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Christopher Holman

Assistant Professor, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University




It is common for readers of the political thought of Niccolò Machiavelli to begin their inquiries by noting the diversity of interpretative conclusions that have been drawn regarding his thought, as well as the multitude of often times mutually irreconcilable philosophical and political positions that he has been forced into.1 And yet few of these readers attempt to critically scrutinize the foundation of such interpretative operations, assuming on the contrary that their own specific methodological modes – from precise contextual analyses of the historical environment in which Machiavelli’s work was produced to deep textual readings emphasizing the esoteric or concealed content open to the eye of the sensitive interlocutor – are capable of penetrating to the truth of Machiavelli.2 It is thus, for example, not a problem for such a close reader of Machiavelli as Harvey Mansfield to write, in reference to the interpretative work of Leo Strauss, that “as far as I know, among hundreds of statements in Thoughts on Machiavelli susceptible of mistake, not one single mistake has yet been exposed.”3 The possibility of an objectively correct reading of the intrinsic meaning of the Machiavellian texts is not only achievable, but perhaps already achieved.

What I would like to suggest in this article, however, is that the very effort to read Machiavelli in terms of the schematic representation of a fixed meaning or intention itself constitutes a violation of the spirit of the Machiavellian project. Critical reflection on the nature of the Machiavellian methodology, specifically on Machiavelli’s unique deployment of those historical examples which form the background to his political thought, opens up to us a unique vantage-point from which to evaluate the meaning of his theoretical project. This paper will attempt to reassess the well-known tension in Machiavelli’s thought between the claim to novelty and the appeal to the wisdom of the ancients. Rather than implore the contemporary actor to slavishly repeat established modes of doing and being, Machiavelli encourages him or her to redeploy the principle of creativity that lay at the source of those examples that are highlighted for the sake of the stimulation of political activity in the present. Aiming not at a literal representation of the sequence of historical events, Machiavelli selectively re-appropriates ancient examples and arranges them in specific organizations of thought in order to affirm the uniquely human capacity for political creation. This methodology, I suggest, is best thought of as a type of thinking in constellations such as was most systematically articulated in the twentieth-century by Walter Benjamin. This approach, whereby Machiavelli imaginatively constructs universals through the juxtaposition of conceptual particulars, is considered by him as the most effective strategy for countering the type of uncritical historicism that assumes a fixed trajectory of events that forecloses the possibility of meaningful human intervention in the world. Machiavelli’s appeal to the past is in the final instance made for the sake of a breaking free from the past, for the sake of the affirmation of the human potential to upset the order of things through the institution of the new. One of Machiavelli’s enduring contributions to the study of political theory is his reorientation of it, from a form of rational argumentation grounded in certain universal rules of reading and interpretation, to a mode of aesthetic practice considered in terms of the creative redistribution of meanings, a creative redistribution that perpetually keeps open the potential significance of the political text.
Active vs. Contemplative Historical Appropriation

It is by no means original to point out the apparent contradiction in Machiavelli’s use of history as a means for articulating a political ethos which emphasizes the virtues of novelty and innovation. In the words of Claude Lefort, “the thinker who was aware of innovating absolutely and whom posterity has indeed judged to have opened a new path to political thought, this man wished to erect Antiquity into a model.”4 Hence in the Preface to the Discourses on Livy Machiavelli’s simultaneous proclamation of his decision to “take a path untrodden by anyone,” and his criticism of the inability of contemporary actors to properly imitate ancient examples.5 The contradiction between novelty and imitation in Machiavelli’s exhortation to return to the study of ancient examples, of course, is only an apparent one, his return to antiquity never taking the form of a simple repetition. It constitutes rather, in the case of the Discourses, an imaginative reconstruction of the image of the Roman republic, made for the sake of the production of an alternative mental image of Rome that is capable of stimulating a practical imperative that stretches into a future marked by the production of the new. Machiavelli thus contrasts his own critical and reflective form of engaging with antiquity with those of modes of appropriating the past which dominate the present-day, and at which he can only “marvel and grieve.”6 Specifically, he will criticize those forms of historical appropriation that reduce Rome to a merely aesthetic object meant to be passively contemplated by a disinterested observer. Hence a typical mode of contemporary Florentine appreciation: “a fragment of an ancient statue has been bought at a high price because someone wants to have it near oneself, honor his house with it, and to be able to have it imitated by those who delight in that art.”7 The goal is the extraction of a private pleasure that is achieved through the contemplation of the static form of the object.

