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.