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Machiavelli’s L’Asino: Machiavelli’s Aesthetics and Agonistic Friendship

This is an interpretation of Niccolo Machivelli’s 1517 imcomplete poem L’Asino. The so-called cynic cold-blooded advisor of evil shows a ‘parenthetical’ aestheticism in his perception of friendship. Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the great prospects of aesthetic politics comes to be a useful tool for the interpretation of Machiavelli’s ‘poetic therapy’.

Reading Machiavelli through Nietzsche: Machiavelli’s Search for Agonistic Friendship Although the name of Niccolò Machiavelli is commonly invoked in discussions of cold-blooded cynicism and irreverent pragmatism in the study of political affairs, it rarely appears in accounts of how relations with the self and others influence identity. This paper will offer a discussion of the Florentine author’s unfinished poem L’Asino in order to advance two arguments. I would like to propose that the poem should be comprehended as an exercise of agonistic friendship or “poetic therapy” that allowed Machiavelli to exonerate his self from past political experiences. Furthermore, in spite of his quasi-suicidal state of mind during his absence from the political affairs of his beloved Florence, Machiavelli renews his identity through a tragic metamorphosis that cannot be completed without the help of this type of friend-enemy. Yet Machiavelli’s interest in friendship is overlooked in much of the secondary literature. The second claim presented in this paper is that both Machiavelli and Friedrich Nietzsche present similar positions in the understanding and use of friendship. Nietzsche’s admiration for Machiavelli has been presented elsewhere as rooted in their common understanding of life and the human condition. They present the various aspects of human life neither as leading towards a higher goal nor as mutually exclusive opposites. As such, agonistic friendships, or the use of potential conflict that arises from ‘true’ relationships, appear as a fundamental part of the enterprises proposed by both thinkers. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra claims that, “In one’s friend one should have one’s best enemy”, as a means to improve oneself through rivalry. Machiavelli’s poetic epic portrays the various encounters of the protagonist with himself and with others. These relationships are presented as a constant tension aimed at presenting the ‘true side of things.’ Agonistic friendship surpasses the usual comprehension of philia in the Aristotelian and/or Stoic sense –which is basically based upon reason and morality. Antagonistic pairing as presented in L’Asino is the act of self-fashioning through, to evoke Nietzsche’s words, ‘war without gunpowder’ both in solitude and with others. As will be shown throughout the commentary, L’Asino provides a ‘coded’ poetical allegory of his attempt to absolve, circumvent and overcome his past political self. Past Sufferings-Present Understandings: Friendship in Solitude L’Asino hinges on a series of generic metamorphoses. In the first canto Machiavelli identifies himself in speech with this animal, which holds a highly symbolic meaning in various religious, particularly Christian, accounts. The ass was commonly seen as a domestic beast of burden, which in this case comes to exemplify Machiavelli’s feeling of the moment: he has become a beast of burden himself, though his burden is one of psychological pain and suffering. A glimpse at his personal state of mind shows a Machiavelli, “weary, embittered, disappointed both with himself and with others, imbued in a sense of inward disillusionment…” This allegorical expression of his mind state is also recurrent in Machiavelli’s correspondence, particularly between 1515 and 1517. These very first lines of the poem set up the scenario on which the drama will be played: his burden of suffering must be overcome and, to do so, he will go through a physical and psychological metamorphosis. The ill fate of the past is now being carried forward toward the present, as to reaffirm past experiences and convert them into a new, and affirmative, identity. This lonely epic of the first chapter also makes clear that the (anti) hero of the story maintains the fundamental element for self-overcoming: spiritedness and courage, represented as an ass and a young boy, to speak out-loud about his terrible fate. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra presents a similar ‘animalistic’ representation of the voyage within the self. In the chapter On the Three Transformations, Zarathustra speaks of the character of the Camel as the first of the three changes through which he and his disciples must go in order to reconstruct themselves. Much like the ass in Machiavelli’s account, the camel is a domestic animal meant to carry heavy weight. The camel-type is revered by Nietzsche as much as the ass by Machiavelli, since they are spirits capable of carrying their own past forward, showing “the willingness to bear much. ” This characteristic of the anti-heroic figure involves a conscious sacrifice and awareness of both his down and up sides. Without this capacity to migrate from negative or unworthy emotions, the anti-hero would not be capable of avoiding self-disintegration. Nietzsche realizes the importance of the spirit of sacrifice in the solitude of the self, “All these heaviest things the weight-bearing takes upon itself: like the camel that presses on well laden into the desert does the spirit press on into its desert.” Once this part of the first phase of overcoming is achieved, the (in)dividual becomes ready to challenge himself in an