The consequences of such a mode of historical appropriation can only be conformist. To the extent that it takes as its object a fixed image of the being of the city, an object that can be aesthetically contemplated to the degree that it is seen as complete and perpetual, it is fundamentally conservative, and hence an instrument for those who have an interest in the reproduction of the existing political status quo. The conservative reading of Rome that was dominant in the Florence of Machiavelli’s time was an ideological representation that was oriented toward the symbolic maintenance of the current structure of the city, covering up the contingent fact of patrician domination. In Martin Breaugh’s words, “This representation of Rome stemmed from the humanist tradition whereby the inhabitants of the Eternal City were unquestionably the Florentines’ direct ancestors, the humanists’ objective being to consolidate and strengthen the patrician institutions of Florence.”8 The extent to which Machiavelli methodologically diverts from traditional humanist historiography cannot be understated. Felix Gilbert notes that in fact, humanist historiography was explicitly political in character: “It was meant to present significant events in an impressive form so that the readers’ political pride and moral courage would be strengthened.”9 Although for Machiavelli the practice of historical analysis was also political in form, its aim should be not the valorization of select past events for the sake of the strengthening of contemporary patriotic sentiment. Even in the case of the Florentine Histories, for example, the object of Gilbert’s analysis here, where Machiavelli is not explicitly affirming an ideal mode of human doing or being, his focus on the corrupt and dysfunctional elements or moments in Florence’s history suggests a project that is fundamentally critical in orientation.

Machiavelli’s rejection of the aesthetic mode of contemplation as the preferred form of historical engagement is thus a correlate of the rejection of the hypostatization of the existing organization of the city. The activation of the critical attitude and the critique of disinterested understanding functions to break up the unitary image of Rome as a perfectly unified and harmonious society that has achieved an ideal form of being, a form of being that is reproduced in the present distribution of functions in the city.10 On the contrary, Machiavelli’s consideration of Rome is novel precisely to the degree that it is oriented toward novelty, to the degree that it may be pressed into the service of critical political action, to the interruption of the existent and the reinstitutionalization of the social order. Those who treat the engagement with the classical histories in a disinterested and passive manner deny the specifically political potential that the former may open for us, if we approach them with the proper spirit. The failure of historical imitation results “from not having a true knowledge of histories, through not getting from reading them that sense nor tasting that flavor that they have in themselves.”11 Machiavelli here seems clear: his preferred form of imitation, that which reflects a “true knowledge of histories,” is not one that aims at the literal reproduction of the trajectory of historical events, but rather one that sensorially penetrates to the indeterminate soul of the work.12 What this soul reveals to us is the specifically human potential to create the new through the exercise of virtù. What must be imitated is not a specific organization of events, but rather the critical spirit that animated the novel historical action.13 Machiavelli’s use of history is thus an active one: what deserves to be remembered is that which reveals to us the potential for free political creation. Merely aesthetic reflection on the humanistic tradition is subordinated to remembrance that looks to actualize this potential.14

