TEDxBoston: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Machiavelli

Last month I gave a talk about my graphic novel, Machiavelli, and my reasons for writing about him. Thanks to everyone who attended TEDxBoston, who tweeted about it, and were otherwise supportive on your social media of choice. You guys are the best. I had a wonderful time, and the talk was the result of a couple of months of drafts, rehearsals, and helpful feedback from the excellent TEDxBoston curators.

So, without further ado, here’s the talk: (I’ve included my prepared remarks after the video. It’s mostly the same, but some parts vary where through the vagaries of speaking in the moment.)


What do you think about when you hear the name Machiavelli?

Do you think of the Borgias, Assassin’s Creed, or Tupac Shakur? Maybe more likely, you think about a figure of base cunning and malevolence. The ends justifying the means. That’s what it is isn’t it? The definition of the word. We call our most amoral politicians Machiavellian, especially if they are particularly plotting or cunning. But how has this notion endured the five hundred years since Machiavelli was alive? Where did it come from? Mostly from the line in the his landmark political treatise the Prince: “it is better to be feared than loved”. This is Machiavelli’s most infamous quote. Maybe the thing he’s best known for. Even if you don’t know who Machiavelli is, you’ve probably heard this line.

But when we hear that we’re not getting it in the full context of his work, we’re not even getting the quote in its own context. Because what he says there is if one cannot be both, that is, the ideal leader is feared and loved. In other words, he is respected. Machiavelli cautions time and time again, both in the Prince and the Discourses that the worst thing any ruler can be is hated. There is nothing more dangerous to a regime than the hatred of its people, because you will never be at peace. Enemies of any regime will always be looking for weaknesses to exploit, and a hated regime will have the most enemies.

And so I wanted to write about Machiavelli. I have just completed a graphic novel which I researched, wrote, drew, and published online, in which I hope to go beyond this caricature. Something about the injustice of it struck me, that this thinker had such a malign and undeserved reputation. I felt I needed to right a wrong that Machiavelli was not history’s greatest monster. That the idea we have in the popular culture of Machiavelli as a kind of devil was something I wanted to fix.

This image of him as exalting the despot is exactly backward; Machiavelli was actually a big fan of the republic. He preferred the republic to the principality because he believed the citizens of the republic in the aggregate were wiser than a prince, and made better decisions. He also believed that the republic was better at adapting to changing times than a prince, due to the diversity of opinions and backgrounds of the citizens that are in it, and was thus more stable in the long run.

In the academic setting, this view of Machiavelli is uncontroversial. But in popular depictions of Machiavelli, like The Borgias on TV, the old caricature persists. Machiavelli is portrayed as a paragon of his own adjective, always in the shadows, ready to whisper the some sort of dark advice into the ear of power. But Machiavelli was not particularly Machiavellian, actually. He wasn’t really great at advancing his own career or navigating the internal politics of Florence for his own benefit. But most importantly, he never stabbed anyone in the back.

He was loyal to his government. He worked as an envoy and a diplomat and advisor to Florence’s republican government (the government in the early 16th century) and he was loyal to that government to his own detriment. When the Republican government was overthrown by the Medici when they returned to power in a coup, he lost everything. He was picked up as an enemy of the state, tortured, and banished to the countryside where he wrote his political works because he could no longer work in government. But he never betrayed his state. He probably could have, when the Medici were marching on Florence and things were in the balance and at their most desperate, but he did not.

So I set out to make a comic book about it. I like drawing on paper, working in inks and watercolors. So I based the look of MACHIAVELLI (the comic) on the kind of artwork that got me fired up: the pen and ink works of 16th and 17th century artists. Except for the lettering, everything is done by hand (and in the future, I promise to do even the lettering by hand.) I wanted to make art that evoked his time, that was suited to the time and place of Machiavelli, but also was suited to me. I like working with paper, working with paints, inks, low tech. And so, I’ve been a bit of an outsider as well. My choices of materials and subject matter place me outside the mainstream in the age of Photoshopped comics. But I have chosen to distribute the work electronically, to publish on the web and publicize through Twitter and Facebook. So the more low tech my artwork becomes, the more I’ve relied on technological solutions for getting it in front of people. The more I look into ebook and tablet formats—it’s very exciting!—I think to myself “You know what’s going to look awesome on this? Hand drawn and lettered artwork”

My book begins when he enters public service and brings us to the point at which he begins to write the Prince. Although the dialogue is invented—although based whenever possible on actual period accounts—most of the captions are based on his writing. I draw extensively from his letters to his friends, his coworkers, and his family—and their replies to him—to illustrate the great relationships that they had together. They show Machiavelli as a decent man who did his best for his country and stood by his friends and his patrons. Machiavelli as a friend, colleague, husband, and father. *That* was the story I wanted to tell. That was the historical record I wanted to correct.

