Ambiguity, Conflict, and Irresolution in the Socratic Rhetoric of Machiavelli and Melville



Edmund E. Jacobitti




The Western intellectual tradition lives still in the wake of the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry.1 In its simplest form, this quarrel pitted philosophical speculation about the universal and eternal principles of nature and society against the unreflective, poetic standards of societies still regulated by local, traditional, and religious measures. "Poetry" here is, therefore, a metaphor for pre-rational custom and tradition. It is the attempt to tame an unpredictable world not through reason, but by a scrupulous adherence to the principles and practices of founders, heroes, and prophets whose exploits are celebrated in rhetorical lore like the Iliad, the Chanson de Roland, the Niebelungenlied, or the Pentateuch.


To the speculative mind of the philosopher and the scientist, such unreflective practices lack proof, universality, and permanence; they must, therefore, be mere opinion. Though in recent thought figures like Heidegger, Gadamer, Robert Bellah, and Alasdair MacIntyre have appealed to tradition to stabilize a wobbly postmodern world,2 the habitual form of Western thought has been the rational explanation, the linear cause and effect argument that exiles ambiguity and randomness. And certainly, if rational wisdom be the world's and humanity's most important characteristic, it is fitting that the tradition has preserved the Hellenistic practice of raising the vita contemplativa over the flotsam and jetsam of the vita activa.3  From its earliest beginnings, therefore, social science became—as Hayden White said of historical studies—¡°the refuge of all those ¡®sane¡¯ men who excel at finding the simple in the complex and the familiar in the strange.¡±4


However, as diverse as the poetic and philosophical paths may be, both the rational and the "irrational" traditions share an appeal (usually unconscious) to some higher, legitimating principle or authority to which the prophet or the philosopher has access. Today we are familiar with the idea of the "unsaid" foundation as the Grund, the "self-evident" principles upon which a culture rests.5  Whether secular or religious, this principle functions as the cultural keystone upon which everything else rests. If one wants to maintain an order of things, said Machiavelli, one must understand that "the foundation of every religion lies in some ordinating principle (qualche principale ordine suo) ....(And) princes of republics and kingdoms must maintain these foundations of their state's religion....even when they believe them to be false (le giudicassano false) (DI:12).


Whether the appeal is to tradition or "reason," then, there is an almost automatic rejection of the idea that great social, historical, and political events could be the result of simple inadvertence, plain luck, or even mere human choice. Rational political theorists, therefore, appeal to so-called structural or historical causes: The 1789 Revolution was the inevitable result of a shift in social or economic forces; Lenin was the logical result of underlying structural shifts in a seventeenth century nation caught in a twentieth century war; the tumult of the 1960's and 1970's in America was the natural product of underlying social and political imbalances. Rhetors of the poetic tradition, on the other hand, prefer that all three upheavals were the result of a denial of the sacred alliance of throne and alter, the principles of Holy Mother Russia, or the inalienable rights with which men were endowed by their Creator. The accepted metaphors of the philosopher and the poet, in short, have always been that of equilibrium, resolution, and the eventual, natural conjunction of theory and practice. Imbalances, the conflict of master and slave, were either the result of some violation of the laws of nature or God that could have been prevented with proper reason or were temporary aberrations and part of the necessary process of Aufhebung that led to eschatological resolution.


One might quibble about whether a poetic or historical account uncovered the proper cause of some imbalance; but few would dispute that balance itself was natural or the norm.6  Fewer still, until recently anyway, entertained the idea that--even assuming there could be agreement on anything as problematic as a "cause"--a "cause" could produce a random effect or an effect out of proportion to the initial input. Such ideas defied "reason" and "reason's God." As Stephen Jay Gould put it, we do not like to believe that something as serious as history or evolution could just as well have produced a world ruled by dinosaurs. 7


The purpose of all these poetic and theoretical whistles-in-the-dark, of course, lay in their supposed ability to exile the forces of chance, contradiction, and fate (Moira) and sort the world into its natural categories.


The shipwreck of modernity, however, has made many uncomfortably aware of the illusion at the base of science. As Nietzsche put it, "science, spurred by its powerful illusion, speeds irresistibly toward its limits where its optimism, concealed in the essence of logic, suffers shipwreck."8 However elegantly reasoned and wonderfully complete our explanations, we seem today to sense the demonic chance that lies beneath our poetic and rational constructs: If only Louis XVI had been a more forceful person in 1789, if Lenin's train had just gone off a bridge in 1917, or if, just in the nick of time, Jack Kennedy's ankle had been bitten by a mosquito, then the same historical forces that supposedly produced their necessary effects would have produced radically different effects that would then have been seen as rational, historical, and natural.9


Awareness of the real underlying craziness of the world--the fact that momentous events do result from a non-train wreck, a pedestrian character flaw, a stupid political blunder, or a freak bulls eye--have unhorsed modernity's heroic reason and the poet's nostalgia for the past. They have made us conscious of how freely Pandemonium has always careened about beneath our poetic and theoretical mirrors.10  The postmodern revolution has, in short, struck down the metanarratives of both opponents in the "ancient quarrel" and made us aware of the fragility of the flooring. 


