“I must commend you on your masterful victory over your opponents. But some of my lessons you’ve failed to learn.” So wrote Liam Frölund, a freshman at Berkeley, using Machiavelli’s voice and texts, in a masterly fulfillment of his class assignment, published last week in Salon Magazine.
I’ve been teaching History 5, “Western Civilization Since the Renaissance” at UC Berkeley since 1989 (although I’ve recently had to add the trigger warning of “Civilization and Barbarism,”) as I lead the students from Columbus and Machiavelli to the Reformations, absolutism, industrialization, the French Revolution, and beyond, always ending up far short of the present. This year, having assigned The Prince (1513), I offered the students the option to write a memo in Machiavelli’s voice to Donald Trump, a questionably legitimate president already then a present danger to democracy in America as most of us have known it. I don’t teach my students about Trump, nor tell them what to think. But I teach them to think about Trump in the context of a long history of governance and republicanism. No precursive claims here, about tyranny, absolutism, fascism, or totalitarianism (although along the way we learn of the these historical events and categories), but rather something that the French historian and theorist François Hartog called “regimes of historicity.” Students, and all of us, can learn from the past by relating the structures and filters of knowledge about the political worlds in the past and in the present.
Liam Frölund, a 19-year old second-semester freshman here at Berkeley to study economics and history, grew up in Turlock, California, of Swedish descent, the son of schoolteachers. How appropriate that this talented young writer, who admires John Steinbeck and Adlai Stevenson II, who writes for the Berkeley Political Review, and who hopes to pursue a career in the academy or civil service, should have produced this remarkable response to my prompt: “What Would Machiavelli Advise Trump?”
My lectures carefully elided Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy (1517), as I wanted the students to discover the “real” (or at least a different) Machiavelli behind the supposed evil work of genius (“the guy who wrote the book on power moves” is Salon’s headline). Rather, we read The Prince carefully and creatively, and we flipped again the Renaissance “mirror of princes” literature in an effort to see a different Machiavelli, to read The Politics in a way that was critical of tyranny, cruelty and hypocrisy, even if those methods proved expedient, sometimes tragically necessary. For, we concluded, the greater good that Machiavelli was to develop a half millennium ago (to the year) in the Discourses was a model of good governance, where the Prince assured the well-being and prosperity of his subjects, and honored and respected their institutions of law and authority, and whose subjects in turn offered him obedience, but conditional on their peace and prosperity.
Liam absolutely nailed it, and then some: He went on to read the Discourses to tell the whole story. There are some truly pitch-perfect moments in his piece, and wisdom that is 500 years old, but mostly there is evidence of the greatness of Berkeley students, and proof that as faculty, what we must do in the midst of this deep political crisis, is what we always do as teachers of the liberal arts in a public research university: help our students to use their knowledge of the world to figure things out.