A new book on The Prince arrived at my mailbox, last week: Miguel Vatter’s Reader’s Guide to Machiavelli’s The Prince. Vatter is professor in the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He has written about Machiavelli before.
I’ve been reading it since its arrival and am, so far, impressed by its scope and approach.
Bloomsbury.com describes the book as:
…a clear and thorough account of this key philosophical work. Setting Machiavelli’s text in its historical and philosophical context, the book offers a detailed review of the key themes (epistemological, social, ethical and theological-political) and a lucid commentary that will enable readers to rapidly navigate the text. Geared towards the specific requirements of students who need to reach a sound understanding of the text as a whole, the guide explores the complex and important ideas inherent in the text and provides a cogent survey of the reception and influence of Machiavelli’s work. This is the ideal companion to study this most influential of texts.
It’s a book about Machiavelli, his times, his sources, and his political ideas – much like those titles by Mansfield, Viroli and others. It is not a chapter-by-chapter guide to The Prince, which is what one might expect from a title that extolled a book as a “Reader’s Guide.” It’s a thematic approach: Vatter organizes Machiavelli’s chapters by broad theme (I had hoped for an annotated version (similar, for example, to Gardner’s annotated Alice in Wonderland, or the annotated Sherlock Holmes).
Nonetheless, it’s a welcome and important addition to the bookshelf and adds to the conversation about what relevance Machiavelli has to modern politics.
Vatter makes some salient points about politics and governance in Machiavelli’s view, when he writes about,
“…the other belief of the Renaissance, namely that what call “the state” is itself a work of art, a technical achievement, and not the name for an “ethical” or “moral” way of being together with others, as the ancients understood it. Art or craft is a function of two things: luck, or the contingency of one’s situation, and virtue, the capacity to make something out of that situation.”
State as art: hence the term statecraft. Vatter writes that Machiavelli was the first to treat the creation and development of the state as as empirical science, “where rules are hypotheses that need to be falsified or verified by experiment, by contrasting them with test cases to see where they can fail, or to see where and why previous rules fail and other hypotheses emerge.”
As a municipal politician, I am keenly aware that any “state” is the product of human activity that changes according to both circumstance and the ability of its leaders to manage circumstances: their “virtue,” or capacity. Machiavelli used the word “virtu” many times throughout The Prince; a term that is open to many interpretations and has itself been the subject of books and scholarly articles (see my bibliography).
In all political levels, including municipal, there’s always a process of experimentation. In every council I have covered, in every one I’ve served on, there’s always a “first time” event where something arises that has not arisen in that form previously.
Conservative politicians fall back on old and tried approaches; eschew novelty and avoid challenge. Bold, forward-thinking politicians take an untried approach. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. What matters is that we try. You reach for the brass ring, not hide from it.
A good politician, as Machiavelli knew, takes risks by travelling along the path not trodden: experimentation is a necessary part of the process, not something to avoid, to shun. Boldness sparks innovation, change, improvement and eventually accomplishment. Politicians afraid to walk outside the known paths, afraid to try new ideas, new processes or explore new directions, are not good for their constituents. They are merely placeholders for better ones to come later; rubber stamps for the status quo
Vatter is the first author I have read who says Machiavelli was deeply influenced by the rediscovery of Lucretius’ (Titus Lucretius Carus) poem, On Nature. Historian Stephen Greenblatt has written an entire book – The Swerve – on the impact of On Nature (also called On the Nature of Things) to the Renaissance development of humanism. I also picked that book up on the weekend.*
At the end of several chapters, Vatter throws in some “study questions” aimed at engaging readers (and students) to further debate Machiavelli’s work and its context.
I am still reading the book, but based on what I have read, I would recommend it highly to any reader interested in modern politics and Machiavelli.
* Other authors may have mentioned Lucretius, but until I read Vatter, I did not notice the reference nor was aware of his importance to Machiavelli. Because I have not read it, I feel compelled to obtain a copy of the poem and study it further.
Machiavelli’s attitude towards the church and Christianity was also apparently influenced by reading The Golden Ass (also known simply as The Ass and The Metamorphoses) by Apuleius, according to this reviewer. Without mentioning Apuleius, Haggman argues similarly that Machiavelli had discrete views pertaining to his concept of “virtu” based on religious perspectives:
Machiavelli believed that there could be a pagan virtue, which was a public virtue, and a Judeo-Christian virtue, mostly a private virtue. Deception was allowed for the well-being of the state.