On Machiavelli, on the house

One would think Silvio Berlusconi had read Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince. Having risen to power through sheer financial might and the application of political muscle, Mr. Berlusconi should never have expected to be loved. But the Italian Premier is as much a creation as the creator of his television empire: he mistakes his power for popularity, or at least he thinks that one should translate to the other.

Why do they hate me so much?
Berlusconi asked his father confessor, after learning that his attacker, Massimo Tartaglia, had gained an enthusiastic following on Facebook and around the social web. Could it simply be that this prince of the television world really doesn’t understand the way the Internet now works, how its communities form, the fascinations that take hold and bring people together — in a moment, for a moment?

Or was it a Machiavellian ruse to garner sympathy? An old prince suffers a beating at the hands of a crazy man then confides to his father confessor with dismay that he just doesn’t understand what he did to deserve this, doesn’t understand what those young people have against him, knowing full well that the father confessor will make this confession public. “They” become the heartless enemy, without pity for the battered prince, or reverence for old age; “they” become the source of everybody’s grief.

It seems to have worked. Judging, at least, from the editorial pages, public opinion in Italy has shifted back in Mr. Berlusconi’s favor. And now another Facebook community has formed, denouncing Mr. Tartaglia’s gratuitous act of violence and shaming his supporters. Maybe Silvio Berlusconi will get a little love after all.

Be that as it may, the whole incident, which has already faded from the news, led me back to chapter 17 of The Prince, where Machiavelli argues that it is better for a prince to be more feared, than loved. “For love is held by a chain of obligation which, men being selfish, is broken whenever it serves their purpose; but fear is maintained by a dread of punishment, which never fails.” The trouble, however, is that in making oneself feared, one risks incurring the hatred of others.

The prince will avoid hatred if he “abstains from interfering with the property of his citizens and subjects or with their women,” Machiavelli writes. Roba and donne — the stuff and women of others — are untouchable; touching them, taking them, is a violation Machiavelli tellingly calls rapina — rapine.

As I read it, this is all about respecting the integrity and even the sanctity of the house, where both women and property are kept. (And forget your twenty-first century prejudices long enough to remember that in early modern Italy, women belonged to the house, even when they ventured forth from it.) The prince may more readily take someone’s life “when there is proper justification and manifest reason for it” than violate the house:

Above all [the prince] must abstain from taking the property of others, for men forget more easily the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony. Then also pretexts for seizing property are never wanting; and one who lives by rapine will always find some reason for taking the goods of others.

You can probably follow J.G.A. Pocock’s lead from this passage to later thinking about property and liberty from the depredations of princes. Whether any of this helps to answer the question Mr. Berlusconi put to his priest I’ll leave for others, with more knowledge of the Italian scene, to decide. A quick Google search for Berlusconi and rapina — which I hoped might shed some light on the issue — yields only a story about a bank robbery in Torino last February where one of the robbers wore a Berlusconi mask. The other was disguised as Mr. Berlusconi’s senior advisor, Marcello dell’Utri.

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