Philip Bobbitt on Quentin Skinner’s review of The Garments of Court and Palace


I have read and profited from Quentin Skinner on Machiavelli for many years; now it seems I am once more in his debt for his thoughtful review of my book, The Garments of Court and Palace, and I am grateful to him and The New York Review of Books.

There remain, however, a few points of dispute between us on the endlessly fascinating subject of Niccolo Machiavelli.

1.                   In my book I made the claim that it is possible to resolve the “Machiavelli Paradox.  Because Skinner denies that there is anything paradoxical about the many conflicting claims made about Machiavelli’s work, perhaps I should begin there.  The Machiavelli Paradox is: how can a man’s body of work mark him out as one of the most – perhaps the most – influential political philosophers since Aristotle when there is such profound disagreement over what he was actually saying?  To this Skinner retorts, “This does not strike me as paradoxical in the least….The reason why they have…been so influential is that…many people have come to believe that one or another of the varying accounts of what Machiavelli is saying captures the essence of his thought.”

But can the reason why a body of work is influential be that it presents inconsistent claims or sustains contradictory interpretations?  Perhaps it would be helpful to review a few of these puzzles. Was Machiavelli a forthright totalitarian or a human-rights-respecting republican? Was he a Christian or a pagan? Did he give priority to the lawgiver or the war fighter? Was he essentially an ethical writer or an unabashed amoralist? Was he the first political scientist, attempting to do for statecraft what Galileo sought to do for cosmology, or was he a committed sceptic where prediction is concerned? Was he a Renaissance humanist or a neoclassical realist? Did he believe that the affairs of mankind were determined or that there was a decisive role for individual free will?

 Is it really likely that his influence in fact rests on our inability to resolve even the most basic questions as to his views?

2.                   Having dismissed the problem, Skinner adds that he doubts the viability of my solution, which depends upon undermining the few basic descriptions of Machiavelli’s project on which there has been agreement, one of which is that The Prince and the Discourses take incompatible views of the nature of the sort of state Machiavelli preferred.  He writes, “Machiavelli’s Prince is brief and systematic, whereas his Discourses is a long and discursive commentary on a classical text, Livy’s history of Rome. The two books differ not only in genre and scale, but were composed at different times for different audiences, and contain some strongly contrasting arguments.”  But this simply assumes an answer to the very subject of my investigations. For I show how the two books are not different in genre—that, like the DiscoursesThe Prince is fundamentally a constitutional treatise, not simply a “mirror book” of advice; I offer evidence that they were composed at about the same time and I demonstrate that when read together the two works are not at all contradictory.  One book discusses principalities; one book discusses republics.  Both books suggest that a state is best founded by a single leader, and the book on republics explicitly claims, while the book on principalities does not deny, that a republic is Machiavelli’s preferred form of regime.  Machiavelli began the Discourses as a defense of the republican form of government, a defense that is of the Florentine experiment of which he had been a senior official and which had collapsed.  With the fortuitous advent of Giovanni de Medici’s elevation to the papacy, and his brother Giuliano’s political hegemony in Florence, however, Machiavelli saw the opportunity to unite the Papal States and the vicarages of the Romagna with Florence and its possessions, thus creating in the center of Italy a state capable of resisting the invasion of Spain, France and the Empire.  He therefore stopped working on the Discourses—the evidence for which is his statement in The Prince that he will not deal with republics in that book having already written on the subject---and began a treatise not on princes but as he tells us on principalities.  If we remain in doubt about my proposed  reconciliation, we have only to turn to the two constitutions drafted by Machiavelli for the governance of Florence, both submitted at the request of Medici popes, that daringly suggest that the Medici must turn over power to a republic. 


3.                       Quentin Skinner has taught us all The Prince can be richly (and amusingly) read by contrasting its claims with Cicero’s advice in his mirror book, De Officiis.  But it would be a mistake to infer that because a gifted and erudite scholar like Skinner can relate the observations of The Prince to a genre of mirror books with which he is intimately familiar, Niccolo Machiavelli had them in mind when he wrote The Prince.  As Maurizio Viroli has convincingly shown in his just-published Redeeming the Prince, Machiavelli did not know the texts that formed this genre and, had he read them, would not have been interested in the slightest in discussing them.  What is at stake here is not just Skinner’s welcome praise for my “valuable corrective” to the conventional view.  Neglecting the constitutional dimension is not only false to Machiavelli’s geostrategic purposes, it is continues to distort our view of his masterpiece.  Giovanni Sartori once called attention to “the term that symbolized more than any other [a] vertical focus [of power]… that term is ‘Prince’. It was no accident that Il Principe (1513) was the title chosen by Machiavelli.” Except that it wasn’t. It is worth emphasizing that The Prince was published posthumously in 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death. In 1513, and throughout his lifetime, Machiavelli entitled the work De principatibus (‘On principalities’), and not The Prince. Moreover, Machiavelli repeatedly refers to the work as ‘my treatise on principalities’ both during its composition and thereafter, including in the Discourses.[1] Nowhere in The Prince does he advocate monarchical rule over republicanism as the preferred constitutional method for sustaining the state.


