International Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 50, No. 2, Issue 198 (June 2010)
Machiavelli’s Ethics. By Erica Benner. Princeton NJ: Princeton University
Press, 2009. Pp. 544. $71.25 cloth.
Erica Benner identifies two dominant schools of contemporary readers—those who emphasize the demanding nature of the text (and share a kinship with Leo Strauss’s methodology) and others who focus on the wider political and cultural context that influenced Machiavelli. She finds deficiencies within both schools. While Benner appreciates Straussian/esoteric approaches to the text (for their propensity to see that Machiavelli was engaged with tradition), she sets herself apart from such realpolitik interpreters by rejecting the notion that Machiavelli proposed a radical break from Greek ethics and Christian morality.
Benner’s difficulty with the other species of contemporary readers (who focus more on context than text) is that such scholars fail to see the philosophical import of Machiavelli’s writings. Such readers locate Machiavelli in the stream of civic humanism and republican discourse of his era but miss the individuality and the conceptual challenges embodied in his writings. She is also aware of much older interpretations of Machiavelli. In fact, a significant part of her argument is that contemporary readers fail to take older assessments of Machiavelli’s writings with due diligence. Specifically, she reviews statements made by Gentili, Bacon, Neville, and Rousseau as providing important feedback for classifying Machiavelli as a moral philosopher. Benner argues that if we are to understand Machiavelli adequately, then it is necessary to “renew a very old tradition of readership that sees Machiavelli as a moral philosopher.”
Benner argues that Machiavelli neither wrote a technical manual for rulers nor simply repackaged republican ideas in provocative rhetoric. Rather, Machiavelli’s writings express an underlying philosophical task akin to Socrates’ mission. Like Socrates, Machiavelli begins with common opinions and proceeds to subject them to more thoughtful analysis. Machiavelli’s writings are “purgative and prophylactic” by exposing the dangers that are masked by the rhetoric of prudence and moral decency. According to Benner, Machiavelli adapted Greek examples of dissimulation because this type of writing demands exegetical circumspection from readers. In her view, Machiavelli is a philosophical historian in a long line of civil physicians that can be traced back to Greek exemplars (Socrates, Xenophon, Plutarch, and Thucydides).
In chapter 4 (“Necessity and Virtue”) Benner asserts that contemporary interpreters misunderstand Machiavelli’s teaching on the concepts of necessity and virtue. In his Florentine Histories (as well as in the Prince and Discourses), Machiavelli often presents the reader with situations where persons are constrained by necessity. Superficially, it seems that necessity overrides moral choice—one does what is required under extreme circumstances. However, this is not Machiavelli’s position. Machiavelli aims to make us more vigilant against reductionist thinking. When persons justify their actions in light of necessity, we would do well to scrutinize their stance. Machiavelli (according to Benner) serves to remind us that in speeches, “the rhetoric of necessity always has an urgent tone” and one of the most effective ways to short-circuit moral evaluation is to invoke necessity. Benner shows that invoking necessity is a type of self-excusing behavior (in Machiavelli’s texts). Typically, such irresponsible agents view necessity from their own narrow perspective. Necessity is also used as a pretext for ambition or for poor policy decisions. When confronted by desperate circumstances, Machiavelli wants his readers to remain composed so that they may choose intelligently among different ways to respond to necessity. In fact, virtue is primarily a synonym for skill in evaluating and assessing constraints. To be more precise, Virtú is “reflective prudence.” Machiavelli defends “the rule of law” against the “rule of men” by equipping readers with the ability to discern causes and remedies. Politically, we must become wise as serpents (and be mindful that the “serpents” are not always evil individuals but may include those with good intentions).
Benner does not stop with asserting that the ethical foundations of Machiavelli’s political philosophy have been overlooked by contemporary readers. She does not stop with denouncing those who portray Machiavelli as a cynic or amoral instrumentalist. (There are plenty of amoral passages in Machiavelli’s texts but—she reminds us—these are offered as common opinions that must be subject to dialectical examination.) Benner presses her argument further by claiming that Machiavelli is a deontologist. In chapter 9 (“Ends and Means”) Benner maintains that Machiavelli is not a consequentialist. In fact, Machiavelli points out many problems related to foreseeing and controlling consequences. Benner points out that the passages that express consequentialist reasoning are typically attributable to the imprudent. Again, the dialectical form of Machiavelli’s writings provides the key to understanding his work. Assuming that Machiavelli did not break from a Greek ethical tradition but sought to revive it, we may yet ask: “What aspect of that tradition did Machiavelli seek to revive?” In her view Machiavelli sought to revive the classical republican ideals of liberty, self-legislation, and rule of law. Ultimately, a political order is made good by virtue of its respect for free agency. Respect for free agency means that citizens must respect other people as free agents. In this sense, Machiavelli’s political “medicine” is fundamentally ethical. Good and stable order requires an ethical foundation. For this reason Benner places Machiavelli close to Rousseau and Kant in her philosophical taxonomy.
Machiavelli’s Ethics contains no gratuitous assertions. Benner builds her arguments on textual evidence. This book is a prime example of thorough and detailed scholarship. Even though the title of the work points to Machiavelli’s ethics, the author treats his epistemology, philosophical anthropology, and historical methodology. Considering what is at stake, this comprehensive approach is appropriate. Benner bases much of her analysis on the Florentine Histories and Discourses; she relies much less on the Prince. She also includes Machiavelli’s letters in her account.
With the publication of this bold but responsible contribution to scholarship, those who assert that Machiavelli was not an ethical philosopher have a significant amount of evidence and argumentation to overcome.
David F. Horkott