Machiavellian Compassion

You know who your friends are on moving day.

100_1821-1When I think of how the various virtues manifest themselves in my friends, I invariably find myself associating certain virtues with certain friends. For instance, when I think of resourcefulness, I think of Alex Vinetti, who’s the kind of guy who’d survive in a post-apocalyptic world, the kind of guy who knows how to figure things out, and make things happen in the world. When I think of courage, I think of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who’s the kind of guy you want on your side in a street-fight, the kind of guy who longs for a heroic death, and would take a bullet for a complete stranger without the slightest hesitation. But when I think of compassion, I think of Jean-Louis Rheault, whose tolerance of human frailty seems to know no bounds. His tragic conception of the human condition is, I’ve recently discovered, remarkably Machiavellian.

Jean-Louis lives by the following heuristic: “When you’re behind the 8 Ball, it’s time to focus on the half-truth that you’re completely and solely responsible for your fate. But when you succeed at anything, it’s time to emphasize the other half-truth: that you’re just a beneficiary of God’s blessing or randomness. With others, reverse the order if you sense a need for empathy or recognition; but don’t do so if you sense whining or bragging.” Machiavelli’s worldview was strikingly similar.

Machiavelli was no fatalist. He believed that people were more or less free to make some important choices, and that those who made them could be praised or blamed for the outcome. But he was equally sure that some people were freer than others, and that this disparity was caused, in part, by inborn tendencies and entrenched behavior patterns. To some extent, then, he thought that character was destiny. “I believe,” he wrote to his friend Piero Soderini in 1513, “that as Nature has given men different faces, so she has given them different dispositions.”

A man could, he thought, change the disposition given to him by Nature, but this was rare, and if it happened at all it usually took place in youth. And this was ultimately tragic: for it would be his undoing, sooner or later, given that a man’s pattern of behavior springs forth from his disposition and is, for that reason, hard to change—but change it must, at times drastically, since no one pattern of behavior is suited to all circumstances. For instance, sometimes it is good to be cautious, while at other times it is good to be bold.

If a man could be found, he reasoned, who was wise enough to know what each new situation required, and malleable enough to modify his behavior accordingly, he “would have always good fortune, or he would protect himself always from bad, and it would come to be true that the wise man would rule the stars and the Fates.” Alas, he lamented, this would never happen, as nobody is wise enough to know what each new situation requires, and precious few are capable of profound character change. Those who failed to change were bound to fail, but this failure was tragic, he felt, because it was somewhat inevitable.

If Machiavelli was right, as I suspect he was, then it follows that the judgment of a person’s character, however flawed, should be forever tempered with the balm of compassion. True compassion stems from an awareness of your own limitations, and from a careful assessment of the limitations of the person you wish to judge; it stems, as well, from an honest appreciation of the good fortune that has helped you achieve whatever it is that you have achieved, and from the knowledge that the freedom of the will is frequently circumscribed by circumstances which are out of our control.

When forced by fate to deal with a crazy person who’s losing their mind, an old person who’s losing their memory, a drunk who’s losing their temper, an ideologue who’s losing their argument, an insecure person who’s losing their confidence—or anyone suffering from advanced dis-disease—it’s good to remember that this little disagreement you’re having with them, which seems so straightforward and trivial and small to you, is a really big deal to them. They need to be right about this: a great deal’s at stake. To you, it’s no big deal one way or the other. Either we went to Myrtle Beach in the summer of 1988 or we went to Florida. Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong. But for them, being wrong means confronting a much bigger, scarier possibility, such as: I’m losing my mind, I’m losing my memory, I’ve wasted half my life on a bad idea. So you may wanna go easy on them. In fact, you may even wanna let them “win” this one: you know, the way we sometimes let little children win at checkers when they’re home sick with the flu. Regardless, thinking that a better version of the same argument will get through to someone who’s momentarily blinded by fear or rage is like thinking that a louder version of the same question will get through to someone who doesn’t speak English.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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