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the Complete Review
the complete review - intellectual history


The Academy of Fisticuffs

Sophus A. Reinert

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To purchase The Academy of Fisticuffs

Title: The Academy of Fisticuffs
Author: Sophus A. Reinert
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2018
Length: 408 pages
Availability: The Academy of Fisticuffs - US
The Academy of Fisticuffs - UK
The Academy of Fisticuffs - Canada
  • Political Economy and Commercial Society in Enlightenment Italy

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Our Assessment:

B+ : impressive breadth and depth

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Foreign Affairs . 5-6/2019 Andrew Moravcsik

  From the Reviews:
  • "Reinert makes the case for the critical role played by a pioneering group of Italian political economists who gathered in the cafés of Milan" - Andrew Moravcsik, Foreign Affairs

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       'The Academy of Fisticuffs' of the title is the short-lived Milanese Accademia dei Pugni -- "a caffeinated think tank of aristocratic intellectuals and reformers that did much to put Milan on the intellectual map of mid-eighteenth century Europe". Sophus A. Reinert suggests about this largely virtual institution -- it was a loose grouping, embracing the (still fairly novel) coffeehouse (in fact, and as symbol) rather than any official offices/address as meeting place for discussion and intellectual exchange (and naming even their official publication: Il Caffè) --:

Its flame burned brightly but quickly, leaving a more lasting mark on Italian history through two years of activities than many other
       Reinert makes the case for this institution, and the Milan of the times, being as significant as other centers in contributing to Enlightenment-thought -- and unfairly overshadowed by, for example, the Edinburgh of the times on the subject of political economy.
       Reinert focuses on the leading member of the group, brothers Pietro and Alessandro Verri and Cesare Beccaria, as well as the remarkable and underappreciated figure of Henry Humphrey Evans Lloyd. One of Beccaria's works during that period became a breakout hit, the enormously influential On Crimes and Punishments -- which: "hit Europe like a bombshell", was widely translated, and saw: "No fewer than thirty-one Italian editions" during the eighteenth century alone. The enormous success of the book contributed to the shattering of the Fisticuffs-group, making bitter rivals of Pietro Verri and Beccaria; it also draws attention from other contributions made by the group -- a situation Reinert tries to rectify, even as he acknowledges the importance of that work.
       The Academy of Fisticuffs is an intellectual history, as Reinert considers and discusses ideas, personalities, and history, and their various contexts. Among the foundations Reinert builds his work on is the Milan of those times, as he points out its unusual yet also central position in the changing Europe of the times -- a: "prize possession of the Habsburg Empire", and significant commercial (and intellectual) center in a rapidly evolving economic environment, where the 'marketplace' -- from the local to the global -- was undergoing great practical (and theoretical, in the writings of many thinkers) change. The roles of coffee and the coffeehouse are also prominently featured -- embraced by this novel 'academy', and making it very much of its times and circumstances.
       The time when the Academy flourished was in a period that saw an incredible surge of interest in economic (in its broadest sense) matters -- Reinert noting that, for example: "French publications on economic subjects exploded around 1750, to the extent that new works in the genre were outpacing even the publication of new novels by the 1760s". The members of the Academy of Fisticuffs also concerned themselves with matters of economics, but saw their remit as a much broader one as well, focused on society and government more generally -- while recognizing the significant role trade and economics play in shaping these, and the great potential that an opening of the marketplace offered, including in making the global order a less war-prone one if nations' interest were more closely tied together through trade, everyone benefitting from it.
       Beccaria's famous work is the most obvious example of the group treating another issue, but was representative of their Enlightenment ideals, reëxamining the purpose and justifications for the punishment of crimes and suggesting that particularly harsh forms (especially the popular tortuous forms of putting-to-death) were ... less than ideal. Given the widespread influence and significance of Beccaria's work Reinert understandably devotes considerable space to discussion of it, but he nicely ties this in to the groups many other concerns. Throughout, he helpfully provides the background -- personal and historical -- that supports his observation that:
Though deeply informed by recent developments in mathematics and radical mechanistic branches of moral philosophy, the group's efforts in the realm of political economy and institutional and cultural reform more generally were born from concrete experiences of war and trade, whether in relation to campaigns during the Seven Years' War or to the calculation and refinement of tariffs and budgets in Northern Italy.
       Among the real-life conditions Reinert examines more closely in relation to the group's work is the prevalence of banditry at the time, while he also traces the use and shifting meanings of the term 'socialism' -- as much of the group's work can be summed up as an attempt to consider the importance of sociability and human relations, especially also on the larger/largest economic scales. Usefully, Reinert follows through in considering many of these issues also to contemporary times -- using present-day figures and situations to illustrate them, whether quoting "legendary hacktivist website 4chan" owner Chris Poole or in concluding with East Timor as an example: "of how a global community can socialize new participants".
       An intellectual history, The Academy of Fisticuffs is very much a book of ideas, and their place in their -- and also (and also, as opposed to) in our -- times, and Reinert provides a great deal of helpful historical context in doing so. He also points to the huge amount of work that can still be done in this area: among the amusing observations is when he points to Beccaria's post-Academy life as, essentially, a civil servant and how his 6500 "administrative notes, letters, and memoranda" for the period 1771 to 1794 have now been published, Reinert dryly noting that: "The question of exactly how to engage with such materials of course remains historiographically vexing".
       The personalities at the center of The Academy of Fisticuffs -- in particular, the Verri-brothers, Beccaria, and Lloyd -- are also colorful and interesting, from Lloyd's absolutely incredible path in life to Beccaria's retreat into officialdom to the Verris' amazingly venomous reaction to Beccaria's success with On Crimes and Punishments. Reinert works with an enormous amount of material here -- personal, historical, economic, sociological -- but generally the balance is good, making for an engaging read that doesn't get too sidetracked by any one thing, with the choices of real-life examples -- beginning with the opening public execution -- good (and with Reinert taking care not to get too carried away too much with the (often hard to resist) colorful-anecdotal).
       Just how deep and solid the foundation of Reinert's work is is suggested by the scope of his supporting material: the 408 pages of text are supported by 213 pages of endnotes; these are only limitedly descriptive, instead mostly pointing to source material and additional literature on the subject matters, a goldmine (if quote overwhelming) of reference.
       A fascinating and truly in-depth study, The Academy of Fisticuffs is a detailed look at this somewhat overlooked small group and its members and the work they did together for just some two years that also places it, and their work, in larger contexts and shows the influence they had on Enlightenment thought (and after). Reinert also usefully follows through on the significance of their work in relation to the changing world since that time, right through to the present day.
       Well-presented -- if, in parts, almost overwhelming in just how far and deep Reinert reaches -- The Academy of Fisticuffs is an impressive and significant work of intellectual history.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 December 2018

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The Academy of Fisticuffs: Reviews: Sophus A. Reinert: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Sophus A. Reinert teaches at Harvard Business School.

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© 2018-2019 the complete review

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