Not Even a God Can Save Us Now

Reading Machiavelli after Heidegger

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Brian Harding
McGill-Queen's Studies in the History of Ideas
  • Montreal, Quebec: 
    McGill-Queen's University Press
    , May
     2017.
     224 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780773550513.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The title of this book is somewhat misleading: with its echoes of a famous quote from Martin Heidegger (“Only a god can save us now”), along with its reference to Heidegger in the subtitle, one might expect the book to be a comparison of the work of Niccolò Machiavelli and Heidegger. That is not the case. Instead, as Brian Harding notes in the preface, the goal of the book is to put Machiavelli in “dialogue” with “continental philosophy” (xii). Yet even that is not quite what the book does. Rather, Not Even a God Can Save Us Now is really an attempt to understand the writings of Machiavelli in terms of the structure of “sacrifice” as developed in the work of the 20th century philosophical anthropologist René Girard. Harding thinks of sacrifice in terms of a distinction between good and bad violence, with good violence creating a class of victims  for the benefit of a community (17). He then uses this “sacrificial distinction” between good and bad violence as an interpretive tool for making sense of the advice and recommendations that Machiavelli makes throughout his various writings.

Harding proceeds with a rather close and detailed reading of select texts from Machiavelli, focusing first (in chapter 2) on Machiavelli’s discussion of the eternity of the world in his Discourses on Livy. He turns in chapter 3 to Machiavelli’s understanding of truth, starting with a key passage in The Prince, and then proceeds in chapter 4 to take up Machiavelli’s views of nature and the city, and how sacrifice is important in the founding of the city. Chapter 5 begins by considering a minor work of Machiavelli (The Life of Castruccio Castracani) as a jumping off point for considering Machiavelli’s views on religion and his reduction of religion to its worldly aspects (129). In all of these discussions, Harding occasionally detours into a discussion of one or another “continental philosopher” (Heidegger, Girard, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Yves Lacoste). Finally, the book concludes with a chapter on “The End of the World,” in which we find the most extensive comparisons Harding will make between Machiavelli and Heidegger, as well as between Machiavelli and Derrida.

Using Girard’s work on sacrifice is certainly a novel approach to understanding Machiavelli, and one which seems to work well in tying together the varied sorts of work left to us by Machiavelli. What is less successful are Harding’s attempts to put Machiavelli “in dialogue” with other continental thinkers such as Heidegger and Derrida. In some cases, as in the last two sections of chapter 2, the discussions of Heidegger and then Derrida do not read as any sort of logical consequence from the reading of Machiavelli that is done earlier in the chapter. Similarly, in chapter 5, Harding briefly interrupts his reading of Machiavelli with a glance at Jean-Yves Lacoste’s understanding of liturgy and place that reads more like a digression than a continuation of the argument being made about Machiavelli. In other cases, such as the subsection of chapter 4 entitled “How to Build a City,” it is unclear what Harding wants us to conclude about either Machiavelli or Heidegger with regard to building and dwelling. In general, Harding’s discussions of Heidegger, Derrida, and Lacoste do not provide enough context to understand these thinkers and why they address issues such as violence or place in the way that they do. It does not help that the presentations and analyses of these thinkers are fragmented and scattered in different parts of the book.

In the end, with its novel approach to reading Machiavelli via Girard, Not Even a God Can Save Us Now will be of interest primarily to scholars of Machiavelli. Those who study Girard also may find the use of Girard’s analysis of sacrifice here intriguing. Those who are interested in Heidegger or Derrida, however,  probably will be disappointed, since it is not clear how Machiavelli’s philosophy illuminates their thinking and their discussions of sacrifice and violence.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert S. Gall is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at West Liberty University, West Virginia.

Date of Review: 
December 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian Harding is associate professor of philosophy at Texas Woman’s University.

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