International Philosophical Quarterly

International Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 50, No. 2, Issue 198 (June 2010)
Machiavelli’s Ethics. By Erica Benner. Princeton NJ: Princeton University
Press, 2009. Pp. 544. $71.25 cloth.

Erica Benner identifies two dominant schools of contemporary readers—those who emphasize the demanding nature of the text (and share a kinship with Leo Strauss’s methodology) and others who focus on the wider political and cultural context that influenced Machiavelli. She finds deficiencies within both schools. While Benner appreciates Straussian/esoteric approaches to the text (for their propensity to see that Machiavelli was engaged with tradition), she sets herself apart from such realpolitik interpreters by rejecting the notion that Machiavelli proposed a radical break from Greek ethics and Christian morality.

Benner’s difficulty with the other species of contemporary readers (who focus more on context than text) is that such scholars fail to see the philosophical import of Machiavelli’s writings. Such readers locate Machiavelli in the stream of civic humanism and republican discourse of his era but miss the individuality and the conceptual challenges embodied in his writings. She is also aware of much older interpretations of Machiavelli. In fact, a significant part of her argument is that contemporary readers fail to take older assessments of Machiavelli’s writings with due diligence. Specifically, she reviews statements made by Gentili, Bacon, Neville, and Rousseau as providing important feedback for classifying Machiavelli as a moral philosopher. Benner argues that if we are to understand Machiavelli adequately, then it is necessary to “renew a very old tradition of readership that sees Machiavelli as a moral philosopher.”

Benner argues that Machiavelli neither wrote a technical manual for rulers nor simply repackaged republican ideas in provocative rhetoric. Rather, Machiavelli’s writings express an underlying philosophical task akin to Socrates’ mission. Like Socrates, Machiavelli begins with common opinions and proceeds to subject them to more thoughtful analysis. Machiavelli’s writings are “purgative and prophylactic” by exposing the dangers that are masked by the rhetoric of prudence and moral decency. According to Benner, Machiavelli adapted Greek examples of dissimulation because this type of writing demands exegetical circumspection from readers. In her view, Machiavelli is a philosophical historian in a long line of civil physicians that can be traced back to Greek exemplars (Socrates, Xenophon, Plutarch, and Thucydides).

In chapter 4 (“Necessity and Virtue”) Benner asserts that contemporary interpreters misunderstand Machiavelli’s teaching on the concepts of necessity and virtue. In his Florentine Histories (as well as in the Prince and Discourses), Machiavelli often presents the reader with situations where persons are constrained by necessity. Superficially, it seems that necessity overrides moral choice—one does what is required under extreme circumstances. However, this is not Machiavelli’s position. Machiavelli aims to make us more vigilant against reductionist thinking. When persons justify their actions in light of necessity, we would do well to scrutinize their stance. Machiavelli (according to Benner) serves to remind us that in speeches, “the rhetoric of necessity always has an urgent tone” and one of the most effective ways to short-circuit moral evaluation is to invoke necessity. Benner shows that invoking necessity is a type of self-excusing behavior (in Machiavelli’s texts). Typically, such irresponsible agents view necessity from their own narrow perspective. Necessity is also used as a pretext for ambition or for poor policy decisions. When confronted by desperate circumstances, Machiavelli wants his readers to remain composed so that they may choose intelligently among different ways to respond to necessity. In fact, virtue is primarily a synonym for skill in evaluating and assessing constraints. To be more precise, Virtú is “reflective prudence.” Machiavelli defends “the rule of law” against the “rule of men” by equipping readers with the ability to discern causes and remedies. Politically, we must become wise as serpents (and be mindful that the “serpents” are not always evil individuals but may include those with good intentions).

Benner does not stop with asserting that the ethical foundations of Machiavelli’s political philosophy have been overlooked by contemporary readers. She does not stop with denouncing those who portray Machiavelli as a cynic or amoral instrumentalist. (There are plenty of amoral passages in Machiavelli’s texts but—she reminds us—these are offered as common opinions that must be subject to dialectical examination.) Benner presses her argument further by claiming that Machiavelli is a deontologist. In chapter 9 (“Ends and Means”) Benner maintains that Machiavelli is not a consequentialist. In fact, Machiavelli points out many problems related to foreseeing and controlling consequences. Benner points out that the passages that express consequentialist reasoning are typically attributable to the imprudent. Again, the dialectical form of Machiavelli’s writings provides the key to understanding his work. Assuming that Machiavelli did not break from a Greek ethical tradition but sought to revive it, we may yet ask: “What aspect of that tradition did Machiavelli seek to revive?” In her view Machiavelli sought to revive the classical republican ideals of liberty, self-legislation, and rule of law. Ultimately, a political order is made good by virtue of its respect for free agency. Respect for free agency means that citizens must respect other people as free agents. In this sense, Machiavelli’s political “medicine” is fundamentally ethical. Good and stable order requires an ethical foundation. For this reason Benner places Machiavelli close to Rousseau and Kant in her philosophical taxonomy.

