Between form and Event: Machiavelli’s Theory of Political Freedom
Moreover, Machiavelli holds that cruelty can prevent cruelty. Cesare Borgia had a reputation for cruelty — and not just a reputation — but actually did good things, whereas the Florentines were generous at Pistoia in neglecting to punish the ring-leaders of violent riots but in the long term this led to bloodshed and ruin, in other words to further misery — a short sharp shock would have been better Machiavelli, : 58; see also Machiavelli, a : Now, writers such as Judith Shklar herself have rejected this idea that there might be an economy of cruelty, while themselves admitting that all regimes, even the best of liberal regimes, to an extent rely on means — for instance, imprisonment — that can be described as cruel or which at least — like even the rule of law — induce fear.
The irony is that a little bit of harshness in the short term can lead to less in the long term, and in this sense even conventional morality is served — one is actually being bono. But then so much about Machiavelli is about time; knowing when to be harsh, knowing when to be lenient, knowing when to be parsimonious, knowing when to be generous. Cruelty and the capacity for evil are there, certainly, but even in Il Principe they are predominantly presented as limited, if essential, tactics and not as integral to the essence of politics per se.
Where does this get us? Overall it shows — in the context of the prioritization of cruelty that is central to the liberalism of fear — the extent to which cruelty is a more nuanced concept than one might suppose, especially insofar as it is so even in the context of a thinker such as Machiavelli who — even by someone as astute as Shklar — is widely supposed to have unequivocally advocated it. Beyond that, it helps us to see two kinds of thing. This, by the way, is quite in line with the early, pre-liberal, pre-modern reception of Machiavelli, which did not see in him a generalized politics.
As Felix Raab demonstrated in his classic study half a century ago, Machiavelli had become a controversial figure by the s, at least in England, not as the purveyor of an evil politics but as an emblem of the idea of irreligious government. Procacci, : ch. Irreligion aside, Machiavelli showed that tactics mattered; but this did not necessarily entail the endorsement of some kind of alternative political morality as such.
Political tactics, it might be said, entail a knowledge of the non bono but this is not non bono per se; it is only that to govern men one must know their nature and so, at least at times, be like them.
Sir Francis Bacon appears to have stated this point of view most directly:. For it is not possible to join the wisdom of the serpent with the innocence of the dove, except men be perfectly acquainted with the nature of evil itself; for without this, virtue is open and unfenced; nay, a virtuous and honest man can do no good upon those that are wicked, to correct and reclaim them, without first exploring all the depths and recesses of their malice. Bacon, quoted in Raab, : Tactics are not the same as government. There are no general Machiavellian tactics that would amount to general principles of government, a science of the state or a science of politics in general.
Viroli, Machiavelli appeared, at least in Il Principe , to restrict himself to thinking of political power in terms of an externality to the principality involving combating exterior dangers and not entailing intrinsic questions of governing a people and territory.
Foucault, : Of course, the Machiavellian prince is an illiberal figure. This is the Machiavelli as satirist of power, an enemy of liberalism certainly, but illuminating precisely for its giving grounds for suspicion of political power. But Machiavelli also has a more positive rather than precautionary role to play in relation to the liberalism of fear. This, then, is Machiavelli as a positive rather than simply a negative resource. We have in Machiavelli the priority of fear itself as perhaps the basic problem of politics. No other political theorist, not even Hobbes, has made fear so central.
Machiavelli is a great diagnostician of the mutuality of fear. As he says: men are driven by two things, fear and love, but fear is the more important Machiavelli, : Machiavelli explores how, for example, when princes begin to be hated and have conspiracies ranged against them, their fear is quickly transformed into offences against good conduct and so onward to tyranny; and how likewise both nobles and the masses quickly come to fear such tyranny and departure from the laws. Fear breeds fear; one has to counter it with tactics, but one also has to use fear — to balance fears against fears.source
Between Form and Event: Machiavelli's Theory of Political Freedom
But either way, and even for Machiavelli, such traps help nobody; neither the people nor the prince. Of course, Machiavelli put this political doctrine of fear to ends that were certainly not liberal, but what he encourages is a realism about fear that is more useful than the utopian idea — present even in Hobbes — that there might somehow be a terminus ad quem with regard to it, a means of settling the matter and of course the Leviathan is nothing if not a utopia once and for all.
