The Getaway Car

Glen Newey

  • Machiavellian Democracy by John McCormick
    Cambridge, 252 pp, £21.99, March 2011, ISBN 978 0 521 53090 3
  • Machiavelli in the Making by Claude Lefort, translated by Michael Smith
    Northwestern, 512 pp, £32.50, January 2012, ISBN 978 0 8101 2438 7
  • Redeeming ‘The Prince’: The Meaning of Machiavelli’s Masterpiece by Maurizio Viroli
    Princeton, 189 pp, £18.95, October 2013, ISBN 978 0 691 16001 6

Marchamont Nedham’s The Excellency of a Free State of 1656 sums up both Machiavelli’s notoriety and his place in the short-lived English republic: ‘It was a noble saying, (though Machiavel’s), “Not he that placeth a virtuous government in his own hands, or family; but he that establisheth a free and lasting form, for the people’s constant security, is most to be commended.”’ Nedham’s apologetic tone reflects Machiavelli’s already hoary demonisation. Along with his other works, The Prince and the Discourses had figured almost a century earlier on the first Index Librorum Prohibitorum, issued in the Counter-Reformation pontificate of Paul IV, on the suspect grounds that they had fuelled the corruption of French politics. In the preface to the Six Books of the Commonwealth of 1576, Jean Bodin talks of ‘the delightful principles of Machiavelli, who lays down impiety and injustice as dual foundations of the republic, and renounces religion as undoing the state’. During negotiations with Vatican censors during the 1590s to get his own Politica removed from the Index, Justus Lipsius agreed to expurgate a passage bemoaning the ill repute into which ‘the Italian reprobate’ had fallen (‘for who is not for flogging the poor man these days?’); he was allowed to keep a remark that dismissed ‘most modern authors’, Machiavelli excepted, as ‘worthless’, since the author of The Prince was ‘shrewd’ if ‘immoral’. In Britain, the influential 1602 translation by Simon Patrick of Innocent Gentillet’s treatise Anti-Machiavel managed to disseminate Machiavelli’s ideas, sometimes in garbled form, as it rebutted them. Gentillet notes with satisfaction that although he doesn’t know if the Medici (to one of whom, Lorenzo, The Prince is dedicated) had read Machiavelli’s book, ‘they grabbed the principality of Florence, and turned the republic into a duchy.’

The stage was set for Machiavelli as a republican cacodemon too devious for his own good. In Elizabethan and Jacobean drama ‘Machiavel’ was the stock tag for a personification of evil. In Henry VI Part III, Gloucester vows proleptically to ‘set the murderous Machiavel to school’. In the prologue to the Jew of Malta, ‘Machevill’ boasts of being ‘admired of those that hate [him] most’. ‘A sicke Machiavell Pollititian,’ John Stephens wrote in his Essays of 1615, ‘is a baked meate for the devill.’ No other political theorist has received remotely similar treatment. Hobbes, who came in for a handsome share of vilification from the 1650s, was namechecked as an early exponent of libertinism in Farquhar’s The Constant Couple, and Bernard Mandeville attracted a certain amount of knocking copy (‘Mandevil’) – but their reputations have been detoxified as Machiavelli’s hasn’t.

In part that’s because of his irreligion and liking for blasphemy, which Leo Strauss claimed to find shocking. But those who see him as proselytising from an atheistical pulpit misidentify as inverse religiosity what often seems more like simple je-m’en-foutisme. The demonisation of Machiavelli in the anglophone world has often been offset by a nod to his eminence as a republican theorist, but in Nedham’s time that gave monarchists another count for the bill of indictment. In The Famous Tragedie of King Charles I (1649), Cromwell was goaded to ever greater wickedness by the New Model Army chaplain Hugh Peter, his sidekick ‘i’the Machiavilian world’: the future Lord Protector’s outsize red toper’s nose, a staple of royalist humour, eventually takes on celestial dimensions as a comet portending Charles’s doom. Cromwell’s avowed republicanism masks his aspirant despotism, the implication being that no avowal of republican views could be sincere, and that Machiavelli’s own republicanism was refuted by his condoning trickery as a political ploy.

Nedham was far from alone among English republicans in revering Machiavelli. When James Harrington, the author of Oceana, was interrogated in the Tower after the Restoration on suspicion of plotting to bring back the English commonwealth, he grumbled: ‘Machiavel, what a commonwealthsman was he! But he wrote under the Medici when they were princes in Florence; did they hang up Machiavel, or did they molest him?’ Twenty years later, Algernon Sidney, the republican martyr and would-be regicide, echoed Nedham and Harrington in his own Discourses. He noted that Machiavelli found ‘virtue to be so essential’ to liberty ‘that he thinks it’s impossible for a corrupted people to set up a good government.’

It’s not surprising that Machiavelli morphed into a pantomime baddie, to be reviled or revered according to taste. His sinuous writings have always proved apt to outwit and outdo would-be caricaturists, though interpreters blunder in nonetheless. He pitches the reader towards one pole or the other with his sentences on the tag-wrestle of political power, and with epigrams that tease and taunt. In the chapter in The Prince on the savage Syracusan tyrant Agathocles, he says that cruelty may be well or ill matched to its end, ‘se del male è licito dire bene’ – if it’s OK to talk ‘well’ of evil. Macaulay thought that the Pistola manuscript, a morbid account in Machiavelli’s hand of the Florentine plague of 1523, could not have been written by him. He was right, but not for the reason he gave, which was that the content was beneath Machiavelli: the holograph was produced in the 1520s while Machiavelli was acting as an amanuensis for his patron Lorenzo Strozzi. One wonders what Macaulay might have made of Machiavelli’s obscene and scatological letters.

Macaulay’s plight is emblematic. Beside the hermeneutically destitute figure of the straw man lies the no less wanton blow-up doll, a simulacrum of a thinker puffed into three dimensions for the purposes of intellectual congress; often the persona so forged flaunts virtues the reader suspects himself of possessing. Both figures can be found in Machiavellian exegeses – sometimes in the same reading, as with Strauss. The dolls are swollen with what different readers have taken to be Machiavelli’s gritty realism, moralism, atheism, scientism, artistry, modernity, classicism, absolute monarchism and republican virtue. To say that one reader’s straw man is another’s blow-up doll is to use a rhetorical trope that Machiavelli himself makes ample use of. He deploys the term ‘ruin’ (rovina), which sounds like a death knell throughout the Discourses and The Prince, to enforce the idea that practising conventional virtue undoes the prince, while what’s conventionally branded as vice (vizio) wins security and wellbeing.

That seems to kill off Ciceronian nostrums about upholstering bourgeois virtue with worldly success. But it’s not simply a matter of turning the folkways of suburbia inside out. The fragility of political virtue had become a commonplace in republican thought. In On the Nature of Political Parties (1721), John Trenchard remarks that ‘Machiavel tells us, that no government can long subsist, but by recurring often to its first principles; but this can never be done while men live at ease and in luxury; for then they cannot be persuaded to see distant dangers, of which they feel no part.’ The idea that the ease bred of commercial growth may corrode the republic’s foundations recurs in other 18th-century writers. Adam Ferguson notes in the Essay on the History of Civil Society that ‘luxury may serve to corrupt democratical states, by introducing a species of monarchical subordination’ and ‘infecting all orders of men, with equal venality, servility, and cowardice’. Luxury makes people servile for several reasons. One was voiced by Rousseau in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality: material abundance becomes a mark of status and so casts down the poor. Another is that commercialism excites a servile pandering to buyers. In 1766 the Charleston Tribune noted that ‘luxury naturally creates want, and that want, whether artificial or real, has a tendency to make men venal … [These] are truths that are too evident to be disputed. Luxury therefore leads to Corruption; and whoever encourages great luxury in a free state must be a bad citizen.’ This Machiavellian argument offers little succour to republicans who want the state to extend no further than enforcing the rules of the casino.

