A specter is haunting Machiavelli scholarship — the specter of domestication. The author associated with such maxims as “the ends justify the means” and “it is better to be feared than loved,” has been turned in recent interpretations into a theorist of liberty and a populist. Machiavelli is credited, under the neorepublican reading, with offering a conceptualization of liberty as non-domination, and seeking to actualize this conception. Under the populist reading, Machiavelli views the elites as the principal threat to the liberty of the polity. Machiavelli’s central political recommendation under the latter reading is to empower the people in a manner that they can check the perfidious and rapacious elites.
In this dissertation I offer a corrective to these interpretations. I begin my reading of Machiavelli by demonstrating that liberty is not his central concern. In making this claim I show how Machiavelli’s partisanship for republics is not based on their superior ability to offer liberty. Rather, his preference for republics is premised on the fact that they are better able to deal with the ambitions of both the people and the nobles. Machiavelli, I show, holds a unified moral anthropology that does not draw a fundamental distinction between the desires of the people. Machiavelli is therefore not a populist, for he thinks that the people are just as capable of oppressing as the nobles when offered the opportunity. Machiavelli thus does not call for an adjudication of the conflict between the people and nobles. Indeed, his prescription is to ensure that the conflict remains alive. He thus recommends a number of mechanisms and institutions to keep the conflict alive. These mechanism and institutions, however, put the liberty of individuals in danger. Machiavelli’s recommendations do not only put liberty in danger at home. One of the principal means of ensuring that the conflict between the people and the patricians is kept alive is to give the latter some bargaining power. This is best achieved by enrolling them as soldiers in the republics pursuit of empire. The pursuit of empire leads to the destruction of liberty abroad. Thus, neither Machiavelli’s domestic policy, nor his foreign policy is driven principally by the concern for liberty. Having examined Machiavelli’s recommendations at home and abroad, I conclude with a consideration of his deployment of the concept of necessity. Necessity, rather than liberty, I argue, is the central driver behind Machiavelli’s recommendations.