Long before postmodernism, however, there were some who objected to humanity's confident reliance on reason and tradition.11  In this paper, I shall explore some of the ways that Machiavelli and Melville problematized these two time-honored refuges. Though separated by four centuries and two conventions of writing, Machiavelli and Melville were nonetheless joined at the hip in the conviction that all thought--whether discursive or analytical--eventually collided with the world. Such a tragic12 view of the human condition departs from the fact that all moral doctrines, however reliable in trivial day-to-day matters, proved ultimately dysfunctional and incongruent in resolving the great questions. 





The Postmodern World of Machiavelli and Melville


A:  Machiavelli


Postmodern thought likes to stress the conventional nature of philosophy and science. Following Heidegger, 13 it asserts that the logos is a mere convention with no more natural attachment to the world than any other construct.14  This insight leads to the postmodern conviction that poetry is not a mere confusion of tropes that philosophy and criticism can straighten out, but that philosophy is itself a trope. In short, "the ancient quarrel" between philosophy and poetry or logos and mythos has today been won by poetry: All knowledge--whether logos or mythos--is poetic, rooted in the imagination and later sanctified by nothing more--and nothing less either--than usage.


In this insight, postmodernism shares a great deal with Machiavelli, whose maverick world also defied the conventions of reason and poetic common sense. But Machiavelli, unlike many postmodern voyeurs, was not content to cheer on the dragon's pursuit of the damsel. For him, humanity's charge was to struggle on despite the insuperable odds against closure.


For Machiavelli,15 humanity had been "thrown" by chance (DI:2; DI:6) into a world over which they had only tenuous control and where the norm was disequilibrium. Oh, the world might contain roughly constant quantities of good and evil, strength and weakness, wealth and poverty; but these were so constantly changing their locations, that the rule was a constant rising and falling of human institutions: "Since all human institutions (le cose 16 degli uomini) are in constant movement and cannot be stabilized, they naturally rise and fall" (DI:6).


Not only was this rising and falling natural and autonomous (DI:16), but where man could intervene, fortune controlled the outcome of at least half of human undertakings (P:25): And "fortune blinds human minds when she does not wish them to resist her power" (DII: 29). Summoned into perpetual battle with forces that had a life of their own, humans found it "impossible to establish an equilibrium (bilanciare)" (DI:6) in human things (P:25).17  Thus, against the traditional root metaphor of the West, Machiavelli found that all supposed equilibria were temporary, unnatural, and in need of constant maintenance. And in the end, all maintenance was inadequate.


Machiavelli thus approved of Cato who, seeing that the youths of Rome had begun to admire the Greek philosophers Diogenes and his then disciple Carneades, "recognized what evil would ensue in the patria from such honest leisure (onesto ozio)18 and saw to it that no philosopher could be accepted at Rome." In short, Machiavelli seems to have seen early on the fatal hypnotism of philosophy. In this, he shared Cicero's revulsion for anyone who became "so rapt in the investigation of the mysteries of the universe, so absorbed in the contemplation of the most sublime objects, that if suddenly apprised that his country, his father, or his friend, was in danger or distress, would not abandon all his studies and fly to the rescue, even if he imagined he could number the stars and measure the immensity of space."19  What good was star-gazing? Humans would never act benevolently, even if benevolence could be defined.


Certainly, Machiavelli agreed, it was human excess that caused all this upset and disorder; but excess was natural; and men, therefore, go naturally astray (DIII: I) Thus, acquisition of goods and property "is a very natural and ordinary thing,"(PIII) but unfortunately "nature [la natura] has created men so that they desire everything, but are unable to attain it; for desire always exceeds the ability to acquire" (DI:37). According to Machiavelli, dissatisfaction with what one has is the very nature of the human condition: "Human desires are insatiable because their nature is to have and to do everything while fortune limits possessions and the capacity for enjoyment. This causes a constant discontent in the human mind and boredom with the things they already possess." (DII:Intro). In short, ¡°where choice is available (dove la elezione abonda), humans always choose excess (usare licenza)" (DI:3). For Machiavelli, there was, therefore, a natural disjunction between man and order; and political life was always apt to disintegrate.


When humans can neither fully understand nor fully control fortune, they become desperate and invoke mechanical reason or cling blindly to tradition. The world, however, sails its own autonomous course. Following the dictates of tradition or reason, therefore, often proved immoral or ruinous in practice. This "banality of evil" resulted because of the disjunction between theory and practice: "Since how we live is so different from how we ought to live....a man who makes a profession of doing good in everything [fare in tutte le parte professione di buono] will come to ruin among so many who are not good. Therefore, a prince who wishes to preserve himself, must learn how not to be good and use [that knowledge] when required" (P.XV). In short, since "it is impossible to give any precise rules" (DI:18), one ¡°must think about everything (ragionare d'ogni cosa¡± (DI:18).20


The imperative to "ragionare d'ogni cosa" results from that terrifying absence of order in the world and it leads to the conclusion that reason and tradition are snares. It problematizes not only Aristotelian good habits, the Christian beatitudes, and Chivalric codes, but custom, common sense, and all the other adhesives of society. Every habitual, nonchalant, and accepted norm can be, and eventually will be, disastrous.


