Machiavelli’s Effectual Truth: Creating the Modern World, by Harvey C. Mansfield (Cambridge University Press, 298 pp., $34.99)
Harvey Mansfield, not known for timidity, has characteristically titled his latest work Machiavelli’s Effectual Truth: Creating the Modern World. If his hyperbolic subtitle might seem a provocation, however, it is less so as applied to Niccolò Machiavelli than to almost any other major writer in the history of political thought.
Walk into the business section of any good-sized bookstore, after all, and you’ll find at least a couple of volumes applying Old Nick’s insights to the cutthroat corporate world. Former Trump staffer Michael Anton pseudonymously authored a book offering sartorial advice in a manner that deliberately imitates Machiavelli’s political advice to princes. The epithet “Machiavellian” routinely gets applied to CEOs and heads of state, even to those who have never read him. Machiavelli seems closer to us moderns in spirit than even more chronologically recent thinkers like Kant or Hegel. Whether this spiritual proximity also implies a causal relationship is another question, of course.
Though this is not Mansfield’s most ambitious work (that would probably be Machiavelli’s New Modes and Orders, his in-depth study of the Discourses on Livy), it is likely to be the one that concludes a remarkable career (he officially retired from his position as William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University earlier this year at the age of 91). This lends an undeniable air of poignancy to the proceedings.
Mansfield describes this book as a companion to an earlier work, Machiavelli’s Virtue. Like that volume, Machiavelli’s Effectual Truth functions not as a systematic treatment of its subject’s thought but as a series of reflections on different aspects of it (also like that preceding title, most of the chapters here previously appeared in various publications).
If this book has a unifying theme, its title reflects it: that modernity had a discernible origin, and it lies with Machiavelli’s famous statement in chapter 15 of The Prince on the “effectual truth” of things. This effectual truth consists, above all, in the mastery of nature—indeed, the understanding that nature is such a thing that human will can master. Machiavelli thus anticipates by several hundred years Marx’s famous line, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Mansfield is disarmingly candid that this bold claim is too vast to prove in any conventional historiographic way, admitting that it “asserts much more than it proves.” This is not a departure for Mansfield, who has made a career out of assertions that tend to go beyond anything explicitly claimed by Leo Strauss, who is probably his greatest influence and whose reading of The Prince gets its own chapter here.
Alongside the burden of proving his ambitious claim, Mansfield also faces a hermeneutic problem. He has long held that Machiavelli belongs to a tradition of writers who sought to conceal their true intentions. Yet, Machiavelli clearly indicated his desire to be read—and imitated—by potential successors, and Mansfield (rightly, I think) treats this intention as sincere. Further, the classic example of authors employing what Mansfield calls the “art of writing” are those who seek to conceal their most dangerous and shocking conclusions from unready, or potentially hostile, audiences. That such a tradition of careful writing really existed is now less controversial than it once was—as shown, for example, by the respectful reception of Arthur Melzer’s important book on the subject.
But few thinkers are as notorious as Machiavelli for the dangerous and shocking quality of their advice. Even the unlettered recognize that “Machiavellian” doesn’t refer to the meek and kind. Once you’ve told your readers that it’s better to be feared than loved, or that it’s necessary for political leaders to know and do evil, the cat’s out of the bag.
Still, Machiavelli is by no means a direct or guileless writer. As he once wrote to a friend: “For some time now I have never said what I believe or never believed what I said, and if indeed I sometimes tell the truth, I hide it behind so many lies that it is hard to find.” What, then, was he up to, and how did he communicate his “effectual truth” in such a way as to create our world?
To this point, Mansfield cleverly argues that the problem of succession is not just a major political theme in Machiavelli’s work but also a meta-theme. That is, his intellectual project of creating what we think of as the modern world required subsequent thinkers to carry it on. And this is indeed what happened: though we may view the advent of modernity as a history of successive innovations, it arrived as an imitation of Machiavelli’s original project.
So, does Mansfield prove such a momentous claim? The proof here mostly comes down to his bravura penultimate chapter—one of two original entries in Machiavelli’s Effectual Truth, and nearly a book unto itself. This chapter traces Machiavelli’s influence on Montesquieu, demonstrating how a more moderate thinker tempered Old Nick’s more unruly philosophy. It is here that Mansfield comes closest to fulfilling the promise of the book’s subtitle. He notes that this is but one essay, and that a more comprehensive and systematic treatment will be needed to justify his ambitious larger argument—here, he seems to emulate Machiavelli, in hoping that his own successors will fulfill his project. Nonetheless, one does wish that Mansfield had written more extensively about the nature of Machiavelli’s reception and influence down the centuries. (For those interested, Victoria Kahn and Richard Kennington are both invaluable resources.)
The question in the end, however, is not “is there more than meets the eye in Machiavelli’s writings?” (there is), nor “did he understand himself to be undertaking a radical project?” (he did), but rather “was that project essentially the same one that issued in the Enlightenment and so much that followed?” This requires not just that Machiavelli held specific intentions for his work, but also that his most consequential readers discerned and acted on those intentions across time.
Yet, even when the reader—this one, at any rate—is not entirely persuaded of Mansfield’s larger argument, one cannot fail to be struck by his keen insights into his subject. It is for this and other reasons that even Mansfield’s critics have had to take him seriously for more than half a century now. And if even Mansfield’s critics can agree on one thing, it is that Machiavelli has been deservedly read for more than a half a millennium now. Mansfield himself is one of the last remaining representatives of an older generation that has rendered great service in mediating the encounters between readers and Machiavelli as well as other comparable historical figures. If, fortuna willing, Machiavelli will be read for another half millennium, one wonders who will take up Mansfield’s task.
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