Sticks and Stones

On the use and misuse of civility.

By Lewis H. Lapham

The Field of the Cloth of Gold, by an unknown English painter, c. 1545. Royal Collection.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold, by an unknown English painter, c. 1545. Royal Collection.

It turns out Strife’s a twin, a double birth—
There are not one but two Strifes on earth…
One’s blessed, one’s cursed.


In republics there is more vitality, more hatred, and more desire for revenge.
—Niccolò Machiavelli

The storms of rivalry and feud currently blowing through America’s internet portals rise to the wind-scale force of Wagnerian opera, but it’s hard to know whether the sound and fury is personal, political, or pathological. The stagings of vengeful lies to destroy a graven Facebook image, or the voicing of competitive truth that is the vitality of a democratic republic?

The problem doesn’t yield to zero-sum solution. Hesiod’s twin Strifes are permanent members of the human condition; neither of them can be impeached. The pagan Greek poet was clear on the point. During his own lifetime, he was familiar with the news and fake news of the Trojan War wandering around on the eastern Mediterranean lecture circuit, and he would have known that cursed Strife “brings forth discord, nurtures evil war,” killed Hector, Agamemnon, and Achilles, bears “great honors to…gift-guzzling kings”; known also that blessed Strife launched a thousand ships, “spurs a man who otherwise would shirk” to surpass his neighbor in “racing to reach prosperity.” The difficulty is the knowing which one is which, with which one a man is better advised to keep company—with “mischief making,” “eavesdropping in the marketplace,” and the “spying on quarrels,” or trying to do his best with the Strife that is nearer to hand.

Machiavelli during his lifetime was personally acquainted with the cursed Strife inflicted on Florence by gift-guzzling Medici princes, also with the bonfiring of the city’s beloved vanities at the behest of Friar Girolamo Savonarola, a vengeful Dominican monk preaching the word of God as a howl of rage against the world, the flesh, and the devil. The history books tend to portray Machiavelli as a cynical Italian courtier supplying despots with murderous raisons d’état. The spin is travesty. Machiavelli was an idealistic civil servant who was also a poet and playwright seeking to provide early sixteenth-century Florence with a republican form of government. He rated the task as the most worthy of human endeavors when supported by a citizenry animated with the will to act instead of the wish to be cared for.

To promote his effort to equip Florence with a civilian militia, and acting on his authority as second chancellor of the Florentine republic, Machiavelli in 1503–4 encouraged both Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci to burnish the walls of the Great Council Hall with the scene of a famous battle in which the free city of Florence defeated a rival city dependent for its freedoms on hired mercenaries.

The story, as told in The Lost Battles by the British art critic Jonathan Jones, attributes the flowering of the arts in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Florence not to the city’s “wealth or taste or intellect” but to the “rabid competitive individualism” of its citizens, to what Leonardo in his Notebooks regards as “good envy” (la invidia bona) that “will stimulate you to be among the number who are more praised than you, and the lauding of the others will spur you on.”

We die of comfort and by conflict live.

—May Sarton, 1953

Leonardo and Michelangelo were both in Florence in 1504, actively vying for recognition as the city’s foremost genius. Leonardo was recently returned from a seventeen-year absence in Milan, and to reestablish his preeminence in Florence, he was at work on the Mona Lisa; Michelangelo’s statue of David was newly arrived that year in the Piazza della Signoria. Their rivalry was in keeping with the Renaissance temper of the times, feud and ritualized vendetta as readily engaged in by artists as by bankers, prostitutes, and aristocrats, by the Montagues and Capulets in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, by the goldsmith
Benvenuto Cellini
saying to Baccio Bandinelli that his statue of Hercules was among the worst things he’d ever seen, the facial features “something between a lion and an ox,” the shoulders “like the two pommels of an ass’ packsaddle.”


The frescoes destined for the Great Council Hall have been lost, but their realization survives in sketches made prior to their posting on the walls. Both artists were provided with government-funded studio space (Michelangelo’s a hospital, Leonardo’s a church) in which to draw gigantic cartoni, designs on paper indicating the projected lines of performance and thought. Artists from everywhere in Italy, Cellini and Raphael among them, crowded into the city to witness what Jones represents as a contest for the future direction in art, Leonardo at age fifty-two and Michelangelo at age twenty-nine embodying the competition between the security of an older style and the risk of the new. He awards the victory to Michelangelo’s pointing toward the Renaissance creation of the idea that it is the self-striving individual, not the all-knowing God, who stands at the center of the human enterprise.

Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina, won against Pisa in 1364, shows a group of naked young men rising from their baths in the river Arno, called on short notice to defend Florence against an approaching army of professional criminals. Armed only with their love for one another and for the Florentine res publica, they go as calmly to battle as did the outnumbered Spartans in the pass at Thermopylae. Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari, won against the forces of Milan in 1440, rages with the furious desire for revenge evident in the faces of the men and horses striking at one another with howling and horrifying cruelty.

