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Liberty and Conflict: Machiavelli on Politics and Power

Friday, December 6, 2013 - Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies – Columbia University, New York NY

Political Imagination, Conflict and Democracy:

Machiavelli's Republican Realism
Luca Baccelli

But since my purpose is to write something useful to him who comprehends it, I have decided that I must
concern myself with the truth of the matter as facts show it rather than with any fanciful notion [più conveniente
andare drieto alla verità effettuale della cosa, che alla immaginazione di essa]. Yet many have fancied
[immaginati] for themselves republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in reality
For there is such a difference between how men live and how they ought to live that he who abandos what is
done for what ought to be done learns his destruction rather than his preservation 1.

In this very famous passage of The Prince, chapter XV, Machiavelli announces the criterion of
the “effectual truth” and seems to oppose it to the imagination. The latter appears as
something like an ideological false consciousness. This critique seems to fit in the framework
of Machiavelli’s departure from traditional – theological and/or natural law based –
justifications of political power. And here Machiavelli seems to anticipate a mistrust for
imagination which will be common in modern philosophers engaged in the foundation of the
new science, from Francis Bacon to Blaise Pascal, to Thomas Hobbes. Galileo, as if echoing
Machiavelli, will contrast the new scientific method to the “mere phantasies” that are the
“outcome of imagination”2.

1 N. Machiavelli, De principatibus, in Tutte le opere, a cura di M. Martelli, Firenze, Sansoni, 1992, p. 280 (Eng. transl. by A.
Gilbert, in The Chief Works and Others, Burham NC, Duke University Press, 1958, p. 58). If not differently advise, all the
quotations of Machiavelli are from those editions, respectivel for the Italian original and the English translation.
2In Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza the critique of imagination on a theoretical level is linked with the political one, and

the latter directly condemns utopian philosophers (Political Treatise, I.1). Actully, Utopia of Thomas More shows a political
paradigm where the imagination elaborates a model of perfect republic, of the “good place” (eu-topos), consciously and
explicitly fictitious, admittedly unattainable (ou-topos). But in More’s case utopia does not appear to produce the ideological
effects stigmatized by his critiques. Rather, such a counterfactual dispositive expresses a radical critique of existing state of
Machiavelli’s attack to the “immaginazione della cosa (literally: imagination of the
thing)” has been considered mainly by one stream of his interpreters, who have seen him as
who "discovers the necessity and autonomy of politics, of politics which is beyond or, rather,
below moral good and evil, which has its own laws which it is useless to rebel"3. Such vision
knew a wide consensus during a large part of the XX century, particularly in the heyday of
empiricist “political science”, based on “objective laws” and “free from value judgments”.
Another interpretive tradition has seen Machiavelli as a republican writer, inspired by
moral values, as the retriever of “ancient prudence” based on “empire of laws” and
“government de iure”4. The thread of this tradition appeared to be lost during the XX century.
But it has been recovered in the second half of the century and has become a main issue in the
historiography of early-modern republicanism (The Machiavellian Moment, according to the
title of John Pocock’s masterpiece5).
Of course, both “realist” and “republican” interpreters can find in Machiavelli’s texts
good arguments (in a sense, the question is which Machiavelli do we want, or need). But the
traditional realistic interpretations risk pulling Machiavelli’s work out of his context, seeing
him anachronistically as the forerunner of political science and flattening him on a dated
epistemology. Anyway, despite the ideal of value-free science, Machiavelli as a neutral
technician of politics seems closer to a conservative political position than to progressive one,
more supportive of the establishment than sympathetic with political change. On the other
side, some of the republican interpretations display so well the discontinuities between the

facts. It is as if More/Itlodeo said: I frankly declare that what I am telling is an outcome of the imagination, impossible to be
realized; but precisely for this I can construct a political model which by contrast reveals the unfairness of your society.
As is well known, there have been a revival of the utopian model in the XX century (think at the “apparent contradictio in
adjecto” of the “concrete utopia”, according to Ernst Bloch[Über Karl Marx, Frankfurt a. M., Suhrkamp, 1968]). The best known
slogan of May 1968 was “power to the imagination!”. Ten years before Hannah Arendt had seen the authentic politics as a
form of action, characterized by natality and rooted in the “space of the appearance”. In the seventies her Lectires on Kant’s
Political Philosophy shown the crucial role of imagination, which enables to overcome particularities and to change events. In
recent times a huge series of philosophers revived the issue of the relationship between politics and imagination, from
Cornelius Castoriadis to Jacques Derrida, to Slavoy Zizek, Cp. C. Bottici, Imaginal Politics, Forthcoming: New York NY,
Columbia University Press, 2014.
3 B. Croce, Elementi di politica (1925), in Etica e politica, Bari, Laterza, 1967, p.205 (Eng. Transl. Politics and Morals, New York,

Philosophical Library, Hubner & Co., 1945, p.59). The Prince is seen as “l'opera classica della teoria politica, l'opera in cui, per
la prima volta dacché il mondo era cristiano, fu affermato il principio dell'autonomia dell'agire politico da ogni premessa e
finalità metafisica, la sua autonomia dalle altre forme di attività umana, prima fra tutte la morale” (F. Chabod, Scritti su
Machiavelli, Torino, Einaudi, 1963, p. 212).
4 J. Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), in: 'The Commonwealth of Oceana' and 'A System of Politics', ed. by J. G. A.

Pocock, Cambridge, Cambridhe University Press,, pp. 8-9.

Just some classical quotation: “The most ingenious [acutissimus] Machiavelli” is considered by Baruch Spinoza “favourable to
liberty”. According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau the “Prince is the book of republicans”; Machiavelli, for Ugo Foscolo, “temprando
lo scettro ai regnator / gli allor ne sfronda, ed alle genti mostra / di che lagrime grondi e di che sangue” [as he strenghtens the
sceptre of rulers, plucks away the laurel leaves and reveal to their peoples the tears and bloods running down it]U: Foscolo,
Dei sepolcri,
5 Cp. obviously J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment. Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition,

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.

different works it would appear as if they were written by two – or more – different authors6.
Emphasizing the linguistic context and the conventions adopted by Machiavelli himself, his
“relatively orthodox contribution to a well-established tradition of Republican political
thought […] provides us with a benchmark against which” 7 to evaluate his innovative
contributions. But this approach risks pulling down Machiavelli’s writings in the framework of
literary genres, underestimating the originality and modernity of his thought. On the
background of a re-moralization of Machiavelli’s politics, moderation is viewed as the key to
Machiavelli’s republicanism8, despite his sympathy for “impetuous” figures and behaviors.
In order to reconsider the question of realism, one must not reproduce for the
thousandth time the typical pendulum movement that has characterized the history of critical
literature on Machiavelli9, and avoid a further unilateral and simplified image of his position.
Anyway, the discontinuities introduced by Machiavelli in Western political thought, beginning
with his methodological approach, cannot but be acknowledged. Machiavelli presents the
systematic following of effective reality as his original contribution and emphasizes the
competitive element of politics, its tragic dimension, and the irreducible implication of
This is not denied by the masters of republican historical revision. Pocock tells that
The Prince is “morally subversive” in so far as it deals with the problem of innovation and of
political action in the absence of legitimation. The virtù, which is necessary to give “order” in
an anomic situation, destroys the generally accepted foundation of legitimacy, such as custom.
In the chaotic succession of events mastered by fortune, the new prince must decide every
time if it is politically “virtuous” to obey moral rules10. But the Discourses also propose a
subversive ethics. They express a “militarization of virtue”, which becomes “cannibal”: in

