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What can Machiavelli teach us about democracy?

The Role of Conflict in Democracy According to Machiavelli and Mouffe

By Giulio Caperchi

It’s hard to deny that the infamous Niccolò Machiavelli enjoys a pretty vicious rep in the back alleys of political philosophy. If my memory serves me right, I’m quite sure that John Locke once referred to him as the “bad boy of political theory.”

So what can the a-moral realist, the cruel pragmatist and the counselor of ruthless princes ever teach us emancipated moderns about democracy? While Machiavelli’s teachings in The Prince are without a doubt hardly “democratic”, there is another façade of this eccentric Florentine’s thought which is scarcely talked about. Contrary to his street cred, Machiavelli is one of the greatest theorists of civic republicanism, of popular liberty and of political self-determination. More importantly, Machiavelli shares a vision of politics strikingly similar to contemporary radical democrats such as Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau.

Machiavelli. By Santi di Tito. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Machiavelli. By Santi di Tito. Courtesy of Wikipedia

A look into Machiavelli’s understanding of the nature of political relations will reveal a surprisingly innovative approach to the way we can conceptualize democratic politics. Moreover, by highlighting the similarities with contemporary theorists such as Mouffe, we can begin to advance a fresh and radical critique of today’s neoliberal democratic order. Ultimately, what Machiavelli teaches us is that the essence of politics does not reside in universal value systems but in the constitutive role that political struggle engenders. We will see that for Machiavelli and Mouffe, claims to universality serve firstly to veil vested interests and secondly to displace alternative or competing value systems. The purpose of democratic politics is not to arrive at universal “truths” but rather to foster a system where competing hegemonies emerge through political struggle and conflict.

But first, I must spend a few lines re-habilitating Machiavelli’s reputation. Machiavelli’s “good side” comes out in his Discourses on Livy (ca. 1517) where instead of counseling a ruthless prince he lays out the military and political order that a self-governing and free republic should exhibit. Using the example of ancient Republican Rome, Machiavelli asserts that a free state is one governed by its own citizens through free and accessible institutions, thereby protecting its autonomy from the caprices of kings and despots. It is the collective commitment to civic values and the common good which make republics, such as Rome, so successful and glorious:

“It is … marvelous to consider the greatness Rome reached when she freed herself from her kings. The reason is easy to understand, for it is the common good and not private gain that makes cities great.” Discourses, Book II, Chapter II.

For the great Isaiah Berlin, Machiavelli is a pivotal thinker because he is the first theorist to explicitly reject a Christian moral universe in favor of a classical humanist one. This act of rejection is important as it signals that Machiavelli clearly distinguished between two rival value systems. For Machiavelli, the Christian value system based on humility, sanctity, holiness and compassion was simply incompatible with the classical humanist one based on strength, decisiveness, cunning, power-politics and the antiquae virtus. And surviving in the world that Machiavelli inhabited, that of warring renaissance Italy, required the ancient civic virtues -not the Christian ones which, according to him, made people sheep-like and fearful of embracing their own liberty. Berlin goes in so far as stating that Machiavelli’s act of rejection destroyed a central assumption at the heart of Western civilization: that there exists a single universal value system. Machiavelli therefore explodes the illusion embedded in Western rationalist and positivist thought “that there is to be found the final solution of the question of how men should live” through a quest for the ultimate “just” society.

Machiavelli’s rejection of the Christian value system stems from his understanding of politics and of the relations between political forces. Being the ultimate pragmatist, his politics are inherently conflictual and do not appeal to any value system or universal moral framework. Political forces are always in constant and irreducible tension, where the few (i grandi) seek to control and oppress the many (il populo), and the many wish to liberate themselves from the few. And this tension, for Machiavelli, is not problematic but is actually the source of political stability:

 “In every republic there are two different inclinations: that of the people and that of the upper class, and that all the laws which are made in favor of liberty are born of the conflict between the two.”  Discourses, Book I, Chapter IV.

Similarly, radical democratic theorist Chantal Mouffe does not accept the universal framework underpinning classical liberalism. For her, theorists such as John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas envision the democratic process as a mere procedure required to achieve some form of idealized consensus within societies. Allegiance to the universal rights, principles and values of classical liberalism along with an agreement on the validity of deliberative procedures are absolute prerequisites in order to play the neoliberal democratic game.

