Benner Machiavelli 3: ends and means, excessive empire, Greek themes

Replies to reviews of Erica Benner, Machiavelli’s Ethics

Responses to specific points in reviews by Markus Fischer, Ethics; Vickie Sullivan, Journal of Church and State; Mikael Hörnqvist, Renaissance Studies; Victoria Kahn, TLS

(1) Executing one’s own sons (ends and means)

Soderini’s error and the sons of Brutus (Fischer). Fischer is surprised that I did not discuss Machiavelli’s criticisms of his former colleague Soderini, leader of the republic overthrown by the returning Medicis. He claims that the passage in question (Discourses III.3) offers a straightforwardly consequentialist justification of “extraordinary” modes, and thus undermines my argument. I plead guilty to omitting this passage, and many others (see first instalment of my replies on this). I hoped that readers would grasp my general method of interpretation, and assume that I’d approach all those particular omitted passages in a similar way. But since relating general principles to particular instances is not every Machiavelli scholar’s métier, I’ll try to oblige Fischer on this one.

The context and chapter heading make it clear that to understand Machiavelli’s criticisms of Soderini, we first have to understand his remarks on why and how the Romans eliminated the sons of Brutus. As with the example of Manlius Torquatus discussed below, Machiavelli commends Brutus’s severity in authorising the execution of his own sons – who were conspiring to overturn the fragile new republic and restore the monarchy – as exemplifying the need to place public laws above private or family feelings. Machiavelli is of course aware that many readers find Brutus’ strict law-enforcing stance excessively harsh, even cruel and inhuman. But defenders of the Roman republic saw it as a salutary lesson in the hard but clear choices that must be made when the republic is threatened: always choose the defence of public laws over private affections and interests, or the republic is doomed. Brutus’ choice was consistent with the laws of the res publica. It was therefore not extraordinary at all, but quite ordinary and reasonable.

What Machiavelli criticises in Soderini, this Roman background suggests, is that he failed to make this choice. He saw only two possible ways to preserve the republic against the Medici-supporting “sons of Brutus”: either by relying on his own “goodness” and patience to overcome his opponents, or to “take up extraordinary authority and break up civil equality together with the laws.” Since he did not want to do the second, he ended up relying on the first method, which proved deficient.

Contra Fischer, Machiavelli neither says nor implies that the second, extraordinary mode would have done the trick. Destroying equality and the laws was not the only way to “eliminate” the sons of Brutus/Medicis-in-exile. After all, these extraordinary methods were not those used in Rome to ward off a return to monarchy. Roman history showed another, better way, which Soderini used less fully than Machiavelli would have liked: the “ordinary” way of strengthening and enforcing laws against those conspiring to bring the Medicis back to power. The more general point here is not that the ends of safety of fatherland or freedom justify or excuse extraordinary means. It is that these ends must be upheld by strong laws enforced impartially against enemies, friends, or even one’s own sons.

Fischer seems a little unclear about deontology. As stressed in Chapter 9, deontological ethics need not rule out all consequentialist reasoning. Indeed, secondary consequentialist arguments may end up supporting fundamental deontological principles, as with the argument that the consequences of violating duties are always bad for an agent’s own interests. This seems compatible with the claim that one “should never allow an evil to run loose out of respect for a good, when that good could easily be crushed by that evil.” If the good is upholding the rule of law and equality in a republic and Soderini was too wary of enforcing it, then he fell short on both consequentialist and principled grounds. Whether you judge him (as most people do) “by the end” or also by principles, the judgement is the same: Soderini should have placed less faith in his own “goodness”, thinking this would win over enemies of the republic, and relied more on harsh, impersonal enforcement of the laws.

Manlius Torquatus’ ruthlessness (Sullivan). Sullivan considers Manlius’ decision to apply the same penalty (death) to his son as to anyone charged with the same crimes “merciless” and “ruthless”. By praising him, she claims, Machiavelli must be vindicating excessive harshness – not defending the strict rule of law, as I argue.

My response is essentially the same as that offered to Fischer’s query about Soderini. As with Brutus and his sons in the first years of the republic, Manlius Torquatus’ action is a later example of a virtuous Roman upholding the strict rule of law, and refusing to make exceptions based on private (partisan or family) feelings. Machiavelli presumably expects some readers to be shocked by this example because they think it is less “cruel” for public officials to seek exemptions for their nearest and dearest, no matter how dangerous their crime. But this kind of self-indulgence erodes the rule of law, which depends on strict impartiality, and relaxes vigilance against the enemies of the republic. See Polybius, VI.54 for similar, provocative remarks on this controversial feature of republican virtue.

(2) Excessiveness and empire

Excessive: a harmful or praiseworthy quality? (Hörnqvist) Hörnqvist makes only one substantive point in his review, and it can be answered briefly. The claim is that Machiavelli “clearly uses” the word excessiva in a non-pejorative way in all the instances where it occurs, including one I interpret as pejorative when linked ironically to the word virtù re the Roman Empire. But it’s by no means obvious that Machiavelli ever uses excessiva in a positive sense, let alone that he sees it as a “highly laudable” quality. In every instance Hörnqvist mentions, there is room for reasonable disagreement about whether or not excessiva implies a deficit of prudent and virtuous ordering.

Far from asserting that he’s wrong and I’m right – a sullen schoolboy mode of argument that scholars avoid – I’m happy to propose that this is one of those matters for legitimate debate that abound in Machiavelli studies. Readers must judge for themselves (1) whether Machiavelli’s general criteria for such ordering can be squared with a positive view of actions he describes as excessive, and (2) whether the examples he gives bear out a positive appraisal of those actions. If it’s unclear that they do, it may be that his statements apparently praising them are best understood as opinions that need to be examined, not as his own judgements.

The Tuscan mode of leagues (Fischer). Fischer thinks that Machiavelli could not possibly have preferred the ancient Tuscan league to the Roman mode of imperial expansion, since in the end the Tuscans were conquered by Rome. But being eternally immune from defeat cannot be a requirement for gaining Machiavelli’s, or any rational realist’s, profound admiration. As Machiavelli says, no merely human order lasts forever; and the Tuscans did acquire enough power in Italy to remain “secure for a great time, with the highest glory of empire and of arms and of special praise for customs and religion.” All this although the Tuscan confederation was not an empire dominated by one power, but “a league of several republics together, in which none was before another in either authority or rank.” (D II.4)

Lack of extant records means that we don’t know what defects eventually weakened the Tuscans. But I present strong evidence that Machiavelli did not think the only way to avoid conquest by others is to become a Roman-style conqueror yourself. And he intimates that for his contemporaries, what’s known about the Tuscan league – supplemented by independent reasonings – furnishes a more realistic model for imitation. For “if imitation of the Romans seems difficult” – indeed, Machiavelli says that no one has attempted it since because of this – “that of the ancient Tuscans should not seem so, especially to the present Tuscans. For if they could not…make an empire like that of Rome, they could acquire the power in Italy…[that] was secure for a great time, with highest glory,” etc. Also see my response re Philopoemen below.