We have no record of a judgment handed down by Machiavelli. Leonardo’s fresco was the only one that reached the wall of the Great Council Hall, its presence short-lived because when the Medici regained power in Florence in 1512, they put Machiavelli to torture, declared his republic inoperative, and soon afterward ordered Giorgio Vasari to suppress Leonardo’s fresco by overpainting it with quasireligious adorations of Medici triumph and glory. Before Michelangelo could begin work on his fresco, Pope Julius II summoned him to Rome to paint the Sistine ceiling.

Machiavelli never saw the two paintings in the same room. Had he done so, he likely would have recognized them as depictions of Hesiod’s twin Strifes. His thinking was rooted in the soils of pagan antiquity, and his writings (The Discourses and The Art of War as well as The Prince) make plain his belief that citizens of a republic, more alive in body and mind than the slaves of a Persian king, depend for their survival on both Strife that is blessed and Strife that is cursed. He had seen the awakened passions of the people overthrow the Medici tyranny in 1494, hang Savonarola and burn his body at the stake in 1498; he drew the inference that violence and civil disorder are the vitality of a republic giving birth to itself.

The American Declaration of Independence holds to the same view, calls upon the violent passions of a free people to abolish the “absolute despotism” of a British crown, celebrates the “birthday of a new world” announced in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. The extended founding of the nation over the next twenty-five years—the Revolutionary War, the drafting of the Constitution, the shaping of a two-party partisan politics—is riven by double-edged Strife at every turn on the high and low roads to prosperity.

Saint Michael and the Dragon, by an unknown Valencian painter, c. 1405. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1912.

Saint Michael and the Dragon, by an unknown Valencian painter, c. 1405. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1912.

The revolution was both civil and foreign war. More than ten times as many Americans died, per capita, in the Revolutionary War than in World War I, almost five times as many as in World War II. Patriots tortured and imprisoned their Loyalist neighbors, seized and burned their property, raped their wives, orphaned their children. British troops summarily executed American rebels perceived to be savages; American rebels summarily massacred British gentlemen deemed to be monsters. Washington’s army pursued the Iroquois with the policy and practice of genocide. Nearly one in every forty American Loyalists was forced into permanently impoverished exile.

Nor was it the “wealth or taste or intellect” of Philadelphia that brought forth the Constitution. It was the “rabid competitive individualism” of talented politicians vying with one another (Madison with Adams, Jefferson with Hamilton, all of them with Paine) in the contest to achieve the masterpiece form of republican government. They enlivened the proceedings with the Renaissance spirit of rivalry and feud; John Adams, in a voice like that of Benvenuto Cellini condemning Bandinelli’s statue of Hercules, ridiculed Paine’s notion of democracy as among the worst things he’d ever seen, political evil and folly, Paine himself “a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf.” Aaron Burr was the sitting vice president of the United States in 1804 when he engaged Hamilton in a duel, shot and killed the man who as secretary of the Treasury in the Washington administration established the national bank.

The presidential election of 1800 disposed of the distinction between Strife that is blessing and boon to man and Strife that brings forth discord and evil war. Adams and Jefferson were collaborating authors of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, longtime friends and frequent rivals for political power and preeminence, renowned for their intellect and learning, Jefferson president of the American Philosophical Society, Adams president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The ferociously partisan campaign posed them as antagonists in a zero-sum competition between mindless conspiracy theories, Jefferson supposedly plotting to sell out the country to Napoleon’s still-revolutionary France, Adams said to be bent on declaring himself king. The old friends refused to speak ill of each other and declined to make personal campaign appearances (pushing oneself forward for public office was looked upon in 1800 as deplorable vulgarity); the telling of vengeful and vote-getting lies fell to the lot of the rumormongering press. Newspapers backing Jefferson portrayed Adams as a tyrant, a hypocrite, and a fool, a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Newspapers promoting Adams pilloried Jefferson as an atheist, a libertine, and a coward.

The gale-force wind of ill-chosen words reduced the complex structures of the candidates’ political thought to a rubble of slogans fit for inciting a riot. The street fighting in Philadelphia pitted stick-wielding Republican mobs wearing the tricolor cockade of the French against stone-throwing Federalist mobs wearing the black cockade of the British. Contemporary news accounts depict a scene resembling Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari. Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina could have served as depiction of the republic envisioned by Madison (guided by men with the “most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society”) or of a democracy as conceived by Paine: “The strength of government and the happiness of the governed” is the freedom of the common people to “mutually and naturally support each other.”

Neither idea accorded in 1800 with the capitalist trend and temper of the times and the nineteenth-century fitting of America’s economic, political, and social enterprise to the business model of
Andrew Carnegie
’s “Gospel of Wealth”:

The price which society pays for the law of competition, like the price it pays for cheap comforts and luxuries, is great; but the advantages of this law are also greater still, for it is to this law that we owe our wonderful material development…and while the law may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department…Unequally or unjustly, perhaps, as these laws sometimes operate, and imperfect as they appear to the idealist, they are nevertheless like the highest type of man, the best and most valuable of all that humanity has yet accomplished.

