21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best Book on Machiavelli?
Machiavelli inspires a never-ending stream of academic studies and biographies which violently disagree with one another. But it will be a brave author who will disagree with Quentin Skinner, who says more of interest in this small book than dozens of his predecessors combined. If you read this, along with Isaiah Berlin's essay on "The Originality of Machiavelli" and...
Published on 26 July 2003
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A useful introduction, though dense and lacking in structure
The Very Short Introduction series by Oxford University Press has a good reputation for presenting challenging subjects in an easily accessible manner. Quentin Skinner's contribution, "Machiavelli", charts the life, career and major works of one of the most famous figures of Renaissance Italy, a man whose theories have had great influence on modern political thought, but...
Published on 7 Mar. 2008 by The Wanderer
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best Book on Machiavelli?,
By A Customer
Machiavelli inspires a never-ending stream of academic studies and biographies which violently disagree with one another. But it will be a brave author who will disagree with Quentin Skinner, who says more of interest in this small book than dozens of his predecessors combined. If you read this, along with Isaiah Berlin's essay on "The Originality of Machiavelli" and Sebastian de Grazia's biography, you can save yourself a decade or so of leafing through the chaff.
It's really amazing how Skinner writes on his subject with such precision given the difficulty others have had in pinning Machiavelli down. He has a genuine gift for explaining arcane academic principles in a simple, clear and interesting way. This doesn't mean that he evades the more doubtful issues and ambiguities regarding Machiavelli - he just has great judgement in spotting which are important and which are meaningless wrangles. I like reading this book almost as much as I like reading Machiavelli.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great resource,
Knowing Machiavelli only by reputation and starting a course of Renaissance study I found the amount of material available by and about him rather overwhelming. Having had great experiences with the OUP Very Short Introduction To series before I made this my starting point.
Skinner does a great job of condensing a significant amount of material into readily understandable, bite sized chunks. He focuses on three areas of his life, the writing of The Prince, the Discourses and his work as a Florentine historian. He attempts to understand the driving force of the man and his motivation in writing, particularly in relation to the key idea of virtus, which Machiavelli sees as a key quality in a leader, a successful state and a successful country.
I now feel prepared to tackle Machiavelli's work head on, with a great guide to help me. An excellent resource.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Machiavellian Reader,
I suppose there is a certain irony in reading Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction, for in doing so you indulge in the machiavellian trait that the means justify the end (or as Niccolo himself more eloquently puts it "though the deed accuses him, the results excuse him"). Ramming the history, context, treatise and fundamentals of Machiavellian philosophy into 100 pages is no mean feat. Notwithstanding the small writing.
After 100 pages of squinting you feel altogether more erudite, possibly confident enough to pub-challenge the use of the adjective 'machiavellian' as an inappropriate representation of the man's philosophy. You could lecture ad nauseam that Machiavelli preached, not that you should be duplicitous for the sake of duplicity, or immoral for the sake of immorality, but only as sensible strategies should the circumstances dictate. One in the eye for Cicero, Livy and his humanist pals. Seems pretty obvious to us rational, philisophically enlightened, media-educated children of Darwin. But to have said so to Machiavelli would probably have been an anachronism.
Power to Niccolo, the man spoke sense. Power to Mr Skinner, a virtuoso perfomance.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A useful introduction, though dense and lacking in structure,
The Very Short Introduction series by Oxford University Press has a good reputation for presenting challenging subjects in an easily accessible manner. Quentin Skinner's contribution, "Machiavelli", charts the life, career and major works of one of the most famous figures of Renaissance Italy, a man whose theories have had great influence on modern political thought, but who has been much misrepresented.
On the whole this is a good, straightforward account of Machiavelli's life and works, and even though the material feels very densely presented, Skinner's style and argument are generally clear. He traces the development of Machiavelli's political thought, from both his contemporary exemplars and Roman models (authors such as Livy and Sallust), showing both how drew on these sources and how he diverged from them, at every stage backing up his arguments with examples from the texts. Unfortunately it is difficult to get a sense of perspective on Machiavelli, since we are offered little clue as to how other historians have responded to the man's work in the centuries since his death. It is disappointing, too, that Skinner does not, in the end, come to any real conclusions himself about the man or his ideas, or his continuing relevance in the modern world. As a result the book as a whole feels slightly lacking in structure.
For the casual reader, or someone reading about Machiavelli for the first time, the material may initially feel quite daunting or overly-academic. More space could have been devoted to explaining the world of Machiavelli and the socio-political situation of Renaissance Italy c. 1500, to root the reader in the period first of all. One notable omission is that of a political map of the peninsula, which might have helped in providing some context. Similarly, it would have been useful to have as reference a chronology of Machiavelli's life, together with the main political events of the time. On the other hand, Skinner provides a long list of further reading, so that it is possible to follow up some of his points, although many of these are articles in academic journals, suggesting that it is the student rather than the general reader who is his intended audience.
Everything considered, "Machiavelli" is a highly informative and comprehensive overview of the man's career, although the casual reader may find it quite hard to get to grips with.
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars,
Short, certainly. Ideas and analysis, as a result, not as well developed as they might be.
