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Machiavelli’s Hidden Democratic Moment Revealed in “Belphage” Story

In the only comedy story “Belphage” created by Machiavelli, he tells a story about a devil marrying a wife with his consistent irony and even a little frivolity. The story opens in Hell, where the dead lament that most of them have fallen into such a miserable state because of their wives. The judges of hell such as Minos were extremely unwilling to accept this “slander” of women, but the increasing number of cries in hell made Minos feel the need to report the matter to Pluto, the king of hell, in order to find out. the truth. Pluto, though he had sole power over the affairs of hell, resolved to take the case according to the opinions of the multitude, so that he would neither credulously believe the souls of the dead, nor ignore their cries. The demon kings in hell have different opinions. Some advocate sending a devil to the world to transform into a man and marry a wife to investigate the truth in person. That’s fine. Since the “majority” advocated sending someone, this plan was adopted; and since no devil voluntarily went, Belfagor was selected by lot, he was a “higher-ranking” in hell. “Archangel” and “Archangel” before falling from heaven. When Belphage first came to the world, he faithfully fulfilled his mission and married Onesta Donati, who was born in a noble family in Florence. But Onesta’s extravagant and domineering style made Belfarco choose to run away from home shortly after marriage. At the end of the story, Machiavelli tells us that the devil leader would rather flee back to hell in a hurry than return to Onesta.

“Belphage” is undoubtedly an exaggerated reflection of the social customs and mentality of Renaissance Florence in the form of farce, and today’s sensitive readers may also be aware of the gender bias in this male writing. What catches my attention here, however, is the cumbersome political procedure adopted by Pluto, Lord of Hell: first the equal expression of opinions, then a majority vote, and finally a drawing of lots. In fact, it might be argued that this is the most democratic political moment in Machiavelli’s oeuvre. Machiavelli’s traditional image has nothing to do with democracy, and can even be said to be the opposite of democracy. As the author of “The Prince”, he has always been regarded as offering evil advice to power-hungry monarchs and even tyrants. At the same time, Machiavelli’s works were almost entirely written in the Florentine vernacular, the predecessor of modern Italian. The word “democracy” (dēmokratiā) and its cognates from ancient Greek never appeared in his pen. He uses the Latin word “populare” (popolare) in a more similar sense.

Therefore, we might be surprised to find that some researchers claim that Machiavelli’s political thought has a distinct democratic aspect, and can even provide solutions to the current crisis facing Western democratic politics. However, the fact is that in the past ten years or so, there has indeed been a significant and widespread “democratic turn” in Machiavelli’s research. Machiavelli not only had his own democratic moment, but also added a surprising new chapter to the 500-year history of extraordinarily passionate but divisive interpretations that have revolved around his work.

A leading figure in this new reading is John P. McCormick, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, who published the widely-regarded Machiavellian Democracy in 2011. This book. The title of the book very directly conveys McCormick’s claim that Machiavelli not only showed a distinct populist aspect, but also could extract theoretical and institutional resources from his writings to construct a unique ” Machiavellian democracy” is used to remedy the ills of the current Western democracies, including the United States. Thus, McCormick not only offers a novel interpretation of Machiavelli’s texts and ideas, but also attempts to bring insights from the history of ideas to debates about contemporary political issues. However, this relationship may also be reversed, with McCormick first diagnosing the difficulties faced by the current Western democratic system, and then discovering the radical democratic aspects of Machiavelli’s thought that can be invoked in a retrospective reading.

In McCormick’s view, with the intensification of economic inequality, Western representative democracies are becoming increasingly elitist and oligarchy, and ordinary people cannot effectively hold elites accountable. Politics is increasingly monopolized by a wealthy few and the elite, while ordinary people feel they have lost control and participation in politics. It was with a sense of the problem of how best to empower the common people and constrain the elite that McCormick turned to Machiavelli. This turn was possible not only because McCormick and Machiavelli adopted similar ontological assumptions about the constitution of society, namely, that society could be divided into two classes: aristocrats and commoners; more importantly, McCormick Cormick argues that Machiavelli also expressed fierce moral indignation against the aristocracy from the standpoint of the common people. Machiavelli pointed out that in any body politic two opposing inclinations or dispositions can be found, among them the aristocracy’s desire to rule and oppress, and the common people’s desire not to rule and be oppressed. “Spleen” (umore) is a concept borrowed by Machiavelli from Western classical medicine. In Hippocrates’ view, the human body is composed of four humors: blood, mucus, yellow bile, and black bile. The balance between the humors brings health, and the excess or deficiency of certain humors can cause disorders and cause illness. Just as the humors are an intrinsic part of the human body, Machiavelli showed that two opposing desires are likewise symbiotic with the body politic. This distinction between nobles and commoners is a fundamental assertion that recurs in Machiavelli’s major political writings and forms the point of departure for his political analysis.

