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The Ethical Machiavelli

Erica Benner interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Erica Benner is the cool, calm and reconsidering political philosopher who thinks much of the the time about Machiavelli, about how he’s been misrepresented, about how we shouldn’t take him at face-value, about how we should note the irony, his use of the Greeks, the dialogic quality of ‘The Prince’, about not being esoteric in her approach, about why Machiavelli adopted the rhetorical strategy he did, about his ethics of self-legislation, about his being a rule-of-law man, about his republicanism and about rereading him as a critic of amoral realpolitik. Time to think again…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Erica Benner: Lots of things made me start asking primitive versions of philosophical questions. In preschool I was fond of a mangy little tree in our back garden and invested it with all sorts of friendly properties. One day I realised that my parents and sister must see this tree quite differently, which made me spend lots of time wondering what, if anything, was the real tree apart from our different perspectives. Having one language spoken at home and another, unrelated one at kindergarten, on the streets, and on television was a constant reality check. Growing up in an overcrowded city made me think about how people can share, or fail to share, limited physical and social space. And being surrounded by moderately religious Christians got my sceptical juices flowing early on, making me wonder: how can anyone know God exists? How can someone be both human and God?

I’m not sure any of this made me a philosopher – I’ve always been associated with politics rather than philosophy departments, so good guild professionals might disown me – but it got me interested in philosophy. The first philosopher I tried to read was Plato, at around 15, when I also learned a little ancient Greek. But I always suspected that I wouldn’t really appreciate him until my 40s, which turned out to be right. I read Hegel’s Philosophy of History a year or so later and didn’t understand much, but liked the feeling that my mind was getting a good workout.

3:AM: You’ve written extensively about Machiavelli. Your take is revisionary isn’t it in that you say he’s not what we’ve been led to suppose he is – the quintessence of amoral realpolitik. He’s an individualist deontological ethicist and this is the foundation for a political ethics. So how come few people recognized the irony?

EB: Lots of early readers did. Up to the second half of 18th century some of Machiavelli’s most intelligent readers – philosophers like Francis Bacon and Spinoza and Rousseau – read him as a thinker who wanted to uphold high moral standards. They thought he wrote ironically to expose the cynical methods politicians use to seize power, while only seeming to recommend them. Which doesn’t mean they thought he was writing pure satire, a send-up of political corruption. He had constructive aims too: to train people to see through plausible-sounding excuses and good appearances in politics, and think harder about the spiralling consequences of actions that seem good at the time.

Even his worst critics doubted that Machiavelli could be taken at face value. In one of the first reactions to the Prince on record, Cardinal Reginald Pole declares that its devil’s-spawn author can’t seriously be recommending deception and oath-breaking and the like, since any prince who does these things will make swarms of enemies and self-destruct. To Pole, what later generations would call Machiavellian realism looked utterly unrealistic. Then during the Napoleonic Wars, amoral realist readings started to drive out rival interpretations. German philosophers like Fichte and Hegel invoked Machiavelli as an early champion of national unification, if necessary by means of blood and iron. Italian nationalists of the left and right soon followed. Since then, almost everyone has read Machiavelli through some sort of national-ends-justify-amoral-means prism. Some scholars stress his otherwise moral republicanism. Others insist that he was indifferent to any moral good other than that of personal or collective survival. But it’s become very, very hard to question the ‘realpolitik in the last instance’ reading.

Nowadays this reading appeals to people for lots of reasons. It sounds bold and sexily subversive to anyone who’s sceptical about all sorts of ‘traditional’ moralities. It’s more fun to teach (or take) university courses on political philosophy from Plato to Nato if you can throw an amoral Machiavelli into the mix, challenging all previous political ethics. And then there are his texts. Machiavelli provides a wealth of quotable quotes that can easily be worked up into a theory of realpolitik. Since men generally are ‘ungrateful, fickle pretenders and dissemblers, and evaders of danger,’ for example, princes have to know ‘how not to be good,’ or they’ll fall prey to unscrupulous others. If you focus on jump-off-page statements like these and take them for the essence of Machiavelli’s thought, it seems fair enough to assume that he’s some sort of amoral ‘realist.’

3:AM: What are the key missed background elements that help us understand the irony?

EB: First you have to suspect that there is extensive irony in a text, then try to understand what’s being expressed through it. For me, this was a long process. Until about a decade ago, I too read and taught Machiavelli in the more usual way. I’d highlight all the eye-catching ‘Machiavellian’ phrases and race through the rest. When something seemed unclear or puzzling, I’d assume this was due to my ignorance about his historical examples.

