Jul 28 2017

“The Emperor has no Clothes,” said the Elephant in the Room

Who dare swears that an elephant may not speak?

Now then, does this quotation from about 1582 AD and its depiction remind you of anyone you may know, or may have read about or seen on television lately? Just asking….

Truely, this Cardinall [Wolsey] did [not] heartily loue Sir Thomas More, yea, he rather fared him then loued him. And albeit he were adorned with many goodly graces and qualities, yet was he of so outragious aspiring, ambitious nature, and so fedd with vaineglory and with the hearing of his owne praise, and by the excesse thereof fallen, as it were, into a certaine pleasant phrenesie, that the enormious fault ouerwhelmed, defaced and destroyed the true commendation of all his good properties. He sore longed and thirsted after the hearing of his owne praise, not onely when he had done some thinges commendable, but euen when he had sometimes done that that was naught in deede…. this vainglorious, scabbed, itching follye to heare his owne prayse…. [1]

Forgive the early-Modern English spelling, but I think most of you get it.

I suppose the aforementioned Cardinal had not read Machiavelli’s chapter on “Flattery,” although one of Machiavelli’s most recent editors has pointed out that of Thomas More and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s colleague :

[In 1513] Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII’s most hardbitten agents, recommended to him a new Italian book on politics. It may or may not have been [Machiavelli’s] The Prince. Pole, writing ten years later (and in a spirit of bitter hostility to Cromwell, Henry, and the English Reformation) said that it was, and that Cromwell, by reading it, had become an agent of Satan. [2]

Machiavelli, in the chapter on flattery, writes:

I don’t want to omit an important point on which princes find it hard to avoid error unless they are extremely prudent and choose their advisers very wisely. Courts are always full of flatterers; men take such pleasure in their own concerns, and are so easily deceived about them, that this plague of flattery is hard to escape. Besides, in defending against flattery, one runs the further risk of incurring contempt. For there is no way to protect yourself from flattery except by letting men know that you will not be offended at being told the truth. But when anyone can tell you the truth, you will not have much respect. Hence a prudent prince should adopt a third course, bringing wise men into his council and giving them alone free license to speak the truth—and only on those points where the prince asks for it, not on others. [3]

So that he who hears only the truth gains no respect, but does Machiavelli want to give sound advice, or just appear to? For later on he tells the reader that a prince should always take counsel, but only when he wants it, not when other people want to give it. [4]

Yet all of this is advice that Machiavelli wants to give. Or does he? (Yea, I know, I hate the last question.)

Yet Thomas More is to have said:

[Said Sir Thomas] But when he [Cardinal Wolsey] came forth with his part with my Lordes commendacion, the wylie foxe had beene so well accustomed in court with the crafte of flatterie, that he went beyonde me too too farre. And then might I see by him what excellencie a right meane witt may come to in one crafte, that in all his whole life studieth and busieth his witt about no mo but that one. But I made after a solemne vowe vnto my selfe, that if euer he and I were matched together at that borde againe, when we should fall to our flatterie, I would flatter in latine, that he should not contende with me any more; for though I could be content to be outrunne of an horse, yet would I no more abide it to be [out]runne of an asse. [5]

And of course the fox brings us back to Machiavelli:

A prince being thus obliged to know well how to act as a beast must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognise traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.[6]



[1] Harpsfield, Nicholas. The Life and Death of Sir Thomas More, Knighte, sometymes Lord high Chancellor of England. 1582(?). Edited by Elsie Vaughan Hitchcock. London: Oxford UP for EETS. 1932. pp. 34–35.

[2] Adams, “Machiavellism: An Outline.” Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica. Translated and Edited by Robert M. Adams. NY: W W Norton. 1977.pp. 227–28.

[3] Machiavelli, Il Principe. (1513). In Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica.  “XXIII. How to Avoid Flatterers” p. 67.

[4] Machiavelli 68.

[5] Harpsfield, The Life and Death of Sir Thomas More 36–37.

[6] Machiavelli, Il Principe “XVIII, “In What Way Princes Must Keep Faith” 103.

Sep 22 2016

Hunting for the Well-Read Book


I confess, I was awfully pleased with that schoolboyish explanation. I was strangely anxious to present the story in as absurd a light as possible.


As Signore Machiavelli puts it, a successful politician requires the optics of religious sincerity. That is, princes, if they are to possess any longevity, must appear to be religious…. [2]

Could this mean that in order for a book to become well-read, nothing is more crucial than for it to appear to be virtuous? Wouldn’t that mean books which appear virtuous must not be (or must not appear to be) self-published? A virtuous book should also at least appear to be written by the person claiming to be the author, no matter who actually wrote it….

