Reply to Nederman’s NDPR review of Erica Benner, Machiavelli’s Ethics.

My book Machiavelli’s Ethics was recently reviewed by Cary J. Nederman in the Notre Dame Philosophical Review. Here is the review:

Nederman published a book on Machiavelli (Machiavelli: A Beginner’s Guide, Oneworld Publications, March 2009) a few months before mine came out. Since our aims and approaches are very different, disagreements are to be expected. However, the review also contains some serious misrepresentations of my arguments. As the NDPR does not have a policy of publishing authors’ replies to reviews, I try to set the record (partly) straight here.    Comments welcome.

1. Nederman thinks that I deal in an unjustifiably selective way with recent Machiavelli scholarship. He writes, “the way in which the preceding literature is or is not brought to bear on the arguments of this book has, in my opinion, the effect of distorting the record and, at times, of making Benner’s interpretations appear more innovative or original than they actually are. I do not believe, therefore, that I am quibbling.” I wish Nederman had offered examples of recent arguments that “innovate” in ways similar to mine. Far from wishing to “appear” original, at every step of my argument I looked hard for other scholarship that seemed to support my judgements, whether recent or old (or indeed “outdated”, as Nederman characterizes work done more than 30 years ago). If Nederman or anyone can show me additional, related arguments that I overlooked, I’ll be delighted to find further allies.

2. The review asserts that my “case for the view that Machiavelli was in thrall to the Greeks (presented especially on pp. 9-10) is weak and inferential at best.” Even if my case were “weak and inferential”, it is misleading to imply that I make it especially – or at all – on pp. 9-10. Here (in the Introduction) I merely sketch a few prima facie objections to a Greek reading, suggesting that they are too weak to disqualify my subsequent efforts to build up a very detailed, substantive case in Chs. 1-3.

A more plausible reading, Nederman insists, would link Machiavelli to Cicero. But it’s unclear to me why this link should be more plausible than one to Xenophon, who – as Strauss and many others have recognized – Machiavelli mentions far more frequently (and interestingly) than Cicero, or to Plutarch and Thucydides. Their names and examples also figure much more prominently than those of Roman philosophers or “schools” of later Greek philosophy. In any case, as I point out on p. 8, note 22, Cicero himself acknowledged the inspiration of some earlier Greek authors I discuss. The view that Machiavelli must have imbibed any Greek-sounding ideas through Hellenophile Romans, rather than by reading Greek authors for himself, is not easy to defend given the paucity of extra-textual evidence one way or another. To simply assert it against new efforts to study this question smacks of arguing from (poorly examined) conventional wisdom, and is therefore unpersuasive.

The review further alleges that my choice of Greek sources for Machiavelli seems “arbitrary”. My criterion is straightforward enough: I focus on authors who are either mentioned by name in Machiavelli’s writings, or from whom he draws key historical discussion pieces or philosophical themes. He does not mention Stoicism, Epicureanism, or any other “school”. This does not, of course, prove that he didn’t engage with their ideas. But even if he did (as argued, for example, in Allison Brown’s new book on Lucretius’ reception) he might still have been inspired in important ways by older Greek sources. An earlier draft of the book did include a long section on Aristotle. I cut it from the final version because the book was long enough, and – as explained in note 72, p. 84 – most of the relevant arguments are also found in Xenophon, who Machiavelli refers to more explicitly, and Plato.

3. By contrast with Straussians, Nederman writes, “Benner gives us no strong reason to prefer esoteric readings that distort and disfigure the surface meanings of texts in order to point to some deeper truth…The resulting hermeneutic, not to put too fine a point on it, might best be termed “Strauss lyte.” This is cute but not, in my opinion, fair. My reasons, which are less lyte than Nederman suggests, are set out especially in the discussion of Plutarch’s writings on literary dissimulation in Ch. 2, pp. 64-71. Also see note 12, p. 67 and pp. 490-93 on my differences from Strauss. I explain here why I prefer to call Machiavelli’s way of writing “enigmatic” rather than “esoteric”.

Nederman says that my “understanding of how Machiavelli read the ancient Greek historians and philosophers” is “somewhat tortured”. He does not explain what he means by this, beyond asserting that any reading of Machiavelli as an ironic or enigmatic writer must involve “hocus pocus” conjuring of meanings that lack any basis in his texts (despite Machiavelli’s own testimony that “I have not said what I believed…and if I do happen to tell the truth, I hide it among so many lies that it is hard to find”, pp.69-70).

