bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The Unacceptable Face of The English Face of Machiavelli?

Posted in Historiography by bonaelitterae on 29 August, 2010

I notice that Routledge have reprinted Felix Raab’s 1964 The English Face of Machiavelli – at a price that only the best-heeled institutions could afford. Its republication is testimony to its status as a classic, frequently cited as required reading in scholarly footnotes and undergraduate bibliographies. It is also, of course, a classic tinged with the tragic.

The English Face began life as Raab ended his. He had come to Oxford from Melbourne, the son of Jewish emigrés from Nazi Austria, as a graduate student. Late in 1962, he submitted his doctoral thesis, entitled ‘Machiavelli and secular political thought in England during the seventeenth century’, and went off for a walking holiday in Italy. It took a month for his body to be found after he fell fatally into a ravine. He could not, then, defend his thesis at a viva – we can only imagine what the conversation might have been – but he was posthumously awarded a doctorate. Raab’s name was kept alive in his first university by his father’s donation of his son’s book collection and by the establishing of a prize named after him; in Oxford, his thesis received what was, at the time, the unusual honour of being seen quickly into print, with a foreword by his former supervisor, Hugh Trevor-Roper. The adjective often used for the foreword is ‘affectionate’. It is a memoir of Raab, describing, for instance, the time that he arrived at a supervision and sat down opposite Trevor-Roper: the latter pushed across the table Raab’s latest piece of work and said ‘You know this won’t do’; Raab responded by pushing it back across the table and declaring ‘Yes, it bloody well will!’.

Knowledge of the author’s fate impinged on the minds of reviewers, who felt the need to resort to an elegiac tone. The comment of an historian of a similar surname, Theodore Rabb, can stand as an example:

Few books have illuminated major changes in intellectual history, as this one does, by exploring a strictly limited subject. Even fewer have been, like this one, a doctoral thesis, written with skill, grace, and wit, and published without revision. The tragic mountaineering accident which ended Dr. Raab’s life shortly after the thesis was finished has deprived intellectual history of a penetrating scholar. [Renaissance News, xix (1966), p. 41]

The published volume, he concluded, was ‘a fitting monument to a fine mind’. The English Face was, in short, quickly accepted as a significant work, in both the learned community and in the wider press.

There was one discordant voice: a long review appeared in the Italian journal, Il Politico, by Sydney Anglo. It can be called nothing other than a merciless demolition of Raab’s work. It derides the book’s refusal to look more broadly than English-born writers, giving no space, for example, to Alberico Gentili’s writings, produced while in London (and now, incidentally, being studied by Diego Pirillo) – a ‘national’ methodology that, Anglo insisted, is simply unacceptable in the study of intellectual history. The review also picks apart, time and again, some of the specific interpretations of texts. But what we would consider most damning comes in its first pages when Anglo points out that Raab had been ungenerous in his brief acknowledgement of his debt to a 1908 London D.Litt dissertation by J. W. Horrocks when ‘well over a third of Raab’s material comes straight out of Horrocks’s thesis’. He points out how English Face picks up quotations from primary sources second-hand via Horrocks’ work. The most excoriating line comes next:

However, plagiarism is by no means wholly to be condemned, for a borrower can often put another’s material to better use – as Raab himself has claimed. It is then even more unfortunate that the material so painstakingly collected by Horrocks has been marred in the reworking [S. Anglo, ‘The Reception of Machiavelli in Tudor England: a re-assessment’, Il Politico, xxxi (1966), pp. 127 – 38 at p. 129]

Anglo does not return to the accusation in his text, though his footnotes include other examples of what he sees as unacknowledged copying in, for instance, Raab’s claim that Innocent Gentillet’s anti-Machiavellian writings had little influence in England.

Anglo’s review was brought to my mind by a conversation I had the other week in which I could not remember where it was published. In hunting it down, I was struck by how difficult it was to find references to it. It is a review that, in many quarters, has suffered a strange death. In 1990, an Annotated Bibliography on Machiavelli scholarship appeared, but, as one reviewer noted, it did not mention Anglo’s article (the reviewer does not give a full citation). It is symptomatic that an important recent piece reconsidering the ‘Myth of Gentillet’ [N. W. Bawcutt in The Modern Language Review, xcix (2004)] takes question with Raab on an issue previously raised by Anglo, but without reference to the latter. It is only very recently, with Sydney Anglo’s own volume on Machiavelli’s reception (2005) and mention of the matter in Alessandra Petrina’s Machiavelli in the British Isles (2009), that the article and the issues it raises have been resurrected; many, meanwhile, continue to make uncomplicated reference to The English Face. Most often, the book has been cited on its own, without mention of the early, trenchant and potentially utterly destructive criticism. On a some occasions, the book and the review are mentioned alongside each other but rarely with any sign that the former should be read with consideration of the latter’s criticisms. That could be done by a simple ‘but see’, as was the case in the Pelican Guide for Readers edited in 1984 by Boris Ford. Geoffrey Elton found another mode of expression. He had been part of the chorus of praise for The English Face when it appeared; in his 1970 Modern Historians on British History, Elton tempered that with the comment that the book ‘provides many insights but also some bad slips’ [p. 177], elliptically mentioning the review in the footnote.

