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I used to read a lot of novels. Now, alas, I don’t. Perhaps I am working too hard. Perhaps I waste a lot of time on the Internet. I really do not know. What I can say is that I really miss losing myself in a good story.
Just how much I miss it was brought home to me over the last few days. I have been working on an essay on Machiavelli’s Prince. This is a work that is now 500 years old. I gave a talk on the subject at Harvard just over a year ago, and I gave another version of the talk at a conference held at Columbia in December. In the course of trying to turn the talk into something publishable, I found myself pondering the difference between ancient and modern tyranny — between the likes of Polycrates of Samos and Joseph Stalin. It seemed to me that Machiavelli might have something to do with the reorientation of tyranny — with its acquisition of an ambition to transform human character and social relations that was absent from the aspirations of Cypselus and Periander of Corinth; Peisistratus, Hippias, and Hipparchus of Athens; and Hiero of Syracuse.
I do not mean to say that the ancient prototype is dead and gone. It is alive and well in many a corner of Africa; and, back in the third quarter of the last millennium, when I was young and the world was fresh, it was alive and well in many a corner of Latin America. Juan Peron, Perez Jimenez, Anastasio Somoza, Fulgencio Batista — those were the days!