I began to suspect that more was going on while trying to draft a short chapter on Machiavelli in a (as yet unfinished – got side-tracked) book on the ethics of self-determination. The harder I tried to pin down his general message, the more confused I got. For every cynical, textbook Machiavellian argument I underlined, I’d see two or three other arguments that clashed with it. I’d triple-highlight a tough-talking statement about ends justifying amoral means, feeling sure that this must be Machiavelli’s ethical bottom line. Then a few lines on, there’d be an example showing the opposite: that amoral means tend to ruin good ends. Near the end of the Discourses I read that when the safety of one’s country is at stake, one should put aside all considerations of just and unjust and do whatever is needed for salvation. But earlier chapters had described how early Rome was almost wiped off the map as a direct consequence of unjustly violating its agreements with an enemy. It only bounced back when the whole city ‘returned to the limits’ of justice and the law of nations (and yes, Machiavelli uses all those words in his account).

Most people who notice the inconsistencies give the more ‘realist’ statements more weight, assuming that they must represent Machiavelli’s basic position. I tried doing this for a while, but gave up. The cynical arguments might be louder and more alluringly unconventional. But as arguments, they’re much weaker. The reasons Machiavelli presents for them are often illogical, confused, or superficial. Sometimes it sounds like he’s parodying cheap rhetorical sleights-of-hand: classical sophistry. He makes a much stronger case for observing justice with friends and enemies, sticking with allies through good and bad fortune, and for putting the rule of law before the wills of men.

The real giveaway is his examples. Machiavelli might lavish words of praise on states or leaders who follow amoral maxims. Yet if you look closely at his accounts of their specific actions, you can see that they’re heading for political disaster. For example, he seems to praise the Romans for expanding their empire by two-faced means. But he also comments – more subtly – that their policies sparked hatred and furious resistance, soon leading the republic to self-combust and turn its empire into a deadening military despotism.

To show how his irony works, I set out some of his ironic techniques at the beginning of my new book on the Prince. Machiavelli didn’t invent these techniques. They’re very ancient, and would have been familiar to lots of his well-read contemporaries – which helps explain why some of them recognised the ironies more easily than we do today. One technique is what I’ve just described: to set up an ironic contrast between good words and less good deeds. Readers who notice the tension have to choose what to believe: the dubious deeds laid out for them to judge for themselves, or the voice that noisily, perhaps unreasonably, praises them? Ancient writers used this technique to train readers to see through misleading political spin. Machiavelli gives it his own creative twists.

3:AM: You argue that the ancient Greeks were a kind of template for what he was writing. So which Greeks, and what difference did they make?

EB: The original inspirations for most of his methods of writing are Greek, though Machiavelli also encountered them through Hellenophile Roman writers. Sallust, Virgil, Ovid, Plautus, Livy, and Tacitus all took Greek poets and historians as their models in some respects. In trying to track down Machiavelli’s ancient sources, I did the obvious and took cues from his own direct references. For some reason, not many scholars do this. Some treat Cicero or Seneca or Quintillian as important sources, though Machiavelli doesn’t say much about them. But they sidestep Xenophon and Plutarch, whom he mentions often and very interestingly.

I started by picking up parallel Greek-English copies of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia and Hiero, two of the very few works Machiavelli names in any of his writings. And then there was light. At first and even second glance, Xenophon seems to praise the king-turned-despot Cyrus to the skies. But he sets up the same kinds of tensions between good words and problematic deeds I’d noticed in Machiavelli. Plutarch talks about other classic writing techniques I’d also noticed in Machiavelli and Xenophon. Both of them repeatedly use certain words in an ambiguous way. For example, when Machiavelli says that someone was ‘fortunate,’ ‘happy,’ ‘great,’ or ‘astute,’ we tend to take these as words of praise. But if you study all his uses of these words, a pattern emerges: they usually signal some sort of problem, or a subtle criticism. Happiness and greatness don’t entail safety, and usually come before a fall. Astuteness isn’t far-thinking prudence but merely cunning opportunism.

Machiavelli also mentions Thucydides by name in the Discourses, and has a number of passages that strongly evoke Aristotle, Plato, and Polybius. What difference did any of these ancient writers make? Well, they made a big difference for my reading: if I hadn’t checked some of Machiavelli’s ancient sources and noticed the stylistic similarities, I’d have been much less confident about arguing that he writes ironically. And it’s not just the dissimulative style that’s similar. The structure and content of his ethical judgements are also close to those found in several Greek historical and philosophical works. I wouldn’t want to make sweeping generalisations here, but make specific comparisons in my two Machiavelli books.

