Francesco Guicciardini And The Realities Of Power

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The current political crisis in Brazil sharply divides the opinions of those who are interested in such matters.  To some, Dilma is more sinned against than sinning.  In this view, she is the victim of a shadowy (possibly US-inspired) desire for “regime change light.”  Journalist Pepe Escobar is an insistent exponent of this view.

Escobar tells us that the portmanteau word golpeachment (a hybrid of the Portuguese word for “coup” and the English word “impeachment”) perfectly describes what is happening in Brazil.  Dilma and her predecessor Lula, he argues, may not have been perfect, but they did nothing essentially different from the leaders of any other major nation.  As he puts it:

Welcome to regime change light – politics, in a nutshell – as war by other means on the BRICS.  A new software, a new operating system. Carrying a pathetic corollary; if the US is the Empire of Chaos, Brazil has now gloriously reached the status of Sub-Empire of Scoundrels.

To others, however, this position whitewashes the extent of the present government’s culpability.  Advocates of this line of thinking say that Dilma has been ineffective, inept, and corrupt, and bears full responsibility for the country’s current economic woes.

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle.  One thing, though, is certain.  Any incumbent leader who is forced to deal with severe economic contraction will eventually get blamed for it.  There are no exceptions to this rule; it is a law of power.  It does not make any difference whether the incumbent directly caused the disaster.  It has always been this way, and it will always be this way.

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This is one of those timeless laws of political power that would have resonated with some familiarity with the Renaissance Italian diplomat and author Francesco Guicciardini.  His name is not well-known today, but he was without doubt the greatest historian of the sixteenth century, and one of the first to look for the underlying international causes behind political events.  His vision was as wide as his depth of learning.

He was born in 1483 in Florence.  Then, as now, it helped to come from noble lineage.  He grew up in an atmosphere saturated with scholarship and diplomacy; he received the best education available, and had as his godfather the famous scholar and magus Marsilio Ficino.  At the age of twenty-three he was appointed professor of law in Florence; three years later he was married to Maria Salviati.  The reasons he gave for doing so are so incredibly frank that they bear quoting:

…because the Salvati, in addition to their wealth, surpassed other families in influence and power, and I had a great liking for these things.

At least he was honest.  But he was not narrowly greedy; he possessed a powerful intellect that saw causes and effects where others only saw obscuring fogs.  At thirty years of age, he was sent to serve as ambassador to Ferdinand II of Aragon in Spain.  It must have been an intoxicating experience for the impressionable young man to drink the Spanish court’s powerful wine of political realism from his day’s foremost masters of the art.  Other offices followed, mainly small governorships and minor commands of papal troops.

These experiences gave him a real-world schooling in the retention and exercise of power.  Like many ambitious men of his era, his political fortunes eventually soured, and he, like his close friend Niccolo Machiavelli, found it prudent to retire to the countryside and devote his time to literary activity.  He knew Machiavelli well, and was perhaps even more cynical than he was about politics.  Machiavelli, it is not often appreciated, was first and foremost a passionate patriot and nationalist.  Guicciardini retained some of these sentiments, but tempered them with a skepticism that bordered on dismissiveness.

He eventually produced a ten-volume masterpiece called the Storia d’Italia (History of Italy).  We should note that none of Guicciardini’s works were published in his lifetime.  It was not until the 1850s that his family decided to open his archives and prepare his voluminous works for publication.  Abridged versions of the History are available, but he still awaits a complete translator and editor.  Even in its truncated form, the History is an impressive document, and an incredible achievement for one mind.

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He looks for the profounder causes behind events, and considered it a historian’s duty to rely on original sources.  Unlike his friend Machiavelli, he was not dogmatic, and had few illusions about both rulers and ruled.  When Charles V met him at Bologna, the emperor kept foreign dignitaries and notables waiting while he conversed with the scholarly Guicciardini.  He later said, “I can create a hundred nobles in an hour, but I cannot produce such a historian in twenty years.”

He had no illusions about the corruption and venality of some of the Renaissance popes, and it was perhaps due to sentiments like this that he hesitated to publish his works while he was alive:

My relations with several popes have made me desire their greatness at the expense of my own interest.  Had it not been for this consideration, I would have loved Martin Luther as myself; not that I might set myself free from the laws imposed upon us by Christianity…but that I might see this swarm of scoundrels confined within due limits, so that they might be forced to choose between a life without crime, or a life without power.

His views of the common man were hardly idealistic, either.  He distrusted them as much as rulers, seeing in their politicians and demagogues little more than a will to power disguised as a desire for liberty:

It seems clear to me that the desire of dominating one’s fellows and asserting superiority is natural to man, so that there are few so in love with liberty that they would not seize a favorable opportunity of ruling and lording it.  Look closely at the behavior of the indwellers of the…city; mark and examine their dissensions, and you shall find that the object is preponderance, rather than freedom.  Those, then, who are the foremost citizens do not strive after liberty, though that the be in their mouths; but the increase of their own sway and pre-eminence is really in their hearts.

Democracy, in his view, was a sham.  “To speak of the people is to speak of madmen, for the people is a monster full of confusion and error, and its vain beliefs are as far from the truth as Spain is from India.”

Statements like this reveal his worldly seasoning and mature understanding of the realities of power.  Even in its mutilated form, the abridged version of his history marks Guicciardini as the greatest political mind of the era, second only–perhaps–to Machiavelli.

Had he lived today, his view of the political situation in Brazil would no doubt have been this:  political factions fight for power, using whatever pretexts that are available to them.  All leaders, and all systems, are corrupt to some extent; it is only a matter of degree, and of producing results that benefit the greatest number for the longest period of time.  Leadership matters, too.  Those unfit or unable to lead should step aside, or be forced to step aside, for the good of the state.

He was almost too perceptive for his own good.  He had served too long at the center of power to retain any comforting mythology about democracy and altruism.  And as historian Will Durant once wrote, “When the myth dies, only force is free.”

 

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