Want to be cunning? You might wish you were more clever, more flexible, able to cut a few corners without getting caught, to dive now and again into iniquity and surface clutching a prize. You might want to roll your eyes at those slaves of duty who play by the rules. Or you might think there's something sleazy about that stance, even if it does seem to pay off. Does that make you a chump?
With pointedly mischievous prose, Don Herzog explores what's alluring and what's revolting in cunning. He draws on a colorful range of sources: tales of Odysseus; texts from Machiavelli; pamphlets from early modern England; salesmen's newsletters; Christian apologetics; plays; sermons; philosophical treatises; detective novels; famous, infamous, and obscure historical cases; and more.
The book is in three parts, bookended by two murderous churchmen. "Dilemmas" explores some canonical moments of cunning and introduces the distinction between knaves and fools as a "time-honored but radically deficient scheme." "Appearances" assails conventional approaches to unmasking. Surveying ignorance and self-deception, "Despair?" deepens the case that we ought to be cunning--and then sees what we might say in response.
Throughout this beguiling book, Herzog refines our sense of what's troubling in this terrain. He shows that rationality, social roles, and morality are tangled together--and trickier than we thought.
What is cunning, and how did it develop a pejorative connotation? Herzog, a professor of law and political philosophy at the University of Michigan and author of, most recently, Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders, applies his erudite style and barbed humor to this examination of the idea of "cunning" and how it connects to our concepts of rationality and morality, gleefully gamboling across the literature and pop culture of a few millennia and invoking Hume as convincingly as Tammy Faye Bakker. Herzog writes engaging prose without sacrificing the intellectual rigor of his exploration (the book winds down, for example, with a vexing question about Greek mythology: "They don't cast cunning as wisdom's bitch daughter. They cast wisdom as cunning's bitch daughter. What then?") and contextualizes his ideas by "going local" to provide real-world examples (Internet and telemarketing scams, plastic surgery) rather than relying on "off-the-shelf abstractions." The book is organized into three parts-Dilemmas, Appearances, and Despair-but Herzog jumps from topic to topic and century to century, referencing and cross-referencing so quickly that structure is moot. Some readers may find his approach disorienting, but those ready for a scholarly escapade will find it innovative and invigorating.