- Art of War
Machiavelli's Art of War is structured as a dialogue between a famous soldier—Fabrizio Colonna from Rome—and a number of Florentine gentlemen on how to manage war and military affairs in general. It is always hard to translate an author distant from us in time, space or cultural background, and in Machiavelli's case, the task is especially formidable, since we are dealing with a gap of five centuries, another continent, a different mindset, and an archaic language. For these reasons, if it is sometimes hard for an Italian to understand Machiavelli, the problem increases tenfold when a foreigner tries his hand.
Christopher Lynch's translation of Machiavelli's famous treatise on war is the first in English since Ellis Farneworth's classic rendering of 1775 (revised for modern readers in a 1965 edition of the book by Neal Wood). Lynch has also gone to considerable trouble to try to make Art of War relevant for modern readers, providing an introduction and a commentary whose purpose in large part seems to be to draw lessons from the great Florentine's book that can be applied by soldiers and statesmen today. This might be assumed to be the great strength of this new translation, but, unhappily, this quest for relevance sometimes gets in the way of accuracy in rendering the text into English and too often ends up drawing conclusions from the thought of a Renaissance man that are anachronistic and ahistorical. First, the problems with the translation itself. While Old Nick's archaic Italian clearly constitutes a major hurdle for the modern translator, Lynch's effort easily could have been improved by searching out a greater range of [End Page 220] cognates for Italian terms. For example, he almost invariably uses the word "attack" for affrontare, assaltare, assalto, combattere, offendere, offesa, urtare, although each of these words possesses a number of different meanings. This often has the effect of making the translation dull and repetitive, not to mention detracting from its accuracy.
The author's "Introduction" and final "Interpretative Essay," where he attempts to make Machiavelli's military thought relevant to the present day, betray a troubling lack of familiarity with Italian cultural history. Thus, when he writes on p. xxv of the Introduction, "I have concluded that the aging condottiere [Colonna] is a self-consciously restrained version of Machiavelli himself," readers au courant with Italian (and/or ancient) culture will need to remind themselves that the dialogue as a medium for speaking one's mind is as old as Plato, and was used in Italy up to the first half of the nineteenth century. In a typical dialogue, there are at least two speakers, usually a main character who presents his own—that is to say the author's—ideas about a certain topic, while the other participants normally limit themselves to asking appropriate questions.
There are a number of instances in this edition of Art of War where the author seems determined to stuff Machiavelli into a recognizable (and relevant) modern mold, even at the risk of substantial distortion. There is, for example, the matter of Machiavelli's religion (or lack thereof). Lynch calls him an atheist. Our concept of atheism, however, is a by-product of the post-Kantian age. Lynch would have been much closer to the mark by labelling Machiavelli an anticlerical, which he certainly was, along with most of his fellow Florentines. But, the author's most dubious assertions come in the realm of military thought. Thus, Lynch avers (p. xxxi) that "His [Machiavelli's] strategic thought is generally lauded for being 'modern'— that is to say Clausewitzian." This argument needs to be read along with another statement on p. 179, where we are given the impression that the author has discovered something in Machiavelli that other readers have missed: "I implicitly defend Machiavelli . . . by challenging . . . critics to pay even closer attention to exactly what Machiavelli said...