3:AM: In your new book on ‘The Prince’ you suggest that it has a dialogic quality. Can you say something about this?

EB: Most people today read the Prince as a treatise where the author sets out his own best arguments in a straightforward way. But inconsistent arguments of uneven quality, constant shifts between aggressively strident and moderate tones, and other stylistic oddities create the impression that the book isn’t a univocal treatise at all. Instead, it seems to imitate different voices that express very different opinions – not all of them, perhaps, the author’s. By keeping us in doubt about which voice conveys his own views, Machiavelli prods readers to judge his examples and commentaries for themselves.

He refers to several of The Prince’s chapters as ‘discourses’ (discorsi). The word suggests that they’re structured as conversations with readers, not lectures delivered from an authorial pedestal. I read the whole book as a series of mind-teasing discussion pieces. What readers take from reading discourses depends on their own aims. If you’re an ambitious young man in a hurry, or an overworked professor who has to teach a segment on Machiavelli in a Plato-to-Nato course, you’ll probably do as I did: skim the text, seize on the most attention-grabbing statements and shocker examples, and not worry too much about the subtle warning signs.

It’s worth remembering that Machiavelli was brilliant dramatist, not just a student of politics. In his own lifetime he became famous not as a political writer – the Prince and Discourses were only published after he died in 1527 – but for his play Mandragola, a blistering satire of corrupt morals in Florence. Plays depict different actions and opinions and let the audience judge them; it can be hard to say what playwrights think about their own characters. Plato and Plutarch write about how some people who read risqué poetry or hear shocking things on stage accuse the authors of peddling bad morals. But this isn’t always fair, since it’s the audience’s responsibility to judge what they see, and good drama and literature and philosophy challenge them to exercise their own judgement. Some of Machiavelli’s early defenders made the same argument about the Prince.

3:AM: So can you give an example of when Machiavelli is sounding amoral and seems to be justifying cruelty and deceit and explain why he’s doing that and what you think is really going on?

EB: Machiavelli seems to praise the deceitful and violent Cesare Borgia more warmly than anyone else he mentions in the Prince. He says things like ‘I cannot think how to reproach him,’ ‘I would hold him up to be imitated by any prince who comes to power by fortune and others’ arms,’ and says Borgia laid ‘good foundations’ for his power with the help of some pretty appalling betrayals and murders.

But the long chapter describing Borgia’s career is packed with insinuations that compromise the praise. Machiavelli might not reproach him outright, but he classifies him as a prototype of a prince who depends on fortune and ‘the arms of others,’ not on virtù and his own arms. As the beginning of the chapter makes clear, fortune-dependent princes are much the inferior sort. They rise to power quickly using money and borrowed forces, which Machiavelli calls ‘two very inconstant and unreliable things’ – then crash just as fast, as Cesare did when his father the Pope died. Machiavelli says that Cesare ‘only’ failed because of this cruel stroke of fortune. But his long narration of Cesare’s deeds is anything but a story of near-success. It’s a series of increasingly desperate ploys to hold on to the state his father handed him on a platter, always using money and ‘the arms of others’ which somehow never seem to bring him security. And then comes the crowning irony: when his father dies, Cesare falls ‘only’ because he backed the wrong man to be the next Pope. After all his supposedly promising efforts to stand on his own two virtuous feet, he still depends on the Papacy to shore him up.

The ironies aren’t at all obvious; the whole chapter is a masterpiece of literary dissimulation. But once you start to notice them, the effect is very funny. Why does he write this way? Mostly to test readers’ powers of observation and political judgement. Machiavelli produces the ironic effect by a glaring contrast between his good words about Cesare – which on close scrutiny aren’t really all that good – and his detailed account of what the fortunate young man actually did, which quietly exposes the flaws. Machiavelli helps readers spot the ironies by opening the chapter with a discussion of the concrete methods (money and others’ arms) people use when they rely on fortune, where he explains why these methods invariably fail in the end. If readers use their own brains and apply these general observations to the particulars, they’ll find it hard to believe the voice that keeps piping up against so much evidence, saying: Cesare was well on his way to building a firm new state that depended only on his own arms and virtù! He was almost independent, and then cruel Fortuna killed his father and made him pick the wrong man as his new papal protector, who destroyed those nearly solid foundations at a stroke!

