Niccolò Machiavelli Chose the People Against the Oligarchy

Forget the stereotypical view of Machiavelli as the champion of cynical statecraft and Realpolitik. The Italian political philosopher was a hostile critic of oligarchic rule who wanted to empower the people and unleash their creativity.

Etching of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), ca. 1856. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) was not alone in having confidence in his own intellectual stature, moral courage, and commitment to the Republic of Florence. Deprived of full citizenship status due to the enforcement of bastardy laws, he was nonetheless elected in 1498 as head of the second chancery by the Great Council.

He was then confirmed in this position for fourteen years until the Medici forces, backed by the Spanish army, took the city and closed the Great Council, putting an end to the experience of the “popular state.” During his numerous diplomatic missions in Italy and abroad, Machiavelli impressed the members of the government as well as his colleagues at the chancery by the quality of his reporting, and the frankness and lucidity with which his analyses were expressed.

On the other hand, Machiavelli irritated that part of the citizenry whose members liked to call themselves the ottimati (“the best”). Especially obnoxious to some members of the power elite was his project of a republican militia based on mass conscription, recognized as a major threat to their social influence and positions. And after his personal success in reunifying Florentine Tuscany in 1509, a friend of his went as far as parodying the gospel to call him “a greater prophet than the Jews or any other people ever had.”

Not to Mingle With

Gabriele Pedullà, one of the most important current Italian specialists of Machiavelli, has taken this astounding quotation from a letter by Filippo Casavecchia as an epigraph to his recent outline of Machiavelli’s life, works, and contested legacies. In the same letter, Casavecchia also expressed his doubts that Machiavelli’s “philosophy will ever speak to fools.”

Casavecchia was the first person to read, in late 1513, the freshly completed manuscript of The Prince, a book in which Machiavelli’s “prophecy” took the form of an exhortation. The book was addressed to Lorenzo de’ Medici Jr in his double capacity as Florence’s new head and nephew of Pope Leo X. Machiavelli urged Lorenzo to prepare himself for the political and military leadership of a war of independence to free Italy from the barbarians.

According to Pedullà, this element alone i.e., the final chapter of the treatise is enough to render The Prince as “unique within its genre.” However, even with its promise of glory mixed with biblical references, Machiavelli’s “philosophy” could hardly speak to Lorenzo, who most probably never even received the treatise-manifesto.

A natural suspect to the Medici someone “not to mingle with,” as Leo X’s secretary urged in early 1515 Machiavelli likely felt self-pity in late 1517 for not being acknowledged by anti-Medici allies. Although he had published in 1506 his politically incisive verses of the Decennale, Machiavelli was left out, “like a cock,” of an important Ferrarese book — Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto that mentioned “so many poets.”

Machiavelli eventually reentered public life only after the death of Lorenzo (in May 1519). He did so in the first place as a man of letters by staging in Florence and Rome his blasphemous play The Mandrake (1520), and then by being authorized to print The Art of War (1521), which Pedullà describes as “the very first military dialogue in Western literature.”

In both texts, Machiavelli alludes to the political incompetence of the Florentine ottimati, as well as to his own undue exclusion from active life and his despair for not having had the chance to fully implement his ideas (e.g., through the institution of a “nationalized” military system in place of the existing private militias).

Understanding the Nature of Princes

To find a more direct and cogent portrait of Machiavelli, it is useful to turn to his correspondence with Francesco Guicciardini. In letters from May 1521, they exchanged statements on Machiavelli’s irreligiosity and atheism, on his enviable experience in foreign affairs, and on his undeserved misfortune. They also discussed his rational approach to history and politics, as well as his ability to invent “unusual things” and new forms of government.

It was around this time that Guicciardini became acquainted with the Discursus on Florentine Affairs, in which Machiavelli advised the Medici on the reform of the state. Since the death of Lorenzo, Leo X was considering the restoration of the Great Council, albeit divested of its previous sovereign power.

To compensate for this weakness, Machiavelli recommended in line with lessons he had recently taught in the gardens of the Rucellai family on the political history of Ancient Rome the establishment of a new institution akin to the Roman tribunate of the plebs. Seeing this as a serious possibility, Guicciardini completed by early 1522 the first full draft of his Dialogue on the Government of Florence.

In this work, according to Pedullà, Guicciardini sought to purify “Machiavelli’s republican theory of its pro-popular elements in order to reconcile it with Cicero’s and Aristotle’s” — in other words, to safeguard a central element in the canon of classical republicanism: the defense of the privileged position of the senatorial class.

