Reviewed in the United States on February 25, 2020
The learned French medievalist Patrick Boucheron’s accessible 2020 book Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching People What to Fear [in a Ruler], translated from the French by Willard Wood (New York: Other Press; orig. French ed., 2017) includes Boucheron’s “Introduction” (pages 1-11; dated June 19, 2019) and 30 short chapters that Boucheron prepared as daily talks on French public radio during the summer of 2016 (pages 15-145), plus a chapter titled “Reading Machiavelli” (pages 147-153) and 47 illustrations scattered throughout the text (credits listed by page numbers, pages 155-159). But the book does not have an index.
Boucheron is circumspect and modest in his claims about his “little book”: “[W]e literally don’t know what to think of Machiavelli. Should we admire him or not, is he with us or against us, and is he still our contemporary or is what he says ancient history? This little book doesn’t pretend to resolve these questions; nor is it addressed to those who will read it to feel that they have right on their side – whether that side is answerable to justice or power. On the contrary, this book tries to stay in that uncomfortable zone of thought that sees its own indeterminacy as the very locus of politics” (pages 1-2).
Fascinating opposition: justice or power.
Now, Boucheron’s topic is the life and work of Niccola Machiavelli (1469-1527). Boucheron says, “Niccola would not have an illustrious tutor, nor go to university, nor learn Greek. He was therefore not a humanist, and those who prided themselves on that distinction held it over him all his life” (page 29).
But the celebrated Renaissance humanists venerated the three classical languages: Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. The English Renaissance poet and pamphleteer John Milton (1608-1674), for example, was fluent in all three classical languages. Because Machiavelli wrote his Discourses on Livy about the Roman historian Livy (59 BCE – 17 CE), I assume that he (Machiavelli) knew classical Latin, even though he wrote in his vernacular Italian – as did Dante (1265-1321).
In the English Renaissance, Shakespeare (1564-1616) also wrote in his vernacular language. Nevertheless, T. W. Baldwin’s classic two-volume study is titled Shakspere’s Small Latine and Lesse Greeke (Ubana: University of Illinois Press, 1944). You don’t have to be fluent in Latin and Greek to be fluent in your own vernacular language.
But Boucheron is inconsistent about what he says about Machiavelli not learning Greek. Boucheron says, “Unexpectedly, I found Machiavelli a useful guide and support – I’d almost say a faithful friend, one whose intelligence never failed me. This might seem overly sentimental if it didn’t echo Machiavelli’s own image of discoursing with the ancient Greeks [presumably in Greek], as he put it in his famous letter to Francesco Vettori in 1513, where he describes writing The Prince: ‘I am not ashamed to converse with them and ask them for the reasons for their actions. And they in their full humanity answer me’” (page 2).
Now, yes, in a letter of December 10, 1513, to his friend Francesco Vetton, Machiavelli writes of his conversing and communing in his home on his farm with ancient authors: “‘When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. At the door I take off my everyday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and don garments of court and palace. Now garbed fittingly I step into the ancient courts of men of antiquity, where, received kindly, I partake of food that is for me alone and for which I was born, where I am not ashamed to converse with them and ask them the reasons for their actions. And they in their full humanity answer me. For four hours I feel no tedium and forget every anguish, not afraid of poverty, not terrified by death’” (quoted by Boucheron on pages 62-63).
However, if Machiavelli never learned Greek, as Boucheron claims on page 29, then perhaps he was reading and conversing in his study with classical Roman historians such as Livy.
Boucheron says, “When the recent past was no longer any help, why should he [Machiavelli] not turn toward those he called his ‘dear Romans,’ plunge into ancient texts as if into a large, refreshing bath, and give the name ‘antiquity’ to this invigorating way of recasting the future” (page 16).
Boucheron explains that the Renaissance was “a renewal, the refreshed vigor of an eternal spring, Italy rediscovering its golden age by ripping aside a heavy curtain of darkness. . . . Not the past, but that active, live, and creative part of the past the humanists called antiquitas, in contrast to what is worn, old, and beyond use” (page 24).
Even so, Boucheron characterizes the Renaissance in Italy as “an over-investment in the cultural production industry” (page 117). However, his wording “an over-investment” seems to indicate a comparative judgment on his part, but he does not tell us what he is comparing “the cultural production industry” of the Renaissance in Italy with.
But Bourcheron also says, “He [Machiavelli] is first and foremost a man of action, always doing battle, a man for whom describing the world and giving a clear-eyed account of it is to make progress toward transforming it” (page 15).
