‘Nevertheless: Machiavelli, Pascal’: Carlo Ginzburg, a singular case

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This article was originally published on 29 September 2022 in Le Monde des livres.

The Italian historian, a master of ‘microhistory’, has now written a reflection on the case study, which he has made his working method, by way of the modern history of casuistry.

An adverb as a title: ‘nevertheless’. In Italian (nondimanco) or Latin (tamen), the word is frequent in The Prince by Nicolas Machiavelli (1469-1527). It indicates that general laws must always be compatible with the realities of actual situations. The prince must be liberal; however, to be so, he must be sumptuous, thus imposing on his people ‘in an extraordinary way’. The prince must be seen to be moved by mercy; nevertheless, this requirement must not prevent actions that inspire fear. He must be honest and loyal; nevertheless, ‘we see from experience, in our time’, that it is possible to do great things without faith and by deception. Carlo Ginzburg approaches Machiavelli’s book by drawing attention to this stylistic habit, which summons examples from the present or from antiquity to show that the government of the prince is bound to deviate from any principles.

In the subtitle, Blaise Pascal (1623-62) joins Machiavelli, after a comma that Carlo Ginzburg likes to comment on because it both links and separates the two authors. It links them, since they both relate to casuistry, thinking by individual case, that part of moral theology which adapts principles to particular situations. It separates them: Machiavelli makes casuistry the matrix of discourses that introduce the exception into the norm, while Pascal targets it in Provincial Letters. Its presence in political theory is an indication of the process which, in early modernity, founded the theory of the state on the secularisation of theological concepts. The case then becomes an example, the miracle a prefiguration of the exception. This observation was made by Carl Schmitt; Ginzburg recalls that it was already there in Pascal.

Machiavelli’s familiarity with casuistry

As the chapters progress, the fundamental theses of the book emerge. The first establishes Machiavelli’s familiarity with casuistry. Of course, as Carlo Ginzburg reminds us, ‘in general, Machiavelli’s relationship with reality was anything but bookish’; nevertheless, these readings inspired or reinforced his own thinking. Some of them are more than likely to have been read in the books owned by his father. Thus the 14th-century treatises of Giovanni d’Andrea may have provided the justification for the lesser evil, ironically taken up by Friar Timoteo in La Mandragore, the comedy composed by Machiavelli in 1508, or the 15th-century commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics by Donato Acciaiuoli may have inspired the idea that politics is an art detached from all moral considerations.

Other readings are only plausible, for example that of Valerius Maximus, or rather his gloss by Jodocus Badius Ascensius, a contemporary of Machiavelli, who asserts that there is no obedience without the imposition of a belief, which he says the pagan kings knew, as also did Moses, or that of Aristotle’s Politics (perhaps read in an edition commented on by Thomas Aquinas), which exposes the coercive procedures and pretences that enable tyrants to maintain power. Carlo Ginzburg has accustomed us to these dizzying textual genealogies, in search of the traces that document the transmission of works. When these traces are missing, it is the similarities of discourse that lead to the hypothesis of a possible reading. Morphological similarity then becomes a historical argument.

Despite Galileo, despite Pascal

Another thesis of Nevertheless asserts the persistence of case-based thinking, which should have disappeared with the universal laws of natural philosophy or the devastating critique of moral casuistry. When written in mathematical language, nature admits of no exceptions; it ignores the ‘nevertheless’. When it becomes the target of a ferocious irony that exposes its impasses and contradictions, casuistry seems ‘wounded to death’. And yet, despite Galileo, despite Pascal, attention to singular cases has remained an approach to knowledge, the relevance of which Carlo Ginzburg strongly claims. He has theorised it with the notions of ‘normal exceptionalism’ or ‘indexical paradigm’, and applied it in all his research. For him, the study of cases is a privileged instrument. Deviations allow us to understand rules and regularities, but the reverse is not true: the norm can never predict all anomalies.

In these troubled and anxious times, a return to Machiavelli seems to be an obligatory recourse, as attested by the publication of books devoted to him by, among others, Patrick Boucheron (Léonard et Machiavel, 2008), Alberto Asor Rosa (Machiavelli e l’Italia, 2019) and Michele Ciliberto (Niccolo Machiavelli. Ragione e pazzia, 2019). Carlo Ginzburg’s book does not recapitulate Machiavelli’s political philosophy or theory of the state. It focuses above all on the Florentine’s way of thinking, ‘navigating between norm and exception’. Inherited from medieval casuistry, abused by the critics in modern times, this intellectual technique could seem exhausted. Nondimanco, as this book proves, it has remained durably powerful.

Translated by David Fernbach