BMCR 2019.02.52

Machiavelli in Tumult: The Discourses on Livy and the Origins of Political Conflictualism

, Machiavelli in Tumult: The Discourses on Livy and the Origins of Political Conflictualism. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. xviii, 284. ISBN 9781107177277. $99.99.


Gabriele Pedullà’s Machiavelli in Tumult: The Discourses on Livy and the Origins of Political Conflictualism (translated and shortened from the 2011 Italian work of the same name)1 is a remarkable scholarly achievement. Displaying vast erudition of classical and early modern thought, along with a deep mastery of scholarship on Machiavelli from a number of disciplines, Pedullà seeks to redirect how we read Machiavelli, and how we read his place in the history of political thought. Pedullà places conflict—Machiavelli’s embrace of it, the humanists’ aversion to it, and the distinctiveness of Machiavelli’s “conflictualism” from other forms of conflictualism—at the center of his project. Focusing on Machiavellli’s Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy, Pedullà treats a number of themes central to Machiavelli scholarship: the nature of his republicanism, his attitude toward empire, the place of conflict in his thought. In addition, Pedullà seeks to overcome what he terms the “great divide” between political theorists, who can engage in the “superimposition of the present onto the past,” and historians, who most appreciate “intellectual difference.” Machiavelli’s relevance for the present is precisely a function of their not being readily assimilable to various forms of thinking about conflict and participation that took root following the French Revolution or the literary output of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Indeed, precisely because the Discourses are “far more complex than they are generally presented to be,” and Machiavelli himself is so deeply engaged in debates with his contemporaries and his predecessors, it is “their bewildering otherness” that makes the Discourses so important (9).

The book consists of 7 chapters. The first, “ Concordia Parvae Res Crescunt : The Humanistic Backdrop,” addresses the aversion to social conflict and the desire for social unity—drawn to a large degree from Sallust—among humanist writers; Chapter 2, “’A Necessary Inconvenience’: The Demystification of Political Concord,” grapples with what Pedullà terms Machiavelli’s “political classicism’ (31). In Machiavelli’s reading of Rome’s past, the tribunes are rehabilitated, the Gracchi reexamined, and tumults are “inevitable” (48), as the humors constitutive of political life can never be put in equilibrium. The Discourses —and the Prince —are, in light of Machiavelli’s political classicism, deeply anti-aristocratic works seeking to “restore popular power by means of ‘extraordinary modes’” (83).

“Fear and Virtue: The Rebuttal to Humanistic Pedagogy,” the third chapter, demonstrates that Machiavelli’s embrace of the importance of the metus hostilis is a deeply anti-humanistic move, with the inhibiting functions of fear replacing the humanist aspiration to inculcate virtue through education. Machiavelli thus displays a “complete lack of faith in moral improvement through philosophy” (99), relying on the presence of either an internal or external enemy to foster obedience to the law. Chapter 4, “’The Guard of Liberty’: The Rejection of Aristotelian Balance,” centers on Machiavelli’s use of the phrase “guard of liberty” and the complex theoretical moves that it entails, enabling Machiavelli to bring the rich/poor binary into his constitutional theory, highlighting the fact that “there are checks but not balance: conflict is always omnipresent” (124). This position is so original—and so deeply anti-Aristotelian, not to mention far removed from the humanistic consensus—that Machiavelli’s contemporary, Francesco Guicciardini, could not grasp its import. Nor does Machiavelli’s embrace of the rich/poor binary—and the conflict it entails—mean that he is a populist in any simple way: while he is assuredly anti-aristocratic, there is, for Machiavelli, no romanticized abstraction of “the people,” as “men’s attitudes evolve in tandem with shifts in power relations” (142). A member of “the people” could, depending on changes in wealth or status, become as rapacious as any member of the social or political elite.