When comparing these two temperaments, Machiavelli believes that the desire of the people is more legitimate to a certain extent. He pointed out in “On Livy”: “The desires of a free people are seldom harmful to liberty, because these desires arise either from being oppressed, or from the fear of being oppressed.” According to McCormick, Machiavelli saw the aristocratic ambition and desire to rule as a major threat to the freedom of the republic, and instead took a more positive view of the political judgment and moral competence of ordinary people. In addition to this moral judgment in favor of the common people, McCormick believes that Machiavelli focused on elucidating several institutional designs derived from the Roman Republic, thereby providing institutional guarantees for the common people to avoid the oppression of the nobles and maintain political freedom. The two most important of these are the tribunes and the plebeian council, which is exclusive to the plebeians. A parliament that accommodates nobles and commoners at the same time often makes the opinions of the nobles dominate. Only in a parliament exclusively for the common people can the people accurately refine and fully express their own interest demands; tribunes have the ability to veto noble legislation, The power to impeach nobles and elders and protect the personal safety of civilians is an important line of defense to curb the desire and ambition of nobles to rule, so it is particularly valued by McCormick, which prompted him to design an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the last chapter of the book. The system known as the Peoples Tribunate. McCormick believes that Machiavellian democracy is intended to enhance the class consciousness and self-awareness of ordinary citizens, to give them exclusive channels to participate in politics, to exclude the interference and corruption of elites, and to enable ordinary citizens to participate with an intensity that electoral politics cannot provide. to exercise oversight and accountability of higher-status citizens.

McCormick’s works lead the recent trend of Machiavelli’s study on the turn of democracy, and some other representative scholars include Miguel Vatter, Yves Winter, Jérémie Barthas, etc. This series of works is mainly based on Machiavelli’s distinction between nobles and commoners, and completes the theoretical justification by reassessing Machiavelli’s moral and political evaluation of the two. Traditionally, Machiavelli is often considered to have an elitist orientation, because the maintenance of the political body seems to be more dependent on the prudent virtue of the monarch or aristocrats; in contrast, the democratic turn focuses on elucidating Machiavelli’s critical stance on the aristocracy, and at the same time Highlight his emphasis on the role and power of civilians. For theorists of the democratic turn, this emphasis is prominently displayed in Machiavelli’s novel treatment of the problem of political conflict. When discussing the history of Rome, Machiavelli pointed out that many people thought Rome was a troubled republic, but he thought: “Those who condemn the riots between the nobles and the common people, it seems to me, they are denouncing the those factors which were the first cause, who thought more of the quarrels and uproar which arose in these disturbances than of their good effects.” Conflicts between plebeians and nobles did not bring about banishment or Instead of violence, laws and institutions favor liberty. Machiavelli’s positive attitude towards political conflict not only deviates from classical political theorists’ firm belief that harmony, solidarity, and agreement have a priority in political life, but also challenges the elitist presupposition hidden in this ideological tradition, because It is not the superior virtues of the nobility, but the antagonistic actions of the common people against the nobility that are essential to the maintenance of political liberty.

On the level of intellectual history, the radical democratic aspect of McCormick’s unraveling of Machiavelli will inevitably continue to be controversial, but it can be better understood if we consider it as a creative interpretation inspired by the problems of the times generation. McCormick himself has quite straightforwardly outlined the connection between such a democratic Machiavelli and the contemporary political situation in the West, and his fierce attack on the aristocracy, which he repeated through Machiavelli’s mouth, even to a certain extent Contaminated and shared the deep-seated skepticism of elites revealed in the current populist movements in Western countries. In the face of the crisis of representative democracy in the West, Machiavelli is considered to have launched the most intense questioning of the practice of democratic principles from the standpoint of the common people, and believed that it is necessary to stimulate active political action and participation of the people, supplemented by institutional measures. The democratic promise of popular sovereignty and political equality can be better implemented by initiatives to empower the people.

