by Philippe Beneton
The early years of the sixteenth century were packed with some great minds, and some great books were written during those years. Three books in particular appeared that addressed the same issues from completely different points of view.
The first of these was Thomas More’s Utopia. It presented in rather clumsy form the workings of a presumably ideal state. Modern readers would find many flaws in this supposedly ideal state, but by the standards of the time, this country was truly… well, utopian. The basic structure was socialist, with community property, religious toleration (except for atheists), and a democratic structure.
The second was Nicolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. This book sought to teach rulers how to maintain and, if possible, extend their power. It was truly… well, Machiavellian. The basic message was that the ideal prince was ruthless and amoral, presenting a public appearance of kindness and beneficence while engaging in the most vicious behavior behind the scenes.
The third was Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly. This wasn’t explicitly about politics; it was a hilarious satire on the mores of contemporary Christendom. It poked fun at just about everybody, but especially at the powerful: the wealthy, the aristocracy, and the higher-ups in the Church. It set most of Europe laughing and infuriated the rest. It was so good-natured in style, however, that most powerful people took it all in good humor.
Here were three completely different approaches to the nature of society and government. Philippe Beneton wondered how these three minds would have interacted, so he composed a set of fictitious letters reflecting what he thought they might say to each other.
I must say, I was very impressed with the fidelity with which he matched Erasmus’ style of letter writing. I am not familiar enough with More or Machiavelli to judge the fidelity of his work on these two fellows, but I can say with confidence that he nailed Erasmus.
The conflict boils down to More and Erasmus against Machiavelli. Erasmus sends a long critique of The Prince to Machiavelli, ripping the book apart for its highly unchristian content. More echos Erasmus’ sentiments. Machiavelli dismisses both critiques on the grounds that they are based on naive idealism. In the real world, Machiavelli writes, the prince must perforce commit ugly acts; if he acted with the Christian charity that Erasmus and More argue for, he would be killed shortly.
Erasmus drops out of the argument and More and Machiavelli carry on. More argues that Machiavelli’s methods may work in the short term, but over the long run they are doomed to failure. In a dog-eat-dog world, no dog lives long. Machiavelli sticks to his guns, insisting that his position is based on real-world necessity.
Beneton even offers two imaginary letters written from the grave, by both More and Machiavelli. Machiavelli taunts More for getting himself executed — “How’d those Christian ideals work out for you, More?” More answers that he is happy with his decisions and expects to end up in heaven. Machiavelli admits that his likely destination is hell, but avers that it will likely be a more interesting place than heaven, stocked with some of the most interesting people in history.
I found the book unsatisfying. While Beneton certainly demonstrates intimate familiarity with all three thinkers and their times, I think that his presentation of the central conflict between them suffers from a lack of focus. He offers a long imaginary letter from Erasmus to a student explaining that his writings must be read carefully, because they conceal many important points, points that will only be accessible to those who read with great care. This is certainly an important insight into Erasmus’ style, but it is presented in so indirect a fashion as to make me wonder if perhaps Beneton is not himself doing the same.
The other striking lesson I learned from this book concerned the possible hypocrisy that More demonstrated in his life. On the one hand, he had no problem confirming death sentences for heretics, but on the other, he insisted on his right to act according to his religious ideals in the final controversy with Henry VIII. It might be argued that the heretics presented a real threat of treason to the state, while More himself loudly professed his loyalty to Henry VIII. Still, the contrast between the two situations is enough to make one wonder.
I do not recommend this book to anybody. The only people who could appreciate it are specialists in the history of the times.