Friday, May 22, 2015

The Other Machiavelli--Quentin Skinner's Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction

When anyone reads Machiavelli, it’s inevitably The Prince that’s read, and reading Machiavelli usually stops there. Short, pungent, and provocative, The Prince is an easy choice that facilitates endless consideration. But in some sense, while it’s The Prince that puts Machiavelli on the map—beginning immediately upon its publication and continuing to today—this does some disservice to Machiavelli and his underlying project. The Prince is a manual for those wanting to establish a regime in the world of the Italian city-state during the Renaissance. It also serves as a job application, prompted by the hope that the Medici family that had ousted Machiavelli from his position as a Florentine diplomat would bring him back from exile to serve them. (It didn’t work—but what a great audition!) But despite its later acclaim, The Prince addressed only the short game for Machiavelli. Machiavelli most wanted to see the re-establishment of a republic in Florence that could follow in the glory of Roman Republic, the ultimate template for a political regime according to Machiavelli. 

One the values of Quentin Skinner’s Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction (part of the Very Short Introduction books published by Oxford University Press) is that Skinner explores all of Machiavelli’s work. Skinner is a preeminent historian of political thought, especially that of the early modern period. His aim is to relate Machiavelli’s thought, not to comment upon it. Thus, we receive a direct, concise, and thorough introduction to Machiavelli’s life and work. Because Machiavelli’s The Prince elicited such strong opinions—most often in the form of opprobrium—from the time of its first readers and continuing to today—it’s an extremely valuable service to learn exactly what Machiavelli thought in total (short of reading it all ourselves). I don’t think that I’ve encountered a more comprehensive and useful guide to the whole of Machiavelli’s thought. 

The comprehensiveness that Skinner provides the reader in his chronological account of Machiavelli’s writings and life provides an opportunity to see Machiavelli’s writings address the whole of his concerns, and his primary concern was not with would-be princes, but with republics. Machiavelli was first and foremost a republican. Not a democrat, mind you, but a disciple of liberty and mixed government. Neither monarchy or aristocracy nor democracy alone works as a form of government (ordini) that promotes liberty; only a careful mixture of all three allows liberty to flower. Machiavelli’s concept of liberty requires that a city-state (his preferred political entity, exemplified by classical Rome and (sometimes) Renaissance Florence) must remain independent of outside powers and remain internally balanced between the rich, who will seek for forward their private agendas, and the people, who will seek to counter-balance rich. Machiavelli believes that a republic can only survive through the existence of virtu within the individuals that form the polity as whole. But virtu in individuals and the states that they create is subject corruption and decay, and this worm in the rose becomes a central preoccupation for Machiavelli the republican. 

One of the pleasures of reading Skinner’s work on Machiavelli was the careful consideration of the issues that Machiavelli addressed. After reviewing this book, you will understand why Machiavelli remains topical. Even if you don’t agree with all of Machiavelli’s prescriptions and analyses (that are often harsh), you will appreciate that Machiavelli raises and frames a great number issues that we must still address today. For instance, the practice of the super-rich to dominate political decision-making through buying the favor of political candidates via (often anonymous) “campaign contributions” injures our Republic. Machiavelli identified this tendency, although he suggests that the mass of people would see through this ploy and rebel. That has not happened in the U.S., where only a small, vocal, and (mostly ineffectual) minority raises a cry against this corruption. Machiavelli also struggles with the problem of decay that corruption entails, and he attributes decay to the loss of virtu among the people and their leaders. Machiavelli’s perspective on this problem is similar to that of Ibn Khaldun, the medieval North African thinker considered by contemporary authors such as Earnest Gellner and Peter Turchin. And on the corruption of our republic, Machiavelli seems as if he’d be right at home discussing these concerns with our contemporaries such as Lawrence Lessig or Francis Fukuyama, who’ve penned valuable works on the corruption of our political system. Lessig, for instance, has been a leader in trying to stem the influence of very big money—think Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson—on our political process.

Almost any introductory course about political philosophy or political theory will address Machiavelli, but probably only as the author of The Prince, but this is a disservice. In an ideal world, student would, at a minimum, read the Discourses as well. (I admit I haven’t—yet.) But having read this book by Quentin Skinner, I can now claim a much greater appreciation of this thinker-actor who brought political thought deeper into the world of political reality.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Time and Narrative, vol. 1 by Paul Ricoeur

I recall the first time that I read a complete book by Hannah Arendt. I was on a break from college. Reading Between Past and Future, I was awed. And more often, overawed. I felt that I gained insights from her only in glimpses, reading by lightning flashes—moments of insight followed by darkness and confusion. With time—that is, with multiple readings of her works, I gained some comprehension of what she intended to convey. When a reader confronts a dense, challenging text, if you can see lightning bolts of insight, those sentences or even phrases that we feel compelled to highlight or about which we utter a silent “yes!”, then you can feel confident that what you’re reading isn’t gibberish or pretentious baloney. The challenge comes from stretching your mind, not from poor writing or garbled thinking. So with this work of Ricoeur. I’ve read Ricoeur in limited doses before, but this is my second book- length dive into his work. (I read The Symbolism of Evil some years ago. All I can recall of it was that I was impressed, but I’m now hard-pressed to recount its argument.) This book proved just as challenging and intellectually bracing. With this review, I hope that I can provide a glimpse of what Ricoeur does in this project.