There is, however, a more insidious and tortuous path for Machiavelli to enter modern democracy. In his recent book “The Machiavelli Moment of Modern Democracy”, the scholar Duan Demin meticulously and masterfully outlined a clue from Gramsci to Murphy (Chantal Mouffe), Lefort (Claude Lefort) and other left-wing theorists. Ingeniously integrating the cutting-edge constructivist perspective in the theory of political representation, it makes a more theoretical exposition of the connection between Machiavelli and modern democratic politics.

In The Prince, Machiavelli describes a new prince struggling to acquire and maintain a state. The unique situation of the new monarch is vividly reflected in the contrast with the hereditary monarch. The hereditary monarch can rule safely only by maintaining the system left by his ancestors, because his subjects are accustomed to obeying this system; but the new monarch cannot rely on customs and traditions, because he will inevitably break the original power and social structure, In a world that has lost its legitimacy. Therefore, the situation of the new monarch is also extremely dangerous and unsafe. He must completely rely on his own virtue, and in the process, he must rely more on the common people rather than the nobles, so that the former can adapt to and support the new system he has constructed. At the same time suppress the latter’s coveting and challenges to its status. As Duan pointed out, “Machiavelli’s modernity lies in the fact that ‘the image of the new monarch is highly consistent with the role of active political actors in modern society”, similar to Machiavelli, “such active individuals in modern society It also puts its eyes on the people, hoping to achieve the acquisition of power and status from the perspective of gaining the acceptance, approval and obedience of the people. The imagination of order makes it the reality of people’s life” (p. 336).

In modern society, some general political principles, such as justice and fairness, have been widely accepted, but it is still unclear what kind of specific institutional construction or policy programs these principles should be implemented. What the new modern monarchs or politicians do is to provide concrete content for these abstract principles. If their interpretations and interpretations win the support of the people, they also gain power for themselves. The constructivist theory of political representation also tends to emphasize that there is no pre-existing fully formed group of people and their will, and the representative politicians simply receive clear instructions from the former; on the contrary, politicians act as a constructive The role of the people is to constantly conceive, explain and clarify the will of the people. It is in the continuous interaction that the will of the people and even the boundaries of the people group are generated.

The Marxist Gramsci was the first to creatively transform the image of the new monarch, comparing revolutionary parties to modern monarchs. If the new monarch in Machiavelli’s ideal is to establish a unified Italian nation-state, and the new monarch is also a concrete and personified expression of the collective will of the people, then, in Gramsci’s view, modern revolutionary parties and the new monarch are engaged in The work of both is very similar, both by uniting and reshaping the collective will of the people to overthrow the existing hegemony and establish a new order. Gramsci initiated the tradition of left-wing interpretation of Machiavelli. After the middle of the twentieth century, facing the crisis encountered by Marxism in the Western world, many theorists turned to different thinkers including Machiavelli, trying to Seeking new intellectual resources for left-wing political discourse and action.

Duan fully exploits the constructivist perspective in this tradition of left-wing interpretation. The French thinker Lefou also regards the new monarch as the interpreter and interpreter of society. In order to maintain his rule, the new monarch must not only rely on force and violence, but must also provide an understanding of the past, present and future of society, and give meaning to society. The maintenance of power depends to a large extent on whether this interpretation is continuously recognized by the public. LeFou also talks about the constant conflict and division between nobles and commoners in society, and it is by transcending this conflict that the monarch endows society with unity in a symbolic dimension. But Leffer keenly pointed out that although such interpretations and symbols originate from society and play a constitutive role in it, they are always external to society and are not equal to society. As Duan pointed out, whenever a monarch tries to grasp society accurately and give society a definite meaning, this meaning quickly becomes suspicious and divorced from society, because “in Leffer’s view, society does not exist. A definite immutable meaning (or essence), any claim to a social essence or meaning can only be a ‘representation’, and there is an irreparable rift between it and society” (pp. 380-381). It is precisely the split between the meaning of society and society itself that he articulates here in Machiavelli, which Lefort brings into his understanding of modern democratic experience. Unlike pre-modern societies where a certain political power such as the king could claim to be the sole and permanent representative of society, with the modern revolution the decapitation of kings and the advent of equality of status, a power vacancy emerged in democracies (lieu vide /empty place), anyone can compete for this power, but cannot occupy it permanently. In other words, in a democratic society, anyone can claim to rule on behalf of the people and their will, but the vacancy of power always indicates the distance between the symbol and the reality, thus indicating that any representation of the people is limited and temporary .

