Social Networking, 16th Century Style

On the 4th of July, during an evening spent in convivial company, I was fortunate enough to take part in an interesting conversation with a few friends regarding social networking in our present age, via sites such as Facebook and Twitter, while discussing what earlier writers might have thought of them. The subject arose in a conversation about the purpose of this blog which, as regular readers know, was inspired by “The Book of the Courtier” by Baldassare Castiglione. This led to a comparison between Castiglione’s views and those of his contemporary, Niccolò Machiavelli, who these days is probably far better known, if the average man can even recall one Renaissance thinker. If you have ever engaged in a discussion on “realpolitik” in a political theory course, you have probably read Machiavelli.

Arguably, Machiavelli is a man more in tune with the (often regrettable) zeitgeist of this age than is Castiglione, at least with respect to social networking. It seems to me that while Machiavelli would be that fellow on Facebook with over two thousand “friends”, and hundreds of followers on Twitter, Castiglione would more likely have a select group of Facebook friends and not use Twitter every ten minutes. This is idle speculation, admittedly, but speculation based largely upon the two men’s respective attitudes toward the role of man in society.

Machiavelli, as is well known, thought that deception and flattery would get you everywhere; he openly advocates, in “The Prince”, that he who would rise, must be a deceiver. While he admits to many of the qualities of nobility advocated by Castiglione, Machiavelli’s purpose is, to my mind, that of a social-climber and rather tasteless, if not to stay reprehensible:

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; 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.

Ultimately, Machiavelli thought that by manipulation of social contacts, one could achieve improved government – and no doubt increased power for one’s self.

Compare this to Castiglione, whose Courtier is “never thrusting himself before others to reach the first and most honored places.” For Castiglione, as he himself writes in the Introduction to “The Book of the Courtier”, was also aware of his own limitations: “I am not so lacking in judgment and self-knowledge as to presume to know all I could wish to know.” Castiglione’s courtier knows who he is, is confident in what he does well, strives to be better in areas where he is not as knowledgeable or accomplished, and gathers around himself people who will help him to become better. This is not only good common sense, but also reflects a far less jaundiced and positive view of society in 16th century Urbino, than did the scribblings of his grasping contemporary down the road in Florence.

Many things have changed since the Renaissance, but the desire to have friends and influence has not. The means have changed, and Machiavelli famously held that the ends justify the means. Again, there is no way to know for certain, but I believe that Castiglione would reject the internet phenomenon of social networking as a tool for proving one’s popularity to oneself and others, in favor instead of using these sites as a way to keep in touch with distant friends, and to cultivate new ones with shared interests – not for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. After all, Ashton Kutcher may have the most followers on Twitter, but does that mean that he has any real socio-cultural relevance?

“Portrait of Count Baldassare Castiglione” by Titian
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
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