Asimov and Machiavelli: Go Team Pragmatism!

23 Jan

As his Wikipedia article will tell you, sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov’s books have been published in nine out of ten categories of the Dewey Decimal System: everything but the 100s, philosophy.

That’s hardly surprising, considering that he wrote over 470 books.  That’s more than 6.5 books a year, assuming he began pounding on that typewriter in 1920, as an infant.  But you know, considering his resume, I wouldn’t be too surprised about that either.

And so, having finished Asimov’s and Robert Silverberg’s Nightfall this afternoon, I’m compelled to make the argument that Asimov deserves that tenth spot from Melvil Dewey: placed next to Asimov’s Foundation series Nightfall displays a striking similarity, and that in the philosophical realm.

It’s called Pragmatism.

As a formal philosophy, Pragmatism was developed primarily by William James and another Dewey (John)—but it could be argued just as well that Niccolo Machiavelli was one of the very original proponents, all the way back the 16th century.  With his political treatise The Prince, Florence’s most infamous son laid the foundations for political science as we know it.

And while “Machiavellian” has become synonymous for cunning, deceit, and unscrupulous manipulation (also a byword for such as LOST’s Ben Linus and Gormenghast’s Steerpike—look it up; Mervyn Peake needs to get some readers this side of the pond), the ultimate intention of The Prince isn’t to be a guidebook for aspiring megalomaniacs.  It’s simply pragmatic: meaning, basically, that what’s true is what works.

That’s a strange definition at first read.  But the Pragmatist relies on a re-working of what we mean by the word “truth.”  Truth, conventionally conceived, is something we discover in a dusty library perusing ancient documents, or on a mountaintop communing with the divine, or paging through Wikipedia.  It’s something immutable, unchanging, and something that can be determined objectively.  It’s what correctly describes reality (formally, by the way, this is called the “Correspondence Theory of Truth,” but no one really needs to know that unless they have an upcoming dinner party to sound pretentious at or something).

The Pragmatist rejects this concept of truth.  Science shows us, after all, that theories are always being contested, revised, and contested again—it’s why we eschew attaching the word “law” even to the works of Newton or Einstein.  Science isn’t about dogma.  And that—quoth the Niccolo Machiavelli inside the Pragmatist—is why, when it comes to searching for “truth,” we should be more like scientists.  Truth doesn’t come by research or revelation, but rather by experiment.  We test, tinker, and investigate a question until we find something that works.  We’re actors in the world, after all—not passive observers.  The “truth” should facilitate successful action in the world: it has to be practical.

So let’s be semi-scientific for a moment:

Quantum theory is absolutely mind-boggling (at least for a layperson like myself): it confuses cause and effect, posits zombie cats both alive and dead at the same time, and raises the metaphysically bothersome proposition of an observer-created reality—but it works.  The predictions of quantum mechanics have been validated as extraordinarily accurate.  And so, for now, it’s true.

Which brings us back to Asimov (and if you haven’t read either Foundation or the novelization of “Nightfall,” then please be warned: thar be spoilers yonder)—

Asimov’s novels are filled with tough-minded pragmatists making horrifying decisions in horrifying circumstances about the horrifying future of humanity—usually against their deepest convictions and consciences.  The reasons tend to be pragmatic.

Take Captain Golan Trevize of Foundation and Earth (who I gleefully lambasted in my very first blog post, so long, long ago):

Trevize is the consummate individualist, something of a space cowboy who might have provided inspiration for the rebel pseudo-criminal Captain Malcolm Reynolds of Joss Whedon’s cult hit Firefly.  Trevize does, after all, kind of steal a Foundation cruiser, and he rejects with every ounce of his being the idea that the course of humankind’s future has been predetermined by the psychohistorical predictions and guidance of the ancient mathematician Hari Seldon and his secret planet of followers.  For Trevize, free will is everything.

The stakes only get higher when he learns that part of that planned course involves a friggin’ creepy galactic hive mind, Gaia.  “A superorganism,” Bantam’s back book cover explains:

“Gaia is a holistic planet with a common consciousness so intensely united that every dewdrop, every pebble, every being, can speak for all—and feel for all.  It is a realm in which privacy is not only undesirable, it is incomprehensible.”