Machiavelli makes it plain in the Discourses that he thinks republics should ally public wealth to private indigence. John McCormick’s main thesis in Machiavellian Democracy is that Machiavellian republicanism is far more egalitarian than some of his epigones have assumed. McCormick takes this position partly for reasons that Charles Taylor set out several decades ago: that even a no-interference view of liberty, as in classical liberalism and libertarianism, has to uphold freedom-preserving institutions; and that if the aim, as in Mill, is to promote diverse human flourishing, people need the wherewithal that will allow them to think outside the herd. But McCormick’s critique goes further than giving prudential reasons for the privileged to cut some slack to the plebians. As he mildly comments, ‘it is fair to ponder whether the institutional arrangements of modern republics better realise the policy preferences of the few than those of the many.’ The American republic’s founding fathers were slashing at a hydra headed by the propertyless, despite professing a limited form of status equality. Machiavelli was heeded more on constitutional design than on the need for broad-based political participation beyond the act of voting. An anonymous author, writing in Philadelphia in 1776, identified Machiavelli as the inventor of judicial review and, by extension, of the jurisprudential originalism of present-day judges such as Antonin Scalia. The author cites Lord Camden, who wished ‘that the maxim of Machiavel was followed, that of examining a constitution, at certain periods, according to its first principles; this would correct abuses, and supply defects.’

McCormick revises the argument of J.G.A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment (1975), which focused on the revival of classical republican ideals at the American republic’s foundational moment. Pocock saw Madison, Jefferson and the rest as pursuing a project identifiable in Machiavelli, of aspicating political virtue in institutions and thereby time-proofing them. McCormick’s more Marxist view rightly underlines the importance of social class and property for Machiavelli, who observes in the Discourses that in Rome the grandi happily ceded honours to the plebeians, ‘but when it came to property, always defended it with the utmost obstinacy’. In Savonarola’s Florentine republic of 1494-98 the constitution mimicked the Venetian Great Council, aiming at a wide government that, according to McCormick, Machiavelli hoped to help revive by writing the Discourses after the friar and the republic had combusted. Forced out of office by the Medici comeback, Machiavelli, in McCormick’s view, was angling for a remade governo largo on Ciceronian lines (though he thinks the Ciceronian aspect of Machiavelli’s thought has been overplayed), with tribunes rather than elected grandees to give voice to the popular will. McCormick arraigns Pocock and Quentin Skinner for scanting Machiavelli’s radicalism and modelling his thought on a patrician republicanism closer to that of his friend Francesco Guicciardini, who was born of old Florentine oligarchic stock.

Whatever else the American revolution aimed to do, it sought to preserve property, including slaves. The revolutionaries even claimed to fear being enslaved themselves by imperial Great Britain, a claim that drew condign derision from Samuel Johnson, among others: ‘How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?’ Skinner and Philip Pettit identify in resistance to enslavement a mark of the ‘neo-Roman’ theory of republican freedom. But ‘slave’ only crops up a couple of times in the Discourses, and Machiavelli’s eye is more on political autonomy than on dodging chattel slavery. The dread of enslavement is voiced most vividly by John Locke, who isn’t usually recruited to the neo-Roman camp. The first word of Locke’s First Treatise of Government is ‘slavery’, a fate to which Locke thought the political theory of Sir Robert Filmer condemned everyone except monarchs. Still, Machiavelli’s influence on the American revolutionaries is plain. His description in the Discourses, memorable in the way of oxymorons, of the way the tribunate made the Roman republic ‘more perfect’, resurfaces in the famous preamble to the US constitution of 1787. That ‘more perfect union’ had to reconcile its fanfare for liberty with property owners’ freedom to keep slaves, and Machiavelli’s near-silence on the issue proved discursively serviceable. But intimations of the more demotic Machiavelli can be found: during the Philadelphia Convention, Mercy Otis Warren wrote that ‘the Italian master in politicks, the subtle and renouned Machiavel acknowledges, that no republic ever yet stood on a stable foundation without satisfying the common people.’