The above interpretation of the modern democratic society by Leffer points to an open and never-ending political process, in which competing interpretations and representative claims of social principles will be continuously proposed, thereby continuously reshaping society’s self-understanding. This point has undoubtedly been clearly reflected in various recent social and political movements in Western countries, whether it is the earlier Occupy Movement (Occupy Movement) or the more recent “Black Lives Matter” (Black Lives Matter). On the one hand, ordinary people We hope to correct the injustice of the existing system through continuous confrontation and political action, and reshape governance and social relations; on the other hand, disadvantaged groups hope to challenge social prejudice, fight against the arbitrary domination of dominant groups, and build a more inclusive political system and more reciprocal social norms and ideas. From a theoretical point of view, this new left-wing action strategy is accompanied by the rediscovery of “the political” by Murphy, Leffer and other theorists in the post-Marxist era in the West, saving political autonomy from economic determinism. sex and independence. It is easy to understand why Machiavelli was favored in this process. As Benedetto Croce pointed out in his classic exposition, it was Machiavelli who liberated politics from the shackles of morality for the first time, showing that politics has its own operating rules and evaluation criteria.

By combing the two paths of Machiavelli’s entry into modern democratic politics, we will no doubt agree with Gramsci’s assertion on The Prince, that is, Machiavelli’s works are not some kind of “systematic discourse” but rather It is a “living” book. Even after five hundred years, Machiavelli’s work seems to retain a strong practical quality directed at political reality. On the other hand, the arrival of Machiavelli’s democratic moment, like many turning points in the history of interpretation in the past, is also a reflection and projection of the context of the times and its concerns. The intellectual efforts of researchers to revolutionize democratic concepts and practices by turning to Machiavelli are commendable, but perhaps at best one can only hold a cautiously optimistic attitude towards Machiavelli’s ability to save contemporary democratic politics in the West. And, this turn is not without its problems, but revealing them, I believe, constitutes precisely the way of deepening Machiavelli’s democratic moment.

On the one hand, the civilian position in Machiavelli’s political thought unearthed by contemporary political theory should not be a simple echo of the current Western populist movement and its demands, but can be used to analyze and deal with some of the more complex and paradoxical aspects of the populist movement. political phenomenon. It can be seen that populist leaders often evolve into authoritarian rulers, and asserting the will and interests of the people becomes an excuse to undermine the legal system, political freedom, and democratic procedures, and at the social level, it brings xenophobia, hostility, and social unity. lost. The result of the populist movement is often to send an authoritarian ruler who is less likely to be controlled and supervised by the people to the center of political power, thus seriously deviating from the original appeal of the populist movement to express the voice and will of the people. For this miraculous inversion of populism and the resulting recontraction of political life, we not only need some grim Machiavellian analysis in order to uncover the hidden secrets of power politics and the art of authoritarian rule; He provides a more balanced perspective. The teachings he conveys through political conflicts are not only about unilateral popular empowerment, but also involve the prudence and moderation of political actions, so as to truly build an inclusive society that can accommodate the voices, actions and protests of the people. politics.

On the other hand, the challenges launched by various disadvantaged or marginalized groups to the domination and prejudice of the dominant group through various social and political movements have obviously revised and broadened the self-imagination and understanding of Western society. But at the same time, with the emergence of various self-assertive representatives and group rights claims, Western society is increasingly falling into the fragmented territory of identity politics. This stems in part from a unique belief in identity politics that only those with personal experience of an identity have a say. This kind of self-limitation around identity and personal situation makes radical political actions more and more centered around the concerns of various discrete small groups. The overall critical analysis of relationships and the allocation of economic resources is out of focus and invisible. Independent political actors such as the new monarch who have nothing to depend on their fate constitute the bright protagonists of Machiavelli’s works, but Machiavelli also has an understanding of the socio-economic conditions, class relations, and even consciousness that constitute the background of political actions. The analysis of morphological discourse, which may provide inspiration for the construction of more robust strategies of action in the democratic era.

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