When Fortune Does Not Want Men to Oppose Her Plans, She Blinds Their Minds

In his Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli wrote,

“In order to make Rome greater and bring it to the greatness it attained, she [fortuna] judged it necessary to defeat it…. In ordaining this she prepared everything for its recovery [manipulating events] to form a great vanguard under a commander untainted by any shame of defeat and whose reputation was intact for the recovery of his homeland.”

Machiavelli here evinces a faith in fortuna that situates the great deeds of a nation within the shifting uncertainties of contingency. He’s concerned to point out that normal behaviors are inadequate to extraordinary times, and that average leaders will fail to stem the tide of disasters. Yet what I love about the passage is his great faith: he’s shown the tendencies of regimes to devolve into corruption, but even though his own government has devolved from a republic to become a tyranny, he has only optimism for Italy’s future. This passage foreshadows an account of the greatness to be found in returning to foundations, since the well-spring of origins supplies a much-needed boost to a regime’s liberty, and never runs dry.

It’s the logic of the perfect storm: a concatenation of factors combine to force a situation towards its breaking point. (The original perfect storm was fatal for all involved, remember.) A regime moves towards defeat and corruption, but in the name of greatness. So if we look at our government, a weak prince finds strength in a devastating attack, and the factional logic of divided sovereignty dissolves. Our weak prince goes on to assert broadly dictatorial power, making sweeping decisions in the face of ineffectual opposition.

For many, this seems like the end, a recipe for defeat which has been followed to the letter. Yet Machiavelli schools these storm-tossed citizen to “never give up: since they do not know [fortuna’s] purpose and she travels by oblique and unknown paths, they should always hope, and, while hoping, not give up in the face of any Fortune and any travail they find themselves in.” This is the space of virtù, the greatness available to men and women of action. Fortuna may well hamstring many normal efforts to oppose tyranny, but the virtuous citizen labors patiently, looking for an opening. And the conclusion will be a resurgence of
republic’s greatness, as the luck-driven force of the tyrant meets the equally fortunate excellence of the tyrannicide.

It’s all a matter of rhythm. That’s why I think comedians have become the most public of our heroes in these times. They’re somehow collecting the disaffection of the public under a vanguard of ironic detachment and sarcastic one-liners. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have none of the gravitas we’ve come to associate with great leaders. But they’ve got the one thing that politics has been missing, especially on the progressive or small ‘d’ democratic side: timing. Call it kairos, call it a sense of the zeitgeist, call it exploiting the moment for some laughs, whatever. They’re acting at a time when all the mainstream politicians have been emasculated by contingent factors, using the one capacity that dictators have always found most difficult to combat: laughter.

When levity trumps the false spirit of gravity, a revolution of some sort isn’t far behind. In this case, I think we’d all be satisfied with return to normal democracy, but maybe we’ll get a little bit more. Maybe we’ll have a chance to weigh in, to return to our roots and rebuild our republic. The novelty to be found in that sort of return is powerful. It’s not new because radically different, but simply new because it is ours rather than our forefathers. It’s the power to make a thing your own. And isn’t that what democracy is supposed to be? Government “for, by, and of” the people?

4 thoughts on “When Fortune Does Not Want Men to Oppose Her Plans, She Blinds Their Minds”

  1. I vaguely recall Fortuna from the farcical "A Confederacy of Dunces." She sounds slightly different in this context.

    I confess to being confused by the phrase false sense of gravity. Of course hope and laughter do lift up and reaffirm our human bonds, but it is strange to deny that there is something about the human condition that is prone to falling.

  2. umm… I wrote "spirit," not "sense". I was paraphrasing one of the parables from _Thus Spoke Zarathustra_.

    Gravity, here, is seriousness and bombast, not the force of massive attraction that brings bodies in space to orbit together.

  3. Sorry for the mistype. I didn't mean to imply physical laws of gravity. Instead it is the human condition or spirit, that is prone to falling into seriousness. If it is something that has occurred throughout human history, I do not see how it can be false. Perhaps a different side of the same coin, but not false.

  4. I had in mind the seriousness that the administration's buffoons take to be their right. Rather than acknowledging their foolishness, we seem caught in an artificial weightiness due to the office and the attacks. But gravity -is- false: humans are light beings. Our principle is activity, not obedience. This tendency towards seriousness is born of the material and mortal elements of the human, which weigh us down.

    That said, I hear and understand your complaint. I just don't think it's relevant to my overall point.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *