Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | December 5, 2014

Book Reviews

1. At Howl at Pluto, LFC reviews The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It, by David A. Bell:

The intensification of warfare during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic period reflected, Bell maintains, a change in the prevailing “culture of war,” from one that assumed war was an unexceptional, normal phenomenon to one that viewed war in apocalyptic terms: “A vision of war as utterly exceptional — as a final, cleansing paroxysm of violence — did not simply precede the total war of 1792-1815. It helped, decisively, to bring it about” (p.316). He argues that a mindset that demonizes enemies and presents conflicts in stark good-vs.-evil terms continues to affect the way Western societies prosecute wars. Clearly this argument is influenced, perhaps overly influenced, by the rhetoric of the G.W. Bush administration, during which The First Total War was written. Bell refers to Carl Schmitt a few times, and those who see the “war on terror” as a “Schmittian moment” will find support for their position here. The book’s value, however, lies perhaps not so much in its main thesis as in the wide range that it covers, from works of philosophy to poems and paintings to rhetoric to battles and strategy, and in its effort to draw connections among these.

2. In the Literary Review, John Gray reviews Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy:

In his two-volume blockbuster Fukuyama is looking for an overall pattern in history that, while leaving room for human choice, normally eventuates in democratic government. In The Origins of Political Order (2011), a 600-page door-stopper, he pursued his quest from pre-human primate hierarchies up to the French Revolution. Now we have another 600-page opus, which takes the story up to the present time. There are no surprises in this concluding volume: while it may now be in some difficulties and its ultimate triumph is not predetermined, liberal democracy continues to be the universal destination of humankind. ‘The study of “development”,’ he writes, is ‘not just an endless catalog of personalities, events, conflicts, and policies. It necessarily centers around the process by which political institutions emerge, evolve, and eventually decay.’

The telltale word here, and throughout the two volumes, is ‘evolve’. For Fukuyama, as for many other modern thinkers, today and in the past, political development is an evolutionary process. What drives this process is never specified; if there is a social equivalent of the natural selection of genetic mutations, we learn no more about its workings from Fukuyama than we did from Karl Marx or Herbert Spencer, who produced similar speculations in the 19th century. It is never explained why political evolution should have any particular end state, nor why the process should involve the convergence of institutions. As it operates among species, evolution shows no such tendency. Drift and diversity, punctuated by extinction, are the normal state of affairs. Why should evolution in society – if there is such a thing – be any different?

The answer, of course, is that Fukuyama takes for granted that the end point of political development is the system of government he prefers. As he puts it here and in the previous volume, the problem that most of the world faces is ‘getting to Denmark’ – where ‘Denmark’ means not the actual country but ‘an imagined society that is prosperous, democratic, secure, and well governed, and experiences low levels of corruption’. He sees many of the humanitarian and military interventions of Western governments as bungling attempts to promote this imaginary society: ‘The international community would like to turn Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Haiti into idealized places like “Denmark,” but it doesn’t have the slightest idea of how to bring this about.’ Oddly, Fukuyama omits Iraq from his list of Western failures. The reason for all of these fiascos, however, is clear: ‘We don’t understand how Denmark itself came to be Denmark and therefore don’t comprehend the complexity and difficulty of political development.’

(H/T: Morgan Meis, 3 Quarks Daily.)

3. At First Things, Kate Havard reviews Redeeming “The Prince”: The Meaning of Machiavelli’s Masterpiece, by Maurizio Viroli:

Viroli says that the most important chapter in The Prince is the last, “Exhortation to Seize Italy and to Free Her From the Barbarians.” Here, Machiavelli calls for a leader to rise up against foreign oppressors to create an Italy whole and free. This is the project of the Prince, Viroli argues, and it is a project so beautiful that any means are appropriate to secure it.

This is an audacious claim because the Exhortation is usually regarded as the worst and least interesting chapter in the book. For those who love Machiavelli for his cynicism, the fervor, patriotism, and piety in the Exhortation is puzzling. Was Machiavelli forced to include it? Was he merely shilling for a job? Is this some kind of trick? Is somebody being esoteric?

Viroli says no. When a book is as spare and carefully constructed as The Prince, it is unwise to dismiss any of it as superfluous. It’s especially unwise to dismiss its final chapter as meaningless, because, of course, this is the book where Machiavelli advises all men to “look to the end” for ultimate guidance.

(H/T: Andrew Sullivan.)

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Responses

  1. I’m going to read the Machiavelli review (thks for the link), maybe Gray’s also. And thks for the excerpt/plug.


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