3:AM: One of the things that people have noted about your approach is the esoteric hermeneutical approach you adopt. Can you say something about this approach, which might seem to a skeptic to be a way of reading into a text things that aren’t there. After all, you do argue that Machiavelli is hiding deeper truths below the surface – is it overwhelmingly clear that the esoteric approach is the right one rather than one that distorts?

EB: I’d never describe my approach as ‘esoteric’, though some critics do. I don’t think you can usefully distinguish between inner and outer meanings in Machiavelli’s texts, with one altogether false surface ‘hiding’ crystal clear truths. The texts are ambiguous. They present different facets at the same time. Some readers might not notice the ambiguities because they assume they’re reading a simple treatise. So they look for lines of argument that can somehow fit their expectations, and discount the rest. But that doesn’t mean they’ve correctly identified the outer ‘surface,’ while whatever jars with their reading must be ‘hidden,’ or merely imagined by readers who claim to detect signs of irony.

As I’ve just said with the example of Borgia, Machiavelli gives us plenty of clues right up front. He sets out general standards that anyone can apply to evaluate the deeds he describes. He uses certain words in a patterned way, so that people who make the effort to trace the patterns might start wondering whether Machiavelli’s apparent praise isn’t problematic. There’s nothing occult about these ironic techniques or others I set out in my book. Nor does recognizing them suddenly end all debates about how to read ambiguous passages, or about the content of Machiavelli’s teachings. Far from it.

Do ‘straight’ treatise-like readings carry less danger of distortion than ironic ones? I guess people might think so who don’t think the Prince and Discourses are full of ambiguities, inconsistent statements, and moral judgements that undermine the more famous amoral assertions. But if one does notice these features, surely any reading that brings them to the forefront and tries to explain them is more illuminating than one that plays down the tensions.

3:AM: Ross J. Corbett in his review liked the book but thought that the code words for unlocking the text were faulty in some respects – how do you respond to his worries?

EB: I enjoyed his review and found him a good sparring partner. But I thought he reduced the code words to a much blunter interpretive instrument than I intended. What I call normatively coded words aren’t cryptic: they’re not a magic key meant to unlock a true covert meaning beneath a more obvious surface. And my list of fortune- and virtù-linked words isn’t supposed to save anyone the work of interpreting specific, ambiguous passages. It merely summarises broad patterns of usage that occur throughout the Prince. The book tries to explain how the words work in particular places, since their normative senses don’t always strike one immediately. Contra Corbett’s expectations, they’re not simple markers trumpeting praise or blame. There are different kinds and degrees of fortune- or virtù dependence that Machiavelli wants readers to track.

Corbett protests, for example, that though my list gives ‘prince’ as a negative word in contrast to the positive ‘republic,’ I see Philopoemen – whom Machiavelli calls ‘prince of the Achaeans’ – as one of his positive exemplars. This criticism ignores everything I say about how Machiavelli treats some ways of ordering principality as close to his idea of a virtuous republic, others as more remote. Sometimes a so-called principality or prince is subordinated to the laws and orders of a republic, thus emptying the name ‘prince’ of most of its usual meaning. As I say in the book, Philopoemen was an elected military leader, not a permanent or hereditary ruler. In the Discourses, I note in chapter 1, Machiavelli occasionally calls a republic’s elected leaders ‘princes’ in an extremely weakened sense, since they’re subject to the republic. The general pattern still holds: ‘prince’ is an inferior, more fortune-dependent sort of rule than republic. But some princes have more republican features that make them depend less on fortune. Some so-called republics – like Florence under the Medici ‘princes’ in Machiavelli’s youth and later life – have so many princely features that the name of republic rings hollow. These gradations pose no problem for my argument unless you expect the coded words to paint everything in black and white.

I argue that ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ are always an antithetical pair for Machiavelli. Ordinario signals a positive judgment meaning ‘within or supporting good orders,’ estraordinario the opposite. Corbett picks out some apparent exceptions and doubts whether they fit these normative patterns. When Machiavelli says that mediocre mercenaries ‘ruin you in ordinary way,’ Corbett claims that ‘ordinary’ here can’t possibly have a positive sense, since to ruin something is bad. Look again. Machiavelli says: excellent captains ruin you ‘extraordinarily’ by overthrowing your established political orders. Poor-quality mercenaries ruin you ‘in the ordinary way’ – without attacking your political orders, but simply by being reluctant and lazy fighters. Obviously it’s bad to be ruined either way, but worse to be ruined extraordinarily: better have a bad hired captain who doesn’t stage a full-fledged military coup than a good one who does. Ordinary is positive here, if only comparatively, and not in the laudatory way Corbett demands.

