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Life Arts    H4'ed 2/28/20

Patrick Boucheron's Accessible Account of Machiavelli's Life and Work (REVIEW ESSAY)

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FIG 2016 - Patrick Boucheron 01.
FIG 2016 - Patrick Boucheron 01.
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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) February 28, 2020: The learned French historian Patrick Boucheron's accessible 2020 book Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching People What to Fear [in a Ruler], translated from the French by Willard Wood (New York: Other Press; orig. French ed., 2017) includes Boucheron's "Introduction" (pages 1-11; dated June 19, 2019) and 30 short chapters that Boucheron prepared as daily talks on French public radio during the summer of 2016 (pages 15-145), plus a chapter titled "Reading Machiavelli" (pages 147-153) and 47 illustrations scattered throughout the text (credits listed by page numbers, pages 155-159). But the book does not have an index.

I first learned about Boucheron's new book when I read Jennifer Szalai's review of it titled "A New Book Asks: Just How Machiavellian Was Machiavelli?" in the New York Times (dated February 11, 2020). The headline of her review is accurate; Boucheron does raise this question.

As a matter of fact, Boucheron argues that the infamy of so-called "Machiavellianism" obstructs our ability to catch on to what Machiavelli is really up to in his infamous book The Prince. Boucheron sides with Rousseau in noting that tyrants do not need to have Machiavelli instruct them in how to be tyrants. As the subtitle of Boucheron's book indicates, he argues that Machiavelli in The Prince is artfully teaching people what to fear in a ruler.

By this logic, President Donald J. Trump does not need to read Machiavelli's The Prince to learn how to be a cruel tyrant but concerned citizens in the United States should read it because in it Machiavelli is teaching people what to fear in a ruler. However, I am not convinced of Boucheron's logic here. I agree that Trump does not need to read Machiavelli to learn how to be a cruel tyrant. But I am not convinced by Boucheron that concerned citizens in the United States today should read Machiavelli's The Prince to learn what to fear in a cruel ruler instead of reading George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

In any event, in the present review essay, I will discuss Boucheron's 2020 book on Machiavelli and Renaissance humanism in the larger framework of the thought of the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955).

For a bibliography of Ong's 400 or so publications that includes bibliographic information about translations and reprintings, see Thomas M. Walsh's "Walter J. Ong, S.J.: A Bibliography 1929-2006" in the book Language, Culture, and Identity: The Legacy of Walter J. Ong, S.J., edited by Sara van den Berg and Thomas M. Walsh (New York: Hampton Press, 2011, pages 185-245).


Now, in Boucheron's chapter "Reading Machiavelli" (pages 147-153), Boucheron says, "On Machiavelli's writing in general, my debt is to [the American political scientist] Harvey C. Mansfield, Machiavelli's Virtue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)" (page 150). But this is the only book by Mansfield that Boucheron mentions.

In it, Mansfield says, "Machiavelli contributes a clear view of politics unobstructed by abstract claims of equality and unreasonable demands for justice" (page xiv) such as the demands for social and economic justice voiced by the ancient Hebrew prophets like the prophet Amos. But I am not used to thinking of the prophet Amos as making "abstract claims" in his "unreasonable demands for justice." (I will discuss this statement further momentarily.)

Harvey C. Mansfield is also the author of the book Machiavelli's New Modes and Orders: A Study of the Discourses on Livy (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1979).

Laura F. Banfield and Harvey C. Mansfield translated Machiavelli's Florentine Histories (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988) with an introduction by Mansfield.

Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov translated Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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