Machiavelli in the Making


Machiavelli in the Making is both a novel interpretation of the Florentine’s work and a critical document for understanding influential French scholar and public intellectual Claude Lefort’s later writings on democracy and totalitarianism. Lefort extricates Machiavelli’s thought from the dominant interpretations of him as the founder of “objective” political science, which, having liberated itself from the religious and moralizing tendencies of medieval political reflection, attempts to arrive at a realistic ...

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Machiavelli in the Making is both a novel interpretation of the Florentine’s work and a critical document for understanding influential French scholar and public intellectual Claude Lefort’s later writings on democracy and totalitarianism. Lefort extricates Machiavelli’s thought from the dominant interpretations of him as the founder of “objective” political science, which, having liberated itself from the religious and moralizing tendencies of medieval political reflection, attempts to arrive at a realistic discourse on the operations of raw power. Lefort ultimately finds that Machiavelli’s discourse opens the “place of the political” which had previously been occupied by theology and morality.


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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810124387
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 3/30/2012
  • Pages: 528
  • Product dimensions: 8.80 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Claude Lefort (1924–2010) taught at the University of São Paulo, the Sorbonne, and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. His books include The Political Forms of Modern So­ciety: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism (1986), Democracy and Political Theory (1989), Writing: The Political Test (2000), and Complications: Communism and the Dilemmas of Democ­racy (2007).


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Read an Excerpt


By Claude Lefort, Michael B. Smith

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2013 Claude Lefort
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-2437-0



Part 1

The Question of the Oeuvre

This book was born of an attraction to an enigma—one that I myself cannot pretend to fathom fully. It is an attraction that, far from being diminished by an abundant critical literature in which both the position and the resolution of the enigma are poignantly repeated, has only grown stronger by a displacement: the receding of its object beyond the field in which, shrouded in its original obscurity, it seemed to lie.

Whoever may think that an interpreter is motivated by the desire to outdo his rivals and master a field of knowledge—as reflected in his "owning" the meaning of an oeuvre, and having the authority derived from it to win the favor of all future readers—will take it to be a simple refinement of that desire that I should undertake to direct this investigation to both the writer and his legacy in order to grasp the continuous movement by which the oeuvre eludes the grasp of its interpreters, and to reveal the complicity that makes up the substance of their conflicts, thus developing a new approach to that oeuvre. In this new approach, the oeuvre would remain at a distance, even at the most intimate moments of the dialogue, like someone we know to be speaking beyond the reach of our understanding, in a way that leaves us, along with the knowledge we obtain, a sense of uneasiness. It is as if, protracting the experience of doubt to the end, we were to waive the eventual fortuitous find that would put an end to further discourse. A refinement, perhaps a perversion even ... Against such a thought it would be vain to defend oneself. But we may at least counter with the question: What judge can decide the issue? Who can pretend to separate himself from the desire for knowledge? To one who would bring the charge of perversion, what authority could support him that would be outside the field of discourse, a field that appeals to the other for support and maintains itself by speaking beyond the point at which the interlocutor falls silent—that is, by deferring the conclusion, by freeing it from the fatal cycle in which it was lodged, by attaching it to the possibility of a new origin, by soliciting further survival in a reader?

An enigma, I was saying. But it would be better to begin by taking stock of some questions that have sprouted into such an interrogative thicket that they must be thought together.

One of these is connected to the name Machiavelli itself. We hear it pronounced, we use it even before knowing where it came from. For at least four centuries it has been in the common language, with its derivatives—Machiavellianism, Machiavellian—to the point of constituting an irreplaceable signifier; and not just destined for political usage (though there it remains privileged) but suitable for designating an act that typifies the conduct of one human being toward another. It is an odd adventure, and an intriguing one, since even a cursory look at the history of the society in which Machiavelli lived, and a superficial reading of his oeuvre, are all we need to arrive at the conclusion that he was neither the practitioner nor the author of that political perversion that has been dubbed Machiavellianism. On the contrary, we would have to recognize, whatever our judgment of his actions and ideas, that he was a man of quality in both politics and letters—a politician more devoted to the state, more solicitous of Italy, more attached to freedom than were the masters he was obliged to serve and frequent, and a writer of great subtlety whose discourse, far from being reducible to a few irreverent maxims, unfolds along multiple and arduous paths, on a par with those of the most highly respected historians and philosophers—Livy, Cicero, Plutarch, and also Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon. He is indeed a writer who demands of the reader, both of his own era and of ours, an unusual degree of attentiveness and culture. Do the adventures of this term have any special significance? What sense are we to make of the fact that a proper name suddenly stops as if in a freeze frame, peels away from the person, and sets out to lead an independent life, taking up with a variety of dubious dialects and the most time-worn words, forgetful of its origins? Or better yet, what is the meaning of that remote decapitation of a proper name? By the pull of what power does it come to fall to the level of the common language—beneath the sway of what anonymous force to function as a sign?

