Machiavelli, Hobbes, & Freedom (was Re: Class Ceiling--Ehrenreich)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Sun Mar 26 05:48:53 PST 2000

James Farmelant wrote:

>That BTW seems to be the way that many people read *The Prince*
>back in the 18th century. I seem to remember Rousseau describing
>it as a bible for republicans. Marx as I recall also had kind words for
>Machiavelli. In the 20th century Gramsci chose to title one
>of his books The Modern Prince so apparently this way of reading
>Machiavelli has a fairly long and distinguished history.

There is a short book (only 142 pages, including the index & bibliography) titled _Liberty before Liberalism_ by Quentin Skinner, which explains the influence of Machiavelli on the republican conception of freedom very succinctly. Skinner argues that Machiavelli, among others, helped to invent a "neo-roman" theory of freedom. From the Renaissance on, many political writers turned toward such Roman writers as Livy, Sallust, Tacitus, etc. to define their conception of freedom, against the competing liberal notion of freedom.

According to Skinner, the essence of republican thought on freedom is that "it is only possible to enjoy civil liberty to the full if you live as the citizen of a free state" (68). In contrast, the liberal notion of freedom is simply defined by "the Silence of the Law": "In cases where the Soveraign has prescribed no rule, there the Subject hath the Liberty to do, or forebeare, according to his own discretion" (Hobbes, _Leviathan_). Skinner says that the Hobbesian notion of negative liberty eventually came to eclipse the republican one, dominating our modern sense of freedom. When one holds the liberal, as opposed to republican, notion of negative freedom, one may as well conclude, as Hobbes, Henry Sidgwick, Isaiah Berlin, etc. did, that "individual freedom has no necessary connection with forms of government, since it is perfectly possible for a representative legislature to 'interfere with the free action of individuals more than an absolute monarch'" (Skinner 98-9). In this liberal view, liberty depends "not on who wields authority but merely on how much authority is placed in anyone's hands" (Skinner 115).

What has been lost to us with the eclipse of the republican thought on freedom? Two intertwined concepts have waned: (a) the idea that a state (= a civic association) must be free -- i.e. free from dependence on another state's power, governed only by laws of its own making -- for citizens to enjoy freedom; and (b) citizens must actively exercise an equal right in the making of laws, submitting only to "such Laws as our selves shall choose" (Milton, qtd. in Skinner 30). It is this doubled sense of self-government -- a nation governing itself = citizens governing themselves -- that defined republican freedom bequeathed by Machiavelli.

No nation in the world has ever realized the dream of republican freedom. Self-government in the Machiavellian sense is an unfinished project of modernity, a project that cannot be completed within the world market. It goes without saying that the task of _practically_ bringing the Machiavellian freedom in harmony with the Hobbesian one -- the free development of each as the condition for the free development of all -- has yet to emerge on our political horizon.


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