Such ideas of democracy, for Mouffe, are wrong because they ignore the inherent antagonisms present in any pluralist society. Political identities, moral frameworks, and universal truths vary wildly throughout societies and will inevitably express conflicting assumptions. Attempting to force social diversity and pluralism to conform to an alleged universal liberal value system, says Mouffe, excludes them a-priori and serves to displace them. Just like Machiavelli, her idea of politics is characterized by antagonism and conflict emerging from the inherent diversity of social identities. As such, the purpose of democracy should be to provide a political framework which transforms antagonist conflict between enemies into agonistic relations between political adversaries. Confrontation, as in Machiavelli, becomes the essence of democracy.

Machiavelli and Mouffe’s rejection of universal frameworks and their recognition of the role of conflict in politics provide the basis for a radical critique of our neoliberal democratic orders. We have seen how envisioning democracy as a quest to achieve a final universal consensus serves the purpose of excluding alternative democratic articulations. This means, for example, that ideas such as participatory democracy, economic democracy, or reducing the primacy accorded to free markets are excluded a-priori from the democratic game because they don’t conform to neoliberal assumptions.

What we are in need of, therefore, is a democratic framework in which diverse expressions of democratic politics can confront each other on equal footing. This entails that political forces such as those emerging from political Islam, from indigenous cosmology, from the assemblies of Occupy, from Pirate Parties or from the Latin American Bolivarian bloc, for example, must be accepted as legitimate and viable democratic possibilities, and not be demonized, repressed and intellectually ridiculed by the West.

Neoliberalism is one among many different democratic articulations. It is high time we give space and opportunities to other equally legitimate ones so that they may contest and confront the stranglehold that the neoliberal hegemony exerts over democratic theory.

Further Reading

  • Mouffe, C. 2000. The Democratic Paradox, Verso: London
  • Mouffe, C. 2005. On the Political, Routledge: New York
  • Skinner, Q. 1996. Machiavelli: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press: New York
  • Berlin, I. 1993 “The Originality of Machiavelli” in ed. Hardy, H. Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, Pimlico: London
  • Machiavelli, N. 1979 “Discourses” in ed. Bondanella & Musa, The Portable Machiavelli. Penguin: London
  • Machiavelli, N. 1979 “The Prince” in ed. Bondanella & Musa, The Portable Machiavelli. Penguin: London
  • Human Agency and the Political in Machiavelli and Hobbes (on thegocblog.com)
  • Towards a New Defintion of Liberty (on thegocblog.com)


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Two Concepts of Liberty and Classical Republicanism

Deconstructing a False Dichotomy

Robert Nozick opens the preface to Anarchy, State, and Utopia asserting that “individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights). So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do”[1]. Indeed natural rights are a hallmark of western political philosophy. They assert the individual’s natural freedom and protect his or her private life and property from external threats. As articulated in the seventeenth century by European and American liberals, the discourse of natural rights was employed to limit the power of absolutist monarchies and abolish the hegemony of hereditary aristocracies. In fact they acted as a principle of governmental limitation, attempting to draw a juridical barrier between naturally free citizens and their governments[2].

 Today’s political discourse presents a similar use of natural rights. If we look at the claims emerging from the Tea Party movement and like-minded libertarian circles we notice a similar re-assertion of natural freedom and individual independence from a government which intrudes excessively in the life of private citizens. Publicly funded programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are thus seen as direct assaults on the private sphere that pertains to individuals.

A False Dichotomy

          Such an interpretation of natural rights rests upon an understanding of human liberty defined as the condition of absence from external constraints. In his seminal essay Two Concepts of Liberty (1969), Isaiah Berlin terms this attitude towards freedom as negative liberty, one concerned solely with creating a private sphere of non-interference upon which no other person may intrude: “I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men can interfere with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others”[3]. On the contrary, positive liberty implies the freedom to participate in the collective decisions influencing the individual’s life. Yet, collective participation in political endeavors, according to Berlin, has historically led to the formation of universal categories such as collective wills, the common good, or enlightened majorities which, in the name of collective well-being, have inevitably trodden upon the sacrosanct natural rights of private individuals. Berlin thus concludes that positive and negative liberty “are not two different interpretations of a single concept, but two profoundly divergent and irreconcilable attitudes to the ends of life”[4].

