Machiavelli and The Great Conversation

The next reading on the program is Machiavelli’s The Prince. It is a rather short work, probably one of the shortest in the set, but it is going to prompt several posts. This work will raise a number of issues, but in and of itself and surrounding it. I hope that you will find them as interesting as I do.

The first side issue comes out of the historical note at the beginning of The Prince in the Britannica Volume. Each volume provides a short biography of the authors who wrote the works. In this one, we hear about Machiavelli’s career as a minor government official and how he tried to keep his political relevancy by writing after the factions friendly to him were deposed.

One of the things Machiavelli did while hanging around at his farm was partake in The Great Conversation as we have defined it here. In a letter to the Florentine Ambassador to the Pope, Machiavelli describes his evenings or retreating into his study thusly:

“At the threshold, I take off my work-day clothes, filled with dust and mud, and don royal and curial garments. Worthily dressed, I enter into the ancient courts of the men of antiquity, where, warmly received, I feed on that which is my only food and which was meant for me. I am not ashamed to speak with them and ask them the reasons of their actions, and they, because of their humanity, answer me. Four hours can pass, and I feel no weariness; my troubles forgotten, I neither fear poverty nor dread death. I give myself over entirely to them. And since Dante says that there can be no science without retaining what has been understood, I have noted down the chief things in their conversation.”

The introduction goes on to tell us that Machiavelli converses most frequently with Livy, Aristotle, and Polybius. So far this list has had me conversing most frequently with Augustine. That was a slog, but I managed.

Still, the image described by Machiavelli is similar to how I imagine this set first being used by someone who bought it back in 1952. I sort of imagine a middle class office worker returning home in the evening, and after dinner with his wife and kids retiring to his study, perhaps with a scotch, to read one of the great books and reflect on his life. I try to envision it in its time, and I think that there would be less distraction then. Fewer televisions, phones, and radios, no computers, and no cell phones attempting to keep people tethered to their jobs all day and night.

I suppose it could also be a woman who has time to read the great works during the day and engaging her mind beyond the narrow roles prescribed to her in the 1950s. Maybe it is a smart kid who got the set to do better in school or prepare for college.

For me, it is finding time to read where I can and trying to find a time where there are sufficiently few distractions to concentrate. I think that it is possible to fall out of the habit of reading just like it is to get out of shape from exercise or any other form of discipline. I will say that these are not easy books, which makes them all the more worth tackling. But as I have been working on the first year’s list for over a year now, I know that reading is a discipline that needs constant practice.

That last paragraph makes it sound like it is not any fun. But that is not true. The whole process of reading these books and thinking about them and how they connect to modern life is a lot of fun. The reading makes me think in ways that I am not accustomed to and to think about my connect with everyone in the past and to some degree everyone in the future. We get to be part of a conversation that lasts as long as there are people around to think about the universe and what our place is in it.

Reading all of these things is helping me to think better as well. I know that it is not fashionable to be smart or intellectual, but I would rather be engaged with the world on all levels. The United States is caught in the grips of fake culture wars and supposed conflicts between elites that create such noise that people find their own voices drowned out as the din gets too loud for them to think their own thoughts.

I think we all might benefit to follow Machiavelli’s example and withdraw into our studies and converse with the ancients rather than allow ourselves to be constantly talked at by the politicians, entertainers, and marketers that bombard us with self-serving messages every day. Once we’ve had time to collect our own thoughts, then we should converse with one another and listen to one another. Then, maybe we could solve some of the problems facing us today.


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