Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Machiavelli on Minds

E, perché sono di tre generazione cervelli, l'uno intende da sé, l'altro discerne quello che altri intende, el terzo non intende né sé né altri, quel primo è eccellentissimo, el secondo eccellente, el terzo inutile, conveniva per tanto di necessità, che, se Pandolfo non era nel primo grado, che fussi nel secondo: perché, ogni volta che uno ha iudicio di conoscere el bene o il male che uno fa e dice, ancora che da sénon abbia invenzione, conosce l'opere triste e le bunone del ministro, e quelle esalta, e l'altre corregge; et il ministro non può sperare di ingannarlo, e mantiensi buono.

Because minds are of three types; the first understands by itself, the second understands what others explain, and the third understands neither by itself nor by the help of others; of which the first is excellent, the second very good, and the third useless. So it follows that even if [Prince] Pandolfo was not in the first class, he must necessarily have been in the second: because such a prince has the judgement to know the good and evil that another says and does, even if he himself lacks the initiative, and he sees the good and bad works of his minister, exalting the good and correcting the bad; and the minister cannot hope to deceive him, and so behaves well.
IL PRINCIPE The Prince, XXII DE HIS QUOS A SECRETIS PRINCIPES HABENT Concerning Princes' Ministers — Niccolò Machiavelli, 1513

In The Prince, Machiavelli was attempting something that had not been done since the Classical period. He considered history not as divine plan, but as an explicable sequence of events. There was chance, and there was human response to it; and the humans were motivated by the usual earthly things. And then he considered what we might learn. It's a book people have heard of - a book people still talk about, 496 years on. Because, while the events and the people he mentions are very far away, it is extremely clear that he saw the world as we do.

When I was about 18 I went and got the Penguin Wordsworth translation (the above is not that translation, but my own from my Italian edition, so errors are mine) and read it to find out what it said. I'd entirely recommend this. It's rather short. A lot of what he says feels applicable and plausible. With more years, I may more often think he's wrong, but I still think he's elegantly, interestingly wrong.

I don't think I agree, for example, that there are three kinds of mind. Or, if there are, each of us has all three, perhaps in different fields. But it's a very plausible notion, and anyone could think of examples. If I look for examples of the third kind of mind, though, I tend to find examples of lack of motivation. I don't think people very often understand something without wanting to, even if they are more than capable of understanding more complex things they do want to understand. I certainly don't think anyone gets good at something without wanting to, unless they're an autistic savant, and it seem unlikely even then.

But what really comes to mind when I read that passage again in isolation, is not the relationship of head of state and minister, but the parallel relationship of student and teacher.

Good and bad outcomes have a lot to do with teachers. But they have everything to do with the judgement and motivation of the student.


Game Cat said...

I recall Confucius said something similar about a good ruler more than a millenium before Machiavelli, though probably in a less celebrated work.

Re teacher and student....another apt Chinese saying goes "when the student is prepared to learn, the teacher will appear".

msHedgehog said...

What did he say?

Which reminds me that I keep meaning to read the Roman historian Herodotus, who was famous for saying, in effect, "well there's this story, and there's this other story about what happened, and I find it hard to say which is true" and "So they say, but I don't really believe it and I don't see why you should, it's probably made up". Really old books that are still around, are often around for a reason.

ghost said...

"By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest." ~ Confucius

The other classic one is

There was once a Zen master of great renown who lived in the mountain. One day, he received the visit of a young philosopher whom had traveled from afar especially to meet him. That philosopher came under high recommendations by his teachers, so the master agreed to see him. As the two sat under a tree to discuss, the subject hastily came to what the master could teach the young philosopher. Recognizing the flame of youth, the master smiled warmly and started to describe his meditation techniques. He was cut short by the philosopher who said: « Yes, I understand what you are talking about! We did a similar technique at the temple, but instead we used images to focus! »

Once the philosopher was done explaining to the master how he was taught, and did, his meditation, the master spoke again. This time, he tried to tell the young man about how one should be attuned to nature and the Universe. He didn't get two sentences in when the philosopher cut him short again and started talking about how he was taught of such things and so and so.

Once again, the master patiently waited for the young philosopher to end his excited explanations. Once he was done, the master got to the subject of seeing humor in every situation. This time, the young man didn't lose any time and started to talk about his favorite jokes and how he thought they could relate to situations he had faced.

