Thursday, November 14, 2013

So Much Hope

Actuated by my investigation of The Prince,  I pulled down my copy of its companion-piece, The Discourses, to fill an idle hour the other night.  Shorter Discourses: it's wonderful--provocative, shrewd, funny and a rattling good read.  Also proof of what a little age and experience can do for you.  I clearly read it before--my underling and checkmarks are all over the piece.  But I remember it as a bit of a grind, something I did because I felt I ought to more than because I really wanted to.  Much different today, and I think the difference has more to do with paltry achievement than anything vaporous like wisdom.  I know more about Italy today (even a bit of Italian) and I know more about Livy: I'm much better able to get my mind around the sinewy dynamism of something like this:
Affermo, bene, di nuovo, questo essere verissimo, secondo che per tutte le istorie si vede, che gli uomini possono secondare la fortuna e non opporsegli; possono tessere gli orditi suoi, e non rompergli. Debbono, bene, non si abbandonare mai; perch√©, non sappiendo il fine suo, e andando quella per vie traverse ed incognite, hanno sempre a sperare, e sperando non si abbandonare, in qualunque fortuna ed in qualunque travaglio si trovino.

I assert once again as a truth to which history as a whole bears witness that men may second their fortune, but cannot oppose it; that they may weave its warp, but cannot break it. Yet they should never give up, because there is always hope, though they know not the end and more towards it along roads which cross one another and as yet are unexplored; and since there is hope, they should not despair, no matter what fortune brings or in what travail they find themselves.
Book 2, Ch. 29, unfinished at his death in 1527 (Leslie Walker and Brian Richardson trans., 1974)

What gets me here is not just the dynamism and the style by the resiliency: he begins on what might sound like a pessimistic note ("they may weave its warp, but cannot break it").   Yet he turns instantly to a kind of determined hopefulness.  Doesn't take long to recall another great Renaissance thinker in a near-canonical moment:
[E]ven if the breath of hope which blows on us from that New Continent were fainter than it is and harder to perceive, yet the trial (if we would not bear a spirit altogether abject) must by all means be made. For there is no comparison between that which we may lose by not trying and by not succeeding, since by not trying we throw away the chance of an immense good; by not succeeding we only incur the loss of a little human labor. But as it is, it appears to me from what has been said, and also from what has been left unsaid, that there is hope enough and to spare, not only to make a bold man try, but also to make a sober-minded and wise man believe.
So Francis Bacon, Novum Organum 114 (1620)The reader is left to make his own inferences about any change of attitude from the times of Machiavelli and Bacon to the preen day.

No comments: