Posted: January 24, 2005
A review of Art of War, by Niccolò Machiavelli, translated, edited, and with a commentary by Christopher Lynch
hirty-six years ago, Allan Bloom published a translation of Plato's Republic that set a new standard for the genre. He was by no means the first to suppose that scholars, in their guise as translators, should leave interpretation to the reader and, in their translations, track the original text as closely as possible. After all, as he was quick to point out, it was in this fashion that William of Moerbeke had made Aristotle accessible to Thomas Aquinas and to other medieval readers of Latin. Somewhere along the way, however, the example set by William had been forgotten, and many a modern translation was little more than a paraphrase propagating a particular, even idiosyncratic reading of the text.
Bloom was unusual in insisting that understanding great writers requires close reading and real thinking and that, short of learning the original language, one can gain access to these writers only by working one's way through a translation fully faithful to the original. He was not, as this brief summary may suggest, hopelessly naïve. He recognized that the ideal he projected could only more or less be achieved. He insisted only that the effort was worth it—that a translator who aimed resolutely at a literal rendering would better serve those intent on wrestling with the issues raised in the text than one who heedlessly inscribed into an English paraphrase his own interpretation of the original.
Thanks to Bloom's efforts and even more to his example, students interested in Plato, Xenophon, Machiavelli, Pierre Bayle, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Alexandre Kojève, and even Charles de Gaulle now have access to generally reliable translations of these writers' most significant works. Moreover, in many cases, the translators have followed Bloom's example in another particular, appending to their translations illuminating interpretive essays and glossaries listing terms of evident importance that appear in the translation, indicating the original for each of the words translated, and specifying precisely where in the pertinent work these words appear. In addition, to make cross-referencing easier, some have numbered the paragraphs or even the sentences of the original text. And some have added maps, figures, indices of names, and even outlines of the text's argument.
Christopher Lynch is the most recent among these, and he has done everything mentioned above. His rendering of Machiavelli's Art of War is modelled on the translations of that author's Prince, Florentine Histories, and Discourses on Livy that Harvey Mansfield has produced on his own or with Laura Banfield or Nathan Tarcov, and it displays all, or nearly all, of the virtues found in its models as well as certain of the vices. In translating the most important of Machiavelli's terms, Lynch always, or nearly always, follows Mansfield and his collaborators. This has the great advantage that it makes it easy to read Lynch's translation of the Art of War alongside these other translations. One can, as a consequence, see the connections between all of these works and note the occasional disparities. It also means, of course, that when Mansfield and company go astray Lynch is likely to follow in their wake.
Thus, for example, Mansfield and Tarcov translate risuscitato as "resuscitated" in Discourses on Livy 1.58.2, illuminating the etymological connection between the Italian and the English word, but obscuring the fact that contemporaries would have recognized in Machiavelli's discussion of what would have happened at Rome had Manlius Capitolinus come back to life an oblique allusion to the resurrection of Christ; and the two do the equivalent at 2.18.5, where Machiavelli claims that "it is necessary to resurrect" the ancient orders. Lynch, in due course, follows suit in Art of War 5.2.247, obscuring thereby Fabrizio Colonna's treatment of his own attempt to bring back to life the "ancient orders" as somehow analogous to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Machiavelli's choice of words in these three contexts is arguably significant, as these translators acknowledge in their interpretive writings, for it is of a piece with his persistent use of charged Christian language in pagan or political contexts where this language seems, to the unsuspecting glance, decidedly odd and highly inappropriate.
