A Meditation On Human Nature With Machiavelli And The Buddha

The following is an essay/meditation composed for my sister project, Pneuma. You can visit its website and access its podcast at pneumameditations.com

Hello all, and welcome to this episode of Pneuma. I am, as always, your humble host and devoted friend, Daniel Finneran, and I’m glad that you’ve decided to join me today. 

The name Machiavelli is one against which, almost immediately upon its being uttered, every good, decent, moral, and upright person cannot but reflexively bristle. Whenever given voice, it causes the hairs on one’s body to stand at their ends, and the spine upholding them to grow cold and stiffen. It elicits, at best, an unflattering image of the person with whom that damnable name might be associated. At worst, it brings to mind the very lowest, most contemptible, underhanded, scheming, and depraved type of human being that could ever soil the unblemished reputation of a species raised by the hand, inspired by the breath, and made in the image of a flawless, loving God. 

Since the death of Niccolò Machiavelli in the year 1527, the great Italian philosopher of princes and republics by whom ancient Rome, in all its grandeur, was revivified and the city of Florence, despite all its unrest, extolled, the name Machiavelli has become synonymous with duplicity, connivance, immorality, evil, avarice, political mischief, personal depravity, and unscrupulousness on a huge, almost immeasurable scale. In polite and refined society, to be accused of Machiavellianism is to be accused of an unpardonable sin. It’s to be accused of a shocking offense against humanity, and to reveal, if found true, a massive gap in one’s character into which no amount of compensatory good qualities can be shoveled.  

This, in so many words, is the rather bleak, unfavorable, and yet, as I’ll soon make clear, unfair picture of Machiavelli that we’ve received from our school teachers, those wholesome, well-intentioned purveyors of knowledge and good conduct from whose limpid fountains of wisdom we absorbed so many edifying lessons and important historical facts. Yet, here, upon our last drinking, we were led somewhat astray. Niccolò Machiavelli (the man, not the cheap caricature into which he’s been morphed), was much more complex, humane, moral, and decent than the simple, uncomplimentary epithet of Machiavellian, to which he’s been so violently reduced. 

While we remember Machiavelli, above all, for his oft-misrepresented political views, he was as incisive a student of human nature as any who came before or after. He was, along with being an accomplished dramatist and political and military theorist, an impressively keen psychologist of the first order. He probed deeply into the clouded, darkened soul of man, at whose rather unappealing contents, he was totally unafraid to shine his light and look. His fearless examination of human nature provides us an insight on which, at this point and for the remainder of today’s episode, I want to expand. 

In the Preface to Book II of his Discourses on Livy, a work less famous than and, in my opinion, refreshingly contrary in tone to the more widely-read The Prince, Machiavelli says the following: 

“Human appetites are insatiable. We are endowed by nature with the power and will to desire everything, and by fortune with the ability to obtain little of it. The result is a continuous discontent in the minds of men and a dissatisfaction with the things they possess; this causes them to condemn present times, to praise the past, and to long for the future, even though they do so without any reasonable motive”. 

How strongly does this passage resonate with me! 

And how relevant is it to your life? 

This idea, that of the insatiability of human appetites, is not one to whose discovery modern Western philosophers like Machiavelli have a special claim. Siddhartha Gautama, the aristocrat-turned ascetic-turned Buddha who lived in the 6th-century BC, understood all too well, and perhaps earlier than anyone else, the outsized influence that an ungovernable, bottomless appetite can have on our equanimity and wellbeing. In fact, it’s a central tenet of Buddhism (the philosophy-religion of which Gautama was the founder) that, in any human life, there will be suffering. 

There will be suffering in every human life. From this ageless, bitter truth, no-one is exempt. No matter the caste into which you’re born, the good fortune of which you’re the beneficiary, the high status to which you’re destined to climb, you will encounter suffering along the way. You might even find it, should you be so unlucky, at every step of the way. Despair not: this is merely a part of being human. It applies to every single person who has ever lived, and to those who will succeed us in days to come. 

Suffering, in that way, is not a bug, but an unavoidable feature of the human condition into which we’re all born. It’s a core part of this strange and wonderful existence, this peculiarly human existence—half bestial, half divine—with which we can’t readily do away. 

And, yet, it’s not just a little bit of suffering that we have to endure, but a lot of it—a whole heap of it, in fact, for whose relief we seek, in our desperation, any number of diversions, philosophies, religions, and guides. 

But one must know, if he hopes to succeed in its identification and removal, exactly what the fundamental cause of suffering is. What lays at the root of our suffering? From what soil does it spring? What could it be? Where is it found? In what form is it manifested? 

Thirst, craving, desire, appetite, tanha—this, according to the Buddha, is the cause of suffering (or dukkha, to borrow from the Eastern lexicon). 

Tanha is desire (or, in Aristotle’s terms, the appetitive soul) from which dukkha, or suffering, is born. 

As you probably know, human appetites are, despite our noblest attempts to moderate and check them, insatiable, and they are, and forever shall be, the root cause of our suffering. 

“We are endowed by nature”, says Machiavelli, “with the power and will to desire everything, and by fortune with the ability to obtain little of it”. 

