July 14, 2013


The modern Prince : Philip Bobbitt seems too keen to smooth over Machiavelli's hard edges : a review of The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World that He Made, by Philip Bobbitt (Francis Fukuyama, Financial Times)

The problem is that Bobbitt's reading of Machiavelli is highly selective, and fails to confront some key issues in the latter's thought. It is true enough, for example, that Machiavelli lived at a time when the modern state was emerging, and that he celebrated certain characteristics that would come to be associated with it, such as citizen militias. As Harvey Mansfield demonstrated in his 1996 study Machiavelli's Virtue, however, Machiavelli's stato always refers to a personal state, that is, a state dominated and run in the interest of a particular group within it. This was no less true of republics than of principalities; in the former, the many oppressed the few rather than the reverse. A truly modern state, by contrast, is an impersonal construct reflecting the sovereignty of the whole community based on the natural rights of its equal citizens. It would be Thomas Hobbes a century and a half later, not Machiavelli, who first articulated this view.

A much more serious problem is Bobbitt's attempt to portray Machiavelli as a supporter of what we today understand as the rule of law. Machiavelli indeed praises the law and shows how law-governed republics often achieve greater popular support than ones subject to arbitrary rule. But a theme that runs through the whole of Machiavelli's work is the centrality of executive audacity and action to its authority. By executive authority Machiavelli often literally means execution: not just the punishment of lawbreakers but often executions that were beyond the law and ordered in effect for their political theatre. He does not say that these are necessary only in the founding of new regimes, such as in the slaying of Remus by Romulus at the beginnings of Rome. Such extra-judicial killings also help maintain a regime's authority, including in republics that periodically need to demonstrate their partisanship in audacious and memorable ways.

Machiavelli is interesting not simply because he is a progenitor of liberal constitutionalism. He is interesting because he, like the German philosopher and jurist Carl Schmitt, points to the limits of liberal constitutionalism by showing its ultimate dependence on virtuous princes, on discretion rather than rules in political decision-making. Mansfield might almost seem to be taking aim at Bobbitt's interpretation a number of years before the fact: "We would like to believe that [Machiavelli's] insights can be retained and his extremism discarded, that his notion of esecuzione can be absorbed into the modern liberal constitution without the tyrannical requirement of uno solo [one leader acting outside the law] that may give us a shiver or may merely seem quaint. Machiavelli may have founded the modern doctrine of executive power, but in his extremism he stopped short of developing doctrines of power and of separation of powers."

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Posted by at July 14, 2013 5:43 AM

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