Machiavelli calls the desire to acquire, and the ‘necessity to offend’ when you become a new prince, ‘natural and ordinary.’ Corbett insists that ‘ordinary’ can’t be normative here, since acquisitive desires and the necessity to offend aren’t obviously compatible with good orders. Again, look again. The desires and necessity aren’t normative in the sense of ‘praiseworthy.’ They’re just part of human nature or the natural order of things. But as such, Machiavelli thinks they need to be taken into account –as normative – by anyone who wants to found lasting political orders. A political founder who ignores human beings’ natural desire to acquire will fail to regulate this desire in ways that support rather than undermine good orders. A new prince who thinks he can get away with not offending anyone will also fail to set up firm foundations. Here Machiavelli’s ‘ordinary’ human desires and drives have positive normative implications for political order, while ‘extraordinary’ desires, conditions, or miracles tend to undercut it. Corbett misses these philosophical dimensions of the ordinary/extraordinary distinction, though I repeatedly stress them.

3:AM: Why did Machiavelli adopt the rhetorical strategy he did? Is it similar to the kind of things we find in Shakespeare, Giordano Bruno, the metaphysical poets etc, Michelangelo et al – that writing practice at that time was full of secret codings because, frankly, it was too dangerous to be straight?

EB: Partly. When Machiavelli wrote the Prince and Discourses, the popular republic he’d served as a high-level civil servant and diplomat for 14 years – his whole working life – had just been toppled by a coup d’etat. The princely Medici family were reinstalled as heads of state, and Machiavelli was thrown out of his political posts, then arrested and tortured on suspicion of conspiring against the new leaders. If – as my book argues – he wrote the Prince as a roundabout way of showing that republics last longer and have better defences than principalities, he had to be careful about saying this under the new princely regime.

But I agree with earlier readers who thought his irony was also an educational strategy.
There’s a long tradition of critical ironists – historians, playwrights, poets, even philosophers – depicting political leaders who use decent words to cloak far less decent realities. The ironist mimics the politicians’ skewed values, excusing what deserves to be condemned, omitting or belittling what should be praised. This kind of irony challenges readers to spot what’s wrong with the picture. It trains them to see through political spin and corrupted moral standards that might seem realistic now, but bring big trouble down the road.

3:AM: So can you outline what Machiavelli’s ethical stance is?

EB: In Machiavelli’s Ethics I call it an ethics of self-legislation. It’s developed more in the Discourses and Florentine Histories than in the Prince, so I don’t say much about it in my new book. His basic premise is that human beings have no choice but to establish their own laws and social institutions through their own, terribly flawed powers of reasoning. They shouldn’t expect help from nature or God, but have to exercise their free will – another very small power, but all we have – to impose decent human orders and keep them in good health. Human beings make their institutions and are capable of regulating them. It’s our responsibility if things go wrong, in the world at large or in whatever country we happen to inhabit. We can’t just blame fortune or foreigners or the global economy, since all of these can be managed by intelligent foresight and sensitive policies.

Machiavelli dislikes passive fatalism, but he also dislikes overreaching control-freakery. He sets a high value on capacities for free agency, which enables human beings to conceive and build human orders, even under severe constraints. But there are better and worse ways to use this freedom, and the best ‘orderers’ aren’t superman founders who impose whatever form they like on society. They recognise that nature sets limits on anyone’s ideals and desires, including their own. They understand that people are often selfish and untrustworthy, and take this into account when designing institutions for common life. And they realise that most people don’t want to be dominated, so they’re more likely to uphold institutions that they willingly accept than those forced on them.

The desires to live free and secure are among Machiavelli’s most basic human ‘realities.’
So an ethics of self-legislation calls for strict limits on each person’s actions, in view of other peoples’ ordinario and reasonable desires for freedom and security. Machiavelli constantly urges his readers to think about other people’s reactions, and to take a fairly generous view of what others can reasonably demand of you. He sees straight through excuses for actions that aim to take more than one’s fair share of power or property or territory. His examples show that respect for others’ desires for freedom and security and fair treatment is a basic condition for one’s own safety and freedom.

3:AM: Is Machiavelli supposing a certain conception of individual here tied up with the possibility of human freedom and agency?