Machiavelli was more statesman than schemer, more philosopher than plotter. He was loyal, he didn’t backstab anyone. It is a great irony that Machiavelli’s great misfortune—his banishment—became a stroke of luck for world literature. Had Machiavelli been more Machiavellian in his own career, had he betrayed his government and gone over to the Medici early he might have kept his position in government and the Prince and the Discourses would likely never had been written. That historical irony drew me to Machiavelli’s story, not to mention that his rise and fall and eventual redemption in literature makes for a great narrative.

He never told us that cruelty and duplicity are virtues, or even the best means to our ends. He tells us not to be cruel, so that we are not hated. He tells us above all we should inspire a sense of greatness and goodness with our actions, and that working together we as a people are wiser and make better decisions than any monarch. Demand respect, do not be over-cautious: go and do what needs doing because fortune will favor you for it, even though it may not be in the way you anticipated.

Machiavelli is criticized for describing the harsh realities of ruler ship, but you will make better decisions if you see things as they are and not as you wish they were.

I commend myself to you. Be happy.

TEDx Boston

I am very excited to announce that I’ll be speaking at TEDx Boston next month. My presentation will be about how I’ve tried to address misconceptions about Machiavelli through my graphic novel. And how popular culture gets him wrong. So a TED talk about Machiavelli, graphic novels, and webcomics. What’s not to love? I really hope to see you there. TEDx Boston takes place Friday, June 22nd at the Boston World Trade Center and you can apply for tickets until May 23rd. The curators have assembled a great, inspirational group of speakers, and I have no doubt it’s going to be awesome. So get right on that!

2011: the Year in Review

I decided to take a moment in between Chapters 7 and 8 to look back on the things I’ve posted this year, it being the holidays and all. I’d kind of like Chapter 8 not to fall into the black hole of the holidays, so I’ll be starting it next week. Then again, maybe I should post, as no-one else will be posting anything and people will be starved for stuff to look at on their new iPads. Decisions! Anyway. Unsurprisingly, the cover to Machiavelli (the first page of the comic) is the most visited page overall (not counting the index page obviously). Keep Calm and Carry Machiavelli continues to be the most popular non-comics thing I’ve posted on the site (although it is technically from late 2010 and is thus disqualified.)

So here’s the top five from 2011:

1. Machiavelli and Anthony Weiner: Traffic to this post is largely search driven (as opposed to referrals or readers browsing the site) this was an attempt to apply some lessons from The Prince to a current political scandal.

2. Machiavelli is Not Interested in Overthrowing the Status Quo: One of my favorite posts from this year, as I was able to use detective work to set the record straight and debunk a fake Machiavelli quote. Real author: Newt Gingrich!

3. The Typography of Machiavelli: Some notes on the typefaces I use in Machiavelli (P22 Operina Pro and P22 Morris Golden).

4. Machiavelli and the Economy of Violence: The most recent post on the list, from November. It’s always gratifying when something that involved a bit of research is popular. Here I argue that Machiavelli did not view violence as an end unto itself, but as a necessary evil to be used sparingly and with deliberation.

5. Let’s Not Talk about Content or Its Consumption: I don’t like the worlds “content” or “consumption” w/r/t art. Here I explain why.

So stay tuned for Chapter 8. Things are about to get really rough.

Palazzo Medici

Go Home Paddy

I am working on a linked list of the websites of artists and writers who I fell are worthy of your consideration. Since it’s not quite done yet, I want to draw your attention to John A. Walsh’s excellent Go Home Paddy right now, because he is in the last week of a successful Kickstarter campaign, so time is a factor. (I know, how long does it take to make a list? But cut me some slack, OK?) I’ll let John describe his graphic novel:

Heartbreaking, thought provoking and ultimately uplifting, this unique narrative incorporates historical details such as the Great Hunger, the rise of the Know-Nothings, Victorian prejudices and the Great Boston Fire of 1872. GO HOME PADDY is also timely as it examines the role of immigration, race relations and religion in American society — hot political topics of today. GO HOME PADDY, a graphic novel of approximately 150 pages, is illustrated using the Victorian simian stereotype of the Irish.


John is a fantastic Boston artist doing great historical comics about the Boston Irish. You should read Go Home Paddy, then drop something in the collection plate if you can.