Once the philosopher was done, the Zen master invited him inside for a tea ceremony. The philosopher having heard of how the master performed the ceremony like no other accepted gladly. Such a moment was always a privileged one with such a man. Once inside, the master performed flawlessly up to the point where he started to pour the tea in the cup. The philosopher noticed as the master was pouring tea, that the cup was being filled more than usual, then, as the master kept pouring tea, the cup got full to the brim. Not knowing what to say, the young man just looked at the master with a look of astonishment on his face. The master kept pouring has if nothing was wrong and the cup, not being able to contain anymore, started to overflow, spilling hot tea on the floor mattresses and the master's hakama. Not believing what he was seeing, the philosopher finally exclaimed: « Stop pouring! Can't you see the cup is already full and overflowing? »

With those words, the master gently placed the teapot back on the fire and looked at the young philosopher with his ever present warm smile, looked him in the eye and said: « If you come to me with a cup that is already full, how can you expect me to give you something to drink? »

Found this on Youtube earlier today while looking for something else entirely; Interesting if you view the Interviewer as the teacher and the volunteer as the student, but feel free to find your own interpretation ;o)

Peanut Butter and Teaching

msHedgehog said...

The trouble with Zen Master stories is they're a bit like the Lord of the Rings - I think if you don't practice it constantly, you have to be either 13 or on dope. And I LOVED LOTR when I was 13. I love the movies too.

maya said...

This is on my pending reads. You migh enjoy "Il Gatopardo / The Leopard" by Giuseppe di Lampedusa", a timeless read about politics and people.

Game Cat said...

Ms H - I think Ghost's first quotation is the one I was thinking about. The point made to one who would rule is to invest in one's intellect and get smart. Failing that, learn how to recognise and recruit able advisors. If you can't do either, you're stuffed.

Was Herodotus not Greek? Always wanted to read 'The Travels of Herodotus'. I always thought of him as an interesting collector of stories and travel writer. I speculate people read him in ancient times the way they would the Rough Guide today.

msHedgehog said...

Yes, he was greek: I was thinking simultaneously of him and the Roman Tacitus - too late at night and not in the best of tempers. I apologise to him (and Ghost). I like the Confucius one.

ghost said...

Recently a teacher was surprised that I was learning considerably faster than the norm. Pretty much it came down to that zen story ;o)

LimerickTango said...

Back to motivation. Do you think it's the teachers or the students role to maintain motivation?

msHedgehog said...

As an adult? The student's. If you don't want to learn whatever that teacher has to teach you, why exactly are you there? and if you do want it, what is the problem? Obviously the teacher has a lot of influence and can make the material attractive or unattractive; but it's the student's responsibility to judge whether whatever it is, is worth sticking around for. We're not at school any more.

msHedgehog said...

I rarely have a problem with the sentiment that comes at the end. If you're going to learn it is necessary to listen. I do have the strong impression that Zen Master shaggy dog stories are written for an exclusively male audience whose goal in life, they assume, is to join both master and student in a life of subsistence off the donations of their mothers and all the other pious women who are out there doing a job of work while they dance around each other with their extended rituals of challenge, dominance and submission - enlivened, no doubt, by bonking naive teenagers, drinking the laity's booze, and the occasional fight scene. I wish I could say I felt that revealing their methods to the rest of us was an error on their part.

ghost said...

If I recall the book “Zen and the Art of Archery” correctly, it was about a man and his wife who both studied Zen under masters in Japan after WW2 for about 6 years. He studied archery, she studied flower arranging. And she was considerably better at it than he was!

I don’t remember any bonking of teenagers or imbibing of alcohol. There weren’t any decent fight scenes either :(

Indeed “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him” is another Zen Master saying ;o)

I suspect part of the purpose of the stories is sadly that if you just say to someone
“If you're going to learn it is necessary to listen” most people will nod and then won’t actually do it. I mean seriously, in classes you attend with other adults how many of them actually do listen?

There exists within Buddhism a science that just cuts to the point
Life means suffering.
The origin of suffering is attachment.
The cessation of suffering is attainable.

Yet it’s the Shaggy-dog tales and the koans “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” that endure, much in the way most people nowadays think a deck of cards is for playing games and gambling.

msHedgehog said...

I still want to know what income they lived on during their studies.

ghost said...

Fair 'nuff.

The consensus on the web is that
he taught philosophy in Tohoku Imperial University of Sendai, Japan during that time. He would have been in his 40s.

What you're saying does ring a bell, just not for Zen Buddhism. The basic premisse is that enlightenment comes about through non-attachement. A "master" who's bossing around his students, bonking teenagers and drinking all the alcohol in sight hasn't really grasped this ;o)

msHedgehog said...

And of course she was better - she wouldn't have needed telling this stuff! ;-)

ghost said...

Having two X chromosones is clearly an advantage in these matters :o)