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How Is Machiavelli Relevant to American Politics?

ISSUE:  Autumn 1975
The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. By J. G. A. Pocock. Princeton University Press. $22.50.

ONE of Pocock’s intentions in this massive study is to “diminish the amount of magniloquent and unspecific interpretation” to which Machiavelli’s thought has been subjected. Yet it would be difficult to imagine an interpretation which attributes to Machiavelli greater influence than is implied in “The Machiavellian Moment.”

Indeed, it would appear that the Florentine Secretary’s preoccupation with virtù, his opposition to corruption and his lust for heroic, innovative action have combined to influence, through the “neoclassical republican tradition,” contemporary American politics in such a way as to explain the agony of Vietnam and other dilemmas of our politics. Before turning to this theme, however, let me indicate something about the work in general.

Pocock’s book abounds in paradoxes and convoluted arguments. It is often brilliant and erudite, and its central section—on Florentine republican thought from 1494 to 1530, wherein we are treated to careful and suggestive analyses of aspects of the political thought of Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Gianotti and Contarini—contains extremely valuable material usually neglected in the literature in English on the subject. Considered as a whole, however, the book is a disappointment. Stylistically, it lacks economy and elegance; it is not uncommon, for example, as on page 546, to encounter a sentence of 120 words in length. Substantively, it is deficient in the kind of sustained, disciplined, consistent argumentation that leaves the reader both clear about and inclined to accept the plausibility of its thesis. It is not so much a single book as it is a collection of related essays and/or monographs of uneven quality. Pocock is at his best when, as in the chapters on Guicciardini and Gianotti, he engages in the analysis and interpretation of primary sources. He is least impressive—at times he even sounds glib and misleading—when he is making grandiose pronouncements on the “medieval mind,” “the Athenians” and their conception of the relationship between philosophy and politics, “the Christian world-view,” which “of course” contained “the seeds of what was to supersede it,” etc.

The book, then, reveals a remarkable combination of extreme scholarly caution (replete with condescending asides directed at interpretations which violate the canons of what Pocock clearly believes to be self-evident truths) and broad-gauged generalizations which are often provocative and ingenious but which are unsupported by the careful documentation found in other parts of the work. What, for example, is one to make of a statement such as, “The Greek and Roman intellects saw little reason to expect anything very new [why very new?] to happen in the human future. . .” (p. 31) Which intellects? Which period? Can this statement possibly apply to Parmenides or Plato, whose work reveals a dramatic break with the traditional myths and who surely possessed what Eric Voegelin has termed a “sense of Epoch?” The statement, of course, contains a half-truth (the powerful hold of cyclical thinking in classical thought), but it is fuzzy and imprecise. Many of the claims made about radically different senses of time in the ancient, medieval and modern periods are too sweeping, implying that each period is a tight modal island. Pocock is too often emphatic where he should be tentative; he would do better to speak of tendencies and nuances, of beginnings and endings, rather than of discontinuous, self-contained historical periods.

A major objective of the work is to show the “strange way” in which the ideas of Machiavelli and Guicciardini “came together to form the classical republican tradition of northwest Europe and the Atlantic world.” (p. 186) The way from Renaissance Florence to the modern “Atlantic” political world is indeed “strange”—so strange that this reviewer has difficulty in following its course as charted by Pocock.

We are told, for example, that the premises of Thomas Jefferson’s political thought were “entirely Machiavellian.” (p. 211) Yet, the only two quotations from Jefferson himself are taken from Leo Marx’s book “The Machine in the Garden!” (pp. 532—533, 536) It is on this slender thread, rather than on any evidently extensive study of their writings, that we are to accept Pocock’s thesis that the political thought of the Founders in general and of Jefferson in particular reflects the classical republican rather than the Lockean liberal paradigm of politics and society. (He does not even mention the possibility that the Founders may have developed a paradigm uniquely their own.) Nor is Jefferson an exception; names are dropped and intellectual relationships asserted throughout the last section (on “The Americanization of Virtue,” pp. 506, ff.) as if no demonstration of their relevance or validity to the book’s major thesis were required. Perhaps the problem is that, given the very considerable length of the study, the author was forced to cut significant portions of the text in the last chapters. If that be so, it would have been preferable to bring the work out in two full-sized volumes rather than to leave the argument in its current, apparently drastically abbreviated form.