6 Such interpretations, from Hans Baron to Maurizio Viroli, emphasize the discontinuities in Machiavelli’s thought, as soon as
they find different ‘languages’ in his works. According to Hans Baron, e. g., The Prince was written to gain the favor of the
Medici family. The Discourses would belong to a later period, in which Machiavelli were joining the republican circle of the
Orti Oricellari (cp. H. Baron, , "Machiavelli: the Republican Citizen and the Author of 'The Prince'", English Historical Review,
1961, pp. 217-51). Maurizio Viroli interpretes The Prince and the Discourses as speaking two different languages, the former
that of the “arte dello stato” and the latter that of the “politica”, in the meaning of Harrington “ancient prudence” (cp. M. Viroli,
From Politics to Reason of State: the Acquisition and Transformation of the Language of Politics, 1250-1600, New York,
Cambridge University Press, 1992). But in one of his last works, Vita di Castruccio Castracani, Machiavelli proposed again the
character of the ‘new prince’ and emphasized his virtù. And what about his last masterpiece (commissioned by the Medici),
the Istorie fiorentine? Was Machiavelli an AC-republican?
7 Q. Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1978, I, p. 180.
8 “Machiavelli’s republicanism is a commitment to a well-ordered popular government. By a well-ordered, or moderated,

republic he means, in accordance with Cicero’s concept of orderliness or moderation, a republic in which each component of
the city has its proper place” (M. Viroli, Machiavelli, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 125).
9 Cp. G. Procacci, Machiavelli nella cultura europea, Roma - Bari: Laterza, Bari 1995.
10 Cp. J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, pp. 156-82.

order to be virtuous, the republic cannot but expand (ampliare) and subjugate other
republics; and the domination by a republic is the worst one11.
Quentin Skinner challenges the idea that Machiavelli theorizes the autonomy of
politics, separating it from morality. But he adds that Machiavelli introduces a revolutionary
re-interpretation of the concept of virtue. He departs from earlier authors in utilizing virtù
with reference to any kind of qualities necessary to “maintain one’s state” and “achieve great
things”12. The virtù in Machiavelli becomes the quality which enables a people to maintain
their liberty and extend the stato, in a sort of circularity: virtù is the best defense of liberty,
and republican liberty is the best condition for the development of virtù13.
Here there is no opposition between Machiavelli the political realist and Machiavelli
the virtuous republican. Moreover, Pocock and Skinner acknowledge that Machiavelli sets up
the relationship between ethics and politics in an innovative way. But if their interpretations
are grounded, it is clear that Machiavelli does not propose a vision of “value-free”political
theory. According to Machiavelli, the political theorist cannot but evaluate. Political action is
inspired by principles and values, which moreover can neither be reduced to the mere end of
the conservation of power, nor to the principles of “reason of state”. In this sense, Machiavelli
does not “divorce politics from morality”. But is the idea that he “emphasizes ‘the autonomy of
politics’”14 actually a misunderstanding? If one looks e.g. at the uses of buono (good) in
Machiavellian works, it becomes clear that it is a polysemic term. It generally means
everything that has a positive value; only in a more specific meaning buono signifies moral
values. Furthermore, some willingly paradoxical passages indicate that moral and political
values are expressed in different codes. In such a context, buono refers to moral values,
virtuoso (virtuous) to the political ones. In the VII chapter of The Prince it is asserted that to
give “good government” to Romagna required Remirro de Orco, “a man cruel and
expeditious”; and in Cesare Borgia coexisted “so much ferocity and so much virtue” 15. The
example of Agathocles is perhaps even more significant: virtue and wickedness go together;
he "accomplished his iniquities [sceleratezze] with such virtue of spirit and body"16.
In the anti-humanistic thesis of chapter XVIII the new prince must not only be a
centaur – half human and half beast – but also share both the nature of the lion and of the

11 Cp. ibid., pp. 215-18.

12 Q. Skinner, The Foundations, p. 134.
13 Ibid., pp. 180-86.
14 Ibid., p. 134.
15 N. Machiavelli, De principatibus, VII, pp. 267-68 (The Prince, transl. and ed. by. A. M. Codevilla, New Haven, Yale University

Press, 1997, p. 28).

16 Ibid., p. 269 (Codevilla transl. p. 32).

fox17 (to use, if necessary, both violence and deceit). This idea returns in Discourses II.13: "a
prince who wishes to do great things must learn to deceive” and it is added: “what princes are
obliged to do when they begin to grow great, republics are also obliged to do, until they have
become powerful"18. Hannibal’s “cruelty, violence, plunder, and every sort of perfidy
[crudeltà, violenza e rapina ed ogni ragione infideltà]” is linked to his “eccessiva virtù”19. The
political ineffectiveness of Piero Soderini’s goodness is ruthlessly diagnosed 20. Here III.41 has
basic relevance:

when it is absolutely a question [dove si dilibera al tutto] of the safety of one’s country, there must be no
consideration of just and unjust, of merciful or cruel, of praiseworthy or disgraceful; instead, setting aside every
scruple, one must follow to the utmost any plan that will save her life and keep her liberty.21

The ends of salus rei publicae and collective safety are immediately linked to liberty. Just these
political ends justify such of a waiver from moral principles to which Machiavelli refers. But it
is hard “sapere essere non buono”, as is clear again in the classical The Prince XV:

How one ought to live is so far removed from how one lives that he who lets go of what is done for that which
one ought to do sooner learns ruin than his one preservation: because a man who might want to make a show of
goodness in all things necessarily come to ruin among so many who are not good. Because of this it is necessary
to a prince, wanting to maintain himself, to learn how to be able to be not good and to use this and not use
according to necessity.22

This theme is recurrent and re-emerges in the Dicourses23. To be ‘not good’ in the right time
and in the right way is not easy: there is in Machiavelli the idea of the conscious making of the
necessary badness; one ought “not to depart from good when he can, but to know how to enter
into evil when he needs to [sapere intrare nel male, necessitato]”24. Compared to moral
behavior, political action requires more reflection; it is in some way a construction, an artifact,
a conquest: a political leader must learn “sapere intrare nel male”. Here there is an interesting
remark by Antonio Gramsci. He hypothesizes that Machiavelli intended to educate the people

17 Ibid., p. 183 (pp. 64-65)

18 N. Machiavelli, Discorsi sopra la prima Deca di Tito Livio, II.13, p. 163 (p. 357)
19 Cp. ibid., III.21, p. 227 (p. 478-79).
20 Cp. ibid., III.30, pp. 236-37 (pp. 495-98); cp. also the merciless Epigramma I, in Tutte le opere, p. 1005 (Eng. Transl. in The

Chief Works, p. 1463): “La notte che morì Pier Soderini / L’anima andò de l’inferno a la bocca / Gridò Pluton: – ch’inferno,
anima sciocca,/ va su nel limbo fra gli altri bambini (The night when Pier Soderini died / his spirit went to the mouth of Hell.
/ Pluto roared: “Why to Hell? Silly spirit / go up into Limbo whit the rest of babies)”.
21 Ivi, III.41, p. 249 (p. 519)
22 N. Machiavelli, De principatibus, XV, p. 280 (Codevilla p. 57).
23 Cp. N. Machiavelli, Discorsi, I.27, pp. 109-10 and I.41, pp. 125-26 (pp. 254-55, 284-85).
24 Cp. N. Machiavelli, De principatibus, cit., XVIII, pp. 282-84 (Codevilla p. 67; italics added).

– “those who are not in the know” – with political realism, since those who belongs to “the
traditional governing stratus acquires most automatically the characteristics of the political
realist”25. Machiavellian political realism is seen as a form of training for the subalterns, in
their own interest.
In political action there are behaviors which are appropriate (i. e. ‘virtuous’) with
reference to some values (such as the maintenance of the state, the security, and, in a
particular way, liberty), that are autonomous from moral values. Moreover a sort of feedback
becomes possible: some immoral behaviors find justification as far as they conform to some
political values (pursuing a good end, “though the deed accuses him, the result should excuse
him [accusandolo il fatto, lo effetto lo scusi]”26). And some moral, and even religious, values
can contribute to develop an ethos which favors virtuous political action. But to evaluate
political and moral behaviors Machiavelli adopts two different codes, although they are
partially overlapping: virtù-corruzione (virtue-corruption, mainly, but not exclusively, for the
political dimension), bontà-sceleratezza/cattiveria (goodness-wickedness/badness, mainly,
but not exclusively, in the moral realm); from this point of view the political discourse makes
itself autonomous from the moral and theological discourse (though keeping on some basic
categories, which are re-interpreted)27.
Anyway, Machiavelli shows the same vision of the relationship between politics and
morality in The Prince, the Discourses and beyond 28. This does not mean an underestimation
of Machiavelli’s republicanism, as in traditional interpretations 29: actually, Machiavelli’s

