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Republicanism ()

The noble purpose of Mr. Viroli's brief text is to revitalize the idea of classical republicanism, in particular to "strengthen the civic consciousness of my country's [Italy's] political leaders and citizens." But the sad reality is that it's hard to imagine much of anyone outside of American conservatism taking him seriously.

That he is making an essentially conservative argument is obvious when he states the case for republicanism as follows:

Unlike a natural science, political science proceeds not by inventing new theories to replace old ones but by rediscovering and refining forgotten ideas and themes; and sometimes the work of rediscovery helps actual political practice. It is with this in mind that I am proposing this consideration of republicanism, written from an Italian perspective for English-speaking readers.

Republicanism in its classical version, which I identify with Niccolo Machiavelli, is not a theory of participatory democracy, as some theorists claim, having in mind more recent sources. It is, rather, a theory of political liberty that considers citizens' participation in sovereign deliberation necessary to the defense of liberty only when it remains within well-defined boundaries. Maintaining that sovereign deliberations--deliberations that concern the whole body of citizens--must be entrusted to the citizens themselves, republican theorists derived their principle of self-government from the Roman law that "what affects all must be decided by all." The idea was that self-interest would recommend to citizens that they deliberate for the common good, since those who participated were all equally affected.

If sovereign deliberations are entrusted to a large body rather than a small one, it is more likely that the council or legislature will have the political strength to carry out the common good against factional interests.

If that all seems a bit obscure, it may help to think of it in these terms: The end of republicanism is the establishment and protection of liberty, not of democracy. To the extent that democracy conflicts with liberty a republican will oppose democracy, a democrat will sacrifice liberty.

Now, at first blush this formulation may sound appealing to libertarians and advocates of social permissiveness and license, but that merely reflects a faulty understanding of liberty:

Classical republican writers maintained that to be free means to not be dominated--that is, not to be dependent on the arbitrary will of other individuals. The source of this interpretation of political liberty was the principle of Roman law that defines the status of a free person as not being subject to the arbitrary will of another person--in contrast to a slave, who is dependent on another person's will. As the individual is free when he or she has legal and political rights, so a people or a city is free insofar as it lives under its own laws. [...]

Classical republican theorists also stressed that the constraint that fair laws impose on an individual's choices is not a restriction of liberty but an essential element of political liberty itself. They also believed that restrictions imposed by the law on the actions of rulers as well as of ordinary citizens are the only valid shield against coercion on the part of any person or persons. Machiavelli forcefully expressed this belief in his Discourses on Livy (I.29), when he wrote that if there is even one citizen whom the magistrates fear and who has the power to break the law, then the entire city cannot be said to be free. It can be said to be free only when its laws and constitutional orders effectively restrain the arrogance of nobles and the licentiousness of the people.

In an age when individualists and relativists insist that freedom means the "right" to make any "choice" you see fit, such a concept of liberty will necessarily seem shocking. Such folk believe that any restriction on human action is an unjust imposition, but they've confused personal libertinism with political freedom:

Action regulated by law is free...not when the law is accepted voluntarily, or when it corresponds to the desires of the citizens, but when the law is not arbitrary, that is, when it respects universal norms (when it applies to all individuals or to all members of the group in question), aspires to the public good, and for this reason protects the will of the citizens from the constant danger of constraint imposed by individuals and therefore renders the will fully autonomous.

If we take just one contentious issue from the most recent American election, the bans on gay marriage adopted by several states, we can see that--regardless of the fact that they regulate action--because they are universally applicable, fairly arrived at through deliberative processes of the whole citizenry, and motivated by the public good, they are wholly consistent with liberty.

Ah, but you'll have noticed that we've cheated here. In the first instance, we've just accepted that liberty, in and of itself, should be the end towards which our political system aims and, in a related cop out, we've avoided determining, or setting out ways to determine, what is the "public good." Alas, Mr. Viroli is quite weak in this area, because his argument is that civic virtue and republican patriotism can be secular and do not require religious foundations, do not even require cultural homogeneity. He ends up contradicting himself:

In response to Tocqueville's view that it is existentially impossible to live free without the support of the certainties of religion, I believe we may say that political liberty is more in need of the sense of doubt proper to the secular soul than the certainties of religious faith. It needs people who have strong views about political and moral values but with equal passion believe in and experience these values not as absolute truths but as possible choices alongside other possible choices.

He's just refuted what he previously presented as a core idea of republicanism, that liberty is consistent with the limitation of choice. But it's quite true that secularism offers no guidance as to how we should judge among various choices, so a secular republic can have no basis for determining that the public good is being served by limiting any choice. As Doestoevsky famously observed: if there is no God then everything is permitted.

This brings us to the problem with identifying liberty as the free-floating end of a political system. It would be perfectly consistent with the classical republicanism and republican liberty that Mr. Viroli lays out for a republic to determine that all of its citizens should be murdered when they reach age 65 or that each family have only one child, with any subsequent pregnancies ending in murder. Even though obedient to the forms of republicanism we could easily arrive at a republic of evil. Obviously republicanism and the liberty it seeks to propagate are merely means to a higher end, the creation of a decent, which is to say moral, society. As Robert Kraynak has written, for that we require God and, sadly for Mr. Viroli, God is not, as Mr. Kraynak points out, as liberal as we would like Him to be. God not only provides the basis for judging among possible choices and determining which will serve the common good, but requires us to make certain choices and forbids others. This is good news if we're serious about republicanism and liberty, but bad news if we're wedded, as is Mr. Viroli, to the idea of secular soulfulness and limitless choice.