On McCormick’s revisionary reading, the founders got Machiavelli wrong. But unfortunately his reading is somewhat removed from what Machiavelli actually says. McCormick claims that the ‘working-class’ Ciompi Revolt of 1378, an artisanal uprising against Florence’s big guilds, rattled the city’s ottimati and presaged the more populist civic politics that surfaced with Savonarola and the republic. In the Florentine Histories, Machiavelli’s attitude to the rebels is unsparing. If his narrative of the revolt has a hero it is Michele di Lando, a wool-carder who, ‘owing more to nature than to fortune, considered how to pacify the city and quell the rioting’. Di Lando did well out of the tumult, becoming Gonfalonier of Justice, a post later held by Machiavelli’s patron Piero Soderini. The wool-carders on whose backs he’d risen to power did less well, as their efforts to break the guilds’ stranglehold on Florence’s civil and commercial life were scotched within a few years. Machiavelli repeatedly lambasts the ‘mob’ that managed for a while to wrest power from the bigwigs; in The Prince he’s scathing too about the ‘vulgar’, though he stresses the prince’s need to keep them sweet.

Like virtue, political vice reinforces itself after a certain point, and republican narratives of political corruption, including Machiavelli’s, broadly take this form. As Machiavelli says in the Discourses, leaders of preternatural virtue such as the Theban general Epaminondas may stall corruption for a while, but this conceals the lack of virtue among the populace as a whole, and as soon as the hero dies the republic ‘relapses into its original disorders’. By the end of the Roman republic, Machiavelli notes, even the prodigious manliness of a Brutus or Cicero wasn’t enough to stop the rot. For Machiavelli, political virtue is double-edged: it acts prophylactically, heading off internal decay or conquest from without, but also stunts republican virtue and denies it healthy self-propagation. In his Novanglus letters of 1774 to the Massachusetts Bay colonists, John Adams repeats the ‘saying of Machiavel no wise man ever contradicted, which has been literally verified in this province, that “while the mass of the people is not corrupted, tumults do no hurt.”’ On the other hand, as the Discourses say, ‘a corrupt people, once it gains its freedom, can only with the greatest difficulty remain free.’ It’s not simply a matter of running riot; it’s about running the right kind of riot.

Certainly, the Discourses dilate on the civic benefits of popular tumult. McCormick does a good job of exposing Machiavelli’s demotic impulses. But, as with pressure valve readings of public riot in 18th-century British politics, the script allotted to the groundlings is unlikely to figure in the constitution, even while it fulfils a political function. Institutionalised riot has the same quixotic air as planned spontaneity – though calcio fiorentino, Florence’s bare-knuckle 27-a-side cross between football and recreational GBH, played in Piazza Santa Croce from the late 15th century, gives a passable impression of it. At any rate, Machiavelli seems not to have envisioned riot as part of his ‘perfect’ republic, which is hardly a simple democracy either. Early in the Discourses he reprises the conventional Aristotelian taxonomy of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, and their degenerate counterparts, tyranny, oligarchy and anarchy. But this serves as the prelude to his preferred mixed constitution, in which the three non-degenerate forms coexist. All the pure forms are ‘pestilential’; ideally, each element ‘keeps an eye on’ the others. Machiavelli contrasts the longevity of Lycurgus’ Sparta, which had a constitution that balanced the interests of the kings, nobles and commoners, with the democratic blueprint for Athens of Solon, who lived ‘to witness the birth of Peisistratos’ tyranny’. Of course, the US constitution might be said to blend monarchic, oligarchic and democratic parts, in the office of the president, the Supreme Court judiciary and the Congress, the two former elements being designed to rein in the democratic legislature. In adopting this model in Philadelphia, the founders didn’t so much ditch Machiavelli for Guicciardini as take seriously what Machiavelli said.

