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?