(3) Greek themes

Philopoemen’s hunting (Fischer). Fischer alleges that my “Socratic widening” of Machiavelli’s discussion of hunting in the Prince ch.14 “only occurs because the ellipsis” in my quoted passage ‘there could never arise. . . any accident’ “replaces the phrase ‘while he led the army,’ which explicitly limits the usefulness of Philopoemen’s cogitations to military matters.”

I never occlude or discount the military dimensions of Machiavelli’s remarks, here or in other metaphors such as “one’s own arms” (Ch. 11). But there is no reason why his explicit mention of the military dimension of hunting must exclude an implicit philosophical dimension. Fischer ignores the ample evidence I present of ancient texts that combine military and philosophical themes in similar ways. In view of Machiavelli’s overt references to Xenophon and his frequent use of Polybius and Plutarch – probable sources of the Philopoemen reference – it seems mere common sense to consult what these sources said about the Achaean leader and hunting. Stubborn denials of any connection between Machiavelli and Greek authors have, one suspects, less to do with evidence than with some reviewers’ own lack of familiarity with those authors.

If Fischer could bring himself to pick up his Plutarch, he’d see quite explicit references to Philopoemen’s love of philosophy and his philosophical uses of hunting, which were interwoven in military exercises. Had Machiavelli wanted to highlight only military aspects of hunting, he could have picked many less philosophical “princes” who used hunting for military training in a narrower sense. If Fischer and other sceptical readers would consult their Polybius, they’d also see that Philopoemen was the most celebrated leader of the Achaean League, which Machiavelli associates (in D II.4) with the earlier Tuscan League in Italy – the same league that I think Machiavelli preferred to the ultimately excessive Roman mode of expansion. As Polybius writes, Philopoemen was the last Greek statesman to stand up to Roman bullying: he insisted on honouring agreements, but refused to compromise Greek autonomy for the sake of the Roman alliance (Polybius XXIV.11-13)

Machiavelli would certainly have been aware of these previous accounts when he chose Philopoemen to exemplify military/philosophical hunting. Indirect references to Polybius’ histories occur throughout the Prince; Polybius was also among Livy’s and Plutarch’s main sources. All were subtly critical of the direction taken by Roman expansionism in the fifty-three years up to the sackings of Carthage and Corinth in 146 BC. They regretted the loss of Rome’s earlier republican principles and restraint in foreign policy. It’s possible that Machiavelli disagreed with their judgements on the Roman empire. If so, his choice of Philopoemen is puzzling. If Fischer or anyone else has a better account for it than mine, I’d like to hear it.

Beasts and men, Chiron the centaur (Sullivan). Sullivan thinks I ignore “a fundamental difference between the ancients’ method of writing and Machiavelli’s own.” Whereas “he acknowledges that the ancients wrote in a veiled manner when he says that ancient writers ‘taught covertly’ the lesson regarding the necessity of using the bestial in human nature when they ‘wrote that Achilles, and many other ancient princes, were given to Chiron the centaur to be raised’. But unlike the ancients, Machiavelli makes no effort to teach this lesson covertly; rather, he proclaims it. In making this lesson and so many other harsh and unsavory lessons manifest, he is no longer teaching like an ancient, as he understands them. Benner does not broach this difficulty.”

But what is the lesson that Machiavelli and the ancients teach about “using the beast and the man”? Is it really so “harsh and unsavoury” as Sullivan claims? To get clear about this, we’d do well to consult ancient writings that mention Chiron the centaur. We’d find that while his body was indeed half-horse, half-human, he was the offspring of the God Cronos and a nymph. His own teacher was Apollo, god of light, truth, and healing, among other arts. After his death – he was accidentally killed while trying to mediate in a quarrel between Heracles and the everyday, un-godlike tribe of centaurs – he was granted divine status for his good works. His teachings dealt with the arts of war, but also with the arts of civilisation, moderation, and healing. Plato mentions Chiron in the Republic and other dialogues. These works and Xenophon’s Cyropaedia have interesting, philosophical things to say about combining the human-and-animal natures of centaurs.

Once Chiron’s characterisation in Greek mythology and philosophy is examined, Machiavelli’s “overt” teaching might appear less overt, more philosophical, and far less harsh and unsavoury than Sullivan supposes. There is, of course, a longstanding view that by invoking Chiron as a teacher of the bestial, Machiavelli was breaking with the classical tradition that stressed the wise centaur’s “medicinal” teachings. But since I find (in Chapter 5) strong reasons to question the usual, bad-bestial reading of the whole chapter, I also see no inconsistency between his message about “using the beast and the man” and the traditional, positive view of Chiron. The text is undoubtedly provocative: over and over, it challenges readers’ abilities to see through its snares and misleading appearances. But in the end, as I argue, Machiavelli’s foxes and lions don’t debase human standards at all. Neither, then, must Chiron do so in his teachings about what men can learn from beasts.

Francis Bacon thought that Machiavelli presented Chiron’s teachings “corruptly” in the Prince. His comments suggest not that Machiavelli believed in the corrupt version, but that he frequently set out corrupt versions of ancient lessons to warn readers against the “serpentine wisdom” of the corrupt. I agree with this, and read his comments on Chiron as ironic writing with several levels. At the most overt level, they teach princes to lower traditional moral standards. At another, they satirise such teachings in order to warn readers against serpentine reasoners who debase standards. At a third, deeper level, the comments revive ancient teachings about how to combine force and law, and how to correct human deficiencies by imitating the strengths of other animals. This reading may not be straightforward, but neither is the Prince, ch. 18.

Machiavelli and Greek philosophy (Kahn). “In stressing the continuity between Greek ethics and Machiavelli,” Kahn writes, “Benner plays down what distinguishes him from, say, Plato: the emphasis on purely human orders and on laws as purely human constructions.” We seem to have very different interpretations of Greek authors, particularly of Plato. As I read them, his dialogues invite readers to reflect carefully on human beings’ responsibility for working out and defending their own laws with no direct help from God – and on their responsibility for disorders caused by their carelessness, ignorance, or failures to set limits on their desires. See, for example, the myths near the beginning of the Statesman and the end of the Republic. Plato’s divine creator made the universe, but ultimately left our human portion of it to be ordered or disordered according to our own choices.

Kahn further writes that “[Benner] correctly argues that, for Machiavelli, ‘ragionare’ is a human capacity for reasoning that produces norms from within its own activity, but oddly sees this as a continuation of the ethical tradition stemming from Plato as well as Xenophon and Thucydides.” I’m not sure why this view is odd unless, again, Kahn and I simply have very different readings of Plato et.al. Surely Plato’s dialogues exemplify and elucidate precisely this: how norms develop through human logos or reasoning, especially through dialogue with others (understanding norms not as ultimate realities, but as human standards that regulate the search for and/or judgements about truth). Some examples from Xenophon are discussed in Chapter 2. I deal with Thucydides in a forthcoming book on his moral and political philosophy.