Machiavelli’s Ethics contains no gratuitous assertions. Benner builds her arguments on textual evidence. This book is a prime example of thorough and detailed scholarship. Even though the title of the work points to Machiavelli’s ethics, the author treats his epistemology, philosophical anthropology, and historical methodology. Considering what is at stake, this comprehensive approach is appropriate. Benner bases much of her analysis on the Florentine Histories and Discourses; she relies much less on the Prince. She also includes Machiavelli’s letters in her account.

With the publication of this bold but responsible contribution to scholarship, those who assert that Machiavelli was not an ethical philosopher have a significant amount of evidence and argumentation to overcome.

David F. Horkott

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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

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Svenska Dagbladet

Machiavelli var inte så machiavellisk

Publicerad: 2 januari 2010, 20.24

kolumn | Rolf Gustavsson

Varför inte ta ett rejält kliv? Ett bokstavligen radikalt steg, en frigörelse från det som styrt mitt yrkesliv de senaste 35–40 åren. Denna jakt på aktualiteter. En ofta ytligt spännande men lika ofta intellektuellt torftig verksamhet.

Sagt och gjort. Jag slog till och inhandlade en bok som går mot strömmen, en som anlägger perspektivet bakåt, till antiken. En uppfriskande katharsis när jag nu stiger ur nyhetsflödet.

Boken lockade med en provocerande titel: Machiavellis etik. Författaren Erica Benner driver där tesen att den moderna maktpolitikens fader, Niccolò Machiavelli, inte var machiavellisk i sina värderingar. Han var inte tyrannens skrupelfrie och okritiske tjänare. Snarare var Machiavelli en moralfilosof med höga republikanska ideal, en kritisk humanist, anser Benner. Det förhållandet att han beskriver vägar till helvetet behöver inte betyda att han förespråkar dem. Det kan också tolkas som subtila varningar till den uppmärksamme läsaren, som ibland var tyrannen själv. Analysen kan ses som profylaktisk.

Som huvudargument för sin tolkning redovisar Benner mycket utförligt, ibland pedantiskt noga, kopplingarna bakåt till antikens tänkare och spårar hos dem många av Machiavellis tankegångar. De finns i första hand hos de gamla filosoferna, som Sokrates, Platon, Aristoteles, Xenophon, Thucydides och Plutarkos. Med långa citat pekar hon på paralleller mellan Aten och Florens. Detta rika tankegods väcker intresset att gå djupare i de antika texterna, men ännu en gång tvingas jag ångra mitt linjeval i det på sin tid nya gymnasiet. Jag valde bort den krävande helklassiska linjen, delvis av lättja och delvis på grund av en tokig, paranoid lektor som jag ville undvika. Idag tycker jag att det skulle ha varit spännande att i original kunna läsa exempelvis hur Plutarkos och Xenophon konverserade med makten.

Ett centralt råd hos Plutarkos, som återfinns hos Machiavelli, är att man inför obildade härskare bör undvika att rakt på sak framföra sin kritik. Sådant ogillar alla maktfullkomliga. Kritiken bör ligga underförstådd och indirekt mellan raderna. Xenophon förespråkar strikta lagar som hindrar maktens män att gripas av skenande hybris, en tankegång som också ekar i Machiavellis skrifter. Han återkommer ständigt till respekten för rättsamhället, för lag och ordning, som begränsar härskarnas extravaganser.

Det allra intressantaste och idag mest otidsenliga i Erica Benners framställning tycker jag ligger i de hårda krav som hon i Machiavellis och de antika klassikernas efterföljd ställer på läsaren. Aktiva, självständiga medborgare måste anstränga sig och träna upp konsten att genomskåda allehanda manipulationer. En uppmaning att bryta igenom det spindelnät av försåtlig propaganda som makten försöker spinna runt medborgarna, särskilt ett valår. En uppmaning som bör uppmärksammas i synnerhet av alla oss som kvackar i det offentliga bruset.


Erica Benner: Machiavelli’s Ethics

Princeton University Press, 2009

Rolf Gustavsson

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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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