Benner Machiavelli 2: history of ideas

Replies to reviews of Erica Benner, Machiavelli’s Ethics

Machiavelli in the history of ideas

1. Early defenders of Machiavelli. Several reviewers imply that my argument for an un-Machiavellian Machiavelli depends on comments by Rousseau, Harrington, Bacon and other early modern readers who saw his works (including the Prince) as defenses of the rule of law. I’ve said this before, but must say it again: my reading was partly inspired by their comments, but my case for a philosophical rule-of-law reading in no way depends on them. I thought this would be clear to fellow scholars: after all, I mention early modern readings only briefly in the short introduction, and later in scattered footnotes. Nothing in the introduction constitutes my main “case”; that is developed in the book’s remaining 500+ pages. And as I state quite clearly, it is mine alone and not Rousseau’s or Harrington’s or Bacon’s.

I don’t examine their views in detail because, as the introduction further states, (a) they said very little about Machiavelli and (b) my book is not a history of ideas but an independent interpretation of Machiavelli’s texts. The strengths and weaknesses of my case should be judged on the basis of that interpretation, not by how far it agrees with every point made by earlier readers whose sketchy remarks seem to endorse my main arguments.

2. Machiavelli as covert proto-Kantian. Several reviewers describe my reading as “Kantian”. Oddly, Hörnqvist adds Arendtian and Habermasian – though I confess I’m not sure what “Arendtian” means, and had no single conscious thought about Arendt or Habermas when writing. I may have thought about Kant now and then, since I see a (very) few references to him in my comprehensive index, and had indeed worked a little on Kant before. But my view of the history of philosophy is not teleological or progressivist; I don’t think that what comes later is more worthwhile than what’s earlier. And I certainly don’t think that Machiavelli needs to be glossed by Kant or any other modern author to be worth a long, analytically probing book.

I’m aware that some Machiavelli scholars, including a few of my most critical reviewers, are prone to discuss Machiavelli in the language of modern authors they think he foreshadows – notably Nietzsche, Heidegger, and other critics of Kant (or of “Kantian” ideas, whatever that might mean to them). It’s probably impossible to avoid discussing older ideas in language that reflects more modern concepts. But I try to use terms that stay as close as possible to the sense I find in Machiavelli and his ancients. And I don’t impose Kant’s distinctive concepts or arguments – his pivotal concept of right, for example, or the categorical imperative – on Machiavelli.

It bears reminding that Kant did not invent autonomy or deontology. Both words derive from Greek, and the pre-Kantian versions I discuss are fundamental in ancient Greek history, philosophy, drama, and poetry. The rather heavy-footed term “deontology” (first used in 1930) comes, of course, from the far more pleasing Greek deon/deonta (duty or obligation, understood as moral necessity). The argument that some things must be done or not done as a matter of such necessity, regardless of expected outcomes, is central to Greek ethical thinking (and some Roman: see p. 327 n 7 and 472 n 74 on Livy). So is the idea I attribute to Machiavelli that reflective prudence always shows the need to respect principles of justice, such that anyone’s true best interests never conflict with those principles.

So I can only account for charges of covert Kantianism by surmising that the reviewers are more familiar with modern authors (or schools of thought associated with their names) than with ancient ideas that resemble them. When they encounter an argument I attribute to Machiavelli that, in my view, echoes ancient ethical thinking about ends and means, justice, or freedom, they are reminded of more familiar “Kantian” ideas and may be unaware of similar, much earlier ideas expressed in Xenophon, Plato, Plutarch, or Livy.

3. Ancients and moderns. Re the last point, some reviews doubt that Machiavelli could seek simultaneously to revive ancient ideas and pave the way for what the reviewers insist are distinctively modern ones. One critic goes so far as to call this a “deep contradiction” in my argument (Fischer). But what do we call the Renaissance if not a movement to revive certain ancient ideas, thereby intending to bear them into the future? This intention only looks contradictory if you assume that there is some real, absolute break between ancient and modern thinking. In which case all those humanists who thought they were reviving ancient wisdom were simply deluded – or accidentally superseded their own aims by giving birth to something “modern” and superior. But there “is” no break out there, independent of particular authors’ purposes. It is of course a matter of debate whether Machiavelli’s purpose was to break from ancient ethical teachings or, as I argue, to refresh and extend them for present and future generations. Disagreement with someone else’s view, however, is not self-contradiction. Before conflating the two, reviewers like Fischer might consider that their own artificial oppositions don’t constitute hard reality.

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