From our breast leaps the will to desire all, of which we’ll never succeed in obtaining but a little.

Is this not the case in your own life as it is in mine? 

Our desire (our thirst, craving, appetite, tanha) is limitless. I desire, in the course of a single day, perhaps even in a single hour, a faster, sexier car; a larger more luxurious apartment; a sleeker television; a more elegant watch; a pair of fancy shoes and tailored jeans; A pricy shirt and a more fashionable hat; a higher-paying, more fulfilling job and more opportunities to travel and go on expensive vacations; sumptuous foods and every conceivable gratification of the flesh; more followers on Instagram and more subscribers to this, my podcast. 

These are my desires, on which, truly, there is no limit. 

It is perfectly natural to have these, and many more desires, and to wish for the arrival of the day, hopefully not so very far in the future, when you might enjoy their procurement. 

Alas, that day will not soon come. It is impossible, you see, to obtain all that we desire, for we desire all. The best that we can hope to do is to obtain but a little of it, and, in our moments of reflection and repose, to offer our sincerest thanksgiving for the modest number of gifts with which we’ve been blessed. 

Between our desires, which are limitless, and our ability to obtain them, which is proportionately small, an uncomfortable gap begins to widen. Between the ideal and the real, the thirst and its slaking, discontent begins to occupy the yawning space. 

According to Machiavelli, our failure to obtain all that we desire results in “a continuous discontent in the minds of men and a dissatisfaction with the things they possess”. 

We find no happiness, no contentment in that which we already own. Sure, my humble little car ushers me about town with frictionless ease, without implanting in my mind a single worry about its breaking down or dying. My clothes are intact, seasonable, and well-fitting. My apartment is spacious enough to house me without any serious discomfort, and my job pays enough to stock my refrigerator, and cover my table, with the choicest selections of grass-fed, organic foods. 

Still, I am discontent. Still, I am dissatisfied. Still, my insatiable appetite rumbles and clamors for more. Nettled by the desire to exchange the worse for the better, the older for the newer, and always to accumulate finer and fresher objects, the things that I own offer little consolation, when the things I lack persist in evading me. I have no gratitude for the things that I possess, only an unthinking appetite for those over which I still haven’t a claim. 

According to Machiavelli, this foul mix of discontentment and dissatisfaction causes us “to condemn present times, to praise the past, and to long for the future, even though we do so without any reasonable motive”.

Dissatisfied with the present moment, we look for any other time—be it past or future—to which, in hopes of raising our low spirits and gladdening our mind, we ship off our unhappy thoughts. We condemn the present time, because we can only sense our dissatisfaction right here and now. We feel it very acutely. Thus, because we feel our negative emotions most strongly right now, we decry the present time, at which they’re most sensible and obvious. 

Instead, it’s to the rosy-tinged past that we revert our wistful eyes, and to the ever-auspicious future we look, with unblinking confidence, forward. But what is the “past” but a collection of expired “presents”? And what the future, but a bunch of “presents” still to come? The present, human perception’s most basic unit of understanding, constitutes both the past and the future. It is through the present that we come to know anything at all. It is in the present that we live to feel anything at all. 

Why, then, would we dare condemn it? 

Why not accept it, thank it, celebrate it, and live it to the fullest? 

On that question, I think we’ll end. 

In today’s episode, we examined a passage from the Preface to Book II of Machiavelli’s forgotten masterpiece, Discourses on Livy. In it, the great Florentine philosopher describes a fundamental feature of human nature: our appetites are insatiable. From this basic recognition, we then diverted, if only for a minute, to the ancient wisdom of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, who taught us that tanha, appetite or desire, is the parent of suffering. If you want to lessen your suffering, you must extinguish your desire. No small accomplishment, to be sure, for which I’ll defer, until a future episode, a guide on how this might be done. 

Our appetites overwhelm us. While we can desire everything, we can, in a life hampered by finitude’s weight, obtain only a small amount. This causes discontentment and dissatisfaction. It also causes us to condemn the present, and to go on solacing ourselves with gladsome memories of the past, or hopeful projections about the future. 

That said, what shall we do? 

Machiavelli, in this instance, is rather descriptive than prescriptive. Whereas, in The Prince, he openly advises the aspiring monarch precisely how to act, here, in the Discourses on Livy, he stops well short of providing a set list of “actionable” advice. He simply shines a bright light on our shared, fallen human nature. 

What, then, are we to do? 

How about this: 

Acknowledge the insatiability of our appetites, and try, without completely disrupting our nature, to check them. Be content with what you have. Chase not after every new thing that comes before you. Know that you’ll never satisfy all the desires by which you’re visited, or, as is the case, tormented. Feel not the pangs of discontent and dissatisfaction, to which the remedy of gratitude is always most effectively applied. Be grateful, above all else, and detach yourself from unneeded, or unobtainable possessions. 

With that, I bid you farewell, from Pneuma. 

Please, if you’d be so kind, subscribe to this channel, leave a review, and share it with a friend. You can visit my website, pneumameditations.com on which all my podcast episodes and articles are archived.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.