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The subject of this doctoral thesis is a critical investigation and an evaluation of Machiavelli’s understanding of the political. Claude Lefort was the first to interpret the Florentine thinker as the theorist of the political in the sense of the original dimensionality of society. The mayor topic of his chef-d'oeuvre Le Travail de l'oeuvre Machiavel (1972) is class division as the foundational political principle which sets in motion a spectrum of different types of society. The function of power is the regulation of social division, and a concrete form of society in a given space and time depends on the type of political intervention. This unique reading of Machiavelli was made possible in a fruitful critical dialogue with another important philosophical interpretation of Machiavelli's political texts, that of Leo Strauss, formed in his celebrated book Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958). Lefort and Strauss as readers of Machiavelli's major political works the Prince and the Discourses form the backbone of this dissertation which consists of four chapters.
In the first chapter we investigate some of the key methodological assumptions of Lefort’s and Strauss’s interpretation of the Florentine. Although both readings represent textual approaches to Machiavelli’s political works, we put emphasis on some important methodological differences between them, which in turn lead to essentially different results in their respective analyses of the project Prince-Discourses. The starting point of Lefort’s approach to Machiavelli’s texts is the experience of the People as a class, who are being severely oppressed by the Greats in the Florence of Machiavelli’s time. The goal of Florentine’s specific reading of the history of Rome is to dissolve a dominant representation of Roman Republic. Machiavelli is dedicated to invent such a representation of Rome which could inspire his contemporaries to intervene in the corrupted conjuncture of the Florence that recently led to the collapse of the glorious republic. Lefort argues that the interpretation of the work of thought [oeuvre de pensée] represents a collective reading. The space of the work of thought consists of the original author’s text together with the critical literature which has been developed around it. Others are indispensable for our own reading since they enable us to become more sensible for the multiple subtle signs in the text that direct us towards its hidden message. In turn, our initial certainty about the real subject of the work is radically shaken. According to Lefort, the text of a classical author does not possess one final, objective meaning which the interpreter could decipher in the text. On the contrary, the work of though requires active participation on our
part, an intervention in the text from the position of our own space and time. The work of thought is the space of continuous expansion and movement. Interpretation is an infinitive process.
The Florentine’s art of twofold writing is the result of his hard and courageous project directed towards methodological destruction of the dominant principles which direct thinking about politics and society in his time. Machiavelli’s thought slowly, but decisively, through relentless critical questioning of the prevailing understanding of man, opens up a completely new space of knowledge. On the other hand, Strauss too distinguishes between manifest (exoteric) and hidden (esoteric) part of Machiavelli’s teaching. However, he argues that Machiavelli invented various rhetorical strategies and used them as guidelines for his most attentive readers - philosophers, who are supposed to grasp the true, secret, hidden part of his teaching. Machiavelli is a complete master of the meaning of his work and every word of his text is the result of the most careful consideration. While trying to resolve the tricks and enigmas in his texts, Machiavelli’s best readers in fact start to think in a perverse, Machiavellian manner, as the Florentine corrupts their minds and hearts. The main aim of Machiavelli’s twofold art of writing is to recruit his own troops, who will further communicate his teaching to the masses and fight on his side in the spiritual war against Christianity and classical political philosophy. In the same time, in the secret, esoteric part of the Thoughts on Machiavelli, Strauss himself tends to recruit his own army against Machiavelli’s modern soldiers. It is important to notice that under the mask of an interpreter, Strauss in fact seeks to dethrone Machiavelli and establish himself as a new prince.
In the second chapter we inquire closely into Strauss’s teaching on Machiavelli. Strauss argues that the Florentine is a philosopher. Machiavelli’s philosophical project is initially directed against Christianity and the Church which have made the world cruel, weak and dangerous place. For Machiavelli Christianity is in reality a form of sophisticated rule over men. Through the astute tool of propaganda, in the name of the eternal life and heavenly fatherland and in the form of a non-violent movement, Church won the support of the masses, and it triumphantly reigns over the Earthly world. It is important to notice that Christianity, in at least one important dimension, represents the continuation of classical political philosophy. Christianity takes over the idea of the Good that is exterior to the City, and that City seeks to realize. Starting from the premise of the highest Good, society develops a hierarchy of goals. In republica christiana the highest goal is the salvation of the soul. Political action is severely constrained by the criterion of an absolute, religious morality, which in the same time masks the existence of oppression in society. Machiavelli’s rebellion is directed towards the point of intersection between the Christianity and the Great Tradition: the primacy of morality over politics. Both traditions seek to find the best type of political order starting from the premise of what ought to be, which leads them to imagine pure utopian models which can never be realized in practice. On the other hand, Machiavelli starts his project form the premise of what is in order to produce a useful model for the organisation of political life. Starting from the effectual truth Machiavelli is led to drastically lower the standards of the Classics. The Florentine argues that people as a whole are selfish, and as a result, they are not directed towards society and virtue, but towards realisation of their egoistic interests: acquisition of material goods, honours and glory. Still, they are malleable. The new, lowered standard for human behaviour and action is manifested in political responses to the requirements of the necessity. For Machiavelli the virtue consists of all the actions which can bring effective results in a given situation. Since the beginning of every society requires terror, in order for the new prince to succeed in his project of establishment of a lasting society, he has to learn how not to be good. By postulating the City as self-sufficient entity, Machiavelli completely