Writing and the Paradox of the Self: Machiavelli's Literary Vocation*

By Bernard, John | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Writing and the Paradox of the Self: Machiavelli's Literary Vocation*


Bernard, John, Renaissance Quarterly


1. THE PROBLEMATIC SELF

One need no longer apologize for thinking of Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) as preeminently a writer. Though the ghost of the coolly analytical theorist still occasionally haunts the critical scene, for more than thirty years the consensus has viewed him primarily as an inventive genius, a man of passionate imagination. (1) This view has sometimes led to a split between Machiavelli the father of political science and Machiavelli the artist, or even between politics and ethics. (2) But this dichotomy easily resolves itself into a more coherent image of Machiavelli as the inventor of a prose of the world, expressing a consistent view of human affairs in a variety of styles across his chosen genres. In a more narrowly writerly vein, Ricardo Bacchelli argues that even in his theoretical writings Machiavelli conceives of freedom as the inherent exercise of artistic power. For example, in the analytic structures of The Prince or The Art of War historical facts per se entail no order, no scientific rules. Instead, these are provided by passionate conceptualization, the artist's capacity to create fictions that have the ring of truth (or at least the force of desire). In this perspective, whether he is deploying the shrewd antitheses of The Prince, unwinding the self-ironic narrative of L'Asino, or shaping the biting dialogue of Mandragola, Machiavelli comes across as a man of fertile imagination who wields the resources of language to forge, in one of his key words, an ordine, a way of understanding the world--in short, a narrative. (3) In the more blatantly political works this plastic imagination may also help him, as Gramsci believed, to bring to light the latent ideology, or hegemony, of Machiavelli's Florentine or Italian citizenry. (4)

Central to Machiavelli's posture as a writer is the question of Fortune as the field of human freedom or, as he typically views it, the respective roles of virtu and fortuna. To what extent, Machiavelli repeatedly asks, are men's natures fixed, to what extent can they be refashioned for success? Underlying this question is another, farther-reaching one: What is the nature of the human individual? Is the self a given, a hand one is dealt and must play, or can one reshuffle the deck and deal oneself a better one? In our present cultural discourse we are accustomed to thinking of this question as one of "Renaissance self-fashioning." But from the outset this conceit has been fraught with ironies and ambiguities. In his epochal study, Stephen Greenblatt queries the actual, as opposed to hypothetical, autonomy in the process of creating a self for presentation to others. (5) As I will argue, Machiavelli's struggle with the problem already foreshadows the ambivalences and contradictions displayed by later writers such as Marlowe (1564-93) and Shakespeare (1564-1616). (6)

On this subject Machiavelli has, I think, often been misunderstood. Even in The Prince, while his ultimate ideal is, in Victoria Kahn's words, "to be as flexible and capable of change as Fortune herself, " the text fails to produce such a figure because, as Machiavelli himself notes in chapter 25, men are innately incapable of adjusting their natural inclinations to radical changes in their circumstances. (7) The conviction that while adaptability to circumstances is maximally effective there are no exemplars of such a virtue is already articulated in the famous "Ghiribizzi" of 1506. (8) Here, after conceding that the man of total self-possession "could control the stars and the Fates, " Machiavelli concludes that "such wise men do not exist." (9) In addition, as Michael McCanles has argued, the very notion of political power as self-presentation in a public arena implies that the political agent's will is checked by, and therefore depends on, the will of others. Far from emerging as an integral "subject, " by his reliance on public opinion for validation Machiavelli's prince becomes the predicate of others, thus proving that political power rests ultimately in the minds of men who believe in it. …

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