On Second-Rate Thinkers

You’ve probably never heard of Donato Giannotti (1492-1573). The only place I recall encountering him is in J. G. A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment, which I’m now rereading.

In Pocock’s phrase, Giannotti was “not a genius, as Machiavelli and Guicciardini both were.” And yet Pocock quotes him as follows:

You are to understand that in every republic there are many institutions (costituzioni) for which one can give no probable reason, let alone the true one. And this is to be found not only in those cities where the form of government has changed, but in those which have long been ruled and governed by the same laws. For although the usages have been kept up, their causes are none the less lost in antiquity.

Simply noticing these things, rather than regarding them as dross, is significant, particularly for the time. Again, as Pocock would have it: “There are political phenomena which usage may justify, but cannot explain.” It is a cautious approach to political theory, and I think a wise one. There are many things that we cannot explain even today. Our actions always outrun our ability to account for them.

If only this were what passed for first-rate thinking. But to be deemed first rate, it would seem that one must almost always sing the praises of unlimited state power. The success or failure of the particular projects that one champions along the way is all but immaterial: Write with unlimited confidence, worship something big and brutal, and your chances of making the canon improve dramatically.

We remember Plato’s eternal, crystalline totalitarianisms; we forget his fawning over the bloody tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse. Everyone reads The Prince in college at the latest — and yet what was there to commend about Cesare Borgia? Hegel believed he had solved the riddle of history itself, and yet what he views as history’s culmination in the real world seems to us not even like a plausible step along the way. (Which it might seem, if Hegel were correct both about the process of history in general and about his fitting of particulars to the pattern.)

Had these errors been made by thinkers who counseled modesty, I suspect they would have been fatal. Hegel’s great critic, Schopenhauer, was perhaps wise to avoid writing about politics entirely.