In this first of three volumes on the subject of time and narrative, Ricoeur opens with a consideration of St. Augustine’s meditations on time and its three-fold nature. Memory is a key concept for Augustine, and Ricoeur considers Augustine’s scheme of the past recollected now, the now, and the now-imagined future (or memory, direct perception, and expectation). (Augustine perhaps the quintessential Trinitarian.) After laying this marker with Augustine and establishing the notion of time, he shifts to Aristotle’s Poetics to consider the Philosopher’s use of muthos (plot, story, account—narrative?). In the finale of his account of the “circle of narrative and temporality”, Ricoeur explores how time and narrative mesh through the several senses of mimesis (the representation or imitation of reality in literature and art) that he identifies. Ricoeur, by the way, makes his own three-fold division of mimesis

From this starting point, Ricoeur begins his consideration of history as a form of narrative, which provides my primary interest for reading this book. How does history deal with these issues of time and narrative? Is narrative an essential ingredient of history or an impediment to a more analytical understanding? Here I’m going to drop any pretense of summarizing Ricoeur’s argument. It’s long and complex, but I will share the course of dealing with these issues, the works of Ferdnand Braudel, Paul Veyne, Raymond Aron, Max Weber, R. G. Collingwood (far too briefly), William Dray, Carl Hempel, Arthur C. Danto, and Hayden White (among others) all receive consideration. The depth and breadth of Ricoeur’s learning is impressive. While I name-drop, Ricoeur engages.  

In the end, Ricoeur, by deeply engaging with Braudel and Hempel on various issues, preserves and celebrates the role of narrative in history without negating the value of Braudel’s long-duree or Hempel’s covering laws. 

I will not attempt further at this point because I can’t yet do full justice to the diverse and complex arguments and explorations of this book, and I’ve already started volume 2. This is just a teaser for the reader and for me. To grasp and appreciate Ricoeur will take more than a single reading, so I intend to write more about this impressive foray into history, narrative, and time.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Invisible Bridge by Rick Perlstein

From Perlstein's webpage
Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and Rise of Reagan picks up where Nixonland left off, with Richard Nixon at the pinnacle of his power and then falling from the triumphant political height he had finally attained into the disgrace of his resignation. Nixon’s fall allowed the enigmatic former governor of California, pitchman, and movie star to emerge as a beacon for (extremely) conservative Republicans. As Perlstein provided a mini-biography of Nixon in Nixonland, so he provides a mini-biography of Reagan as the central character in The Invisible Bridge. These mini-biographies provide context for the roller-coaster narrative of political, social, and economic upheaval that Perlstein chronicles.

I began this period as a college sophomore, and as the book ends, I'm about to enter law school. In between, I married. To say that for all of my interest in politics, I wasn't paying as close attention to events as I might have is an understatement. In fact, I learned or was reminded of a lot that I didn't know or recall about this era, and for the most part, it wasn't a good time. The 60's were a time of significant change and some chaos, but events unfolded with a certain sense of hopefulness that was a counter-current to the shocking violence of that decade (1962-1972). The 70s, too, were a time of change, but the underlying theme during this period was one of pessimism and despair. Watergate, the War, inflation, crime, race relations, and a host of other problems poisoned the political atmosphere—except perhaps for one person: Ronald Reagan. He seemed (or was) oblivious to the downsides, except to use them (in his loose-with-the-facts way) as campaign fodder.

Perlstein is as much a chronicler as he is a historian. He rarely comments on the narrative, letting the facts speak for themselves (a deceptive turn of phrase). Indeed, one shortcoming of his work stems from his lack of comment and explanation. Perlstein baths--perhaps more accurately, drowns--the reader in facts. (802 pages of text.) But other than following a central character (Reagan), Perlstein imposes no unifying theme or provides no explanation. I recall reading somewhere that Perlstein reported himself a disciple of R.G. Collingwood, the greater British philosopher of history. Collingwood argued that history properly understood must (as it were) get inside the heads of the characters and experience their world and their choices as they did, but I don't think he argued that a historian could not use his own perspective, which has the benefit of knowing "the end of the story", to augment those original perspectives. But Perlstein takes little advantage of his perch from the future to provide further context. That said, Perlstein immerses the reader in the period by his exhaustive use of multiple original sources and thereby provides the reader with a “You Are There” feel.

Over the course of the three books that Perlstein has published to date, beginning with Before the Storm (which I haven't read yet), he's documented the tectonic shift to the right in the American political spectrum. This body of work provides a narrative background upon which other historians and social scientists can work to develop a more comprehensive account of this dramatic change. Could it have been different? If Nixon had served out his term, would the shift to the right have actually faded? (Nixon was by current lights a raging centrist.) One receives a strong sense of the randomness of change from Perlstein's narrative, and it leaves one with a feeling of "if only . . .” But here we are with a Republican Party more reactionary, nativist, and anti-intellectual than at any time in its history (starting with Lincoln). It maintains a libertarian and laissez-faire economics bent that provides a patina of intellectual respectability (and that accords with the money), but that aspect of the party trails in the wake of the angry voters, those cultivated by the simple, optimistic nostrums of the man with the invisible bridge, Ronald Reagan.