Thursday, June 18, 2015

My Amazon Review of Philip Bobbitt's "The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World that he Made"

A Prince of a Man

International lawyer and historian Philip Bobbitt offers us a fundamental reinterpretation of Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” Instead of it being a manual for tyrants “The Prince” is, in fact, an outline for the modern state that was to arise out of the feudal order. Bobbitt calls this new governmental form the “princely state” which he dates from the Treaty of Augsburg of 1555. For the reader not familiar with Bobbitt’s “Shield of Achilles,” his history of governmental order, this book can be rough going.

“The Garments of Court and Palace” combines a long book review with a biography of Machiavelli. To him Machiavelli’s priorities were to create a state to enhance the public good and to unify the feudal states of Italy into a unified whole. He puts into perspective one of Machiavelli’s most famous aphorisms, “the ends justify the means.” Taken literally this is a license for extreme actions, but Bobbitt notes that to Machiavelli the means have to be proportionate to the ends. When viewed this way, Machiavelli’s aphorism is a constraint on a ruler rather than a license.

Bobbitt has a lengthy discussion on the role of “virtu” and fortune in the affairs of a prince. “Virtu” here is defined as skill and resoluteness and fortune is the role of chance. A prince has to be constantly aware that fortune can overwhelm skill and effort or make a failed policy successful. Flexibility is the key and this also applies to previously entered treaties that no longer serve their original intent. Here I would add the comment of the 20th century political philosopher and baseball executive Branch Rickey who noted the “luck is the residue of design.” In other words a prince has to make his own breaks.

Machiavelli understood the feudal world was dying and a new form of governmental organization was required. To him a republic governed by a prince sensitive to the needs of his populace was the wave of the future.

Again as I noted above this book can be difficult going, but if the reader wants to get a sense of Machiavelli, his thoughts and the world he would make, it is worth the effort.

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