In similar fashion, Mansfield, Tarcov, and Lynch translate contado as "country" or "countryside" and provide for the word in their glossaries no entry that would enable readers to distinguish the places where Machiavelli uses contado from the places where he refers to the paese. The distinction is of very considerable significance, for Machiavelli's Florence differed from ancient Rome and from the cities of ancient Greece in one crucial particular. In the latter, the ordinary citizen was a farmer; in the former, he was a banker, a merchant, or a guild member. Machiavelli's fellow cittadini were city-dwellers involved in the professions or in high finance, engaged in manufacturing, or committed to trade. Cicero's fellow cives were agriculturalists. Cicero's fellow cives ruled over slaves; Machiavelli's fellow cittadini ruled over the contadini, the subject population of the city's contado, the extensive territory under its control outside its walls. Rome's army was a citizen army because, as Machiavelli puts it in a crucial passage, "Rome and the contado were one and the same thing" (Discourses on Livy 1.40.6). Machiavelli's militia—both the one that he established in his capacity as secretary of the second chancery in Florence and the one that his interlocutor, Fabrizio Colonna, advocates in the Art of War—was an army of subjects, an infantry made up of men drawn from the contado. As such, it had a revolutionary potential that made the leading citizens of Florence, in the days when Machiavelli was a civil servant, wary of his intentions and suspicious of those in the government whom he served. In his writings, Machiavelli ostentatiously sidesteps discussing the dangers of arming and training the contadini, thereby drawing the attention of his more observant readers to a distinction between the ancient orders and the modern ones that is profoundly important for understanding his intention. But to the extent that these translations blur the linguistic distinctions that Machiavelli observed, they obscure what he seems to have had in mind.
Lynch slips up elsewhere as well. When Machiavelli describes the Roman camp, he names its principal thoroughfares la via capitana and la via del croce, which Lynch translates as "Captain Street" and "Cross Street" (4.30). Had he reflected sufficiently on that which would have arrested the attention of Machiavelli's Florentine contemporaries, he would have called the two streets "the way of the captain" and "the way of the cross." In doing so, he would have illuminated the manner in which the armed camp envisaged by the Florentine was intended to bring together the orders of ancient and Christian Rome.
This volume has additional defects. In his interpretive essay, Lynch makes much of Machiavelli's use of "sinister" to describe opinions and auguries, but in his glossary he provides no entry for the word. He makes us aware that the infantry advocated by Fabrizio Colonna is a subject, not a citizen army, but in his glossary he neglects to provide an entry for the word "subject." In similar fashion, when Lynch makes the case that Machiavelli's Fabrizio is, despite his claims early on, "not in principle averse to a standing professional army," he neglects to provide in the appropriate place a precise reference to the passage that, in his opinion, clinches his argument (1.255-58).
These are, of course, pecaddilloes all. To dwell on them would be churlish. They deserve mention in a review only because they can easily be fixed when the University of Chicago brings out a paperback edition, as surely it will. Moreover, the misjudgments that here and there afflict the translation and the glossary are salutary reminders that nothing can substitute for a knowledge of the original text. After all, like Homer, Christopher Lynch occasionally nods.
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It is not often, however, that he really does go astray, and, if truth be told, we are greatly in his debt. There have been four translations of Machiavelli's Art of War into English. Peter Whitehorne produced one such in 1560, some thirty-nine years after Machiavelli ushered the original into print. Henry Neville produced another in 1680; Ellis Farneworth brought a third out in 1762; and Allan Gilbert published a fourth in 1965. None of these followed the original with full fidelity, and the most recent is misleading in the extreme. If in England and America political scientists and historians persist today in thinking Machiavelli an advocate for an armed citizenry, it is because Gilbert inscribed an error (first propagated by Hans Baron) into his translation, persistently referring to mercenaries as "professional soldiers" and persistently rendering as "citizen army" Machiavelli's term ordinanza—a word that means "ordinance" or "that which has been ordained" and which came to be used in Florence as shorthand both for the decree establishing Machiavelli's militia and for the infantry ofcontadini that for a brief span of time he conjured into existence. Now thanks to Lynch, Mansfield, and the latter's collaborators, we can finally see for ourselves that Machiavelli never advocated the establishment of a citizen army. His sole concern was the establishment of an infantry that would be both loyal and resolute, and to this end he advocated that principalities and republics arm and train selected individuals from among their subject rural populations. If, in addition, Machiavelli really was concerned with citizenship, if he favored making cittadini of the contadini, if he aimed at unleashing the revolutionary potential inherent in the countryside and at restoring "ancient orders" in this fashion, he generally kept his own counsel and confined himself to hints. On the face of it, as Lynch notes, Machiavelli's Art of Warpoints as much to the modern professional as to the modern citizen army. A civic humanist he certainly was not.