In Boucheron’s chapter “Reading Machiavelli” (pages 147-153), Boucheron says that “the so-called national edition issued by Salerno Editrice, Rome, starting in 2000, . . . notably includes much of Machiavelli’s diplomatic writing and his chancery correspondence before the Medici coup d’etat in 1512. The publication of this enormous mass of texts, Legazioni, Commissarie, Scritti di governo (1498-1515), 7 vols. (Rome: Salerno Editrice, 2001-2012), has revolutionized our understanding of Machiavelli in his primary role as a man of action” (page 147).
Boucheron says, “From 1498 to 1512, for fifteen years, Florence’s secretary of the chancery [Machiavelli] composed thousands of dispatches, reports, and diplomatic letters destined for every part of Europe” (page 51).
Boucheron informs us that “the common language of [diplomatic] negotiation . . . at the time was Italian” (page 52).
Now, Boucheron’s Chapter 13 is titled “To Conquer and Preserve” (pages 69-71). In it, he says, “The book of Machiavelli’s commonly known as The Prince is actually called De principatibus, or ‘Of Principalities’” (page 69).
Subsequently, Boucheron says, “De principatibus: the book announces itself as a typology” (page 69). However, he also says, “Starting in the fifteenth chapter, there is a change of plan, a reversal of perspective: Machiavelli explores the virtues that make a prince the unscrupulous virtuoso of his own self-preservation. His treatise takes on another dimension, brilliant and provocative. This explains why, when it was first published, posthumously, in 1532, his Roman editor, Antonio Blado, gave it a more catchy title, in Italian: Il principe, the prince” (page 70).
Fascinating wording here: the unscrupulous virtuoso of his own self-preservation.
Boucheron’s Chapter 2 is titled “Machiavellianism” (pages 19-21). In it, he says, “Orwellian, Kafkaesque, Sadistic. Machiavellian. Having one’s name identify a collective anxiety is a dubious honor” (page 19).
Now, in Tim Parks’ “Introduction” to his 2009 translation of Niccolo Machiavelli’s Italian classic known as The Prince for the Penguin Classics edition (pages vii-xxx), Parks claims that “the ‘murderous Machiavel . . . gets more than 400 mentions in Elizabethan drama, thus making the Florentine’s name synonymous with the idea of villainy for centuries to come” (page xxvi). Parks mentions as examples “Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, Webster’s Flamineo in The White Devil, [and] Shakespeare’s Iago” (page xxvi). But Boucheron does not spell out this history for us.
In any event, the American Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt has gathered together Shakespeare’s portrayal of tyrants in his book Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, 2018).
Incidentally, the illustration on page 68 of Boucheron’s 2020 book is the cover of Tim Parks’ 2009 English translation of Machiavelli’s The Prince for the Penguin Classics edition.
In Boucheron’s “Introduction” (pages 1-11), he says, “I tried during the summer of 2016 [in his daily talks on French radio, mentioned above] to reconstruct the face of Machiavelli hidden by the mask of Machiavellianism; and if that face turned out to be as changeable as a storm-tossed sky, it’s because its owner hardly had the time to choose among his different talents. They all brought him back to his art of naming with precision that which was happening, his ability to take stock implacably, inextricably joining poetry and politics” (page 10).
Boucheron says, “Machiavelli’s political philosophy is a philosophy of necessity. It has a single aim: self-preservation. His rules of action have no other end than their utility: use them or not according to necessity. He cautions against always being harsh. . . . No uncalled for cruelty, therefore, no unbridled violence. A prince should make measured use of force – in short, learn how to be able not to be good” (page 74).
In a similar vein, Parks opens his “Introduction” by saying, “Necessity. Must. Have to. Inevitably. Bound to. These are the words that recur insistently throughout The Prince” (page vii).
But Boucheron also says, “His [Machiavelli’s] philosophy of necessity rests on the principle of the changeableness of the times and the unpredictability of political action. . . . To govern is to act blindly within the indeterminacy of the times” (page 123).
Boucheron claims that Machiavelli sees governing as “act[ing] upon adverse events. But it takes a certain virtu to do so, a political virtue that is also a form of practical reason [as distinct from theoretical reason], a virtue that Machiavelli despairs of ever teaching the princes of his era” (page 78).
In Boucheron’s chapter “Reading Machiavelli” (pages 147-153), Boucheron says, “On Machiavelli’s writing in general, my debt is to [the American political scientist] Harvey C. Mansfield, Machiavelli’s Virtue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)” (page 150).