Merely aesthetic reflection on the humanistic tradition is thus subordinated to the active and public life. Commentators have usually interpreted this subordination in terms of Machiavelli’s call both for a reactivation of an ethically-oriented mode of critical thinking or reflective judgment, and for the pressing of this mode into the service of a concrete political project aiming at the creation of a new form of political organization on the Italian peninsula. Such was classically recognized by Hegel, for example, in his 1802 essay “On the German Constitution,” where he identifies Machiavelli’s primary political concern as the self-constitution of a popular and independent Italian state. Hegel thus recognizes that Machiavelli, far from being an apologist for tyranny, is attempting to think the practical conditions for the unification of a dispersed people into a political mass; “this is his demand and the principle which he opposes to the misery of his country.”15 Machiavelli’s theoretical project, articulated primarily through his historical juxtapositions, is thus unintelligible without consideration of what Louis Althusser will identify as his specific political conjuncture. The significance of Hegel’s reading for Althusser lay in his recognition of the historical project of Machiavelli, as well as Machiavelli’s recognition of the conjunctural conditions from which this project must necessarily be launched: “A certain way of thinking about politics, not for its own sake, but in the shape of the formulation of a problem and the definition of a historical task – this is what surprises Hegel, and breaks open the empire of his own philosophical consciousness.”16 Machiavelli’s historical use of antiquity, the form of the relationship that he establishes between the past and the present case, can only be evaluated within the context of the conjuncture: “Just as Machiavelli does not apply a general theory of history to particular concrete cases, so he does not apply antiquity to present. Just as the general theory of history intervenes solely on condition of being determined by a series of ‘negations’ that have meaning only as a function of the central political problem, so too antiquity intervenes only under the determination of Rome, in order to illuminate the centre of everything – the political vacuum of Italy – and the task of filling it.”17

Although commentators have often stressed the degree to which this image of an active or critical history, a history practically oriented toward the generation of social and political change, is contrasted with a conservative history, a history which takes the form of the passive contemplation of complete aesthetic objects, they have not gone far enough in articulating the form of the Machiavellian historiographical method and its implications for how Machiavelli understands the practice of political theory. An initial entry into this question can be developed through a consideration of the specificity of Machiavelli’s use of Livy. It has been noted that there is nothing systematic in the method by which Machiavelli appeals to the authority of Livy.18 Machiavelli is clearly not concerned with the simple reproduction of the Livian narrative, as evidenced by the perpetual tendency he has to divert from Livy via processes of elision, exaggeration, and on occasion fabrication. Markus Fischer, for example, will provide two examples of Machiavelli’s deliberate misreading of Livy:19 in The History of Rome Livy reports that Romulus’ murder of Remus was simply the culmination of a fit of rage and jealousy20, whereas Machiavelli roots it in Romulus’ perception of the necessities of foundation21; and although Livy tries to demonstrate the degree to which the Roman violation of a peace agreement with the Samnites had a just origin,22 Machiavelli uses this episode to demonstrate that states need not keep promises that were made under duress.23 And even when Machiavelli is relatively faithful to the Livian account of events, the interpretation of the political significance of these events is often greatly different.24 It would thus be fair to say that Machiavelli only “pretends to be a commentator,”25 or even that “Machiavelli’s Livy is a character of Machiavelli.”26 In the words of J.H. Whitfield, “the Discorsi are not an archaeological inquiry, or even a critical discussion of Livy, seen in historical perspective.”27 On the contrary, there is a “dual function of Livy and Machiavelli; the first constructs the past, makes it consist; the second seizes what is relevant, in the effort to construct the present, and the make the future consist.”28

Needless to say, furthermore, Machiavelli’s use of historical sources extends far beyond his appropriation of Livy29, and yet the same pattern of creative redeployment of source material is identifiable in these other cases. Here we may mention only two of the most well-known of Machiavelli’s appropriations: that of Cicero’s image of the modes of the lion and the fox, and that of Polybius’ theory of cyclical historical movement. Cicero affirms a weak human difference in body and spirit through his account of the human being’s capacity for playing roles, for adopting personae as on the stage. Regardless of individual personae and the fact of this difference, however, there remains a fundamental substratum of universal nature. Our universal persona “is common, arising from the fact that we all have a share in reason and in the superiority by which we surpass brute creatures.”30 The legitimate scope of individual behavior – the degree to which we can manifest our personae specific to us as individuals – is delimited by universal nature: “Each person should hold on to what is his as far as it is not vicious, but is peculiar to him, so that the seemliness that we are seeking might more easily be maintained. For we must act in such a way that we attempt nothing contrary to universal nature; but while conserving that, let us follow our own nature, so that even if other pursuits may be weightier and better, we should measure our own by the rule of our own nature.”31 For Cicero the modes of the lion and the fox, of force and deceit, are precisely those types of action that violate our fundamental nature, those which “seem most alien to a human being.”32 For Machiavelli, on the other hand, the form of activity characterized by the images of the fox and the lion do not represent a violation of human nature, but rather, the very oscillation between the two modes, undertaken as a result of the critical reflection on the nature of political necessity, represents the highest form of human nature.33 The shifting of appearances, possible to the extent that individuals possess a capacity for self-display and representation, is that which is necessary if one is to actualize the potential for action and assert through time one’s status as a virtuous actor.34