abandons the idea of the Good above the City, and he inaugurates modern political thought which seeks to entirely master the fortuna. Strauss argues that the Florentine is the first philosopher who openly, in his own name, provided the justification of a truly evil political thinking. The main thread of Strauss’s interpretation of Machiavelli is manifested in the understanding of public good as collective selfishness that is derived from the essential similarity between the desires of the Grandees and the People: both classes are directed towards merciless acquisition. In the framework of Machiavelli’s political texts, the Grandees withhold their primacy. They are granted with the function of the princes in the republic. But as the leading class in the republic, they are driven only by their selfish interests, rather than the moral virtue. Although the desires of the Grandees and the People and similar, their natural characteristics are different. The result of this fortunate combination in the best case is an oligarchic republic which represents Machiavelli’s version of the best regime. It is led by immoral, rapacious but shrewd Grandees, who use the naïve plebs as the instrument for the realization of the highest goal of the best republic: external expansion and the creation of an empire. The enlightened self-interest becomes the only glue of the new, modern society. In the opinion of Strauss, Machiavelli’s modern teaching represents an enormous reduction of the horizons of the Ancients. In the third chapter we are dealing with Lefort’s reading of the project Prince-Disourses. We begin by placing Lefort in the context of the French political though of the last third of the 20th century, and we bring forward a short review of his specific understanding of democracy that is derived primarily from his earlier investigations of Machiavelli’s work of thought. In Lefort’s opinion, Machiavelli’s general teaching is predominantly contained in the following texts: the first book of The Discourses and The Prince. This teaching represents a theoretical framework intended to enable the intervention on the side of the class of the People. In the third book of Discourses we find out that the collapse of Florentine Republic was the result of the exclusion of the People from the equal participation in the City. The problem of the Florentine Republic are the Grandees who took over the institutions of the state. They use public institutions as the instruments for promotion of their particular class interests. In the same time Grandees strategically use an ideological discourse of stability, unity and moderation in order to justify the status quo. They consciously produce a certain mythological, conservative image of Rome, which has an enormous symbolical importance for the Florentines. The prevailing image of Rome is the one of a concordant and peaceful City which in turn delegitimizes the very possibility of the resistance of the People, who are in reality de facto excluded from the City. In order to intervene in the Florence of his time, Machiavelli recreates and rediscovers Rome. The new Rome that he finds is a dynamic society which accepts and affirms class conflict. The Florentine puts the conflict of the Grandees and the People in the centre of every City as the source of its strength, laws and freedom. Class conflict is presented as the universal characteristics of all societies, ancient or modern, since in every society there are two classes which are defined through the relation of their antagonistic and equally insatiable desires: while the Grandees want to oppress, dominate and master the People, the People simply do not want to be oppressed by the Grandees. Their desires are essentially different: while the Grandees desire to acquire/to have, the People desire to be/to survive. The very nature of the class conflict is such that it can never be resolved. The society can never be entirely reduced to the unity Lefort grants Machiavelli with the discovery of the original social division and proclaims the Florentine as the inventor of the new political ontology. Machiavelli offers a new definition of political problem since the foundational principle of any form of society is the original social division. The two forms of government, the principality and the republic, represent different answers to the same problem of class division. In the eyes of Lefort, Machiavelli is a theorist of the political: the Florentine is concerned with the investigation of the possibilities of ways of constituting a strong and potent society which is founded on the irresolvable division of
desires. The political order which seeks to achieve durability and maximal stamina must win the support of the People. Machiavelli’s nuovi modi e ordini signify a state based on the desire of the People not to be oppressed and commanded by the Grandees. The class of the People is the true guardian of the liberty of society and it is a source of its strength. In this sense Machiavelli’s teaching brings forward an authentic theory of democracy. Founding the state on the People does not mean a mere promotion of one-sided class politics, but on the contrary, it secures the space for the Grandees as well. The Grandees remain, but their domination is restricted. Symbolic dimension of politics is of the utmost importance for the very possibility of the success of the prince. The class of the People is capable of imagining the possibility of another, different reality, if the prince is virtuous enough to produce a right image which can inspire the plebs. This image is only partly an illusion, and it has to be connected with the desire of the People for freedom, since only in this case it can potentially limit the domination of the Grandees, lead to partial emancipation of the People and eventually result in the foundation of a powerful, democratic republic. Although in a situation of an extensive corruption of the society the only solution is represented in the figure of the prince, Lefort seeks to show that Machiavelli generally prefers republics over principalities, since the desire of the plebs in republics is more alive and more vibrant which in turn, from the standpoint of the society as a whole, enables a wider political project. Starting from the perspective of the original social division, Lefort is lead to a specific understanding of relation between internal (class) and external politics in Machiavelli, which forms the key part of the second book of the Discourses. In opposition to Strauss, Lefort convincingly argues that the appropriately arranged internal politics, founded on the desire of the People, cannot lead to the predominance of an aggressive, expansionistic external politics, since the contingency which is derived from the original social conflict can never be entirely supervened. Behind the attempt to reduce the desire of the People to the desire for domination, we are invited to recognize a fatal trap designed by the Greats which aims at equalization of two desires. The idea of empire which seeks to abolish external contingency, is foreign to the very nature of Machiavelli’s political teaching.
