How is the human nature? How does the leadership be affected by the human nature and how attributes should a good leader have? I wanted to start with two main questions since “Life is full of questions, idiots are full of answers.” by Socrates. Niccolo Machiavelli’s Prince and Herman Melville’s Billy Budd give some important responses to these questions. Both touch on the topic of good leadership and the human nature. “The Prince” makes it in a formal and advisory way because this book was written for giving recommendations to leaders but “Billy Budd” makes that in a literary way. There are three main characters in Billy Budd: Billy Budd, who also gives his name to the book, with an extremely good personality, J. Claggart with a jealous & bad personality and eventually Captain Edward Fairfax Vere with a good leadership per Machiavelli’s point of view in “The Prince”.
In this writing, I firstly would like to mention very briefly these characters’ personalities; then, focus on some similarities and between Captain Vere’s leadership in Melville’s book towards a remarkable event in the naval Bellipotent which is British fleet in the end of 1700’s and Niccolo Machiavelli’s perspective about good leadership. Finally, I would like to speak of John Claggart and his jealousness about Billy Budd and at the same time interestingly his sympathy and passion about Billy Budd. This situation explains us the human nature approach of Machiavelli’s Prince as well. These two books are associated with each other.
Billy Budd is a young at the age of 20’s, a really attractive and pure gentleman with blue eyes. Everyone can easily notice him because of his catchy beauty. When he is working for the merchant ship, he is called as “handsome sailor”. Then, he is chosen for the British naval army in 1700’s by Captain Vere and again he is the apple of Bellipotent’s eye the reason why Billy Budd can hail fellow well met. He is really easy-going and polite person to everybody. In Bellipotent, he starts to be called as “Baby Budd”. However, he has a speech problem by birth. Sometimes this problem makes him a bit of diffident. In my point of view, this diffidence shows us he has a pure nature and is a very innocent man. In addition, he is not aware of evil things and this range of innocence brought trouble on him. Since he started to work for Bellipotent, a particular person, Claggart irritates from Baby Billy.
John Claggart is master at arms of Bellipotent. He is at the age of 30’s, a thin and tall man with hawk-eyes. These eyes never miss any kind of mistake. I call him as a rebuke, too. His characteristic is completely opposite of Billy’s nature because Claggart is described as an evil person. People of Bellipotent produce some grapevines about him but Claggart does not care about these and has never needed for an explanation on his life. He only cares about to defend authority and patriotism. They talk about him because no one likes him because of his jealous, destroyer, demonic and wrinkle nature.
From this aspect, Machiavelli’s Prince overlaps with the novel Billy Budd since Machiavelli defines the human nature as selfish and ungrateful. Humans can generally do well only under pressure so they can also break their promises and obligations very easily. Therefore, Herman Melville states about the human nature like Machiavelli that Claggart presents the pessimistic account of human nature. He always has a tendency to take a satanic role in a tireless way. For example, in the novel Billy Budd, Claggart always tries to demoralise the handsome man Billy. For that matter, Melville identifies him as Jemmy Legs or Demon Jemmy. Why does he always do it? There is an interesting point about this question. I think Claggart is a fluctuating man because on the one side he always humiliates Billy Budd but another side he has deep feelings for Billy who makes Claggart attracted so much. In my opinion, Claggart always despises Baby Billy because of these charming emotions so this feeling is in between jealousness & hatred and passion.
One day, Claggart thinks over deeply and decides to eliminate Billy Budd. He wants to make fall out of favour of Billy Budd and goes to Captain Vere. Claggart makes a plan to smear this innocent and clear hand man. Captain Vere does not believe him at first because of his good feelings about Billy but he acts like Machiavelli’s perspective of a leader. He takes Claggart and Billy Budd together to understand the real concern and asks Billy. Suddenly, Billy gets much excited and starts to stutter. In despite of Captain Vere’s tryings to make him calm down, Billy does not. Eventually, Billy’s arm crashes John Claggart accidentally and Claggart falls in a heap and dies. This crucial murder affects both Captain Vere and Billy. (Chapter 16-17-18 Billy Budd) Captain Vere tells an essential thing to surgeon: “Look! The god punished the liar Ananias in this way.” Although Captain likes Billy as a father, he should decide a punishment for him. At one side an accidental and unexpected murder, at the other side a pure sailor Billy. What will Captain Vere do about this event?
