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Celenza, Christopher S.: Machiavelli: A Portrait.

CELENZA, Christopher S. Machiavelli: A Portrait. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015. 240 pp.--Celenza's Machiavelli is a lively biography of "the man and his world" in Renaissance Florence, and our author is concerned to emphasize that those "pre-modern" times are not ours--which accounts for much of the politically incorrect language and attitude which Machiavelli deploys and for which he is deemed to need an apologist. By "politically incorrect," however, Celenza means less politically immoral than out of kilter with our own more "enlightened" age: such as a now unappetizing attitude to sodomy, rape, and more generally to women.

Celenza inclines to downplay the amorality which has made Machiavelli famous: so no moralizing comment, for example, on the following from the Discourses: "[Moses] had to kill countless men in order to realize his laws and plans, men who were motivated to oppose his designs by nothing other than jealous hatred." Indeed, the book follows a growing historiographical fashion--compare, for instance, recent writing on Burghley--of ignoring moral reflection on a statesman's behavior and concentrating as far as possible only on his successes and failures. In this regard, Machiavelli's fortunes were mixed.

Celenza argues that most of Machiavelli's political writings were composed less to earn an enduring international reputation--The Prince and the Discourses were only published after his death--but circulated as part of a strategy to secure his own rise up the greasy political pole. For the goddess Fortuna, so respected by Machiavelli in his political thinking, treated her devotee with scant generosity. After rising fast under the regime of Piero Soderini (from 1498)--so long as it lasted--he lost place and face when it fell, and in 1513 found himself in the torture-chamber, suspected by the Medici of complicity in a conspiracy in which he had no part. His personal situation, as that pertaining more generally in Florentine politics, is well summed up in a letter from his friend Vettori: "I have had no greater sorrow than when I learned you had been imprisoned, since I knew right away that without crime or cause you would suffer torture, as indeed occurred. How it grieves me not to have been able to help you.... I did so however when the pope was elected, and I asked for nothing else but your liberation." In the politics of a city famed for its skills in painting, sculpture, sensuality refined and unrefined, banking, torture, cronyism, vendetta, and--during the brief suspension of the "liberty" of the "republic" by the Dominican Savonarola--fatally unworldly and apocalyptic piety, Machiavelli learned from youth that to be successful one needed effectively to deploy force and fraud and to admire greatness of will even in characters like Agathocles of Syracuse, whose savagery left him slightly uneasy.

Celenza notes that von Clausewitz, the later theorist of warfare, thought that Machiavelli had his priorities right: for a state to grow strong there is no substitute--as modern Europeans note--for the ability to back up diplomatic pow-wows by the deployment of substantial military force. This military force must take the form neither of mercenaries (whose only interest is pay) nor of professionals whose loyalty to their commander will exceed their loyalty to the state, as Machiavelli noted was the case in Rome after the land-reforms of the brothers Tiberius and Caius Gracchus (133-123 B.C.), but of part time citizen-soldiers. A high-water mark in Machiavelli's own career was his subjugation in 1509 of rebellious Pisa by just such a militia.

Machiavelli's consistent concern with military power, as Celenza shows, is backed up by constant reference to history, not only that of Florence (on which at the end of his life he wrote himself) but above all by "a continuous study of ancient [Roman] matters" as seen through Livy's moralizing eyes. Celenza does not emphasize the point, but such historical reflection--rather than the abstract moralizing of the Schoolmen--forms a compelling frame for Machiavelli's concern with men not as they ought to be (hypocritical clerics can pontificate on that) but with what they are: nasty, brutal, preferring hate to love, driven by fear, fond of vendetta, successful through promise-breaking, and, for many--admirably, as Machiavelli assures us--by an Augustinian libido dominandi. But what Augustine, whose view of human nature is similar to and part source of Machiavelli's (as that of his contemporary Thomas More), considers a vice is for Machiavelli a virtue, necessary in that great ruler who may succeed, as Machiavelli fervently hopes, in uniting Italy and ridding it of the "barbarian" French, Spaniards, and Germans.

Human beings being what they are, Machiavelli argues not only that feuds (and warfare) are more or less permanent features of public life, but that this is desirably so. In and through such tensions the greatness of his beloved ancient Rome, he believes, was nourished. And that greatness, as readers of Machiavelli well know, is--and can only be--dependent on a willingness to have recourse to lying and persuasive killing to nullify those unpredictable changes of fortune which characterize real and especially political life, and which the leader possessed of virtu will handle at the right time and with the appropriate tactics: often (in Hitler's phrase) originality--note pope Julius II's personal military exploits--plus brutality, but at times with seeming generosity. It is always necessary wisdom (pace most political theorists from Plato on) to appear good, but at the right moment spectacular cruelty (as delivered by such as Cesare Borgia when he had a now-hated associate cut in half and displayed in the piazza) is often welcomed by the wider public.

As for Machiavelli's private life, as described by Celenza and as depicted in his comedies, it is expectably sleazy and self-serving--as was typical of his age and class--and here too the principle that the end justifies the means is to be respected, especially in the hunt for sexual pleasure. Of course, beyond mere morality, Machiavelli's Christianity is nominal at best. The Roman Church, too weak to impose unification on Italy but strong enough, with the help of invited "barbarians" to deny its achievement by others, also offends by encouraging humility, a vice which can infect the potentially great and pervert them--though civic religion, again as in ancient Rome, is useful for maintaining social and military discipline.

Overall, Celenza's portrait is unsurprisingly titillating--academics are often attracted by men of violence--and unedifying. Yet, as intended, it well displays Machiavelli as a man in and of his times. But where our author comments on other philosophers he can be inaccurate or misleading, as on More and on Epicurus, whose metaphysical influence on Machiavelli he probably underestimates. In sum: a good read about a perceptive and influential man in a Florence of savage beauty, but not much philosophy.--John M. Rist, The Catholic University of America
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Author:Rist, John M.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2016
Words:1119
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