Discourses on Livy [Book Review]

Review of Metaphysics 50 (4):908-909 (1997)
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Abstract

The ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry has a parallel in an equally ancient dispute between philosophy and history. Which is to be the great teacher, ideas, words, or deeds? In the education of the human race, particularly for political life, are we to think of the state as an ideal concept, as a work of art, or as an achievement of a person of action? These themes have exercised political thinkers as old as Plato and Aristotle and as modern as Hobbes and Hegel, as well as perhaps the first modern, Niccolò Machiavelli. The issues of power, reason, and language, raised again and again in his masterpiece, The Prince, are equally central to the longer, less often read, but no less profound work, the Discourses on Livy, here given a loving and lucid translation, with a perceptive and helpful introduction, notes, glossary, and index. The Prince, usually taken as recommending absolute and ruthless individual sovereignty, is presumed to be the characteristic work of its author. The Discourses, with its recommendation of virtue and republicanism, on the other hand, is thought of as an inconsistent extravagation from the true Machiavellian position. However, as the translators make clear, this is textually and conceptually foreign to the facts. Machiavelli perhaps emphasizes the one set of values in the shorter book, and the other in the longer, but both are necessary to a full picture of his thought. The political problem for Machiavelli is balancing force with freedom. The unity of states is effected by force, their diversity by freedom. There is a problem of the one and the many in political theory as there is in other branches of philosophy.

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