          Similarly, the libertarian right, along with many neo-classical economists such as F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, eschew an understanding of positive liberty based on increased political participation and concerns for the common good. In their view, true liberty lies in the “freedom to choose” their own personal decisions rather than having them dictated by government. Moreover, political participation and democratic deliberation are not seen as conducive to social harmony or political stability as they most often lead to irresolvable political arguments which strain the already frail bonds uniting society. On the other hand, Milton Friedman asserts that if such decisions were left to the free market, such political strains would not occur: “the wider the range of activities covered by the market, the fewer the issues on which explicitly political decisions are required and hence on which it is necessary to achieve agreement”[5]. In fact, F.A. Hayek suggested that democracy is not an end to itself but solely a means to secure personal freedom.

“Democracy is essentially a means, a utilitarian device, for safeguarding internal peace and individual freedom.”[6]

          We are thus presented with two apparently irreconcilable understandings of liberty. The negative asserts freedom from external constraints, while the positive a freedom to engage in the political act of decision making. Yet, Isaiah Berlin warns us that political participation in a collective sphere, although potentially a noble endeavor, possesses no internal mechanism of limitation which allows it to check its ability to encroach on private natural rights. In this light, it is self-evident that negative liberty is the sole concept of freedom which ensures that at least our very basic rights are protected. This, however, presents us with a false dichotomy.

The Classical Republican Theory of Liberty

          Positive and negative liberty may coexist, and have coexisted, in many different articulations. A valuable example is the theory of republican liberty outlined by professors Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock. These historians bring to the light a political discourse dating back to ancient Greece and republican Rome concerned with the common good, civic virtue and collective participation in the public sphere. This political theory found its first coherent expression in renaissance Florence, where quattrocento (1400) humanists along with Machiavelli articulated the foundational concepts of  classical republicanism. The republic of Florence from the early 1100s to 1432 had been a self governing and independent polity, vying for territorial and political hegemony with neighboring republics and principalities.

          Skinner and Pocock point out that Florentine political thought conceived of liberty as resting on two mutually dependent assertions: absence from forms of constraint and political participation[7]. Absence from constraint was understood as a the condition of independence from external rule. After all, Florence during the medieval and renaissance periods inhabited a world of warfare, marching armies and endless sieges. The individual liberty of citizens within the republic thus depended on the city’s ability to remain free from neighboring tyrants, popes, princes and monarchs[8]. This condition of independence was however maintained solely through citizen participation. In fact, the citizen was called upon to fulfill two duties: firstly, the running of the city’s administration, and secondly the military defense of the city’s walls[9].

          Such a form of citizen participation was embodied in a principle called civic virtue, or il vivere civile e politico, and demanded that citizens take part in the running of the republic’s endeavors if they wished to remain free[10]. In Florentine political thought, the condition of dependence signaled the loss of autonomy and human agency, eventually causing social decay and moral corruption. Civic virtue was thus a principle of individual and social action, an ethic which enabled citizens to be masters of their own destiny through a concerted and collective effort. As such, renaissance republican thought eschewed the idea of private interests guiding the republic, it was weary of princes, and cultivated a profound suspicion of hereditary aristocracies[11]. The republic’s highest magistracies should therefore be accessible to all qualified citizens, and its electoral system was characterized by frequent elections and short terms[12].

           Pocock and Skinner point out the presence of the theory of republican liberty during the English Civil War, in Revolutionary and Federalist America, all the way into the thought of Adam Smith. Its admonition is clear: the maintenance of negative liberty necessitates a positive effort of political participation. As Quentin Skinner suggests, the lesson that the great minds of the seventeenth century seem to be telling us is that “if we wish to maximise our personal liberty, we must not place our trust in princes; we must instead take charge of the political arena ourselves”[13].


             Recent attempts on behalf of libertarian movements forcing us to choose between individual liberty or political participation in a collective sphere are theoretically and historically erroneous. Accepting negative liberty as the only viable and modern understanding of freedom ignores a rich and varied political tradition on which western democracies have been built on. Moreover, this false dichotomy forces us to choose between the protection of natural rights on one hand, and a potentially collectivist totalitarian politics on the other, thereby nudging us towards the acceptance of a limited and unaccountable democratic system. Contrarily, we must conceive of democratic politics as a system requiring continuous political questioning and debate. Indeed democracy’s lifeblood lies in democratic deliberation which always necessities some degree  of citizen participation and civic virtue (of course not the same as the Florentine republic’s).

