- Machiavellian Rhetoric: From the Counter-Reformation to Milton
The premise of this book is that the account of Machiavelli’s politics given by Quentin Skinner and J. G. A. Pocock is fundamentally inadequate. It is inadequate in that it fails to recognize that the Machiavelli of force and fraud—what Kahn calls the “rhetorical Machiavel”—is inseparable from the republican, and that his politics “could be used not only pro and contra republicanism but pro and contra secular thought” (p. 12). This failure is answerable to a flawed methodology: reading Machiavelli’s texts for content, Skinner and Pocock neglect Machiavelli’s rhetorical techniques which “fragment, subvert, or otherwise qualify the literal sense” of his texts (p. 5). By paying attention to these rhetorical techniques, Kahn claims to correct Skinner and Pocock’s misunderstanding of Machiavelli as a virtuous, secular republican and “to provide a revised history of Renaissance Machiavellism, particularly in England” (p. 4).
The main reason for the failure of this project is Kahn’s crude understanding of Skinner and Pocock. Rather than seeing Machiavelli assimilating virtù with classical virtue, Skinner observes that Machiavelli’s exclusion of justice from republican virtù is an epoch-making break with the classical republican analysis of the cardinal virtues as expounded in Cicero’s Of Duties. Pocock, too, clearly recognizes that Roman republican virtù as it is documented by Machiavelli includes what Kahn calls “the resources of the Machiavel” (p. 124). In addition, rather than equating Machiavellism with secular republicanism, Pocock observes that it was difficult for not just Machiavelli but everyone in the Renaissance to conceive the moment of recreating the republic without making recourse to the apocalyptic moment, the moment at which grace acted in history. And to think as Kahn does that Pocock needs to be told that Machiavellism could be “used for sectarian religious purposes” (p. 8) is simply to disregard Pocock’s own assertion of this fact and his tremendous meditation on how this actually occurred in the millennially oriented society of seventeenth-century England.
The claims which Kahn makes on the basis of her perceptive close readings [End Page 370] of the rhetoric of Machiavelli’s The Prince and The Discourses, then, do not significantly revise Pocock and Skinner. Neither do her considerations of readings of Machiavelli by counter-Reformation thinkers such as Zuccolo, Caterino, and Botero, sixteenth-century Englishmen such as Starkey, Gardiner, Ralegh, Bacon, and Shakespeare, and the seventeenth-century Englishmen who were involved in civil war and Interregnum political debates. These considerations simply make the point that Machiavelli was read in very different ways and was used to support very different political agendas—an interesting point, and one which is entirely consistent with the views of Skinner and Pocock. Kahn’s revised history of English Machiavellism is further compromised by her construal, beginning in chapter five, of Machiavellism as “the Machiavellian topics of legitimacy and force, virtue and success, intention and effect, means and ends” (p. 156). Kahn seems to suppose that because Machiavelli writes about these topics, these topics are Machiavellian, and anyone who writes about them in English is therefore a subscriber to “English Machiavellism.” This move allows her to consider all kinds of texts which only seem remotely connected to Machiavelli—from sixteenth-century debates over things indifferent, to Coriolanus, to masques by Jonson and Carew, to Milton’s Areopagitica, Comus, and Paradise Lost—as cases of “English Machiavellism.” Kahn ends up defining Machiavellism so widely, that is, that she finds it everywhere. On the other hand, she ignores it where it is most conspicuous: she gives passing attention to Marchamont Nedham’s fully articulated republicanism and no attention whatsoever to the most comprehensive English reading of Machiavelli in the seventeenth century: James Harrington’s Oceana.
A revised history of Renaissance Machiavellism, particularly in England? Hardly. Skinner and Pocock still rule.