Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Garments of Court & Palace: Machiavelli & the World That He Made by Phillip Bobbitt

We recently toured Rome and Italy, where we viewed many of the splendors of the Italian Renaissance. Works by Michelangelo, Titian, and Rafael were prominent. The spirit of Leonardo da Vinci loomed in the background. These figures and others like them are considered among the glories of the Italian Renaissance. But perhaps the most important person to emerge from the Italian Renaissance was not a painter, sculptor, or poet. He was a Florentine diplomat sent involuntarily into exile from Florence to a country estate, where he took up his pen and began writing. He drew upon his deep knowledge of ancient history and Florentine history. He drew upon his extensive practical experience from many years as a Florentine diplomat. After his death, one of his works, On Principalities, was published. Immediately, it was subject to mistranslation, misunderstanding, and abridgment. It became known as the Courtier's Koran (and this is not a compliment). Who was this person? Niccolò Machiavelli. His name has become familiar through the centuries since the publication of The Prince (as the title was misleadingly translated into English) as a purveyor of sinister political advice. Almost every major commentator addressing all him him him him him him him him the history of political thought has grappled with Machiavelli’s works and wrestled with his legacy. In this book, Philip Bobbitt enters the fray.

Philip Bobbitt is a professor of law at Columbia University with continuing ties to his original teaching position at the University of Texas. In addition, he has served in foreign-policy positions under both Republican and Democrat administrations. Finally, and most recently, he has published two major works on law, strategy, and international relations: The Shield of Achilles and War and Consent. Compared to those two books, his foray into the world of Machiavellian studies is brief and succinct. However, Bobbitt has a compelling hypothesis and makes a strong case in favor of his interpretation.

Bobbitt argues that The Prince is a short detour from Machiavelli's longer work, the Discourses on Livy, which helped create the intellectual climate that allowed the resurgence of Republicanism in the Western world. Bobbitt argues that The Prince and the Discourses should be read as one book on the state (il stato). Instead of Machiavelli writing a “mirror of princes” work like his predecessors, Machiavelli is attempting something else. In The Prince Machiavelli aims to establish a practical ethics for establishing a state (principality). After the establishment of the state, Machiavelli recommends a transition to a republican form of government. Machiavelli undertakes this intellectual project in the hope that Italy will one day unify into a single state under a republican government, a hope that was not realized until several centuries after his death. In forwarding this argument, Bobbitt does not see Machiavelli as a teacher of evil, but as an astute student of political realities that is willing to weigh the consequences of action and not pay mere lip service to ethical guidelines that don't deal with the reality of those grasping for political power.

I found Bobbitt's argument convincing. Most who read Machiavelli have to admit that he has insights into the behavior of those grasping or seeking power (i.e., all of us). His classic query is to whether it is better to be loved or to be hated, a question that has a practical ring to it for personal relations as much as for political rule. Many readers over the centuries have felt that in taking any advice from Machiavelli one was somehow lowering oneself in a dastardly way, but this is not (necessarily) so. Machiavelli tries to establish the guidelines for founding a state (or regime or scheme of power) that can be later transferred into a more stable republic.

Bobbitt's argument about Machiavelli makes a lot of sense, but it also leaves many unanswered questions. The review of the book by Garry Wills in the New York Times suggest that Bobbitt’s book tacitly approves of a powerful state that will limit civil liberties and unduly aggrandize the regime. Wills seems to believe that Bobbitt’s argument grants license to the Dick Cheneys of the world to do as they will in protection of the state. I didn't read Bobbitt as making that argument, although I am curious to go back and look more closely at The Shield of Achilles and especially Terror and Consent to learn how Bobbitt draws these lines. Bobbitt does ignore the question of when Machiavelli’s ethics of The Prince should no longer apply. In other words, a newly formed principality, according to Machiavelli and Bobbitt, must work under different set of guidelines than an established republic. However, to what extent can a republic or should a republic revert to the ethics of a principality when under threat? Indeed, history seems littered with examples of political leaders who grasp for power when external forces threaten. The identification of an external threat is the oldest trick in the playbook for extending political power. According to Machiavelli and Bobbitt, how do we sort out the legitimate expediencies that Machiavelli might consider legitimate from those that would prove harmful to a republic? Our own republic has undergone a serious decline in civil liberties under the terrorist threats of the last 20 years, and before that, under the threat of communism. Despite the warnings of people like George Kennan, throughout the Cold War the US too often mimicked our adversaries in paranoia, state security, and limitations on freethinking. The same thing can be happening in the current age, although Al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism don’t pose the ideological threat that Marxism once held as an attractive messianic religion.

For anyone who is remotely interested in Machiavelli and the world in which he lived and acted, I highly recommend Bobbitt's book. Bobbitt is not a Machiavelli scholar, but he has done his homework and marshaled his arguments in a way that is convincing and appealing. I hope his next book will address the application of Machiavelli and Machiavellian principles in today's world and how we can distinguish between the legitimate uses of power and their easy corruption.

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