Machiavelli’s Virtue

University Of Chicago Press; Reprint edition (March 25, 1998)


Machiavelli’s political science has not received the attention it deserves. All commentators are attracted, with a force they often seem not to understand, by the question of his notion of virtue: is it a compromise with evil or is it innocent? So stark a formulation is not usual, but the sophisticated attempts to evade that question end up by coming back to it or by assuming some answer to it. I too began with Machiavelli’s virtue. But after concluding that it does indeed compromise with evil for the sake of political success, one needs to know how the compromise is fashioned and how success is to be achieved. What is the political science of Machiavelli’s politicized virtue?

Unfortunately the classical republican interpretation of Machiavelli offers little help. Despite the name, it is preoccupied with Machiavelli’s morality and almost unconcerned with his politics. The classical republican view does not offer a sophisticated excuse for Machiavelli’s little divergences frbf!l the straight and narrow path of strict virtue. It supposes, in its supersophistication, that Machiavelli’s republican virtue amounts to unsophisticated self-sacrifice to the common good. How Machiavelli’s republic actually workswhich is not so different from the working of his principality-is, in this view, of little interest.

Yet Machiavelli’s wonderful innovations-his new modes and orders-are in his political science. One of them is indeed the sacrifice of a self, but it is an involuntary sacrifice of a scapegoat whose sensational execution makes everyone except him feel virtuous. Accusations precede executions, and elections are a kind of accusation by which the candidate is first humiliated, then released for public service. Republics thrive on emergencies and should avoid too much respectable stability. To deal with emergencies they need dictators, and to deal with dictators, they need counterdictators. Their “orders” are distinct from illegal or extraordinary modes and yet originate in the resort to such modes. The only way they know how to live is dangerously.

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