Last evening I made what I considered to be a rather witty, pithy comment on social media, which I will not repeat here, and which caused some distress on the left and misinterpretation on the right. Unfortunately trying to explain the subtleties of language to an audience which did not grasp it was ultimately futile, yet in the end the fault was mine. For when you have an audience in the first place, it is paradoxically not a position of leadership, but rather one of servitude which you occupy.
While I cannot claim to be any great wordsmith, I will admit that I do have a general facility for language, which has not only served me well professionally and personally, but which also draws me to others who have a similar affection for the joy of language. That being said, it is important to realize that words are meant to be tools, not means of tawdry manipulation. Even if you are the one doing the writing or the speaking, as a pundit, or politician, or academic, your audience deserves better than platitudes and pandering, and has the right to your respect.
Unfortunately we are all too well-aware at present of how easy it is to be anointed a lord of public opinion, whether one deserves the title or not. And here we have yet another opportunity to look into some of the ideas of Castiglione, the patron of this blog, rather than the self-centered and grasping Machiavelli, who seems to have the upper hand these days, with regard to how the public is treated. Machiavelli may have argued in his “Discourses” that public discussion was a better way of achieving results than relying on the wisdom of princes, but in “The Prince”, he was always more than happy to look down on an audience as being little more than ignorant sheep, to be used for his own personal gain.
In advising how a leader ought to address the public, Machiavelli counseled that he ought to appear “merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.” If he does this, Machiavelli argued, “he will be praised by everybody, because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the world there are only the vulgar, for the few find a place there only when the many have no ground to rest on.” No doubt we can all think of contemporary social, political, and opinion leaders to whom this description might be very readily applied.
In complete contrast, Castiglione recognizes that it is in one’s own genuine good behavior toward himself and toward others that the leader gains esteem. He despises the kind of unctuous, all-things-to-all-people behavior advocated by Machiavelli, and rather neatly points to how such behavior ultimately leads to things like moral relativism. ”And they cite a certain authority out of their own head, which says ‘si non caste, tamen caute’ [if not chastely, then at least cautiously], and with this they think to cure every great evil, and with good arguments to persuade anyone who is not wary that all sin, however grave it might be, is easily pardoned of God, provided it remain secret and does not give rise to bad example.”
Castiglione criticizes professional sophists (such as Machiavelli) who “from over-loquacity sometimes go beyond bounds and become silly and pointless, because they do not consider the kind of person with whom they are speaking, the place where they are, the occasion, or the soberness and modesty which they ought above all things to maintain.” Rather than follow their example, Castiglione counsels that a leader not only concern himself with big issues that tend to attract the most attention, but to have the personal humility and sense of service to realize that he ought to be more concerned with helping others than himself:
I would have him take care to heed not only the matters already mentioned, but those which are much smaller, and as far as possible to understand all details affecting his people, nor ever so believe or trust any one of his ministers as to confide to that one alone the bridle and control of his government. For there is no man who is very apt for all things, and much greater harm arises from the credulity of lords than from their incredulity…
Of course, probably very few of us are going to end up serving in high positions of public office, heading major corporations, or as weekly columnists/commentators in major media outlets. Yet all of us will find ourselves in situations where others are looking to us for our opinions and guidance. We need to respect those who are seeking our views, enough to realize what a privilege and a responsibility it is to be sought out in this way.
As Castiglione clearly understood, it is not through the cheap manipulation of human emotions that we build a better society or prove our worth as individuals. Rather it is in the way which we use such opportunities to encourage others to be and to do better, for the sake of what is good and right, rather than encouraging our audiences to act purely out of selfishness. Would that more of us would take this advice to heart, on a regular basis, in the choices that we make, in what we write and say, and in how we interact with those who need our assistance.
Detail of “The Speech of Alfonso d’Avalos” by Titian (c. 1540)
The Prado, Madrid