Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Guicciardini on Politics

When I think about politics in the Italian Renaissance, I am drawn not to the much-maligned meditations of Niccolò Machiavelli but to the writings of his more aristocratic, pessimistic colleague, Francesco Guicciardini, the Florentine historian, statesman and political theorist. Guicciardini saw more service than Machiavelli, which accounts for his more realistic and sceptical politics. He is thus a good foil to Machiavelli (who despite his reputation was really an irrepressible optimist) though he's been somewhat forgotten, except by students of the Italian Renaissance. Guicciardini is the historian's historian, refusing to draw simplified lessons from political events, and often distrusting of Machiavelli's aphoristic pronouncements on matters. Contra Machiavelli, he doubted the value of historical parallels, claiming it was a mistake to be 'quoting the Romans at every turn'. In his Maxims (Ricordi), Guicciardini says that even if valid parallels existed
the names and surfaces of things will be so altered, that he who has not a quick eye will not recognise them
Above all, Guicciardini is troubled by complexity. The problems of Italy at the turn of the fifteenth century were so complex, claims Guicciardini in his History of Italy (1537-40), that
they could not be cured with simple medicines; rather, as so often happens in bodies overflowing with corrupt humours, a remedy employed to cure one disorder in one part generates even more pernicious and dangerous ill   
The problem that bedevils political action, says Guicciardini, is uncertainty of judgement and mistaken common opinion. We are told that 'wise men do not always discern or pass perfect judgements', that 'it is impossible ... to form a judgement as to the course of events ... our opinions must be formed and modified from day to day'. The world is full of 'erroneous and unfounded opinion'. In such an environment, policy is often impossible and as he notes above, one is sometimes hard-pressed not to do more harm than good. Politics is often defined as the 'art of the possible'. Guicciardini seems to me to ask, 'Do you even know what's possible? And how do you know?' Of course, Guicciardini is then free to construct and exploit his persona as the ultimate insider, somehow privy to the truth lurking beneath appearances. Yet in an age where T. S. Eliot's questions, from The Rock (1934)
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?  
are more unanswerable than ever, I think Guicciardini's vacillations have some use. But it is this passage, from his Dialogue on the Government of Florence (1527), that I find striking
Consider, too, that our city is now old, and as far as one can conjecture from its development, the nature of things and past examples, it is now declining rather than growing. It’s not like a new-born or a young city, which is easy to form and set up, and receives the habits given to it without any difficulty. When cities are old, it is difficult to reform them; and once they have been reformed, they soon lose their good set-up and always remember their original bad habits.
This sense of senescence and exhaustion must be immediately recognisable to even the most casual observer of politics. Countries are old, as are their systems and governments. Politics sometimes seems  to have calcified along unchanging lines. The debates seem to be fought with nothing but ancient clichés, incendiary watchwords that serve as substitutes for thought, as automatic, unthinking calls to arms. (Class seems to be one such category, in Britain at least.) Guicciardini reminds us how truly difficult politics is; how even more difficult change is; how limited the power of politicians, even in the highest office, can be; and how policy is not for the faint-hearted, requiring steely consideration. 

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