Reading Machiavelli: Scandalous Books, Suspect Engagements, and the Virtue of Populist Politics

Reading Machiavelli: Scandalous Books, Suspect Engagements, and the Virtue of Populist Politics

by John P. McCormick

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To what extent was Machiavelli a “Machiavellian”? Was he an amoral adviser of tyranny or a stalwart partisan of liberty? A neutral technician of power politics or a devout Italian patriot? A reviver of pagan virtue or initiator of modern nihilism? Reading Machiavelli answers these questions through original interpretations of Niccolò Machiavelli’s three major political works—The Prince, Discourses, and Florentine Histories—and demonstrates that a radically democratic populism seeded the Florentine’s scandalous writings. John McCormick challenges the misguided understandings of Machiavelli set forth by prominent thinkers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and representatives of the Straussian and Cambridge schools.

McCormick emphasizes the fundamental, often unacknowledged elements of a vibrant Machiavellian politics: the utility of vigorous class conflict between elites and common citizens for virtuous democratic republics, the necessity of political and economic equality for genuine civic liberty, and the indispensability of religious tropes for the exercise of effective popular judgment. Interrogating the established reception of Machiavelli’s work by such readers as Rousseau, Leo Strauss, Quentin Skinner, and J.G.A. Pocock, McCormick exposes what was effectively an elite conspiracy to suppress the Florentine’s contentious, egalitarian politics. In recovering the too-long-concealed quality of Machiavelli’s populism, this book acts as a Machiavellian critique of Machiavelli scholarship.

Advancing fresh renderings of works by Machiavelli while demonstrating how they have been misread previously, Reading Machiavelli presents a new outlook for how politics should be conceptualized and practiced.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691183503
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/09/2018
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

John P. McCormick is professor of political science at the University of Chicago. His books include Weimar Thought (Princeton) and Machiavellian Democracy.

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The Passion of Duke Valentino


AFTER ROUGHLY FIVE HUNDRED YEARS, no consensus has yet emerged over Niccolò Machiavelli's religious views. Despite his discernable anticlerical political stances, many scholars continue to insist that Machiavelli's orientation toward religion remains largely within the ambit of orthodox Christianity. Others take the opposite view: not only was Machiavelli a virulent anti-Christian, but his writings are motivated by nothing less than a desire to eliminate religiosity from human existence and to establish an atheistic world order. This chapter accomplishes little to settle this issue. It merely explores the way that Machiavelli employs Christian allegory at critical junctures of The Prince, specifically, when he discusses the political career of the crucial figure Cesare Borgia. I will show definitively that Machiavelli draws on deep knowledge of the Gospels and enlists Christian imagery and doctrine to impart his political lessons through the example of Borgia. Whether he does so entirely to refute Christianity or whether he thinks that his novel political science, his "new modes and orders," appropriates and advances certain Christian tenets (in religious or irreligious ways) remain very much open questions.

Machiavelli's use of Borgia has always posed a puzzle for interpreters of The Prince. Those who denounced the scandalous quality of Machiavelli's piccolo libro argued that the laudatory presentation of Borgia — ambitious, cunning and brutal — proved that Machiavelli cared little for piety, morality, good government, or basic decency. In attempting to shield Machiavelli from such charges, no less a luminary than Jean-Jacques Rousseau insisted that Machiavelli's use of Borgia was instructively ironic: Machiavelli did not mean for Borgia to serve as an exemplar of anything other than the kind of vicious tyranny that inevitably emerges in circumstances where republican government is absent. Interpreters more willing to take Machiavelli at his word detect in the example of Borgia Machiavelli's straightforward confrontation with the dire political realities of his day: Jacob Burckhardt, for instance, understood Machiavelli's account of Borgia's career to illustrate how a ruthless, mendacious warlord could use the authority of the papacy to accumulate power and even create circumstances where the papacy itself might be converted into a proper hereditary monarchy; that is, into a more traditionally effective principality capable of expelling foreign invaders and unifying Italy.

My interpretation highlights the Biblical resonances that incontrovertibly characterize Machiavelli's account of the rise and fall of Borgia, the paradigmatic "new prince" of The Prince; a Christological "prince of peace" whose subjects, and Machiavelli himself, call by the exalted title "Duke Valentino." I agree with Rousseau that everything Machiavelli wishes to communicate concerning Borgia's career is less than obvious, but I dispute his contention that Machiavelli means for Borgia's "virtue" and "spirit" to serve anything less than exemplary purposes, both negative and positive. Like Burckhardt, I believe that Machiavelli has in mind prescriptive intentions and practical goals as he chronicles the duke's career, which Machiavelli presents in unambiguously religious terms, but which he puts toward deeply ambiguous religious ends.