The eventual corruption of the republic stems from the inappropriate regulation of the class conflict. If the appetites of the Grandees for the acquisition are not timely limited, the republic displays its tyrannical face, and in this case the People can be reduced to their most dangerous, caricatural figure, led by pure envy and hatred towards Grandees. If the functioning of the republic is no more directed towards protection of the week and the oppressed, the conspiracy against the fatherland becomes legitimate. Lefort argues that Machiavelli’s pact with the young and their preparation for conspiracy is directed towards the recovery of free way of life. Conspiracy can develop its full potential only if it is conducted on the assumption of the appropriate knowledge of the real nature of every society as essentially political, which forms the context for the appropriate interpretation of the third book of the Discourses.
In the forth chapter we analyse the advantages of Lefort’s interpretation of Machiavelli in relation to the analysis conducted by Strauss. The difference in their respective understanding of the relation of the internal and external politics in the thought of the Florentine is itself derived from the key innovation of Lefort’s reading relating to the discovery of Machiavelli’s twofold revolution in the theory of desire. Similarly to Strauss, Lefort recognizes Machiavelli’s novel understanding of the desire of the Grandees. Because of the fear of losing what they already posses, Grandees necessarily want more. In opposition to the understanding of Tradition, their desire is not to keep and preserve, but to have more and to acquire. In distinction to Strauss, this finding brings Lefort to highlight the novel understanding of the desire of the People in Machiavelli. Lefort argues that in the eyes of the Florentine, the desire of the People, which was previously mistakenly condemned as the pure aggression against the order and unconstrained appetite directed towards acquisition, is in fact a defensive, negatively directed desire not to be oppressed and commanded by the Grandees. Machiavelli’s teaching is not reducible to the violent and unrestrained demolition of the Great Tradition as Strauss reasons, since the Florentine is offering a completely novel understanding of the Whole which is irretrievably divided by the class conflict. Although the conflict itself is irresolvable, it is still suitable for regulation, and this is the task of political power. Therefore, Machiavelli does not intend to corrupt his young readers with the evil teaching by simply lowering the standards of the Great Tradition. He is opening them towards a completely new knowledge. The power is essentially depended on the division since it derives its meaning and its life from the division itself. However, in the same time power is not helpless, and if it is in the possession of the right kind of knowledge about the nature of the classes engaged in the conflict, it can take the advantage of the potential which is already inscribed in the division. Under the presumption of a prudent, thinking politics, political authority can intervene in the class conflict and create a strong society. Political instance is invited to recognise its
interrelation with the desire of the People. Machiavelli’s teaching contains an authentic theory of democracy.
Symbolic dimension of politics is vital for the very possibility of the existence of society founded upon division. The empty place of power formed in the two-step project Prince-Discourses, which to an important extent corresponds to Machiavelli’s understanding of the state, performs a foundational function since it maintains the difference between the real and the symbolic, and enables the society to continuously reproduce itself, avoiding its dangerous closure in the immanent. In the eyes of Strauss Machiavelli is a philosopher who tends to abolish the philosophy itself, since the philosophy is entirely directed towards practical mastering of the nature by reason. On the other hand, in the opinion of Lefort, Machiavelli is a political theorist who discovered a new political ontology stemming from the irresolvable class conflict. Therefore, politics cannot be reduced to a technique of mastering the fortune. In the same time, from Lefort’s perspective, Machiavelli’s teaching is not by any means reducible to an abstract philosophism. The very nature of the modern society of division requires primarily directing our attention to practical, political responses to the requirements of conjecture and events which are derived from the original social division. In the framework of Machiavelli’s system of thought political theory becomes prima philosophia.
In the second part of the fourth chapter we indicate some possible implications of Machiavelli’s teaching for contemporary theories of recognition, as well as for the existing social and political movements striving for due recognition, especially the LGBTQ movement. We find a strong support for such a reinterpretation of the Florentine in his understanding of the political founded on his innovation in the theory of desire. The desire of the People and their continuous resistance against the domination and the oppression of the Grandees can be interpreted in positive terms as the struggle for recognition. However, the function of the prince is to prevent the assimilation and the neutralisation of the desire of the People and its reduction under the framework of the dominant political and social order. The prince is invited to produce an image which will enable an innovative reflection of the Grandees and the plebs. This image is intended to enable the development of class-consciousness for each of the two classes. It is decisive that the members of the People, with the support of the prince, develop their authentic and irreducible selves, since the production of a powerful and vigorous society is directly dependent on it. Starting from Lefort’s methodological premises, and building further on the results of his investigation of Machiavelli’s political texts, in the framework of this dissertation the Florentine is transformed into a theorist with a queer face.