Thursday, October 22, 2009

Machiavelli, Power and the Princess Bride

Augustine once famously pictured the state as a lawless pirate. Like a pirate, governments use coercive force to get their own way. Unlike a pirate, the state is powerful enough to do so without any bad consequences. Except for divine grace, the evil effects of the state would overwhelm mankind. Thankfully, divine grace intercedes and makes governments tolerable.
When Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513, he basically agreed with Augustine and took the theory one step further. Governments, according to Machiavelli, are entirely based upon power. All states are pirates. Especially the “good” ones. The trick is to appear to be good and virtuous on the outside, but be bad and manipulating on the inside. In fact, the more vicious you are in reality, the more important it is for you to appear pious and peace loving. Once you’ve fooled the majority of people, they will happily support you. Furthermore, even if you are pious and peace loving, you ought to learn how to be savage and dishonourable in order to survive. Thus, Machiavelli redefines virtue for the modern world: Virtue is the combination of abilities that allows you to survive. It has nothing to do with being good or moral, only with using force well. Machiavelli also points out that all the states which have survived have in fact already been doing this, whether they realized it or not. If you unmask even the most virtuous state, he says, you’ll find... a pirate––ruthless, corrupt, and power hungry.
This empirical observation has been oft repeated in books of political theory ever since. Yet one contemporary book powerfully challenges the Machiavellian thesis. William Goldman’s The Princess Bride (1973) contends that Machiavelli did not probe deep enough into the heart of humanity. In Goldman’s novel we are presented with the cruel Dread Pirate Roberts. He is a man who never allows prisoners to survive. He can out-fence and out-wrestle the greatest fighters on earth, showing his mastery of coercive force, and he can “go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line” and live to tell the tale, demonstrating his adeptness at manipulation and intrigue. Truly, this is a depiction of corrupt humanity in all its bloody glory. Yet, when the Dread Pirate Roberts is unmasked, the reader is shocked to discover that beneath the rapacious exterior lies the love-stuck, virtuous Wesley who gently whispers “As You Wish.”
Is this the death of Machiavelli? The virtuous state conceals the swashbuckling pirate, it is true. But is that the end of the story? Perhaps beneath the savage mask of piratey coercion lies the softly beating heart of True Love. Thus do we find layer upon layer.
With the empirically demonstrated link between the drop in number of pirates and the increase in global average temperature (see graph below), it is an environmental imperative that we do all that is within our power to encourage further political involvement, especially amongst apathetic Canadians. More politics means more pirates. More pirates means cooler global climes. We can save the planet and, thanks to the Goldman thesis, rest secure that the increase in piratical political activists will be under-girded by love. Huzzah!

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