The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition

By J. G. A. Pocock | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER XIV
THE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY DEBATE
Virtue, Passion and Commerce

[I]

THE DEBATE WE HAVE UNCOVERED—that between virtue and passion, land and commerce, republic and empire, value and history—underlay a great part of the social thinking of the eighteenth century. In the two remaining chapters an attempt will be made to display its role in the American Revolution and the formation of American values, and to depict this part of the story in a wider context of the development of European thought, so that Jefferson and Hamilton may emerge in a broadly discernible relationship to Rousseau and Marx. It can be shown both that the American Revolution and Constitution in some sense form the last act of the civic Renaissance, and that the ideas of the civic humanist tradition—the blend of Aristotelian and Machiavellian thought concerning the zoon politikon—provide an important key to the paradoxes of modern tensions between individual self-awareness on the one hand and consciousness of society, property, and history on the other. The American founders occupied a “Machiavellian moment”—a crisis in the relations between personality and society, virtue and corruption—but at the same time stood at a moment in history when that problem was being either left behind or admitted insoluble; it depended on the point of view. Our task in the present chapter is to understand as fully as possible the reasons why the inherited complex of ideas concerning republican virtue and its place in social time was transmitted into the eighteenth century in a form at once so adamant and so vulnerable, so little changed and yet so radically challenged.

The story as we have traced it is, first, that of how the Athenian assertion that man was zoon politikon, by nature a citizen, was revived in a paradoxical though not a directly challenging relation with the Christian assertion that man was homo religiosus, formed to live in a transcendent and eternal communion, known, however, by the ominously political name of civitas Dei; second, that of how the ensuing debate merged with some consequences of the Protestant assertion that all believers were priests, and society, rather than church, the true

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