In addition, to understand the context of Billy Budd we should have some knowledge about some basic historical terms such as a great victory of British navy towards Franco-Spanish fleets at The Battle of Trafalgar. In my opinion, Herman Melville gives importance to these historical events and so he mentions them. Billy Budd reminds of The Prince in this respect because Machiavelli also emphasizes to know the past characters from history. For example, he gives some names in his book: Moses, Cyrus, Savonarola, Cesare Borgia…
Herman Melville also mentions in his book that if the general of a battle ship has a determined personality, the crew is affected by him in an effective way. Captain Vere is also one of the successful sea wolves as well. This tranquil man is nearly at the age of 41 and dignified, self-controlled and modest. He has an extensive knowledge, braveness, experience, and discipline about his occupation. He is connected to his job by heart so makes sacrifice many times. He loves reading books especially without any affectation, tradition especially Montaigne. Additionally, he has an aristocratic “virtue” which is not a moral and ethical feature. Machiavelli identifies this structure as “virtu” is amoral and neutral.
Captain Vere is completely a man of action and has a clear-thinking so he has a rational perspective and wisdom unlike Claggart. He should make a decision about the murder of John Claggart. Then, he starts an investigation about Billy Budd and wants to judge him. Captain Vere likes Billy with heart and soul but Billy’s crime by accident. On the other hand, he has nothing to do with this crime even if he gets happy about it. Captain Vere does not believe that this event cannot Billy’s sin. Despite all these, he puts away his paternal feelings about Billy and consider in a martinet and disciplinarian way. After many discussions, Captain Vere and his jury reaches a consensus which is an extra-ordinary condition: THE DEATH PENALTY OF BABY BILLY. Finally, Billy’s last sentence is that “God bless Captain Vere!” made me upset because nowadays many people die caused by unjust reasons as well. I think the death penalty must not be a solution whatever happens and whoever is or are. Fortunately, there is not exist this type of punishment anymore in my country but every day we may see demolition in public life.
Machiavelli’s Prince explains this range of consideration in terms of “fortuna and virtu”. In my opinion, Billy’s accidental crime can be identified as fortuna per Machiavellian idea since fortuna means that luck & chance and it is dependent on the flow of life. We cannot eliminate or change this luck. This is a problem but we can estimate the circumstances so this capability of prediction is called as virtu. I think Captain Vere has that kind of capability. He can divide his feelings and responsibilities even if it may be difficult. In addition, Machiavelli advises to leaders that virtu sometimes requires violation without thinking because of struggle of disobedience in their state. He similitudes the leaders with lions means that leaders should imitate this animal in collaboration with his army.
To sum up, I tried to discuss some substantial parts of Herman Melville’s novel of Billy Budd and Machiavelli’s letter of The Prince in terms of Billy Budd’s personality & John Claggart’s personality and their contrast against each other and Claggart’s depravity of human nature per Machiavelli; Captain Vere’s personality and leadership with fortuna & virtu and attitude to Billy Budd towards the murder per Machiavelli, too. Besides them, I talked about whether death penalty is necessary or not. I hope this ongoing regime will be changed and will be grabbed from the hands of Machiavellians.
- Billy Budd, Herman Melville, Yapı Kredi Yayınları Kazım Taşkent Klasik Yapıtlar Dizisi, 3. Baskı, Çeviri: Ahmet Seven
- The Prince, Machiavelli, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, Edited by Quentin Skinner & Russell Price