PRINCE OF THE DARK ARTS
Machiavelli: a life beyond ideology Paul Oppenheimer CONTINUUM, 368PP, £25
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he best way to approach such enigmatic Italian modernists as Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco and even the Sicilian Leonardo Sciascia is to think of them not as literary nephews of Jorge Luis Borges but rather as collateral descendants of their countryman Niccolò Machiavelli. Pointless to argue that modern Italy is a unified nation whose sixteenthcentury equivalent was a bloody quilt of rival principalities. As recent events have shown, Italy is no more than a loose confederation of interest groups, geographical and otherwise. Even the language is far from uniformly codified. Machiavelli was first and foremost a great writer and rhetorician. Like most bright young men of his time, he dabbled in poetry, elegant
OUR REVIEWERS Brian Morton writes about the arts for The Tablet. John Barnes is a biographer of Stanley Baldwin. Nicholas King SJ teaches theology at Oxford. Clarissa Burden is editor of the Literary Review’s poetry anthology . Nick Garrard is a freelance writer living in Manchester. His debut novel is very much“in progress”. Timothy Brittain-Catlin teaches at the Kent School of Architecture, University of Kent.
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terza rima in the Dantean style, but also bawdier and more observational stuff. As a young Florentine diplomat, he pioneered a style of writing, outwardly direct but inwardly evasive. It first appeared in his Discorso fatto al magistrate dei dieci sopra le cose de Pisa, (“Discourse prepared for the Magistrates of the Ten on issues relating to Pisa”), which considered – a first hint of the “Machiavellian” approach – whether that rebellious city could be retaken “o forza o l’amore”. The prose, too, takes us by force and by “love” alternately, as it does in the masterly Il principe. Machiavelli’s reputation as the philosopher of cunning and violence is not a twentiethcentury back-construction. The notorious prologue to Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta begins “Albeit the world think Machevil is dead / Yet was his soul but flown beyond the Alps”. This was written 75 years after Machiavelli died in 1527 and it makes the point that “Machevil”, who is not quite Machiavelli but some dark angel of the stiletto, is abroad in the world, whispering in princes’ ears. One hears hints of his rhetoric later still in Lamennais’ equally notorious “Le bourreau est le premier ministre d’un bon prince”, the hangman as ideal prime minister. What isn’t clear, but emerges strongly in Paul Oppenheimer’s superb book, is how these ideas emerged and in what context.
In his effort to recreate a Machiavelli who is “beyond ideology”, legitimised by pragmatism and unfettered by Church or human fears, Oppenheimer locates his politics at a cusp where profoundest suspicion of the political process is matched by greatest need for maximum political control. It is hard to imagine now the degree-zero world in which Machiavelli functioned. I remember once reading E.D. Pendry say that the aftermath of plague in early-modern Europe was akin to the fallout of an atomic assault, and one gets precisely that sense of Machiavelli’s world: a nightmare version of 28 Days Later in which violence becomes the argot of the streets, almost a pastime, and ideological alliance is replaced by fleeting opportunism. What Oppenheimer has done, almost miraculously, is to create a biography that is in the strictest and most literary sense “Machiavellian”, very much in the spirit and style of its subject. It frequently plunges in media res. It looks on dispassionately as murder is done (the Pazzi Conspiracy, now gruesomely familiar again to Hannibal Lecter fans), and as state justice is meted out (the execution of the charismatic Savonarola), and it accepts without a blink the apocalyptic logic of a polity in which a figure like Savonarola can thrive. It is also quite an odd text, in which adjectives pile up almost poetically. Duke Federico de Montefeltro is “obese, placid, stumpy, palmy, roly-poly”, caught in Berruguete’s portrait from a “poky” angle.
Federico da Montefeltro, the renaissance condottiere who is believed to have inspired Machiavelli’s The Prince
Maggots do their work “daintily”, delivering “sterility”. And how about a sentence like this: “A pale hint of infinity – philosophy’s great unmentionable during the Middle Ages – loomed as a glittering potential shadow on an advancing historical horizon.” At one level it seems obscure and laboured, but it is in a real sense the key sentence of the book, Machiavelli’s context and the momentum of his legacy delivered in less than two dozen words. For after Machiavelli, who did not invent his age’s politics but channelled them brilliantly, the infinite does enter into the world of social and military policy. In astronomy, in economics and in military matters (albeit most old-school soldiers were repelled by the new personal firearms as dishonourable), the universe of possibility was suddenly and vastly enlarged, rattling with skeletons, echoing to anguished cries and the serpentine whisper of a drawn blade. It also anticipates a world – and this is why the reference to Pendry is not out of place – in which statesmen would ultimately and with seeming reasonableness trade in weapons that could consign whole nations to oblivion at the push of a button. It is this which makes Machiavelli so modern and such an obvious forebear of the postmodernists.