The failure to reckon with the dilemmas he creates for himself mars what is otherwise a very fine and much needed book.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Maurizio Viroli Links:

    -Department of Politics - Maurizio Viroli (Princeton University)
    -BOOKNOTES: Niccolo's Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli by Maurizio Viroli (C-SPAN, February 18, 2001)
    -ESSAY: What are American citizens' obligations in the war on terrorism? (Maurizio Viroli, 10/10/02, Princetonian)
    -EXCERPTS: Maurizio Viroli on civic humanism, civil philosophy and communitarianism (Civic Humanism)
    -EXCERPT: Maurizio Viroli: The Theory of the Republic (Civic Humanism)
    -REVIEW: of "Niccolo's Smile" by Maurizio Viroli (Minna Proctor, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of "Niccolo's Smile" by Maurizio Viroli (Winfield J.C. Myers, Texas Education Review)
    -REVIEW: Maurizio Viroli. Niccolo's Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli. Translated Antony Shugaar (Jonathan Davies, H-Ideas)
    -REVIEW : of Niccol's Smile A Biography of Machiavelli. By Maurizio Viroli (Alexander Stille, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Niccolo's Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli by Maurizio Viroli (John Adamson, booksonline)
    -REVIEW : of Niccolo's Smile by Maurizio Viroli (John Gray, Independent uk)
    -REVIEW : of Prince of the City For much of the fifteenth century, Cosimo de' Medici and his family were the most important patrons of art in Italy. Dale Kent is the first person to attempt a synthetic account of Cosimo's patronage (Andrew Butterfield, The New Republic, June 11, 2001)
    -REVIEW: Viroli, Maurizio. For Love of Country: An Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism (Tom Donahue, Thed Nationalism Project)

    -Niccoló Macchiavelli (kirjasto)
    -The San Antonio College LitWeb Machiavelli Page
    -Niccolo (di Bernardo) Machiavelli 1469-1527 (PROFESSOR ANDREAS TEUBER)
    -E Machiavelli
    -ARCHIVES : machiavelli (Find Articles)
    -ETEXT : The Prince by Nicolo Machiavelli Written c. 1505, published 1515 Translated by W. K. Marriott
    -ETEXT : The Prince by Nicolo Machiavelli (Classic Reader)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE : The Prince (Joel Walsh , SparkNotes)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE : The Prince (Novel Guide)
    -Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) (Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy)
    -Niccolo Machiavelli : Italian Statesman and Political Philosopher 1469 - 1527 (Lucid Cafe)
    -Niccolo Machiavelli (Richard Hooker)
    -About Niccolo Machiavelli (Classic Notes)
    -Niccolo Machiavelli, 1469-1527 (The History Guide)
    -Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) (The Academy Site)
    -OUTLINE : of The Prince
    -Landmarks in Critical Thinking Series: Machiavelli's The Prince (Merrilee H. Salmon)
    -Machiavelli's The Prince
    -ESSAY : Machiavelli on Modern Leadership: Why Machiavelli's Iron Rules Are as Timely Today as Five Centuries Ago (Michael A. Ledeen, AEI)
    -ESSAY : Machiavelli: Prince of Politicians? (
    -ESSAY : To Serve and Protect : Machiavelli's Views on Virtue, Neccessity, and Fortune (Nick Russo, 09 December 1996)
    -ESSAY : The Morality of The Prince
    -ESSAY : Machiavelli and the Moral Dilemma of Statecraft
    -ESSAY : The Pillars of Unbelief: Machiavelli (PETER KREEFT, Catholic Educator's Resource Center)
    -ESSAY : A Communication between Two Great Philosophers in History : This piece was written as a letter to Aristotle from Machiavelli. He is responding to Aristotle's statements regarding The Prince. (Anna Rankin, Res Publica, Winter 1997)
    -ESSAY : The Return of Ancient Times : Why the warrior politics of the twenty-first century will demand a pagan ethos (Robert D. Kaplan, June 2000, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : Machiavelli and Plato: virtue vs. justice
    -ESSAY : Clinton: Machiavelli's Indolent Prince (Michael Ledeen, FrontPage Magazine on April 29, 1999)
    -ESSAY : Machiavellian Virtue and Vice in Richard III (Marilyn Walker, 9/18/97)
    -The Renaissance Conflict Between 'Virtu' and Christian Virtue
    -ESSAY : Starship Troopers, Civic Virtue, and the American Civil War (Mark Grimsley)
    -ESSAY : POLICY OF TERROR AND WESTERN VIRTUE IN EUROPEAN INSECURITY (Anssi K. Kullberg, August, 2000, The Eurasian Politician)
    -ESSAY : The P/E Ratio That Really Counts (Carole L. Jurkiewicz, Ph.D. and Roger G. Brown, Ph.D., Department of Political Science,
University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Journal of Power & Ethics)
    -ESSAY : Republicanism and Democracy (Bo LI, Perspectives)
    -Journal of Power and Ethics: An Interdisciplinary Review
    -REVIEW : of Niccol's Smile A Biography of Machiavelli. By Maurizio Viroli (Alexander Stille, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Niccolo's Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli by Maurizio Viroli (John Adamson, booksonline)
    -REVIEW : of Niccolo's Smile by Maurizio Viroli (John Gray, Independent uk)
    -REVIEW : of Prince of the City For much of the fifteenth century, Cosimo de' Medici and his family were the most important patrons of art in Italy. Dale Kent is the first person to attempt a synthetic account of Cosimo's patronage (Andrew Butterfield, The New Republic, June 11, 2001)
    -REVIEW : of Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics, by Ruth W. Grant (Peter Berkowitz, THE NEW REPUBLIC,  September 1, 1997)
    -REVIEW : of DEFINING MOMENTS : When Managers Must Choose Between Right and Right By Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. (KEITH H. HAMMONDS, Business Week)
    -REVIEW : of THE NEW PRINCE Machiavelli Updated for the Twenty-first Century. By Dick Morris (Andrew Sullivan, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Leo Strauss on Machiavelli (Robert J. McShea, December 1963, The Western Political Quarterly)

