Between Citizen & Subject: Placing the People in Machiavelli's Political Imagination
Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Aug. 29-Sept. 1, 2013
37 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2013 Last revised: 7 Feb 2014
Date Written: August 22, 2013
The main objective of this project is to locate Machiavelli’s variegated and complex conceptions of the citizen and the people across a number of political and historical works. To do so we offer a reconstruction of these two notions as taken up in three recent major interpretive approaches of Machiavelli’s political thought – namely, neo-republicanism, radical democracy and the ‘modern turn’ approach associated with the works of Strauss and Mansfield. We suggest that these three perspectives fail to capture the soundness and complexity of Machiavelli’s view of citizenship and popular participation. We argue that, contra neo-republicanism, Machiavelli’s citizen is not to be conceived as a mere ‘invigilator,’ limited simply to the institutional role of contestation (Skinner 1983,1990; Pettit 1997). By focusing too narrowly on the instrumental character of the law as an educative tool for the achievement of republican virtù, these scholars fail to grasp the rather passive role of the popolo. Machiavelli makes clear, first, that people do not become good through laws and secondly, that they are compelled to behave by being restrained from acting badly – this is why the popolo does not have an active role in the political affairs of Rome; rather they riot, they go to war and so on. This problem is exacerbated by the tendency to overlook the dynamic character of Machiavelli’s political imagination in terms of multiple texts. Additionally, we propose that the late Machiavelli of texts such as the Istorie Fiorentine, the Discursus Florentinarum Rerum and the Sommario delle Cose di Lucca should be conceived in terms of a new paradigm within his own political theorizing (Vatter, 2000; McCormick, 2011 and 2012; Winter, 2012). Pace prior readings we stress the evolution of Machiavelli’s thoughts. In these texts, Machiavelli introduces a number of important variations to his own understanding of both the people and citizenship (Jurdjevic, 2002). Here Machiavelli conceives of both nobles and plebs as ‘active’ political participants, which, at the same time, leads the discussion on citizenship as introduced in earlier works in a complete different direction. Machiavelli thus constructs his conceptualization of the individual citizen less in the model of virtue and martial endeavors and more in terms of a search for political authority that transcends the rigid active/passive division sustained in both The Prince and the Discourses. Whereas in the Discourses Machiavelli claims that when the common people are set up as guardians of their own liberty, they will take better care of it than the grandi would, the late Machiavelli’s political imagination shows no sign of such a conception of ‘guardianship of liberty’ (Silvano, 1990). Much to the contrary, all groups, including the newly incorporated middle mercantile class and the plebs, wish to be party to the deliberations of government in order to safeguard and pursue their own interests. This casts light on the late Machiavelli’s novel sense of power as the manifestation of a different sociological conception of the state that radically deviates from the Roman paradigm of his early political works. We conclude with a concise summary and a short diagnosis of the problems of the three interpretive paradigms.
Keywords: Machiavelli, republicanism, people, citizen, subject
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation