What measure knows the weight of compassion for a man?
“Rule of thumb: When you are behind the 8 Ball, it’s time to focus on the half-truth that you are completely and solely responsible. When you succeed in anything, it’s time to emphasize the other half-truth: that you are just a beneficiary of God 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.”—Jean-Louis Rheault, Montreal Mapmaker
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 behaviour 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.”—The Letters of Machiavelli
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 behaviour 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 judgement 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.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2015)
* * *