Postmodern classic?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

On the bedside table- Machiavelli's Discourses on Titus Livy

I learned some interesting things in college, but I didn’t feel as if I learned anything until I began to read the books of the Classics (roughly defined as the Canon of history and philosophy written by mostly Greek and Roman sources influencing European thought for the past 2 millenium). I had picked a few up before, but as a senior one of my professors led me to explore them in a fuller fashion to great benefit.

Now, my background interests in military conflicts and history prejudice me towards an uncommon fascination with the affairs of early European history, true enough. But I feel now that it is a shame how their valuable lessons are so undervalued today- in the height of what we call ‘Western power’, usually referring to the dominance of European nations, a Classic education was the foundation for the gentleman, or any other aiming for esteem and power in our world. I’m afraid that most people seem unaware of the treasures hidden among these books, much less the cultural heritage. Even worse, in what I can only call post-modern conceit, there seems to be an active agenda to discredit this way of thinking as archaic and (take your pick) parochial, patriarchal, oppressive. A healthy discussion on the history of Rome would quickly illuminate the flaws and weaknesses of this great and influential nation, but the aim doesn’t seem to be this. Rather more often, I’ve encountered a blanket condemnation of anyone who would seek to emulate or praise the customs of our ancestors and cultural forebears. Condemnation and denigration of the martial virtues extolled in these books.

As a military man and now as a security professional, I’m consistently curious and sometimes worried about the viability of the warrior culture in our wealthy country, as mentioned previously. Surely, the man of the 21st century is capable of being a great warrior, even as circumstances differ and technology changes. The fundamental similarity is the primacy of human nature in relation to human interactions.

At the moment I’m working my way through Machiavelli’s Discourses- commentaries of his on Titus Livy's famous history of Rome. I understand why his works are so academically troubling and inconsistent- among his generalizations he places little importance on an empirical framework to support his claims. His support comes more from the assumptions of his culture and education. But his conclusions are so articulate and biting- he really gets to the essence of his topic. And his vision of the inherent difficulties of statehood and an honest appraisal of the hypocrisies of their administration. Quite a great book.

There's an interesting chapter here on fortresses, rather how despicable and useless they are. Should be a significant chapter in any counter-insurgency manual, how walls insulate and isolate, making people do things they wouldn't otherwise do in getting along with the locals. This and many other things make it such an interesting read.

Makes you wonder though, why is that the writers of some of these great books, like say- Confucius, Socrates or Machiavelli, books of great importance- written by someone who was unsuccessful in their chosen aims? Confucius always wanted to find the perfect prince of virtue, so did Machiavelli even if his prince would have been different, Socrates wanted to find the Truth and Plato recorded him for posterity. All basically failed- but in that individual failure their students or their writings lived on.

The world would have been a drearier place without them. I suppose at best, the victors themselves would have written tracts like Caesar. You know, okay- but dodging all the controversy, a few shades from self-supporting propaganda. So perhaps it's good they do. You probably don't want novelists to be world leaders, if certain 20th century notaries such as Hitler, or even Mao and Stalin, exemplify.

Well, I'll crack on then-


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