On the contrary, the politics of fear is open-ended and ongoing. Yack, The tasks of politics are never-ending. The liberalism of fear needs prudentialism. Political thought from Hobbes to Rawls has done us a disservice in this sense Dunn, No government should ever believe that it is always possible to follow safe policies. Rather, it should be realised that all courses of action involve risks: for it is in the nature of things that when one tries to avoid one danger another is always encountered.
But prudence [ prudenzia ] consists in knowing how to assess the dangers, and to choose the least bad course of action as being the right one to follow. Machiavelli, : 79; Machiavelli, : 85—6. Again, it is not at all a question of simple-mindedly assimilating Machiavelli for liberalism.
That anyway would be impossible. Machiavelli is certainly no liberal when it comes to prudence, least of all in Il Principe. But what Machiavelli provides are reminders that, even in the vastly different context of modern liberalism, politics cannot do without prudence. The liberal tradition has more typically emphasized rules, rights and institutions, and in its more utopian forms idealized constitutional measures, rather than the kinds of savoir-faire necessary for political rule.
But Machiavelli himself emphasized the extent to which constitutional arrangements themselves could be prudent; for instance, in balancing powers against each other so that cities or republics might thrive on the tension of dissent rather than descending into civil war this, in sum, was the difference between the histories of Rome and Florence Machiavelli, : 13—14; cf. Machiavelli, : 6—7. The emphasis on prudence also draws in the importance of character in politics.
Again this is germane, in a positive way, to the liberalism of fear. Usually in liberal political theory, matters of prudential politics are reduced to procedures transparency, duty of disclosure, conformity with the law not as metis or practical intelligence. There is a utopian element to much of this liberalism; it aims to bring about the good, rather than forestall the bad.
Prudential liberalism is consonant with the liberalism of fear in that it emphasizes hazards to be avoided rather than positive goods to be pursued, but it adds the emphasis on judgement; that political power involves agents who have to choose, where necessary, what it is necessary to do. The liberalism of prudence, for Dunn, has another, yet overlapping, lineage; Aristotle, Montesquieu, Tocqueville — and Machiavelli. These were writers who emphasized the prudential aspect of politics, none more so than Machiavelli.
No one has posed with such starkness the predicament of doing something new in politics, of having to act without foundations Althusser, In liberal politics there is a gap between principle and action that is not characteristic either of forms of governance that do not rely on principles at all or those which attempt to deduce forms of action from their principles, whether on the model of a politics of conviction or on the basis of, say, utilitarianism. Hence this notion of liberal politics as a prudential enterprise has implications for how we think about political virtue.
Nonetheless, not least as insulation against luck and misfortune, and because of the open-endedness of politics, political actors need character. If one is prudent one weighs judgements in the balance, and is not captured either by reductive desires or over-baked principles. Now, when it comes to the liberalism of fear and the question of character, it is usually negative dispositions that are mentioned.
But Shklar also contends, rightly, that liberalism requires positive characteristics, above all the ability to accommodate compromise, contradiction and complexity:. Far from being an amoral free-for-all, liberalism is, in fact extremely difficult and constraining, far too much so for those who cannot endure contradiction, complexity, diversity and the risks of freedom. Shklar, : 5. What is salutary here is only that character does matter. Osborne, All this makes prudential liberalism an, as it were, deeply undoctrinal component of an equally undoctrinal liberalism of fear.
The liberalism of fear counsels an unequivocal suspicion of power as if nothing were good and bad in itself but that power makes it so. In other words, if the liberalism of fear is a barebones liberalism this does not mean that there can be no sinews, no organs, no bodily flesh that can envelop and animate it.
And these at times may even look like socialism, may look like conservativism, or at least they will be the products of the prudential consideration of what can realistically be done Dunn, : Prudence is what decides what is required at what particular time. This liberal sense of prudence might be seen as being Machiavellian in operation — being an endless intercourse between virtue, fortune and necessity — but deeply un-Machiavellian in spirit, above all in being unheroic ibid. Paradoxically, such reminders can come from Machiavelli himself as much as from anyone else, even a Locke or a Mill.