4.0 out of 5 stars Good value introduction.,
Great short summary.
7 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction Reviewed,
Skinner’s contribution to the “Very Short Introduction” series of Oxford University Press serves the purpose for which the series is dedicated. It provides a brief, concise introduction to Machiavelli’s major political and historical works. A neophyte will find this book an invaluable beginning. Skinner adds a selective but useful bibliography, which permits students new to Machiavelli’s writings to further their studies. The humanist and historical frameworks too are sketched, as well as sufficient biographical details given for one to place Machiavelli in context. In keeping with the humanist tradition, it instructs and improves those who read it. I recommend this book because one learns by reading it and is, thereby, improved.
But I do not wholeheartedly endorse it because it fails to live up to one of Skinner’s hopes. He hopes that it might prove “of some interest to specialists in the field.” The author’s desire “to be of interest” leads him to state that he has “not altered” his “basic line of argument.” Machiavelli remains to him “essentially” an “exponent of a neo-classical form of humanist political thought” (preface). Neo-classical humanism was the milieu that provided Niccoló Machiavelli with his intellectual framework. He adopted, according to Skinner, both its forms and its principles.
The author also tells us, on the other hand, that Niccoló demonstrated “extraordinary originality in his attack on the prevailing moral assumptions of his age.” How can he both demonstrate “extraordinary originality” and be “an exponent” of something received? The difficulties of being both must be known to Skinner, because he informs us – in more than one place – that Niccoló “shatters” the humanist expectations that he had built up (see pp. 42 and 92). Niccoló goes out of his way, moreover, to assert his independence from the humanist and classical intellectual forms in Chapter XV of Il Principe. Perhaps a specialist would learn more if Skinner took that claim more seriously. Let us charitably assume that the conditions incumbent on writing a “very short introduction” have undermined the author’s capacity to justify adequately his conviction.
Mr. Skinner, also in his desire to say something to specialists, derides “Leo Strauss and his disciples” for their “unrepentant insistence” on passing judgment. Niccoló Machiavelli is in the traditional view “a teacher of evil.” Strauss takes pains to maintain that view. Skinner, on the other hand, dwells not on the examples used by Niccoló to illustrate his pivotal concept of “virtú.” For Skinner’s readers, virtú becomes palatable through its transfiguration into “moral flexibility.” Moral flexibility serves the maintenance and, far more importantly, the founding of a state. Niccoló’s virtú, however, shocks all but the most vitiated and obtuse, at least on first reading. We need merely reflect on the examples of Hannibal, Agathocles, Bagilioni, Alexander VI, and Caesar Borgia. Isn’t it better to ask why Niccoló wrote both what he did and how he did than deny the obvious?
Skinner is, however, very close to an important truth. If you want to understand Machiavelli, you must grasp his primary concern. That primary concern is the fate of his fatherland, which haunts every page of his writings. The fate of Niccoló’s first love causes him “to mull over the absurdities of this world.” Those absurdities eventually broke his spirit. Yet Niccoló’s reflections on “the goodness of his times” led him to see the requirements of politics. He came thereby to see its incompatibility with being a virtuous person. Virtuous, in the sense intended here, is the common, traditional sense of virtue. One is now prepared to understand Strauss’ twin assertions. The first, and by far the most famous, is that “[t]he problem inherent in the surface of things, and only in the surface of things, is the heart of things.” The surface of Niccoló’s teaching is that one must sometimes do evil to maintain “one’s state.” Evil is not always required to be effective in politics, but only sometimes. Niccoló fixes on those atypical sometimes, I hasten to add, because he endeavors to cheat fortune.
Perhaps it is now easy to see how Niccoló came to be a substitute for the Devil. This is Strauss’ second assertion. The Devil is a fallen angel, or “possesses a perverted nobility of a very high order.” On his deathbed, he lampooned Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio” with one of his own. Niccoló claimed to have dreamed that he saw two groups of men passing before him. The first were poorly attired, emaciated, claiming to be saints on their way to heaven. The second were regally attired and noble in bearing. Discussing the greatest themes of politics, they were ancient founders and political philosophers fated to hell. Niccoló opted to join them. He has no concern for his soul, because he loves his fatherland even more.
Yet Niccoló goes further than declaiming the weakness into which Catholicism led this world. He maligns ambitious leisure too. Niccoló seemingly reverses the ranking and alters the relationship between politics and wisdom as established previously in the tradition stretching back to Plato. Plato and Aristotle wrote to demonstrate that they could found entirely new regimes. But Niccoló places them below those who had become gods through founding actual regimes. The latter – real founders of existing and previously existing regimes – not only were capable but also were fortunate. Niccoló wishes, however, not only to demonstrate that he belongs with them in hell. He wishes to surpass them all, and with this realization we are tempted to use Milton in explaining the joke. Fortune can be beaten. The Devil too can be overcome. Revisiting the fertile fields found between the mountains, i.e., returning to Chapter XIV, is enough for you to touch what he truly is. It might do us all some good to invite Skinner and Strauss’ disciples to do the same.
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Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) by Quentin Skinner