25 Cp. A. Gramsci, Quaderni del carcere, 13, ed. by V. Gerratana, Torino, Einaudi, 1977, p. 1600 (Eng. transl. by Q. Hoare and G.
N. Smith, Selection from the Prison Notebooks, New York, International Publishers, 1971, pp. 135-36).
26 N. Machiavelli, Discorsi, I.9, p. 90 (p. 218).
27 Moreover Machiavelli – paraphrasing Polibio in a happy tendentious way – addresses the issue of the political making of

law and morality. Machiavelli affirms that primitive people lived in isolation and then they began to join together as a resut of
the increase in population. They choose as a leader “who was strongest and bravest [più robusto e di maggior cuore] […].
From this came understanding of things honorable and good, as different from what is pernicious and evil, because if one
injured his benefactor, there resulted hate and compassion among men, since they blamed the ungrateful and honored those
who are grateful. Moreover, since they thought also that these same injuries could be done to themselves, they undertook, in
order to escape such evils, to make laws and to establish punishments for those who broke them. Thence came the
understanding of justice” (N. Machiavelli, Discorsi, cit., I.2, pp. 79-80 [pp. 197-99]). If one compares this passage with Polibius,
Histories VI, 5-7, can see that this is probably Machiavelli’s source, but also that such a source is re-interpreted modifying its
meaning. Polibius emphasizes the spontaneity and naturality of the selection of leaders from the multitude, while Machiavelli
states that people choose them. Moreover, in Machiavelli there are no references to ontogenesis and to family. Therefore
morality turns to be a political and legal construction. ‘Good’ is going to be identified with ‘loyal to the leader’ and/or ‘legal’;
morality is less discover than invented.
28 “For all the many differences between The Prince and the Discourses, the underlying political morality of the two books is

the same” (Q. Skinner, The Foundations, p. 183). For an original, deeply argued interpretation of Machiavelli as a moral
philosopher (whose ethics are at bottom deontological) and his Greek (more than Roman) sources, cp. the impressive book
by E. Benner, Machiavelli’s Ethics, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 2009.
29 “It seems to us, contrary to what both interpretive schools [i. e. the “Italian” and the “Anglo-Saxon”] sustain, that the very

close interdependence between The Prince and the Discourses, far for determining its vaning, implies instead the celebration
of the republican principle. The absoluteness of the political, invented in The Prince, is made to live in the republic: only the
republic, only democracy is absolute government” [A. Negri, Il potere costituente. Saggio sulle alternative del moderno (1992),
Roma, Manifestolibri, 2002, p. 85; (Eng. transl. Insurgencies. Constituent Power and the Modern State, Minneapolis MN,
realism has to be qualified. Let me propose three points: (1) Machiavelli, far to be a neutral
scientist, assumes a partisan perspective – i.e. that of the people – and claims this move as a
scientific acquisition; (2) here Machiavelli’s theory of conflict is particularly relevant, but the
idea that he considers virtuous only moderate disputes has to be challenged; (3) the inclusion
of the people in citizenship via political conflict presupposes an idea of rule of law that is far
from traditional, anti-democratic one.

(1) A partisan point of view

Not do I want that it be reputed a presumption if a man of low and base estate [basso e infimo stato] dares to
discuss and judge the government of princes, because, just as those who draw countrysides place themselves low
in the plain to consider mountains and high places, and they place themselves high upon mountains to consider
the low ones, similarly to know well the nature of peoples one needs to be a prince, and to know well that of
princes one need to be of the people30.

Machiavelli cannot be more explicit in declaring his social belonging to the people. Moreover,
he claims that assuming a definite, partial, point of view gains an advantage. It collocates the
political theorist in a privileged perspective.
Several “republican” scholars share the inclination to deemphasize the social meaning
of such an expression of membership, while they see Machiavelli’s preference for a popular
state and governo largo more as the consequence of Machiavelli’s favor for the Roman,
expansive, model of republican constitution, than as a partisan choice. And this preference
would not imply a commitment to social equality. According to Skinner, equalità – a term
often recurring in the Discourses – is more a legal-political value (the equality of all citizens
before the law) than a social principle, and according to Pocock, a moral one. But most of the
occurrences of the term show that, in addition to a legal meaning, equality before the law has
a clear social and even economical meaning31. In I.55 equality is the necessary condition of the

University of Minnesota Press, 1999, p. 61)]. As it would be clear in the following, my interpretation in turns differs from
Negri’s one. I acknowledge that the point of view of constituent power discovers an ‘other’ modernity in western political
thought, along the lines of a conflict-based and democratic republicanism. But the absolute opposition between constituent
power and constitution, subversive action by the multitude and institutional framework, democracy and rule of law seems to
me untenable in Machiavelli’s work (and politically pernicious).
30 N. Machiavelli, De principatibus, , p. 257 (Codevilla, p. 4).
31 In I.2, civile equalità is opposed to “avarice”, “ambition”, “violence against women” [N. Machiavelli, Discorsi, I.2., p. 80 (p.

198)]; the first opposition reveals a clear economical dimension of equality. In I.6 Lycurgus’ laws are told to produce “più
equalità di sustanze, e meno equalità di grado [more equality of property and less equality of rank] [p. 85 (p. 208)]: the
republic, as inequality is that of the principality 32. Therefore to constitute a republic where
inequality is widespread and there are many gentlemen, one cannot but “spegnerli tutti (kill
them all)”33.
As is well known, the people are a decisive political actor also in The Prince. Machiavelli
analyzes the relationship of the prince with the people and affirms “your best possible
fortress is that your subjects do not hate you [non essere odiato dal populo]”34. Moreover
“people’s friendship is essential to a prince. Otherwise, in adverse times he has no resources
[non ha, nelle avversità, remedio]”35. Machiavelli considers this matter in anything but a
“value-free” way: “the people’s end is more honest than that of the powerful: the latter wish to
oppress and the former not to be oppressed [volendo questi opprimere, e quello non essere
In several passages of the Discourses Machiavelli compares the anomic condition of the
people without a guide with their strength as an organized collective 37. This does not mean a
political passivity, as we will see. In I.6 the role of the people in the republic is confronted with
a question about whether the republic should be static or expansive. If a republic wants “to
expand [ampliare] […] in dominion and power” it has to develop a political and legal system
close to the one of Rome: the people must be involved, and a certain rate of social conflict is an
inescapable consequence. Moreover, the hypothesis of a static republic is seen as not realistic,
“since all human affairs are in motion and cannot remain fixed”38, and considering the
corruptive effects of long peaceful periods.
Does Machiavelli wish for the involvement of the people just because he is interested in
an expansive, and aggressive, model of republic? Is such an involvement a mere instrument of
military power? There are reasons to assume the opposite viewpoint. All Machiavelli’s theory
and praxis related to militia and “armi proprie” seems to show an interest that is in the first

double valence, economic and political, of equality is explicit. Note that the economic equality is an effect of the laws: in
Machiavelli the economics is subordinate to politics, as it will be in Hobbes.
32 The uncorrupted peoples, such as the Romans in the early republic and the Germans (or the Swiss) at the time of

Machiavelli, “not allow any citizen of theirs to be a gentleman or to live in the fashion of one”, and if any gentlemen “come into
their hands, they put them to death”, so maintaining a “pari equalità [complete equality]”Ibid., p. 137 (p. 308). “Gentiluomini”
are defined by Machiavelli "who without working live in luxury on the return of their landed possessions, without paying any
attention either to agriculture or to any other occupation necessary for making a living" (ivi, pp. 137-38). This is clearly a a
definition based of economic factors. The very presence of such individuals “inimici d'ogni civilità” makes the introduction of
republican government impossible.
33 On the other side, to institute a monarchy “where there is great equality”, it is necessary to draw “away from that equality

many of ambitious and restless spirit”, make them masters of “castles and possessions” and give them “aid with property and
men [favore di sustanze e di uomini]” such as to make them “gentlemen in fact ”[Ibid, p. 138 (p. 309)].
34 N. Machiavelli, De principatibus, XX, p 290 (p. 80).
35 Ibid, p. 272 (p. 41).
36 Ibid, p. 271 (p. 40, transl. modified).
37 “ogni città debbe avere i suoi modi con i quali il popolo possa sfogare l'ambizione sua, e massime quella città che nelle cose

Cp. Discorsi I.4, p.83 (pp. 204-05).

