Politics can be Hell

Jeremy Waldron

  • Machiavelli’s Virtue by Harvey Mansfield
    Chicago, 371 pp, £23.95, April 1996, ISBN 0 226 50368 2

Man, said Aristotle, is a political animal; it is his nature to live in a state. Men and women may live in political communities, modern liberals have retorted, but there’s nothing particularly political in the nature or character of most people. In every society there are some who have a taste for politics, some who want to be rulers or representatives; but they are a tiny minority. As for the rest, they desire nothing much more than to live in peace, tending their farms or their businesses, making a life for themselves and their children, enjoying their property free from fear and insecurity. A good society will do what is necessary to provide this assurance, which means among other things allowing whatever political animals there are among them to compete for and succeed one another in office without undue disturbance, but certainly does not mean encouraging any more people than necessary to participate actively in politics.

This classic liberal outlook is unfashionable today. In legal and political theory, liberalism is out, and something called ‘civic republicanism’ is in. Civic republicans think that the liberal view of the good life – private joys for most people, with politics reserved for those few malcontents who cannot find happiness without it – is insulting and demeaning. Liberals look for islands of freedom insulated from social demands, but republicans insist that liberty is not the right to be left alone in one’s private affairs. It is the right to participate in the life of the community, and the right to conditions that will make civic participation possible and effective. On this philosophy, there is no higher destiny than citizenship, and no greater fulfilment than the active exercise of republican virtue.

One of the curious features of this debate is that Niccolò Machiavelli is almost always enlisted as a player on the civic republican side. Curious – because if the term ‘Machiavellian’ means anything to the popular mind, it means cynical, amoral and manipulative politics: scheming, lying, breaking faith, whatever is necessary to hang onto office and project national power. Or it means the politics of exclusion, secret deals of which the ordinary person has no knowledge – something about as far as it is possible to imagine from the republican ideal of thousands of virtuous citizens dropping everything to flock to town meetings and participate in open and respectful debates in a public assembly.

It is curious, too, because even if we look behind the popular image of Machiavelli – ‘Old Nick’, the devil incarnate – to what the Florentine thinker actually wrote, we find him expounding views that sound much more classically liberal than republican. Read the opening paragraph of this review again, and then consider the following passage from Machiavelli’s Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, supposedly the locus classicus of his civic republicanism. Machiavelli says that an aspiring ruler who looks clearheadedly at his situation will find that

a small section of the population desire to be free in order to obtain authority over others, but that the vast bulk of those who demand freedom, desire but to live in security. For in all states, whatever be the form of their government, the real rulers do not amount to more than forty or fifty citizens and, since this is a small number, it is an easy thing to make yourself secure in their regard either by doing away with them or by granting them such a share of honours, according to their standing, as will for the most part satisfy them. As for the rest, who demand but to live in security, they can easily be satisfied by introducing such institutions and laws as shall, in conjunction with the power of the prince, make for the security of the public as a whole. When a prince does this, and the people see that on no occasion does he break such laws, in a short time they will begin to live in security and contentment.

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