4.                   Skinner’s account of what I have called “the duty of consequentialism” is summarized as: “simply the obligation to recognize that, if you believe the safety of the state to be in jeopardy, you must stand ready to do whatever may be required to uphold it. The insight that Bobbitt wishes us to carry away from our reading of Machiavelli is ‘that officials must disregard their personal moral codes in carrying out the duties of the state.’” But extracted from the context of the discussion in my book, this description is apt to give a very misleading impression.  First, it neglects to specify the grounds for such a duty.  The full passage reads, "Machiavelli’s insight – that officials must disregard their personal moral codes in carrying out the duties of the state – is seldom assessed within the context of law, even though for the states in which we live today, it is law, and not the judgment of the prince, that guides those who govern. Both princes and republics ‘need to be regulated by laws, because a prince who can do simply as he wishes is crazed, and a people who can do whatever it wishes is imprudent.’”  The duty of consequentialism arises from the responsibility an official owes to carry out the wishes of the public as expressed in constitutional forms. Second, this abbreviation may not convey the accurate meaning of the ‘personal moral code’ as a deontological set of absolute rules, and thus might mislead the reader into ignoring my claim that the official of a republic, in the exercise of those powers delegated to him by the people of the republic, must follow a precise moral code that subordinate his personal interests in favour of serving the public good.  The sentence immediately preceding the passage quote above is itself a quotation from Machiavelli: “It is marvelous to think of the greatness Athens achieved in the space of a century once she had freed herself from the tyranny of Pisistratus and even more marvelous to consider the greatness Rome reached having freed herself from her kings. The reason is easy to comprehend: it is not the private, personal good but the common good that makes cities great (perché non il bene particulare, ma il bene comune è quello che fa grandi le città).”  To see how far Skinner’s abbreviated description departs from my views, we have only to take his summary: “For Bobbitt, Machiavelli is there to remind us that, with very few exceptions, “we” must be prepared to do anything necessary to maintain and strengthen the state.”  This, Skinner says, explains my interest in Machiavelli, but in fact I do not hold this view myself and, in the present book and elsewhere, have explicitly rejected it.  For one thing, such a view would subordinate the role of moral choices by the public when the main purpose of the state should be to preserve the role of moral choice by the people.


5.                Nevertheless it is quite interesting to see how exactly Quentin Skinner absolves Machiavelli of the charge that he deplores the exercise of the classical virtues by political leaders when these would lead to the detriment of the state.  Machiavelli warns us that what seem to be virtues are in fact vices because they damage the state, an observation that supports my conclusion that Machiavelli in fact has a moral code for leaders.  Skinner, however, explains this warning by inventing a new set of vices---misunderstood virtues—of which, he claims, Machiavelli is being critical. “It is by no means clear in the first place that he is warning us to be wary of the quintessentially princely virtues of clemency and liberality. What he tells us in his discussion of these qualities is that, if we follow what are generally taken to be merciful and generous courses of action, we may indeed find ourselves in danger of losing our state. ..The warning he issues is that ‘doing things that appear virtuous may result in your ruin, whereas doing things that appear vicious may conduce to your well-being and security.’  The possibility deliberately left open is that, if you properly appreciate the virtues of clemency and liberality, as opposed to following the prevailing but corrupt understanding of what they prescribe, you may find that these qualities help you to maintain rather than undermine your state.”  I find this revision unpersuasive, and it robs Machiavelli’s insight of its unusual frankness.  In the example of clemency, Machiavelli cites the forbearance of the Florentines in dealing with the Pistoian insurgents that, because it failed to extinguish the rebellion, eventually led to an even greater use of force but there is no suggestion that the prompt and effective suppression of the revolt would not have been vicious or that Machiavelli would have disapproved of such violence had it been effective. Skinner’s addition of the “appearance” factor actually turns Machiavelli on his head, for he often advises that princes should take care to appear to be exercising the conventional virtues. 