agonistic fashion. After defining his asinine persona in the first chapter, in the second the narrator employs the conventional vocabulary of medieval dream-vision narrative–“When the nice season returns,” and so on–only to shift abruptly to the Dantean fall into a dark wood. His expected rescuer, however, turns out to be a “Donna” who blends features of Dante’s Beatrice with menacing aspects of her own mistress Circe. Her main characteristic is that she is capable of turning men into animals; she seems to represent an oppositional character within the hero’s psyche, for the narrator states they encounter as if they were “familiar” to each other, and she “called [him] by name in the greeting she gave [him] at the very first.” The connotation of the image presented as a conditional statement makes us presume that the author speaks of an inward feeling, as if it were a real action; though, in fact, it is an allegory of the imaginative writing of Machiavelli to present the opposites within his psyche. In the first song of chapter II, The Night Song, Zarathustra presents a moment of night, or darkness, in his soul, as an allegory of the ever-lasting existence of envy within his soul, though in this case it is an envy that can still be used to emulate and to perceive greatness as something to be achieved. The dichotomy of the night vis-à-vis the sun is one of the most commonly used representations in ancient traditions to describe the difference between sexes. Moreover, night and darkness symbolize a transvaluation of values, in which the strength that guides men towards self-emancipation comes from the woman-like night. This does not mean however that the imagery of the night/woman will replace that of the day/man. This dichotomous transfiguration also breaks up with the traditional understanding of moral duality, since the so-called ‘old evil’ of obscurity comes now to be a fundamental part in the unification of Zarathustra’s psyche: it is an agonistic friendship between the day and the night, his male character and his female one. Hence, the ‘lady’ aspect of his psyche is the one that proposes a challenge to its manly opposite: the fears and sufferings of the past shall be redeemed only by accepting that she is a valuable and powerful aspect of his troubled mind. This dichotomy of the mind expresses that Machiavelli was well aware of the oppositional forces of an agonistic friendship: his manly side must now be challenged by a woman in order to obtain emancipation. Erotic Love and Friendship in Solitude The next two chapters are the culmination of this internal struggle of the soul, which will allow the Florentine author to move beyond his past and begin to look towards the future. The third chapter begins with an allegory of the continuation of his self-transformation, “Following the footsteps of my guide as I went on, with my back turned towards the sky…My hands and my knees were ruined.” Machiavelli presents a man who attempts to become a four-legged being that causes him once again pain and suffering. This description of his bodily position toward the world acknowledges man’s capacities as part of a new philosophical anthropology. Machiavelli is still a man in form, though a man willing to take the position of a ‘lower’ type of being. This makes him realize how difficult it is for the human to refashion her self. This is strikingly similar to the first claim of Nietzsche’s spiritual son: he leaves the solitude of the forest and states, “stay true to the earth and do not believe those who speak of over-earthly hopes.” Both Machiavelli and Nietzsche seem to be quite aware of the necessity to formulate a new anthropology of the human condition, one that represents man as part of nature and comprehends the tensions of the human condition. At this point, the narrator seems to experience the beginning of the end of his trip throughout his soul. He is invited by his damsel to walk into her chamber. The affection and tenderness that appear between the two opposite characters of his soul seem to symbolize intimacy and love. This growing emotion reflects self-development, awareness and honesty, all fundamental aspects of agonistic friendships. The love they feel for each other allows the ‘lady’ to tell him that the experiences of the past were “his own fault”, as if she were challenging his momentary cheerfulness and propose a process of self-fashioning through affirmation. The final and paramount transformation in this process of agonistic friendship in solitude happens when, “she undressed and had me get into her bed with her, as though I were her lover or her husband.” This invitation has a powerful representative message vis-à-vis Machiavelli’s (past) political advice, for the Machiavelli that once counselled to treat Fortune with manliness and violence now narrates a scene in which the manly ass-like hero sexually engages with the female character showing “sympathy and joy.” This statement may be regarded as a contradiction vis-à-vis his political advices elsewhere, though Machiavelli employs similar allegories about the sexual power of women over men in some of his letters and previous works. He recognizes the importance of pairing of love; the illocutionary importance of this statement is based upon the unity of his persona. This is the corollary of the self-transformation of Machiavelli’s psyche. The sexual imagery that Machiavelli utilizes in this chapter proposes the unity of opposites beyond the moral vision of his contemporary contingency, which, at the same time, denies the antagonistic duality of the anthropomorphic conceptualizations of the world. Likewise, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra