July 02, 2003

Books: The Machiavellian Moment

Definitely worth reading, although a sprawling and disorganized mess:

J.G.A. Pocock (1975), The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 0691114722).

J.G.A. Pocock (1975), The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 0691114722).

p. vii-viii: ...certain enduring patterns in the temporal consciousness of medieval and early modern Europeans led to the presentation of the republic, and the citizen's participation in it, as constituting a problem in historical self-understanding, with which Machiavelli and his contemporaries can be seen both explicitly and implicitly contending.... In the language which had been developed for the purpose... the confrontation of "virtue" with "fortune" and "corruption"... how Machiavelli and his contemporaries pursued the intimations of these words.... It is further affirmed that "the Machiavellian moment" had a continuing history... Florentine theory and its image of Venetian practice left an important paradigmatic legacy: concepts of balanced government, dynamic virtu, and the role of arms and property in shaping the civic personality.... English and American thought of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries... has been a bearer of republican and Machiavellian, as well as constitutionalist, Lockean, and Burkean, concepts and values. The crucial figure... is James Harrington....

p. 50: The civic patriotism of Dante (1265-1321) was memorably intense, but he saw the delivery of Florence from faction rule as part of the restoration of Italy to spiritual and political health within a universal empire... he envisaged the descent of an emperor from the Alps as both a temporal and a holy event.... Considering empire an instrument of salvation, Dante placed Trajan and Justinian not far from Christ, and Brutus and Cassius with Judas at the very bottom of hell.... Dante's patriotism was Ghibelline and imperialist... he saw secular rule as the empire in which the eternal order was repeated and restored, not as the republic in which a particular group of men resolved what their particular destiny should be....

p. 53: When the Florentine intellect was prepared to accept loyalty to Florence as a concept separated from the natural order and its eternal values, we have one primary meaning of the widespread Florentine saying about loving one's country more than one's own soul....

pp. 164-5: In chapter v... he proceeds to say that.. a city accustomed to liberty.. is hardest to hold of all... the reason is that the memory of its former liberties, which can never serve to legitimate the new prince, is extraordinarily tenacious.... [S]omething more than use and custom is at work: "...in republics there is greater hatred and more desire for vengeance; the memory of their ancient liberty does not and cannot leave them in peace.... But the real question is why the usage of liberty is so hard to shake off, so impossible to forget. The answer seems to be that when men are used to obeying a ruler they do not have to alter their natures in order to obey someone else; but the experience of citizenship... sets an indelible mark upon their natures, so that they must indeed become new men if they are to learn willing obedience to a prince.... at the back of our minds must lurk the possibility that even for Machiavelli, men who have been citizens have known the realization of their true natures or prima forma....

pp. 308-9: But though virtue and corruption... formed a closed and comprehensive scheme... there existed a "Court" ideology, less articulate and prominent than that of the "Country," but capable both of furnishing some effective replies to the philippics of Bolingbroke and of being enlarged by Hume and his successors into a complex and ambivalent historical philosophy... based... on an awareness that [court and country] interpenetrated one another as did land and currency, authority and liberty.... The doctrine of parliamentary monarchy, asserting that executive and representative had the means of coexisting while conceding that some measure of patronage was necessary to get things done, was one mode of responding... as were Hume's teachings that authority and liberty, selfishness and altruism, passion and reason, existed in comparable relations of tension and symbiosis. England and Scottish theorists could not free themselves from the vision of some ultimate corruption, but had for the most part freed themselves from riding upon a wheel where the catastrophe might come at any moment....

p. 309: If the perception of reality in the colonies was so much more fragile, part of the explanation may lie in the fact that they constituted a Country without a Court.... The greater their apparent independence, the greater their sense that their virtue was their own; but the more active a government in which they did not directly participate, the greater their sense that their independence and virtue were threatened by a force they could only call corruption; and, as Machiavelli and Cato had taught them, once they mistrusted government there was nothing they should not fear.... The interpretation put forward by Bailyn and Wood altogether replaces that of Boorstin and Hartz, who seem to have held that there was no ideology in America becuase ideology could be produced only by Old World social tensions.... As we now see it, modern and effective government had transplanted to America the dread of modernity itself, of which the threat to virtue by corruption was the contemporary ideological expression....

p. 536: J. William Ward in his study of the Jackson myth.... [A] reputed outburst by the hero... "Damn Grotius! Damn Pufendorf! Damn Vattel! This is a mere matter between Jim Monroe and myself!"

