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Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction Reviewed,
This review is from: Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (Paperback)
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.