Book-related and General Links:

    -REVIEW ESSAY: Exploring Our Ancient Faith : a review of Our Ancient Faith: Lincoln, Democracy, and the American Experiment by Allen C. Guelzo (Lucas Morel, 5/05/24, Public Discourse)
    -ESSAY: Conservative Roots of Republicanism (Manjeet Ramgotra, 2014, Theoria)
    -PODCAST: Philip Pettit on What It Means to Be Free: Yascha Mounk and Philip Pettit discuss small-r “republicanism” and how to make sure people don’t suffer from domination. (Persuasion, DEC 9, 2023)
    -ESSAY: Keeping Republican Freedom Simple: On a Difference with Quentin Skinner (Philip N Pettit, June 2002, Political Theory)
    -ESSAY: Toward a Republican Liberalism (John Ferejohn and Frances Rosenbluth, February 2006, academia)
    -ESSAY: The Tension between Law and Politics in the Modern Republican Tradition (2013) (Marco Geuna, Academia)
    -ESSAY: Conservative Roots of Republicanism (Manjeet Ramgotra, academia)
-REVIEW: of CATHARINE MACAULAY Political writings, Max Skjönsberg, editor: An advocate of republican liberty and women’s rights whose history of England outsold David Hume’s (Geertje Bol, TLS)
    -ESSAY: Learning from Publius (Steven B. Smith, Winter 2023, National Affairs)
    -ESSAY: Revisiting "Liberty" (ANTHONY ESOLEN, 1/11/23, CERC)
    -ESSAY: Republicanism and “The Federalist” Papers (George W. Carey, November 9th, 2022, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: What’s Wrong with Social Contract Theory: Although social contract theory is a prominent feature of the American founding, it is both unsound and harmful to a proper understanding of politics. This fact presents a challenge to any form of conservatism that is based upon protecting and promoting the principles of the American founding. (NATHAN SCHLUETER, 10/20/22, Public Discourse)
    -ESSAY: A Forgotten Champion of Religious Liberty: Dirck Coornhert's 1582 Synod on the Freedom of Conscience speaks to our polarized age. (Joseph Loconte, 9/16/22, Law & Liberty)
    -ESSAY: THE FBI'S MAR-A-LAGO SEARCH WAS 1,500 YEARS IN THE MAKING (Asha Rangappa and Jennifer Mercieca, AUGUST 31, 2022, Zocalo Public Square)
    -ESSAY: Cicero: A Republic — If You Can Keep It (Joseph Loconte, Sep. 5th, 2021, National Review)
    -ESSAY: What Would Cicero See in American Governance Today?:: Before the Rise of Caesar, the Roman Statesman Predicted How the Spread of Lawlessness Could Destroy a Republic (Edward Watts, SEPTEMBER 23, 2020, Zocalo Public Square)
    -ESSAY: How to be ‘liberal’, according to the ancients (Peter jones, 2/04/21, The Spectator)
    -ESSAY: COMPLACENCY—NOT HUBRIS—IS WHAT KILLED THE ROMAN REPUBLIC: Over the Years, Democratic Norms Quietly Eroded, Not Unlike in Today's America (EDWARD J. WATTS | FEBRUARY 26, 2019, Zocalo Public Square)
    -ESSAY: American Machiavelli (Daniel McCarthy, OCTOBER 28, 2014, American Conservative)
    -ESSAY:Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land:Christianity and the Creation Of the American Republic (Mark David Hall, June 16, 2020, Cato Unbound)


    -OBIT: J.G.A. Pocock 1924-2023 (London Review of Books, 12/19/23)
-TRIBUTE: J G A Pocock: the Antipodean’s view of Europe: John Pocock defended Britain in its broadest sense (Yuan Yi Zhu, 19 December, 2023, The Critic)