by Tom McBride


Tom McBride 

(from a forthcoming book: THE SURVEILLANCE OF ICEBERGS: Great Philosophers and Climate Change) 

Of all the philosophers in this book, only Machiavelli himself actually tried to change the natural landscape. He worked with Cesare Borgia to change the course of the river that gave Pisa, a rival city state, its water. Otherwise, he left well enough alone, and was likely glad to do so because, after he lost his job due to backing the wrong side in unstable Florentine politics, he was glad to enjoy the natural consensus of his lovely Tuscany farm land. 

     Machiavelli did not mean for his most famous book, The Prince, to be published. He wanted it circulated privately as sage advice to get his civil service job back. It was a shocking book because, well, it was a book. Magistrates and princes and kings had been saying the same things for centuries, but it was a matter of quiet rooms and not of being written down and published. In the event the book was not published until after Machiavelli had died. It slowly became famously notorious, though “slowly” is relative, since it wasn’t long until Thomas Cromwell presented an English translation to Henry VIII and told him the book would prove useful.

     There were really two notable things about Machiavelli’s book. One is that the cruelty, deceptions, and schemes of political life were stated in writing.  The other is that Machiavelli did this against the background of Florentine—and earlier Roman—civic virtue. This was the Roman Republican ideal, still alive and kicking in some Italian city states a thousand years after the Roman Empire fell, and even longer after the Roman Republic ceased to be. The whole idea was republican governance by way of human virtue. The leaders of such republics should strive for glory but should not reveal in it. They should seek to become great public models of prudence, strength, judgment, restraint, and mercy. But they should not get the big head and become overly enamored of their own press notices. .And they must be willing to step aside when the time comes, for this is a republic, not a tyranny or monarchy. People are left alone to govern themselves, and there is a limited but persistent voice given to the people and not just to the aristocrats.  Republics were built on the twin premises of the ideals of virtue and the realism of fleeting glory. 

     Machiavelli believed in these principles and regretted the end of the Roman Republic, in favor of empire, 1500 years before. He wrote a three-volume book about all this, which WAS published in his lifetime. He wrote The Prince rapidly, in Italian, not Latin, in hopes of adding to his resume. He failed, by the way, and died as a retired diplomat, retired for good.  The book doesn’t sound much like an homage to the virtues of republican rule. In fact, “virtue” might even be, in Machiavelli’s hands, a pun on vir, or manliness. It’s as though he’s saying, “republican ideals are well and good when it comes to governing the state, but when it comes to protecting it and keeping it stable, a little manly thuggery goes a long way.” Thus: when taking over a state, the prince should kill all his foes at once. People will hate you for it, but they’ll soon get over it and line up on the side where their bread is buttered. Thus: As a prince do not even think of keeping your word, because others will not keep theirs. Thus: It’s far better to be feared than to be loved. Thus: Religion is useful mostly as a propaganda tool to scare people and keep them in check. Thus: luck and fortune you cannot ever defeat for sure, but a manly man can make a lot of his own luck. 

     To be sure, some of the old virtues survive. Machiavelli insisted that skilled princes, truly skilled princes, should not get a swelled head, they must keep a neutral distance on their own psyches and do what is best to protect and stabilize their states and not what feeds their own vanity. Thuggery should not be pursued for its own sake but only when it is necessary. Clemency is still a fine republican virtue, but it should not be mistaken for, or confused with, weakness. Forgive people too much and they will turn on you. If people were always or inherently good, republicanism could flourish without problems. But they aren’t: thus, this book. 

     So what of the posthumously celebrated, and blamed, Machiavelli and climate change? 

     When the forests fires were burning without seeming limit in Australia not long ago, motorists were finding incinerated kangaroos on the roadside far from their usual habitats, or one of them would dart out into the road in hysteria only to be run over. When it comes to climate change we tend to focus on human loss first and non-human animal loss second, and we also imagine that the whole Earth will be equally affected—a sort of uniform catastrophe. But non-human animals, too, will of course be destroyed—not that there isn’t plenty of publicity and journalism about this fact—and some parts of the planet will be temporarily spared the worst effects There is already a Lucky Sperm Club on the globe, where you are far more fortunate if you are born in Montana than in Mozambique. This will only be accentuated during a climate crisis. But it may be more diabolically precise than that. You may be lucky to grow up in one part of Montana or Mozambique as opposed to another. Some parts may be wetter or cooler than others. Some may be more fertile than others. Some may be spared floods more often than others. The American Pentagon has already said that climate change is not just an atmospheric and terrestrial problem but also a security one. It may occur to Montanans and Mozambiqueans who are less lucky to take over the territories of those who are more so. George Bernard Shaw said you cannot talk to someone about God when their stomach is growling. There is nothing like shortages to turn human beings into what the ancient Roman humanist Cicero called “beasts.” In fact, Cicero himself was killed courtesy of Marc Antony and his hands cut off for display in the forum. 

     It was this same Cicero who, fifteen hundred years before Machiavelli, said that republican virtue required that leaders and aristocrats and people behave like men, not beasts. We are not lions and foxes. Machiavelli went right after this sentiment in The Prince. Machiavelli said these were precisely the beasts that a good prince SHOULD imitate. Be like a lion in order to muster the force to fight off foes. Be a fox in order to use the fraud that will avoid traps. Take that, pious Cicero. Machiavelli did not advocate being a gangster, lion, or fox. But he did advise it if nothing else will work to assure the security of the state. We should note again: The Pentagon thinks climate crises will be a security problem. 

     No doubt in a world where floods, fires, and droughts are rampant, lions and foxes will suffer just as the kangaroos did. Lions are already going extinct. But, if Machiavelli and the United States Defense Department are right, the lions and foxes will live on in the bodies of human beings, desperate in a climate crisis war of all against all, to use the menace, the sadism, the amorality, and the destructive fury of what we call “animals” to acquire more livable places as the planet labors under repeated climate afflictions. The lions and foxes in this way may flourish as never before. It may be not just a small world after all, but a Machiavellian one, too. It already is but might become unprecedently so. Machiavelli never did manage to starve Pisa of water. Greenhouse toxins might.  

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