The shifting ways of words

The Language of Politics in Seventeenth-Century England - Machiavellian Rhetoric
August 11, 1995

In Machiavellian Rhetoric, Victoria Kahn attempts to revise the history of the reception of Niccol Machiavelli in the 16th and 17th centuries. She particularly engages with the work of Quentin Skinner and J. G. A. Pocock, who emphasise the role of Machiavelli in the formation of a secular language of politics linked to republicanism. Kahn argues that this extraction of religion is artificial, a misreading of rhetoric, and that theology is the key to understanding the relationship between Machiavelli the republican and the malign figure of the Machiavel.

The stage villain Machiavel has been treated as a naive misreading. Kahn argues that the Machiavel was the necessary spin-off from Machiavelli's rhetoric and as central as the more respectable republican. Early readers were good readers. The Prince and the Discourses are not incompatible works but closely related in rhetorical method. The former explores the disjunction between moral virtue and virt (efficacy or power); the Discourses offers a mode of arguing via exempla, presenting history as a kind of indifferent warehouse of arguments, implicitly admitting the possibility of contrary arguments deploying identical rhetorical forms.

This thoroughly rhetorical view of politics, extending the humanist method of argument pro et contra, recognised that form and belief need not be fixed in any single configuration. From this ambivalence the Machiavel figure emerges as a one-sided extreme; evidence not of the separation of religion and politics but of their inseparability and their mutually unfixed relation to rhetoric.

Kahn is thus arguing for a re-reading both of Machiavelli and of early-modern interpretations of him. The "Machiavellian rhetoric" of the title refers not only to his writings but to the use of The Prince's rhetoric of coercion and to a pattern of thinking stemming from Machiavelli repeatedly applied in debates about the limits of authority.

Kahn moves through a series of Counter-Reformation readings represented mainly by Giovanni Botero and Justus Lipsius, whose attempts to theorise prudence were troubled by the rift between virtue and virt. For Lipsius prudence became a form of rhetoric empty of specific moral content. Botero argued that the most effective statecraft lay in the hands of the Christian prince regardless of political complexion, and that reason and interest were independent and therefore not exclusive. For these thinkers, dangerous moral ambiguities emerged out of an examination of rhetoric and reason of state. Kahn's analysis looks a lot more like Richard Tuck's idea of a secular political philosophy than she cares to admit, and this section of the study fits unevenly into the whole.

Most of the book concerns British readers of Machiavelli from the Elizabethans through to John Milton. Rhetorical treatises by English humanists tended to regard formal strategies as ambivalent and open-ended. This fostered the sensitivity to pragmatism and rhetorical method we find in Sir Walter Ralegh and Francis Bacon; and Kahn offers a brief and engaging reading of Coriolanus from this perspective.

Actual familiarity with Machiavelli's texts is not, for Kahn, necessary for this use of rhetoric. Despite her interesting work on editing and translating we might then ask to what extent this approach to rhetoric is attributable to the influence of Machiavelli? "Machiavellian rhetoric" looks less like a tradition in the narrow sense and more like a characterisation of some broad strategies which might be derived from humanist writings unmediated by His Darkness.

Kahn traces the continuing influence of a rhetoric concerned with the unstable relation between form and content, faith and fraud, virtue and virt through the civil war writing including Henry Parker and the Engagement Controversy. Since the Henrician Reformation the doctrine of "things indifferent", that is, a whole area of behaviour which was not essentially regulated by theology and hence was left open to discretion, had been an important and contested category of political thought.

During the civil war this realm was extended, and the exposed terrain disputed. The use of the concept was most evident in arguments concerning de facto political power: authority which could be said to exist independently of its legitimation by moral right.

Kahn is at her most illuminating when she applies these arguments to Milton. Mixing some familiar arguments with some new, she provides a series of strong readings of A Mask, Areopagitica and Paradise Lost, relating the process of decision-making, central to Milton's conception of liberty, to problems of interpretation and hence to the problematic relationship between effectiveness and merit. She offers thoroughly convincing accounts of the role of Providence in A Mask, exploring the relationship between the Lady's virtue and Sabina's virt; of Satan as Machiavel, whose rhetoric betrays its own tyrannical limitations; and of the allegory of Sin and Death as a test of the reader, and as a model for meaning which is fraught with dangers of reification. Milton's continuing commitment to republican values emerges more firmly than in some recent accounts.

Machiavellian Rhetoric has left Machiavelli a long way behind. Kahn's narrative follows a set of homologues within a broader rhetorical tradition, representing Renaissance sensitivity to the conditions and limitations of meaning. Kahn's argument and detailed readings combine to make an original and impressive study.

Conal Condren's The Language of Politics advises a more dramatic re-mapping of the 17th century. Condren employs sophisticated linguistic arguments to demonstrate the tendency of historians to project the content of their own political vocabulary into the past. Like Kahn, he is concerned to demonstrate that politics is a function of language, and that it was maintained by its relationship with other linguistic domains: not just religion but law and science (what about historiography?) With impressive facility in a range of academic disciplines Condren discusses the effects of conflation (when two terms become synonymous by one of them being subsumed by the other) and distinction on the political vocabulary. In a time of expanding vocabulary, Condren suggests, verbal registers increase in sensitivity, an effect often invisible to us today. Simultaneously the period saw a move from nominal (relational, morally weighted) to real (morally ambivalent) definition. Hence in 1600 a "king" was a good king, opposed to a "tyrant", who was not a king; by 1700 a king could be a tyrant or otherwise.

Condren's main examples are the two pairs of terms subject and citizen and resistance and rebellion. During the civil war these moved to real definition: eg citizen became distinct from subject, assuming the implications of active, civic virtue, derived partly from Roman models. This refinement and elevation is traced through the writings of Thomas May, James Harrington, Henry Stubbe, George Lawson and Richard Baxter.

Opposing this tendency were Bishop John Maxwell, Thomas Hobbes, John Hall of Richmond and John Humfrey who demoted the term citizen, subsuming it under subject, and eroding the specific moral connotations of both.

These linguistic movements appear in Condren's argument as the consequence of self-conscious use by individual authors and of broader historical movements: increasing literacy and the concomitant broadening of audience, polemical needs and an expanding vernacular vocabulary. These movements are symbolised, Condren says, in the newspaper: perhaps the absence of a reference here in an otherwise impressively documented argument is an indication that the phenomena is not as "much discussed" as Condren says. Having quite recently completed a study of the 17th-century newspaper I can say that it is greatly misunderstood, and that we need more work on the printing-historical background to these linguistic arguments.

The case stands without this, however. As Condren argues, these "political" terms are inter-related in a way which historians have failed sufficiently to explore. Consequently not only do we speak for ourselves through 17th-century writers, they sometimes continue their shifty polemics through us. Whereas many historians argue that anachronistic vocabularies should not be applied in historical analysis, Condren is partly suggesting that non-anachronistic words should also be avoided. He concludes with a jeremiad against the use of the evaluative and indefinable terms left, right, conservative and radical. He writes with great panache, a remarkable diversity of expertise, and an uncompromising style (difficult partly because of the illusion of extemporary ease).

Kahn invites us to change the baby's bath water, Condren to question the need for ablution. The first is a refreshing, brisk approach; Kahn should convince. No one who reads Condren's perorations is likely to become less circumspect over their use of problematic terminologyl; but I suspect they are unlikely to stop altogether.

Joad Raymond is a fellow by examination, Magdalen College, Oxford.

The Language of Politics in Seventeenth-Century England

Author - Conal Condren
ISBN - 0 333 57937 2
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £40.00
Pages - 215

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