Sons and daughters of royalty may wander to and fro about the earth as prodigal progeny, but true regents do not drift. Real rulers hunt for game; for unlike wandering children, regents have definite goals in mind. They pursue a prize. If books can be sought and found by regents, a virtuous regent will find a well-read book. But servants and royal children worm through words and thumb through pages looking for things that interest themselves in the moment, never for things that might gain interest over time….[3]

For every coupling of author and reader, one must look through Lenin’s eyes and Tully’s logic and ask: who benefits from this relationship? Who wields the most power? Deep may call unto deep, but the depths are apparent even on the surface—for the answers abide in the way the questions are constructed….[4]

’Tis neither original nor profound to observe that some of the least helpful books sit on shelves marked “self-help.” But I want to read (or dare I say write?) a book whose virtue is its selfless-helpfulness….

There’s a reason why the Bible calls it the Book of Acts, not the Book of Audiences. A century ago, Americans wanted a deity who acted, not one who simply listened. But today I want a book that acts upon me as a reader. I’m tired of being a reader who acts against authors.[5]



[1] Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Игрок, Igrok. (The Gambler.) 1867. Translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew. NY: Bantam Classics. 1964. VI, p. 59.

[2] Machiavelli, Niccolò. Il Principe. (The Prince.) in Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica. Translated by Robert M. Adams. NY: W. W. Norton. 1977:

Nothing is more necessary than to seem to have this [religious] virtue. Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see but only a few can test by feeling. Everyone sees what you seem to be, few know what you really are; and those few do not dare take a stand against the general opinion, supported by the majesty of the government. In the actions of all men, and especially of princes who are not subject to a court of appeal, we must always look to the end….. (“Ch. XVIII. The Way Princes Should Keep Their Word,” p. 51)

But when these afterwards began to speak only in accordance with the wishes of the princes, and their falsity was discovered by the people, then men became incredulous, and disposed to disturb all good institutions. It is therefore the duty of princes and heads of republics to uphold the foundations of the religion of their countries, for then it is easy to keep their people religious, and consequently well conducted and united. And therefore everything that tends to favor religion (even though it were believed to be false) should be received and availed of to strengthen it; and this should be done the more, the wiser the rulers are, and the better they understand the natural course of things. Such was, in fact, the practice observed by sagacious men; which has given rise to the belief in the miracles that are celebrated in religions, however false they may be….

With the line—“everything that tends to favor religion (even though it were believed to be false)”—can this apply to all lies, superstitions, propaganda, bullshit? But see also Machiavelli’s maxim on Rome:

Nor can there be a greater proof of its decadence than to witness the fact that the nearer people are to the Church of Rome, which is the head of our religion, the less religious are they…. (Discourses on The First Ten Books of Titus Livius in Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica, “Book I – Chapter 12” p. 103)

Compare Poggio:

The worst men in the world live in Rome, and worse than the others are the priests, and the worst of the priests they make cardinals, and the worst of all the cardinals is made Pope. (Braccidini, Poggio. Facetiae [Demenichi] in The Facetiae of Poggio: and other Medieval StoryTellers. Edited and translated by Edward Storer. London: Dutton. 1928. V, p. 37)

But comport Ben Jonson who says, opposite of Machiavelli, that we tend to trust our ears over our eyes:

We praise the things we hear with much more willingness than those we see, because we envy the present and reverence the past; thinking ourselves instructed by the one, and overlaid by the other. (Timber: or Discoveries (1640))

Now compare Jonson to Oscar Wilde, for whom “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.  What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.” For Wilde, our eyes have priority over our ears, though our ears are quite discriminating:

When people talk to us about others they are usually dull. When they talk to us about themselves they are nearly always interesting, and if one could shut them up, when they become wearisome, as easily as one can shut up a book of which one has grown wearied, they would be perfect absolutely. (“The Critic as Artist” (1891))

A prince will appear religious by not talking about how religious he is; therefore, a well-read book will appear virtuous by not referencing its own virtue.

[3] Job 1:07, 2:02; Proverbs 2:04, 25:02, 25:11; Matthew 7:07, Luke 11:09 and 15:11–32; Pirkei Avot V, xxvii.

[4] Psalms 42:07; “The problem inherent in the surface of things, and only in the surface of things, is the heart of things.” Strauss, Leo. “Introduction.” Thoughts on Machiavelli. 1958. Quoted in Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica p. 183.

