Machiavelli I (addendum): thoughts on this style of presenting history

People asked for book recommendations. Primary sources are where I start. Click through to Amazon.

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.

Excellent essays by a variety of experts with a good balance between info & simplification.

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.

Fabulous window on Machiavelli's personal side.

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!

Three good basic Florence intros.

 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.

See next Machiavelli II: the Three Branches of Ethics

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8 Responses to “Machiavelli I (addendum): thoughts on this style of presenting history”

  1. Fade Manley said:

    That explains a lot about why I so often find classes actually focused on history unsatisfying, and so often enjoy it when my professors give historical context for something we’re reading or translating in class. The middle ground of endless facts to memorize just isn’t any fun, but…I guess it wouldn’t really be a good introduction if the professors tried to teach actual history classes via “Here’s a summary of cool things that happened!”

    That said, some of my classes tried to have it both ways; lecture was more on the “awesome summary” side of things, and then there were books to read and lists of facts to nail down the boring, confusing details. I’m not sure if they got the history into my head more effectively, but they were more fun to sit through.

  2. Wilson said:

    I think the Internet may (and hope it will) go a long way toward helping with the problem that 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.

    Hundreds (thousands?) of people read the original S.P.Q.F. post, and you didn’t need to be in a thousand classrooms (or even one) for that to happen.

    If more historians with specific knowledge wrote more posts like that, then much of history could be taught that way, at least as an introduction.

    Making the posts public, providing sources (perhaps in comments or separate posts like this one) and allowing (moderated) comments gives lay readers a reasonable sense of confidence in what you’re saying, because they know you’re putting it out there where it can be (civilly) critiqued and debated.

    To me, what’s more – or at least as – critical to the success of posts like “Machiavelli I” is how engaging the writer is. The value of the post didn’t just lie in the fact that you summarized and interpreted for us, but also that you presented those summaries and interpretations in a hugely readable and entertaining way. If it hadn’t done so, only people who really cared would have read the whole thing.

    I almost never read blog posts as long as that one – at least, not all the way through. (I’m not especially proud of this, but I’m not especially ashamed of it, either – I’m usually reading during a work break and rarely have time for a long, comfortable read on any topic.) But the writing drew me along from top to bottom. The post was as much an examplar of how to present history as it was a presentation of history.

    • Ex Urbe said:

      Wilson, many thanks for your praise. Your comment made my day. I share your tendency to read only the first few paragraphs or sentences of most blog posts, and I’ve worked hard on developing a style to make them flowing and engaging. Glad to hear it’s working.

      You’re very right about the ability of the internet to share things with people in new ways. Over the next decade we’ll definitely see a lot of change in how the internet participates in education. I’m certainly delighted by the opportunity it gives me to share the parts of history I love with people beyond the little cluster of scholars who read the academic venues that my more formal work goes into.

  3. Expat said:

    Thank you for the effort you’re putting into this. I stumbled on the first article about Machiavelli through an economics blog and was delighted. I’ve found links to his History of Florence and Discourses , and those are going to be long slogs, if I even finish them. This treatment of history is, as you say, very demanding, and yet there are thousands, if not millions, of us who feel a deep need for it because our experience in the regular educational establishment was so unsatisfactory.

  4. […] next, Machiavelli I.5, Thoughts on Presenting this Style of History, then Machiavelli II: the Three Branches of […]

  5. […] also the earlier chapers of this series: Machiavelli Part I: S.P.Q.F., Part I addendum, and Part II: The Three Branches of […]

  6. […] also helps that I am a fan of Palmer’s blog. If you don’t have time for the novel, check out her series of posts from a few years ago about putting Machiavelli in context. They are SO […]

  7. Renzo Koornhof said:

    I don’t know if you monitor this anymore, but I don’t have enough words to thank you properly for these posts. If you ever discover that our paths cross in the same place (my first and last name together are unique and I’m public with my movements), reach out and I will buy you dinner and host you to the best of my abilities

    I read your original Machiavelli post *several* years ago and was absolutely delighted by it. Your expertise in the subject was clearly evident by your ability to colloquialize the narrative

    I am a generalist, which means I rely on experts. So, I have learned to recognize expertise by the ability to describe complex concepts in simple language. Especially by the ability to recognize that other complex issues are import but tangential and should not be included in the current story

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