According to Machiavelli, all "ancient orders [gli ordini antichi]...were not good" (P:26). They had failed because they had succumbed to mechanical consistency and were undone by the unexpected. Artificial constructs of virtue could never tame man's natural cupidity and wickedness; nor could reason or poetry ever dominate fortune. And even if they could, men as they are and must be--"ungrateful, voluble deceivers, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger and covetous of gain" (P17)-made the advice of philosophers and poets impossible to follow.


Though Machiavelli's path, of course, represented only a rejection of the rules and "oughts" of ancient and Christian philosophy and poetry, the repudiation seems to apply to any such reliance whether on natural law, philosophy of history, or some other Sermon on the Mount. For Machiavelli, in other words, a separation of "is" and "ought" or "fact" and "value" had nothing to do with naive positivism or the vain search for scientific truth. Rather it was a rule of prudence emerging from the failure of automatic poetic and philosophical "oughts" and "values" in the real world.21  But, more importantly, it was a recognition that "facts" were everywhere constructed differently. Blind adherence to one's own traditional engineering could blind one to alternative constructions. Moreover, the supposedly simple "is" of the world was itself a construct built upon an arbitrary rational or traditional identification of what was "significant."


The Machiavellian "fact/value distinction," therefore, has nothing to do with modernity, as Strauss argues, but is rather a distinctly anti-modern, almost unheard-of subordination of the vita contemplativa to the vita activa. Thought--like fortresses, roads, laws, and cities--must conform to the character of fickle men and not the character of men to the abstract ideas. Machiavelli, therefore, rejected any possibility that the abstract principles of the philosopher and the poet could eliminate the unpredictable outcomes of human history: "If one considers everything carefully, it will be found that something that seems good (parra virtu) if pursued, will produce one's ruin and something else that seems evil (parra vizio), if followed, produces one's security and well-being"(P15).


It was, moreover, said Machiavelli, not only the consequences of a pigheaded adherence to principles that made the rigid application of philosophy or poetry unwise; it was that one could never be sure, whatever one did, that one's actions would, in fact, produce the intended effect.22  Thus, "two men operating in different ways, produce the same effect while when two others act in the same way, one gains his end and the other no. This also accounts for (Da questo ancora depende) changes in prosperity; for if the times favor one who acts with prudence and patience, then he will succeed; but if the time and conditions change and he does not [also change], he will be ruined" (P.25).


Finally, according to Machiavelli, in this Sophoclean world, even if one could determine the proper action to be taken and be sure that it would produce the desired effect, one would find that the more worthy and virtuous the undertaking, the more one must be willing to defy the norms of civilized behavior. This willingness to defy poetic and philosophical convention for higher ends "is no accident," said Strauss. It is fundamental and "there are other elements of [Machiavelli's] teaching which are no less obvious and yet are not universally admitted." As Jaffa put it, "there are no moral rules to which exceptions might not be found, where 'the safety and happiness of society' are at stake." It may, therefore be necessary "to contemplate extreme actions in defense of the rule of law by wise men whose unfettered wisdom may sometimes be the necessary condition for the establishment or survival of a decent constitutional order." This is, said Jaffa, what is meant "by saying that natural right--or natural law--is altogether changeable."23


As the cases of Moses and Romulus testify, a willingness to engage in wickedness proportionate to the intended good may be one of the horrible burdens that few heroes can escape (DI:12; DIII: 22; DIII: 28). "In all human things," argued Machiavelli, "if one considers it carefully, this will be clear: One cannot eliminate one problem without producing another" (in tutte le cose umane, si vede questo, chi le esamina bene: Che no si puo mai cancellare uno inconveniente che no ne surga un'altro" [DI:6]. From this it follows that even when humans try to be good and engage in manifestly well-intentioned acts, they are frequently required to engage in wickedness and even then often produce consequences far worse than those that ill-intentioned bad men could ever have consciously achieved.



B:  Melville


The same disjunction between theory and practice, action and result, and necessity and virtue fascinated Melville24 and set him apart from the general ebullience of his age. Against Whitman's and Emerson's general optimism, Melville found that it was  Hawthorne's black vision of the human condition that ¡°fixes and fascinates me.¡± When confronted with optimistic abstractions, Hawthorne utters an apocalyptic NO.  ¡°There is a grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie."25


And Melville's roller-coaster experience with good and evil was not abstract. If his works were filled with ruminations about the innate depravity of man, the punishments of an inscrutable and unpredictable God, and the transformation of apparent good intentions into bad results, so too was his own life filled with the extremes of fortune and experience: Thrown at the age of ten from worldly comfort into poverty by his beloved father's business failure, sudden madness, and death, Melville was left entirely in the hands of his reclusive mother whose life was dominated by the dark Calvinism of the Dutch Reformed Church. Then as a young man, he signed for a five year tour aboard a merchantman and then aboard the whaler Acushnet bound for the South Seas where he jumped ship and spent  a year among the sexually uninhibited and probably cannibalistic Polynesians. It was the description of this exotic South Sea world that brought him sudden literary fame and led to Moby Dick. Then, like his father's, Melville's career underwent a decline even more meteoric than its rise; and from 1857 to 1892, he lived in near complete literary silence and obscurity.


