I have determined, based on the volume of questions my the first installment of my Machiavelli series sparked, that two entries on Machiavelli is not enough. I now have a four part plan in mind. I must, therefore, beg some patience from my readers, as I postpone tales of Borgias and adulteries and historically documentable assassinations for another fortnight. I think, in the end, my treatment will be clearer, as well as more comprehensive, if I take my time. In the first entry I addressed Machiavelli’s political and personal life. Next I shall treat his contribution to the field of ethics. Third, I shall turn to the Borgia cataclysm which birthed that ethics. Then, fourth, I shall address religion, why Machiavelli was so long styled “arch-heretic”, and, on a more personal note, my own experiences as an historian specializing in the history of heterodoxy, heresy and unbelief in the Renaissance, who faces regularly that perennial question: “Was Machiavelli an atheist?” A fifth post may yet grow out of more questions, we’ll see.
The next proper installment is underway, but first I want to address one question I received, which was likely intended to be rhetorical, but for which I have an answer. The question was: “Holy cow, why isn’t more history taught like this?”
The answer comes down to what I call the simplification bell curve. The type of treatment I am presenting here of Machiavelli is extremely simplified. I simplify the historical details, using such phrases as “Florence’s republic went through some twists” or “everyone joins forces to attack Venice” to gloss over infinitely complicated political situations which an expert might unpack into many volumes. I also simplify Machiavelli’s thought, presenting not his own words nor even citable paraphrases, but the broadest summaries. Indeed, it would take some effort on my part or a reader’s to trace any of my statements to a single line or section from the authentic text.
This simplification involves an enormous amount of personal judgment on my part, and a corresponding amount of trust on yours, as I ask you to accept my claims while I supply no evidence to verify them. It requires a great deal of expertise, comfort and what I call fluency in a topic, in this case fluency in Machiavelli’s world and thought, for an historian to competently make such simplifications and judgment calls, and I myself demand to know a lot about an author’s background and other works before I will trust that author enough to accept such a simplified narrative. Many do it badly, even misleadingly (intentionally or accidentally); few do it well. There are perhaps a few dozen people in the world who know any given topic well enough, and these are not enough to populate all classrooms. Even when a teacher is truly fluent in one topic, the rigors of scheduling may suddenly demand that our Machiavelli expert suddenly teach Medieval theater, or Heidegger (that was a scary semester). Thus, if syllabi and textbooks frequently resort to details and facts, encouraging memorization as well as critical thinking on the students’ part, this is in my view a reasonable, even necessary device for avoiding the dangers posed if someone less comfortable with a topic attempts to synthetically simplify. I myself would never be comfortable presenting a simplified synthetic narrative of an historical topic outside my own area of specialization. In fact, being still early in my career, I am not yet comfortable putting a piece like this in formal print, since, while I am confident in my fluency in Machiavelli, I do not yet have the publications under my belt to prove it to cautious colleagues.
How is this a bell curve? Because synthetic simplification is a tool well-suited for two points on a bell curve: an extremely introductory treatment of an historical topic can legitimately simplify things in the interest of a novitiate audience, and an extremely expert treatment of an historical topic can also comfortably simplify, relying on trust in the author’s fluency. It is at middling levels of expertise that details, facts, figures and footnotes are necessary, to prove points and so readers can hold the historian accountable, reading critically and questioning anything which seems implausible, biased, partisan or otherwise sketchy. This form of teaching history is less efficient, less elegant and less fun, but nonetheless necessary, and indeed useful, since it teaches the student not only facts but how to interpret them in the raw, a necessity in a world saturated with bias and incomplete information. It presents information, rather than interpretation, because interpretation is far more difficult to do well, and does (and should) ring more warning bells in the minds of readers who know to mistrust interpretations which are not accompanied by evidence. In sum, this style of history requires a lot of historical fluency on one end, and a lot of trust on the other. That, in (not very) short is my theory about why more history is not taught like this.
Next up: Ethics!
The one shown in the middle above, Brucker’s “Golden Age” is a basic textbook with lots of shiny pictures. The others are more detailed, the one on the left by a Machiavelli expert.