By Katherine Dillion
As a professor of literature, I sometimes find myself wanting to emulate the life or writings of a few authors, but one author never makes the list—Niccolo Machiavelli. On my medical chart he is definitely on the DNE—”Do Not Emulate” order. And yet, in my long semi-quarantine in the spring of 2020, something on a daily walk nudged me to take another look at the epistolary aspect of Machiavelli’s life, and I realized there was something to consider, even from one whose political views are 180 degrees different from my own. The following five lessons, I extrapolated from a translation of a short letter written by Machiavelli, in exile, to Francesco Vittori, may hold some wisdom for me after all.
Lesson 1 Write a physical letter and send it by the postal service.
Dated 10 December, 1513, Machiavelli’s letter exists today as physical evidence of what he did with his days in exile after what he called his “bad luck” of falling out of political favor and having to retreat to a small farm outside of Florence, Italy. Though just a private letter to a friend, his correspondence becomes historical evidence of how he spent his days. Upon rereading the letter after my walk, I woke up the next day and wrote to my son in California, sending the handwritten pages on lovely stationery—something I had not done in a long time. I felt a bit guilty knowing I had all those learning management system modules to create, online assignments to grade, and webinars to prepare for. But as my hand carefully formed the letters, it tapped into a well of emotion as I remembered the days in childhood in which writing letters was a kind of artform, and receiving them was even better. Maybe my letter won’t last 500 years and be studied by future historians, but the joy in writing it and putting a stamp on the envelope drew on something more deeply satisfying than digital texting. It served as a quiet rebellion against all that disappears so quickly with the stroke of a keyboard.
Lesson 2 Spend some time reading outside.
He writes, “Leaving the grove, I go to a spring, and thence to my aviary. I have a book in my pocket, either Dante or Petrarch, or one of the lesser poets, such as Tibullus, Ovid, and the like. I read of their tender passions and their loves, remember mine, enjoy myself a while in that sort of dreaming.” The romantic idea of reading poetry, novels, or history in the shade of a tree is so compelling when we spend most of the day hunched over the computer working on deadlines. Maybe the best antidote now is a poem in the pocket and a quilt under the tree to reconnect with nature and with great ideas.
Lesson 3 Not every minute needs to be productive.
From the information he recorded, we can see Machiavelli approached parts of his day as many of us do—wasting some, enjoying some, and being productive in some. Machiavelli describes some “trifles” he participates in such as local gossip, arguments and games, and says he does so to “keep his brain from growing moldy.” Much like the time we spend chatting and posting on social media in a time of physical distancing, we still engage for a bit of brain candy to soothe ourselves as it seems the world has left us behind. The sales of games has shot up during this time as people are choosing to mentally check out at for a while to keep sane, or as Machiavelli might say, to keep our brains from “getting moldy.” Instead of feeling guilty about the trifles we engage in, we might just see them for the form of survival strategy they likely are and realize that wasting time is not new to us and may not even be wasting time at all.
Lesson 4 Dress for success.
Ok, after all the trifles in which Machiavelli engaged, he gets down to business and leaves us with a fantastic picture of himself in the evenings. He writes, “
On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men . . .” For Machiavelli, clothing signaled something important and meaningful. At a time today when many are celebrating working in bed in their pajamas, there is much to be said for getting up and putting on real clothes—preferably something involving collars and zippers rather than elastic and teddy bears. The message is timely as we reevaluate the way we dress for work. If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one to hear it, is there a sound? If we dress for work and there is no one to see it, does it matter? Machiavelli seems to be saying, “Yes, it matters,” even when you are with an imaginary audience. At a time when the police in Maryland’s Taneytown posted the following message, “Please remember to put pants on before leaving the house to check your mailbox. You know who you are. This is your final warning,” we can all stand to be dressed up to avoid being dressed down, no matter what our daily tasks.
Lesson 5 Spend time with the ancients.
So once Machiavelli was all dressed up with no place to go, what did he do? In his words, “ . . . I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.”
The lessons from this excerpt alone are worth reading the letter in that Machiavelli demonstrates the importance of spending time with the ancients—great thinkers and writers. He is all dressed up and spends four hours with them in a kind of dialogue, taking notes as he says that helps him to remember what he learns, and from these sessions he produces his best known work, The Prince. I remind myself that the best learning is deep learning, and that takes time and effort, and it’s hard to worry when your mind is communing with the greats.
Writing letters, walking outside, being playful, putting on clothes, and reading good literature are all good advice for living, whether quarantined or not, but 500 years after the fact, it is comforting to know there are a few constants in this world, no matter how novel the reason.