18 | THE TABLET | 7 January 2012 ‘Brave is the debut author who draws equally from the wisdom of Tertullian and Jade Goody,’ PAGE 21
The Conservatives: a history Robin Harris BANTAM PRESS, 640PP, £30
■ Tablet bookshop price £27 Tel 01420 592974
Robin Harris’ account of the Conservative Party has already found favour in certain (Conservative) quarters, largely, one suspects, because it has things to say about coalitions, particularly the current coalition. One of the more surprising reflections it provokes is just how often the Conservative Party has found itself in coalition in the last 150 years. It would have been interesting to have more analysis of why these coalitions were more durable than Lloyd George’s, but Harris, predictably, is more interested in the factors that bring coalitions down; his succinct insights into what lay behind the Carlton Club vote in 1922, in which MPs successfully demanded the Conservatives withdraw from coalition with the Liberals, should be compulsory reading for David Cameron.
As an account of the party’s history, this book can be very good, but – to adapt the old nursery rhyme – when it is bad, it is horrid. It would not be easy to better his account of Salisbury, for example, and, while he has little new to say about Disraeli, he brings out the quality of his leadership. He might have said more about the potency of the Disraelian myth in the party’s affairs: seemingly buried with Lord Randolph Churchill, it was revived by the Unionist Social Reform Committee and fully developed by the man who, surprisingly, turned out to be its most successful member, Stanley Baldwin. It remained effective well into the time of Baldwin’s young men, Anthony Eden and “Rab” Butler.
This highlights a major weakness in Harris’ book. It is, essentially, an account of the leadership of the Conservative Party. What he says about the organisation is sensible, if terse; of necessity, the relationship of the leadership with their backbench MPs forms a considerable part of his story. But the mass organisation of the party is dealt with mainly as a vehicle for those seeking to challenge the leadership: the electorate is taken for granted.
That goes some way to explain his surprisingly jaundiced appreciation of Baldwin. Arguably he, more than any other, was responsible for ensuring that the party was the significant other to Labour in the warring partnership that came to dominate British politics for the remainder of twentieth century. Harris notes that he was a formidable politician and party manager, but it never seems to occur to him to wonder how it was that, on three occasions, Baldwin attracted half or more of the working-class vote. It was in Baldwin’s time, too, that the greater part of the traditional Liberal Party transferred their allegiance, many of them describing themselves as National Liberals. Whether this was all down to shrewd calculation or pure luck would bear examination. Probably it was neither, but the product of an uncanny intuitive sense of what the non-unionised electorate was thinking – and the skill to put it into words – that won their vote. It was a considerable help that he was a master of the broadcast fireside chat.
Harris finds it surprising that the post1884 electorate returned Conservative Governments, but it was an even more remarkable phenomenon after 1918. A moment’s thought would have told him that the only explanation he offers is incommensurate with the scale of the phenomenon it has to explain. A third of the working class remained in the Conservative camp after 1945, answering to an appeal better articulated by Eden than by Churchill. That ensured there was still a Conservative Party left, to respond to Mrs Thatcher’s appeal to more robust Conservative values (although they were not that dissimilar from those which Baldwin had earlier articulated).
However, Harris is more interested in the uses to which power is put than in the winning of it. His judgements are often provocative, sometimes harsh and, on occasion, curiously hedged. He seems almost wilfully blind to the achievements of Lord Liverpool, arguably the architect of the nineteenth century, and he tends to discount those of Conservative
Prime Minister David Cameron and former Prime Minister John Major at Downing Street administrations where the legislative output is that of a leader’s lieutenants. It is evident that he prefers chieftains to chairmen, but the record does not always support his verdict. As an account of the achievements and failures of the party’s leaders, this is an excellent read, but for those looking for a one-volume history of the party, John Ramsden’s An Appetite for Power is still the better bet. John Barnes
The NEWMAN ASSOCIATION Seventieth Anniversary
Year - 2012 10 March - The Uses of Scripture in Catholic Prayer, Practice and Theology - Joint conference, Durham University 22 March - London Newman Lecture - Listening to Victims of Abuse - Baroness Sheila Hollins 16 June - AGM Blackfriars, Oxford 5-11 October - Newman Pilgrimage - Newman’s Rome and Assisi January to December - over 100 lectures, conferences and other local events across the UK, plus articles in The Newman journal (January, May, September).
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7 January 2012 | THE TABLET | 19