Laura F. Banfield and Harvey C. Mansfield translated Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988) – with an introduction by Mansfield.
Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov translated Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
Harvey C. Mansfield translated Machiavelli’s The Prince, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
Now, Boucheron says, “In August 1531, Pope Clement VII authorized the Roman printer Antonio Blado to publish Machiavelli’s works: The Prince, the Discourses [on Livy], and the History of Florence in three volumes. Other editions followed shortly, in Florence and especially in Venice, which was then the publishing capital of Europe” (page 139).
However, as part of the Counter-Reformation, Bourcheron says, “The Jesuits orchestrated what amounted to an anti-Machiavellian campaign in Italy, and in 1559, The Prince and Machiavelli’s other works were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The Index was a list of pernicious books that one committed a mortal sin reading – a list regularly updated by the Sacred Congregation of the Index until 1961. In theory it prohibited even quoting from the books in question. In Spain, where translations of The Prince quickly appeared, papal censure kept the book from being distributed. In France, on the other hand, it gave the work a boost in the convoluted context of the Wars of Religion. Catherine de’ Medici showed such partiality to the translation of The Prince by Jacques Gohory that the Huguenots did not hesitate to brand her as Machiavellian” (page 140).
In Tim Parks’ “Introduction” (pages vii-xxx), mentioned above, he explains that the Florentine Catherine de’ Medici was the “daughter of the same Lorenzo de’ Medici to whom Machiavelli had dedicated The Prince. Catherine had brought a great many Italian favorites into the French court, a move guaranteed to arouse anti-Italian feeling. In general, she sought to dampen down the religious conflict which threatened to tear France apart, but nevertheless she would be held responsible for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572 when thousands of Huguenots were murdered” (page xxiii).
Now, because Boucheron twice refers to Jesuit opposition to Machiavelli (pages 20 and 140), I should mention here that the Jesuit order (known formally as the Society of Jesus) was founded by the Spanish (Basque) mystic St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), whose life chronologically overlaps with Machiavelli’s (1469-1527). For a detailed account of the crucial period of the founder’s belated formal academic studies in Paris, see the French Jesuit Philippe Lecrivain’s book Paris in the Time of Ignatius of Loyola (1528-1535), translated by Ralph C. Renner, S.J. (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2011).
Now, Boucheron says that Diderot held that Machiavelli wrote The Prince for the powerful, “teaching them a detestable sort of politics that can be captured in three words: the art of tyranny. But Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in The Social Contract, took the other side [of the argument]: ‘This man [Machiavelli] has nothing to teach tyrants, they already know perfectly well what they must do. He is instructing the people on what they have to fear’” (page 66).
Boucheron also says, “[I]f we want to know whom Machiavelli is addressing in The Prince, we need only turn to Chapter 15, where he says, ‘My intention is to write something useful for discerning minds’” – that is, useful for the minds of concerned citizens interested in discerning what to fear in civic rulers (page 66).
However, Boucheron also says, “In the article on Machiavellianism in Diderot’s Encyclopedie, we find this intriguing comment: ‘His [Machiavelli’s] contemporaries were at fault for mistaking his purpose: they read as praise what was intended as satire.’ Nothing is harder to perceive than the subtle art of joyful provocation. When he embarks with apparent relish, in Chapter 8 of The Prince, on a distinction between ‘well used and badly used cruelty’ in the actions of the ancient tyrant Agathocles, king of Sicily, and of Cesare Borgia, his contemporary, perhaps Machiavelli is perpetrating a caricature so broad that it amounts to a proof by absurdity” (page 88).
Now, the late American Jungian theorist and psychotherapist Robert Moore (1942-2016; Ph.D. in psychology and religion, University of Chicago, 1975) of the Chicago Theological Seminary discusses the Tyrant as one of the two “shadow” forms of the King archetype of masculine maturity in the human psyche.
For an introductory overview of his thought, see Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette’s short book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990).
For a fuller discussion of his thought about the Tyrant “shadow” form of the King archetype, see Moore and Gillette’s book The King Within: Accessing the King [Archetype] in the Male Psyche (New York: William Morrow, 1992).
For the fullest discussion of his thought about the Tyrant “shadow” form of the King archetype, see Moore and Gillette’s revised and expanded second edition of The King Within: Accessing the King [Archetype] in the Male Psyche (Chicago: Exploration Press, 2007).