Machiavelli’s nonconformism and the affirmation of the revolutionary character of his views through the systematic criticism of the politics of the ottimati and the Medici remained recurring topics of his later interactions with Guicciardini. Those discussions turned, among other things, on the content and development of Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories and on the crisis Italy was undergoing at the time.

In a letter from March 1526, arguing once again in favor of the project of mass conscription that Guicciardini had rejected the previous year, Machiavelli played on his interlocutor’s prejudices against the people (“uncertain and foolish”). He wrote that “these times demand bold, unusual, and strange decisions,” and claimed that the “foolhardy” plan to face the imminent war he was now calling for had been suggested to him by the voice of the people as heard in the streets of Florence: “the people has said what ought to be done.”

This was an indirect way of saying “I am the people myself” (in the famous words of Robespierre), which in fact echoes the dedicatory letter of The Prince: “To understand well the nature of princes one must be of the people.”

Unusual and Violent Remedies

Guicciardini, who was himself a Florentine aristocrat and a high-ranking agent of the papacy, saw Machiavelli’s ideas as “extravagant,” and he perceived them with a mixture of admiration and social condescendence that was not devoid of a certain anxiety. The roots of this anxiety emerged from an intuition that was already widespread in 1505, according to Guicciardini’s own earlier History of Florence. This was the understanding that a deep reform of the military system, like the one planned by Machiavelli, would have a serious impact on the structure of social relations in Tuscany, and might even endanger the leading figures of the most conservative segment of the citizenry.

Years later, in 1530, commenting on Machiavelli’s Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, Guicciardini would even call him “a writer excessively pleased by unusual and violent remedies.” This assessment was in fact quite accurate. And Machiavelli’s writings inspired ferocious republicans like Pier Filippo Pandolfini, who entered the political scene in 1528 with a manifesto on the election of the city’s new head.

According to Pandolfini, the future chief of state should be “truly on the side of the people,” in line with Machiavelli’s definition of a virtuous prince who does not hesitate, “if necessary, to extinguish the fury of a small number of nobles,” i.e., to adopt measures of revolutionary government. Pedullà also notes that, in 1529, “Pandolfini widely drew on Machiavelli’s lesson about the militia in a clearly anti-oligarchic fashion.”

With On Niccolò Machiavelli, Pedullà makes accessible to a wider audience a reinterpretation developed by a group of scholars whose Machiavelli “somehow resembles Guicciardini’s, but with the notable difference that, instead of shunning the Discourses’ pro-popular stance, now they fully endorse it.”

Pedullà is himself a proponent of this “democratic” approach to Machiavelli’s works in his erudite book Machiavelli in Tumult: The Discourses on Livy and the Origins of Political Conflictualism (Italian original 2011, English translation 2018), and his extensively annotated 2022 edition of The Prince in Italian (which is forthcoming in an English translation with Verso Books).

He has also published several remarkable papers on the reception of Machiavelli, most notably a revaluation of the overlooked contribution by the Marxist political theorist Neal Wood, and a severe criticism of the cultural historian Carlo Ginzburg’s work Nevertheless: Machiavelli, Pascal, highlighting his adherence to the black legend that has influenced the image of Machiavelli up to the present.

A Plebian Reading

A professor of comparative literature in Rome, Pedullà deals convincingly with questions of (literary) genre, form, models, processes, cultural factors, influences, and printed sources. He reveals how Machiavelli, in his political works, exploits Greek authors of antiquity “who had only recently become accessible in the West.”

This is particularly the case with the importance of Dionysius of Halicarnassus for Machiavelli’s views on citizenship, tribunician power, dictatorship, and the functions of social conflicts, in the Discourses. In relation to The Art of War, it is also worth mentioning Aelian’s military manual on the organization of the Macedonian phalanx: before Machiavelli, “no one had realized its importance.”

Following in the footsteps of Carlo Dionisotti and Franco Moretti, Pedullà has developed a rational approach to literary history that integrates the contributions of social scientists and historians, and a deep sense of the problem of cultural selection and literary survival or canonical inclusion. He illustrates with precision what made for the incontestable success of Machiavelli as a “true classic” whose works will “accompany us” indefinitely. He has also absorbed the Gramscian distinction “between a ‘war of position’ and a ‘war of maneuver’” and knows what it takes to start “to exercise a hegemony over the old intellectual world,” as Antonio Gramsci himself put it in the fourth of his Prison Notebooks.