Machiavelli also subtly subverts the theory of cyclical historical movements posited by Polybius. For Polybius there is “a regular cycle of constitutional revolutions, and the natural order in which constitutions change, are transformed, and return again to their original stage.”35 Such changes are the result of “an undeviating law of nature.”36 Every unmixed form of government is unstable to the extent that it contains within itself its negative malignity, which will eventually pervert it into its opposite. It is generally assumed on the part of readers that Machiavelli’s defense of the mixed regime is the means by which he attempts to overcome the instability of the political realm and stabilize the being of the polity. As Lefort points out, though, it is highly doubtful that Machiavelli intends to take Polybius seriously, as there is no reference to the cyclical theory of regimes after the very beginning of the Discourses, and the ideal of the mixed regime is quickly abandoned.37 Already in the chapter dealing with the cyclical theory is Machiavelli undermining the traditional image of the harmonious mixed regime by emphasizing Rome’s affirmation of the disunion between the plebs and the nobles, thus contradicting the classical position that the virtue of the mixed regime lay in the establishment of a proportioned unity in which each part through performing its social role contributes to the overall concord of the society. By the end of the book it has become clear that the very goal of social stability has been rejected as a normative end, Machiavelli instead theorizing the republic in terms of a political regime that is open to the necessity of being continually restructured so as to adapt to the contingent indeterminacy of history. The necessity of the regime’s openness to institutional interrogation is affirmed by Machiavelli in numerous places38, but is perhaps most well-articulated in the very title to Discourses III:49, which reads in part, “A Republic Has Need of New Acts of Foresight Every Day If One Wishes to Maintain It Free”. Machiavelli affirms in this chapter that accidents arise in cities “every day,” and that the maintenance of the polity depends upon not a social closure in which all political roles, functions, and institutions have become fixed, but rather a continual willingness to reorder the form of the regime.39

The consideration of Machiavelli’s use of historical sources, and in particular of his use of Livy, like that between the claim of novelty and the appeal to imitation, presents us with another characteristic Machiavellian contradiction: the authority of Livy is affirmed as that most adequate to the extraction of meaning from the examples of Rome, and yet this authority is perpetually undermined through a highly selective and altered presentation of these examples, through the active misapplication of the Livian lessons. The second contradiction is merely a manifestation of the first, and is resolved in the same manner. Livy is of use in the contemporary political conjuncture to the extent that we are critically and reflectively able to represent elements of his histories which, through being combined in specific organizations of thought, reveal to us certain fundamental ethical and political imperatives relevant to the present. In this representation the Livian examples become other than what they originally were; they transcend their status as fixed statements regarding empirical patterns of behavior, calling into question the very practice of historical representation, representation that seeks to organize the past into a complete object fit for contemplation. Machiavelli’s selective approach to Livy is thus intended to overcome the conservatism of the Livian project. In Lefort’s words, “Machiavelli invokes him in order to win over his readers and to lead them, by stages, to place in doubt this historian’s interpretation and, finally, to disengage from the aristocratic principles governing that interpretation.”40
Thinking in Constellations

