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.

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