Melville begins with the assumption that it is human arrogance to think that one can know the truth which ¡°in this world of lies¡¦is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands, and only by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself.¡±26  We are, says Melville,  flung into this world by ¡°the fates¡± and then blown about from place to place without the time or skill to find accurate bearings or chart a safe course. Melville¡¯s characters, like Machiavelli¡¯s, find their lives rule by fortune, usually bad. Thus Ishmael found himself driven to sea for reasons he could not explain; and once aboard the Pequod had no idea "why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies" (Ch. 1).27


Like Ishmael, Billy Budd, the archetype of innocent Christ-like virtue, as far as he knows, entered the world by complete chance: An illiterate and a foundling, he has no idea where he came from. And when, having more or less accustomed himself  to the world into which he had been flung, he was--due to a completely chance encounter between the ship on which he was a passenger (named, naturally, the Rights–Of-Man and a short-handed British warship named, naturally HMS Indomitable) taken and impressed into the Royal Navy.  This passenger-through-life had, in short, been snatched from a ship where he had rights and interests but no duties and deposited upon a warship where he had duties and no rights. Budd¡¯s voyage at sea, as in so many of Melville's works, is a symbolic passage. But unlike many such passages from innocence to maturity, Budd's is a sheep-like "Father-forgive-them" journey to his own execution. Unable to comprehend greed, spite, jealousy, or rage, even when they are turned against him, this symbol of unarmed virtue is ultimately defenseless.


And in those areas where Melville¡¯s characters were able to choose their own course, they were, like Machiavelli's characters, unable to distinguish good headings from bad; for evil and good are always ambiguous and in flux: "There is," says Ishmael, "no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself" (Ch. 11).


Jonah, in the Biblical tale, learned the difficulty of determining good and evil after he (finally) determined to carry out God¡¯s mission to Nineveh, the Israelite symbol of luxury and dissolution. When God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn the city that it would be destroyed for its sinful ways, Jonah was afraid to undertake the dangerous mission and fled aboard an Egyptian ship. A resourceful God, however, produced a terrifying storm; and after Jonah confessed that he was fleeing his (not their) God, the crew took him to be the cause of the storm and threw him overboard. Swallowed up by a whale (or some other large fish), Jonah prayed for forgiveness and agreed to go to Nineveh to deliver God¡¯s warning. To Jonah¡¯s dismay, however, the Ninevite king, the citizens, and even the animals (!) listen attentively and promptly change their ways. When God forgave them Jonah felt betrayed; for after carrying out his assignment, he wanted God to carry out His part of the bargain and destroy Nineveh. God¡¯s lesson to Jonah is that rewarding good and punishing evil are not easy decisions. The heathens who did not know their ¡°right hand from their left¡± had repented and followed God¡¯s ways rather than their own. Indeed, throughout the tale, the author emphasized that mere human vision, perhaps because of original sin, is often flawed, that Jonah cannot know the will of God at every moment for he has a merely mortal vision. 


The irony that pagan Egyptians and Ninevites find the just course by obeying the God of Israel while the Israelite Jonah fails to please Yahweh by blindly following His orders, makes plain that though the God¡¯s mission cannot be abandoned it must always be undertaken with humility and an awareness of humanity¡¯s limited knowledge of ultimate ends.


Ahab, in Melville¡¯s modern Jonah-tale, is the symbol of an impudent modernity that has not learned the ambiguity of good and evil and that mere humans, like Jonah and Ahab, are, therefore, unable to always know the course of virtue (Ch. 9). And so, determined to follow his own vengeful course and eliminate evil, he brings about his own destruction as well as that of his own city (the Pequod).


In the chapter entitled ¡°The Whiteness of the Whale,¡± Melville foreshadows the end of the Pequod by highlighting the ambiguity of human goals, the need to suit the course to the shifting wind; for evil is a sinister force that, as Machiavelli saw, comes often colored in the garb of goodness and innocence. Thus Ishmael reflected upon "the heightened hideousness" of the Polar bear whose "irresponsible ferociousness...stands invested in the [white] fleece of celestial innocence and love," the color of so "many touching, noble things--the innocence of brides, the benignity of age." Beneath the serene mental placebos we administer to our souls, there lies in all of us, said Melville, the awareness of lurking chaos, an innate understanding and terrifying "knowledge of the demonism in the world."


And it is not only the confusing white camouflage that evil wears that mocks human judgment, but the unnerving way black and white intermingle to scar humanity itself. Thus Ishmael noted that the sun-blackened body of the Master of the Pequod, "fearless, black-clad and peg-legged,¡± Ahab had been branded at birth by a "vividly whitish" scar that ran "from crown to sole," from the gray hair on his head to the whalebone "barbaric white leg" on which he stood to conduct his malignant and circular search for the white whale. The entire book, with its constant references to the illusory nature of good, the difficulty of choosing right over wrong, and the suspicion that "all deified Nature paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within," recalls Machiavelli's suspicions about that which "appears good."