Machiavelli’s active engagement with the past, mediated primarily through the texts of Livy in the case of the Discourses, is undertaken for the sake of the activation of Florentine political innovation in the present. In The Prince’s dedicatory letter this relation between the past and the future, mediated through the deployed historical examples, is similarly affirmed as the ground from which emerges all practical political knowledge, Machiavelli proclaiming that his specific historical understanding has been achieved relationally through his study of ancient things and his experience with modern ones.41 If individuals and the world maintained an identical form across time, engagement in only one of the two modes would be necessary. But such is not the case, and hence the necessity of Machiavelli’s method. Given the nature of this method, it would be a mistake to judge the efficacy of the Machiavellian project on the basis of only one of its primary elements considered in its singularity. Most significantly, when evaluating Machiavelli’s use of historical examples as a mode of communicating political ideals we must above all resist the temptation to interpret the legitimacy of the presentation in terms of the establishment of a strict correspondence between the Machiavellian discourse and the literal trajectory of events.42 Indeed, Machiavelli himself seems to implicitly reject this mode of interpretation through the figure of Fabrizio Colonna in The Art of War, a text which, importantly, is also an imaginative construction which is ostensibly presented as a recollection of a conversation between Fabrizio and Cosimo Rucellai in the Orti Oricellari. Early in Book One Fabrizio will make clear to his interlocutors that if in their dialogue he has implored modern actors to imitate certain military modes and orders of the ancients, such an imitation is not meant to be immediate, an impossibility given no other reason that the entirely different social contexts in which the ancient lessons are to be applied. As Fabrizio says, “when I was talking about imitating the ancients in their austere manner of living, I did not mean to carry matters to such extremities as you seem to think, but to propose some other things of a gentler and more practicable nature, such as would be more suitable to the present times, and which I think might very well be established if they were introduced and countenanced by some men of authority in government.”43

It is insufficient to simply suggest, as several readers do, that the existence of a discontinuity between the images that Machiavelli constructs and the established historical record can be taken as evidence that Machiavelli does not intend his examples to be taken at face value.44 To borrow terms put forward by Edmund Jacobitti, we must be sensitive to the distinction between Machiavelli’s rhetorical history and scientific history. Whereas the latter attempts to systematically recollect events as they actually occurred and order them in a straight-forward representative manner, the former looks to imaginatively construct “external poetic universals” through the heuristic appropriation of past symbols and values, universals which the present historical actor may seize upon and apply in her own context in the effort to stimulate political change: “The task of the historian was to take situations, events, or characters from the past and make them fit current needs. If the actual record did not do so, if it was incomplete or silent, it simply needed to be embellished and recomposed in order to provide the examples.”45 Such a method was, again, for the sake of the actualization of concrete political ends: “The actual events were secondary to the symbolic interpretation to which the events could be put. In short, the more Machiavelli infused mere empirical reality with poetic interpretation, that is, the farther he moved from chronological description of reality, the more instructive the writing became for use in reality.”46 Preceding Jacobitti, Federico Chabod identifies Machiavelli’s mode of expression as being structured by an imaginative as opposed to a logical principle, and as being oriented toward the invention of new political norms through the reinterpretation of prior realities: “Machiavelli’s imagination…accepts the legacy of the years, and converts it into a positive achievement – a new instrument, but still an imaginative one. On the other hand, it is nourished and illumined by an intense love of political invention – an obscure mental process by which a given situation is endowed with unsuspected possibilities.”47 This investment of the situation with new political potential is achieved through the critical redeployment of historical facts into new arrangements of thought: “Here is the true Machiavelli, assembling all the scattered elements of his experience and adapting them to another and more spacious form of existence with which they, viewed in the light of their individual, limited significance, would not appear commensurate.”48 The emergence of the new is the productive result of the creative and imaginative self-activity of the political theorist, a self-activity which takes the form of the reintegration of historical fragments, of past reflections and interpretations, into a new and “wholly unforeseen unity.”49 The end of historical analysis is not the reproduction of a fixed narrative, but the expression and extension of a fundamental imaginative capacity: “The value of what he says does not lie in the exactness of the detail. It lies in his inexhaustible creativeness, which even overlooks known facts, because it strives above all after continual self-development and self-renewal through an ever-widening experience.”50

The significance of these two readings lay in their explicit identification of Machiavelli’s creative deployment of historical examples with his normative concern with the affirmation of the new: the selective representation and juxtaposition of examples is seen as being, not just oriented toward the stimulation of practical action in the world, but also a manifestation of the very principle of human creativity that makes possible political change.51 Nevertheless, the full significance of this identification is not grasped to the extent that both Jacobitti and Chabod ultimately reduce the general principles which are produced via the juxtaposition of examples to universal rules of behavior. That is to say, the arrangement of examples x, y, and z is said to articulate the general maxim or rule a, a maxim or rule that is seen as being universally applicable across social contexts. Both readers succumb to the totalizing temptation to reduce the constructed figure of thought to a general unity which simply makes itself apparent in the concrete-specific case through the mode of comparison. Hence Chabod claims that Machiavelli “in any single event detects the ever-recurring workings of a universal process that is part and parcel of the human story.”52 The general idea which is illumined by the critical reconstruction of the arrangement of particulars is seen as being eternally manifest in each of these particulars prior to their arrangement in thought. Here it seems as if the eternal simply resides in the being-itself of the particular, such that “Between to-day, i.e. the passing moment with its particular problems, and the eternal, i.e. the great and ever-valid laws of politics, there certainly remains a continuing connection, we might even say reciprocity.”53 This image of the relation between particular and universal, where the former simply bears the latter in various apparent ways, is not able to fully grasp the Machiavellian concept of novelty. Rather than interpret the particular as a derivation of the universal, I believe that we would do better to interpret the universal as the productive consequence of a specific organization of particulars, and hence lacking an independent being prior to this organization. I will argue that Machiavelli, to the extent that he establishes this relationship between universal and particular, anticipates a methodological mode which in the twentieth century would be most famously developed by Walter Benjamin, and which can be labeled thinking in constellations.54

Constellative thinking is distinct from traditional forms of comparative analysis that attempt to vertically relate concepts through the identification and isolation of the latter’s common derivation from a higher principle or term that remains static or fixed. It attempts to upset conceptual understandings that have ossified into second natures through the demonstration of the historical being of the phenomena under consideration. The theory of the constellation would be given its classic expression in Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Benjamin would initially distinguish between knowledge and truth, between philosophical representation and mathematical representation: “The more clearly mathematics demonstrate that the total elimination of the problem of representation – which is boasted by every didactic system – is the sign of genuine knowledge, the more conclusively does it reveal its renunciation of that area of truth towards which language is directed.”55 Philosophy must be oriented toward the representation of truth, as opposed to the acquisition of knowledge, which is characterized always by possession. Phenomena are capable of participating in truth only to the extent that they are able to elude assimilation into a system of acquired knowledge, only to the extent that their unity is broken up and their meaning multiplied. This multiplication is made possible through the empirical phenomenon’s representation in a concept placed in a specific historical constellation: “Through their mediating role concepts enable phenomena to participate in the existence of ideas. It is this same mediating role which fits them for the other equally basic task of philosophy, the representation of ideas.”56 As concepts are to knowledge, ideas are to truth. Truth, however, the representation of the idea, is not the representation of any determinate content, but rather the arrangement of the system of concepts: “For ideas are not represented in themselves, but solely and exclusively in an arrangement of concrete elements in the concept: as the configuration of those elements.”57 Whereas concepts delineate the nature of the empirical, ideas relate concepts to one another, truth laying in this contingent interrelatedness of concepts. To the extent that the arrangement of concepts in the idea is the foundation of the representative substance, neither concepts nor ideas present themselves as thematizable. The idea is simply the arrangement of such concepts, an arrangement that does not look toward the identification of static and singular contents: “When the idea absorbs a sequence of historical formulations, it does not do so in order to construct a unity out of them, let alone to abstract something common to them all.”58 Concepts are not extracted from ideas of which they participate a priori, but rather ideas are constructed historically through the critical arrangement of conceptual elements. In the case of Machiavelli this arrangement of elements, that is to say his prudently redeployed historical examples, results in the production of several unique ideas, the two most important of which are the image of the new prince as the virtuous political actor in The Prince, and the image of the republic as an institutional form capable of mediating civic life in common in the Discourses.

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