Chapter 5, “’Giving the Foreigners Citizenship’: An Expansive Republicanism” centers on Machiavelli’s approach to citizenship and military capacity, and shows that the “choice between conquest and concord presented in Disc. 1.6 is really no choice at all” (164). Precisely, though, because Rome had an expansive citizenship that, in turn, allowed it to be militarily successful, Rome was able to secure its own liberty through its “military strength” (171). Pedullà’s Machiavelli is clearly an imperialist, but his imperialism serves liberty, and especially popular liberty. Chapter 6, “Dionysius’ Reappearance: The Classical Roots of Modern Conflictualism,” shows that in spite of Machiavelli’s clear knowledge of a wide range of classical writers (including, of course, Livy, but especially Polybius), the one writer whose work sheds the most light on Machiavelli’s distinctiveness is Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Indeed, the most striking features of Machiavelli’s thought—his defense of the dictatorship, the popular and conflictual nature of his republicanism, his embrace of expansion and tumult—are to be found first in Dionysius in passages with unmistakable echoes in Machiavelli’s Discourses. Thus, “every time the Discourses diverge from Polybius on an institutional issue…they concur instead with Dionysius” (203-204). That his influence on Machiavelli has been “unnoticed for so long” (213) is a function, in no small part, of Dionysius’ “poor reputation” following the 18 th century (213). ‘ The final chapter—“Remembering Conflict: Machiavelli’s Legacy”—seeks to rewrite the history of political thought, or at least how many tend to schematize it, beginning with Machiavelli’s innovative place between Aristotelianism and Hobbism, and then turning to his place prior to the French Revolution, following the French Revolution to the year 2000, and then in contemporary political theory and philosophy. Machiavelli is, for Pedullà, a sort of third way between “Hegelian-Marxist” and “liberal-republican” ways of thinking about social conflict (251), and the key contemporary lesson of Machiavelli is that “republics are destined for ruin as soon as their citizens cease devising new ‘modes’ and institutions in the defense of freedom (256-257). The lesson for those living in states marked by the rise of right populism and attacks on various dimensions of liberalism—domestic and international—is clear: “without the constant exercise of political imagination, ‘free life’ cannot resist the unexpected stains that each republic will inevitably face” (258).

It would be difficult, in the space of a review, to provide more than a cursory summary of a work of such breadth, depth, and cross-disciplinary engagement, and I hope to have done it at least some justice. Before raising a few criticisms, I should note that as a political theorist, I found Pedullà’s emphasis on Machiavelli’s underlying conflictualism, the distinctiveness of Machiavelli’s conflictualism, and the centrality of conflict in making sense of Machiavelli’s radicalism, to be persuasive. As a scholar interested in classical reception, I consider the chapter on Dionysius to be nothing short of a paradigm shift in making sense of Machiavelli’s relationship both to antiquity and to his contemporaries.

But a review should not be entirely praise, and Pedullà’s book did leave me with unanswered questions. As Pedullà notes, following its initial printing in 1480, the Antiquities went through at least 20 editions by the end of the 17 th century, and “one finds traces of the Antiquities everywhere, for there is virtually no worthy humanist who did not cite him at least once” (186). Indeed, “for roughly three and a half centuries educated European elites looked upon Dionysius as a first-rate author and a model” (214). Nor was Machiavelli’s interest in and use of Dionysius lost to his contemporaries: Pedullà argues, based on a passage from Donato Gionatti’s Republica fiorentina, that “those who had known [Machiavelli] well had no trouble tracing the intellectual genealogy of” the Discourses to Dionysius (216). Pedullà’s case here strikes me as persuasive. But it also raised questions. To put things somewhat crudely, did Machiavelli become the radical he was because he read Dionysius, or perhaps because he read him in a certain way? If that is the case, I wonder why Dionysius did not have the same effect on other Florentines, given that Pedullà’s Machiavelli is something of a sui generis figure in 16 th -century Florence. Or was Machiavelli a radical all along (or at least mostly radical), and Dionysius is simply a key source for Machiavelli?

Related to this question: Pedullà argues that when Machiavelli departs from Polybius in his institutional analysis, he does so because he adheres to Dionysius. If this is the case (and I found the argument persuasive), we may ask just how original Machiavelli—and his conflictualism—really is. To be sure, Pedullà notes that “the assessment of conflicts in the Discourses is far more radical” than what we find in Dionysius, and that Machiavelli embraces “conflict as natural” in a way that Dionysius does not (197). (Pedullà suggests that this has to do, at least in part, with Machiavelli’s embrace of the “Hippocratic metaphor” of bodily humors and the need to vent them). While such an approach certainly “respects intellectual difference” (9), it seems to me to leave us less with a Machiavelli whose Discourses exhibit “bewildering otherness” (9) than a Machiavelli who is a sort of hybrid of Dionysius’ historiography and the Hippocratic medical tradition.

If it is the case, though, that Machiavelli is an example of “bewildering otherness,” I would like to have read a bit more about what Pedullà takes to be “the conclusive lesson of Machiavelli’s classicism” (258) for our political moment. Here, Pedullà expresses some sympathy with John McCormick’s proposal to add a tribunate to the American constitutional system,2 but McCormick’s approach is, as Pedullà notes early in the book, deeply institutional (5), and as such would seem to depart from what Pedullà describes as Machiavelli’s own rejection of equilibrium and to be rooted less in Machiavelli’s being radically other than deeply recognizable to a 21 st -century audience.

These criticisms aside, Machiavelli in Tumult is a remarkable work, and one that is sure to profoundly shape the study of Machiavelli, early modern thought more broadly, and the history of political thought in general, along with studies of classical reception.


1. Gabriele Pedullà. Machiavelli in tumult: conquista, cittadinanza e conflitto nei “Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio”. Rome: Bulzoni. 2011.

2. John P. McCormick. Machiavellian Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2011.