38 Ibid., I.6, pp. 85-86 (pp. 209-10).

instance, political39. If the Discourses were written as a contribution to the debates in the Orti
Oricellari, a typical gentlemen’s environment, the insistence on the necessity of ampliare and
on military strength would be interpreted as an argument in favor of popular inclusion.
Machiavelli would tell to the republican ottimati: “considering that in contemporary Italy a
republic such as Florence cannot but be militarily strong, I show you it cannot but involve the
Two chapters are particularly relevant in their contrappunto. I.57 is entitled "The
populace united is strong; each man by himself is weak [La plebe insieme è gagliarda, di per sé
è debole]" and tells “on the one side there is nothing more formidable than a multitude
unrestrained and without a leader; on the other side nothing is weaker”41. But immediately
after Machiavelli seems willing to correct a possible misleading impression, adopting the
rhetorical form reserved for passages dramatically important, such as The Prince XV and
Discorsi I.4.

I do not whether I am undertaking a task so hard and full of difficulties that I shall be forced to give up in disgrace
or to continue with reproach when I try to defend something that, as I have said, has been condemned by all the

The comparative evaluation of princes’ and people’s virtues and vices is in most cases biased.
It is not taken in account whether the prince or the people are acting under the constraints of
a legal framework or not, whether they are “regulated by the laws” or “set loose from the
laws”. If the judgment is unbiased, the peoples appear more stable and judicious than the

As to prudence and stability, I say that a people is more prudent, more stable, and of better judgment than a
prince. Nor it is without reason that the voice of a people is linkened to that of God[…]If, then, we are discussing a
prince obliged to keep the laws and a people chained by the laws, we shall see more worth in the people than in

39 As noted by Gramsci, Machiavelli is politically one-sidedness even in the Arte della Guerra (the idea of the maximizing of the
popular contribution to the army produces errors from a military point of view, e. g. on artillery and fortresses) [cp. A.
Gramsci, Quaderni del carcere, 13, pp. 1572-73 (pp. 140-41)].
40 Anyway the features and the virtue of the people depend by his political and moral condition. "a people accostuned to

living under a prince […] is none other than a brute beast, which, though of a fierce and savage nature, has always been cared
for in prison and slavery. Then, if by chance it is left free in a field, since it is not used to feeding itself and does not know the
places when it can take refuge, it becomes the prey of the first one who tries to rechain it” [N. Machiavelli, Discorsi I.16, p. 99
(p. 235)]. And "it is as difficult and dangerous to try to set free a people that wishes to live in servitude as it to try to bring into
servitude a people that wishes to live free " [ibid III.8, p. 213 (p. 451)].
41 Ibid. I.57, p. 140 (p. 312).
42 Ibid., p. 141 (p. 313).

the prince. If we are to discuss either people or prince when unrestrained, fewer defects will be seen in the
people than in the prince, and they will be smaller and easier to43.

The partisan option for the people emerges in a clear way also in the Discursus florentinarum
rerum – commissioned by pope Leo X, the chief of the Medici – which appears as the more
‘moderate’ in Machiavelli’s writings. According to Machiavelli it is impossible to restore the
constitutional layout of Cosimo il Vecchio’s and Lorenzo il Magnifico’s times, because the
citizen have known a government "that they think more just [più civile]" 44. Machiavelli
outlines for Florence a transitional model of constitution that foresees the revitalization of the
republican institutions under a kind of short-term protectorate of the Medici. Here
Machiavelli is undoubtedly inspired by the ideal of mixed government, but declines it in favor
of the people. Machiavelli drafts a model of mixed constitution, in order to satisfy the ambition
of the “primi cittadini [the most important citizens] and the “mezzani [those in the middle]”.
But he above all aims for the "the whole general [universalità] body of citizens, who will never
be satisfied […] if their power is not restored or if they do not have a promise that it will be
restored]"45. In particular, he bravely proposes the reopening of the “hall” of the Great
Council, the central institution and symbolic seat of the Florentine popular republic, which has
been at stake for decades in the struggles between ottimati and people. Even in the Discursus,
often quoted by the interpreters of Machiavelli as a moderate theoretician of traditional
mixed government, Machiavelli appears to recommend and privilege those institutional
solutions which allow the maximum of popular power in the given condition.
But what does this view mean? Is it the scholarly exaltation of the Roman citizen’s
virtue, and/or the anachronistic revival of an ethical and political model? Is Machiavelli’s
position on people and popular government a praise of old times, the record of a past golden
age? The complex of Machiavelli’s works excludes the possibility that his interest, even in the
Discourses, can be considered merely bookish. In his service of the Florentine Republic
Machiavelli had shown to take seriously the principle of the imitation of the ancients. On the
other side, his quotations from classical authors are often ‘tendentious’, willingly biased
according to a thesis considered momentous for political action.
Are we therefore forced to consider Machiavelli as a utopian, who idealized a people by
then devoid of political initiative – in contemporary Italy almost completely ruled by

43 Pp. 141-42 (p. 316-17).

44 N. Machiavelli, Discursus florentinarum rerum post mortem iunioris Lurentii Medices, in Tutte le opere, p. 25 (Eng. transl. A
Discourse on Remodeling the Government of Florence, in The Chief Works, p. 104). Cp also Ai Palleschi, addressed to the
supporters of the Medici.
45Ibid, p. 28 (p. 110).

principalities, and contemporary Europe which was going to see the affirmation of national
monarchies? We too have to be careful not to fall into anachronism. Italian politics of early
Cinquecento must not be interpreted in the perspective of subsequent affirmation of absolute
sovereignty. Is it possible that republican unrest was still rooted in people’s feelings, beyond
some groups of the ottimati class? Or were the real people irreversibly affected by political
apathy? I suggest an indirect and hypothetical, indicator of vivacity and discontent: the large
popular participation in Reformation movements during the following decades. One could
affirm that in early-modern Italy there had been possible alternatives to the state of affairs
then displayed in the Counter-Reformation age (the definitive restoration of the Medici, the
Spanish domination and the gradual involution of the country from an economic, political and
cultural point of view). Actually, Machiavelli inquires into the processes of development of the
people, their social role, their articulation, the way in which the people become a political
actor. About all that his works show a rich phenomenology, from the “minor” writings to the
Discourses, to the Florentine Histories – his masterpiece from this point of view.

(2) The theory of conflict

The idea that citizenship is irrevocably split into diverse components and crossed by different
umori proves to be crucial and recurrent in the works of Machiavelli, starting from The Prince,
and it cannot be ignored.

In every city these two opposing parties [umori] exist […] the people desire not to be bossed and oppressed by
the rich [grandi]; the rich desire to boss and oppress the people. As a result of these two opposed desires, one of
three effects appears in the city: princely rule or liberty or license46.

The different ‘humors’ express different interests and goals, which bring them inevitably into
contrast: Machiavelli in fact abandons the Platonic-Aristotelian-Thomistic anthropological
model that supported the organicist idea of the political body47. Machiavelli’s anthropology

46N. Machiavelli, De principatibus, IX, p. 271 (p. 39).

47 In the traditional model humans are by nature unequal, and precisely for this reason tend to associate with each other.
They are drawn together into natural relationships of dominance/subordination (man/woman, parent/child, master/slave)
from which develops the political socialization that shapes the State (the obvious reference is to Aristotle, Politics, 1252a -
1253a). They are, for this precise reason, ‘limbs’ of a political body, each one with his/her specific functions and ‘natural
place’ in the whole order.
recognizes an unavoidable tendency toward conflict, rooted in the imbalance between the
inexhaustibility of human desires and the scarcity of resources with which to satisfy them 48.
The ‘humors’ of citizenship are not limbs of a body, tied by an innate link; they are social
components in potential or actual conflict 49. The conflict can assume different forms –
virtuous or degenerative – but it is in any case a fact of politics, including the politics of
Machiavelli casts the people a role as political protagonist, and this role plays out in
political conflict. It is in fact by political conflict that the popular element initiates institutional
innovation. In ancient Rome the “laws that are made in favor of liberty [leggi e ordini in
benefico della publica libertà]” are born precisely from the ‘discord’ between the two chief
‘humors’ of the republic

I say that those who condemn the dissensions between the nobility and the people seem to me to be finding fault
with what as a first cause kept Rome free, and to be considering the quarrels and the noise that resulted from
those dissensions rather than the good effects they brought about; they are not considering that in every
republic there are two opposed factions [due umori diversi], that of the people and that of the rich [grandi], and
that all the laws made in favor of liberty result from their discord [disunione]. We easily see that this was true in
Rome, because from the Tarquins to the Gracchi, more than three hundred years, the dissensions in Rome rarely
caused exile and very rarely bloodshed 50.