*

Machiavelli in the Making is a translation of Claude Lefort’s Le Travail de l’oeuvre Machiavel, or ‘Machiavelli: The Work of the Work’, from 1972. The book didn’t come out in English until 2012, but it still isn’t very reader-friendly: it has no introduction (Michael Smith adds a brief translator’s note), sketchy endnotes and no index. It’s basically Lefort’s doctoral thesis, though he was pushing fifty by the time it saw the light of day in French. His thesis supervisor, Raymond Aron, described its style as ‘Proustian’, but as one slogs through its five hundred-odd pages (merely a stump of the French original), that verdict comes to seem increasingly hard on Proust. As with Thucydides and Habermas in English, the question arises whether a good translation should be faithful to the stylistic knottiness or barbarity of the original. Lefort’s style in French is not that bad, but a fair amount of willpower is needed to keep faith through his indefatigable textual pointillism before the bigger picture emerges.

Political ontology is central to Machiavelli in the Making. It’s a good question, though one not much asked in dominant forms of English-speaking political theory, whether anything has to be there if politics is to be there. Most canonical works don’t answer it directly, though they may supply parochial-universal anthropologies in which politics gets assigned a natural-historical place – it may be foreordained by the ecology of the polis, or by humans’ having needs that only politics can meet, or by the ‘natural’ fact that humans generally do (or don’t) like each other. The ontic soft furnishings can quickly grow lavish, but it’s not obvious what the furnishings are to be made from. Attempts to ‘construct’ politics out of its prerequisites – what has to be there for politics to exist – still seem some way from, say, answers to the question of why humans have sex. Answers to that might include, in no special order: they must; they’ve created mechanisms to promote it; they can; it’s fun; it propagates the species. Few of those answers seem to work for politics (that humans have created mechanisms such as elections to promote politics begs the question, since they must themselves be at least proto-political). Few people, moreover, believe in a politics drive, analogous to the sex drive. The closest, most transposable answer is probably that humans have politics because they can’t help themselves – can’t help, that is, trying to act together on a basis that aims for, but seldom fully wins, agreement. The ontology then has to include humans, and things they are able or have to do. For Lefort’s Machiavelli,

the prince only asserts himself as such, as the political subject, by sustaining the indetermination that is constitutive of the real, by measuring himself in an enterprise whose meaning is not inscribed in things, independently of him … at the heart of his project [is] the trace of a foreign necessity, and in things, the reflection of his image.

Lefort remarks that ‘necessity is suspended before re-establishing itself in a different register,’ but that needn’t mean it inheres in some prehuman order of being. The necessity comes with the agent, not via some prescribed recipe or how-to guide for political conduct. Still, Machiavelli says a lot about setting up institutions and passing ordinances, and about nurturing political stability and staving off corruption. These concerns surface not only in the directly political works, but also in The Art of War and the Florentine Histories, which aims to show how ‘through the labours of a thousand years’ the city ‘became so imbecile’, a fate he clearly regards as not foreordained. As Skinner showed, The Prince looks back to the princely advice books that circulated during the Cinquecento (and well before it), but Machiavelli unpicks the genre’s assumptions. Taken purely as advice, the book reads like a work of utopian fiction. Lefort observes that its celebrated exhortation to free Italy from the hands of the barbarians can’t really be taken as practical counsel: ‘it gives its sensible form to a perhaps.’ Though maybe that should be an ‘if only’.

