Blood, Iron, & Fortune: Otto von Bismarck & the Role of Chance in Statesmanship

Introduction

History is, by its very nature, contingent; that contingency has gone by many names over the eons: luck, chance, fate, or – if one is inclined to see the workings of the divine in history – Providence. The famed Renaissance political philosopher and theorist Niccolò Machiavelli, in his masterwork The Prince, called this element of randomness Fortune and saw it as a major factor in the passage of history and the practice of statesmanship. He did not, however, see Fortune as the only factor in human affairs, instead writing that “I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.”[1] What is more important than luck is how the statesman deals with that element of chance – fortune or misfortune – and his ability to succeed in achieving his goals regardless of the quirks of fate. That, for Machiavelli, meant that a key job of the statesman was to “direct his actions according to the spirit of the times” so as to tame the whims of Fortune and use them to his own advantage.[2] To bring this idea down from the lofty heights of political philosophy to the everyday practice of government, Machiavelli analogized Fortune to a flowing river, saying:

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.[3]

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Historical Presentation, Two Ways

If you have the chance to travel to Charlottesville, Virginia and are interested in history, the area is fantastic for exploring the landscapes of the early American republic. Two estates of former Presidents – and good friends – are within only a few minutes’ drive of one another: James Monroe’s Highland and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The differences in how each estate is presented to visitors are a microcosm of contemporary society and tell us quite a bit about where things may be going culturally.

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How to Lie with Maps

Lying with statistics is a common practice; when it comes to Israel, lying with maps is just as common.

The map presented above was published by Al Jazeera this week and purports to show that “From 1947 to 1950, during the Nakba or ‘catastrophe’, Zionist military forces expelled at least 750,000 Palestinians and captured 78% of historic Palestine.” The map is not new, and is consistently used by anti-Israel publications, media outlets, and pundits to “explain” how the Palestinians have been historically oppressed by the foundation and continued existence of the state of Israel. The big problem? Almost none of what the graphic depicts is true, a good deal of it is deliberately misleading, and it leaves out crucial context that undermines the point it is trying to make. Here’s an object lesson in not taking everything you see online at face value.

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Compared to What?

A plea for context.

In our modern Western society, a disturbing trend has become incredibly prominent in the media, education, and common discourse: the complete decontextualization of historic and current events so as to present the West as uniquely evil or especially horrible. One often sees this coming from people – usually on the political left – who use it as a cudgel to demean modern Western societies as part of a project of radical change to those very societies. This seems to be more present in the Anglosphere than in other developed societies. Much of the radical activism we’ve seen over the past year or two has emanated from the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia, where statues have been toppled, history decried as uniquely genocidal, and modern societies seen as evil and immoral simply for existing in previously-colonized lands. Don’t get me wrong, all nations have blemishes and blights on their histories and each and every country has injustices in the modern day; still, these cannot be understood in a vacuum or without context.

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‘Petty Despots’: The Condottieri Tyrants of Quattrocento Italy

Introduction

* The images from the Appendix referenced herein are instead spread throughout the text of this essay for easier reading. Enjoy!

When the term ‘Italian Renaissance’ is used, most people think of figures like da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Petrarch; this association with a flourishing of the arts and Western culture is understandable, yet it misses much of the complexity and dynamism inherent in the period, especially during the fifteenth century. That period – known historically as the Quattrocento – was a time of rapid change, political tumult, and dynastic struggle throughout the Italian Peninsula. These geopolitical evolutions were just as radical and revolutionary as were those occurring in the cultural world at the time; in fact, without the political developments of the Quattrocento, many of the cultural aspects of the Renaissance may never have gotten off of the ground. To gain a better understanding of these changes and their impact on society, one must understand the very different political situation in Italy prior to the Renaissance.

Italian history for the few centuries before the Quattrocento was largely dominated by two powerful forces: the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire of the Hohenstaufens. These factions were mutually reliant on one another for legitimacy as well as rivals for the overlordship of the Italian Peninsula. This conflict defined the late Medieval period in Italy, culminating with the Guelf-Ghibelline wars and vendettas in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This all changed in the fourteenth century, however, as the Papacy relocated to Avignon, spiraled into a destructive schism, and lost much of the temporal power formerly emanating from its traditional seat in Rome. With respect to the Holy Roman Empire, a previously dominant power in Italy, the historian Jacob Burckhardt states that “The Emperors of the fourteenth century, even in the most favourable case, were no longer received and respected as feudal lords, but as possible leaders and supporters of powers already in existence.”[1] Upon the return of the Popes to Italy in 1376 and the resolution of the Great Western Schism with the election of Pope Martin V in 1417, the Papacy once again sought to retake its temporal role in Italian politics. However, the Italian world into which this newly invigorated Papacy was returning to assert its traditional role was not at all the same one which it had left in the early fourteenth century. During the period of the ‘Babylonian Captivity’ of the Church, the political situation in Italy had devolved away from a more unified, hierarchical, feudal-type system into a patchwork of independent city-states, statelets, and kingdoms which often were involved in intractable conflicts with one another. The power vacuum created by the flight of the Popes to France and the aloofness of the Holy Roman Empire allowed for the flourishing of local civic identity, the creation of territorial rivalries, and the internecine Italian conflict which came along with them.

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