Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Machiavelli's example

As I teeter on the verge of retirement, I naturally seek advice from others who have already made this transition. I wish to manage properly this new world of freedom. (Some would say that it is not so new, since we academics already have a lot of freedom in the form of flextime and being able to chose what we lecture and publish on.) The best model I have found stems from almost five centuries ago--from Niccolo' Machiavelli.

In 1512 the returning Medici threw Machiavelli out of Florence. He took refuge in his modest family farm in the Tuscan countryside. From that place of exile he sketched (Dec. 10, 1513) the following portrait of his daily routine.

"I rise in the morning with the sun, and I go off to a wood of mine which I am having cut down, where I stop for two hours to see what was done the day before.... Leaving the wood I go to a spring and thence to some bird-traps of mine. I have a book with me, Dante or Petrarch, or one of the minor poets, Tibullus, Ovid or the like. I read about their passions and their loves. I remember my own and dwell agreeably on these thoughts for a while. Then I go down the road and into the tavern. I talk to the passers-by; I ask what news of their villages. ...

"When evening comes I return home and go into my study, and at the door I take off my daytime dress covered in mud and dirt, an put on royal and curial robes; and then decently attired I enter the courts of the ancients, where affectionately greeted by them, I partake of that food which is mine alone and for which I was born; where I am not ashamed to talk with them and inquire the reasons for their actions; and they out of their human kindness answer me, and for four hours at a stretch I feel no worry of any kind; I forget all my troubles, I am not afraid of poverty or of death. I give myself up entirely to them. And because Dante says the understanding does not constitute knowledge unless it is retained in the memory, I have written down what I have learned from their conversations and composed a short work "The Prince." ..."

Plato famously complained that books, unlike people, cannot really converse. But this, I think, is beside the point. We can have meaningful colloquy with them--even though it may not lead to writing "The Prince"! Of course there is no reason to don royal or curial robes--clean pyjamas will do. At all events I am starting these colloquies in my study. The first, in collaboration with my students, is with the architect Le Corbusier. Modern classics will also be engaged. From time to time I will offer some results of these colloquies. Corbu, though, may be too complicated.

The question of Machiavelli's sexuality sometimes arises. The short answer, I think, is that he was, like many Florentine figures of the time, bisexual. Sometimes his "womanizing" is mentioned to exclude any homosexuality. That is an absurd either-or. Machiavelli wrote at least one explicit gay poem, and was known to frequent the shop of his friend Donato, who kept it staffed by a changing cast of attractive youths.