          A retreat to an a-political and a-social state of nature -which is what the Tea Party movement at times seems to base its claims on- will not maximize individual liberty but render it vulnerable to, and dependent on, powerful interests –be these governmental or private. If natural rights are not defended through political participation within government there is the serious possibility of losing them. Moreover, natural rights, such those to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, do not exist on different political playing field than the rights to basic healthcare, decent education and a dignified retirement plan. The lesson we derive from the political theories of classical republicanism and early liberalism is that natural rights are inextricably tied to the demands for civil liberties. Natural rights and civil rights are linked because they must both be fought for politically, continuously and within a democratic framework.

           A libertarian re-assertion of negative liberty and individual natural rights will not deliver American and European nations from their financial woes. Nor will the dismantlement of government and its public services. It will solely erode and gnaw away at the frail ties that keep us united as democratic nations, thereby fostering division, political apathy and national disunion. In a moment in which financial markets call into question our nations’ popular sovereignty, we are more than ever in need of a concerted and collective effort to rise to the challenge and defend our cherished liberties that define us as democratic citizens.

[1] Nozick 1974, p ix

[2] Foucault 2008, p 9

[3] Berlin 1969, p 122

[4] Berlin 1969, p 166

[5] Friedman 1962, p 24

[6] Hayek 1944, p 73

[7] Skinner 1998

[8] Pocock 1975, p 201

[9] Skinner 1978, p 76

[10] Pocock 1975, p 56

[11] Pocock 1975, p 94

[12] Viroli 1990

[13] Skinner, 1992


Berlin, I. 1969 “Two Concepts of Liberty” in Isaiah Berlin Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford University Press: Oxford

Foucault, M. 2008, The Birth of Bio Politics. Palgrave Macmillan: Hampshire

Friedman, M. 1962, Capitalism and Freedom. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago

Hayek, F. A. 1944 The Road to Serfdom, Routledge: Abingdon

Nozick, R. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Blackwell Publishing: Oxford

Pocock, J.G.A. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton University Press: Princeton

Skinner, Q. 1978. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Skinner, Q. 1992, “On Justice, the Common Good and Liberty” in Mouffe, C. Dimensions of Radical Democracy, Verso: London

Skinner, Q. 1998, Liberty Before Liberalism, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Viroli, M. 1990. “Machiavelli and the Republican Idea of Politics” in Bock, Skinner & Viroli ed. Machiavelli and Republicanism, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

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Filed under democracy, Democratic Theory, liberalism, Libertarianism, Liberty, Machiavelli, Negative Liberty, Neo-liberalism, neoliberalism, Nicolo Machiavelli, political philosophy, political theory, Tea Party

Human Agency and the Political in Machiavelli and Hobbes

The Encroachment of Negative Liberty on Republican Virtue


To this day, the definitions of the concepts of human agency and the political are continuously revised, debated and argued over. If, according to W.B. Gallie (1955), concepts are essentially contestable this paper seeks to contest these concepts through the comparison of their interpretations by arguably two of the greatest political theorists of all time: Machiavelli and Hobbes. Isaiah Berlin (1979) suggests that Machiavelli’s rejection of the Christian-classical epistemic framework liberated the spheres of politics and human agency from previous (Christian) behavioural patterns and moral attitudes. This act of liberation allowed for a plurality of different value systems to answer the age old question of “how should men live together?” thereby actively challenging Christian hegemony over the proper articulation of authority and sovereignty. About a century later, and after the Reformation had successfully broken Catholic dominance over spiritual thought and temporal behaviour, Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan, in which he gave a particular account of the limits of human agency and proposed specific definitions of liberty and freedom. My concern is that if Machiavelli liberated the concept of freedom from the yoke of antiquity, Hobbes proceeded to assimilate it within the nascent theory of liberal individual liberty based on natural law. If Machiavelli’s a-moral realism “opened up” the space in which political concepts and ideas could be contested, Hobbes’s principle of self-preservation began to saturate that space by sowing the seeds for what was to eventually blossom into a negative interpretation of liberty.

