'Sophocles and Machiavelli on the Limits of Virtue'
25 Pages Posted: 5 Aug 2011
Date Written: August 5, 2011
“For I know well that you are all ill, and sick though you be, there are none whatsoever equally sick as I. For the pain of yours comes to one alone to his own downright self, and no other, but my soul mourns with respect to the city and me and you altogether.” Sophocles, O.T., lines 59-64, my translation. Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is about the collapse of the public and the private. Oedipus thinks his own experience proves the reconcilability of the public and the private and that he is justice’s realization. One might say, the plot of the O.T. challenges and refutes Oedipus’ understanding. By the end of the play it is clear that Oedipus no longer simply embodies the public and the private. Creon orders him out of the public realm and the play closes with his grieving over the cursed future of his own weeping daughters. Like Sophocles’ O.T., Machiavelli’s The Prince is also about the collapse of the public and the private, but The Prince displays the opposite movement. It begins with the centrality of the prince’s good. Justice or the public good takes a back seat to or is sacrificed to the good of the Prince. By the end of The Prince, however, public and private are seemingly brought together, as Machiavelli exhorts the Prince to unite Italy and to expel the barbarians from the fatherland. The Prince concludes with the suggestion that the one and the many can be simultaneously made whole. So at first blush Machiavelli suggests that the moderns are superior to the ancients. Whereas the ancients saw tragedy and aporia, the moderns see solutions and relief from suffering. This interpretation is problematic, however, for it ignores what happens to the Prince as a condition for the final solution presented in Chapter 26. Public and private are not so much reconciled as the Prince becomes absolutely public. Machiavelli guts him and deprives him of the means by which to experience a genuine private happiness. The Prince turns a prince into THE Prince, a particular prince into an empty universal, and all the while making it seem that everything is being said for his happiness. In O.T., tragedy is the result of the splitting apart of public and private. In The Prince, tragedy is not so much overcome as suppressed; the good of the ruler or of the one is suppressed.
If The Prince does not really solve the fundamental political problem, and Machiavelli knew this, in what sense is Machiavelli really a modern or the founder of modern political life? Did Machiavelli mean to found modernity? In seeing itself as Machiavelli’s heir, is modernity deluding itself? In juxtaposing Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Machiavelli’s The Prince, this paper will shed light on the conflict between the ancients and the moderns, and in particular, on Machiavelli’s intention in writing The Prince.
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