Interests: History of Political Thought (Renaissance and Early Modern), Machiavelli, Hobbes, Republicanism, Leadership, Virtue, Approaches to Textual Interpretation
In my dissertation The Recovery of Virtù: Imitation and Political Practices in the Works of Niccolò Machiavelli, I present a new interpretation of Machiavelli’s concept of virtù, which is the principal quality he finds in politically successful individuals and states. Previous accounts of Machiavelli’s concept of virtù focus on the strategy of reading carefully to determine Machiavelli’s esoteric meaning of virtù (Strauss 1958, Mansfield 1979 and 1996, McCormick 2014); on the gendered implications of Machiavelli’s opposition of the feminine fortuna and the masculine virtù and whether he believed women can possess virtù (Pitkin 1984, Clark 2005); on Machiavelli’s relationship with his political and intellectual contexts, his use of ancient Roman sources and humanist rhetoric (Gilbert 1965, Pocock 1975, Skinner 1978 and 1980, Kahn 1986 and 1994); or on the alleged multiplicity of meanings Machiavelli has for virtù (Whitfield 1947), which are refined by looking at Machiavelli’s examples of those with virtù (Wood 1967) and by considering a systematic analysis of the various “senses” in which Machiavelli uses virtù (Price 1973). In contrast, I provide a systematic examination of how he deploys exemplars of political virtù throughout his major political, historical, and military writings. Through this account, I argue that Machiavelli exhorts his readers to learn from political history and to imitate the virtuous practices of successful individuals and states.
My dissertation argues that understanding Machiavelli’s examples of individuals and states with virtù is the key to understanding the concept itself. Well over half the time that Machiavelli uses the word virtù it is in the context of providing an historical or contemporary example. Machiavelli dwells particularly on those who he calls the ‘grandest examples’ — exemplars whose actions should be imitated — and, alternatively, on mediocrities whose examples should be avoided. The strength of my interpretive method is that it reconstructs Machiavelli’s concept of virtù on his own terms: through analysis of the most important examples which Machiavelli uses to illustrate what virtù is and what it looks like in action. Machiavelli’s examples of virtù break down into two categories: examples of individuals, such as Romulus or Agathocles, and examples of peoples, such as the Romans and the Florentines. While virtù in individuals comes from training, the virtù of a state comes from laws, orders, and modes which combine the virtù of its citizens into a cohesive virtù of the state. The focus on Machiavelli’s use of exemplars allows me to make the novel claim that the virtù of individuals is less important to Machiavelli’s theory of statecraft than the virtù of peoples. This interpretive method allows me to intervene in the debate over whether Machiavelli prefers a republican form of government to principalities: instead of other arguments for republics, I demonstrate that Machiavelli prefers republics because they better preserve the virtù of the state.
A fuller account of my dissertation project can be found in my research statement here.
“Theological Politics: Awe and Skill in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes” is an account of the Hobbesian sovereign’s techniques for maintaining the consent of their subjects. Using material from the oft neglected second half of Leviathan, I demonstrate that Hobbes intends that the Sovereign use his role as head of the Church to disseminate a theological-political account of the social contract. I argue that Hobbesian subjects are to understand the social covenant as a moment of authorization which transforms the fear of all they feel in the state of nature into a fear of the Sovereign and being held in awe of the Sovereign. I find that in Hobbes’s work, fear is an emotional response to perceived threats which drives individuals from the object they fear and is one of the causes of the war of all against all of the state of nature. Awe, on the other hand, is an emotional state in which individuals are held in response to overpowering displays of force which is a shared (religious) which binds individuals together. In Hobbes’s telling, it is the Sovereign’s ability to over-awe his subjects which creates the conditions for a peaceful state. For Hobbes, the techniques which a sovereign must use to secure a peaceful state can be learned through reading Leviathan.
“Thinking What We Are Doing in the Condition of Plurality"is a contribution to the Hannah Arendt Center's "Quote" of the Week blog. In this short piece I reflect on Arendt's rejection of a language of 'behavior' as inappropriate for talking about politics because it misses the fundamental contingency inherent to political life and action. I suggest that Arendt recognizes Machiavelli's opposition of fortuna and virtù as resources for developing a language with which to examine our capacity to respond to the unpredictable results of others’ actions using our own political qualities.