[5] See James Bissett Pratt who found that Americans weren’t interested in any affirmative knowledge about a deity, but only in what a deity can do:

But one result of the answers as a whole that seems fairly clear is that God’s “attributes” play a comparatively unimportant part in the minds of religious people, and that His relation to individuals is the really important factor in the concept. People are chiefly interested not in what God is, but in what He can do. Two thirds of my respondents describe Him as “Father,” “Friend,” “Companion,” “the ally of my ideals,” or by some equivalent expression; while only 12 thought it worthwhile to mention the fact that He is omnipotent, 9 called Him Creator, 3 mentioned Him as the Trinity, and one as the “Great First Cause.” Doubtless most of my respondents, if asked whether God were all these latter things, would respond Yes; the significant fact is that these attributes play so unimportant a part in their conception of Him that when asked to define that conception these attributes never enter their minds. Professor Leuba seems to be right in the main when he says that God is used rather than understood….

While the concept of God is, however, in one sense decidedly pragmatic, it would be a mistake to suppose that the ends for which the religious consciousness wishes to use God are chiefly ordinary utilitarian ends—such as protector, “meat purveyor,” etc. Unless my respondents are very unusual people, the chief use for which God is desired is distinctly social rather than material. God is valued as an end in Himself rather than as a means to other ends. Most people want God for the same reason for which they want friends, and His relation to them is exactly that of a very dear and very lovable and very sympathizing friend. It is quite naive, no doubt, but perfectly simple. Thus 53 out of 73 of my respondents affirm that God is as real to them as an earthly friend. Doubtless some of the 53 answered as they did in a purely conventional spirit, but that this was not the case with more than a small proportion is shown by the general tone of the answers to the other questions. The God whom most people want and whom many people have is a very real and sympathizing friend. Like other friends he is, to be sure, not only an end in Himself, but a means to other ends; He can help one to many things that one wants. These things, however, are as a rule not material benefits. They are chiefly of three kinds: comfort in trouble, hope for the future, and assistance in striving after righteousness. (The Psychology of Religious Belief. NY: Macmillan. 1908. pp. 263–64)

Compare Pratt’s line––“A very real and sympathizing friend”—to Walter Jackson Bate on Coleridge for whom the former asks:

What was wrong with occasionally prizing literature when it was simply a “friend”––a friend that could comfort while it informed and uplifted? The great English poets could not be viewed (at least not yet) in exactly that way. Only the best were studied—and the best part written by that best. Around them was an inevitable association of demand. In this respect they offered no essential contrast to his other reading—the reading in Greek literature and philosophy, the Neoplatonists, the metaphysical writers generally, the skeptics, the modern writers on science and epistemology. (Coleridge. NY: Macmillan. 1968. pp. 9–10)

That is to say: Coleridge hunted for virtuous books in the same spirit one does when searching across a lifetime for a true friend.

Sep 6 2016

Advice for Voters: Politics in Fugue Form



In a democracy, the prisoners pick their wardens. While we are told this is an important election for Americans, the old standbys of political philosophy appear to not be as effective as once before. For example, Texas, recently voted for a multiple-alleged criminal to oversee and uphold the laws of the state.

Perhaps we should turn away (at least temporarily) from the usual suspects, away from Philadelphia 1787, away from the idolatry of forefathers and their slave exemptions. But then who will counsel meager citizen me? Who can help me choose the best politician—the best person to make me do what I don’t want to do?

I will try to find my answer by listening to a fugue, that is, “the orderly and varied reiteration of the same ‘subject’.”[1] I will harken to points and counterpoints.


Caesar: “All folks strive toward freedom while despising all forms of slavery.”[2]

Machiavelli: “Citizens of a republic want only not to be oppressed … only its nobles want to oppress others.”[3]

Vico: “If people were left to pursue their private interests, they would live in solitude like wild beasts….  We defend our natural liberty most fiercely to preserve the goods most essential to our survival. By contrast, we submit to the chains of civil servitude to obtain external goods which are not necessary to life. [4]


Burke: “Liberty, when men [and women] act in bodies, is power…. In all bodies, those who will lead must also, in a considerable degree, follow… In this political traffic, the leaders will be obliged to bow to the ignorance of their followers, and the followers to become subservient to the worst designs of their leaders.”[5]

Anscombe: “What is institutional must exclude all that is personal, casual or sporadic.[6] This is why ‘possibility is the deconstruction of contentment.’[7] So to attain your goal, you’ve got to give up what you’ve already got.”


Rawls: “To be at liberty and free from oppression is, in some sense, to be disinterested, and therefore detached, as it is written: ‘one feature of justice as fairness is to think of the parties in the initial situation as rational and mutually disinterested’.”[8]

Searle: “Roughly speaking, power is the ability to make people do something whether they want to do it or not.”[9]

Wilkerson: “The friend showed him what to do, and Pershing worked beside him. He looked up and saw the foreman watching him. Pershing pretended not to see him, worked even harder. The foreman left, and, when he came back, Pershing was still at work. At the end of the day, the foreman hired him. Pershing finished out the summer stacking staves, not minding the hard work and not finding it demeaning. ‘Sometimes,’ he said, ‘You have to stoop to conquer’.” [10]



