They say that there is no water melon like stolen water melon. That, however, is one guilty pleasure that I have never tasted. I do have my indulgences, nonetheless. What I enjoy most is reading something that I do not have to read – something that I really should not read, at least not now. Give the task to me as an assignment, and I will drag my heels. Disguise the same endeavor as a lollipop or a chocolate truffle, and I will wolf it down. If I had no assignment barbed with a deadline, I might not savor such reading with so great an appreciation. It is when duty calls that temptation is the most beguiling. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence!. There is no fruit as delicious as forbidden fruit! Just ask Adam and Eve.
Yesterday – in the nick of time, as I was about to tackle the battle of Salamis (my self-assigned task), a chocolate truffle arrived. This morning the publisher offered me a free copy (my weaknesses are well known), but he was too late. I had the delicacy in my hot little hand, and I was already nibbling away at the edges. The title of the volume is The Kingdom Suffereth Violence: The Machiavelli/Erasmus/More Correspondence and Other Unpublished Documents. The editor, if that is the right word, is Philippe Bénéton, Professor of Law and Political Science at the Université de Rennes in France and author of Equality by Default: An Essay on Modernity as Confinement and of Introduction à la politique moderne.
As it happens, I know the man. We first met, if I remember correctly at a Liberty Fund Conference in Charleston, South Carolina. We discussed the writings of those Americans who were present in Paris during the French Revolution (a fascinating subject), and we dined with great delight on the local cuisine (which is a wonder). I very much regret that our paths have not crossed more frequently since that time.
As you can probably guess from the titles of his previous books, Philippe is an exceedingly thoughtful and erudite man, who has pondered in some depth the present predicament, and I really do recommend the first of his two books. The second is of great value as well, but I will spare you its praises, for most of you do not read French.
Philippe’s most recent book is, however, another matter. It is positively sinful. It appeals to one’s worst – or are they one’s best? – inclinations. It is a fraud perpetrated with a not entirely straight face. Or, rather, it is what the French call a jeu d’esprit. It is a product of the mind at play.
You see, Thomas More and Erasmus were closely acquainted. They lived with one another for some months, and they did correspond. As its Greek title -- Morias Enkomion – makes clear, Erasmus’s most famous book, In Praise of Folly, was pitched as an encomium to his friend (whose name means fool in Greek). As far as we know, however, there was no correspondence between Niccolò Machiavelli and the other two. It is true that Erasmus and Machiavelli were in Florence on at least one occasion at the same time, and I have a former student who is persuaded that they must have been acquainted – which is plausible but lacks proof. The world of the Renaissance humanists was a small world. But the letters printed in Philippe’s book are, for the most part, epistles of his own invention.
Here is the task he set for himself – to juxtapose the author of The Prince (ca. 1513-16) with the authors of Utopia (1516) and In Praise of Folly (1511) by writing for them the letters that they would have written to one another had there been such a correspondence. To do this skillfully requires on the author’s part a deep knowledge of these three works and a penetrating understanding of the character of each of these men – which, if what little I have read thus far is any indication, is precisely what Philippe possesses. It takes audacity to write such a book. To do it well requires remarkable perspicacity. But, if done well, it would be of lasting value.
But don’t go out and buy it. Restrain yourself. Do as I say, not as I am doing. Think like a Stoic. Self-indulgence is bad for your work. Leave that vice to me. It is mine. Mine, I say, mine.