In his introduction, Lynch does a superb job of placing Machiavelli's Art of War in its historical context, of outlining the sources on which he drew, of surveying the debates in the secondary literature concerning its interpretation and value, and of charting its subsequent influence. He rightly places great emphasis on the setting, the Orti Oricellari, in which the dialogue takes place; on the background of Fabrizio Colonna and his interlocutors; and on the principal issue addressed: the relation between the military and civilian ways of life. Only sparingly in this context does he provide guidance as to how the dialogue should be read, suggesting that Fabrizio is neither a mouthpiece for Machiavelli nor a run-of-the-mill humanist whose outlook is subverted in the course of the work, but "a self-consciously restrained version of Machiavelli himself" who is forced by the spirited young men with whom he is conversing "to remove the moral veil of wise political discourse." But, in the course of defending the work's importance, he does make a point of defending Machiavelli against those who have charged him with an indifference to and ignorance of technological innovation, especially regarding firearms, artillery, and siege warfare, and he concludes with the claim that to understand Machiavelli's Art of War one must attend to its author's intransigent rejection of Aristotle's claim that man is by nature a political animal and reflect on the Florentine's conviction that war is man's natural state.
In his interpretive essay, Lynch does an even better job of making sense of the book both as a contribution to the study of war and as a restatement and elaboration of the themes dominant in The Prince and the Discourses on Livy. He devotes twenty pages to Machiavelli's Auseinandersetzung with the military revolution underway in his own day, focusing on the revival of disciplined infantry on the ancient model by the Swiss, and then considering the advent of gunpowder technology; Machiavelli's attempt to sort out the proper combination of arms; his prescriptions regarding manpower, organization, and training; his discussion of siege warfare; and his account of strategic doctrine. Military historians and students of strategy will find this part of Lynch's essay invaluable. Laymen interested in war will find it fascinating in the extreme.
Lynch then turns to the relationship within Machiavelli's thinking of politics and war. He attends closely to the historical situation in which Machiavelli found himself, to his analysis of the set of circumstances that occasioned the predominance of mercenary armies within Italy, and to the role played by the Christian religion in Machiavelli's analysis of the predicament of his contemporaries. Lynch analyzes with great care the manner in which Machiavelli's protagonist, Fabrizio Colonna, flatters, then subverts the humanist sensibilities of the book's primary audience—exploiting their love of antiquity and then leading them in the direction of a proper appreciation for the primacy of military training and discipline, appealing to their love of the common good and then inducing them to appreciate the predominant role played by self-interest in motivating soldiers. This section he ends with a meditation on Machiavelli's treatment of the political problem posed by the need for a commanding officer of pre-eminent virtù.
In the final pages of his interpretive essay, Lynch attempts to clarify Machiavelli's overall aim—in the Art of War and elsewhere. Here he raises the crucial question—that of the two lives, emphasizing the unity of the military and civilian lives in antiquity; the division introduced in modern times by the Christian Church's propagation of the "sinister opinion" that the life of the priest and the monk, entirely divorced from considerations of war, is the best life; and the disastrous consequences attendant on the transformtion worked thereby in the ius gentium. Lynch ends with a discussion of the manner in which Machiavelli sought to overcome the malignity of the times, and effect, by means of his books, a posthumous revolution in the political culture of Europe.
All in all, this is a splendid work of scholarship. The translation is excellent; the glossary is invaluable. The introduction is sound, and the interpretive essay is a model of its kind. One can admire its brevity, but one must also regret that Christopher Lynch did not go on at greater length.