But The Prince’s overall tendency is to debunk utopianism. Even princes who prevail for now over i tempi will fail in the end. Institutions may last longer than people, but they too succumb to sclerosis if there isn’t constant renewal. In renouncing ‘the mediocre formulation of a chain of reasoning’, Lefort points up one contrast between ‘continental’ and ‘analytical’ styles of theory, between ‘vitality’ or ‘ebullience’ and deadness or boringness (from the other side, the preferred label might be that of ‘rigour’ as against, say, intellectual onanism). A more neutral contrast, perhaps, would pit a quest for closure – the bid to derive a this and not a that – against a bid for openness or deferral, a suspension of the elements of critique. The latter marks Lefort’s engagement with Machiavelli and with reading generally, as becomes clear in his peroratory chapter: ‘There is no point at which we can cease interrogating the text,’ and ‘no space within which [the] two discourses’ of the reader and the read ‘cease to interrupt each other, to be inside each other’. He posits a dialectic of neediness and autarky prefigured in Aristophanes’ just-so story about sexual dimorphism in the Symposium, and in the Echo and Narcissus myth in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Hermeneutic fixity is chimerical or hermaphroditic, a wilful travesty of contradiction in the name of totality. Lefort drily notes, four-fifths of the way through Machiavelli in the Making, that the reader ‘has probably ceased expecting us to … produce that pure intelligibility that would normally be promised him’.

As Lefort says, ‘meanings do not permit of being unravelled from the discursive weave.’ He’s not kidding. According to an alternative approach, with which he contrasts his own (obscurely enough), ‘Machiavelli’s thought is thought by a thought that presents it only to pass through it and radiate as pure light.’ At any rate, these divergent notions of reading have their political analogues. Lefort’s mentor Merleau-Ponty, whose Nachlass he edited, published a defence of Stalinism in 1947 called Humanism and Terror. In response to Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Merleau-Ponty heroically put the case that the fictional trial and conviction of Rubashov, like the real ones of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Trotsky (in absentia) and Bukharin, was a fair cop. At about this time Lefort launched the Socialisme ou Barbarie project with Cornelius Castoriadis, under the pseudonyms ‘Claude Montal’ and ‘Pierre Chaulieu’ respectively, after both had left the Trotskyist Fourth International. For Lefort in L’Invention démocratique: les limites de la domination totalitaire, totalitarianism wills an unattainable oneness as its end: it folds polity and society together in a got-up whole, whereas nothing can fully capture social reality. Lefort argues in Machiavelli in the Making that to insist on fixity of meaning already distorts, so that ‘thought ceases to forget itself’ in language and ‘realises its totalitarian ambition’. He makes a contrast with dreaming, which is a superposition of possibilia – though one thinks of the dream-like legal authority, at once peremptory and arbitrary, in Kafka.

Lefort points towards a dynamic of perpetual escape, if not escapism. Does politics offer a getaway car? Many political thinkers have found themselves exiled by choice or force, including Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, Lenin, Berlin, Arendt, Shklar and Machiavelli himself. Cicero was decapitated while trying to hot-foot it from Rome; according to Cassius Dio, his tongue was pulled out and jabbed with a hairpin by Mark Antony’s wife, Fulvia, as punishment for loose talk. Spiked speech incarnate, Cicero’s tongue tells how political actors – both by speaking and staying silent – seek but also dread determinacy. Totalitarianism imposes on this determinacy a further demand, for stable meanings. Against this stands Lefort’s ‘indetermination’, mentioned earlier.

As the question ‘what to do?’ keeps coming back, totalitarianism’s bid to school meanings – the ‘rectification of names’ also commended by Hobbes and Confucius – fails. But then, in the long run, everything does. Bernard Williams, pulling political philosophers up for demanding that politics, or at least its normative content, be seen sub specie aeternitatis, pointed out that eternity is not a very helpful standpoint for understanding politics. But Machiavelli insistently splices the particular with the timeless. Political virtù (virtuosity rather than virtue) is of its time, just as there’s a particular moment when the trombone has to come in during the Bolero. In politics there’s no obvious script or score to go by, though various candidates have been proposed for this role – morality, or notions that riff on law, public hygiene and (in the aesthetics of Triumph of the Will, for example) cinematic choreography. The scriptlessness troubles many philosophers, who react by reaching for eternity – or at least a thesis that can tie up meanings and thoughts and marshal them from mutiny into docility. We all do it: historians of political thought do it for a living, partly because it’s boring to keep saying that everything is simply pullulating, oozing stuff. Living requires that determinacy be plucked from the plenum. We have to have politics for the time being, as death – generalised executive laxity and absence of mind – is the alternative.

