- Publishing The Prince: History, Reading, and the Birth of Political Criticism
In Publishing The Prince: History, Reading, and the Birth of Political Criticism, Jacob Soll makes an ambitious argument for the historical significance of Amelot de La Houssaye, a seventeenth-century French author, printer, and editor. Amelot was the seventeenth century's most tireless disseminator of Tacitus, Machiavelli, and Paolo Sarpi. Amelot translated, edited, published, and republished these authors with elaborate marginal commentary that Soll convincingly argues, is better understood as a form of original authorship than as a variety of critical apparatus. The immediate backdrop is Bourbon France, but since Amelot's works featured Roman, French, Italian, and Spanish authors and were published in France, the Netherlands, and Germany, Soll's study is as much about the social production of [End Page 183] knowledge in Western Europe as it is a case-study of a French printer under the centralizing Bourbon dynasty. In many cases, Amelot's editions became the versions of Tacitus, Machiavelli, and Sarpi most frequently encountered by Enlightenment thinkers in the following century.
Amelot was an enigmatic, elusive, and clearly important figure in the seventeenth- century republic of letters. But Soll sees in Amelot a more profound significance than the simple fact of the ubiquity of his editions would suggest. At the most general level, Soll is attempting to revise the canonical periodization of Western history that sees, at least in the history of ideas, a primarily fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Renaissance leading to a primarily eighteenth-century Enlightenment, leaving the seventeenth century primarily notable, in terms of political culture, for the bloated and arrogant claims of absolutism and the obsequious court cultures that accompanied it. Soll argues that a crucial precondition for the eighteenth century critique of absolutism was established by Amelot.
The key development was the propagation and dissemination of reason-of-state literature, the significance of which was less a matter of content and more a matter of form and genre. If Soll is right, there is more than a little irony in such a development, since the initial flourishing of this genre was directly related to the rise of absolutism in the sixteenth century. Eager to legitimate its ambitious arrogation of power, the French crown heavily subsidized theorists of raison d'état, which enabled the crown to make bigger claims than the traditional language of crown, estates, and parlements. Rather than resorting to divine-right tradition, reason-of-state theorists employed an inductive, secular, and empirical reading of history to buttress their arguments for royal centralization. Having ushered in on its behalf a procedure for empirical political analysis, the crown was unable to maintain its monopoly on the new discourse of power. Amelot and others recognized that the procedures themselves were politically neutral, and could just as readily be deployed against the claims of the state. For Soll, Amelot's great achievement was the appropriation of those new methods, fashioning them through commentary on classic texts into a "reason-of-state of the self," in which the individual's survival was the primary agenda, and the deployment of this innovation as a form of cautious protest against absolutism's claims.
Enlightenment political critics, who wrote during a period of moderate press censorship, took a dim view of what they saw as the cowardly obfuscation of writers such as Amelot, who hid behind a veil of ambiguous authorship, attributing dangerous remarks only to the sources upon which they commented. But Soll makes a compelling case for the genuinely subversive qualities of Amelot's endeavor in the context of rigorous seventeenth-century press censorship. Furthermore, when the philosophes took to frank criticism of the Bourbon monarchy, they did so through the very procedures that Amelot had helped to popularize and keep alive: inductive, secular readings of history that aimed to diminish the crown through the collection of empirical facts that contradicted its own version of how and why it had come to be.
Soll thinks big...