History’s bad physicians

While I was a tourist, a state of being that is already a dimming memory, I started to read Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, a book that alternates between charming anecdotes of condottiere-on-condottiere violence, enjoyable in and of themselves, and a presumption that the reader already knows the major episodes of fifteenth-century European history and is merely reading so as to remind himself of them, which is alas not necessarily the case.

Sometimes, though, the reader lucks out, and Burckhardt presents an idea as a commonplace but explains it anyway, as if only for the pleasure of the excursus. Such is the case with this piece of political philosophy, which might have come in useful in the formulation of America’s Iraq policy, or might yet in its Iran policy:

But to return to the despots of the Renaissance. A pure and simple mind, we might think, would perhaps have argued that, since all power is derived from God, these princes, if they were loyally and honestly supported by all their subjects, must in time themselves improve and lose all traces of their violent origin. But from characters and imaginations inflamed by passion and ambition, reasoning of this kind could not be expected. Like bad physicians, they thought to cure the disease by removing the symptoms, and fancied that if the tyrant were put to death, freedom would follow of itself. Or else, without reflecting even to this extent, they sought only to give a vent to the universal hatred, or to take vengeance for some family misfortune of personal affront.

One thought on “History’s bad physicians”

  1. Caleb, can't find an email on the site.

    Just wanted to say this: I thought your Norman Mailer essay was perfect when I first read it, and discovered just now that it's still perfect.

    Drop me a line if you feel like it.

Comments are closed.