[1] Lewis, C. S. “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages.” Chapter 3 from The Discarded Image: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge UP. 1966. Originally delivered in 1956 as a pair of lectures to an audience of scientists in Cambridge. Reprinted in Chaucer and His Contemporaries: Essays on Medieval Literature and Thought. Edited and Introduced by Helaine Newstead. NY: Fawcet. 1968. 46–66 at 61. Compare Lewis later: “The motions of the universe are to be conceived not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one,” (64). And compare C. S. Peirce:

Every thought, however artificial and complex, is, so far as it is immediately present, a mere sensation without parts, and therefore, in itself, without similarity to any other, but incomparable with any other and absolutely sui generis [its own kind]. Whatever is wholly incomparable with anything else is wholly inexplicable, because explanation consists in bringing things under general laws or under natural classes. (“Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy. No. 2. 1868. 140–57.)

And compare Paul Valéry:

Do not search for ‘truth’*—But seek to develop those forces which make and unmake truths. Seek to think of a greater number of simultaneous things,—to think longer and more rigorously of the same one—to catch yourself in the very act—to suspend your hesitations,—to give new momentum to what is clogged up. Suggest co-ordinations to yourself. Try out your ideas as functions and means…. [Editor’s note:] *Cf. the later comment of 1940, ‘I am searching for the truth of thought and not for truth by thought.’ Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. Translated by Paul Gifford et al. Edited by Brian Stimpson. Based on the French Cahiers edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. (1912, I 12, IV, 783.) [pp. 264-65] and (C, XXIV, 168) [p. 617])

[2] Caesar, Gallic War, III, x.

[3] Machiavelli, Il Principe, IX.

[4] Vico, The Third New Science, “Idea of the Work” [¶ 2] 2 and I, § 2, xciv, [¶ 290], p. 109.

[5] Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France.

[6] Anscombe, G. E. M. “On the Source of the Authority of the State.” From Ratio 20 (1), 1978. Anscombe Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics. Oxford: Blackwell. 1981. p. 131.

[7] Anscombe, “You Can have Sex without Children: Christianity and the New Offer.” From Renewal of Religious Structures: Proceedings of the Canadian Centenary Theological Congress. Toronto. 1968. Anscombe Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics p. 82.

[8] Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. (Revised Edition.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1999. § 3, p. 12.

[9] Searle, John. Freedom and Neurobiology. NY: Columbia UP. 2007. p.104.

[10] Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns. NY: Random House/Vintage Books. 2010. p. 117.

Jun 21 2016

Valleys & Mountains: from Nixon, Goethe, Machiavelli, & Ta-Nehisi Coates


Machiavelli once penned a maxim about adjusting one’s point of view when trying to gain the understanding of a situation:

In the same way that landscape painters station themselves in the valleys in order to draw mountains or high ground, and ascend an eminence in order to get a good view of the plains, so it is necessary to be a prince to know thoroughly the nature of the people, and one of the populace to know the nature of princes.[1]

Compare Goethe:

Everything massive makes a peculiar impression, as being both sublime and comprehensible, and in going round such objects I drew as it were an unsurveyable summa summarum [sum of all sums] of my whole residence. [2]

Compare Richard Nixon’s “Farewell Address,” August 9, 1974:

We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all is ended. We think, as T.R. said, that the light had left his life forever. Not true.

It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you highest mountain.

Compare Ta-Nehisi Coates:

And there it is—the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.[3]



[1] Machiavelli, Il Principe. (The Prince.) “Dedication.” The line–“it is necessary to be a prince to know thoroughly the nature of the people, and one of the populace to know the nature of princes“–is particularly relevant when considering Gramsci’s great question:

One may therefore suppose that Machiavelli had in mind “those who are not in the know”, and that it was they whom he intended to educate politically. This was no negative political education—of tyrant-haters—as Foscolo seems to have understood it; but a positive education—of those who have to recognize certain means as necessary, even if they are the means of tyrants, because they desire certain ends. Anyone born into the traditional governing stratum acquires almost automatically the characteristics of the political realist, as a result of the entire educational complex which he absorbs from his family milieu, in which dynastic or patrimonial interests predominate. Who therefore is “not in the know”?

(Gramsci, Antonio. Quaderni del carcere. 1929–1935. (Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci.) Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. NY: International Publishers. 1971. “The Modern Prince” 135)

[2] Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Italienische Reise. 1816–17. From Goethe’s Travels in Italy: Together with his Second Residence in Rome and Fragments on Italy. Translated by A. J. W. Morrison and Charles Nisbet. London, UK: G. Bell and Sons. 1892.  “Rome, April 14, 1788” 546.

[3] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. NY: Spiegel & Grau. 2015. p. 105 citing Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage. Cambridge UP. 2008.