‘Some bad slips’. My point is not about whether Anglo was right or wrong to condemn Raab for plagiarism – I have not done the checking to corroborate or deny the accusation. What interests me is what the frequent ignoring or overlooking of that claim tells us about our own standards or ethics. We now teach undergraduates that plagiarism is one of the most heinous of academic crimes, though we also debate the relevance of the concept to previous centuries. We also collude with a wider inflation in use of the term, which can see it stretched to include so much that it can end up meaning so little. That inflation — or perhaps it is deflation — could allow for some charges of plagiarism to be dismissed as trivial – but that can not be with Anglo’s examples which would suggest a heavy unpaid debt. A defence perhaps could be that Anglo’s comments focus on the Tudor period, when Raab’s main interest lay in the seventeenth century – but does that mean our culture would accept a breaking of the rules in one part of a work if it is offset by genius shown elsewhere in the same volume? Considering our society’s preoccupation with a work’s originality – and honesty – surely an accusation of largescale unacknowledged copying demands some response, some rebuttal or acceptance, rather than the silence it usually receives. As the claims, readily available, stand unchallenged, does that mean those who continue to refer to The English Face without a blush complicit in an act of plagiarism? Or should we conclude that we expect higher standards from our students than we would set for ourselves?

Modern publishing practice demands that when an article is found to be cribbed, it is not removed or destroyed; it remains available, but with each page stamped ‘retracted’. I doubt Routledge considered doing that when they reprinted The English Face of Machiavelli.

Julius Caesar at Stratford

Posted in Theatre by bonaelitterae on 25 May, 2009

Can we trust Wikipedia?

Posted in Blogography, Humanism by bonaelitterae on 5 October, 2008

The wickedness of Wikipedia is a common theme — the worry that students garner their information from the on-line encyclopedia, at the expense of ‘real’ work, undertaken surrounded by piles of printed tomes. We have all heard the urban myths of lecturers going on the internet to add intentionally false entries to Wikipedia so that they can catch their students if they plagiarise. Wikipedia is far from perfect, but should every good scholar ignore it completely?

First of all, let us not become protective of print encyclopedias, which often fall far below the level of extensive, unquestionable knowledge that we naively expect of them. I should know, I have edited an encyclopedia of the Renaissance. I would rate only two printed volumes: the Thames & Hudson Dictionary of the Italian Renaissance, edited by J. R. Hale, and the more recent and wide-ranging Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance by Gordon Campbell. To warn students off a true-ready reliance on what they read in print, I am fond of quoting an example from another encyclopedia of the Renaissance, one which sits quietly on the open shelves of the Bodleian and which states: ‘Petrarch was the first man to use the Latin term humanismus.’ As there is no such word in Latin, as it is a German term invented in the early nineteenth century, and as Petrarch did not employ any word or phrase cognate with humanismus, this is utter nonsense. Piffle. Twaddle. Moonshine. Balderdash. Codswallop. And claptrap. In short, hard copy does not equal hard facts.

What, of course, printed reference works do claim is some sort of academic recommendation, supplemented by the reputation of a worthy publisher: thus, the lists of advisors that appear at the front of any volume (completed with university affiliations), a page or so after the imprimatur of the publisher. These may encourage confidence where none should exist, but they do at least demonstrate a link, however tenuous, with academia. Wikipedia lacks such a patena of respectability, presenting itself instead as the standard-bearer of on-line democracy, encouraging anybody to contribute. In those areas of life which attract attention on the internet, this can create clashes, ‘vandalism’ and repeated re-writings without necessarily any improvement in veracity — but, then, we are not interested in articles on Britney Spears or which is the best George Clooney film (Michael Clayton, by the way). Most of the articles of interest to a student of the Renaissance are not battlefields in the same way: a reader is more likely to be caught out by accidental error than caught in the crossfire between contributors reflected in an entry.

Wikipedia has developed its own rules of engagement for contributors, centring on providing a NPOV (a Neutral Point of View). But there is a curious result from this: Wikipedia is consciously, achingly non-hierarchical but it can certainly be deferential. For example, the discussion board for contributors about Machiavelli has one of them objecting to a sentence in the entry because it makes assertions ‘Without reference to a reliable academic source‘ [their italics]. As another contributor points out, there is much about Machiavelli which is controversial within academia, but there does seem to be a tendency in Wikiworld to seek external justification for what is said by reference to the supposedly impartial truth found in the writings of academics. It leaves little room to realise that even the driest historical monograph can hide bias, blindspots and mistakes behind its dour binding.