It is therefore necessary to take a brief look into both Machiavelli and Hobbes’s understandings of human agency and by extension their notions of liberty and freedom. I will use the terms liberty and freedom quite interchangeably as both authors don’t seem to make clear cut definitions between them (Skinner 1998, p17). Therefore, in the first two sections the concepts of virtù, necessità and fortuna will be analysed alongside Hobbes’s causal understanding of human agency, his definition of liberty and the principle of self preservation as presented by Quentin Skinner. Successively, I will analyse Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Originality of Machiavelli (1979) thereby discussing the Florentine’s conception of the political and conclude by comparing it with Hobbes’s. By the political I intend the space in which human agency (and by extension political action) can be exercised and contested, a terrain which is inherently antagonistic (Mouffe 2000). I want to be clear here, I do not want to assert that Hobbes is the “grandfather” of negative liberty. Nor do I want to state, as Leo Strauss (1965) and C.B. Macpherson (1965) suggested, that Hobbes’s theory is the basis of liberalism or of the bourgeois man. Rather that the roots of negative liberty can be clearly discerned within Hobbes’s ambiguous account of liberty.

Virtù as Human Agency

The Machiavellian principality and republic exhibit what Quentin Skinner terms a neo-roman interpretation of liberty. Neo-roman liberty is concerned primarily with the relationship between the subject and the state and how freedom and authority are articulated within a polity (Skinner 1998, p17). Freedom is therefore a strictly political issue, and thus very different from the liberal notion of freedom which is based on natural or God given rights. Machiavelli’s vivere civile e libero (free and civil living) refers to a polity which is governed by good arms and good laws, or what Machiavelli calls the ordini, which are drafted and enforced by the prince or the leaders of the republic (Baron 1961). In order to ensure liberty within a polity good laws and good arms are required to be instituted so that the citizens and the city retain their virtue. But it is virtù itself the primary quality needed by leaders to ensure domestic tranquillity and prosperity. Both Romulus of Discourses and Cesare Borgia of The Prince exhibit decisiveness, courage and cunning, but above all they are able to shape the world around them according to their desires and political ends. It is here where virtue becomes the ultimate vehicle of human agency. Virtù, understood as the reliance on one’s own capacities (Wood 1972), is necessary for the institution of good arms and good laws, and is required to react boldly to both necessità and fortuna. Let us take a look at these terms more closely.

The concept of necessità arises in response to particular events which occur in a state of emergency. Machiavelli’s Italy was one in which power was continually contested, where invading armies were beating at the city gates and where citizens rebelled and princes crushed uprisings (Parks 2009). The leader must react to the necessities and events which emerge from a turbulent world prone to violence. Success lies in the ability to achieve stability in times of perpetual disorder by whatever means necessary (Mansfield 1972).

Fortuna, on the other hand, represents unforeseeable circumstances. These can be positive or negative: finding a pot of gold or getting hit on the head by a falling brick; being given the region of Emilia Romagna from your father the Pope, or losing it because of an incurable and unforeseeable sickness. “All the same, and so not to give up on free will, I reckon it may be true that luck decides the half of what we do, but it leaves the other half, more or less, to us.” (Prince, XXV) Even within the concept of fortuna, Machiavelli leaves ample space for human agency, however we must point out that “Machiavelli…promises only that we can increase our chances against Fortune, not that we can eliminate her effects entirely.”(Flanagan 1972, p. 141)

Finally, virtù is the primary quality of the prince and of the republic’s citizens. Virtù is shrewdness and astuteness; it is the reliance on one’s own arms, audacity, and at times calculated cruelty to achieve one’s ends (Plamenatz 1972). Virtù is what is necessary to react successfully to necessità. Machiavelli goes in so far as to say, in an oft quoted and scandalously sexist passage of the Prince (Ch. XXV), that virtù (intended as virility) must be able to tame and ride fortuna (intended as femininity).

Thus virtù is not only the attribute required to navigate the troubled seas of power politics and military confrontations (necessità), but, if properly wielded, it can also master unpredictable circumstances (fortuna) (Wood 1972). Understood in these terms, virtù represents the highest embodiment of human agency which can be exercised within a conception of liberty which is thoroughly positive.