Leaving aside what, for all its virtuosity, is the book’s uneven and frequently impressionistic account of the neo-classical republican tradition as it crosses the Alps and enters the English-speaking world, how is one to judge Pocock’s evaluation of that tradition? Despite a certain admiration which he holds for “civic humanism,” the author clearly regards this school of political thinking to have been burdened with grave weaknesses. One of his objections is that the humanist tradition did not recognize sufficiently the “positive, as opposed to the preservative, exercise of power.” It could not anticipate the rise of the modern administrative state, or of “government as a positive or creative activity.” This was because it tended to be “exclusively concerned with how the citizen is to develop his human capacities by participating in decisions aimed at the subjection of private to public goods.” (p. 329)

Another related but more serious objection which Pocock has to classical republicanism of the “Machiavellian” school (however paradoxical this may sound) has to do with its “obstinately durable moralism.” That is, Machiavelli and his “descendants” are too concerned about promoting and maintaining the virtu or public-spiritedness of the citizens and of the world in general. The republican tradition’s obsession with “virtue” in this sense leads those who share the classical vision to missionary efforts at transforming the world, as well as to the production of “jeremiads” (one of Pocock’s favorite pejorative terms) when these efforts fail, as inevitably they must in this corrupt and incorrigible world. Thus, Pocock concludes his book with the following observations:

In the final analysis, the ideal of virtue is highly compulsive; it demands of the individual, under threat to his moral being, that he participate in the res publica. We have found areas of eighteenth-century thought in which the partial withdrawal from citizenship to pursue commerce appeared as a rebellion against virtue and its repressive demands; the republic asked too much of the individual in the form of austerity and autonomy, participation and virtue, and the diversification of life by commerce and the arts offered him the world of Pericles in place of that of Lycurgus, a choice worth paying for with a little corruption. The “liberalism” which some now find an impoverishment did not appear so then. . .

. . . To a Greek it would appear . . . that every human virtue had its excess, and that civic or political virtue was no exception. There is a freedom to decline moral absolutes; even those of the polis and history, even that of freedom when proposed as an absolute, [pp. 551—552 (End)]

Thus, at the end we are left with a tired, skeptical “liberalism” which has nothing more to offer than the “politics of pragmatic adjustment.” Pocock is the enemy of all enthusiasm and sense of national mission, which perforce apparently must end in ill-starred enterprises such as the American involvement in Vietnam and then in sounding the “national jeremiad” in “particularly anguished terms,” once the involvement has failed. Doubtless there are dangers and excesses in the Machiavellian vision—and I think Pocock is basically correct in seeing Machiavelli as a neoclassical republican even though there are other important dimensions to his teaching—but the leap from the defectiveness of that vision to Vietnam, Agnew and Ehrlichman (pp. 544, 548) is so sudden as to appear arbitrary.

There is a way of absorbing the lesson of Vietnam which involves neither the rejection of all idealism in politics nor the self-defeating use of our freedom to “decline . . . freedom” when it is “proposed as an absolute.” Machiavelli’s relevance for the present time might alternatively be seen as demonstrating the need for a more profound understanding of the good life in freedom than the Florentine Secretary himself possessed; the lesson we are to draw from studying him is not to reject any sort of idealism or any sense of national mission, nor is it to accept complacently the existence of corruption in our political processes. For an indefinite time to come, America remains the “last, best hope of earth” for human freedom. Perhaps Professor Pocock would term such a statement “apocalyptical” or “Savanarolan.” I would simply term it Jeffersonian, as I understand Thomas Jefferson, and American, as I understand the best in the American tradition.


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