by Timothy Fuller, editor
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. Pp. vi, 206.
Notes, index. $47.50. ISBN: 0812247698
Contemporary Thoughts on Machiavelli
This reviewer would really like to have been able to recommend this book. Its subject is irresistible, and the authors include respected scholars, some of whom have produced analyses and translations of Machiavelli that I have previously enjoyed. However, the essays in this work are of variable quality. Moreover, they appear not to have been well-coordinated with one another, though the last essay feebly claims in its final paragraph that it addresses all the others. The result is often redundancy, rather than structured, complementary analyses. How many times does a reader need to be reminded of the obvious point that the adjective “Machiavellian” does not actually reflect Machiavelli’s thought?
The scattered nature of the volume is exacerbated by the fact that many of the authors address Machiavelli’s other works at least as much as their purported subject, without necessarily shedding greater light on The Prince itself when they do so. The introduction does little to bridge the gaps among the essays, providing synopses of them without unifying them into a coherent body.
Another deficiency of the book is that some of the authors here seem to assume that The Prince was intended primarily for a scholarly audience—i.e., for themselves and the academic circles they inhabit. However, any thoughtful analysis of The Prince needs to take into account Machiavelli’s triple identity as a scholar, as a practitioner of the political arts and as a patriot (both of Florence and of Italy as a whole). Debating whether The Prince was intended as a job application, a call to arms on behalf of Italian unity, a practical manual on statecraft, or a scholarly treatise on politics misses the point: it was all of these. Machiavelli’s obsequious dedication to the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de Medici, makes it clear that the author seeks re-elevation to the halls of power. The book that follows demonstrates both the wisdom that he would bring to a position and the loyalty he shows by entrusting his ruler with these treasured insights, despite his earlier mistreatment and ongoing banishment. His closing words, exhorting that ruler to redeem Italy from the barbarians, is entirely compatible with both the dedication and the body of the work: he wishes to stand by his ruler’s side as they perform great deeds together, leveraging his historically grounded insights. Arguments that the exhortation was written later and then added to the work (which one essay refutes) also miss the point. Even if it were written at a later date, which seems doubtful to me, Machiavelli himself integrated it into The Prince, clearly designating it as a cogent conclusion to his work.
Some of the essays’ arguments suggest that their authors, bored with simply analyzing the text, now seek to wring hidden meanings from it in ways that were unlikely to have been intended. One author argues that Machiavelli’s use of the phrase “effectual truth” exactly once, in an inconspicuous place in the middle of The Prince, indicates that this phrase is the key to the entire work. Others delve into obscurity, such as the one that obsesses over the meaning of the term “state” in Machiavelli’s time. Still others err by superficiality: an essay on applying Machiavelli in an American context contains insights no greater than those in a mediocre college paper.
A couple of the essays are clearly better than the others. Maurizio Viroli’s is well-written and cogent, making the case that The Prince’s closing exhortation indicates much of its intent. My only issue with it is that he dismisses the possibility that The Prince is intended to advance its author’s career on the grounds that it is insufficiently flattering to the Medici. This overlooks the focus of an entire chapter of the book that warns against flatterers; Machiavelli respects his reader enough not to flatter him beyond the obligatory dedication. The brevity of The Prince, compared with The Discourses and other works, also suggests who its intended audience was. As any government official knows, the shortest missives are those most likely to be read.
Another essay that stands above the others is on Machiavelli’s women, by Arlene W. Saxonhouse. It is thought-provoking and novel, linking Machiavelli’s interactions with women to his works and ideas. Her essay does more to place The Prince in the context of Machiavelli’s world than do most of those in this volume.
This lack of context afflicts the book in important ways. A couple of essays briefly counter the popular idea thatThe Prince is a satire (“the book of republicans,” as the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau called it), but do not enumerate the compelling contextual evidence against that possibility. Machiavelli lived in a brutal time and place, one continually vivisected by petty tyrants, foreign conquerors, savage religious fanatics, marauding armies, violent disorder, and rank corruption of both secular and religious authorities. His experiences were akin to those of a present-day Syrian, rather than those of a Western academic sitting in the comfort of a stable, prosperous, free nation. Under such conditions, establishing a just order was paramount, even if it meant that a leader sometimes had to be other than good. Like Plato’s Republic, which some would also dismiss as satire, the fact that a brilliant work conflicts with modern sensibilities regarding ethical government does not mean that it should be re-read as secretly espousing them.
A final deficiency of this slim volume is its cost, which is likely to put it beyond the desire of all but a handful of readers or libraries. While books are not sold by the page, and brevity can be a great virtue, $47.50 for a book with just 170 pages of essays is simply excessive. Were this an outstanding work, on a par with its subject, the authors would have a case for charging so much for a succinct body of distilled wisdom. Unfortunately, I do not recommend making this investment. Reading translations of Machiavelli’s own relatively accessible text (with footnotes to explain historical references that are obscure to a modern audience), together with coherent books about him and his work by one or two authors, is likely to be a much better choice.
Our Reviewer: Dr. Scott Savitz is a defense and homeland security analyst. He earned his doctorate and master’s degrees at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a bachelor’s degree at Yale University.