And if it recalls Machiavelli, it foreshadows Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and their reduction/deconstruction of the principle of identity or individuation," the key element of all thought. Thus in Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche played upon the contrast between light and darkness, reality and illusion, upon Apollo as ¡°der Scheinende," the shining one who could identify moral landmarks and Apollo the god of alchemical illusion or "Erscheinung" who saw how all identities blended together. "We might apply," suggested Nietzsche, in a strikingly Melvillean passage, "to Apollo the words of Schopenhauer when he speaks of the man wrapped in the veil of maya (Sanskrit for "illusion"): 'Just as in a stormy sea that, unbounded in all directions, raises and drops mountainous waves, howling, a sailor sits in a boat and trusts in his frail bark: so in the midst of a world of torments the individual human being sits quietly, supported by and trusting in the principium individuationis."28


Again and again, Melville likens the whale that Ahab--impudent modernity--pursues to a Sphinx who represents the ephemeral and potentially lethal nature of all evidently benign human goals. Thus, in the chapter entitled "The Fountain"--referring to the spout sent up by a whale as it breeches--Melville gave us a metaphor for the transient and shapeless fumes and vapors of the "eternal" truths of philosophy and religion: "That for six thousand years--and no one knows how many millions of ages before--the great whales should have been spouting all over the sea,.. sprinkling and mystifying...and yet, that down to this blessed should still be a problem, whether these spoutings are, after all, really water, or nothing but vapor--this is surely a noteworthy thing....And I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Phyrro, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts."29


For Melville, the Pequod was a metaphor for a world of limitless ambition just as the tuberculosis sanitarium in The Magic Mountain was Mann's symbol of a diseased world "Yes, the world's a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete" (Ch 8). It is Ahab who completes the voyage when his Faustian quest makes the ship a coffin. The coffin, the certain spoiler of human arrogance, appears not only unexpectedly, as it did to Cesare Borgia and Ahab, but all along "the way" as the (unheeded) reminder of human temporality: Peter Coffin, landlord of the Spouter-Inn; the coffin in which Queequeg sleeps; the coffin of human finitude that Ahab assails in his last curse: "For hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool."


But when heeded, the coffin, like some early version of the Sein-zum-Tode, also provides a rebirth, an awakening from the mindless pursuit of small things: the coffin that led to the birth of Nantucket Island (Ch 14), birthplace of those who accustom themselves to rolling decks and walk warily on deceptively stable land; and the coffin that saves Ishmael when the Pequod goes down.


The same ambiguity between significance and utter insignificance, between good and evil, pervades Benito Cereno. Here the virtuous Captain Delano, having chanced upon and then rescued a troubled ship, finds himself vainly reviewing again and again and again the insignificant (or significant?) gestures, remarks, and behavior of the rescued Captain and crew to see whether they are evil men or good. But, as Delano had reluctantly to conclude, since "intense heat and cold, though unlike, produce like sensations, so innocence and guilt...[bear] one seal".30


In short, Melville's characters are determined to pursue goals that have all the appearance of normality--even benignity--but nearly always produce terrible consequences: Thus Pierre, the anti-hero of Melville's last book, had, for reasons he cannot understand, always longed for the companionship of a sister. And not knowing of his own father's earlier sexual escapades, he at last finds precisely a sister in the girl with whom he eventually falls in love. Pierre "did not then know," as Melville put it, "that if there be any thing a man might well pray against, that thing is the responsive gratification of some of the devoutest prayers of his youth."31


In so uncertain a world, Melville likened humanity's fruitless search for certainty to the frantic food frenzy of a "loose fish" swimming the Nietzschean sea.32  Falling for one bait after another, it does not want to believe that it "knows nothing." Humanity wants only to cease being a "loose fish." It wants "to make existence appear comprehensible and thus justified; and if reasons do not suffice, myth has to come to their aid." It seeks to become a "fast fish" by attaching itself to the desperate thoughts of desperate men: "What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men's minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?" (Ch.89)




Like Socrates, Machiavelli and Melville knew nothing. Their work produced no coherent answers or programs but only clusters of often incompatible ideas around certain eternal problems. Philosophy for them was thus transformed from a pretentious knowledge of Being to an awareness of ignorance; and the knowledge that when resolution occurs, one can be sure that one has suppressed part of the evidence for, as Ishmael put it, "darkness [is] indeed the proper element of our essences" (Ch 11).


If what Melville and Machiavelli argue is true, then relying on the conventions of either reason or poetry blinds us not only to the world's marvels, its miraculous existence, but will eventually give us false headings. Excluding so-called normative or poetic values and relying solely on "reason" merely gives poetry a rational form no more congruent with the world than any other language of the cave; for the "value-free" thought of philosophy and science is as much a construct as normative thought. 


In other words, like Nietzsche, Foucault, Kuhn, Feyerabend and many others today, Machiavelli and Melville had concluded that there was a fundamental equation between poetry and rational philosophy.


 The power and the danger of thought--poetry as logos or mythos--lay in its immense capacity to hide the disjunction between thought and the world and thus to produce a complacent or dogmatic response. Founder-poets--i piu eccelenti--like Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus were revered because they established moral codes; but what truly made them great was their imaginative rejection of tradition and philosophy and their creation of new orders of things.33  Unlike Ahab, they did not blindly and unimaginatively pursue an inner demon of vengeance.