encounters several women at various times throughout his own redemptive voyage. Much like Machiavelli’s account of the role of the two opposite aspects of his psyche, men and women in Zarathustra’s speech are meant to battle for love and victory. Men represent the warrior and spirited aspect of life, as much as the ass represents the stubbornness and animal nature of men. Women come to symbolize the loving side of life, without which the battle of sexuality within the self would not be able to give birth to self-transformation. In Nietzsche’s account of duality, sexuality plays a fundamental role, since women take part of the transformative struggle. Unity and struggle within the self assume the relevance of the feminine character, for which an old woman advises Zarathustra, “You are going to women? Then don’t forget the whip!” The powerful female character of Zarathustra’s teaching can only be persuaded by the male side with the use of a weapon. Low Animals-High Friendship The end of the sixth and the beginning of the seventh chapters are the move towards a different type of agonistic friendship, one that comes to be established between individuals. Though not explicitly on these terms, De Grazia highlights the state of the authors before “crossing over into the unknown world of beastdom.” In other words, the Florentine author emphasizes the shift of the narrative into a brave new world of bestial reality. The narrator tells us that, “From the threshold of that door,” the donna gives him “a wish to go inside” as a representation of the move from the inside of his psyche to the outside and external search. The eighth canto starts with the manly character being reluctant about speaking to a pig, for it looked nasty and low. Once Machiavelli begins his conversation with the pig, he presents trust and honesty as fundamental aspects of their growing friendship, since they have to speak “freely and openly.” Zarathustra’s chapter On the Tree on the Mountainside presents a young spirited boy sitting next to a tree up the mountains, who is envious of Zarathustra’s self-realization. Zarathustra encourages the young man to admire higher characters or to use envy in a positive sense in order to engage in a process of continual surpassing of what is envied. Agonistic friendships then become a union between individuals that continuously strive for their self-improvement. Still, the character of trustworthiness and honesty is vital for the development of such association. This characteristic differs from the classical understanding of friendship based on morality and reason. Friendship of this type would make no sense whatsoever in Machiavelli’s account due to his understanding of the world as a constantly hostile environment. The ironic representation of low animals as a donkey and a pig as ‘friends’, intends to give the reader a sense of the type of characteristics necessary to be true friends. Zarathustra’s speech On the Friend states, “Are you a slave? Then you cannot be a friend.” The association and generosity of true friends, or higher types of friends, is a mark for the higher type of human beings. Both the hero of the poem and the pig experience a process of solitude and self-realization that allowed them to engage in this type of philia. This type of love through honesty and constant overcoming is an unusual sort of friendship. Conclusion: L’Asino, as a piece of poetical representation, portrays not only a different philosophical anthropology vis-à-vis Machiavelli the cynic advisor of the Renaissance but also includes agonistic friendship as the therapeutic cure for humanness. This piece of rhetorical art was also conceived by its author as a personal exercise to redeem his own self from his personal and political past experiences. L’Asino, then, not only gives a representation of his personal state of mind through what could be define as a process of self-overcoming but also an overall evaluation of the teaching of the human condition itself. The fact that the Florentine secretary never completed the work may imply the satisfactory use of this pharmakon. To both authors friendship represent a battlefield upon which individuals attempt to enhance and develop themselves through a process of perspicacity, awareness and honesty. In other words, friend-enemies do not compromise self-fashioning and affirmation but act as ‘spring boards’ for self overcoming. Both authors adduce that higher types of friendships are those that maintain a close bond or unity and distant respect all at once. Bibliography: Abbey, Ruth. “Circles, Ladders and Stars: Nietzsche on Friendship”. In The Challenge to Friendship in Modernity, ed. Preston King and Heather Devere. London, UK: Frank Cass Publishers, 2000: 50-73. 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Machiavelli, Niccolò. Florentine Histories. Translated by Laura F. Banfield and Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988. ————————-. The Prince. Translated by Frank Musa and Peter Bondanella. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1988. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Translated by Graham Parkes. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005. Skinner, Quentin. “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas” History and Theory 1969: 3-53. Von Vacano, Diego. The Art of Power: Machiavelli, Nietzsche and the Making of Aesthetic Political Theory. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2007. Walsh, P.G. The Roman Novel: The Satyricon of Petronius and the Metamorphoses of Apuleius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.


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