*

Maurizio Viroli sees The Prince as a drama of redemption. That reading, as Viroli accepts, places a lot of importance on the book’s final chapter, the exhortation to liberate the Italian peninsula from the barbarian French, Spanish and Turkish invaders. Machiavelli cites Petrarch’s Italia mia:

Vertù contra furore
Prenderà l’arme; et fia ’l combatter corto:
Ché l’antico valore
Ne l’italici cor non è ancor morto.

It’s hard to swallow the notion that this rallying call to martial vigour must be seen in redemptive terms. To keep his reading going, Viroli has to make not much go far. There is only one mention of redentore in The Prince, and only two of redenzione, both of them in the final chapter, which was written between one and five years after Machiavelli drafted the previous 25. Liberation is not redemption. It’s something that people can take into their own hands, whereas most Christian theology, at least before Arminius, puts redemption down to grace, bestowed unilaterally on unregenerate humanity. Certainly, the idea of redemption plays no role in the Discourses, whose central puzzle is how to promote civic virtue in the face of freedom – a question that survives in the very different political theory of John Rawls. Of course, a political leader of preternatural virtù like Moses or Cyrus, both of whom Machiavelli mentions, may be acclaimed as a thaumaturge, but there’s nothing especially Christian about them: any old miracle-worker will do. Hence Machiavelli’s deflationary account of the Roman auguries in the Discourses, where the Pollari, or ‘chicken men’, elicit from their birds the ‘favourable’ auspice of pecking corn before battle.

Viroli sees Machiavelli as a ‘realist with imagination’. He’s rightly undaunted by the rejoinder that this phrase is an oxymoron: it might aptly be applied to Marx’s treatment of capitalism and the project of Ideologiekritik, say, or to the ability to see through the socially diffused imaginary of the emperor’s new clothes. For Viroli, the imaginative bit in Machiavelli is his visionary evocation of the way exceptional figures shape their times: the Discourses mention Caterina Sforza, duchess of Forlì, who, when bargaining with her captors after they had killed her husband, ‘mostrò loro le membra genitali’ to show she had the means to make more children if they killed those she had already. Viroli says that Machiavelli, who knew Sforza, should have known better than to make up stories about her; one wonders if this attests less to realism with imagination than to prurient fabulism. But Viroli is onto something. ‘Be realistic: demand the impossible,’ the old soixante-huitard slogan, can make sense. ‘In mad times, mad acts can turn out well,’ Machiavelli wrote to Guicciardini in a letter in 1526.

The demonising of Machiavelli gave way to, or reached uneasy accommodation with, a less feral, more bourgeois figure. On his marble tomb in the basilica of Santa Croce in Florence the legend reads: ‘No praise can match such a name.’ It dates from 1787, perhaps produced by excitement over the new transatlantic republic. By that time the Medici line was extinct and Tuscany had shrivelled to a secundogeniture of the Habsburg empire: the prophet of republic and rot was well composted and ripe to be revivified. In Philadelphia that year, Machiavelli-style preoccupations with institutional design were well to the fore. In the Discourses he wrote that ‘just as good practices need good laws to maintain them, so laws, to be observed, need good practices.’ That sets up a dilemma, voiced in one form by Rousseau: proficient governance needs political virtue, but political virtue rests in turn on proficient governance. Only theorists hung up on a narrative of political origins will find the dilemma daunting. Madison, Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton emerged as full-formed statesmen, London’s misrule notwithstanding. Machiavelli ignores state-of-nature theory, where political life starts with lawless savages – not least because such theories offer a narrative of ascent, rather than one in which humans keep looping back to lawless savagery. Instead, political actors are snapped in mediis rebus and political virtue is analysed against the slew of circumstance. Or, as Lefort says of Kafka in his preface to Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible, ‘things present themselves to him not by their roots, but by some point or another situated towards the middle of them.’