Richard Marshall interviews Erica Benner in 3:AM Magazine:
3:AM: You’ve written extensively about Machiavelli. Your take is revisionary isn’t it in that you say he’s not what we’ve been led to suppose he is – the quintessence of amoral realpolitik. He’s an individualist deontological ethicist and this is the foundation for a political ethics. So how come few people recognized the irony?
EB: Lots of early readers did. Up to the second half of 18th century some of Machiavelli’s most intelligent readers – philosophers like Francis Bacon and Spinoza and Rousseau – read him as a thinker who wanted to uphold high moral standards. They thought he wrote ironically to expose the cynical methods politicians use to seize power, while only seeming to recommend them. Which doesn’t mean they thought he was writing pure satire, a send-up of political corruption. He had constructive aims too: to train people to see through plausible-sounding excuses and good appearances in politics, and think harder about the spiralling consequences of actions that seem good at the time.
Even his worst critics doubted that Machiavelli could be taken at face value. In one of the first reactions to the Prince on record, Cardinal Reginald Pole declares that its devil’s-spawn author can’t seriously be recommending deception and oath-breaking and the like, since any prince who does these things will make swarms of enemies and self-destruct. To Pole, what later generations would call Machiavellian realism looked utterly unrealistic. Then during the Napoleonic Wars, amoral realist readings started to drive out rival interpretations. German philosophers like Fichte and Hegel invoked Machiavelli as an early champion of national unification, if necessary by means of blood and iron. Italian nationalists of the left and right soon followed. Since then, almost everyone has read Machiavelli through some sort of national-ends-justify-amoral-means prism. Some scholars stress his otherwise moral republicanism. Others insist that he was indifferent to any moral good other than that of personal or collective survival. But it’s become very, very hard to question the ‘realpolitik in the last instance’ reading.