Machiavelli and the Economy of Violence

The New Inquiry has a fascinating dialogue on the role of the reactionary in conservatism, featuring Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, and Daniel Larison, writer and editor at the American Conservative. Corey Robin’s thesis is that a central goal of conservatism is “to defend power and privilege against movements demanding freedom and equality.” Larison objects, and the dialogue goes from there. The entire piece is worth reading. There are a lot of interesting points made about conservatism in a historical context, the relationship between conservatism and nationalism, and conservatism as a counterrevolutionary force. But what really caught my eye was this: Robin writes

I don’t think the right has by any means a monopoly on the discourse of violence; the left has its own long tradition of reflection on violence. But where the left’s discourse is primarily influenced by Machiavelli — that is, an awareness of what Sheldon Wolin calls “the economy of violence,” or the necessity of instrumentalizing violence, of making a very little go a long, long way — the right’s attitude is reflected in Burke’s moral psychology, particularly his theory of the sublime.

Here’s what Robin is referring to when he cites Wolin:

In evaluating Machiavelli’s economy of violence it is easy to criticize it as being the product of a technician’s admiration for efficient means. A century like ours, which has witnessed the unparalleled efficiency displayed by totalitarian regimes in the use of terror and coercion, experiences difficulty in being tolerant on the subject. Yet to see Machiavelli as the philosopher of Himmlerism would be quite misleading; and the basic reason is not alone that Machiavelli regarded the science of violence as the means for reducing the amount of suffering in the political condition, but that he was clearly aware of the dangers of entrusting its use to the morally obtuse. What he hoped to further by his economy of violence was the “pure” use of power, undefiled by pride, ambition, or motives of petty revenge.

A more meaningful contrast to Machiavelli would be the great modern theoretician of violence, Georges Sorel. Here is a true example of the irresponsible political individual, fired by romantic notions of heroism, preaching the use of violence for ends which are deliberately and proudly clothed in the vague outline of the irrational “myth,” contemptuous of the cost, blinded by a vision of virile proletarian barbarians who would revitalize the decadent West. In contrast, there was no hint of child-like delight when Machiavelli contemplated the barbarous and savage destructiveness of the new prince, sweeping away the settled arrangements of society and “leaving nothing intact.” There was, however, the laconic remark that it was better to be a private citizen than to embark on a career which involved the ruin of men. This suggest that the theorist like Machiavelli, who was aware of the limited efficacy of force and who devoted himself to showing how its technique could be used more efficiently, was far more sensitive to the moral dilemmas of politics and far more committed to the preservation of man than those theorists who, saturated with moral indignation and eager for heroic regeneration, preach purification by the holy flame of violence.

—Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, Princeton, 1960

Robin continues:

I think that the primary audience for violence on the right is the perpetrator and/or his/her allies. In other words, the right sees violence as primarily a source of rejuvenation among a ruling class that has gone soft. That’s what is so interesting to me, in part because it completely inverts the standard stereotype we have of the conservative being more hard-headed and realistic than the progressive. If anything — and I really assign no normative weight to this; it’s more interesting to me as an intellectual problem — it is the left, as I’ve suggested, that has been more influenced by realist modes of thinking when it comes to violence.

I think it is very important to stress that Machiavelli did not see virtue in violence or in subterfuge, as is commonly believed today (e.g. “Machiavellian”). I especially like using Sorel as a counterpoint to Machiavelli, the differences between the one who sees violence as a necessary evil to preserve the stability and viability of the state and one who views violence as an invigorating instance of the heroic ideal in society, in which the exercise of violence is an end unto itself: a way to get society’s blood flowing again, literally and figuratively.

My Punch Clock Time Card

So. I made this. I find that if I don’t keep track of where my time is going, I tend to find myself wondering at 11:30pm where the evening went. I used to just keep track on a sheet of notebook paper, but I figured I could have some fun with it. I based it on some vintage punch clock time cards I found on the internet, with my own modifications.


“Motivation follows action” is my own little motto, which I may have picked up somewhere else and appropriated, so I make no claims of ownership. The “You are your own timekeeper” admonition is from the original punch card I based my design on and it’s just too awesome not to use.

Basically, I print them out and note the time I start working and when I am taking breaks. I don’t really have a specific goal of how much time I need to work in a day; it’s a system for mindfulness of how I’m spending my my time, not for accountability. If I write down the time before going off to check e-mail, Twitter, or RSS, I’m much more likely to get back to drawing (or researching, or working on the site) in a timely fashion. If I’m not paying attention, my “15 minute” Internet break just turns into an hour or more before I’m aware of it.

I know there are applications and services which do the same thing, but I’m a pencil and paper kind of person. We all have our eccentricities.

note: the “morning afternoon night” headers are elements carried over from the original. Since I do all my artwork at night, it’s really just a way of splitting time between breaks. But the time of day has a nice feel to it and reinforces the punch card idiom, so I kept it.