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Benner Machiavelli 2: history of ideas

Replies to reviews of Erica Benner, Machiavelli’s Ethics

Machiavelli in the history of ideas

1. Early defenders of Machiavelli. Several reviewers imply that my argument for an un-Machiavellian Machiavelli depends on comments by Rousseau, Harrington, Bacon and other early modern readers who saw his works (including the Prince) as defenses of the rule of law. I’ve said this before, but must say it again: my reading was partly inspired by their comments, but my case for a philosophical rule-of-law reading in no way depends on them. I thought this would be clear to fellow scholars: after all, I mention early modern readings only briefly in the short introduction, and later in scattered footnotes. Nothing in the introduction constitutes my main “case”; that is developed in the book’s remaining 500+ pages. And as I state quite clearly, it is mine alone and not Rousseau’s or Harrington’s or Bacon’s.

I don’t examine their views in detail because, as the introduction further states, (a) they said very little about Machiavelli and (b) my book is not a history of ideas but an independent interpretation of Machiavelli’s texts. The strengths and weaknesses of my case should be judged on the basis of that interpretation, not by how far it agrees with every point made by earlier readers whose sketchy remarks seem to endorse my main arguments.

2. Machiavelli as covert proto-Kantian. Several reviewers describe my reading as “Kantian”. Oddly, Hörnqvist adds Arendtian and Habermasian – though I confess I’m not sure what “Arendtian” means, and had no single conscious thought about Arendt or Habermas when writing. I may have thought about Kant now and then, since I see a (very) few references to him in my comprehensive index, and had indeed worked a little on Kant before. But my view of the history of philosophy is not teleological or progressivist; I don’t think that what comes later is more worthwhile than what’s earlier. And I certainly don’t think that Machiavelli needs to be glossed by Kant or any other modern author to be worth a long, analytically probing book.

I’m aware that some Machiavelli scholars, including a few of my most critical reviewers, are prone to discuss Machiavelli in the language of modern authors they think he foreshadows – notably Nietzsche, Heidegger, and other critics of Kant (or of “Kantian” ideas, whatever that might mean to them). It’s probably impossible to avoid discussing older ideas in language that reflects more modern concepts. But I try to use terms that stay as close as possible to the sense I find in Machiavelli and his ancients. And I don’t impose Kant’s distinctive concepts or arguments – his pivotal concept of right, for example, or the categorical imperative – on Machiavelli.

It bears reminding that Kant did not invent autonomy or deontology. Both words derive from Greek, and the pre-Kantian versions I discuss are fundamental in ancient Greek history, philosophy, drama, and poetry. The rather heavy-footed term “deontology” (first used in 1930) comes, of course, from the far more pleasing Greek deon/deonta (duty or obligation, understood as moral necessity). The argument that some things must be done or not done as a matter of such necessity, regardless of expected outcomes, is central to Greek ethical thinking (and some Roman: see p. 327 n 7 and 472 n 74 on Livy). So is the idea I attribute to Machiavelli that reflective prudence always shows the need to respect principles of justice, such that anyone’s true best interests never conflict with those principles.

So I can only account for charges of covert Kantianism by surmising that the reviewers are more familiar with modern authors (or schools of thought associated with their names) than with ancient ideas that resemble them. When they encounter an argument I attribute to Machiavelli that, in my view, echoes ancient ethical thinking about ends and means, justice, or freedom, they are reminded of more familiar “Kantian” ideas and may be unaware of similar, much earlier ideas expressed in Xenophon, Plato, Plutarch, or Livy.

3. Ancients and moderns. Re the last point, some reviews doubt that Machiavelli could seek simultaneously to revive ancient ideas and pave the way for what the reviewers insist are distinctively modern ones. One critic goes so far as to call this a “deep contradiction” in my argument (Fischer). But what do we call the Renaissance if not a movement to revive certain ancient ideas, thereby intending to bear them into the future? This intention only looks contradictory if you assume that there is some real, absolute break between ancient and modern thinking. In which case all those humanists who thought they were reviving ancient wisdom were simply deluded – or accidentally superseded their own aims by giving birth to something “modern” and superior. But there “is” no break out there, independent of particular authors’ purposes. It is of course a matter of debate whether Machiavelli’s purpose was to break from ancient ethical teachings or, as I argue, to refresh and extend them for present and future generations. Disagreement with someone else’s view, however, is not self-contradiction. Before conflating the two, reviewers like Fischer might consider that their own artificial oppositions don’t constitute hard reality.

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Benner Machiavelli 1: irony and esoteric writing

Replies to reviews of Erica Benner, Machiavelli’s Ethics

In the interest of debate, here are a few responses to criticisms made in recent reviews of Machiavelli’s Ethics. I’ll start with the most general arguments and work towards more detailed points below, and in later posts (2 on history of ideas, 3 on other particulars). Thanks to reviewers for helping to show what’s at stake / sharpen the lines of debate. Comments and questions are welcome.

General points:

Irony and “esoteric” writing. Several reviewers have expressed serious doubts about my argument that Machiavelli uses indirect or ironic (or as most critics prefer to say, esoteric) writing. This is unsurprising. People who for decades have read, taught, and written about Machiavelli as a defender of “Machiavellian” realism may well find it hard to recognise my Machiavelli. In particular, scholars who find some aspects of that realism profound and compelling are unlikely to warm to the suggestion that he presented it only to expose its weaknesses.

Others are sceptical about my proposal that by consulting his ancient, especially Greek sources, we find keys to otherwise puzzling references in Machiavelli’s texts. For example, few scholars ask why he refers so pointedly to Chiron the centaur (ch. 18) or Philopoemen’s hunting (ch. 14) in the Prince. As I’ll suggest in my detailed responses, readers who take the trouble to consult ancient discussions of these themes might be more open to recognising a subtly un-Machiavellian, philosophical level of writing in the Prince and other works.

But the main objection is that my interpretation plays down Machiavelli’s “manifestly” shocking or cynical dicta. Reviewers make two main claims in this regard.

(1) The more serious claim concerns how much weight ought to be given to different kinds of statement in Machiavelli’s texts, and how to reconcile them if they seem inconsistent. I do understand why my readings might seem “fantastic” or “bowderized” to readers who focus on Machiavelli’s most dramatic or notorious statements, while treating moderate-sounding remarks as less important digressions from the hard “Machiavellian” bottom line. The question I raise is whether this really is the best way to get the fullest possible account of Machiavelli’s meaning.

Briefly, I argue that Machiavelli’s most important commitments can be found in his more general, recurrent, and thoughtful statements. Examples include his lengthy reflections in the Prince on fortune and virtue, in the Discourses on necessity and knowledge (cognizione), and in both those works and the Florentine Histories on the value of liberty as “willing”. Many of his bluntest or most shocking assertions, on the other hand, are most plausibly read as questionable opinions or maxims that can’t easily be reconciled – logically or practically – with the reflective general views. The general statements, I argue, furnish stable touchstones for readers to judge particular examples and opinions set out in the text. As many other scholars have noted, the particulars often seem to contradict the general positions, or other particulars. I suggest that this is a deliberate strategy to get readers to exercise judgement. Far from setting out maxims to be imbibed on his authority, Machiavelli urges readers to puzzle out the paradoxes for themselves.