A new sign of immoralism, so say some, imported from the oeuvre, from The Prince in particular; some expressions drawn from that source may have been repeated with delectation by certain readers, while horrifying others, till in the end, in total ignorance of the author, the oeuvre, and the exact wording of those sayings even, all that was left was the convenience of that word. But surely there has never been a shortage of testimony to immorality. The ears of mankind had heard enough bold utterances on the necessity of violence or the pleasures to be had from practicing oppression to be unimpressed by the effects of a discourse that not only cannot be reduced to such utterances, but ends with an appeal for the liberation of the Italian fatherland. For those who remember the arguments put in the mouths of Polos, Callicles, or Thrasymachus, there can be no doubt that opposition to the law in classical antiquity met with bold spokesmen. Further, the words of Callicles carry with them a defiance and invective of which there is no apparent trace in Machiavelli. Perhaps the adversaries of Socrates arouse less passion because they are paired with their refuter, or perhaps their outbursts lack real conviction. Could it be that these so-called breakers of idols never went beyond the level of make-believe? Was Socrates right to doubt their opposition to the laws and their disdain for the people, and to call them flatterers, going so far as to insinuate that they were more seduced than seducers, motivated, unbeknownst to themselves, by the desire of a demos they only think they dominate, enchained to a law they only think they are defying? And would it then be the case that Machiavelli introduces a protest of a totally different scope, one that the accusation of Machiavellianism disfigures, though not without designating it? Did Machiavelli not perhaps undermine the law in an entirely new and unknown way? Might he be the author of an effective transgression, the result of which was to upset, in his day, a certainty all the more fiercely preserved for being threatened by events; in such a way as to bring about the annulment, in a certain zone, of the established difference between morality and immorality? So serious that it could not be recognized? So grave that it was necessary to displace its object in order to condemn it?

For such a question to take shape, we must explore the end of Machiavellianism and research its beginnings, scrutinize the first milieus in which its usage spread—without forgetting that it continues to carry meaning at a distance from its origins, freed of the function or functions it originated to fulfill. We must avoid acquiescing too quickly to the explanations offered us. Can we be sure those very explanations do not participate in the movement that gave birth to it? We must take care not to replace one prejudice for another: to replace, for example, the idea that Machiavellianism can be deduced from the Machiavellian discourse, that it is its emblem put into circulation—for that other idea that it is the result of happenstance, the fallout of an unjust accusation, an unfortunate lexical accident swept up and assimilated into the language. In vain would we expect from such an enquiry an understanding of the oeuvre, for it is not from these effects that it permits itself to be thought. We say only that the effects are sufficiently troubling for us to see in them an admonition—the indication that something is involved to which it is not entirely alien.

But one question never springs up in isolation. Why pretend we do not know that in our day Machiavelli presents himself with the halo of a founder's reputation? With him, they say, political discourse came to be: not of course a reflection on the essence of good government or the art of governing, but a discourse that aims at politics as such, that circumscribes its domain and breaks all ties with metaphysics and theology. That the irruption into language of the equivocal signifier "Machiavellianism" should be the effect of a first rupture in the order of thought, that that rupture, invisible to the vast majority, should nonetheless be silently recognized to the point of producing a slippage in the order of speech—now that would be of a nature to whet our curiosity. But still, it would be appropriate to wonder about the meaning we give the event, instead of rushing in to welcome a notion our contemporaries seem as sure of as they are that philosophical discourse began with Plato, scientific discourse with Galileo, or the discourse of history as such with Hegel and Marx. Now, scarcely do we hark to that notion than the discourse of others, of those individuals who make up Machiavelli's posterity, sweeps us up in a movement we are no longer the masters of—a continual source of astonishment, an astonishment that, though it may die out in each one the moment we have been able to form a judgment about that layer of posterity, spreads to the next, as if to keep open, beyond every question about the meaning of the oeuvre, a question about its identity.

Was Machiavelli the founder—the speaker—of a discourse radically new? The assertion that he was has its origin in a past more distant than one might be led to suppose by some modern commentators. If we consider his first opponents or his first defenders, they already share one certainty: something was written, for the first time, that either never should have been ... or had to be. It is as if a liberty had been taken—intolerable or exultant—with the truth of books: that sort of truth that previously, from its own proper place, had sustained and constrained men's actions, organizing them, by the very virtue of its far remove, according to a secret logic. It is not the mere content of the statements that bears witness in the eyes of each party to an unprecedented daring, since the critical accounts of those statements on the part of the respective parties are immediately at odds; it is rather the movement of speech that seems to surprise, scandalize, or enchant, by the modification it introduces in the relation of the book to its object, and, at the same time, of the author to his reader. The desire to impute to Machiavelli the paternity of political discourse is accompanied in each reader by one sole representation of the oeuvre, the truth of which is affirmed by excluding as pure nonsense the truth of others. It is troubling to witness a belief so generally shared in the originality of a writer, and a disagreement enrooted so early in its posterity, so constantly maintained, about the meaning of the oeuvre.

