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From Politics to Reason of State: The Acquisition and Transformation of the Language of Politics, 1250-1600.

In 1612, Trajano Boccalini took a step beyond Giovanni Botero to do what would have been shocking and unspeakable to Brunetto Latini in 1266 or even to Niccolo Machiavelli in 1512. He gave to "reason of state"-that insidious art of preserving the state of a prince--the good name of "politics." To these earlier writers, the word politics picked out the art of ruling a republic according to justice and reason--however necessary it might be, given Italian realities, to read or write those very different discourses on the means of preserving a state. A revolution in "politics" had plainly occurred. Hereby hangs a tale of ideological innovation and conceptual change told with considerable erudition and detailed scholarship by Maurizio Viroli.

Across four centuries of Italian writers, Viroli narrates the acquisition and transformation of the language of politics. He begins in the late thirteenth century, when the linguistic traditions of political virtue, Roman civil law, and Aristotelianism provided writers on city government the semantic resources to conceptualize politics as the art of the republic. In the next century, the civic humanists completed the elaboration of the idea of politics as civil philosophy, glorifying it as the most excellent human endeavor. In their different ways, Machiavelli and (especially) Guicciardini gave unprecedented theoretical power to the upstart art of the state, but without conflating this art with the earlier and more noble one to which they (especially Machiavelli) also contributed. The last glimmerings of civil philosophy are seen in the later sixteenth century at precisely the time that the art of the state was elevated to reason of state and, soon enough, to politics itself. Attempts to restore the noble art of the republic proved impossible or in vain. The triumphant reason of state made of it "a language of nostalgia or utopia": "The story ends where it began: the same country where the language of politics as civil philosophy was born, nourished also the growth of its mortal enemy and grave-digger".

From Politics to Reason of State is an exemplary history of political thought and case study in conceptual change, executed roughly along lines charted out by Quentin Skinner, to whom the book is dedicated. Bidding us to leave aside our contemporary mental habits and linguistic usages, Viroli painstakingly excavates earlier languages of politics and the state through close textual readings informed by an impressive knowledge of different conceptual contexts. An imposing list of theorists (most of them heretofore unsung) is analyzed with care and clarity. Indeed, most readers will find (or take it on good faith) that the list of theorists is exhaustive; and only a few will find it a little exhausting. Besides its intrinsic merits, the story that Viroli tells also provides him with the material in the epilogue "to prefigurate a conception of politics to which it is worth committing ourselves", namely, a restoration of civil philosophy itself.

In an otherwise excellent chapter on Machiavelli as master of the arts of both politics and state, Viroli sides with the view that the purposeful author of The Prince was attempting to educate "the one great political man" and perhaps engaging in a bit of "self-promotion," to boot. But the case for this is less well argued than it should be, given the detailed linguistic work Viroli has put on display. The Medici lord to whom Machiavelli dedicated and submitted his treatise was not a "political man" (in his sense): he was a corrupt grasper after his state. Viroli notes how the advice on patronage is "unconventional" and "deliberately distorted," whereas that on the utility of fortresses is downright "subversive". Yet Viroli takes little advantage of his own tempting remarks, even after he goes on to acknowledge that in the History of Florence, Machiavelli disguisedly remained the "implacable opponent" of the Medici. Whatever linguistic refinements he made on the concepts of politics and state, what Machiavelli the political man (in his sense, and ours) was doing in writing The Prince is still rather a mystery.

Mysterious, too, is how we can actually restore civil philosophy in our time. Having presumably been buried by reason of state in the seventeenth century, at least in Italy, civil philosophy's twentieth-century resurrection as "the art of the city" is a bit breathtaking. What sort of art, in the era of economics and the policy sciences? What sort of city, in the era of nation-states and transnational corporations? What will make civil philosophy sound like more than a few nostalgic sentiments about justice and friendship? Given such questions, it is surely very "strange" (as Viroli admits) to hear that such an art might from a discursive alliance with "the heirs of Kant and Mill," rather than "the contemporary advocates of republicanism". A historically informed civil philosophy may indeed provide rhetorical and theoretical resources to criticize statists, realists, participatory democrats, and communitarians. But one is tempted to ask exactly how civil philosophy and modern liberalism can cohere, cognitively and practically. After Viroli's careful linguistic work, one is tempted to ask how they can cohere "politically," as well. Worthy as the goal is, saying so will not make it so. Everything remains to be worked out. In the meantime, however, there is no doubt that "politics" in early modern Italy has received a first-rate chronicle. The memory it revives may yet assist the restoration of civil philosophy in our time.
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Author:Farr, James
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
Words:893
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