Reason as Human Agency


In Thomas Hobbes on the Proper Signification of Liberty (1990), Quentin Skinner argues against the criticism that Hobbes was advocating a conception of freedom akin to the theory of negative liberty. For Skinner, Hobbes’s distinction between the spheres of the state of nature and that of the commonwealth is crucial in this respect. In the state of nature their reigns a condition of absolute freedom, one where “every man has a Right to every thing; even to one another’s body” (Leviathan Ch. XIX). Here, a free man is he who is not hindered in his will to do what he wishes; therefore liberty is defined as the absence of impediment (Leviathan Ch. XXI).  On the other hand, Hobbes makes it clear that when men form a commonwealth civil law curbs their liberty and their freedom to act: “but Civill Law is an Obligation; and takes away from us the Liberty which the Law of Nature gave us”(Leviathan Ch.XXVI). The step in between the state of nature and the commonwealth is determined by fear, as it is fear of the state of war, and by extension the innate drive towards self-preservation, which forces us to renounce our natural rights in order to secure our person and our beloved. However, Skinner (1990) asserts that “even in those cases where the liberty of the state of nature is undoubtedly abridged by our obligation to obey the civil laws, this does nothing to limit our liberty in the proper signification of the word.” At this point, one could draw the conclusion that Hobbes’s notion of liberty is wholly determined by fear. Yet, Skinner denies this, as he states that Hobbes’s principle of self-preservation is dictated by reason and not by fear . Thus, Hobbes’s fear coincides with reason, as the forfeit of natural rights and the entering in a commonwealth is a voluntary and rational act: it is in the person’s own interest (Skinner 1990). According to this understanding the agent’s freedom to act as he deems fit is not impeded in any way: liberty, therefore is not understood ex-negativo.

Skinner’s account seems to fend off the critique of Hobbes’s liberty being a forerunner of negative liberty. However it does force us to look deeper inside what reason meant for Hobbes. In chapter V of Leviathan, Hobbes states that the use and end of reason does not reside in discerning the ultimate truth of an assertion (he was a sceptic after all); rather, in the following of its consequences. Hence, human reason is strictly causal (Tuck 1996 p.xxiv). Thus, if Hobbes’s notion of liberty, as presented by Skinner, hinges on the fact that entering in a commonwealth is determined by reason, and if reason is solely the calculation of cause and effect, is the covenant a product of voluntary free will or is it necessitated? And where does this account leave human agency? It is useful to complement the definition of reason in Leviathan with the definition of a voluntary action in Hobbes’s Of Liberty and Necessity. In the latter, Hobbes states that actions depend on a person’s deliberation between the positive and negative outcomes of his/her actions. Therefore, “voluntary actions have all of them necessary causes, and are therefore necessitated” (Hobbes Selections p.206).

Skinner’s conflation of fear and reason, in my view, does not exempt Hobbes’s theory of liberty from being negative, as it allows no space for human agency. The principle of self preservation, coupled with Hobbes’s causal understanding of voluntary actions and reason, impose very strong delimitations on human agency and by extension to liberty and freedom. In turn, these have serious implications on the limits and scope of political participation and civic activism. Moreover, if we do accept Skinner’s assumption that liberty is ensured by the use of our reason, then, for example, an act of patriotic sacrifice (which contradicts the principle of self preservation) would be by definition un-reasonable because it would go against one’s own interest. Therefore, human deliberation is not exempt from fear as Skinner suggests, but is influenced by the drive towards self preservation and more so by natural law. Here I must agree with Macpherson’s point (1962, p27)  that Hobbes’s subject in the abstract state of nature is not in fact exempt from the passions of society (in our case fear of confrontation and death). Strauss as well raises the issue of fear as the constituent feature firstly of Hobbes’s natural law (1953) and  secondly of his teleology: “death takes the place of the telos” (1965). Yet, I would like to add that it is not fear per se which is the determinant of reason and agency; rather, it is the denial of the political brought about by Hobbes’s understanding of natural law which limits liberty.

The Political According to Machiavelli

According to Isaiah Berlin in his essay “The Originality of Machiavelli”, Machiavelli’s chief contribution does not lie in the rejection of Christian and Aristotelian teleologies for an interpretation of politics based on a-moral realism and pragmatism. Most scholars, chiefly those following Benedetto Croce, believe that Machiavelli’s radical innovation lies in his separation of the purely political dimension of statecraft from that of Christian and Greco-roman morals. In such a way, Machiavelli does not necessarily reject morals and ethics, yet, if they come in between the Prince or the Republic’s interests then they are overridden, often with brutal violence (Parks 2009).