By outlining Plutarch’s account of this kind of reading and writing in Ch. 2 and discussing examples from Xenophon, Thucydides, and others, I show that this technique of “constructive dissimulation” is neither Machiavelli’s invention nor a figment of my own overactive imagination. There are very old traditions of dissimulative writing with methods and purposes similar to those I ascribe to Machiavelli; and some of the ancient masters of this kind of writing are referred to – explicitly, not esoterically – in the Prince and other writings.

Reviewers may have other good reasons to disagree with my reading, then, but it seems obtuse simply to insist without argument that Machiavelli’s “explicit” claims must represent his own fundamental judgements. Nor, for that matter, is it clear that the sum of his explicit claims overwhelmingly supports a cynical “realist” interpretation of his works, including the Prince. There’s a widespread tendency among some critics to fall back on conventional wisdom about Machiavelli’s views, instead of working harder to examine tensions and riddles in his writings – tensions that, as I’ve said, many scholars do in fact recognise, though too often only in passing. But even in scholarship, majority views are not always the right views, no matter how long they’ve been around.

(2) The second critical claim has to do with my selection of passages for discussion. My detailed remarks will acknowledge some serious issues raised under this heading. Some of the more sweeping critical assertions, however, are harder to take seriously.

For example, one critic (Markus Fischer) goes so far as to question whether my work meets “commonly accepted standards of scholarship” because I don’t discuss every line that might have some bearing on my interpretation. I plead guilty to the fact but not to the judgement. While I did indeed fail to deal with every one of Machiavelli’s “notorious” statements, I also failed to discuss all of his more moderate, rule-of-law-friendly ones, even when these might have supported my interpretation. Some limits were needed for an already long book, which was originally much longer. Several points I’m charged with neglecting were addressed in sections ruthlessly edited out in my final cut.

In any case, every book ever written on Machiavelli is guilty of “selective citation” supporting each author’s interpretation. The most “commonly accepted standards of scholarship” can require is that scholars do their best to take other relevant interpretations into account while setting forth our own, individual ones, backed by careful arguments and (unavoidably) selective evidence. I appreciate the reviewer who judged my book by this more realistic standard, writing that “the author does not ignore Machiavelli’s more infamous dicta, but argues that a careful reading shows that they are expressions of views he ultimately rejects.” (B.H. Harding, Choice)

The critics are right to suggest that my case would be more persuasive if I took the time and space to address still more of the “notorious” statements that support the usual, amoralist readings. Many chapters of the Prince and Discourses contain so many maddening twists and turns that it’s very, very hard to establish any unambiguous meaning. The Prince’s chapter 18 on foxes and lions, for instance, is one of the main sources of standard Machiavellian-realist readings – and arguably one of the trickiest pieces of dissimulative writing in western literature. To try to make sense of all the nuances in this and comparable chapters would have been impractical in such a wide-ranging study. I’m now trying to redress some of my oversights in a new, more narrowly-focused book.

I certainly don’t think it’s easy to make the case that Machiavelli was ironically critical of famous Machiavellian precepts. If I did, my “excessively” long book (Mikael Hörnqvist) would have been much shorter. Re this, I’m grateful for another reviewer’s more charitable comment that “Machiavelli’s Ethics contains no gratuitous assertions…considering what is at stake, this comprehensive approach is appropriate” (David Horkott).

Specific points

Fortune loves a woman-beater (Kahn). Kahn notes that I don’t discuss Machiavelli’s shocking remarks comparing Fortune to a woman who favours men who treat her harshly. She sees this as an example of an overt statement that can’t easily be explained away as ironic dissimulation. I disagree, though I was wrong to think that my discussion of Machiavelli’s obviously more reflective remarks on fortune made discussion of this passage unnecessary.

The Prince’s most reflective, general, and recurring position is that the prudent attitude to fortune is to create a good one through your own industria and virtù. One avoids the worst effects of bad fortune by thinking far ahead, building “dykes and dams” with care and intelligence. By contrast, this one infamous passage treats fortune as a masochist who only responds to men who seduce her through violence. It has all the marks of a corrupt, imprudent maxim followed by those who are too impatiently aggressive to do the necessary hard work. While they imagine that their brutish charms can dominate fortune whenever they choose, in fact the failure to build good orders over time makes their victories ephemeral – and ultimately self-defeating when their methods provoke equally violent resistance. The glaring misfit between Machiavelli’s more thoughtful comments on fortune and the woman-beating maxim should, I submit, alert readers to the irony.

My account of why Machiavelli dissimulates (Fischer). According to Fischer, I say that Machiavelli dissimulated his true views because his audience was so corrupt “that it would have scoffed at any overt moral teaching.” This is a simplistic corruption, if not perversion, of my account. He further implies that I give short shrift to fear of persecution as a motive. Had Fischer read Chapters 1 and 2, he would have seen that I do treat fear (or diplomatic circumspection) as one of Machiavelli’s two main motives, especially in the Prince and Florentine Histories.

On pp. 63-71 I discuss this and the second motive for dissimulating. This motive is educative and philosophical, rather than self-defensive or political in a narrow sense. It is aimed at young and incompletely reflective readers, not just at corrupt ones. As I describe it in Chapter 2 and throughout the book, the educative motive explains Machiavelli’s use of dialectical methods to train readers in independent, discriminating judgement. This motive rather than fear seems particularly prominent in the Discourses, but it plays an important role in all these works and in the Art of War.

Given the prominence of these motives and dialectical methods in my argument, I can’t easily account for Fischer’s claim that corruption in Machiavelli’s contemporaries is my primary or sole explanation. The charitable assumption must be that he did not read the relevant parts of my book, especially ch. 2, rather than that the distinction between political and philosophical motives went over his head. Nor do I claim that “all” of Machiavelli’s contemporaries were in fact corrupt (sic), which I cannot know, or that he thought they were, which I do not believe. However, Fischer’s suggestion that the views of contemporaries who subscribed to “civic humanism” could not possibly be corrupt is touchingly naïve (see esp. Chapter 1, sec. 1.3.).

Moreover, my argument that Machiavelli often dissimulates does not “hinge” on his epistolary comment that “for a long time I have not said what I believed, nor do I ever believe what I say, and if indeed I do happen to tell the truth, I hide it among so many lies that it is hard to find.” This is one, minor piece of evidence in an argument that hinges on detailed interpretation of Machiavelli’s works. So Fischer need not have expended so much space in insisting that the original says not “for a long time” but “for some time now.” Even if we go with his preferred translation, who knows what “some time” might mean? It might mean only Machiavelli’s “current” work on the Florentine Histories. But it might also mean the previous eight years or so during which he wrote the Prince and (as far as we know) the Discourses. Fischer’s laboured attempts to correct my errors are merely pedantic, and illuminate nothing.

An unfortunate irony (Hörnqvist). I’m sorry, though also bemused, that Mr Hörnqvist found my work imprecise and “inattentive to detail”. Mr Hörnqvist seems to think that readers will be predisposed against my book if he tells them it lacks the qualities it most obviously has (for better or worse; not everyone loves detail), qualities that less partial reviewers have underlined.* It’s true that I tended to focus on details that stood out for me and thus supported my interpretation. Obviously these were not the same details that stood out for Mr Hörnqvist. If Mr Hörnqvist himself were as attentive to precision and detail as he claims I’m not, he might have spelled my name consistently throughout the review, instead of shifting from Benner in the first paragraph to Brenner in the rest. Ironic, from a reader so impervious to irony.