With this new short introduction, Pedullà successfully manages to popularize his approach to the Florentine secretary, while carefully taking the most recent scholarship into account. He argues that a “plebeian” interpretation of Machiavelli is now going mainstream:

On both sides of the Atlantic, a recent wave of scholars has increasingly drawn attention to the anti-oligarchic core of Machiavelli’s thought: his persistent hostility to the Florentine “mighty,” his confidence in ordinary citizens’ self-governance, his approval of a class institution such as the tribunes of the plebs to counter the Senate, his sensitivity to the issue of public debt as a means for the Florentine financial oligarchy to enrich itself at the expense of the whole community (and to the ways of getting rid of that debt through popular conscription), and the lasting legacy of his positive assessment of social conflict in Western political thought.

The “plebeian” reading of Machiavelli has a long tradition reaching back to the sixteenth century. However, in the period from the end of the Vietnam War until somewhat recently, two competing “elitist” interpretations have prevailed in the Anglophone academic world: that of the neo-republicans of the Cambridge school of the history of political thought, and that of the neoconservatives of the Straussian school of political philosophy.

Yet already during the Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher era, the historian John Najemy had started to develop an anti-oligarchic reading. In his 1982 Renaissance Quarterly article “Machiavelli and the Medici: The Lessons of Florentine History,” he rejected the hypothesis — which still finds some defenders today — that a “conservative” or “reactionary” shift occurred in Machiavelli’s thinking in 1520.

This alleged repositioning was supposed to have taken place when the former Chancellor of the Republic accepted from the Medici regime the commission to write the Florentine Histories, and to give advice about reforming the constitution. Najemy’s recent book, Machiavelli’s Broken World (2022), now offers the most systematic investigation of Machiavelli’s analysis of the privatization of power, politics, and war by elites.

Well-Ordered Republics

Authors associated with the “democratic” paradigm tend to recognize that one of the most revolutionary ideas developed by Machiavelli is based on the recognition that there is a fundamental fracture in societies between those who dominate and those who are dominated. This is his insight that the “freedom” of ancient Rome resulted from the conflicts between the nobles and the plebs, and from the “admirable political creativity” of the plebeians, as Pedullà puts it.

Within this paradigm, there are various ways of understanding exactly what it means to be radical as well as different attitudes toward political transformation and violence. In line with Claude Lefort’s 1972 work Machiavelli in the Making, Pedullà’s purpose is to distinguish Machiavelli’s theory of conflict from the Marxist notions of class struggle and classless society. They both read in the Discourses on Livy that it is “impossible to eliminate the fractures of the social body but also undesirable to do so.”

Further, in Pedullà’s opinion,

despite Machiavelli’s evident pro-popular sympathies, his defense of Roman tumults [in the Discourses on Livy] implies no revolutionary project; quite the contrary, by venting social tensions in nondangerous forms, well-regulated conflict can even have the effect of strengthening the ruling regime, thereby preventing change. . . . Wise politicians have to devise ways to make social strife innocuous, not attempt to eliminate it.

This reading renders Machiavelli’s work surprisingly compatible with the general theory of social conflict in liberal market societies developed in the twentieth century by political scientists like Ralf Dahrendorf. Moreover, the idea of presenting conflicts as simple steam-releasing outbursts seems to stand in contradiction to the main message of the volume, if it is to spread further the plebeian interpretation of Machiavelli’s “philosophy.” In fact, the institution of the tribunate in Rome resulted from a rebellion of the plebeians. It did not sanctify the social status quo but was rather a resounding victory for the cause of popular freedom.

Even if the tension between conflict and preservation remains mostly unresolved in the book, this tension might only be apparent. If the “ruling regime” alluded to in the above quotation were a “well-ordered republic” in the Machiavellian sense of the term — which is to say, a regime already built on equality of citizens before the law and in which the great accumulation of private wealth is not permitted — then one could see eruptions of plebeian conflict as mere episodes of “adjustment” rather than legitimate attempts at revolutionary reform from below.

Unfortunately, neither ancient Rome (after 290 BCE), nor Renaissance Florence nor our contemporary liberal market societies are proper Machiavellian “well-ordered republics.” Machiavelli holds firmly that “well-ordered republics must keep the State rich and the citizens poor” (Discourses I.37). The conception of popular conflict in Machiavelli thus remains foundational for our present times. Such conflicts are not to be seen as outbursts that help maintain the current state of affairs, but as possible and necessary ruptures from the hegemonic culture and politics of the mighty of this world.