This paper discusses self-transformation as described in The Prince and Confessions. (3 pages; 2 sources; MLA citation style.
Self-transformation (or “reinventing” oneself) is not new; it’s been a necessary part of politics of all kinds for centuries. This paper looks at what Machiavelli and St. Augustine have to say about it.
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In his notorious little book The Prince, Machiavelli gives some very realistic advice to princes who want to be successful rulers. He says that although it would be nice if a prince could keep his word and live by “integrity … not with craft”, experience tells us that the greatest princes have recognized that such things might not be possible. Instead, they have learned that “there are two ways of contesting, the one by law, the other by force…”; the first is appropriate to beasts and the second to men. (Machiavelli, PG). Thus, a prince must understand how to access both sides of his nature; and be, when required, a beast or a man.
However, a prince who uses this technique must also know how to deceive his subjects so they are unaware of the fact that he is using force rather than obeying the law. A prince must therefore learn to transform himself, as needed, while at the same time hiding this transformation from his subjects. This need for circumspection is, therefore, one of the greatest limits of self-transformation for Machiavelli.
In one sense, all of the Confessions is a story of self-transformation and its limits. The first eight books are an autobiography of Augustine’s life, his passions, pleasures, and search for truth. He was in every sense a human being, which is why he is so much admired: he was a lusty young man who had several mistresses, travelled, read, taught and learned what it was to lose a dear friend to death. He also experimented with at least two other religions or philosophies before returning to Christianity (the “true faith”). He was, to use the modern idiom, constantly reinventing himself, now a sneak thief, then a teacher, finally a religious scholar.
In Augustine’s case, I believe the lesson we can draw is that self-transformation is an on-going process; a learning process if you like. We experiment with various things, whether they be ideologies or drugs until we find the one that suits us; the one that gives our lives meaning. In Augustine’s case, it was his return to God that brought him to the truth.
His story also illustrates vividly the limits of self-transformation. Throughout his life, his mother Monica prayed that he would find his way back to the true faith. She encouraged him and supported him, no matter what he did. So too did others who knew him. In other words, although he was on a path to find his truth, he wasn’t alone.
It was when he finally realized that he had to return to Christ that he found his truth. In that sense, then, the limit of his self-transformation was that point when he couldn’t go further without making a change and accepting Christ. In other words, he was on a path that limited his self-transformation, and it was only when others helped him back to Christ that he was able to complete the transformation.
Both of these books deal with self-transformation, but they are very different in one crucial sense: Machiavelli discusses an outward transformation, while Augustine talks about an inner one. Taken together, they form a surprisingly coherent whole.
Machiavelli, Nicolo. The Prince. Trans. W.K. Marriott. [On-line]. 23 July 2003. Accessed: 11 Dec 2003. http://www.constitution.org/mac/prince00.htm
St. Augustine. Confessions. [On-line]. Undated. Accessed: 11 Dec 2003. http://www.ccel.org/a/augustine/confessions/confessions.html
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