Machiavelli's "Duke" and the People's Prince of Peace

In chapter 7 of The Prince, Machiavelli upholds Cesare Borgia as the best example of someone who came to power through fortune — that is, through some other prince's power — but who almost solidified his own authority through virtue — that is, with his own arms and efforts. Machiavelli presents Cesare as an explicitly inferior example to the unequivocally successful if problematically mythic princes whom the Florentine discusses in the previous chapter: Moses, Romulus, Theseus, Cyrus (P 6); founders of peoples or religions who came to power exclusively through their own virtue and arms.

This deficiency notwithstanding, Machiavelli goes to great lengths to associate himself both with Cesare Borgia, personally, and, via Borgia, with the common people as a class. In the first place, he uses phrases to describe Cesare that he applies to himself in the book's "Dedicatory Letter": both he and Borgia, Machiavelli writes, egregiously and unfairly suffer "fortune's malignity" (P DL, P 7). Curiously, the only instances where Machiavelli inserts himself as an interlocutor within the pages of The Prince occur in the two chapters (P 3 and P 7), where Cesare figures prominently. In these two chapters Machiavelli mentions that Cesare was called "Duke Valentino" by "the people," or "by the vulgar"; and then Machiavelli himself, in a popular or vulgar manner, exclusively refers to Cesare as "the duke" for the duration of his account of Borgia's short but striking career (P 3, P 7). Machiavelli alludes to the circumstances through which Pope Alexander VI formally acquires for his son, Cesare, a noble title: while granting the French King's request for an annulment of his marriage, the Pope also elevates the king's minister, the archbishop of Rouen, to the rank of cardinal; in return, the Pope secures from the king a title for Cesare, "Duke of Valentinois." However, Machiavelli suggests that Cesare, through his own accomplishments, earns the title "duke" in the eyes of the people, and, evidently, in the eyes of Machiavelli as well. The people's judgment, apparently, not that of popes and kings, is what ultimately matters to Machiavelli. Again, the Florentine insists on calling Cesare "Duke Valentino" precisely because that is what the people do.

As Machiavelli famously remarks elsewhere in The Prince, the people are fascinated by appearances and outcomes; but since "in the world abide none but the vulgar," appearances and outcomes may be, in the end, all that count (P 18). While this remark is often taken as Machiavelli's criticism of popular judgment — that is, as an expression of his contempt for the people's shallowness — Machiavelli's self-association with the duke and with the people (with both the virtuous and the vulgar) actually affirms the validity of this perspective. Indeed, while serving as advisor and minister to Piero Soderini, chief executive of the ill-fated Florentine Republic of 1494, Machiavelli wrote to Soderini's nephew, in words that presage The Prince by seven years: "I am looking not through your glass [i.e., that of a young patrician], in which nothing is seen but prudence, but through the glass of the many, who have to judge the end of things as they are done, and not the means by which they are done." Machiavelli hereby asserts his concern with ends, with outcomes, over means because these are the people's chief concerns. Neither Machiavelli nor the people, it would seem, can afford the luxury of fussing over means, as do the few. The direct relationship between the people and the duke — the bond between them forged by the people's appreciation for outcomes delivered by the duke — increases in importance throughout Machiavelli's account of Borgia's career in The Prince. In fact, Machiavelli celebrates it, or, as we will see, he consecrates this relationship, this bond.

Again, Machiavelli first introduces Cesare as the natural son of Pope Alexander VI in chapter 3. Cesare enjoys prominent — indeed religiously exalted — parentage and patronage. However, he was born out of wedlock, which, in a considerable sense diminishes, perhaps even vulgarizes, the quality of his origins. Like those of many founders and prophets, Cesare's beginnings are ambiguously exalted and humble, theologically validated yet transgressive in a conventionally moral sense. What is immediately important for Machiavelli is that Cesare inherits someone else's conquests and kingdoms. The very next chapter (P 4) seems to emphasize this point as it concerns the fate of territories conquered by Alexander after his death, even if the Alexander invoked here is not the Borgia Pope mentioned in the preceding chapter, but rather Alexander of Macedon. Machiavelli instructs readers that Alexander the Great's conquests would have been easy to maintain if his successors had been united — that is, for instance, if he had left behind a son who was a worthy successor.