Carnegie delivered his message in 1889, by which time it was old news. His own and the country’s good fortune flowed from the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 by men of property setting up a government hospitable to the acquisition of more property. The authors of the document understood the word liberty to mean liberty for property, not persons. The Constitution encourages competition between different forms of property; it doesn’t offer the same survival-of-the-fittest advantage to collective action on the part of persons without property. Deplorables remain free to fend for themselves.

Adams and Jefferson had proposed rival ideas of government rooted in moral principle. They resumed their friendship on their retirements from public office, and in their private correspondence after 1810 agreed to Jefferson’s point that “money, and not morality, is the principle of commerce and commercial nations.” Neither of their revolutionary political idealisms was competitive with the capitalist dynamic underwriting the Industrial Revolution. Jefferson writes to Pierre-Samuel Du Pont de Nemour to say, “We can never get rid of [Hamilton’s] financial system…which I deem radically vicious.”
Mark Twain
, reflecting many years later on the price paid for Carnegie’s Gilded Age law of competition, drew the inference that a society consisting of the sum of its vanity and greed is not a society at all but a state of war.


So it was, and so it is. How can it be otherwise in a country that elects Donald J. Trump for its president? The election of 1800 set up the system of two-party partisan politics and with it the zero-sum habit of thinking (for or against, thumbs up or thumbs down, text A for yes, B for no) that the French philosopher Simone Weil diagnoses as “intellectual leprosy.” She classifies the partisan spirit as a disease that “makes people blind...pushes even decent men cruelly to persecute innocent targets...instead of thinking, one merely takes sides...such a choice replaces the activity of the mind.” Replaces it with activity in the markets for branded property that is the making of America’s gargantuan consumer economy, the spurring on to prosperity of the nation’s sports, entertainment, and advertising industries. True or false, with us or against us, winner or loser.

President Trump delivered the message to the midshipmen graduating in May 2018 from the United States Naval Academy. He began by complimenting the class for winning promotion to the rank of commissioned officer, but he soon moved upward and onward to the greater glory of the amazing winner who was commander in chief:

Winning is such a great feeling. Isn’t it a great feeling? Winning! A great feeling. Nothing like winning! Gotta win…There is no other alternative. Victory, winning, beautiful words, but that is what it is all about.

It’s not what it’s all about. W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939,” the date of the Nazi invasion of Poland, is what it is all about:

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

Human beings consumed with the single-minded staring into mirrors lose the capacity to think. An exceptionally virulent strain of intellectual leprosy tends to show up in rich people who imagine that because they are rich, they step into the golf shoes of Andrew Carnegie’s “highest type of man, the best and most valuable of all that humanity has yet accomplished.” In the world according to Trump, money is the true, the good, and the beautiful, the hero with a thousand faces, all of them the face of Trump—gloating or seething, saying and doing whatever it takes to make the American democracy smaller than himself, to nullify it in theory, dispose of it in practice. What Edith Wharton said of America’s late nineteenth-century Gilded Age is true of the early twenty-first-century rerun: “A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys.”

The Musical Contest, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1755. © By kind permission of the Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London / Art Resource, NY.

The Musical Contest, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1755. © By kind permission of the Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London / Art Resource, NY.

The operatic protest blowing through the country’s internet portals raises the question as to whether the sound and fury signifies something or nothing, the telling of “mischief-making,” fairy-tale lies that is the life of our good and great consumer economy, or the voicing of competitive truth that is the vitality of a democratic republic. It’s hard to know which is which because over the past forty years we’ve become accustomed to pretending that democracy is a peaceful idea, something civil, orderly, quiet, and safe. It isn’t. Like capitalism, democracy is rivalry and feud between time past and time future, the party of the way things are engaged in dubious battle with the party of whoever or whatever comes next. Change induces movement, which produces friction, which disturbs the peace with the age-old and permanently ongoing Strife between rich and poor, ruler and ruled, male and female, capital and labor, money and mind. The Strife’s a twin, capitalism and democracy both agents of change but opposed to each other in the nature and direction of their movement. A democratic society places a premium on equality; a capitalist economy does not. Money is property, its movement the competitive pricing of things as they are; democracy is the motion of mind reaching for a change of heart.

Money is power worth having (it can own Amazon and employ Benvenuto Cellini), but without the greater power of thought, it is little else except the dead weight of the past. Over the long term, it is force of mind that shapes the course of the future, produces Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, Einstein’s equations, Paine’s “birthday of a new world.”

The abundance of Paine’s writing flows from the spring of his optimism, and during the twenty years of his engagement in both the American and French revolutions, he counts himself “friend of [the world’s] happiness,” understands democracy as the forward motion of the heart and the mind:

When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive…when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government.

Paine’s notion of constitutional government contained multitudes, envisioned the participation of the lower orders of society, mechanics, tavern keepers, and carpenters in company with lace-trimmed bankers and powdered-wig lawyers. His objection to the divine rule of property prompted John Adams to scold him as “that insolent blasphemer of things sacred, and transcendent libeler of all that is good.” Paine conceived of government as a shared work of the imagination and therefore in need of people of different ancestries, skills, and generations willing to learn from one another in order to mutually and naturally support one another. Auden draws the same thought from Nijinsky’s estimation of Diaghilev:

There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

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