When we begin to sound the literature that developed around this oeuvre, our first surprise is the degree of hatred of which it was the object, a hatred which, though it reached its zenith fifty years after its publication, never disarmed. But it is yet another surprise to discover that the defense of the writer, despite what is commonly said, dates as far back as his condemnation, and that it, too, has aroused the liveliest and most long-lasting passions. Still another surprise is to learn that in the name of objective knowledge, freed from the impurities of polemics, commentators have for centuries devoted their efforts to restoring the true figure of the writer—their own hatreds, loves, their professed neutrality still covering such a variety of interpretations that their motives have become anecdotal. But no less astonishing is the effort expended to discover an oeuvre known, studied, and discussed as few others have been in history, and to claim to condemn it or appreciate it adequately for the first time; no less astonishing the opportunity taken in each period of that discovery to proclaim a new truth about the present, as if by reading Machiavelli a veil were rent, as if the signs placed in The Prince or The Discourses, unknown, undecipherable till then because written for a future reader, awaiting a time that would reveal them, were to be jolted into vociferation by contact with the event; and no less astonishing the diversity of those whom the oeuvre fascinates, for it is not only philosophers, theologians, moralists, historians, who take up their pens: it is also politicians, or men whom nothing, apparently, had prepared to such an exercise and who, overcome with passion, convince themselves that there is an urgency involved in their alerting their contemporaries to the Machiavellian message.

Now, that there should be a discourse of posterity, or better, that that posterity should be ordered in the form of a discourse, and that that discourse should be articulated unbeknownst to its agents in the form of a trial (such that, although participants come and go, the same distribution of roles and arguments subsists, and beneath the emblem of a myth—identification, in its dual form, positive and negative, the resurrection of the author in its dual function of immortalization and execution, repeating itself as impervious to time)—this thought at once precipitates our questioning and broadens the field of enquiry. Indeed, how are we to understand that, from one era to another, the same differentiations or similar ones should reappear in the representation of the oeuvre, and especially that the ideological divisions to which we have become accustomed blur on contact with the oeuvre, that unexpected allies form, and well-established kinships come apart?

Doubtless these adventures already prompt us to reconsider the status of the oeuvre of thought, and to distinguish between knowledge of the oeuvre and ideology; doubtless they require of us to wonder about the nature of the Machiavellian discourse, to seek what it is in this discourse that makes such adventures possible, or even authorizes them. Perhaps they only take on their full significance on the condition that we reexamine our representation of the political discourse that is intertwined with that of the oeuvre. But might they not teach us something else as well, something about ideologies themselves? Ideology—or what we are quick to label thus, to give a name to a focal point of knowledge kindled and fed by the desire of a category of people to fashion and refashion the social order in conformity with the requirements of their own practice—is it not odd that we are prevented from measuring its efficacy, on an occasion in which one would expect—it being a question of the appreciation and exploitation of a political oeuvre—that it be manifested in the highest degree?

Might the oeuvre have some power to scramble the reference points according to which political power is organized, and to reveal—in the divorces and complicities formed apropos of it, on the hither side of commonly recognized opinions and values—an unknown play of oppositions that, not being within the range of our normal focus, persist there, sheltered from the variations of ideology?

Now these questions do not fade away when the attention shifts from the general field of Machiavellian literature to the more specific subcategory of its scientific criticism, that space in which knowledge is valued more highly than appreciation, and a tight rein is kept on the imagination. There, faithfulness to the text predominates, upheld by a resolve to get at its meaning not only by the orderly comparison of discursive propositions, the just assessment of their letter, and the proper adjustment of the conditions of coherence, but also by the reconstitution of what was at once the stage on which it was enacted as an event and its epistemological milieu: the social and historical world of the beginning of the sixteenth century; even more specifically, within that world, Florence, such as it was defined in the chain of events that led it into servitude, in the context of class conflicts and political constitutions in which those events were framed, within the state of beliefs and knowledge that determined the relation of men to their milieu. Beneath the banner of science, the least that may be said is that no agreement is reached; the divergences become weightier with the work expended, and they are augmented by the costly labor that sustains them, far beyond the limits to which we are accustomed for works of reflection in general—which is already a mystery. Desire, being contained, wells up within the man of science—as if indifferent to the orderly reasoning of his critical discourse—to pass a final judgment on the meaning and value of the presumed Machiavellian message, and to act in consequence, be it indirectly, by averting its effects, in order to say or to insinuate a precious truth about his own day, and at the same time to castigate those who, having eyes, have not read the book, and have not read history.

Excerpted from MACHIAVELLI IN THE MAKING by Claude Lefort. Copyright © 2013 by Claude Lefort. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Translator's note Part I: The Question of the Oeuvre Part II: The Concept of Machiavellianism Part III: Reading The Prince Part IV: Reading The Discourses Part VI: The Oeuvre, Ideology, and Interpretation
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