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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2 Responses to Benner Machiavelli 1: irony and esoteric writing

  1. Bernardo says:

    Benner is clearly the least defensive scholar out there. How dare anyone make any manner of critical comment, ever! Outrageous!

    • dikaiosis says:

      Not quite, Bernardo. I love a good debate and enjoy discussing criticisms of my work. And I’m not exactly shocked to find that some scholars disagree with me. But yes, I do want to defend my views in a civil and reasoned way. If responding to criticisms makes a scholar “defensive”, mea culpa.

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