July 23, 2009


The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli: Machiavelli’s name has long been a byword for all that is rotten in politics. Yet, Richard Reeves and Dan Leighton argue, the Florentine’s forgotten writings show him to be the founder of republican thought and a champion of democratic power (Richard Reeves and Dan Leighton - 23 July 2009, New Statesman)

Machiavelli's name has become synonymous with duplicity, cunning and the exercise of bad faith in politics. This crude caricature, however, does little justice to the subtlety and democratic potential of his thinking. Indeed, Machiavelli is a, if not the, foundational figure for the current revival of civic republican political thought, spearheaded by the historian of ideas Quentin Skinner and the political philosopher Philip Pettit. Most recently, David Marquand has shown how democratic republicanism has been a crucial component of English political identity, and an animating force at important moments of radical democratic change in our history.

Although Machiavelli gained his satanic reputation for advising princes on how to hold on to power, the contemporary republicans inspired by him know that he saved his best advice for citizens seeking to maintain their liberty. To understand this "other", republican Machiavelli, we need to look not to his infamous tract The Prince, published by Penguin in a gripping new translation by the novelist Tim Parks, but to his less well-known, yet arguably more influential, Discourses on Livy. [...]

For Machiavelli, however, good judgement relates to actions that help maintain a "free city", one in which citizens are free from the subjection of any particular individual or group, be it an external invader or a tyrant who emerges from within the community's own political system. If the city is not to fall into the hands of tyrannical individuals or groups, government must be organised in such a way that it remains in the hands of the citizen body as whole.

The biggest threat to a free life (uno vivere libero) comes from the ever-present threat of corruption. Corruption is understood here as the placing of factional or private interest ahead of that of the public. For Machiavelli, the ultimate public interest that the mass of people share is to be secure from the arbitrary interference of others. It follows that, as Skinner has pointed out, to gain maximum freedom, "we must turn ourselves into servants of the public interest".

Contemporary republicans have seized on these ideas to show that they offer a distinct concept of liberty, one more capacious than the kind provided by conventional liberal notions. To republicans, we are not free if there is a power that has the potential to interfere with us - even where that power is not, for the time being, interfering (think of an unregulated employer, in the case of an employee, or a party whip, in the case of a backbench MP). In short, those with less power will live in constant anxiety that those with more could interfere with them at any point - unless that power is removed or is held in check by a counter-power. For republicans, popular government under the rule of law is the best source of such a counterweight to arbitrary power.

As Maurizio Viroli explains:
Classical republican writers maintained that to be free means to not be dominated--that is, not to be dependent on the arbitrary will of other individuals. The source of this interpretation of political liberty was the principle of Roman law that defines the status of a free person as not being subject to the arbitrary will of another person--in contrast to a slave, who is dependent on another person's will. As the individual is free when he or she has legal and political rights, so a people or a city is free insofar as it lives under its own laws. [...]

Classical republican theorists also stressed that the constraint that fair laws impose on an individual's choices is not a restriction of liberty but an essential element of political liberty itself. They also believed that restrictions imposed by the law on the actions of rulers as well as of ordinary citizens are the only valid shield against coercion on the part of any person or persons. Machiavelli forcefully expressed this belief in his Discourses on Livy (I.29), when he wrote that if there i

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 23, 2009 6:42 AM
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