November 04, 2006


Goat Rope is pleased to feature another contribution on ancient Greek culture and tragedy by alpine goat Cornelius Agrippa.

Cornelius is Dean of Classical and Alchemistical Studies at Goat Rope Farm. His previous weekend commentaries can be found in the Goat Rope archives.

It is our fondest hope that features such as this will promote greater appreciation of both the humanities and the animalities and elevate the current level of cultural discourse.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the talking animals are not necessarily those of the Goat Rope staff and management. But they might be.


OK so like if you come from a really messed up family, you should check out Greek tragedy and then you'll feel a lot better.

Unless your family is like really jacked and you eat relatives, sacrifice your kids and kill and/or marry your parents. Then it will seem pretty normal.

Take the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus. It's the only trilogy of Greek tragedy that survives because the people who came after the Greeks were too stupid to save them.

It's about the family of Atreus, who was a mega-jerk. One time he killed his brother's kids and fed them to him without the guy knowing it. Only one survived. His name was Aegisthus. Remember him.

Anyway so like Agamemnon is Atreus' son and he becomes king of the Mycenaeans and leader of the Greek expedition to Troy. Only he ticks off the goddess Artemis by being a jerk.

Like father, like son.

So then he sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to chill out Artemis and get good winds to Troy. When his wife, Clytemnestra, finds out, she is ticked. She out to be on the all-time List of Women Not to Tick Off.

So while Agamemnon is busy being a jerk in Troy, she takes up with Aegisthus and when El Jerko gets back, she kills him in a bath tub, which probably made the whole clean-up thing easier.

Then her son Orestes has to kill her because the gods demand it. Only it is heavy hoodoo to kill your mom. My mom Venus would kick my butt if I even looked at her funny and she doesn't have horns.

So then Orestes is haunted by the Furies, who are these scary underworld goddesses who punish blood guilt. Orestes is kind of punked by fate because the gods told him to avenge his father and then these goddesses are out to avenge his mother because he did.

You'll have that sometimes.

So finally the gods Apollo and Athena set up at trial by jury in Athens for Orestes. He gets cleared by a margin of one vote after they make a deal with the Furies to chill them out.

And that's like how the rule of law and trial by jury came about and put an end to blood vengeance.

It probably would have been better if Atreus' old man had a vasectomy but that would have ruined the whole tragedy. Plus I don't think they did that very well back then.

There. Your family doesn't look so bad now, does it?


November 03, 2006


Caption: The wise prince must have the support of the people. Or the chickens.

This is the final post in a lighthearted series on reading Machiavelli's The Prince for fun and profit.

If this is your first visit, please scroll down to the earlier entries.

To recap briefly, Machiavelli, though best known for The Prince, was a lifelong supporter of republican government. This book, aimed at the hardball Italian politics of the Renaissance, represents his thinking about how to make the best of a bad situation until conditions for republican government were more favorable.

While the book contains some ideas which are a little over the top (or below the bottom), it still offers food for thought about politics, strategy, and public life.

To conclude, no discussion of The Prince would be complete without a little more on two pairs of key ideas: lion/fox and virtu/Fortuna.

First, the critters. In general, people can accomplish things in the public sphere in the face of opposition through either power, strategy, or ideally, some combination of the two.

The problem with relying on power alone is that it can lead to arrogance, self-destruction, weakness in the face of crafty opponents, laziness, and/or a huge waste of energy, life and resources.

Relying on strategy alone can be problematic since it takes a degree of power to implement it (although anyone who has seen aikido or judo in action will know that a little power with a good strategy can do quite well against a big power without strategy).

Old Nick referred to the two as the lion and the fox, respectively:

It is therefore necessary for a prince to know well how to use both the beast and the man....A prince being thus obligated to know how to act as a beast must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves. Those who wish only to be lions do not understand this.

But the key to Machiavelli's idea of strategy is found in the previously mentioned dyad of virtu and Fortuna. First, virtu has nothing to do with virtue as we use the word today and everything to do with power and self assertion. Think of it as voluntary activities designed to achieve a goal, i.e. things over which we have control.

Fortuna is associated with the goddess Fortune in classical and medieval beliefs, which symbolizes things beyond our control. For some, such as Dante (Inferno, VII), Fortuna was a goddess bestowing goods and evils which people could only accept.

