18 June 2014

Machiavelli reading (1)

When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty, workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world.* 
So wrote Niccolò Machiavelli of the pleasure he found in reading.  And while the robes of court and palace are in short supply at my house, I do take off my shoes the instant I am in the door, and don a pair of raggedy, paint stained comfortable old shorts that I hope I won't be caught dead in.  Though I probably will. And then, like Nico, I start to read.

For a long time my passions in reading were much the same as his.  The ancients he's talking about are the Greeks and Romans.  Plato, Homer, Sophocles, Aristotle, Thucydides, Cicero, Vergil, Tacitus, Sallust, Livy --  I spent years immersed in their works, in conversation with them as Machiavelli imagines it.  And I loved every minute of that conversation.  Indeed (yes, I said indeed) I had the great good fortune to make my living in that conversation for quite a few years.  For someone who finds joy in reading and talking about books to be able to make his living doing so is a rare convergence of the useful and the sweet. 

But time passed on, and nowadays I read mostly modern fiction -- okay, one thing you need to understand here is that for me ancient means "before the Middle Ages," not "before I was born;" and "modern" means "not ancient, medieval, or renaissance, but later," which, I grant you, makes the concept a bit wibbly-wobbly.  We won't even get into Modern and Post-Modern (capital letters, like money, change everything) -- but the pleasure of the conversation with the moderns and their characters is as great or greater.  Let's face it.  Miss Elizabeth Bennet is more out and out fun to pass an evening with than Socrates.  Both of them will cut you to pieces with their wit, but at least with Eliza Bennet you can also meditate on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.  It is another convergence of the useful and the sweet.  With Socrates, not so much.

*Quoted from from J.R. Hale, The Literary Works of Machiavelli (London, 1961) p. 139.

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