TLS Machiavelli review

Greeks in Florence


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

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

Erica Benner
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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