Machiavelli is more optimistic than Dante, believing that while we cannot completely control fortune, we anticipate, prepare for, and adapt to it. And that's the key to political success:

...I think it may be true that fortune is the ruler of half our actions, but that she allows the other half or thereabouts to be governed by us. I would compare her to an impetuous river that, when turbulent, inundates the plains, casts down trees and buildings, removes earth from this side and places it on the other; everyone flees before it, and everything yields to its fury without being able to oppose it; and yet though it is of such a kind, still when it is quiet, men can make provisions against it by dykes and banks, so that when it rises it will either go into a canal or its rush will not be so wild and dangerous. So it is with fortune, which shows her power where no measures have been taken to resist her, and directs her fury where she knows that no dykes or barriers have been made to hold her.

The key to success, in Machiavelli's day as in our own, is the matching of virtu to Fortuna, which above all means adapting to the needs and opportunities of the moment:

...the prince who bases himself entirely on fortune is ruined when fortune changes. I also believe that he is happy whose mode of procedure accords with the needs of the times, and similarly he is unfortunate whose mode of procedure is opposed to the times....

I therefore conclude then that fortune varying and men remaining fixed in their ways, they are successful so long as these ways conform to circumstances, but when they are opposed then they are unsuccessful.

Whatever we think about the rest of The Prince, observations like those are pretty compelling and are as true today as they ever were, which makes Old Nick a good friend to have, bad reputation and all.


November 02, 2006


Caption: Sometimes the prince must stand alone.

This is the fourth post in a series on reading Machiavelli's The Prince for fun and profit. If this is your first visit, please scroll down to the previous entries.

The Gentle Reader may already have noticed this, but working to bring about social change is no picnic. Sometimes it's easier to defend the gains of the past than to achieve something completely new.

To use current examples, it is probably easier to defend Social Security against privatization than it would be to establish it to start with or, say, to achieve universal health care in the United States.

In the former case, the struggle was about something people knew about and had a stake in defending, whereas the latter would involve resistance from powerful players and fear and uncertainty on the part of many.

Similarly, it's probably easier to raise the minimum wage once it is established than to establish it to start with.

What would Old Nick have to say about that? Well...

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have actual experience of it. Thus it arises that on every opportunity for attacking the reformer, his opponents do so with the zeal of partisans, the others only defend him half-heartedly, so that between them he runs great danger.

It's hard to argue with that. But what to do about it? Well, he'd say it was all about power:

it comes about that all armed prophets have conquered and unarmed ones failed; for besides what has been already said, the character of peoples varies, and it is easy to persuade them of a thing, but difficult to keep them in that persuasion. And so it is necessary to order things so that when they no longer believe, they can be made to believe by force.

OK, so that was a little over the top and nice people like us would never get away with that and wouldn't even think about trying it.

But here's the take home message: in trying to bring about change, having a good idea usually isn't enough. Neither is having all the research, especially when one is opposed by powerful interests.

Ultimately it requires building a base of power to push for the change. You can call that organizing or educating the public or base-building. Old Nick would call that virtu.

Sometimes that's enough to bring about change. More often, success comes by a combination of organizing (virtu) and taking advantage of anticipated or unanticipated opportunities as they may emerge. And our boy would call that Fortuna.

Sorry folks, but that's the way it's done.

Next time, lions and foxes, virtu and Fortuna.


November 01, 2006


Caption: There are certain advantages to being the prince (such as BIG hens).

This is the third post in a lighthearted series on reading Machiavelli's The Prince for fun and profit.

If this is your first visit, please scroll down to the earlier entries.

As mentioned earlier, Machiavelli believed in, wrote about, and suffered for republican government, liberty, and lots of good stuff. He wrote about these things mostly in his Discourses on Livy. But he believed in playing with the cards we are dealt.

The Prince, written in 1513, was dedicated to Lorenzo di Medici (not THE Lorenzo), current leader of Florence. It can be seen as part of a fairly common genre of advice to rulers, as a job application, and/or as a critique of Medici rule.

As mentioned earlier, it can be seen as Machiavelli's immediate program of restoring a measure of order and expelling foreigners, which he believed had to be done before a decent republic could be restored.

Most of the advice in The Prince is directed not to hereditary monarchs. He believed the main thing these needed to do was not screw up. Instead, his advice is directed mostly to those who acquired their position through energetic action (virtu), lucky circumstances (Fortuna), or a combination.

Most people who know The Prince at all know its naughty, wicked parts, which seem to imply that the end justifies the means. To be sure, there are parts where he discusses things like the desirability of being both loved and feared; the ability to seem good but to do otherwise when the situation requires; and the skillful and unskillful use of cruelty.

And, for the record, El Cabrero is opposed to all wickedness and naughtiness. But there are plenty of things in the book that are interesting to think about for anyone interested in history, public life, and strategy.