The prospect, for Trevize, is repulsive (as it would be for those of us who abhor the Borg—which, too, was terrorizing one Captain Picard and co. in the mid-1980s, as well as science fiction’s other Cold War kids).  And yet—he picks it.  Trevize alone (by some plot twist I still don’t fully comprehend) can choose or derail this future, and for the sake of species-wide unity in the face of possible extraterrestrial invasion, decides that the horror of total absorption of the individual is better than total annihilation of the species—though honestly, I will seriously debate this point, and I’ve got Mal Reynolds at my back.  In any case, former ideals are suppressed, and Golan Trevize does what he sees as most practical, damn him.

It’s a similar choice Theremon 762 of Kalgash has to face in Nightfall.  The novel, based on Asimov’s legendary short story of the same name—possibly the most famous short story of the entire genre—imagines a world in which six suns in the sky make Darkness unnatural and completely unimaginable, mentioned only in enigmatic texts of a creepy religious cult, the Apostles of Flame.  According to the Apostles, their incomprehensible Book of Revelation, and their steely-eyed leader Folimun, Darkness will descend every 2,049 years—one nightfall per two millennia—when the mysterious Stars will appear to suck out men’s souls.

Naturally, Theremon brushes this off as mystical mumbo-jumbo—even when scientific evidence from multiple academic fields begins to, disconcertingly, back up the Apostles’ claims.  He laughs it off, encourages public disbelief with his vicious rhetoric, and goes completely off the rocker for a couple days when night does fall, civilization does descend into utter madness, and the innumerable Stars unseat him from his cozy little place at the center of the universe.

But our hero’s better off than most—his sanity returns, and he embarks on a quest with a very few other mentally stable companions to reach Amgando, the site of what’s supposed to be a new provisional government.  The goal?  Combat the religious totalitarianism of the Apostles of Flame, who had been preparing for centuries for this apocalypse and are gearing up for world conquest.

Theremon, recall, hates the Apostles.  He hates them with a fiery passion.  He hates them for their mysticism, their anti-scientific attitude, their repressive dogma and creepy hooded robes.  Even if they were right all along.

But still, in a penultimate-page plot twist, Theremon joins them.  “Folimun,” he says of the Apostles’ leader:

“Is a totally ruthless, almost monstrously rational man who believes that the only thing that’s of real importance is the survival of civilization.  Folimun knows that in a time of total madness the best hope of pulling things together is religious totalitarianism.  You and I may think the gods are just old fables, but there are millions and millions of people who have a different view—and now they have an absolute dread of the gods.  The Apostles are in a better position to set up a world government.”

Theremon, for all he abhors the Apostles, can almost admire the “monstrously rational” Folimun.  “I hate the idea,” Theremon says; nevertheless, the most practical route—for the preservation of humanity (or Kalgashity… I’m not entirely sure what they are)—he, not terribly enthusiastically, jumps on the bandwagon.  In a world of logic and reason, science was salvation; but with half the world gibbering lunatics, it’s the Book of Revelation to the rescue.  That’s pragmatism.

Now I don’t know what that says about Asimov’s religious views, but his philosophy’s pretty clear.  So just give him a spot in those 100s, already—okay?

Disclaimer: I am not a Pragmatist.  Really.  I make fun of it all the time here on the Scattering.  But I must admit—I kind of love Machiavelli… him and Thomas Cromwell… and Ben Linus.  Especially Ben Linus.  This a psychological defect on my part, and should not be taken as an indication that I am a Pragmatist.  Alas, alack—how ashamed Ayn Rand would be.


One Response to “Asimov and Machiavelli: Go Team Pragmatism!”

  1. clay barham January 24, 2010 at 9:42 am #

    Ayn Rand’s writings explained how America’s success with individual freedom. Early settlers had no other choice. No paternal government stood by. Jefferson, in the Declaration, defined what Americans created. We had three constitutions to limit the government and protect close governance, starting between the ears and in the heart, to the County no further than a day’s horseback ride. Our elected representatives take an Oath to preserve our system, yet turn on it and trash it to bring back the Old World system rejected 400 years ago and by force just over 200 ears ago. Modern politicians move government away to a distant city as the center of organized crime, as if run by the Sopranos. They picked our pockets and destroyed our economy. See The Changing Face of Democrats on Amazon and

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