The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition

The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691172231
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Series: Princeton Classics , #25
Pages: 664
Sales rank: 350,131
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

J.G.A. Pocock is the Harry C. Black Professor of History Emeritus at Johns Hopkins University. His many books include Political Thought and History; Politics, Language, and Time; and The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law. Richard Whatmore is professor of modern history at the University of St Andrews and director of the St. Andrews Institute of Intellectual History. He is the author of Republicanism and the French Revolution and Against War and Empire.

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The Machiavellian Moment

Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition

By J. G. A. Pocock


Copyright © 1975 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8351-6



A) Experience, Usage and Prudence


A SUSTAINED INTENTION throughout this book will be that of depicting early modern republican theory in the context of an emerging historicism, the product of the ideas and conceptual vocabularies which were available to medieval and Renaissance minds — such as C. S. Lewis called "Old Western" — for the purpose of dealing with particular and contingent events and with time as the dimension of contingent happenings. The republic or Aristotelian polis, as that concept reemerged in the civic humanist thought of the fifteenth century, was at once universal, in the sense that it existed to realize for its citizens all the values which men were capable of realizing in this life, and particular, in the sense that it was finite and located in space and time. It had had a beginning and would consequently have an end; and this rendered crucial both the problem of showing how it had come into being and might maintain its existence, and that of reconciling its end of realizing universal values with the instability and circumstantial disorder of its temporal life. Consequently, a vital component of republican theory — and, once this had come upon the scene, if no earlier, of all political theory — consisted of ideas about time, about the occurrence of contingent events of which time was the dimension, and about the intelligibility of the sequences (it is as yet too soon to say processes) of particular happenings that made up what we should call history. It is this which makes it possible to call republican theory an early form of historicism, though we shall find that many of the connotations of our word "history" were at that time borne by other words and their equivalents in various languages — the words "usage," "providence," and "fortune" among them. Well-developed conceptual vocabularies existed in which the implications of these and other terms were expanded, and these vocabularies to some extent cohered with one another; so that it is possible, and seems not improper, to reconstruct a scheme of ideas within which the sixteenth-century mind sought to articulate the equivalent of a philosophy of history. This, with its many difficulties and frustrations, constituted the conceptual framework within which the doctrine of the vivere civile — the ideal of active citizenship in a republic — must struggle to maintain itself; and that struggle is the subject of this book.

The next three chapters therefore consist of an exposition of what appear to have been the chief of these vocabularies, the principal modes of rendering the particular phenomenon, the particular event in time, as far intelligible as possible. The assumption throughout will be that this was difficult: that the late medieval and Renaissance intellect found the particular less intelligible and less rational than the universal; that since the particular was finite, it was local both in space and time, so that time became a dimension of its being and consequently shared in the diminished rationality and intelligibility of the particular. The language employed suggests that this assumption is susceptible of a philosophical explanation. The vocabularies which will be isolated, and around which this book will be organized, will be seen to have been of a sub-philosophical nature and to have offered means of rendering time and the particular intelligible on the assumption that they were less than perfectly rational; and hypotheses will be put forward concerning late medieval philosophy, designed to show why this imperfect rationality may have troubled men's minds.

The following generalizations may be advanced. Medieval philosophy tended to debate whether the sole true objects of rational understanding were not universal categories or propositions which were independent of time and space. The process of arriving at knowledge of them had indeed to be carried out within time and space, but recognition of their truth or reality was grounded upon perceptions independent of either; there was a self-evidence which was timeless and non-circumstantial. Reality of this order consisted of universals, and the activity of reason consisted of the intellect's ascent to recognition of the timeless rationality of universals. The truth of a self-evident proposition was self-contained and did not depend upon contingent recognition of some other proposition, still less upon evidence transitory in time and space; it was in this self-contained quality that timelessness largely consisted. In contrast, the knowledge of particulars was circumstantial, accidental, and temporal. It was based upon the sense-perceptions of the knower's transitory body, and very often upon messages transmitted to his senses by other knowers concerning what their sense-perceptions had permitted them to sense, to know, or to believe. Both for this reason and because propositions concerning particular phenomena had to be constructed by moving through a dimension of contingency, in which one proposition was perpetually dependent upon another, knowledge of particulars was time-bound, just as the phenomena of which it was knowledge, localized by particularity in space and time, were time-bound themselves.

