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.