*For related observations, see September post entitled “(Machiavellian) Guidelines for Scholarly Reviews”.

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Best Sellers in Philosophy

Best Sellers in Philosophy

October 2009 to date as identified by YBP Library Services
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Jul 12, 2010

1) Machiavelli’s Ethics
Benner, Erica
Princeton University Press
2009. ISBN 0691141762 [9780691141763]. $75

2) Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker
Stroumsa, Sarah
Princeton University Press
2009. ISBN 0691137633 [9780691137636]. $39.50

3) Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas
Brandom, Robert
Belknap: Harvard University Press
2009. ISBN 067403449X [9780674034495]. $29.95

4) Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933–1935
Faye, Emmanuel
Yale University Press
2009. ISBN 0300120869 [9780300120868]. $40

5) On Evil
Eagleton, Terry
Yale University Press
2010. ISBN 0300151063 [9780300151060]. $25

6) Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography
Young, Julian
Cambridge University Press
2010. ISBN 0521871174 [9780521871174]. $45

7) The Brain and the Meaning of Life
Thagard, Paul
Princeton University Press
2010. ISBN 0691142726 [9780691142722]. $29.95

8) Who Was Jacques Derrida? An Intellectual Biography
Mikics, David
Yale University Press
2009. ISBN 0300115423 [9780300115420]. $30

9) The Beast and the Sovereign. Vol. 1
Derrida, Jacques
University of Chicago Press
2009. ISBN 0226144283 [9780226144283]. $35

10) On Compromise and Rotten Compromises
Margalit, Avishai
Princeton University Press
2010. ISBN 0691133174 [9780691133171]. $26.95

11) Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness
Maier-Katkin, Daniel
W.W. Norton
2010. ISBN 0393068331 [9780393068337]. $26.95

12) Talking with Sartre: Conversations and Debates
Gerassi, John
Yale University Press
2009. ISBN 0300151071 [9780300151077]. $45

13) Socrates and the Fat Rabbis
Boyarin, Daniel
University of Chicago Press
2009. ISBN 0226069168 [9780226069166]. $45

14) Political Correctness: A History of Semantics and Culture
Hughes, Geoffrey
Wiley-Blackwell
2010. ISBN 1405152788 [9781405152785]. $89.95

15) Introducing Greek Philosophy
Wright, M.R.
University of California Press
2010. ISBN 0520261461 [9780520261464]. $60

16) The Gift of Thanks: The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude
Visser, Margaret
Houghton Harcourt
2008. ISBN 0151013314 [9780151013319]. $27

17) Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe
Epstein, Greg M.
William Morrow
2009. ISBN 0061670111 [9780061670114]. $25.99

18) The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis
Rifkin, Jeremy
Penguin Group (USA)
2009. ISBN 1585427659 [9781585427659]. $27.95

19) The Cautious Jealous Virtue: Hume on Justice
Baier, Annette
Harvard University Press
2010. ISBN 0674049764 [9780674049765]. $45

20) Philosophical Logic
Burgess, John P.
Princeton University Press
2009. ISBN 0691137897 [9780691137896]. $19.95

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TLS Machiavelli review

Greeks in Florence

by VICTORIA KAHN

a review of
Niccolò Capponi
AN UNLIKELY PRINCE
The life and times of Niccolò Machiavelli
336pp. Da Capo Press. £15.99 (US $26).
978 0 306 81756 4

Maurizio Viroli
MACHIAVELLI’S GOD
Translated by Antony Shugaar
332pp. Princeton University Press. $45;
distributed in the UK by Wiley. £30.95.
978 0 691 12414 8

Erica Benner
MACHIAVELLI’S ETHICS
544pp. Princeton University Press. $35;
distributed in the UK by Wiley. £24.95.
978 0 691 14177 0

In 1521, when Niccolò Machiavelli received a commission from the Wool Guild to choose a Lenten preacher in Florence, his close friend Francesco Guicciardini wrote to him that this was like having Pachierotto (a notorious homosexual) choose a wife for a friend. And he added that, while he was sure Machiavelli would acquit himself well, Machiavelli’s honour “would be dimmed if at this age you became concerned about your soul, for, since you have always lived with different beliefs [contraria professione], it would be attributed to senility rather than goodness”. Guicciardini’s worldly banter tells us that already, in Machiavelli’s lifetime, he was known as a religious sceptic, if an honest servant of Florence. Some fifty years later, a character named Machiavel appeared in the prologue to Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, declaring “I count religion but a childish toy, / And hold there is no sin but ignorance / … / Might first made kings, and laws were then most sure / When, like the Draco’s, they were writ in blood”. It was downhill for Machiavelli’s reputation from there. Although there have been plenty of defenders of Machiavelli in the past five centuries, being called machiavellian is still not a compliment. In different ways, the three books under consideration here set out to save Machiavelli’s reputation from the charges of evil behaviour, atheism and immorality.

In An Unlikely Prince, Niccolò Capponi portrays Machiavelli as a hard-working, if at times ineffectual, diplomat, one who shared the anticlericalism and worldly scepticism of his Florentine compatriots. Most of the book consists of a very detailed and engaging account of Florence’s foreign policy in the years Machiavelli was head of the Second Chancery, and of Machiavelli’s own diplomatic visits to Maximilian I, Cesare Borgia and other unsavoury characters. Machiavelli seems to have had a high opinion of his own judgement and to have disdained sending regular letters back to Florence. Hence the many requests from his employers for more frequent communication. But, far from being machiavellian himself, Machiavelli often showed remarkably poor political judgement.

When the Medici returned to power in 1513 and Machiavelli wanted his old job back, he made the mistake of writing two memos in which he suggested that the Medici should not attempt to recover their property and that bad-mouthing their predecessor, the legally elected Soderini, was not in good taste.
In Capponi’s view, Machiavelli is not as smart as he thinks he is and also not very reliable.
Capponi presents him as incapable of systematic exposition and argues that the contradictions in The Prince and the Discourses are the product of fuzzy thinking. He also thinks Machiavelli is just a little too obsessed with theory at the expense of practical experience.

If he hadn’t been so enamoured of the ancient ideal of the citizen militia, he would have wondered why the one he organized for Florence was so soundly defeated by mercenaries at Prato. But this would have required him to question his own love of antiquity, which Machiavelli failed to do. At the same time, Capponi sometimes presents Machiavelli as capable of strategic duplicity. For example, Capponi finds it entirely credible that Machiavelli, in his ongoing effort to find employment, would cooperate with Agostino Nifo in producing the famous bowdlerized version of The Prince, published in Latin in 1523, in which all of Machiavelli’s recommendations are presented as examples of behaviour that a good prince should avoid. Capponi also tells us that Machiavelli deliberately misrepresents the historical facts in his Florentine Histories in an effort to pander to the Medici. According to Capponi, such pro-Medicean propaganda shows that Machiavelli, like most of his contemporaries, put worldly self-interest above his republican leanings. Although Capponi’s Machiavelli is not particularly admirable, he does at times elicit our sympathy. It is painful to read Capponi’s description of Machiavelli’s later years, including his struggles with poverty and boredom, and his continued search for employment and intelligent conversation about the political affairs that interested him above all else. (Given this interest, one wishes that Capponi had written a little less about Machiavelli’s life and times, and a little more about the works in which he reflected on them.) In the end, according to Capponi, although Machiavelli was “in many ways a not very moral individual”, he was merely human, not machiavellian.