Machiavelli and Melville are, therefore, not moderns, but, if anything, sophists who foreshadow the postmodern challenge to the entire tradition of the fixed and eternal, the "everywhere and always" of ancient and modern thought that leads to rigid behavior: the absurdly futile virtue of Billy Budd; Ahab's "determinate, unsurrenderable" single-minded pursuit of the whale; Pierre's compulsive search for a sister; a ruler's dangerous determination to seek peace, goodness, and prosperity. Like the search of Oedipus for his father's murderer, nearly all single-minded voyages end badly. All end like Oedipus' search for his father's murderer. Machiavelli and Melville, in short, were spiritual predecessors of Nietzsche and aimed at dragging humanity out of the metaphysical world of fable to face the "is." 34


The question for Machiavelli and Melville was still "what is virtue?"35; but rather than presenting the question in a stable, contemplative, Aristotelian or Christian world, they recalled Cicero's warning that "it is not enough to possess virtue (nec vero habere virtutem), as if it were an art of some sort, unless you make use of it (nisi utare)."36 Virtue is not contemplative; it requires entry into the fluid course of human events and a willingness to sacrifice conventional morality and even one's soul37 for the sake of the country. To be virtuous in the real world is to understand the Sophoclean ambiguity of good and evil and to still captain the ship and lead the city.


The driving force behind Machiavelli's and Melville's writing was, therefore, irresolution, the awareness that the archae that lie at the base of the human condition are incompatible. 








1.   Republic Bk X. 607b; see, too BK I. 334b; Bk II. 376ff; Bk .III 386ff.


2.   C.F. the "framework" (Gestell) of Heidegger, e.g in ¡°The Question Concerning Technology,¡± trans. William Lovitt, (New York: Harper and Row, 1977): 3-35; the "episteme" of Foucault in The Order of Things (New York: Vintage, 1973) where Foucault establishes the difference between the episteme of the classical age and the modern; the "transcendental signifier" of Derrida. See Of Grammatology, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 18ff; or the "paradigm" in Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).


3.   According to Cicero, true learning had once been philosophy and poetry or rhetoric, a unified wisdom that brought "is" and "ought"' together and taught humanity what to do.  But then the streams of learning flowed in different directions, so that the philosophers passed, as it were, into the Upper or Ionian Sea, a Greek sea while the Rhetors  [passed] .into the Lower or Tuscan [sea.]. (De Oratore, III:xvi, 68ff.]. According to many-Heidegger, Derrida, Strauss and many postmoderns we have inherited only the philosophical metanarrative and have forgotten the probable, possible, and the Being question.  See Heidegger, e.g., Being and Time, trans. John Marquarrie and Edward Robinson, (New York: Harper and Row, 1962) p. 21. In Early Greek Thinking: The Dawn of Philosophy,  trans. David Farrell Krell and Frank A. Capuzzi, (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), p. 79, Heidegger asserts: "The relation between thinking and Being animates all Western reflection. It remains the durable touchstone for determining  to what extent  and in what way we have been granted both the privilege and the capacity to approach that which addresses itself to historical man as to-be-thought." Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spiva, (Baltimore Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976, p. 3) establishes logocentrism as the key to Western thought.  Leo Strauss, in On Tyranny, rev. ed. ed. Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth, (New York: The Free Press, 1991), p. 207, argues that "modern philosophy"' as a "secularized form of Christianity," (i.e. a philosophy with answers rather than questions, has dominated Western thought. In Thoughts on Machiavelli: (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1969), p. 295, he similarly asserts : "The classics understood the moral-political phenomena in the light of man's highest virtue or perfection, the life of the philosopher or the contemplative life. The superiority of peace to war or of leisure to business is a reflection of the superiority of thinking to doing or making."


4.   Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), p. 50. See, too Ilya Progogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature, (New York: Bantam, 1984), p. 7: "What are the assumptions of classical science...? Generally those centering around the basic conviction that at some level the world is simple and is governed by time-reversible fundamental laws. Today this appears as an excessive simplification."


5.   C.F. the "framework" (Gestell) of Heidegger, e.g in ¡°The Question Concerning Technology,¡± trans. William Lovitt, (New York: Harper and Row, 1977): 3-35; the "episteme" of Foucault in The Order of Things (New York: Vintage, 1973) where Foucault establishes the difference between the episteme of the classical age and the modern; the "transcendental signifier" of Derrida. See Of Grammatology, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 18ff; or the "paradigm" in Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).


6.   But, c.f. Machiavelli, DI:6


7.   The role of randomness, contingency, and chance is the main theme of Gould's text on the fossils of the Burgess shale. According to Gould, the engine of evolution is caprice: It is not the survival of the fittest, but the luckiest. See Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, (New York: Norton, 1989), 318, but throughout.


8.   Birth of Tragedy, trans. Walter Kaufmann, (New York: Random House, 1967): p. 97.


9.   Far from being generative as they were at their origin, rational and poetic conventions seem to have become ossified rituals daily performed to ward off marauding chance. The rituals, as Kuhn sees it, are defended "down-to-the-last-man: Only when the partisans of an accepted theory are all dead, can new ideas enter the academy, See, Ch. VIII, Structure of Scientific Revolutions, op. cit.


