September 9, 2009 / 2:24 PM / 9 years ago

Tim Parks on learning to love Machiavelli

ROME (Reuters Life!) - Nearly five centuries after Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince” first shocked readers, author Tim Parks argues the Florentine diplomat’s chilling guide to holding power is just as relevant today as it was then.

Author of “Europa” and “Italian Neighbours,” Parks now gives us a modern translation of the scandalous book that advocates the ruthless elimination of enemies, allies and ethics to win and hold on to power.

His admiration for the cruel Cesare Borgia and belief that it is better to be feared than loved has ensured Machiavelli’s notoriety, but Parks says the book is as much as anything an expose on the politics of power.

A Briton who has lived in Italy since 1981 and translated works by Alberto Moravia and Italo Calvino, Parks spoke to Reuters about writing, his fondness for Machiavelli and why the United States could have used the book’s wisdom in Iraq:

Q: How is a book about grabbing power in 16th century Italy relevant today?

A: Machiavelli isolates the problem of collective psychology and individual psychology — the psychology of leadership, loyalty, the best way to arrive at situations where people will do what you want, be faithful, and how you can be their leader.

Since those are the issues he begins to isolate as crucial to success, any leader can learn from what he’s saying.

Any ordinary person who’s dealing with leaders can learn. It’s one of the great handbooks of all time, not necessarily for how to become a monomaniac, but what it means to negotiate relations of leaderships and serving leaders.

Q: So it’s useful as long as you don’t follow the bits on reducing states to rubble to hang on to them...

A: When you look at that comment there and you look at Iraq, what he’s saying is that if you really don’t want to destroy absolutely everybody opposed to you, then you’re not going to be able to hold a country in the long run. So you’re going to have to think of different solutions to do that.

One of the most interesting things — he says when you go into a country, the people you’ve got to be most beware of are the people who helped you get in. Whereas the people who served the person you’re replacing are the people who are most likely to serve you once you’ve got rid of that person.

It’s such a comment that everybody says now that if they’d gone into Iraq and recruited the old army and kept them, they might have avoided an awful lot of trouble.

Q: You note Bertrand Russell saw the book as a “handbook for gangsters” while left-wing thinkers saw it as an attempt to teach people how to resist power. How do you see it?

A: If you see it in the light of history, I do see it essentially as a positive work, which constantly encourages people to expose the ways of political leaders — or at least to have very few illusions about their moral behaviors.

Q: Did you end up becoming fond of Machiavelli?

A: Immensely. I find him a hugely attractive figure. Kind of because he’s in many ways so not the person he describes — the person he’s clearly in love with: the decisive, active politician.

He was working as the diplomat of a country that was so badly organized. He never had the knife by the handle, he was scrupulously honest, he never stole a penny from the public purse. Although he was a great womanizer as well ... And in the end he was a real patriot. He really wanted to help Florence.

I see him as a fascinating man and what’s most fascinating of all is that he didn’t really understand the book would be scandalous.

Q: A lot of writers have spilled a lot of ink writing about Italy. Why is Italy so popular with foreign audiences?

A: For many years, I tried not to add to these books about Italy ... But one of the reasons is, traditionally, for the Anglo-Saxon world, particularly looking southwards, Italy was the first country that offers itself as almost a polar opposite to Britain, within the Western European mentality. It’s the first country that presents itself as entirely “other.”

There’s a game of caricature going on both sides of the divide ... It’s not necessarily that Italy is any more interesting, but there’s a habit of being interested in Italy.

I’m sure the most fascinating things happen in Belgium but nobody can be persuaded that this is the case.

In a certain sense it’s like England and India. England and India started to present themselves to each other as two sides of a polarity which means a fascination continues even when many countries could be brought into equation ...

Also frankly, because Italy for so many centuries was the center of the papal world ... And the Renaissance of course.

Q: What kind of reception have you had from Italians who tend to be very conscious of what foreigners write about them?

A: I get a kind of mixed reaction in Italy. You get some people who are hugely enthusiastic and think I’m not critical enough — in fact I’m never very critical — and others who immediately get offended.

I do think it is a country with huge problems at the moment. It’s a country that seems to find it very difficult to ever genuinely arrive at systems that reward merit ... it’s the pervasiveness of that in every aspect of Italian life and the way it’s almost taken for granted. It’s corrupting to young people as they approach the world of work.

Q: Are you working on a new book?

A: I have a book coming out next year, but that’s not about Italy. It’s called Back to the Body, and it’s a non-fiction book about chronic illness and getting better through breathing, through all those New Age things I’ve always loathed which actually saved me when I was in a desperate situation.

It’s a skeptic’s journey into breathing and meditation and stuff from a position of pain and it’s actually quite a funny book.

It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever written. A lot of it is about writing and language and how you can destroy your body with your mind. I’m sure Machiavelli ran himself into a lot of trouble with thinking too much.

It’s a very personal book ... I had the surgeons hovering over me with their knives and managed to get out of jail in ways that I never expected would have much effect on me. I’m usually a pessimist by nature, but it’s an optimistic book.

Editing by Steve Addison

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