A very different Machiavelli appears in Machiavelli’s God by Maurizio Viroli. In this lively and wide-ranging book, Viroli argues that Machiavelli was a sincere Christian who thought that Christianity, interpreted correctly, was entirely compatible with militant republicanism. Despite Machiavelli’s reputation for originality, this was not, according to Viroli, an especially new or innovative claim. Rather, Machiavelli’s God was the traditional God of “Florentine republican Christianity”.

For this republican version of Christian humanism, charity meant this-worldly activity, in particular civic virtue, patriotism and the active defence of the republic. The fact that Machiavelli writes in The Prince that it is often necessary to act against religion might seem to pose a problem for this interpretation, but Viroli argues that Machiavelli believed God would “forgive” evildoers whose actions were in the interest of the common good. But Viroli’s Machiavelli is chiefly interested in the positive contribution of religious instruction to the realm of politics: in the Discourses and elsewhere, Machiavelli argues that religion is necessary for a thriving republic because it teaches virtue, honesty and respect for civic obligations. According to Viroli, these are lessons of great contemporary relevance: Berlusconi’s Italy, which laughs at corruption and has no sense of shame, sorely needs to relearn Machiavelli’s religion of civic virtue.
As the book unfolds, however, the outlines of this argument become fuzzy. At times, Viroli seems to be arguing that there is no difference between Machiavelli and earlier Christian humanists such as Tolomeo da Lucca, Coluccio Salutati and Marsilio Ficino, who also articulated a Christian defence of civic virtue. (If this were the case, it is doubtful we would still be reading Machiavelli.) Thus Viroli reads the famous end of The Prince, which exhorts the Medici in highly religious language to unify Italy, as sincere religious exhortation rather than, for example, as an illustration of how to use religion to “appear” divinely inspired. At other times, Viroli claims that Machiavelli offers a new definition of God, one for which the key attribute is not charity but the ability to inspire terror. This God seems less Christian than pagan, or at least compatible with ancient Roman practice of forcing soldiers and citizens to swear oaths to the gods, a practice of intimidation that Machiavelli admired for its ability to inspire patriotism. And at still other times, Viroli appears to undercut his thesis about Machiavelli’s belief in Christianity altogether by conceding that Machiavelli was not all that interested in God: “the Christian God did not occupy a central place in Machiavelli’s soul. His own spiritual food … was love of country”. Whereas the Christian reformers called for a return to Christ, Machiavelli, Viroli concedes, advocated a return to ancient virtue. In remarks such as this and in Viroli’s repeated references to Machiavelli’s “religion of virtue” or “religion of freedom”, religion becomes almost entirely metaphorical. But if religion is just a metaphor for patriotism or love of country, then Machiavelli’s references to Christianity are purely instrumental and Viroli’s take on Machiavelli a very familiar one – although at odds with Viroli’s initial provocative claim that Machiavelli sincerely believed that moral and religious reformation could be “achieved through a return to the genuine principles of the Christian religion”. Viroli, however, seems not to be aware of these contradictions or, if he is, he never resolves them.

Viroli’s argument invites other questions. He asserts that Christianity like pagan religion taught love of the fatherland, so there was no need for Florentines to hark back to pagan beliefs in search of a religion that would teach this patriotic message. But if this was the case for Machiavelli, why did he feel compelled to write a commentary on Livy? If Machiavelli was really a sincere believer, why did his friends call attention to his contraria professione, and why did so many of his sixteenth-century readers find his message offensive? Viroli suggests at one point that these readers had only read The Prince, not the Discourses. But, as Viroli knows full well, the Discourses also suggests that religion is important less for its truth than for its usefulness in manipulating the people, whether to deceive them or inspire them to heroic virtue. In a passage Viroli cites at several points, Machiavelli praises Roman consuls who use the language of religion for civic purposes even if they think it “false”. Machiavelli certainly recognized the positive uses of religion to inspire civic virtue. That this makes his message compatible with traditional Christian humanism is doubtful.

In her provocatively titled Machiavelli’s Ethics, Erica Benner wants to save Machiavelli for philosophy. Taking a cue from Rousseau, who read Machiavelli as a serious republican thinker, Benner argues that Machiavelli did not at all separate ethics from politics, as he is often thought to have done. Nor did he merely advocate a pagan or Roman ethic of the sort described by Isaiah Berlin in his famous essay on “The Originality of Machiavelli”. Instead, Benner argues, Machiavelli deserves to be seen as an ethical philosopher in the tradition of Plato, Xenophon and Thucydides. Like Plato, Machiavelli was concerned with prudent self-restraint rather than extraordinary actions in response to extraordinary events. Like Kant and Enlightenment thinkers, he wanted to elaborate a deontological and individualistic ethics in which moral autonomy takes precedence over a communal version of republicanism. Thus, in contrast to Viroli, Benner’s Machiavelli is not particularly interested in Italy or patriotism or God, and his individualistic conceptions of liberty and justice differ from both humanist and later republican thinkers. In Benner’s account, Machiavelli’s emphasis on moral autonomy means The Prince should be read as a critique of dependence and enslavement (including enslavement to tyranny). In a similar vein, and in striking contrast to Capponi, who thinks the Discourses is confused and the Florentine Histories self-serving propaganda, Benner argues that these works should be seen as offering a strenuous course in ethical deliberation.

One of Benner’s most important claims is that the Greek sources of Machiavelli’s ethics and Machiavelli’s way of writing have been neglected. She argues that Machiavelli learnt from Xenophon and Plutarch a form of rhetorical indirection that was designed to lead readers to perceive discrepancies, weigh alternatives, and in general hone their ability to make prudential (that is, both ethical and practical) judgements. Thus when Machiavelli writes that “everyone agrees” about something, he is usually more interested in raising questions about ordinary ways of thinking than in teaching princes how to manipulate people. To some extent, then, Benner concurs with Leo Strauss that Machiavelli’s writing was esoteric, but with the important caveat that his indirection was in the service of educating the multitude and not just the elite. Benner’s Machiavelli does not lower standards of human excellence (as Strauss’s does) but instead raises them. The Machiavelli who emerges from these pages believes in actively imposing form on circumstance but in a way that is consonant with law and moderation, as well as the human aspiration to freedom and autonomy.

