Book of the Month Club: THE GARMENTS OF COURT AND PALACE by Philip Bobbitt

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The impact of Machiavelli’s work has nothing to do with the assumptions that have provoked the most enduring controversies, and these assumptions are based on a deep misreading that ignores the constitutionalist nature of his writing. It is this contribution—and the clear-sighted and ingenious craft which is meant to serve it—that has held our attention since the birth of the modern state, even when we were unsure of its source.

garments of court and palace

A revisionist history trying to reinterpret Niccolo Machiavelli not as a scheming civil servant, but as, well, not a scheming civil servant.

Machiavelli’s reputation, Bobbitt claims, stems from an incorrect reading of his political treatise, The Prince. The treatise, when taken out of context, paints Machiavelli as an amoral, pagan, autocracy-supporting guy who can separate politics from ethics without batting an eye. However, rather than reading The Prince in a vacuum, Bobbitt says we must look at it in relation to his other works, namely the Discourses, which forms a coherent whole with The Prince. Sounds good. But does it work? Yes and no.

Honestly, I have mixed feelings about this book. While Bobbitt’s argument is compelling, I found his argument got lost in all the talk about the two political families that influenced much of pre-unified Italy, the Borgias (in Rome) and the Medicis (in Florence), two dynasties whose power ran all the way to the Papacy. I did not find Bobbitt’s writing particularly engaging at first; it was a bit of a struggle to get through the work as the writing was dense and academic, complete with a mini abstract and a mini conclusion with each chapter. However, the argument itself is sharp and thought-provoking, Bobbitt’s account of Machiavelli’s proposed form of constitutional government in later chapters is compelling, and it does have an interesting discussion about laws and legal theory. These factors make the book worth a quick read. Though personally, I would rather watch the Machiavellian antics of Sir Humphrey Appleby of British television “Yes Minister” fame.

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