Machiavelli’s Ethics

Machiavelli’s Ethics

By Erica Benner

Princeton University Press – £24.95

There’s an ever-changing fluidity about Ethics, whereby its vast and elongated net is forever cast further and further into that of dark, dense and disconnected philosophical waters. It’s analytical premise and undeniably deep thought process – be it from a standpoint of Consequentialism, Utilitarianism or, in the case of this most challenging of books, Republicanism – is fraught, if not fundamentally ingrained with that of the ‘other.’

Whatever is stated, or wrought into an undeniable corner of its own design, is quite often trounced upon by a mere flick of a sociological switchblade. Whatever is argued unto the death, can so easily and so readily, be turned on its own head by way of both pronouncing and playing philosopher’s advocate.

Hence, the several idiosyncratic interpretations throughout Machiavelli’s Ethics, that invites readers to re-evaluate the relationship between that of Machiavelli and his later contemporary philosophers such as Hobbes, Kant and in particular, Rousseau.

Divided into four distinct sections – Contexts, Foundations, Principles and Politics – Erica Benner practically throws academic caution to the wind by way of dismantling many of the deceptive political appearances of yore, and presenting well constructed and considered arguments for translucent, rigorous change. One example being the quintessential Machiavellian maxim that the end always justifies the means; which in itself is a debate that can be contested if not debated ad infinitum…

By substantiating the oft-overlooked influence of the ancient Greeks upon Machiavelli, the authoress re-assimilates and re-investigates the all pervading, kloof like value placed on that of his principle teaching: ‘’to teach readers not how to produce deceptive political appearances and rhetoric, but how to see through them.’’

Writing at the outset of Chapter Ten’s ‘Politics’ in ‘’The antithesis between ordinary and extraordinary modes,’ Benner flags up the varying discrepancies betwixt fortune and virtue. The cataclysmic outcomes of which the likes of David Cameron would be wise to lose sleep over – lest he wish to be mauled and hauled to the gallows of his own myopic, unavoidable undoing: ‘’Someone who relies on fortune, such as Alexander, may achieve a reputation for greatness. But if Machiavelli or one of his ancient writers implies that Alexander came to depend more on fortune than on his own virtu, they suggest that his modes of action were ultimately deficient, despite his reputation and undoubted achievements. The fortune/virtue antithesis was one of the most common tropes used by ancient authors for ‘double writing.’’’

Unsurprisingly, said ‘double writing’ is as equally prevalent amid today’s intransigent manifesto according Messrs. Cameron’n’Clegg, as that depicted in Machiavelli’s ancient Greece – as so expansively depicted herein: ‘’Readers who see that fortuna always connotes a deficiency in human self-responsibility, and that virtu is its antithesis, will find it easier to gauge Machiavelli’s ethical judgements. They will be thrown off track if they lose sight of the antithesis, especially if they suppose that virtuoso agents depend on fortuna in order to work effectively. Translations that render Machiavelli’s key words in different ways at different times can be highly misleading in this respect. When virtu is sometimes rendered as ‘’virtue’’ but elsewhere as ‘’ability’’ or ‘’prowess,’’ this obscures the recurrent contrast with fortuna as a deficient kind of causality. If fortuna is usually translated as ‘’fortune’’ but occasionally as ‘’luck,’’ ‘’chance,’’ or ‘auspiciousness,’’ the coded implication of its deficiency may be lost.’’

What absolutely isn’t lost is the (persuasive) power with which Benner so adroitly and so dextrously writes.

In brief, Machiavelli’s Ethics puts so much of the Italian’s misguided writings, into clear and relatively concise understanding. To quote Maurizio Viroli, author of Niccolo’s Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli: ‘’Erica Benner does truly impressive work in analyzing Machiavelli’s views on the most fundamental ethical issues – including necessity and virtue, justice and injustice, and ends and means. She shows, with very solid evidence, that Machiavelli did in fact worry a lot about justice and that he put it at the core of his republican theory.’’

David Marx


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