Benner’s interest in Machiavelli’s rhetorical strategies produces gratifyingly detailed and impressive readings of difficult passages. These include some of the same passages on religion that Viroli discusses, but with very different results. Thus, when Machiavelli writes in the Discourses that the heavens inspired the Roman senate to choose Numa as Romulus’s successor, Viroli takes this inspiration straight whereas Benner argues that it is intended ironically: Machiavelli has already made it clear that no mere mortal has knowledge of the heavens, and that the Roman senate was often motivated by private ambition and self-interest. Benner’s Machiavelli is suspicious of most appeals to religion as encouraging political laziness at best and slavish dependence at worst. It is true that Machiavelli writes that fear of divine punishment will keep soldiers and citizens faithful to their oaths. But in Benner’s view, Machiavelli makes it clear that, in the absence of divine knowledge, there are still purely human ethical reasons for keeping one’s promises.
Machiavelli’s “religion”, then, is a religion of self-imposed obligations and ethical principles, above all the principle of justice. In this light, Machiavelli’s examples of the Roman use of religion to manipulate the people are designed to show the superiority of the kind of authority that results from “the laborious work of human reasoning”.

This is a provocative argument for Machiavelli as a proponent of moral autonomy and ethical reflectiveness. Yet in the end, Benner’s argument is vulnerable to some of the same objections as Viroli’s. In stressing the continuity between Greek ethics and Machiavelli, Benner plays down what distinguishes him from, say, Plato: the emphasis on purely human orders and on laws as purely human constructions. She correctly argues that, for Machiavelli, “ragionare” is a human capacity for reasoning that produces norms from within its own activity, but oddly sees this as a continuation of the ethical tradition stemming from Plato as well as Xenophon and Thucydides. (For a compelling counter-argument, see Miguel Vatter’s Between Form and Event: Machiavelli’s theory of political freedom, 2000.) But if Machiavelli was just reviving ancient Greek ethics, why was he seen as so subversive? Benner cites the reception of Machiavelli by Francis Bacon, Alberico Gentili and Rousseau to support her “ethical” reading of Machiavelli, but doesn’t stop to explain what ethics or moral philosophy means for these figures. She also implicitly discounts every reading of Machiavelli that sees him as scandalous or radically innovative, by arguing that what is superficially shocking in him is deeply rational.

Benner’s particular version of instruction through rhetorical indirection requires us to think that Machiavelli characteristically hides what he believes to be normative and displays what is not. While this is a plausible assumption in some cases and illuminating with regard to Machiavelli’s “dialectical” mode of writing, Benner’s hermeneutical strategy also allows her to gloss over some of the most explicit and disturbing parts of his work. Nowhere in the book, for example, does Benner comment on Machiavelli’s notorious “Fortune is a woman and the man who wants to hold her down must beat and bully her” – hardly a model of prudent self-restraint. This provocative aspect of his rhetoric was noted by his contemporaries. In his comments on Machiavelli’s Discourses, Francesco Guicciardini accused the author of being excessively enamoured of hyperbole and advised Machiavelli’s reader not to take “for an absolute rule what Machiavelli says, who is always excessively pleased by unusual and violent remedies”. In contrast, Benner’s Machiavelli is not excessive in any way and, for this reason, not quite recognizable. Despite its wide-ranging treatment of his works and its impressive lucidity, Benner’s reading of Machiavelli as Kant avant la lettre neglects those features of his work that have made Machiavelli a continual thorn in the side of Western philosophy and ethics, not to mention Western political thought. He was certainly interested in political autonomy, if this means not relying on the arms of others. It seems much less likely that he was interested in a specifically moral autonomy, prior to or separable from the realm of politics.

Like Benner and Viroli, every reader of Machiavelli is forced to confront the interpretive cruxes at the centre of his work. These include not only the relationship between The Prince and the Discourses, or the fact that Machiavelli recommends the imitation of ancient examples while claiming to be entering “upon a path not yet trodden by anyone”, but also the fact that his writing is characteristically ironic, oblique, allusive and contradictory. Because Machiavelli condemns lying and breaking one’s promises in his Florentine Histories, does this mean his description of this behaviour in the Discourses is intended as criticism? Because he clearly prefers republics, should we construe his advice to the Medici prince as merely ironic? Or, in a different vein, because he frequently refers to “God” or the heavens in his correspondence while mocking corrupt friars in his plays, does this mean that he sincerely wants to reform Christianity? Machiavelli’s irony does not usually involve simply saying one thing and meaning its opposite; it more often describes an attitude that embraces two possibilities at the same time. Benner usefully reminds us that his conception of free agency does not mean one acts without constraints.
Rather, agency for Machiavelli is always in response to existing necessities, and necessity is not so much an obstacle to action as an inducement for agents to order their own laws and legislate their own freedom.

In this light, we could say that Machiavelli’s agency as a writer responds to the harsh necessities of being a former servant of the Florentine republic under newly reimposed Medici rule. Thus, it is possible that he was deadly serious in his recommendations to Lorenzo de’ Medici, to whom he dedicated The Prince in the hope of preferment. It is also possible that in the same text, at the same time, Machiavelli intended (as Benner argues) to show Lorenzo and his uncle, the Medici Pope Leo X, how a good prince will in the long run have to moderate his rule and attend to the interests of the people. And this also means that Machiavelli could be sceptical of religion and critical of the use of religion to deprive the people of their own agency, at the same time that he recognized its uses to encourage civic virtue. He famously wrote to his friend Vettori that he loved his country more than his own soul. We are still debating, with Machiavelli, just what actions and beliefs such a love of country should encompass.

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(Machiavellian) Guidelines for scholarly reviews in the Real world

I’ve recently been asked to write a few book reviews. At first I thought I should keep myself honest by following the Guidelines for Charitable Reviewing set out here a few days ago. Then friends pointed out that those guidelines are absurd. For one thing, ideal conditions (A) and (B) could not be met unless reviews were done by amateurs. And if the negative maxims were followed, reviews would be boring.

So here are new guidelines for reviewing in the real world:

Dikaiosis’ Guidelines for Writing Scholarly Reviews

I. Positive standards

1. Guiding disposition: indulgence toward readers and yourself. Presume that most readers of scholarly reviews and books already have too much to read. Since you also have too much to read, and far more important things to write, you have a common interest in keeping things as undemanding as possible. A review that makes you work too hard will also be a slog for readers.

2. Guiding purpose: to promote one’s reputation and career. Readers should be impressed by your command of the subject at hand. So do whatever it takes to convey arch mastery, however ignorant you may feel about some aspects of a book. As for authors, a book that challenges arguments you’ve published should not be treated charitably. One must presume that the author of such a book is also concerned above all with their reputation and career. The relation between reviewer and reviewee is thus inherently polemical. Reviewing affords the perfect opportunity to defend and promote your own work, if needed by dismissing rivals’ work.

II. Positive maxims: things to do to gratify your readers

1. Don’t shy away from dogmatic assertions of right and wrong. Even if you secretly believe that most issues – including details you claim are brute facts – are debatable, readers don’t want to hear this. They want reviews to tell them what to think about books they haven’t read, not inspire them to read and evaluate the books for themselves. They’re more likely to admire your expertise if you assert that some things are self-evident, just so, etc. and that the book you’re reviewing is blind to these realities.