6.                   Having decided that the moral code—if there is one—for my Machiavelli is no more than the preservation of the state, Skinner then reminds us of Machiavelli’s criticism of Agathocles whom Machiavelli condemns despite Agathocles’ ostensible success at creating and maintaining his realm. “Machiavelli consistently declares that this goal should be regarded as subordinate to a higher purpose, that of doing great things (gran cose) of such a kind as will bring glory and greatness to the prince and benefit to the people as a whole. …There is no discussion in Bobbitt’s text of the quest for princely glory and greatness, but it is arguable that, if we attend to this aspect of Machiavelli’s thought, a more complex sense of the conduct appropriate to rulers begins to emerge.”  I imagine that Quentin Skinner has simply overlooked this passage in The Garments of Court and Palace: “This is the basis for Machiavelli’s famous remark, otherwise puzzling, regarding Agathocles, the tyrant of Syracuse: ‘He who reflects on the accomplishments of this man will find little that can be attributed to Fortune. Without the help of anyone, but rather by rising through the ranks, risking a thousand difficulties and dangers, he came to rule a principality which he then maintained by many courageous acts. Yet this cannot be called virtù to murder one’s fellow citizens, to betray allies, to act without faith, pity or religion; such methods may gain power but never glory.’ The Prince, chapter 8 (emphasis supplied). For Machiavelli, glory is a consequence of moral choice,”  citing Dan Eldar, ‘Glory and the boundaries of public morality in Machiavelli’s thought’, History of Political Thought, vol. 7, issue 3 (Winter 1986): 419.  In any case, Niccolo Machiavelli would appear to have little sympathy with Skinner’s efforts to rehabilitate the Machiavellian image in this way,  for in the Discourses he equally famously says, “Che la patria si debbe difendere o con ignominia o con gloria; ed in qualunque modo è bene difesa” (One’s country ought to be defended, whether with ignominy or glory; it is well defended in whatever manner.) III, 41.


7.                   One wonders if, perhaps, behind some of the points made in the review there lie the debates around the wars on terror that have engaged us all in the last decade.  One might read Quentin Skinner’s review—carelessly, I concede—and think that my Machiavelli would endorse, anachronistically, some of the excesses of the Bush administration (or that such a position would make Machiavelli an attractive thinker for me).  Let me make as clear as I can that this is not my view. I dwell on this because the whole point of my work is that strategy must follow the law.  I certainly do not believe that the state is excused from committing crimes if officials believe that by doing so they are acting to benefit the state.  This is the very opposite of what I believe and what I have written.   Indeed I believe this to be an oxymoron: when the US violates the law it engages in self-defeating tactics that undermine the state.  Torture at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo or in secret prisons amount to lost battles in the wars on terror, losses just as costly to the achievement of our war aim as the losses we suffered in kinetic battles in Korea or World War II.


8.  To summarize:  In The Shield of Achilles and elsewhere, I have elaborated a theory that fundamental change in the strategic context brings about fundamental change in the constitutional order, both the order of the individual modern state and the collective order of the society of modern states. (And vice versa: a revolution in political affairs will have deep effects on strategy, e.g., the French revolution brought about a thorough-going transformation in strategy and tactics.)  Indeed I argue that revolutions in military affairs are responsible for the creation, and periodic recreation, of the state system just as revolutions in the political realm destroy and remake strategy.

The Garments of Court and Palace presents an account of how Niccolo Machiavelli, having observed the strategic changes set in motion by the French invasion of the Italian peninsula in 1494, perceived that these changes created the opportunity at three crucial junctures for the establishment of an early modern princely state in the heart of Italy, uniting the Papal States with Florence and its possessions and thus enabling the making of a state capable of expelling France, Spain and the Empire from Italy.  These possibilities did not come to fruition but they did precipitate a great constitutional treatise on how to create and maintain a state.  That treatise is the amalgamation of The Discourse on the First Ten Books of Livy and The Prince, published posthumously as separate books.  Once this treatise is read in the ways I propose, and in the historical context I describe, and is illuminated by the two constitutions that Machiavelli wrote for Florence in 1520 and 1522, many hitherto unresolved questions about his ideas are clarified.

9.  The last word on Machiavelli’s purposes should belong to Niccolo Machiavelli himself.  Skinner concludes his essay by asserting, “A further objection to Bobbitt’s reading is that Machiavelli never asserts in The Prince that the sole or even the most important duty of rulers is that of maintaining the state.”   Perhaps it is a useful corrective to remember that the quotation from Machiavelli with which Skinner begins his review actually ends with a passage he omits: “I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversation and composed a short study, De principatibus, in which I delve as deeply as I can into the ideas concerning this topic, discussing the definition of a princedom, the categories of princedoms, how they are acquired, how they are retained, and why they are lost.”



[1] See, for example, Discourses, book II, chapter 1 (nostro trattato de’ Principati).