The radical nature of this theoretical innovation can be measured by the reactions that it
provoked: not only self-proclaimed adversaries of Machiavelli, but even republican writers
such as Guicciardini, and thinkers, such as Rousseau, who were in large part inspired by
Machiavelli, kept their distance from him on this point. Particularly significant is the position

48 Cp. N. Machiavelli, Discorsi, II, Preface, p. 145 (p. 323). It is easy to see here the anticipation of the Hobbesian theme of the
conflict as a result of the tension between the inexhaustible character of human desires and the scarcity of the means to
satisfy them. In Hobbes there are two different kinds of conflict, relating to two different kinds of passions: “sensual passions”
aimed to utility and “mental passions” aimed to glory (cp. B. Carnevali, “Glory”, Communications, 2013, n. 93). Both these
dimensions of conflict can be found in Machiavelli’s text: the conflict of interests and the struggle for recognition. Relating to
the second one, as we will see, Machiavelli outlines a seminal inquiry on reputation (seen both as a resource and as a danger
for the republic), the different (“public” or “private”) means to obtain it and the institutional devices which can manage the
social distribution of glory and honor – the “economy of symbolic goods”, to use the Bourdeauan jargon.
49 From this point of view, it seems to me, that one ought not to interpret in an excessively literal meaning the medical

metaphor implicit in the use of the term ‘humor’, as occurs in A. J. Parel, The Machiavellian Cosmos, New Haven–London: Yale
University Press, 1992; cp. P. A. Rahe, “Machiavelli’s Populist Turn”, in Against Throne and Altar. Machiavelli and the Political
Theory under the English Republic, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 22-55, mainly pp.49-52.
50 N. Machiavelli, Discorsi, I.4, p. 83 (pp. 202-03). For a systematic recontruction of the theory of conflict in the Discourses cp.

G. Pedullà, Machiavelli in tumulto. Conquista, cittadinanza e conflitto nei “Discorsi sopra la prima deca di tito Livio”, Roma,
Bulzoni, 2011.
of Harrington: the same writer who had exalted Machiavelli as the restorer of “ancient
prudence” criticizes him explicitly and directly on this point51.
Therefore, the conflict which expresses the fundamental “humors” of the citizenship
and is channeled into “laws and orders” is physiological, even healthy. Under other conditions,
however, conflict becomes pathological and dangerous. In this case reciprocal fear is activated
and joins with the ruinous formation of “sects”52.
The main theme of the Florentine Histories is precisely the pathological form of social
conflict53. The divisions in the Florentine citizenship are represented as linked to the hate and
personal clashes between prominent families. Familiar blood feuds produce violent struggles;
from here the escalation of the disunion and the decadence of Florence54.
In the critical literature on Machiavelli, the distinction between those two forms of
conflict has often been interpreted in the light of the ideal of moderation – the virtuous forms
of conflict are held to be those which are less radical and violent, those that can be resolved by
peaceful means, by “debating [disputando]” rather than “fighting [combattendo]”55; and it

48 Cp. Harrington, Oceana, pp. 32-37; Q. Skinner, The Foundations, pp. 181-82.
52 Cf. ibid., I.7: “[…] injury would have been done by individuals to individuals. Such injury produces fear; fear seeks for

defense; for defense partisans are obtained; form partisans rise parties in states; from parties their ruin” [p. 87 (p. 212). In
I.8: "From whence it came that on every side hate sprang up; hate went on to divisions; from divisions to parties; from parties
to ruin" [p. 89(p. 216)].
53 The most impressive representation of extreme violence, even of cannibalism, by the multitude in Florentines political

struggles is in the narration of the lynching of Messer Guglielmo of Assisi and his teen son: “they who could not wound them
when alive wounded them when dead and, not sated by rending them with steel, tore them with their hands and teeth. And
that all their senses might be satisfied with revenge, after having first heard their laments, seen their wounds, touched their
torn bodies, they let taste also take pleasure in them, so that, since all the outside parts had been sated, those within might
also gain satiety” [N. Machiavelli, Istorie fiorentine II.33, in Tutte le opere, p. 686 (p. 1132)]. An extreme egalitarian ideology is
expressed by the ciompo [carder] who talks in III.13: “We must, […] if we expect to be pardoned for out old transgressions,
commit new ones, doubling our offenses and multiplying our arson and robbery, and must strive to have many companions in
this, because where many err, nobody is punished; little faults are punished, great an serious ones are rewarded. […] all men,
since they had one and the same beginning, are equally ancient; by nature they are all made in one way. […] only poverty and
riches make us unequal. […] Neither conscience nor ill fame ought to frighten you, for those who conquer, in whatever way
they conquer, never because of it come to disgrace. Of conscience we need take no account, for when people fear hunger and
prison, as we do, they cannot and should not have any fear of Hell” [ibid. III.14, p. 701 (pp. 1159-60).
54 The narration begins from 1215, with the murder from whom derived the hatred between Buondelmonti and Uberti, which

then took the form of the struggle between Guelfi and Ghibellini. But even Florence enjoyed a period in which was possible to
give to the political conflicts ordered and “virtuous” forms. The epoch subsequent the voluntary exile of Giano della Bella is
presented in a very good light, “though along the nobles and the people there were some ill feeling and suspicion [alcuna
indignazione e sospetto]” [ibid. II.15, p. 668 ( p. 1097)].
55 “The serious and natural enmities between the people and the nobles, caused by the latter’s wish to rule and the former’s

not to be enthralled [il volere questi comandare e quelli non ubbidire], bring about all the evils that spring up in cities; by this
opposition of parties [diversità di umori] all the other things that disturb republics are nourished. This kept Rome disunited.
This, if small things with great may be compared, has kept Florence divided, tough in the two cities diverse effects were
produced, because the enmities that at the outset existed in Rome between the people and the nobles were ended by debating
[disputando], those in Florence by fighting [combattendo]; those in Rome were terminated by law, those in Florence by the
exile and death of many citizen; those in Rome always increased military power, those in Florence wholly destroyed it; those
in Rome brought that city from an equality of citizens to a very great inequality; those in Florence brought her from
inequality to a striking equality [mirabile ugualità]. It must be that this difference of effects was caused by thediffeent
purposes of these two peoples, for the people of Rome wished to enjoy supreme honors along with the nobles; the people of
Florence fought to be alone in the government, without any participation in it by the nobles. Because the Roman’s people
desire was more reasonable, the injuries to the nobles were more endurable, so that the nobility yelded easily and without
coming to arms; hence, after some debates [dispareri], they agreed in making a law with which the people would be satisfied
and by which the nobles would remain in their public offices [dignità]. On the other hand, the Florentine people’s desire was
would be, therefore, the “ambition” of the plebs to put into motion the spiral that leads to
violent conflict. But Machiavelli states that the way to tyranny opens not so much when
conflict is radical, but rather when the people resort to “private remedies” and choose to
entrust the protection of their interests and even more, revenge against their enemies, to a
powerful person56: when “a free multitude” entrusts “its welfare absolutely to one man” 57, to
quote Spinoza. On the other hand, when the reputation is pursued by private methods, i. e.
“conferring of benefits on various private persons by lending them money, marrying off their
daughters, protecting them from the magistrates”58. Machiavelli, in short, rather than
juxtaposing ‘radical’ forms of conflict with ‘moderate’ ones, distinguishes between conflict
that arises from the juxtaposition of well-defined social groups, expressing the fundamentally
different interests within citizenship, and conflict stemming from the search for personal
power, which is connected to the formation of clienteles, factions and armed groups. The first
is virtuous and produces liberty; the second is pathological and leads to tyranny. In the
genesis of potentially destructive forms of conflict, inequality is indicated as a strongly
negative factor; indeed it is at the origins of the formation of factions and cliques.