If we use "history" as a name for this time-dimension, we can say that a scholastic "philosophy of history" emphasized its contingent and sub-rational character; but there are several senses in which we can say that the scholastic intellect did not offer a philosophy of history at all. By "history" we normally mean successions of events taking place in time, social and public rather than private and subjective in character, which we try to organize, first into narratives and second into processes; but this was not an objective which the scholastic intellect greatly valued. Narrative, the mere telling of a tale, it followed Aristotle in considering inferior to poetry, as poetry was inferior to philosophy, because it was inferior in bringing to light the universal significances of events; and these were best arrived at by thinking which abandoned the particular event altogether and rose above it to contemplation of universal categories. As for processes and time as the dimension of process, the process of change which the Aristotelian intellect singled out was that by which a thing came to be and then not to be: physis, the process by which it fulfilled its end, perfected its form, realized its potential, and then ceased — all of which are extensions of the idea of coming to be and then not to be. All things come to an end in time, but the intelligibility of time was closer to being in the things, since the essential systole and diastole were in the being and not-being of the things, and it was this of which time was the measure. But the being and not-being of a thing is not identical with the replacement of that thing by another thing; it is a closed process whereas the latter is open-ended; and to the extent to which the Aristotelian intellect identified change with physis, it tended to adopt a circular concept of process and therefore of time. This had the advantage of rendering time entirely intelligible. If time was to be measured by motion, Aristotle considered,

regular circular motion is above all else the measure, because the number of this is the best known. Now neither alteration nor increase nor coming into being can be regular, but locomotion can be. This also is why time is thought to be the motion of the sphere, viz. because the other movements are measured by this, and time by this movement.

This also explains the common saying that human affairs form a circle, and that there is a circle in all other things that have a natural movement and coming into being and passing away. This is because all other things are discriminated by time, and end and begin as though conforming to a cycle; for even time itself is thought to be a circle. And this opinion again is held because time is the measure of this kind of locomotion and is itself measured by such. So that to say that the things that come into being form a circle is to say that there is a circle of time; and this is to say that it is measured by the circular movement; for apart from the measure nothing else to be measured is observed; the whole is just a plurality of measures.

It is easy to detect that Aristotle was well aware that to treat time as circular because the sphere was the most perfect figure, and consequently the best measure, was an intellectual convenience and not — what it became for others — an expression of faith in the ultimate intelligibility of the universe; little less easy to see that he understood the difficulty of applying the circular concept to history, that is, to "human affairs." For in human affairs a great diversity of things happen without any predictable order, and we can only say that these form a cycle as a means of saying that the whole variety of human experience forms a single gigantic entity having its own self-fulfilling and self-repetitive physis. Post-Aristotelian philosophies existed which were prepared to make this assertion, but we are now warned against overestimating their importance; it was well enough understood that the application of physis to human affairs was an intellectual convenience and a metaphor, and it was, after all, Greeks who pioneered the writing of history as what it has so largely remained, an exercise in political ironics — an intelligible story of how men's actions produce results other than those they intended.

But it was one thing to recognize that there were limits to the application of circular physis to human history — to treating the succession of one thing to another on the analogy of the succession of the being and not-being of a single thing; quite another, at the philosophical level, to produce any equally satisfactory mode of treating the former succession. The Hellenic intellect wrote history, but it did not make history philosophically intelligible. As for the Christian intellect on these matters, it of course repudiated all ideas of cosmic recurrence; "the wicked dance in circles"; such a vision of things would make the world uncreated and endless. But Christian insistence on a God who had created the world and men at a point in time past and would redeem men and end the world at a point in time future, though of incalculable importance for the development of historical thought, did not of itself render intelligible the succession of particular events and phenomena in time, or ascribe any special importance to time considered as the dimension of that succession. The problem of divine foreknowledge, the problem of how the individual might relate his time-bound existence to the immediate presence of a timeless and eternal God, led Augustine and Boethius to postulate the idea of a nuncstans or standpoint in eternity from which God saw every moment in time as simultaneously created and present; but whether the individual affirmed the nunc-stans as an act of intellect or of faith, it was evident that he could not share it and that one moment in time could not be known to an intelligence imprisoned in another moment. Nor was such knowledge of any final importance. Movement in fallen man, if effected by his own depraved will and intelligence, was movement away from God and toward further damnation, away from meaning and toward deepening meaninglessness (this movement may be detected in the Inferno). Given the promise of an ultimate redemption, historical time could indeed be seen as equally the movement back toward God; but this was effected by a separate sequence of acts of redemptive grace, sharply distinguished from and only mysteriously related to the happenings of history in the secular sense. The footsteps of God might be in history, but history as a whole did not consist of such footsteps; eternity might be in love with the products of time, but time was a passive and inert beloved. Finally, an Aristotelianized Christianity tended to restore the analogy of physis; man had lost his form, his true nature, and reformatio — the work of grace — was operating to restore him to it. One might debate whether redemptio was not something more than reformatio: whether the movement consisted of a circular return to the state of the unfallen Adam, or a spiral ascent to a condition higher than that lost by the felix peccatum; but in neither case did it consist of the succession of human actions and sufferings. Secular time — there is an etymological tautology here — was the theater of redemption, but not its dimension. Without redemption, furthermore, it was entropic: the loss of form, the movement from order toward disorder, which might be reversed but could not be meaningfully continued.