For starters, we can learn from his approach to history itself.

Old Nick was both a practiced politician under the earlier republic and a major and unprejudiced student of history. He scoured contemporary and ancient sources for useful lessons. While he did not believe that history repeated itself or followed any kind of laws, nevertheless he believed people interested in public life could learn a great deal from the successes, mistakes, and disasters of the past.

Every situation is unique and successful outcomes are likely to arise from skillfully adapting to and seizing the opportunities of the present. One of the main conclusions he draws from his study of history is that similar actions in different conditions produce different outcomes.

As he wrote in the introduction to The Prince,

I have been unable to find among my possessions anything which I hold so dear or esteem so highly as that knowledge of the deeds of great men which I have acquired through a long experience of modern events and a constant study of the past.

For what it's worth, while El Cabrero is no prince, he has found a study of history to be very valuable in his day job of working for economic justice. That would include not only the history of social movements but of continents, countries, campaigns, and cultures.

Next time: the perils of reform.


October 31, 2006


Caption: The prince must stand tall.

This is the second post in a series about reading Machiavelli's The Prince for fun and profit. If this is your first visit, please scroll down to the first entry.

After old Nick got in trouble with the Medici's Florentine Home Office, he retired to a family farm in nearby San Casciano. The day involved all kinds of rural chores, but nights were reserved for study and reflection.

He once wrote to a friend that

When evening comes I return to the house and go into my study. Before I enter I take off my rough mud-stained country dress. I put on my royal and curial robes and thus fittingly attired I enter into the assembly of men of old times. Welcomed by them I feed upon that food which is my true nourishment, and which has made me what I am. I dare to talk with them, and ask them the reason for their actions. Of their kindness they answer me. I no longer fear poverty or death.

During those evenings, he apparently worked on two books at once.

(Note: he must not have had many goats or he wouldn't have peace to write. Without goats, El Cabrero would be a much better writer.)

The Discourses on Livy contain the core of his republican political philosophy. The Prince, by contrast, is a short work that addressed the immediate situation in Florence and Italy and offered concrete suggestions.

If all you knew about Old Nick was either of those books, you'd be very surprised to find he wrote the other one. How do you account for the difference?

Our guy believed in dealing with the world they way he found it, not the way he wanted it to be.

His long term goal was to establish a just, lasting and free republican government. But the Italy he lived in was characterized by warring states, unrest, intrigue and foreign domination.

Without a measure of order and stability, it would be impossible to survive, let alone create a republic. You can think of The Prince as the emergency program.

The nice folks at Wikipedia suggest that this quote provides the common thread to both books:

All cities that ever at any time have been ruled by an absolute prince, by aristocrats or by the people, have had for their protection force combined with prudence, because the latter is not enough alone, and the first either does not produce things, or when they are produced, does not maintain them. Force and prudence, then, are the might of all the governments that ever have been or will be in the world.

Note: while Old Nick was no pacifist, force primarily means strenght rather than violence.

Next time: the "good" and "bad" parts.


October 30, 2006


Caption: The Renaissance prince, represented here by bantam rooster Denny Dimwit, needed wise counsel to stay in power.

"Am I subtle? Am I a Machiavell?"--Shakespeare, Merry Wives of Windsor

Recently, El Cabrero has resumed an acquaintance with an old friend.

The friend in question, however, isn't a person but a little book by someone with the world's all time bad reputation.

I'm referring to The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli.

Talk about a PR problem--both this guy's names became words. The Machiavellian connotation of the last name is obvious, but it may be due to him that one of the devil's nicknames is Old Nick.

Not fair!

OK, so The Prince is no substitute for the scout manual nor is it a universal guide to human conduct (although people have done and are doing worse). But it's still a fun book that will provide lots of food for thought.

And Machiavelli was no monster, either. Most people would be surprised to learn that my Florentine friend who lived between 1469 and 1527 was a lifelong and ardent supporter of republican government.

His support for and service to the republic of Florence were rewarded with arrest and torture when the Medicis regained power there in 1512.

He wrote quite a bit about the advantages of liberty and relative social equality (although you will find more of that in the Discourses on Livy than The Prince).He even indirectly influenced the thinking of the American founding fathers.

No less an egalitarian than Jean Jacques Rousseau said of him that "under the pretence of instructing kings, he has taught important lessons to the people."

Even when he wrote advice for princes, he disparaged the nobility and extolled the virtues of the common people. He noted in the Prince that

the aim of the people is more honest than that of the nobility, the latter desiring to oppress; and the former merely to avoid oppression.

Next time: down on the farm with Old Nick.