4. The review doubts that my method of interpretation adheres to “reasonable standards of historical and intellectual plausibility…When, for example, Benner asserts that, despite all of Machiavelli’s praise for Roman republican institutions and “orders,” he “really” rejected the Roman way of life quite thoroughly and profoundly (pp. 475-478), it seems that we have surrendered those reasonable standards.” To put it politely, this is a thorough and profound misrepresentation of my position on Machiavelli and the Romans. I argue throughout the book that Machiavelli had a highly discriminating view of Roman “institutions and orders”. He praised its many virtuous “orders” while criticizing other “modes” that failed to respect crucial freedoms, both within and beyond the republic. For just a few examples, see Ch. 7 on republican institutions, Ch. 10 on religion, Ch. 11 on legislators, and Ch. 12 on empire. Since the pages he cites (475-8) in no way imply what Nederman claims they do, I’m at a loss to understand how even a hasty reader could misconstrue my argument so completely.

5. Despite these criticisms, Nederman finds my ethical interpretation of Machiavelli “compelling”, “definitely worthy of careful consideration”, and indeed “innovative”. He thinks that I did not need to “filter” Machiavelli through the Greeks to defend my own ethical reading, for which the book presents “many good reasons” without the added historical interpretative dimensions. I find this a fair and interesting point, and am aware that some readers may feel overwhelmed by the presence of not one but two main strands of argument in the book. But I did not include the Greek dimension in order to irritate readers who have little scholarly interest in it. I “filtered” Machiavelli through Greek authors simply because that is how I came by my own ethical reading of Machiavelli. Indeed it was only by reading him alongside Xenophon, Plutarch, and Plato that I began to understand why Machiavelli wrote in such a puzzling way. I could not have “decoded” key passages or grasped the structure of the ethics I attribute to him without their help. I therefore doubt that I could have set out a compelling and consistent “ethical individualist” reading without discussing Greek sources and methods of writing.

Even if this could be done, a closer investigation of Machiavelli’s Greek sources is still long overdue. Most Machiavelli scholars of the past century or so have, of course, been more at home with Latin than with Greek sources. But this should not lead them to repudiate efforts to re-evaluate the (very ample) textual evidence of Machiavelli’s interest in Greek writing.

6. Nederman charges me with perpetrating “a kind of interpretative anarchism (of the Alice in Wonderland variety)”. He thinks the book is too “ambitious”. It should have been more “chastened” and “constrained”. I doubt that anyone who reads my book in good faith can convict it of anarchistic leanings, interpretative or otherwise. And one hopes that even *Alices* have the right to venture outside the intellectual boxes guarded so nervously – though not always reasonably – by some of their fellow-scholars.

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4 Responses to Reply to Nederman’s NDPR review of Erica Benner, Machiavelli’s Ethics.

  1. Giovanni G. says:

    A strange review. I have not read the whole book, but the first chapters I saw make very strong arguments about the Greeks with many clear illustrations. I understand people will want to argue, but pretending there is no real argument looks like “bad faith”. Also I find inconsistent that he accepts your most controversial and “innovative” argument that Machiavelli has a special kind of ethics, but still wants to say the book is not so original or well founded.

  2. a serious reader says:

    I agree. Maybe some people want to resist a strong case for a new interpretation simply because there’s been nothing like it for hundreds of years. And probably they simply can’t believe that somebody should have made such a strong case in such an independent manner. But I think it will prove irresistible over time, maybe as the best book on Machiavelli since Machiavelli’s days.

  3. Thomas Malmer says:

    Here’s a short but more accurate review:

    Benner, Erica. Machiavelli’s Ethics. Princeton, 2009. 527p bibl index afp; ISBN 9780691141763, $75.00; ISBN 9780691141770 pbk, $35.00. Reviewed in 2010apr CHOICE.

    This major new study of Machiavelli’s moral and political philosophy by Benner (Yale) argues that most readings of Machiavelli suffer from a failure to appreciate his debt to Greek sources, particularly the Socratic tradition of moral and political philosophy. Benner argues that when read in the light of his Greek sources, Machiavelli appears as much less the immoralist or sophist he often is taken for and instead as a serious moral philosopher very much concerned with the republican ideals of justice and the rule of law. 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. Particularly noteworthy here is her careful attention to Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories. Benner’s reading of Machiavelli is far too complex and subtle for such a brief summary. Her research is meticulous and her arguments finely honed. This important contribution to both Machiavelli studies and the history of political philosophy will be indispensable for scholars. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Graduate students and faculty/researchers. — B. T. Harding

  4. Philasophia says:

    “Alice” needs to be chastened and should be less ambitious?? Oh dear. What a sad, uncomfortable outpouring in that last part. And how sad that some people still can’t accept women scholars thinking big all by themselves (incredible!) or producing truly “ambitious” work. Yes, even on subjects like Machiavelli.

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