Monday, April 17, 2006

Week 12, Petrarch, Ariosto, and Machiavelli

Notes on Francesco Petrarca

Petrarch lived from 1304-1374, during a time when there was a struggle for the seat of the papacy between France and Italy. Petrarch's father was a lawyer who was exiled from Florence around the same time Dante was exiled, and he settled in Arezzo. Petrarch himself subsequently moved to Avignon. He chose not to practice law and did not go into the church, but devoted his life to literature and humanistic inquiry -- he was a Renaissance man just before the Renaissance. Much of his work was done in Latin rather than Italian, so he partially rejected Dante's bold venture into vernacular literature.

Who was Laura? It is not certain, but most scholars identify Laura as Laurette de Noves, who was already married two years when Petrarch met her on April 6, 1327 (Good Friday), in the church of St. Clare in Avignon. Thomas Bergin says that Petrarch describes 4 Lauras. The first one stands for Petrarch's pursuit of the poet's Laurel crown. The second one is like Dante's Beatrice, a guide to heaven. The third one is beauty itself, a potential distraction from the poet's Christian hopes for salvation. The fourth Laura is simply the young woman herself, without all the metaphoric and allusive baggage.

But most important in Petrarch's poems is his own attitudes: he is "nostalgic, melancholy, passionate and yet always curiously removed from life, an observer rather than a participant." Introspection is the hallmark of these poems. My own comment is that although Petrarchanism may seem ridiculous in its extremes, it captures something true about the experience of love -- that is, people tend to stylize their deepest emotions, as if we need a certain distance from them. Similarly, Robert Frost the American poet tends to make his ordinary characters speak in a very conventional, almost stilted way when they are undergoing the strain of difficult experiences or agonizing emotions.

Notes on Machiavelli

2522. The Duke first uses the two factions mentioned, and then scatters them by appealing to men of rank and rewarding them without reference to which faction they serve.

2523. The Duke assuages public feeling against him not with kindness but rather with a well-directed act of violence against his cruel agent. This is a political "holistic remedy."

2524. In general, Machiavelli's premise is that people are very flawed, or even outright evil. He says that we are composed of good and bad qualities, and that these will become known in time. So the question is, how can the Prince use both his virtues and his vices to get and retain power? There are virtues that weaken a Prince's grasp, and vices that strengthen it.

2525. To be overly generous is a mistake because it commits the Prince to a ruinous kind of economy based on unfair taxation. He says on the next page that liberality is not a renewable resource.

2526. Cruelty is necessary on the principle of sacrificing one person for the greater good of the many.

2527. Machiavelli says further that men are generally "ungrateful, mutable, pretenders and dissemblers, prone to avoid danger, thirsty for gain." In a word, people are selfish. Love establishes obligations that are easily abandoned, but fear induces the dread of punishment -- a far more consistent motivator. But the Prince must not become the object of hatred. Respect property. In military matters, cruelty may be excused on the grounds of immediate necessity. As the author says on the next page, it is in the Prince's power to make people afraid, but love is something they themselves have in their own power -- he cannot control it.

2528. Should the Prince keep his promises? The author says that promises are contingent upon circumstance. Others will break their promises whenever it suits them, so the Prince has the right to do the same. It is his prerogative to behave like an animal -- specifically, now like the lion and now like the fox. This is an amoral, bold application of the Renaissance idea that man is a microcosm containing within himself all elements of God's creation. On the next page, the author says people are simpletons in their selfishness and shortsightedness, so it will always be easy to find some way of deceiving them. It is only necessary to seem virtuous, to keep up an appearance of virtuousness. That establishes cover for the times when it is, unfortunately, necessary not to be good.

2529. The final paragraph here is almost diabolically true. First of all, making at least a pretense of religious piety is vital to the Prince. Furthermore, the world turns on appearances, not truth. And "everybody sees" what the Prince seems to be. People judge by appearances and by outcomes; as the author says, "there is no place for the few when the many have room enough." That idea is as old at least as Herodotus -- I recall the example of the King who tells his subordinate his principle of ruling. He points to a field of waving grass or flowers and suggests that the tallest ones must be cut down because they stand out too much. The intellectuals, the prideful and self-sufficient, are dangerous. The notion that people judge only by success or failure gives us a whole theory of history -- if you start a war, for example, you will be judged on the basis of success on the battlefield. If you lose, almost everyone will say that your cause was unjust and you should be punished; if you win, those who think such things will keep their mouths shut.


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