This interpretation is not accepted by Berlin. Berlin believes that Machiavelli did in fact possess a very specific set of morals which he never relinquished, these being those of civic-republicanism. For Berlin, Machiavelli’s morality is thoroughly classical, humanist and patriotic. He is looking for “energy, boldness, practical skill, imagination, vitality, self-discipline, shrewdness, public spirit, good fortune, antique virtus, virtù – firmness in adversity, strength of character.” (Berlin 1979 p. 60) And he seeks these qualities not only in the prince, but in the citizens too.

“The central strain which runs through both [The Prince and Discourses] is one and the same. The vision – the dream – typical of many writers who see themselves as tough-minded realists – of the strong, united, effective, morally regenerated, splendid and victorious patria, whether it is saved by the virtù of one man or many – remains central and constant.” (Berlin 1979 p.57)

Machiavelli’s values are therefore not instrumental but are an end to themselves, requiring sacrifice and political commitment in order to have a splendid, strong, vigorous and above all virtuous principality or republic. Thus Berlin’s point is that Machiavelli did not merely “deconstruct” the Christian-classical epistemological framework which fused moral and political duties into a particular teleology. Machiavelli did not separate Christian morality from the political endeavour of state-building: he did not emancipate what was to become the basis of modern politics from the shackles of moralist antiquity. For Berlin the paramount importance of Machiavelli lies in that he made a conscious choice between a moral Christian value system and a civic-republican one.

Berlin thus asserts that Machiavelli inflicted a terrible wound to a basic assumption underlying western civilization’s teleology: the idea that the world and humans are part of a single intelligible whole which will one day mature into a just and harmonious society. For Berlin, every western religion and ideology has embedded within it the promise of a glorious future in which all differences will be harmonized. Machiavelli explodes this preconception by demonstrating two paramount facts: firstly that there are different conceptualizations of how to achieve this end (that there exist different value systems); and secondly, those different value systems are in most cases simply irreconcilable. There is no way that a prince or republic can be ethical in the Christian sense and be successful in the civic-republican one. Private property simply cannot be governed the same way under liberalism as under socialism. In other words, there is no one-way to achieve a “just and harmonious society”.

“This unifying monistic pattern is at the very heart of traditional rationalism, religious and aesthetic, metaphysical and scientific, transcendental and naturalistic, that has been characteristic of western civilisation. It is the rock, upon which western beliefs and lives had been founded, that Machiavelli seems, in effect, to have split open.” (Berlin 1979, p.68)


Berlin’s assessment of Machiavelli effectively “opens up” the realm of political contestation to virtually any ideology or value system. However, I would not go insofar as deducing from Berlin’s argument that Machiavelli consciously pointed towards an inherent antagonism present in politics; nor would I assert that, in this way, Machiavelli is a some sort of postmodernist advocating equality amongst different value systems, far from this. Yet, it is clear that for Berlin’s Machiavelli, politics and statecraft is “up for grabs”: no single value system has a legitimate a priori claim to politics. Only virtù, and not a moral teleology, can assure success in politics; and it is here, I believe, that we find the pulsing heart of Machiavelli’s notion of human agency and by extension of the significance of the political. Here, for me, lies true freedom: an open field without obstacles in which Machiavelli’s Principe Virtuoso and Hobbes’s Absolute Sovereign can clash in the titanic struggle to define the very concepts and limits of human agency, liberty and freedom. It is a thoroughly political sphere saturated with power relations and clashing pre-conceptions.

In conclusion, Hobbes’s state of nature, and the subject inhabiting it, is conditioned by the limits of a causal understanding of freedom, which is in turn influenced by fear. Hobbes’s subject is fearful and does not seek the Machiavellian glories of public activism and patriotic sacrifice. Moreover, Hobbes’s subject is not inclined to participate politically, and this is what places his account of freedom squarely as the forerunner of the theory of negative liberty. This is because Hobbes has trapped him within the a priori logical stronghold of natural law – defying natural law would mean the subject is un-reasonable and thus not human. Machiavelli’s world, on the other hand, has no intrinsic rules: natural law and natural rights are for Machiavelli thoroughly political constructs devised by the prince or the republic to achieve success in a world fraught with antagonism. Ultimately, Hobbes positions the state of nature as existing prior to politics, Machiavelli’s world, on the other hand, is politics.


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