A venerable tradition, most notably represented by Dante, recognizes the Roman Caesars to be the heirs of Alexander: the emperors built upon his example in order to conquer the world. Indeed, Machiavelli remarks how Julius Caesar imitated Alexander, just as Alexander and Scipio imitated, respectively, Achilles and Cyrus (P 14). A central question in these early chapters of The Prince is whether this Caesar, Cesare Borgia, is capable of maintaining and building upon the foundations that he inherits from his Alexander. In fact, since the ancient and modern Caesars and Alexanders are spelled the same way in the Italian text, Machiavelli often compels his readers to pause and reflect upon which "Cesare" or "Alessandro" he may be discussing at any particular moment. More specifically, Machiavelli graphically, visually prompts readers to consider whether, or to what extent, this Holy Father and his natural son appropriately imitated their more renowned ancient namesakes. Machiavelli invites readers to consider the similarities and differences between these ancient and modern examples with identical names: do Alexander and Cesare accomplish as much as their ancient counterparts? By calling Cesare by another name, Duke Valentino, does Machiavelli suggest that he could have established something new and different in comparison with the accomplishments of the ancient conquerors, or does this renaming only accentuate how far short the pope and the duke ultimately fall?

The Parable of Cesare Borgia

Machiavelli reports that Pope Alexander initially cannot find arms to help support Cesare's military endeavors, specifically his attempt to reconquer the Romagna for the papacy, because all his potential allies worry about increasing the Church's territorial reach (P 7). In response to this impasse, Alexander shakes up Italy to distract and disorient his adversaries. The Pope encourages the Venetians to bring France into Italy from whom, in turn, Alexander acquires arms to help Cesare wage battle against the Venetians (P 7). In short, Alexander effectively tricks the French into helping him take the Romagna, and then he places Cesare in charge there. But despite the fact that the duke takes the province with troops provided to him by others (that is, by the Church, by the Venetians, and by the French) Machiavelli demonstrates Borgia's capacity to behave "virtuously" when he describes how the duke himself handles these dubiously loyal troops and their commanders.

Cesare recognizes immediately that these inherited troops are unreliable: they are either too "cool" and, hence, reluctant to fight, or too much of a threat; that is, too readily inclined to turn against their new captain (P 7). The duke flatters, bribes, or corrupts most of the lords who provide him arms and who pose threats to him, thus winning them over. In the paragraph describing these actions, a transformation takes place, a transfiguration of sorts: it begins with the proper nouns of "Alexander" and "the pope" undertaking the primary actions, but after the deployment of some indefinite pronouns, it concludes with "the duke" or "Valentino" as prime actor in the proceedings. This is where Machiavelli's narrative starts to take on strange overtones. One of the lords with whom Cesare has recently been at odds, and from whom the duke needs arms, is Pagolo Orsini. Orsini apparently has two names: although Machiavelli refers to him elsewhere by his actual name, Pagolo, here he calls him "Signor Paolo," Mr. Paul. The duke wins over Paolo with gifts, including horses. Machiavelli neglects to inform readers whether or not this Paul with two names falls off one of these horses. Rather, the most important point seems to be that Cesare converts Paul, his erstwhile adversary.

The duke then enlists the aid of Mr. Paul to convert the rest of Cesare's enemies. Through Paolo's mediations, Cesare invites them to a celebration of reconciliation, as Machiavelli describes it, in the coastal city of Senigallia (P 7). The participants are not quite aware of it, but this will be their last supper. Unlike other notable last suppers, however, this gathering will not conclude with its host suffering betrayal, arrest, and then execution. Rather, the duke consummates this gathering of reconciliation by having his guests strangled. As a Florentine emissary, Machiavelli was present in Senigallia to observe, firsthand, the duke's actions on this New Year's Eve of 1502. Indeed, here in chapter 7 of The Prince, Machiavelli writes generally as if he were a chronicler of the duke's life, having both observed and spoken with Valentino. Machiavelli repeatedly insists that he wishes to record the duke's sayings and actions so that those who had not experienced them firsthand might follow them in the future.