EB: I read Machiavelli as a strict rule-of-law man. He thinks any adequate conception of the public good or common safety has to be grounded in the rule of law, and the primary purpose of the laws is to protect individual freedoms. In a memorable passage in the Discourses II.2, he says that collective safety and flourishing depend on individual freedoms to procreate, dispose of their inheritance, work, and acquire as each sees fit – always within limits that respect other peoples’ reasonable uses of the same freedoms.

Machiavelli stresses individual as well as broadly human responsibility for dealing with life’s hardships. In the Prince’s Dedication he calls himself the victim of an ‘extraordinary and malignant fortune,’ having been cast into the political wilderness after the Medici coup. But instead of raging against his bad luck or his enemies, he tries to engage with them – and escape from his woes – by writing a book based on his long experience and reading. A virtuous individual, as Machiavelli no doubt thought he was, can do everything right, but still be thrown down by his city’s collective misfortune or imprudence. However tough things get, though, individuals can always exercise the tiny sliver of freedom left them to improve their lot. In the Prince Machiavelli says that empirical evidence often makes us doubt that we have free will, yet our minds still tell us to act as if we have a little, even in the worst pinch. And if we do, and use our presumed freedom intelligently, we just might find a way out.

3:AM: Does a certain conception of republican politics come from this which requires a political ethics rooted in his individual ethical stance, and which also results in principles of justice?

EB: There’s a common view that Machiavelli puts the ethical claims of individual citizens second to those of the republic or city. I disagree. It’s true that Machiavelli thinks of political freedom, libertà, as a complex, ordered condition that calls for limits on every individual’s private freedoms. But the basic reason for setting such limits isn’t to protect or promote the common good; it’s the ethical imperative to protect the equal freedom of each citizen. A republic that fails to do this will be unstable and insecure, and that’s clearly a big problem for Machiavelli – but the instability arises from people perceiving an injustice and reacting against it. If injustice is the basic cause of disorders, you might want to avoid it, even if your initial motive for avoiding it is the desire to preserve order rather than a moral concern to do justice.

I’ll give an example or two. Speaking of punitive justice, Machiavelli says that individuals shouldn’t be denied a proper trial or the right of appeal according to the laws, even if they pose a serious threat to the republic. When in Rome someone charged with serious political crimes was denied an appeal, even though ‘his criminal life merited every punishment, nonetheless,’ Machiavelli says, ‘it was hardly a civil thing to violate the laws’ and set up ‘a wicked example’ that corrupted Rome’s good orders. For ‘if one sets up a habit of breaking the orders’ and ignoring the individual’s claims for the sake of collective safety or some other, greater good, ‘then later, under that colouring, they are broken for ill.’ (Discourses I.45, I.34).

Speaking of distributive justice, Machiavelli is deeply hostile to patrician elites who claimed that their members were more qualified to govern republics than non-elite men. He insists that qualifications for office should depend on demonstrated personal merit, not accidents of birth. By the same token, his republican justice forbids persecuting or penalizing individuals just because they are upper class. If the more ‘popular’ party in a republic goes too far in this respect, refusing to share authority even with worthy men from elite backgrounds, these men will have reasonable cause for complaint and work night and day to destabilise the republic. When people are punished or rewarded for their group affiliations instead of their individual deeds and qualities, the rule of law will be undermined – and when that happens, the republic’s ruin is only a matter of time.

3:AM: A result of your reading is to deny that Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ is a handbook for modern amoral politics. The moral stance and justice are embedded and at its heart. So is Machiavelli not relevant to the contemporary scene in the way supposed?

EB: Not if he’s taken as a defender of modern amoral realpolitik. But he’s very relevant as one of its most penetrating (and entertaining) critics.

3:AM: And for those of us here at 3:AM wanting to go further into your philosophical world, are there five books you could recommend?

EB: These days I don’t have much time to read recent books – I’m trying to finish very different kind of Machiavelli book now for a non-academic audience – so I re-read old ones. Apart from Machiavelli, of course, Plato’s Laws or any other Platonic dialogue; Thucydides’ perpetually amazing histories; Aristotle’s Nicomachaean Ethics; Hobbes’ de Cive and/or Leviathan, preferably read together to see what he changed; Rousseau’s Second Discourse. Is that five? I love reading Kant and Hegel as well, but wouldn’t recommend them to everyone without knowing their tastes. Too bad people don’t write books like these any more. They just get better and more relevant with age.


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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 29th, 2014.