10.  The enlarged role of chance means that in principle knowledge must always be incomplete. Such matters are discussed in the hard sciences by figures like Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, S. J. Gould, and Ilya Prigogine. In the social sciences, they are discussed by figures like Jon Elster, Leo Strauss, Michel Foucault, Umberto Eco, Hayden White, LaCapra, and others. Ilya Prigogine, the Nobel prize-winning physicist of chaos theory, suggests that the proper approach for theory would be a "conversation" with nature. See, Ilys Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature, op. cit.


11.  For example, figures like Plato, Aristophanes, Cicero, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Vico, Melville, Nietzsche, and the like. Postmoderns include Derrida, Foucault, Heidegger, LaCapra, Lyotard, MacIntrye, Strauss, White, and others.


12.  Or comic, as in Aristophanes' lampoons of theoretical wisdom or Bachtin's "carnivelesque" dismantling of human orders .


13.  What interested Heidegger was that we have objectified or enframed Being and made it and ourselves no longer the question, but the answer. The Western tradition, according to Heidegger, had divided the Being-question into two questions, that of essence and that of existence, ignoring the way Dasein one-sidedly "imposes" or "enframes" essence when it merely sees/says existence. See Heidegger, Identity and Difference, trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York: Harper and Row, 1969: 23-41. See too, Being and Time, p. 15: Humanity's conception of Being as substance reflects back upon itself and it, therefore, see itself as substance. For Heidegger, since Being was "time as destiny," the framework (Ge-stell) or grid through which Dasein sees, could not be eternal but only transient; for "enframing" is always temporal. Ge-stelle has roots in Stelle or "place," "spot," "situation." Thus stellen is "to put," "place," "situate." They are words that recall man's situated position, his "thrownness"--the temporal position {Plato's cave} from which he "enframes." And they point up the intimate relationship of "to throw" (werfen) with "to project" (entwerfen) and "the project(ion)" (Entwurf). Dasein is "thrown" (geworfen), into a situation not of his own choosing and projects (Entwuerfe), as on a blank screen, the framework (Gestell) of the time.


14.  After Nietzsche, every linking of "is" and "ought" is now a "point of view," a "metanarrative," a "paradigm," an "episteme," a "transcendental signified," and so on. The tradition that had run from Plato to Hegel has been undone. As Fukuyama put it, it is the "end of history" and "unprecedented disasters await us." See The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992), pp. 3-4 . Our discussion of truth-claims today, in other words, is governed by their recognized status as Foucauldian pouvoir/savoir. Thus, when a truth-claim is made--"such and such is moral," "this activity is natural," "this rule is just," "this is true," and so on--we do not ask if it is true. We know better. We ask, if this is made "true" ("just," "natural," etc) and put into practice, what will be the effects, who will be marginalized?


15.  Footnotes to Machiavelli are in the text with P for The Prince , D for The Discourses , FH for The Florentine Histories,  all followed by chapter number in Roman numerals.  All translations are my own from  Machiavelli: Tutte le opera, ed. Mario Martelli, (Florence: Sansoni, 1971), The literature on Machiavelli is massive. The works that have most helped me are Isaiah Berlin, Against the Current (1979); Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977);  Eugene Garver, Machiavelli and the History of Prudence (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1987); Victoria Kahn, Rhetoric, Prudence, and Skepticism in the Renaissance, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990); Victoria Kahn, Machiavellian Rhetoric, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985); Harvey Mansfield, Machiavelli's New Modes and Orders (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978); John M. Najemy, Between Friends (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993); Anthony Parel, The Machiavellian Cosmos (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992); J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1975); Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Seattle: The University of Washington Press, 1957); Leo Strauss: On Tyranny, re. ed. Victor Gourevitch and Michael S. Roth, (New York: The Free Press, 1991); Hayden White, Metahistory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973); Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978); and especially, Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).


16.  In Italian, cosa replaces the Latin res which is commonly understood as "institution" as in res publica.


17.  P: 25; DII: intro; Florentine Histories, BK.V: Ch. I


18.  Florentine Histories V: 1). Machiavelli's ironic juxtaposition of onesto (honest) and ozio (loafing about) do not, perhaps, come across in English; but they are part of his general belief that if wealth and leisure corrupt--"hunger and poverty make men industrious" [la fame e la poverta fa gli uomini industriosi)(DI:3; DI:1, then idleness corrupts, as in the old Italian proverb l'ozio e il padre dei vizi--"free time is the sire of the vices"--or in the English saying that "idle hands are the devil's workplace."


19.  De Officiis (on Moral duties)I: 43


20.  and see Thoughts on Machiavelli, p. 125; 247.


21.  If theory and practice did coincide, it would be a strange world indeed: Meteorology would be an exact science; interest rates would have exactly the desired effect; earnings per share would have a direct bearing on share price; physics would be the master science and be perfectly understood. In short, there would be no place for imagination or virtu.


22.  Thoughts on Machiavelli, p. 285.


23.  Therefore, says Jaffa to Drury: "Your attempt to discover a sinister Machiavellianism in the changeability of the precepts of the natural law is simply without any foundation." Jaffa, p. 318-319.