After the assassinations at Senigallia, Cesare no longer depends on the arms of others — at least in his efforts to acquire power. But the task of maintaining power is a different matter altogether: dependable subordinates will prove necessary for the consolidation of the duke's new authority within the Romagna. Cesare finds the province badly disordered; the local barons would rather "exploit than correct their subjects," as Machiavelli writes of the crimes, feuds, and insolence that plague the people there (P 7). To help him bring peace and obedience to the Romagna, Cesare resorts to a "kingly arm"; he promotes the "cruel and able" Remirro d'Orco to do the job for him (P 7). Remirro succeeds at this task — eliminating the lords and disciplining the people — and consequently gains a great reputation for himself.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Machiavelli reports that Cesare begins to fear that Remirro's excessive authority and "the rigors" that it entails will become hateful to the people (P 7). However, he leaves it unclear whether Cesare fears that such hatred will be directed toward Remirro or Cesare himself. Or perhaps what most disturbs Cesare is the reputation that Remirro has acquired for himself as much as, or more than, the hatred he arouses within the people. Will the people blame the prime actor or the mere instrument? The prince himself or his kingly arm? And who exactly is the prime mover in these circumstances? Remirro, who did the dirty work of making the Romagna peaceful? Cesare, who ordered Remirro to do so? Alexander, who effectively gave Cesare the Romagna? Or Machiavelli, for that matter? After all, Machiavelli has put them all there, at least in the context of this little parable.

Initially, it seems as though the establishment of legal and representative institutions will alleviate the people's anger over being rendered "peaceful and united" via cruelty and violence, even if the corrupt and oppressive lords bore the brunt of Remirro's harsh modes: Cesare establishes a court with a respected presiding officer and representatives from all parts of the region (P 7). In conventional Weberian terms, the policies of a new prince must be enacted, at first, by agents with whom he has a directly personal relationship, and then subsequently by more formal and impersonal institutions. According to Weber, this can eventually lead to the establishment of a legally rational form of government, such as the modern Rechtsstaat, one that is free, at least theoretically, of any personal relations of subordination. Certainly, the duke seems to be transitioning from rule through a henchman — Remirro had been Cesare's major domo — to procedurally based governance in the Romagna. However, formally rational institutions are not sufficient for either Machiavelli or Cesare at this point in the latter's mission to establish a state in North-Central Italy. Routinized administration is not all that the duke provides the people; he also brings them food for their souls. Machiavelli suggests that, on the one hand, Cesare wishes to purge the people's "spirit" of their hatred more fully, and, on the other, that he wants to show them from whom the cruelty that ordered the province really derived: not from Cesare but from his minister (P 7).

As Machiavelli tells it so unforgettably, one morning in the town square of Cesena, the people find Remirro in two pieces, in dua pezzi, with a bloody knife and a piece of wood beside him (P 7). As anyone even slightly acquainted with The Prince knows, Machiavelli, who was there, reports: "This ferocious spectacle at once satisfied and stupefied the people" (P 7). There are myriad ways of interpreting this satisfying and stupefying spettacolo.


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Table of Contents

Abbreviations for Machiavelli's Writings xi

Introduction. Vulgarity and Virtuosity: Machiavelli's Elusive "Effectual Truth" 1

Part I

1 The Passion of Duke Valentino: Cesare Borgia, Biblical Allegory, and The Prince 21

2 "Keep the Public Rich and the Citizens Poor": Economic Inequality and Political Corruption in the Discourses 45

3 On the Myth of a Conservative Turn in the Florentine Histories 69

Part II

4 Rousseau's Repudiation of Machiavelli's Democratic Roman Republic 109

5 Leo Strauss's Machiavelli and the Querelle between the Few and the Many 144

6 The Cambridge School's "Guicciardinian Moments" Revisited 176

Summation. Scandalous Writings, Dubious Readings, and the Virtues of Popular Empowerment 207

Notes 215

Acknowledgments 255

Index 257

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Reading Machiavelli should both open minds and steel hearts, and I can think of no greater praise for an engaged political theorist."—Marc Stears, Theoria

"Like Machiavelli himself, McCormick writes in a fashion that rejects received wisdom, pulls no punches, and sheds remarkable new light on familiar themes."—David Lay Williams, Perspectives on Politics

"This analysis should be essential to any comprehensive treatment of the Florentine’s thought."—R. Heineman, Choice

"With a level of ingenuity and determination equal to that of his Straussian opponents, John McCormick finds a radical populist soul in the Machiavellian corpus."—Philip Pettit, author of Just Freedom

"John McCormick is a brilliant reader of Machiavelli’s rhetorical twists and turns, and skewering of conventional pieties."—Victoria Kahn, University of California, Berkeley

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