This article has sought to show that Machiavelli is not just a negative resource for the liberalism of fear but also — through his analyses of political tactics, fear and cruelty and through his advocacy of something like a prudential politics — potentially a positive one. All this may be so, and yet we have repeatedly insisted that Machiavelli himself is in no way a liberal.
And yet there is a lesson here, finally, about political identity in the history of ideas more generally. The assumption is often that particular thinkers should entirely inhabit one or other political ideology hence the constant attempts to show that Hobbes is either a proto-liberal or an authoritarian, or that Machiavelli is either a republican or a proponent of Realpolitik and that the task of political theory is to decide which.
So many different schools in the history of political thought divide over such sorting attempts. But such attempts to sort particular thinkers into particular categories are almost always somewhat staged and mythical. Thinkers belong to their own time, but also to many others and so also to differing kinds of ideological allegiances. Indeed it is possible to have deep relevance for a political ideology without being possible to sort into it at all. The author particularly wants to thank three anonymous, long-suffering referees from History of the Human Sciences for their considerable care and insight and notable scholarship in constructively criticizing and kindly helping to improve this article.
Many thanks are also due to Graham Burchell for comments on an earlier draft, and in a wider intellectual context to David Owen. He currently holds a major research fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust for a project broadly to do with liberalism, cruelty and political ethics. National Center for Biotechnology Information , U. History of the Human Sciences. Hist Human Sci. Published online Sep 7. Thomas Osborne. Author information Copyright and License information Disclaimer. Email: ku. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.
What was at issue was not the opposition between a cold political calculability and the moral consciousness of Christianity but between two alternative moralities, albeit one in effect pagan, the other Christian: This is not a division of politics from ethics. In this it is a sort of mirror-image of any variant of liberalism that is suspicious of political power per se: Like The Prince , it [liberalism] takes seriously power and the surrounding distributions and limitations on power in any given situation.
In this, Shklar contrasted Machiavelli with her own proto-liberal hero, Montaigne: In The Prince , Machiavelli had asked whether it was more efficient for a self-made ruler to govern cruelly or leniently, and had decided that, on the whole, cruelty worked best.
Between Form And Event Machiavelli Theory Of Political Freedom 1s
Machiavelli and cruelty To illustrate this prudential theme, let us take the specific question of cruelty in Machiavelli. Pocock were to emphasize in such different ways, the foundations of power, the setting up of new principalities, Cesare Borgia being the model specifically of a new prince rather than, so to speak, a generic one Strauss, ; Pocock, : : And it must be understood that a ruler, and especially a new ruler, cannot always act in ways that are considered good because, in order to maintain his power, he is often forced to act treacherously, ruthlessly or inhumanely, and disregard the precepts of religion.
Machiavelli, : 62 Chapter 7 of Il Principe as a whole is about new princes. Tactics not government Where does this get us? Sir Francis Bacon appears to have stated this point of view most directly: For it is not possible to join the wisdom of the serpent with the innocence of the dove, except men be perfectly acquainted with the nature of evil itself; for without this, virtue is open and unfenced; nay, a virtuous and honest man can do no good upon those that are wicked, to correct and reclaim them, without first exploring all the depths and recesses of their malice.
Bacon, quoted in Raab, : 74 Tactics are not the same as government. Machiavelli, : 79; Machiavelli, : 85—6 Again, it is not at all a question of simple-mindedly assimilating Machiavelli for liberalism. But Shklar also contends, rightly, that liberalism requires positive characteristics, above all the ability to accommodate compromise, contradiction and complexity: Far from being an amoral free-for-all, liberalism is, in fact extremely difficult and constraining, far too much so for those who cannot endure contradiction, complexity, diversity and the risks of freedom.
Conclusion This article has sought to show that Machiavelli is not just a negative resource for the liberalism of fear but also — through his analyses of political tactics, fear and cruelty and through his advocacy of something like a prudential politics — potentially a positive one. Acknowledgements The author particularly wants to thank three anonymous, long-suffering referees from History of the Human Sciences for their considerable care and insight and notable scholarship in constructively criticizing and kindly helping to improve this article.
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