Those who believe republics can be united are greatly deceived in their belief [assai di questa speranza
s’ingannono]. Kit is true that some divisions harm republics and some divisions benefit them. Those do harm that

harmful and unjust, so that the nobility with greater forces prepared to defend themselves, and therefore the result was blood
and the exile of citizens, and the laws then made were planned not for the common profit [a comune utilità] but although in
favor of the conqueror” Ibid., III.1, p. 690 (p. 1140). Cp. III.5, pp. 693-94 (p. 1146).
56 This dynamic emerged in Roman history after Agrarian Laws: the legal framework became incapable to channel conflicts in

a political way: “Since the public magistrates could not remedy it, the factions, placing no more hope in them, had recourse to
private remedies, and each of the parties decided to get a leader to defend it. The multitude acted early in this turmoil
[scandolo] and disorder by turning its support to Marius […] the nobility backed Sulla, and backing him head of their party,
entered the civil wars” [N. Machiavelli, Discourses, I.37, p. 120 (p. 274)], “When a people thus brings itself to make this this
mistake of giving one man authority in order that he may attack those it hates, and that one is shrewd, he always become
tyrant of the city, because with the aid of the people he undertakes to get rid of the nobility, and he never turns to the
oppression of the people until he has got rid of the nobles. By that time, when the people realizes it is in slavery, it has no one
with whom to take refuge” [Ibid., I.40, p. 124 (pp. 282-83)].
57 B. Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus, V.7.
58 Reputation is both a political resource and a danger: “a republic without citizens of reputation cannot last and cannot in

any way be governed well. On the other hand, reputation gained by citizens is the cause of tyranny in republics. If reputation
is to be regulated, there must be such an arrangement that citizens will get repute from popularity that aids and does not
injure the city and her liberty”. There are both “public” and “private” methods to gain reputation. The former ones, “genuine
[stiette] and simple” are related to common good ad must be open to all citizen. The latter are “very dangerous and altogether
injurious”: “conferring of benefits on various private persons by lending them money, marrying off their daughters,
protecting them from the magistrates, and doing them similar private favors. These make men partisans of their benefactors
and give the man they follow courage to think they can corrupt the public and violate the laws” [N. Machiavelli, Discorsi III.24,
p. 235 (pp. 492-93)]. This passage is paraphrased in Florentine Histories VII.1, that proposes again the two ways to gain
reputation [cp. N. Machiavelli, Istorie fiorentine, VII,1, pp. 792-93(p. 1337). The result of corruption “is the avarice with the
citizens display, and their thirst not for true glory but for despicable honors [vituperosi onori] depending on hates, emities,
disputes, factions. From these result deaths, exiles, persecutions of the good, honors for the wicked. […] This situation
[esemplo] produces love of parties and their power”. The member of the Signoria who is speaking laments the ideological
embellishment of the particular interests: “Still more harmful it is that the movers and originators of those parties with a
pious word make their plan and purpose seem honorable; because always, since they are all enemies to liberty, they crush
her under the pretense of defending a state of aristocrats or popular government” [ibid. III.5, p. 693 (p. 1146)]. About the
conflicts originates from private interest of prominent families cp. also II.33, p. 681 (p. 1122).
are accompanied with factions [sette] and partisans accompanied; those bring benefit that are kept out without
factions and without partisans. Since, then, the founder of a republic cannot provide that there will be no
enmities within it, he needs at least provide that there will be no factions 59

This idea is linked directly to the issue of rule of law.

(3) Rule of law and governo del popolo

The classical ideal of the “government of law”, at the root of the notion of rule of law, seems to
imply an antidemocratic prejudice from its very inception in Greco-Roman political and legal
thought60. In those writers, critique of democracy is connected to the institutional choice of
mixed government, understood as a constitutional structure in which the different
components of the citizenship – the monarchy, the ‘best’ and the ‘many’ – are allocated the
political role for which they are suited61. More importantly, within this tradition the critique
of democracy expresses an anthropology of inequality. The Aristotelian idea that human
beings are by nature unequal and precisely for this reason are social beings, ‘political’ beings,
is the theoretical matrix of the thesis that within the citizenship only the ‘chosen few’, the
‘best’, the ottimati are capable of political deliberation; by contrast, the ‘many’ reveal
themselves to be suited only to the choice among alternatives already drawn up. This
distinction refers to a sort of political division of labor, again found in the Platonic-Aristotelian
line: the diverse components of the citizenship ought to play the role for which they are
suited, take their proper place in the complex order of things and seek their “natural” end.

59 Ibid. VII.1 p. 792 (p. 1336).

60 In Aristotle’s Politics, the concept is introduced in the context of a critique of radical and ‘demagogic’ forms of democracy, in
which it is the poor multitude that governs, rather than the laws (cp. Aristotle, Politics, 1292a-1293a; 1295a-1296b); it is
opportune to point out that in Aristotle is put into play also the question of the relationship between productive activities and
practical action (poiesis and praxis), social segmentation, availability of ‘free’ time from work for politics: the worst forms of
democracy, those farther from the ideal of the rule of law, are those in which the institute of mistophoria permits even
workers to participate in assemblies; the best forms of democracy are of the polis of peasants, which have little time for
politics and leave governing to the middle class. Cp. Also Plato, The Statesman, 300c-303b. Cicero puts the law above and
beyond, so to speak, popular deliberation, ascribing it in the manner of ‘natural law’ to a normative ‘natural’ plane, and
therefore unattainable: the laws of which omnes servi sumus ut liberi esse possimus express the supreme reason inherent in
nature, eternal, preceding the formation of the state (M. Tullius Cicero, Pro Cluentio, 53, 146; M. Tullius Cicero, De Re Publica,
III, 22, 33; M. Tullius Cicero, De Legibus, I, 16, 43-44).
61 The ‘republican’ critique of democracy continues up to the works of Kant, the philosophical auctoritas of the first theorists

of the Rechtsstaat (Cf. Cf. I. Kant, Die Metaphisik der Sitten (1797), in I. Kant, Gesammelte Schriften, Berlin-Leipzig 1907, vol. VI,
pp. 319, 321-22).

Mixed government in this sense, through such a division of labor, permits an ordered
harmony in the body politic.
This idea runs through the political thought of Florentine civic humanism and, in
particular, the works of the political thinkers closest to the elite of ottimati, beginning with
those of Francesco Guicciardini; it re-emerges, formulated with great clarity, in James
Harrington’s Oceana. According to Harrington, in every republic there is a “natural
aristocracy”, excellent in quality and virtue, naturally inclined to political deliberation and
endowed with free time for the affairs of government. On the other hand, the people are by
nature fit for choosing between the alternatives proposed and examined by the aristocracy.62.
To “the few” – the aristocracy, the nobility, the elite – is attributed the power to propose and
discuss, while “the many” – the people – can only elect the governing body and choose among
the options that are presented to them, after a preliminary discussion and selection by “the
Critique of democracy, elitist anthropology and the theory of mixed government are
joined in these writers with a notion of order that expresses a clear aversion to – we could say
‘obsession’ with – every form of political conflict. In Aristotle’s Politics the idea emerges that
the prevalence of the middle class guarantees that factions do not upset the polis63, and this
critique of “tumultuous” republics recurs in early-modern political thought. The tendency
towards ‘sedition’ and the reoccurrence of ‘tumults’ are for Harrington sic et simpliciter a
pathology of the social body; but the causes of the conflict may be removed if an adequate
“balance of dominion” is introduced: it is in this way possible to create a “perfect” and
“immortal” commonwealth.64
This view of the rule of law as a critique of the democratic principle should fit,
unforced, within the picture of early-modern republicanism outlined by Pocock in The
Machiavellian Moment. From the perspective of the republican theory of mixed government,
the rule of law and political conflict seem to be in opposition, or at least strong tension, with
each other. It is therefore understandable that interpretations that emphasize the importance
of the rule of law in the works of Machiavelli – going so far as to consider it the truly