2. Opt for shortcuts, such as assertions about the content of the whole book based only on the Introduction and Conclusion. In these days of academic hyperactivity, readers can’t be expected to read an entire review book. So if you claim that arguments merely sketched at the start or summarised at the end constitute the book’s fleshed-out arguments, then criticise a book on this basis, most readers won’t realise that you haven’t bothered to read the rest.

3. Offer a few sweeping negative assertions about the quality of the book’s arguments, even if you have too little space to give proper examples. After all, reviews have to be selective. Better cut some sharp, hard-hitting swathes than to try so hard to be fair that you end up being dull. In courts of law, evidence produced to back judgements should meet reasonable standards of evidence-ness. Readers of scholarly reviews have no time for such things. A single, randomly chosen example followed by claims that “this exemplifies” or “illustrates” grave defects in the whole book should be enough to support incriminating verdicts. (We were told there was evidence of WMD in Iraq. Similar evidence of badness in books is offered daily by reviewers.)

4. Have no qualms about misrepresenting arguments, or making them appear worse than they are.

5. When going for the jugular, mask your ill-humour with cute witticisms. When throwing around ill-founded criticisms, ingratiate yourself to readers with jokes or light, non-scholarly references. This creates the impression that you’re so confident about your mastery of the subject that you can afford to sound nervous or infantile.

6. Smuggle in ad hominem insinuations about the author’s ethnicity, sex, etc. Some reviewers worry that this Cheap Shot tactic might make them look bad, even jeopardise their career. It might create the impression that you don’t think some categories of people have equal rights to engage in certain kinds of scholarship. Or it might insult readers’ intelligence, suggesting that you expect crude prejudices to sway their judgement. But there are ways to disguise such remarks so cunningly that the insinuating codewords can’t get you into trouble. A colleague has assembled a fine collection of examples from recent reviews (“How to get around the Tyrannies of Political Correctness without getting Fired”). Best reserve insinuations for the end of a review. If effective use of strategies 1-5 has already endeared you to readers, they’re less likely to take offense at anything you say in closing.

7. Don’t worry if you have trouble spelling the author’s name correctly or consistently. Far from convicting you of ineptitude, readers will think that this is a clever tactic aimed at undermining their respect for the author by inadvertently betraying your own contempt.

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Dikaiosis’ Guidelines for Charitable scholarly reviews

I’ve recently been asked to write a few book reviews. While I agreed to do some, I did so with trepidation. One’s chances of writing fair, balanced reviews are best when two conditions hold:

(A) When the reviewer doesn’t personally know the author, or influential people who are trying to support or undermine the author, or have any pre-history of good/bad reviewing with the aforementioned.

(B) When the reviewer isn’t heavily invested in any particular take on the subject, i.e. hasn’t written a book on it and isn’t in the process of writing one.

When condition (A) isn’t met, there’s often a whiff of cronyism or mentorism if a review is positive. If it’s negative, one can’t help smelling the influence of personal-or-power political rivalries. The reason for condition (B) is that there’s a fair chance a new book will challenge (or ignore) key arguments made in reviewers’ earlier book(s). If the usual response were sweet-natured, reasoned disagreement, the review process might promote scholarly debate. Unfortunately, most writers of books are prickly and defensive about their products. Some are also ferociously territorial. When a challenging new book intrudes into what they want to claim as their own safe turf, their instinct is not to enjoy the challenge and engage constructively, but to shut down discussion by whatever means can be devised.

I fail to meet these ideal conditions for the books I’ve agreed to review. While (A) I have no personal relationship with authors or their mates, in some cases we do have a prehistory – not an altogether happy one – of mutual reviewing and refereeing. Some of them, that is, have penned mixed or somewhat peevish reviews of my work, or I have of theirs. And to varying degrees I am (B) invested in the subjects. I plead as guilty as any author to being prickly and defensive about some kinds of challenge. I hope I am not, and never become, territorial. To keep myself honest, I hereby lay down some guidelines for reviewing books. May I get my comeuppance if I violate them.

Dikaiosis’ Guidelines for Writing Reviews of Scholarly Books

I. Positive standards

1. Guiding disposition: charity. Presume that any author who’s taken the trouble to write a book must care about the subject, not only about his-or-her reputation and career. Since you also (presumably) care about the subject, you have a common interest in having thoughtful, open-minded discussions about it.

2. Guiding purpose: to preserve and promote debate. Of course you care most about your own take on the subject, and want to show why more people should endorse it. But transparent, non-dogmatic reasoning (guided by the maxims sketched below) is the correct scholarly way to go about this. It’s an exchange, not a competition; a friendly conversation among different minds with different views, not a war where one view has to drive all challengers off the field.

II. Negative maxims: things to avoid in the interests of debate

1. Dogmatic assertions of right and wrong. Most issues – including many details that reviewers claim are brute facts – are actually debatable. Good scholarship acknowledges this and doesn’t claim that anything is self-evident, i.e. immune to further critical examination by other scholars.

2. Unfair shortcuts, such as assertions about the content of the whole book based only on the Introduction and Conclusion. In these days of academic hyperactivity, few reviewers take time carefully to read an entire review book. But if you claim that arguments merely sketched at the start or summarised at the end constitute the book’s fleshed out, substantive arguments, and then criticise a book on this basis, it creates the impression that you haven’t bothered to read the rest.

3. Sweeping negative assertions about the overall quality of the book’s arguments, without clear or sufficient examples. Since reviews have to be selective, they tend to encourage broad-brushed, poorly founded judgements. Better err on the side of caution than overstate your critical case. Evidence produced to back broad judgements should meet reasonable standards of evidence-ness. A single, arbitrarily chosen example followed by claims that “this exemplifies” or “illustrates” grave defects in the whole book may not constitute evidence sufficient to back such incriminating verdicts. (We were told there was evidence of WMD in Iraq. Uncharitable reviewers often make similar dubious claims about “evidence” of badness in books.)

4. Take care not to misrepresent arguments, making them appear worse than they are. If anything, bend over backwards to make them appear better. Then when you evaluate them critically, you won’t seem uncharitable and defensive.

5. Avoid cuteness and attempts to mingle poorly-supported criticisms with jokes or light, non-scholarly references. This makes a reviewer appear smug or nervous – either about the critical tone s/he has adopted, or about the challenge posed by the book.

6. Avoid ad hominem insinuations about the author’s ethnicity, sex, etc. Some reviewers seem to think they’ve disguised these so cunningly that the insinuating codewords can’t get them into trouble. Nevertheless, this Cheap Shot tactic is bad for debate. It also makes you look bad. It creates the impression that you don’t think certain categories of people have equal rights to engage in certain kinds of scholarship, or to be judged by the same standards as the rest. And it insults readers’ intelligence, suggesting that you expect crude prejudices to sway their judgement.

7. Take care to spell the author’s name correctly and consistently. If you don’t, readers might suspect that your assertions regarding an author’s imprecise scholarship, inattention to detail, etc. are a matter of pot-calling-kettle.

If I’ve forgotten anything, let me know.
DK

*PS: If you found these Guidelines unconvincing, see my related post “(Machiavellian) Guidelines” &c.

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