Christian thought concerning a succession of particulars therefore tended to consist of a succession of efforts to relate the particulars to universals, carried out by means that might be philosophical or poetical, typological, anagogical, or analogical — there was an impressive, even majestic, array of devices existing to this end — but operated so as to view each particular in its relation to eternity and to pass by the succession of particulars itself as revealing nothing of importance. The eternal order to which particulars were related was not a temporal or a historical order, even when it made history by manifesting itself in time; and history was often — though not always — seen as little more than a series of symbolizations, in which sequential narrative was of little more than expository significance. The dual meaning of words such as "temporal" and "secular" is at this point beginning to appear in its true importance: both connote the ideas of time (tempus, saeculum) and of the nonsacred because noneternal. It is a useful simplification to say that the Christian world-view — while of course containing the seeds of what was to supersede it — was based upon the exclusion from consideration of temporal and secular history, and that the emergence of historical modes of explanation had much to do with the supersession of that world-view by one more temporal and secular.

This book is concerned with some aspects of that process, and it is going to be argued that an important role in generating it was played by consideration of politics. There is a historically resonant vocabulary in which politics is presented as "the art of the possible" and therefore contingent, "the endless adventure" of governing men, the "ship" sailing "a bottomless and boundless sea"; and if we think of the domain of contingency as history, "the play of the contingent, the unexpected and the unforeseen," it will appear that a powerful stimulus to the growth of secular historiography may arise from this view of politics (so that political man may prove to have had his own quarrel with the Christian world-view). But it is not from political philosophy, in the premodern sense of that term, that we shall see ideas of secular contingency arising. In what some still like to call "the great tradition" of that philosophy, the political community was seen as a universal phenomenon, something natural to man. Efforts were made to state its idea or form, to relate its principles to those of the universal order of which it formed part, and these tended for obvious reasons to remove it from the domain of particularity and contingency. Yet even within the philosophical tradition it was recognized that political society was, when viewed in the concrete, a secular and consequently a time-bound phenomenon. The province of philosophy was not perhaps extended to include the provision of wholly temporal modes of intelligibility, ways of understanding the time-bound from within secular time; but somewhat outside the philosophical tradition, modes of thought can be detected which were explicitly concerned with problems of political particularity, with what was intellectually possible when the particular political society was viewed as existing in time, when the particular contingency or event was viewed as arising in time, and when the particular society was viewed as a structure for absorbing and responding to the challenges posed by such events and as consisting, institutionally and historically, of the traces of such responses made in past time. An attempt will now be made to expound three such modes of thought and, in so doing, to construct a model which will help to elucidate what happened when the republican ideal posed the problem of the universal's existence in secular particularity.


Sir John Fortescue (c. 1390-1479), an English lawyer and the kind of amateur of philosophy who helps us understand the ideas of an age by coarsening them slightly, wrote the greatest of his works, the De Laudibus Legum Anglie (In Praise of the Laws of England) about 1468-1471. At that time he was in exile with the Lancastrian claimants to the English throne, from whom he held the title of Lord Chancellor, but it is of far more significance that he had served before exile as Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench, the premier office of the English common law. If at a later time it was said of Francis Bacon that "he wrote philosophy like a Lord Chancellor," it could with equal truth be said of Fortescue that — not for the last time in English history — he wrote philosophy like a Lord Chief Justice. The two great legal offices made different demands on the application of intellect to society, and encouraged correspondingly different social philosophies.


Excerpted from The Machiavellian Moment by J. G. A. Pocock. Copyright © 1975 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Introduction to the Princeton Classics edition vii

Introduction xxiii

Part One Particularity and Time:
The Conceptual Background

I The Problem and Its Modes

A) Experience, Usage and Prudence 3

II The Problem and Its Modes

B) Providence, Fortune and Virtue 31

III The Problem and Its Modes

C) The Vita Activa and the Vivere Civile 49

Part Two The Republic and its Fortune: Florentine Political Thought from 1494 to 1530

IV From Bruni to Savonarola
Fortune, Venice and Apocalypse 83

V The Medicean Restoration 114

A) Guicciardini and the Lesser Ottimati, 1512-1516

VI The Medicean Restoration 156

B) Machiavelli's Il Principe

VII Rome and Venice

A) Machiavelli's Discorsi and Arte della Guerra 183

VIII Rome and Venice

B) Guicciardini's Dialogo and the Problem of Optimate Prudence 219

IX Giannotti and Contarini: Venice as Concept and as Myth 272

Part Three Value and History in the Prerevolutionary Atlantic

X The Problem of English Machiavellism: Modes of Civic Consciousness before the Civil War 333

XI The Anglicization of the Republic

A) Mixed Constitution, Saint and Citizen 361

XII The Anglicization of the Republic

B) Court, Country, and Standing Army 401

XIII Neo-Machiavellian Political Economy

The Augustan Debate over Land, Trade and Credit 423

XIV The Eighteenth-Century Debate: Virtue, Passion and Commerce 462

XV The Americanization of Virtue: Corruption, Constitution and Frontier 506

Afterword 553

Bibliography 585

Index 601

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