62 Here classic Aristotelian themes re-emerge, such as that of the incompatibility of productive functions and politics,
between poiesis and praxis. Political deliberation is a monopoly of the nobles in so far as they have free time, are rich and
therefore interested in the destiny of republic while the people are not capable of managing political initiatives on their own.
For Harrington attributing to the people the faculty of debating means let them falling into “an anarchy as those of Athens”
(cp. J. Harrington, Oceana, pp. 137 ff.). Republics with a ‘natural’ aristocracy, e.g., Sparta, Rome and Venice, are contrasted
and preferred to those with a ‘plebeian’ tendency, such as Athens, Switzerland and Holland.
63 Cf. Aristotle, Politics, 1295a – 1296b.
64 Cp. J. Harrington, Oceana, p. 71. Moreover this command is marked from the first pages of the Preliminaries: Harrington re-

proposes the apologia of democracy of peasants of Politics 1318b-1319b. These are democracies characterized by scarce
participation in assemblies, less exposed to ’shakings and turbulence’ (J. Harrington, Oceana, p. 5).
significant element of his republicanism – have attempted to understate the significance of his
positive evaluation of conflict, in the light of the thesis that, even for Machiavelli, the rule of
law means moderation65.
Machiavelli insists that the diverse components of the citizenship have different
interests and are characterized by different ‘ends’. Nevertheless this does not mean that they
are endowed with different capacities for political deliberation. Commoners and gentlemen
are equally fit for political activity, and among the institutions of the Roman Republic that
receive the most praise are those which attributed the power to propose and discuss laws to
the plebeians66. We are far from the typical pro-optimate republicanism, very far, for example,
from Guicciardini’s vision of the rule of law, according to which “only the able and deserving
should govern”67.
Attributing equal political capability to all citizens strains the traditional theory of
mixed government, even to the point of changing its meaning. The theory was meant to limit

65 Viroli insists on the idea that Machiavelli stigmatizes not only the ‘arrogance’ of the nobles but also the ambition of the
people. The reference is to the social struggles following Roman agrarian laws and to the whole history of Florentine conflicts,
with the ‘exaggerated’ demands of the people. For Viroli the social conflict that becomes an armed struggle is the chief danger
for a republic; on the other hand, the virtuous forms of conflict end in laws that promote the common good. Conflicts, for
Viroli, support public liberty “only in so far as they do not violate the main prerequisite of civil life – that is, the rule of law
and the common good” (M. Viroli, Republicanism, p. 127). And it is always as a sign of moderation that Viroli reads the link
between rule of law and liberty: a city “can be called free” if its structure is such as to control and contain the ‘bad humors’ of
the nobles – the desire not to be subjected to laws – and of the people – license. With this point of view, Viroli attributes
notable importance to Chapter III.5 of the Istorie fiorentine, in which an unnamed citizen attributes the origin of the ‘evils’ and
the ‘disorders’ of Florence and of the other Italian cities to the division into sects. The government of law is markedly
juxtaposed to the ‘power of the sects’, and Florence is the model case of a ‘city that can be maintained by means of sects more
than with laws’.
In order to criticize the interpretation that Viroli gives Machiavellian republicanism as inspired by the ideal of rule of law, it
would be easy to cite Chapter XVIII of the Prince, where Machiavelli refers to “two ways of fighting: one according to the laws,
the other with force. The first is suited to man, the second to the animals […] because the first is often not sufficient, a prince
must resort to the second” (N. Machiavelli, De Principatibus, XVIII, p. 83 (p.64). Or one can cite Chapter XII: “and because
there cannot be good laws where armies are not good and where there are good armies, there must be good laws, I shall omit
talking of laws and shall speak of armies” [ibid. p. 275 (p. 48)]. Moreover, debatable is the wise gentleman of the Istorie
fiorentine (III.5) who exhaustingly represents Machiavelli’s viewpoint. In the same vein it could be legitimately maintained
that it is the nihilistic egalitarianism of the ciompo [carder] that gives voice to Machiavelli’s theory. (III.13, ibid.).
More recently, Erica Benner affirmed that “Machiavelli purports to uphold the ‘rule of law’ against the ‘rule of men’ as the
principal antidote to civil disorders” (E. Benner, Machiavelli’s Ethics, p. 3).
66 Machiavelli sees very favorably the possibility, long guaranteed to Roman citizens, of proposing new laws at the discussion

at the comitia and of acting on them ‘either for or against’. “A Tribune, and any other citizen whatever, had the right to
propose a law to the people; on this every citizen was permitted to speak, either for or against, before it was decided. This
custom was good when the citizens were good, because it has always been desirable that each one who thinks of something of
benefit of the public should have the right to propose it. And it is good that each one should be permitted to state his opinion
on it, in order that the people, having heard each, may choose the better. But when the citizen became wicked, such a basic
custom became very bad, because only the powerful proposed laws, not for the common liberty but for their own power, and
for fear of such men no one dared to speak against those laws. Thus the people were either deceived or forced into decreeing
their own ruin” [N. Machiavelli, Discorsi, I.18, p. 103 (p. 242)]. For a systematic interpretation of the institutional devices
proposed by Machiavelli, and of their current political meaning, cp. J. P. McCormick, Machiavellian Democracy, New York,
Cambridge University Press, 2011. I am sympathetic with McCormick approach to Machiavelli’s vision of social divisions and
inequality, such as to his emphasis on the relevance of the institutional dimension in Machiavelli’s thought. But I do not agree
that contrasting Machiavelli to republicanism is the better way to give account of his critique to filo-aristocrat humanists such
as Rucellai and Guicciardini; I prefer to qualify Machiavelli’s republicanism as a filo-popular, democratic one.
67 “The fruit of liberties and the end for which they were instituted is not government by everyone – for only the able and

deserving should govern – but the observance of just laws and order, both of which are more secure in a republic than under
the rule of one or few” (F. Guicciardini, Ricordi, C 109, in Opere, Torino: UTET, 1970; Eng. transl. Maxims and Reflections of a
Renaissance Statesman, New York: Harper& Row, 1965, p. 69).
the risks of government by the people but Machiavelli reverses the idea, arguing that the
greatest danger for the political community is represented by the uncontrollable tendency of
gentlemen to impose their dominance. Machiavelli’s analysis of the dynamics of conflict is
intended to emphasize the political capacity of the people, more than to identify a point of
equilibrium between the two parties. And if at times Machiavelli seems to condemn
“ambition” on the part of the people as if it were on a par with the nobles’ thirst for power, he
also points out that, without the “appetites” of the plebeians, Rome would have lost its liberty
much more quickly68. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this clarification.
Machiavelli reaffirms the virtuous effect of conflict, the idea that laws in defense of liberty are
born from the juxtaposition of passions that need to be balanced one against the other. This
means that the very ambition of the plebeians, which Machiavelli at times seems to abhor, has
virtuous effects. Mixed government, thus, does not express an organic ideal, nor the
Aristotelian principle of mesotes: it expresses, rather, the idea of checks and balances, the
articulation of powers in such a way that “one keeps watch over the other [l’uno guarda
All of this is strictly connected to the theme of the rule of law: Machiavelli abandons the
traditional Aristotelian-Thomist celebration of monarchy to affirm that people under the rule
of law are more virtuous than is a prince in the same position and to deny that the “licentious”
forms of democracy constitute – again, according to the traditional vision – the worst form of
tyranny. What most stands out, with respect to the recurrent link between the rule of law,
mixed government and the critique of democracy, is that the people have a role as political
protagonist, and that, as we have seen, this role is undertaken through political conflict.
In particular, in Florentine Histories, generally presented as the expression of a
moderate turn in Machiavelli’s works70 it is stated quite clearly that lords and nobles are, by
their very nature, in opposition to the rule of law: the enmity between the people and the
“powerful” is insurmountable “because, since the people wish to live according to the laws,
and the powerful to control the laws, it is not possible for them to agree [perché, volendo il