p. 556: The most important and valuable criticism of Hans Baron's contentions... was put forward... by Quentin Skinner.... Baron and I could both be read as suggesting that a Florentine conception of active citizenship had been the first expression of republican values since the literature of ancient Rome... certain Baron contrasted it directly with a medieval concept of sacred empire, which he thought had known no rival for centuries. Skinner... brought to light... a rhetoric of civic virtue, republican citizenship, and good government... present since the middle of the twelfth century... the form of government it entailed had been noted by the historian Otto of Freisung about 1154 as needing explanation to his readers north of the Alps...

p. 558: It was not until the nineteenth century that the Funeral Oration of Pericles became a sacred text of liberal culture, with its claim that Athenians could pursue a diversity of goods in action or in play and still retain their devotion to the public good. But we need not see Romans as Spartans--although it is easy to do so--to realize that we have before us a sharp if not absolute distinction between the political and the social or cultural. The political is concerned with action and decision, which are goods in themselves and in the pursuit of which the actor declares who and what he is; actions and decisions aimed at lesser goods are closer to the character of enjoyment, and a polity or individual taken up with the pursuit of enjoyment may be termed "luxurious" or "effeminate." The Ciceronian ideal, located by Skinner in the thirteenth century, does not deserve these epithets and may entail a high degree of austerity, but it is concerned with all the goods of which human society is capable and its decisions are aimed at ensuring their just distribution. It is therefore concerned with justice--a term notoriously absent from Machiavelli's vocabulary, though he cannot be accused of not knowing or caring what it was--rather than with virtus, the rigorous self-discipline necessary to autonomy and self-determination in the field of public action. We begin here to encounter--though still at a very great distance--the distinctions between Isaiah Berlin's two concepts of liberty...

Posted by DeLong at July 2, 2003 10:37 AM | TrackBack


The Machiavellian Moment reminds me of a wisecrack I once heard about Marshall Hodgson's The Venture of Islam: "What a great book! Too bad it's not available in English."

Posted by: Martin on July 2, 2003 02:32 PM

Okay, so the guy thinks in elliptical paragraphs. Without the perspective this book gives, we can't really make sense of the English seventeenth century and colonial North American eighteenth century.

Posted by: Altoid on July 2, 2003 03:13 PM

To Altoid: I don't disagree. Come to think of it, several of the history books I have found most illuminating have been stylistically challenged, in ways that don't seem compelled by the material. Examples, besides Pocock, include Hodgson and something I read in college that I think was called Christianity and Classical Culture (author forgotten). And I find the style of the most illuminating history book I ever read, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change by Phyllis Eisenstein, to be understandable but somehow very annoying.

Posted by: Martin on July 2, 2003 07:07 PM

Also worth reading -- and esp. by economists :) -- is Pocock's Virtue, Commerce, and History.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct on July 3, 2003 09:26 AM

Virtue, Commerce, and History is great.

There is nothing disorganized -- but much that is sprawling -- about the Machiavellian Moment. Anyway, Pocock's prose gets a bad rap. The guy loves Gibbon, and I've heard him go on about the perfect balance of a Gibbon sentence, where anything asserted is taken away. Read some of Pocock's "humpbacked" (Hexter) sentences, especially in V, C and H, and you'll be amazed at how good those sentences really are. Still, M and M is, the joke goes, the longest moment in history.

But the book to read if you haven't is his first -- The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law. English historians -- what's left of them (especially in the States) after the Atlantic history people, inspired by Pocock, have changed the field so much -- still can't quite get figure out how to deal with that book.

Posted by: david on July 3, 2003 05:40 PM

Ancient Constitution _is_ great. I haven't read it in quite a while but can still remember being floored by the incredible density of thought in it.

The difficult language Martin speaks of may result from trying to think and say something really new about things people think they already understand. This is implicitly part of what Pocock's "linguistic turn" (cf essays in Politics, Language, and Time esp) is about-- not just the way language influenced what people in the past were capable of thinking about and doing; but also the difficulty of using the time-bounded language we have now to first understand and then describe very different patterns of thought and action. We do have leverage in that our language, because it's historical, contains the language(s) they used. However, meanings have been removed as well as added, and there are those pesky contextual differences to worry about.

Posted by: Altoid on July 3, 2003 10:19 PM

One other quote comes to mind.

Supposedly, someone walks up to Max Weber at a party and says, your work Economy and Society is a masterpiece, but so difficult to read!

To which Weber replies, it wasn't easy for me to write it, it shouldn't be easy for you to read it.

Posted by: Ted on July 4, 2003 08:57 AM
Post a comment