."

To learn more click here

February 6, 2013

Machiavelli for Moms: Maxims on the Effective Governance of Children (Simon & Schuster)

Machiavelli for Moms has been hailed by Parade Magazine as "a funny and creative new parenting guide." For an excerpt click here!