Sunday, September 01, 2013

Three Princes

The PrinceThe Prince 
by Niccolò Machiavelli

“it is much safer to be feared than loved because is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”   ― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

I have read this several times over the last twenty years, in the Basic Program and with an independent study group. That it is still relevant and worth rereading is because it is considered by most to be the authoritative text on statesmanship and power (how to obtain it as well as an illustration of its trappings), although certainly a shrewd one.
From this arises an argument: whether it is better to be loved than feared. I reply that one should like to be both one and the other; but since it is difficult to join them together, it is much safer to be feared than to be loved when one of the two must be lacking.

Machiavelli wrote this book while banished to a country villa when out of favor. Part of The Prince’s appeal to readers over the years has been that it focused on facts; it did not touch on moral issues. Machiavelli works with what kinds of principalities there are; how they can be won, preserved, and lost; and what qualities the prince must have to be successful. He does not discuss moral issues pertaining to the existence of one-man rule, or the forceful acquisition of power. He separates the moral issues from the other issues, creating a science out of politics. The result of his work is a practical textbook on how to rule.
Essentially, Machiavelli advocates letting your people have their property and women, but making sure that they know what you are capable of doing if they step out of line. His seemingly amoral approach lends a modern realistic touch to this masterpiece that shows how little humanity has changed over the centuries.

The Black PrinceThe Black Prince 
by Iris Murdoch

“Every artist is an unhappy lover. And unhappy lovers want to tell their story.”   
― Iris Murdoch, The Black Prince

"The ambiguously romantic Black Prince of the title, Bradley Pearson, is an aged bachelor, whose range of somewhat histrionic emotions involves the serene Rachel Baffin, her confused daughter Julian, Rachel's novelist husband Arnold, Bradley's rival in so many ways, Bradley's dysfunctional sister Priscilla, and Bradley's prying ex-wife Christian..."

Bradley Pearson, British writer, is suffering from a writer's block. He has waited all his life to write his masterpiece. Finally, he feels, the time has come when he can leave his small time job as a revenue officer, and go away from the city din to write. However, his fellow writer friend, Arnold Baffin, Arnold's wife Rachel, daughter Julian, Pearson's ex-wife Christian, ex-brother-in-law Francis and sister Priscilla all tug at his attentions in various ways to make Pearson's escape impossible. Each character has his own version of the series of incidents in the novel. Murdoch ingeniously builds the complications of these incidents or accidents into a delightfully painful and humorous story of erotic abandon. The mind remarkably colors the incidents of the novel to project a story that fits each character best. Julian comfortably forgets the intricate details of an embarrassing romance, Rachel feels that Bradley is madly in love with her while Arnold believes that Bradley is jealous of his success.
This is one of her very best, about mad love, and it justly won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

The Prince of TidesThe Prince of Tides 
by Pat Conroy

“There is such a thing as too much beauty in a woman and it is often a burden as crippling as homeliness and far more dangerous. It takes much luck and integrity to survive the gift of perfect beauty, and its impermanence is its most cunning betrayal.”   ― Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides

This is the story of a destructive family relationship in which a violent father abuses his wife and children. Henry Wingo is a shrimper who fishes the seas off the South Carolina coast and regularly squanders what little money he amasses in farcical business schemes; his beautiful wife, Lila, is both his victim and a manipulative and guilt-inflicting mother.
Twins, brother and sister, are at the center of this family saga. The story is narrated by one of the children, Tom Wingo, a middle-aged man with a wife and three young daughters who has recently lost his job as a high school English teacher and football coach. Tom alternately recalls his growing-up years on isolated Melrose Island, then switches to the present in Manhattan, where his twin sister and renowned poet, Savannah, is recovering from a suicide attempt. Tom agrees to go to New York City, where Savannah lives, to look after her until she is well again. Before Tom leaves his home in South Carolina, he learns that his wife is having an affair. One secret at the heart of this tale is the fate of their older brother Luke; we know he is dead, but the circumstances are slowly revealed. Also kept veiled is "what happened on the island that day,'' a grisly scene of horror, rape and carnage that eventually explains much of the sorrow, pain and emotional alienation endured by the Wingo siblings. Conroy deftly manages a large cast of characters and a convoluted plot, although he undermines his credibility through a device by which Tom tells the Wingo family saga to Savannah's psychiatrist. Some readers may find here a pale replica of Robert Penn Warren's powerful evocation of the Southern myth; others may see resemblances to John Irving's baroque imaginings. Most, however, will be swept along by Conroy's felicitous, often poetic prose, his ironic comments on the nature of man and society, his passion for the marshland country of the South and his skill with narrative.
I read Conroy's novel with enjoyment and not a little admiration at the imagination that created this family. The more I learn about the author I find that some of his inspiration for this fiction was based in real-life experience. That does not detract from the enjoyment of this well-told tale.

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Brian Joseph said...

It has been a few years since I last read ‘The Prince”, this but I saw a panel dedicated to the work on Book TV a couple of months ago. It made me think of the work from certain new angles. One was the points that the panelists were discussing was that Machiavelli portrayed a government that can work and be managed competently, as opposed to a government that was just the plaything of the nobility.

It is interesting that this is only one way that this work can be viewed as more of a positive rumination upon politics in contrast to the harsher way that it is traditionally viewed.

James said...

Your observation is insightful. In my reading I have tried to go beyond the conventional views of Machiavelli, letting the text speak for itself.