Niccolò Machiavelli’s Discorsi may have become one of the seminal texts of modern political theory, but it was originally a gift to his close friends Zanobi Buondelmonti and Cosimo Rucellai. The three of them would talk politics in the Oricellari gardens of Florence and in their equally fertile letters. Prefacing his work in the third person, the author notes how he considers his Discorsi to be“unquestionably the most valuable thing Niccolò Machiavelli could send you. For in it I have put in words all that I know and all have learned from an extensive experience of the affairs of the world and endless reading about them.”
These “affairs” were the ferocious politics of Northern Italian city-states during the Renaissance. Machiavelli saw both sides of these clashes: he was a civil servant after the ousting of the Medici family and the establishment of the Florentine republic, a victim of torture when the Medici regained power and purged the city-state’s government. He somehow found time during all of this upheaval for “endless reading,” studying, amongst other texts, Ab urbe condita, a mammoth history of ancient Rome by historian Titus Livy. The Discorsi serves largely as Machiavelli’s commentary on the work of Livy, as well as an extension of its lessons to the practice of modern politics.
One recurrent lesson is a deep-seated distrust of the French, who had long terrorized Machiavelli’s Italy. In book three, chapter 43, the author cautions readers that “the French have always behaved in the same way, and so it is easy to work out to what extent other rulers can afford to trust them.” His distrust extends back even to antiquity, indicating a more thorough suspicion of the French character itself. In The Prince, for example, Machiavelli uses “France” to refer to both the ancient province of Gaul and the modern state of France. David Wootton, a professor of history at the University of York, as well as a translator and interpreter of Machiavelli, considers this terminology “a reminder of [Machiavelli’s] conviction that there is a real continuity between the ancient world and the present.” Just as the Gauls had caused troubles for the Roman Empire in the time of Livy, Machiavelli implies, so too do their modern French descendants pose problems for Italy’s city-states. Tracing this national trend through history, the prudent prince will be wary of such proven enemies.
Nearly five centuries after Machiavelli presented the Discorsi to his companions, students of politics and gift-giving find Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu giving the Book of Esther to President Obama at a recent meeting. According to Netanyahu, the conference mainly concerned efforts to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Coming two days before the Jewish holiday of Purim, the Prime Minister was making a stern, historical point to the president with this particular souvenir.
Purim commemorates the events documented in the biblical Book of Esther. The title-character here is the crypto-Jewish queen of ancient Persia, who thwarts the attempt of the prime minster, Haman, “to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus [Persia]…” (3:6). Orphaned at an early age, Esther is raised by her cousin Mordecai, a palace gatekeeper who had previously exposed an assassination attempt on the Persian king, Ahasuerus (generally identified as Xerxes I). Esther eventually gains favor with the king, and the two marry—though Ahasuerus is unaware of his wife’s Jewish heritage.
Meanwhile, Mordecai runs afoul of the new Prime Minister, Haman, when he refuses to bow down before him. Knowing that Mordecai is Jewish, Haman draws up plans to exterminate the Jews of Persia as revenge. “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom;” seethes Haman, “and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king’s laws: therefore it is not for the king’s profit to suffer them” (3:8). The stage is set for genocide.
But Mordecai, who has an uncanny way of uncovering conspiracies, alerts his queenly cousin of the plot. Esther then reveals herself as Jewish to her regal husband just as Haman’s insidious conspiracy nears fruition, and reminds the king of Mordecai’s faithful foiling of the past assassination attempt. Furious with his prime minister, Ahasuerus hangs Haman on the gallows originally erected by the anti-Semite for Mordecai.
Jews celebrate this reversal of misfortune yearly with Purim. The Megillah, a scroll of the Book of Esther, is read in the morning and evening, during which costumed revelers (Purim is sometimes referred to as “the Jewish Halloween”) drown out the name “Haman” with noisemakers each time it pops up in the text. To top it off, Jews are expected to celebrate enough to forget the difference between “Blessed be Mordecai” and “Cursed be Haman.” A deluge of alcohol aids these efforts.
Returning to more sober politics: By brandishing Esther’s scroll, Netanyahu is taking a page straight out of Machiavelli’s Discorsi. There is always some maniacal Persian trying to wipe out the Jews. In the past it was Prime Minister Haman with his annihilationist conspiracy; today it’s President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, hell-bent on arming himself with atomic warheads in order to vaporize the Jewish state. If I may quote another ruler of Israel, King Solomon, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9)—even in the realm of international affairs. Indeed, when Ahmedinejad’s not busy implying that the Holocaust is a sham, some of his public statements about Israel certainly echo Haman’s malicious sentiments. Machiavelli had his misgivings about those perfidious French, a pathology manifested even in their Gaul days. So too, it seems, should policymakers dismiss the actions of present-day Iran as the next installment of genocidal anti-Semitism by a cabal of Persians. While I don’t know if Netanyahu has ever studied the Discorsi, he appears to have picked up one of its many lessons with his deference to national history.
But is historical experience binding in the play of politics? Consider another biblical anecdote and its more recent analog: The Egyptian pharaoh enslavement of the ancient Hebrews, an experience documented in the biblical Book of Exodus, and the Jews’ eventual emancipation from Egypt by divine miracle is celebrated during the upcoming holiday of Passover. Keeping with Netanyahu’s logic, it ought to follow that the Jewish people should avoid dealing with the descendants of the oppressive pharaoh; the shackled national history of Egypt can simply be extrapolated into a future of enmity. Yet in 1978, another Egyptian leader, President Anwar Sadat, signed onto the Camp David Accords—making Egypt the first Arab state to recognize the Jewish one. To be sure, it has been an imperfect peace between the two states in the years that followed, but such diplomacy is nonetheless a striking step in the right direction. Perhaps Obama should have exchanged a copy of the 1979 Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty for Netanyahu’s scroll.
So for Machiavelli, the past may be prologue. “Wise men often say, and not without good reason, that if you want to predict the future you should look at the past,” he writes in book three, chapter 43 in the Discorsi, “for everything that happens, no matter where or when, has its analogue in past history.” This is hard to dispute, but we cannot believe that the past is somehow determinant or inescapable. If we do, historical deference devolves into fatalist statecraft. France and Italy’s current partnership in the European Union is enough to temper these notions in Machiavelli’s case. Like Mordecai’s affront to Haman, we should refuse to bow down to history as some unbreakable tyranny over our hopes—even if, as in the case of Israel and its neighbors, there festers a narrative of vicious animosities on both sides. Blessed be the future, cursed be mirages of the inevitable.