Skip to main content

More on Borgias and Machiavelli

I can't really write about the Borgia family -- as I did yesterday and as I am about to do again -- without deploying my favorite quotation from The Third Man.  Restraint in this matter would do grave violence to my nature.

Harry Lime, the worst racketeer in occupied Vienna, tells an old friend who has gone to a good deal of trouble to track him down, "Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

What were the 30 years of Borgian dominance Harry had in mind?   I suppose you might start the clock running in 1481, when Ludovico Sforza took power in the duchy of Milan. The fates of the Borgia and Sforza families were closely intertwined (another member of the Sforza house would later become the first husband of Lucrezia Borgia.)

Skipping a lot and focusing on Florence in particular, let us note that the de facto heads of the republic there, the Medicis, lost their grip after the death of Lorenzo in 1491 and got themselves expelled in 1494. Thereafter began a period of Borgian dominance in that city.

In 1502-03, Cesare put down a conspiracy of the condottieri (literally "contractors," the fickle mercenaries of the day) and one of the leading conspirators, Vitellozzo Vitelli, was led into an ambush and strangled.

In my post yesterday I quoted a passage in which Meyer describes Machiavelli's enthusiastic approval of this way of disposing of Vitelli.

Our original date of reference was 1481. Thirty years on from that date brings us to 1511. Let's cheat a bit and make it 31 years, because that bring us to an important event showing the decline of Borgia power. It was in 1512 that Nicolo Machiavelli lost his job in Florence as head of the citizen militia. He would be arrested, tortured, released, all by the say so of the Medici, who were after a period of exile re-asserting their own control.

After that experience Machiavelli would decide to retire from politics and take up philosophy.

Anyway, from a Sforza ascension to a politician/intellectual's fall from grace, we have identified a just-over-thirty year interval that may well justify Harry Lime's allusion.

All that might perhaps at last have given you some context to understand the quote from Meyer's book that I offered yesterday, and that I'll paste again here:

"Like everyone associated with Florence's post-Medici republic, [Machiavelli] celebrated the liquidation of men as dedicated to the restoration  of the old regime as Vitellozzo Vitelli and his henchmen. For him, however, the meaning of what Cesare had done went further. The murders removed any doubt, as far as he was concerned, about Valentino being a man of destiny -- about whether his talents, ambition, strength of will, and sheer ruthless courage made him the leader for which all Italy was unconsciously yearning, the one capable of freeing the peninsula from the barbarians."


Popular posts from this blog

England as a Raft?

In a lecture delivered in 1880, William James asked rhetorically, "Would England ... be the drifting raft she is now in European affairs if a Frederic the Great had inherited her throne instead of a Victoria, and if Messrs Bentham, Mill, Cobden, and Bright had all been born in Prussia?"

Beneath that, in a collection of such lectures later published under James' direction, was placed the footnote, "The reader will remember when this was written."

The suggestion of the bit about Bentham, Mill, etc. is that the utilitarians as a school helped render England ineffective as a European power, a drifting raft.

The footnote was added in 1897. So either James is suggesting that the baleful influence of Bentham, Mill etc wore off in the meantime or that he had over-estimated it.

Let's unpack this a bit.  What was happening in the period before 1880 that made England seem a drifting raft in European affairs, to a friendly though foreign observer (to the older brother…

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…

Francesco Orsi

I thought briefly that I had found a contemporary philosopher whose views on ethics and meta-ethics checked all four key boxes. An ally all down the line.

The four, as regular readers of this blog may remember, are: cognitivism, intuitionism, consequentialism, pluralism. These represent the views that, respectively: some ethical judgments constitute knowledge; one important source for this knowledge consists of quasi-sensory non-inferential primary recognitions ("intuitions"); the right is logically dependent upon the good; and there exists an irreducible plurality of good.

Francesco Orsi seemed to believe all of these propositions. Here's his website and a link to one relevant paper:

What was better: Orsi is a young man. Born in 1980. A damned child! Has no memories of the age of disco!

So I emailed him asking if I was right that he believed all of those things. His answer: three out of …