68 “And though we showed above how the enmities at Rome between the Senate and the multitude kept Rome free by
producing laws in support of liberty, and therefore the result of this Agrarian law seems out of harmony with my belief, I say
that I do not for that reason abandon my opinion. To a great extent the ambition of the rich, if by various means and in
various ways a city does not crush it, is what quickly brings her to ruin. So if the quarrels over the Agrarian Law took three
hundred years to make Rome a slave, she would perhaps have been brought much sooner to slavery if the people, with this
law and with its other cravings, had not continually checked the ambition of the nobles. This also shows how much more men
esteem property than they do positions of” [ibid., I.37, p. 120 (p. 274)].
69 N. Machiavelli, Discorsi, I.2, p. 80 (p. 199).
70 In more than one place in the Istorie fiorentine the “license” of the people is condemned on a par with the “ambition” of the

grandi and the division into sects appears to be the basic reason for the degeneration of civic life. For an opposed point of
view cp. F. Del Lucchese, Disputare e combattere. Modi del conflitto nel pensiero di Machiavelli, “Filosofia politica”, 2001, 1;
Conflict, Power, and Multitude in Machiavelli and Spinoza. Tumult and Indignation, New York, Continuum, 2009.
popolo vivere secondo le leggi, e i potenti comandare a quelle, non è possibile cappino
insieme]”71. The people therefore seem spontaneously and ‘naturally’ predisposed to respect
the rule of law, and the powerful to impose the “rule of men”. The overturning of the
traditional theory is evident.
The rule of law in Machiavelli does not mean moderation, nor does mixed government
mean attributing a subordinate role to the people. Rather, the rule of law provides the
institutional framework for conflict to take place in virtuous forms. Within this framework,
conflict has a feedback effect on the institutional framework, and is expressed in the “laws and
orders” that favor liberty and the power of the republic. For that very reason, conflict under
the rule of law is not a degenerative factor but rather acts to counteract the entropic tendency
of the republic toward corruption.
If rule of law, in Machiavelli, does not have an anti-democratic meaning, it remains a
central feature of Machiavellian republicanism and its relevance has to be considered in
evaluating Machiavelli’s theory of conflict and the role of the people. Antonio Negri
conveniently links the democratic drive in Machiavelli’s thought to his apology of conflict and
the “constituent” valence of popular politics. Machiavelli is situated at the origin of the
modern genealogy of constituent power, and therefore opening a perspective for
reconstructing an alternative strain in Western modernity. But according to Machiavelli the
people, as such as actor of political conflict, produces “laws that are made in favor of liberty”.
And not every claim, not every struggle, is virtuous. He insists on the disintegrating effects of
some forms of political conflicts, from the dissensioni in republican Rome after the Agrarian
Laws to the most part of tumulti in Florentine history. For the conflict being virtuous the
multitude must organize itself, constitute itself. The people who are able to speak the vox Dei
are the people “that command and are well organized [ordinato]”, the people “chained by the
laws”. Unlike Hobbesian theory in Machiavelli the people maintain a political and social
autonomy in front of the established political body. But in their development as a political
subject, being “chained by the laws” – the role played by rules and institutions – is crucial. It is
a role played in a dialectical relationship with the framing effect of political conflict. Despite
some republican interpretation, we cannot consider e. g. the appeal to moderation by the wise
gentleman in Florentine Histories, III.5 as fully giving voice to Machiavelli’s theory. But neither
does the ciompo’s nihilistic egalitarianism in III.15 represent fully the Machiavelli’s point of

71 N. Machiavelli, Istorie fiorentine, II.12, p. 666 (pp. 1093-94).

view72. The constituent power of the multitude is exercised inside legal forms and political
institutions, and establishes an inescapable link between democracy and rule of law.

The expression “political realism” is ambivalent. For many interpreters, political realism is
naturally linked with a conservative point of view: “the reality principle” is opposed to “the
principle of hope”73. This is not the case with Machiavelli. Machiavelli is a realist in as much as
he recognizes the functional autonomy of politics from morality. This does not mean that he
gives up claiming any values (first and foremost liberty). This means that politics cannot be
understood simply through the moral code ‘good-bad’. It must be analyzed its strategic
dimension, the opportunistic interplay of interests, the autonomous logic of power.
But the image of Machiavelli’s realism would be one-dimensional if one did not give an
account of another element: according to Machiavelli “andare drieto alla verità effettuale”
does not mean to deny the possibility of change, of a creative and transformative agency. Virtù
is not a moral virtue superimposed to political action; it means the ability to see the narrow
space of possibility let open by fortune and necessity. It means the capacity to grasp the
“quality of times” 74; in this sense one cannot pass smoothly from the political dimension to
the moral one. And Machiavelli’s republican realism is elaborated from a partisan point of
view, that of the people. Among its major originalities there is the radically new theory of
political conflict, seen as a potentially virtuous factor of institutional innovation and as the
process by which the people enter the citizenship.
As a conclusion, let us come back to the beginning. Machiavelli’s critique of abstract,
ideological imagination expresses itself in a theory of political innovation. From this point of
view, the final exhortation of The Prince, with its quasi-prophetic mood and its mythical
images75, is particularly impressive. As is well known, the philological problem of the
exhortation and the epistle dedicatory were successively added to the book has a theoretical
meaning: is the content extrinsic to that of the twenty-five previous chapters76?

72 Cp. above, notes 54 and 66.

73 P.P. Portinaro, Il realismo politico, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 1999, pp. 14-15.
74 Ibid., p. 91.
75 Ibid., p. 91.
76 Accordining to Mario Martelli’s thesis The Prince would have been elalaborated along several year and the exhortation was

composed in 1517-18, when Lorenzo de’Medici became Duke of Urbino and Medici’s dominion – including the State of the
Church, whose pope was Leo X – were covering a large part of Italy (contemporary Romagna, Toscana, Umbria, Marche and
Lazio). Cp. M. Martelli, “La logica provvidenzialistica e il cap. XXVI del Principe, Interpres, IV, 1981-82, pp. 262-384;
Confined in the prison of Turi, Antonio Gramsci could neither access critical editions
nor philological literature. His interpretation of Machiavelli has an evident political aim. But
every interpretation of history – even every scientific enterprise – starts from a ‘prejudice’
and presupposes a hermeneutic framework. It is the interpreter who poses the questions to
the texts and according to Machiavelli to assume an explicitly defined point of view gives the
interpreter an advantage77. Gramsci suggests reading the final exhortation as the conclusion
of “a ‘live’ work, in which political ideology and political science are fused in the dramatic
form of a ‘myth’”. In the book “Machiavelli gave imaginative and artistic form to his
conception, by embodying the doctrinal, rational element in the person of a condottiero, who
represents plastically and ‘anthropomorphically’ the symbol of ‘collective will’”78. Gramsci
notes that at Machiavelli’s time “the prince had no real historical existence”. So the final
exhortation is not extrinsic to the book: “the elements of passion and of myth which occur
throughout the book are drawn together and brought to life in the conclusion, in the
invocation of a prince who ‘really exists’”. And in the exhortation “Machiavelli merges with the
people, becomes the people […]. The entire ‘logical’ argument now appears as nothing other
than an auto-reflection on the part of the people”79.
Five hundred years ago Machiavelli wrote The Prince while experiencing a triple crisis.
There was the crisis of Italy, despite its economic and cultural role in the European
Rinascimento: divided between regional states and foreign dominions, it had become a
battlefield and object of struggle between France and Spain. There was the crisis of Florence,
which had been displaced from its pivotal position in the Italian geopolitical equilibrium, and
had again lost its republican liberty. There was the personal crisis of Machiavelli, a former
leading actor in Florentine politics and diplomacy, now in disgrace with the Medici’s
restoration. Machiavelli was dividing his time between the management of his little farm, the
ingaglioffarsi [to sink into vulgarity] in the inn, the study of the classical authors and the
aspiration to resume a practical role, even to “roll a stone”80. But it was precisely in his darker
years that Machiavelli expressed his most innovative theoretical contributions. In proposing a

“Machaivelli e Firenze dalla repubblica al principato” (1996), in Tra filologia e storia. Otto studi machiavelliani, Roma, Salerno
editrice, 2009, pp. 35-51; Saggio sul Principe, Roma, Salerno Editrice, 1999.
77 This of course neither means a claim for distorted interpretation nor intends to obscure the limits of Gramsci’s reading,

starting from the undervaluation of the republican moment in Machiavelli’s thought.

78 A. Gramsci, Quaderni del carcere, 13, p. 1555 (p. 125).
79 Ibid., p. 1556 (p. 126). Cp. also L. Althusser “La solitude de Machiavel” (1977), Eng. Transl. in Machiavelli and Us, London-

Wew York, Verso, 1999, pp. 126-30.

80 Cp. Niccolò Machiavelli a Francesco Vettori, December 10th, 1513, in Opere, pp. 1159-60 (Eng. Transl. By A. Gilbert, The

Letters of Machiavelli. A Selection, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1961, pp. 139-44). Note that Gramsci, too, writhe
the notebooks on Machiavelli experiencing the crisis of European workers’ movement, the crisis of Italy ruled by fascism and
his political and personal crisis.
creative solution to such a crisis his political realism performs a surplus of political