There is an added issue with Wikipedia which is worth mentioning: it is not one but several encyclopedias. It exists in all the major European languages, including Latin, but the text in each language can be separate from that in others. Sometimes, an article is simply translated but often that is not the case. This can create some oddities: the character Burckhardt celebrated as the archetypal Renaissance man, Leon Battista Alberti, has a stub of an entry in Latin with an external link — to his works in Italian; the corresponding Italian entry does not provide that link; and neither of these lead the reader to those Latin texts which are available on-line at the Biblioteca Italiana site. In other cases, if one only looked at the English entry, you would come away with only very limited information: for another humanist of the early quattrocento, Guarino da Verona, the most detailed articles are those in Italian and German. More generally, the rule for the reader should be that if you are interested in a subject, check the article in the range of languages listed in the left-hand bar of Wikipedia: even if you can not fully grasp the text, the links provided could lead you to more information than you could gain by only reading one version.

My own impression, having spent some time looking over a range of Renaissance articles on Wikipedia, is that the limitation most often is not as much inaccurate  as incomplete information. In the entries for Alberti, the English version has a list of works which is highly truncated — a reader would be in a dangerous land if they assumed that the article provided a sufficient base of knowledge. There may be a seemingly counter-intuitive principle in play: the more obscure a character, the more likely it is that the Wikipedia entry (if there is one) will present useful information. In some cases, of course, Wikipedia simply will not have any entry: I have recently sent off an article on an interesting humanist, Antonio Beccaria, who spent some years in England; he does not appear on the website. On the other hand, I have also written about the even less well-known Tito Livio Frulovisi, who does have a fairly good article — because (I admit it, gentle reader) I put it there. For the more recherché, if somebody has bothered to post an article, they are likely to have put some effort into doing it.

The inverse of this is that the better-known characters can not be as well served. So, Machiavelli himself has, in English, a long entry with a useful listing of his works. But the text makes some significant errors. For instance, looking at it this morning, I noticed it states that he considered The Prince his magnum opus. I can see how the contributor made this assumption — the famous letter to Vettori in which he describes his method of composition gives a sense of Machiavelli’s depth of engagement in the project at the time of writing — but it hardly fits with the fortunes of the text in his own lifetime: it circulated in manuscript, but, like the Discourses was only printed after his death. The only text that Machiavelli actively promoted himself by having it printed was one which we study much less nowadays, his Art of War. That work, and his History of Florence, hardly get a mention in this English Wikipedia article. A fuller treatment of his life, with some useful quotations, appears in Italian, though again attention is directed to a minority of his works.

If the guideline is, the bigger the name, the lower the value of the article, there’s another that can be added: names are better than things. Wikipedia is weaker talking about concepts than about characters. Take ‘civic humanism’, Hans Baron’s master-concept used to describe a tradition of Florentine republican justification: it does not appear in an article on its own, but instead the reader is re-directed to ‘classical republicanism’. This does not give much room to highlight the controversy which surrounds ‘civic humanism’. The wider concept of Renaissance humanism comes off even worse: the entry is hardly worth reading.

Yet, we should return to the comparison with print encyclopedias. Wikipedia’s sins are, in many ways, unoriginal: its weaknesses are the ones you could also find in most older encyclopedias. They too are often weakest on concepts, and least satisfying when they are talking about the most famous — and, so, most controversial — characters. What, of course, they often have lacked is the ability to develop. The future of reference works, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica knows, is on-line, where information can be added and corrected. A comparison between Britannica and Wikipedia suggests that, for our area, each has some advantages over the other: of the characters we have talked about, Machiavelli has a judicious article in Britannica, but most other humanists receive only a insubstantial summary. Even a significant figure like Leonardo Bruni is treated in this way, while Wikipedia gives more information (though it is, at present, skewed towards only a few of his works). In Britannica, the lesser humanists I mention are featured not at all. Where, of course, Wikipedia has a singular advantage is that it has the ability not just to be corrected: you can do the correcting.

So, if I should end by answering the question I set myself: of course we should not trust Wikipedia, just as we would not trust any other work or source. As historians, we trust nobody. But that does not mean we don’t use them and learn from them. The advice to students must be: read but read carefully. The advice to academics should be: if you don’t like something, change it. Admittedly, some entries might be beyond redemption but that is the case for a very few dealing poorly with concepts. Most are capable of improvement — and it is our job to do it. So, as I said, this morning the Machiavelli article talks erroneously of The Prince being his magnum opus. By this evening, I will make sure it does not anymore.