24.  The literature on Melville is perhaps less well known. After the initial popularity of Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), and even the highly symbolic Redburn, White Jacket (1850), and Moby Dick (1851), Melville's popularity went into decline. The 1852 publication of Pierre; or the Ambiguities convinced many fans of his earlier "adventure tales" that he had gone mad. Interest in him did not arise again until 34 years after his death when, in 1924, his biographer, Raymond Weaver, produced the posthumous publication of Billy Budd. However, his work was still greatly disparaged. Major critics like the Progressives Vernon Parrington (in Main Currents in American Thought [many editions in 1920's and 30's]) and Van Wyck Brooks ("America's Coming of Age" [1915]), dismissed him as either not really "American" or as a malignant literary desperado who undermined the moral virtue and confidence that Whitman, in Democratic Vistas, had placed in "the people." However, when Perry Miller, Samuel Eliot Morison, and Kenneth Murdock (the so-called "three M's") replaced the Progressives as America's primary literary critics, American intellectuals began to focus not on the virtues of "the people" but on their innate wickedness. This exploration of Puritan interest in human depravity led to a revival of interest in Melville. This revival commenced with Alfred Kazin's "Introduction" to the Riverside edition of Moby Dick (1950) where Ishmael appeared as "modern man, cut off from the certainty that was once his inner world," while Ahab represented Faustian impudence. A definitive Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville's works, The Writings of Herman Melville, edited by Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker was begun in 1968. Works like Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael (1947) and Archaeologist of Morning (1974), Richard Chase's The American Novel and its Tradition (1957), and Larzar Ziff's "Shakespeare in America" (1978) uncovered Melville's large debt to Shakespearean tragedy and argued that it was not simply modern man but mankind that was marked by uncertainty and fear. Still Melville remains controversial. His works, said R. W. B. Lewis Herman in Melville: Stories, Poems, and Letters (1967) are mere "novel[s] of tension without resolution." Much of the controversy stems from Melville's Billy Budd and his last work, Pierre. In Billy Budd, one finds the symbol of absolute innocence who suffers the penalty of innocence when he encounters Claggart, the symbol of incarnate malignity. Those who, like H. Bruce Franklin, "From Empire to Empire, Billy Budd, Sailor," in Herman Melville: Reassessments (1984) believe one can (or should) be innocent, attack figures who like Hannah Arendt (On Revolution 1965), argue that innocence is lethal in a wicked world. Pierre is, perhaps, not as great a literary achievement as it is a thoroughly Nietzschean interrogation of the entire ambiguity of identity and of incest and adultery: If there is no fixed identity, can there be incest? More recently, postmodern critics have explored Melville's interest in reason and madness, and his similarities to Dostoevski's existentialism, and to the indeterminate perspective of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Mann. See Critical Essays on Melville's Pierre, ed. Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker (1983). William B. Dillingham, Melville's Later Novels, (University of Georgia Press, 1986).Walchee-Chee Dimock, Empire for Liberty: Melville and the Poetics of Individualism, (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1989). Paul McCarthy, The Twisted Mind: Madness in Herman Melville's Fiction (Iowa City, IO, University of Iowa Press, 1991). Hershel Parker, Reading Billy Budd (Evanston, IN: Northwestern University Press, 1991). Dennis Pohl, Architects of the Abyss: The Indeterminate Fiction of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, (Colombia, MO: University of MO Press, 1989) Franklin D. Reeve, The White Monk: An Essay on Dostoyevsky and Melville (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1989). John Samson, White Lies: Melville's Narrative of Facts, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989). John Williams, White Fire: The Influence of Emerson on Melville,(Long Beach CA: University of Californian Press, 1991).


25.  Melville, "Hawthorne and His Mosses,"  Moby Dick, ed. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker , ( New York: Norton, 1967), pp. 542-46.


26.  All citations to Moby Dick are to the 1993, London, Everyman edition. Where the chapters are quite short, pointed, and relevant, as they mostly are, I have cited the chapter as a whole rather than the page.


27.  Birth of Tragedy, op. cit., pp. 35-36.


28.  Pp. 309;345 and see too the image of the whale created by the picture on the wall of the Spouter-Inn


29.  In Herman Melville, Billy Budd and other Tales , (New York: A Signet Classic, 1979), p. 172.


30.  Pierre or The Ambiguities, ed Harrison Hayford (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1971), p. 7.


31.  Birth of Tragedy, op. cit., p. 96


32.  This illustrates the agonistic nature of foundings; On the one hand, they break with the existing conditions that depend on automatic responses and on the other, having       established a new order of things, they must immediately guard it by engendering new thoughtless action.


33.  For Nietzsche, the key event was the death of God, the Hegelian logos. For Machiavelli, it was the continued life of Christianity, an earlier logos now on a futile life-support system. Nietzsche's Prince, in short, is Zarathustra. Nietzsche, in fact, endorsed Machiavelli in Will To Power 304 and in 1005 where he noted that Machiavelli had an instinct for life.


34.  As Strauss put it, Machiavelli's longing for classical virtu is evident, for example, in the life of Castruccio which is in contrast to "Biblical righteousness." See, On Tyranny, pp. 184-185.


35.  Republic I: ii. 2.


36.  Machiavelli, Letter to Vettori, number 321, 16 April, 1527: "Amo la patria mia piu dell'anima."


37.  Machiavelli, Letter to Vettori, number 321, 16 April, 1527: "Amo la patria mia piu dell'anima."