Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Language of Machiavelli

I have recently been reading a great translation of Machiavelli's The Prince done by Angelo Codevilla, a professor of international relations at Boston University. Codevilla’s translation presents to the English-speaking reader much of Machiavelli’s brilliance in using language for his own ends. Codevilla gives a very good editor's introduction, clearly showing the role and impact of The Prince in intellectual history--noting some important patterns of thought that we take for granted today, whose predominance is attributable to Machiavelli. Even more interesting, though, is the subsequent essay on "Words and Power." In this, Codevilla demonstrates some of the devices not of argumentation but of linguistic manipulation that Machiavelli employed to get his readers to adopt his own new (and quite revolutionary) moral standards.

Moral standards are not something that people give up freely, being ingrained in our values and prejudices, and at a level deeper than many people can reason to. What are the two topics supposedly banned from polite conversation? Religion and politics. Why? Because they are the two areas in which, for decades now, politeness gives way to defense mechanisms meant to mask the insecurities we feel when trying to explain (and thus, justify) the beliefs we hold so deeply. (Or maybe why those beliefs have a hold on us).

There are so many human reasons why we believe things--because our parents believed them, because our parents believed the opposite, because there is so much suffering in the world (or our own lives), because we're convinced we're supposed to believe them, because we're afraid of changing our actions or our lives, because we need the stability of being told what to believe, because we're afraid to reason for ourselves, because of the sins of those who believe otherwise, etc.

I bring this up because it was on this level that Machiavelli seems to have meant primarily to engage his readers. He knew he couldn’t get his readers to adopt his new standard of good and evil by reasoning them to it. So he chose to use language on the level of those deeper-than-reason human reasons for belief (fear, pride, desire to succeed, etc.).

Codevilla highlights the significance of Machiavelli's way of using language by contrasting it with Dante. This description of the two writers makes Niccolo look almost ... Machiavellian:

In short, Dante crafted his language to follow the dictates of reason, not of men or of chance. Dante thought language was not to be imposed by power or by convention but to be accepted by reason. . . . Machiavelli knew exactly what Dante meant. He disagreed. He believed that language, like every other human tool, serves the interest of some to the detriment of others. But Machiavelli did not argue against Dante. Instead he baldly accused him of speaking the language of a rival city, of being insufficiently committed to Florence. This did not advance the cause of truth, but it did help Machiavelli prevail with his Florentine audience.

If this sounds too commonplace to be worth pointing out, just remember to keep two things in mind. First, while people did this before Machiavelli, they knew they were doing something "wrong." Machiavelli legitimized this is a method that was "good" by literally redefining the words good and evil (more below). Second, Niccolo wasn't just lying (that's an ancient practice to be sure!), he was crafting a strategy using words deliberately as weapons. Thus Codevilla asserts that for Machiavelli, "Language, therefore, is a most powerful weapon in the struggle for primacy, and one peculiarly suited to the unarmed."

Codevilla didn’t stumble upon the fact that this was Machiavelli’s preferred way of using language by just reading The Prince extra carefully; he found that Machiavelli laid this method out explicitly in other writings: specifically his Florentine Histories and Discourses upon Our Language. Codevilla used to work on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, so unlike most Americans he probably doesn’t have a problem seeing the deeper, sometimes subversive, layers under the surface of much oral and written communication.

Let's look at some details, then. "The most important questions regarding The Prince," says Codevilla, "hinge on Machiavelli's use of words.

Does he in fact confuse the adverbe bene (well) with the noun bene (good) so as to collapse the distinction between doing well and doing good? How does Machiavelli change his readers' notion of virtue and goodness? As we shall see, he regards the meaning of such words as wholly plastic. Therefore, he gradually alters their meaning by changing their context.

He does this by forcing his readers to think of the words in the midst of an onslaught of situations and images that are unpleasant to deal with -- so many that in the end, the tired reader is weakened into granting, perhaps semi-wittingly, that what good is what eliminates such situations:

[Machiavelli's] work, especially The Prince, is filled with tales of gore and treachery. To what end? Everyone knew such things happened. Why did Machiavelli insist on mentioning them so frequently and in such detail? . . . The answer becomes clear when we remember that Machiavelli did not mean to argue as much as he meant to act. The vivid portrayal of political defeat is a fearsome thing. Machiavelli never argues explicitly that earthly suffering and death are the worst fates; he just omits any discussion of the possibility that they are not.

Thus Codevilla shows Machiavelli to be exploring and playing with the aspects of human nature upon which modern advertising would be based -- more than 400 years before Edward Bernays, the man called the father of modern advertising and nephew of Sigmund Freud, encapsulated the psychology of crowds and of the subconscious in his interesting little, rather Machiavellian book, Propaganda.

Marx and later the Soviets would perfect what Bernays had learned from Gustave LeBon's study of crowds into the very simple strategy of making people believe lies (one reliant upon total control of the media): constant, relentless repetition of your message, and mercilessly stamping out any dissent. People start to believe not because they have been convinced, but because they have no mental energy left to resist.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Another great bit.

I've been recently motivated to read some classics, though I'm starting elsewhere.

I do dearly wish this blog were updated more.