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The Friendless Republic: Freedom, Faction, and Friendship in Machiavelli's Discourses

  • John M. Warner


Civic republicans have traditionally appealed to friendship as a means of preserving popular liberty, but Machiavelli is a notable exception to this rule. In fact, I argue, he views efforts to reconcile friendship and politics as (1) philosophically dubious, because grounded in false conceptions of person and society, and (2) practically harmful, because they perpetuate patterns of asymmetric dependence that are inconsistent with a free way of life. Machiavelli's neglected skepticism about the political potential of friendship deepens his critique of the Ciceronian concordia, reveals a diminished idea of the common good, and distances him from the civic republican tradition to which he is so often said to belong.



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Many thanks are due to the UC Davis Political Theory Forum, and particularly to John T. Scott, Andi Rowntree, and Matthew Perry, for their helpful comments and suggestions.



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1 Baron, Hans, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance: Civic Humanism and Republican Liberty in an Age of Classicism and Tyranny, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University University Press, 1955).

2 McCormick, John, “Machiavellian Democracy: Controlling Elites with Ferocious Populism,” American Political Science Review 95 (2001): 297313, and Machiavelli against Republicanism: On the Cambridge School's ‘Guicciardinian Moments,’Political Theory 31 (2003): 615–43; Fischer, Markus, “Machiavelli's Rapacious Republicanism,” in Machiavelli’s Liberal Republican Legacy, ed. Rahe, Paul (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), xxxilxii; Warner, John and Scott, John T., “Sin City: Augustine and Machiavelli's Reordering of Rome,” Journal of Politics 73 (2011): 857–71; Clarke, Michelle T., “The Virtues of Republican Citizenship in Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy,” Journal of Politics 75 (2013): 317–29.

3 Pocock, J. G. A., The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975); Skinner, Quentin, “Machiavelli's Discorsi and the Pre-humanist Origins of Republican Ideas,” in Machiavelli and Republicanism, ed. Bock, Gisela, Skinner, Quentin, and Viroli, Maurizio (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 121–42, and Visions of Politics, vol. 2, Renaissance Virtues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

4 Maurizio Viroli, “Machiavelli and the Republican Idea of Politics,” in Bock, Skinner, and Viroli, Machiavelli and Republicanism, 151; cf. 146–52.

5 I focus on Cicero specifically because his conceptions of friendship and social concord were, as Viroli, “Machiavelli and the Republican Idea of Politics,” 146–52, and Skinner, Quentin, “Ambrogio Lorenzetti: The Artist as Political Philosopher,” in Proceedings of the British Academy 72 (1986): 6, and “Machiavelli's Discorsi,” 122–23, both recognize, extremely influential for civic republicans of Machiavelli's own age. What is more, Machiavelli himself directs us to De amicitia by referring to it directly in the midst of his critique of the concordia.

6 While there is in Machiavelli's political vision room for something like Aristotelian utility friendship (NE 1155b16–1156b35), it will become evident that he excludes—or at least does not depend on—all other types of friendship.

7 Clarke, “Virtues of Republican Citizenship”; Maher, Amanda, “What Skinner Misses about Machiavelli's Freedom,” Journal of Politics 78, no. 4 (2016): 1003–15.

8 Skinner, “Ambrogio Lorenzetti,” 6, and “Machiavelli's Discorsi,” 122–23; cf. Pocock, Machiavellian Moment, 199–204.

9 Hulliung, Mark, Citizen Machiavelli (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 2829, 255; Rahe, Paul, “Situating Machiavelli,” in Renaissance Civic Humanism, ed. Hankins, James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 292–95; Duff, Alexander, “Republicanism and the Problem of Ambition: The Critique of Cicero in Machiavelli's Discourses,” Journal of Politics 73 (2011): 980–92.

10 De leg. and De rep. refer respectively to Laws and The Republic, in Cicero, , The Republic and The Laws, ed. and trans. Powell, Jonathan and Rudd, Niall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). De off. refers to Cicero, On Duties (De Officiis), ed. and trans. M. T. Griffin and E. M. Atkins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). De am. refers to Of Friendship, in Cicero, , On the Good Life, trans. Grant, Michael (New York: Penguin Books, 1971). Citations to De am. are by section and page number in Grant's translation.

11 Joy Connolly, “Cicero's Concordia Ordinum: A Machiavellian Reappraisal,” available at, last accessed April 30, 2018; Zarecki, Jonathan, Cicero's Ideal Statesman in Theory and in Practice (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).

12 Asmis, Elizabeth, “A New Kind of Model: Cicero's Roman Constitution in De Republica,” American Journal of Philology 126, no. 3 (2005): 400407.

13 Kapust, Daniel, Flattery and the History of Political Thought: That Glib and Oily Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

14 Kapust, Daniel, Republicanism, Rhetoric, and the History of Political Thought: Sallust, Livy, and Cicero (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 112–13.

15 Kent, Dale, Friendship, Love, and Trust in Renaissance Florence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

16 Viroli, “Machiavelli and the Republican Idea of Politics,” 147–48, 151; cf. Wood, Neal, Cicero’s Social and Political Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 125–26.

17 Viroli, “Machiavelli and the Republican Idea of Politics,” 152; cf. Viroli, Maurizio, From Politics to Reason of State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 154–77.

18 There are important differences between Skinner and Pocock—Skinner views Machiavelli's republicanism as grounded in Roman rather than Greek sources, and correctly recognizes Machiavelli's denial of the premise of natural sociability (Skinner, Quentin, “The Idea of Negative Liberty,” in Philosophy in History, ed. Rorty, Richard, Schneewind, J. B., and Skinner, Quentin [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984], 217)—but as will become clear, these differences do not meaningfully bear on the present argument.

19 Pocock, Machiavellian Moment, 40, 164–65; Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, vol. 1, The Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 164, 176.

20 Skinner, “Machiavelli's Discorsi,” 138, 140; cf. Maher, “What Skinner Misses about Machiavelli's Freedom.”

21 Machiavelli, Niccolò, The Prince, trans. Mansfield, Harvey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). Citations are to chapter numbers.

22 Machiavelli, Niccolò, Discourses on Livy, trans. Mansfield, Harvey and Tarcov, Nathan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Citations are to book, chapter, and page number.

23 Skinner, “Machiavelli's Discorsi,” 136, emphasis original; cf. Viroli, “Machiavelli and the Republican Idea of Politics,” 160–61.

24 Skinner, Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 1:181; Viroli, “Machiavelli and the Republican Idea of Politics,” 160.

25 See McCormick, “Machiavellian Democracy,” 302.

26 See Rahe, “Situating Machiavelli,” 305.

27 Skinner, Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 1:181.

28 Kent, Friendship, Love and Trust, 11; Najemy, John, Between Friends: Discourses of Power and Desire in the Machiavelli-Vettori Letters of 1513–1515 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 21.

29 Clarke, “Virtues of Republican Citizenship”; Hölkeskamp, Karl, Reconstructing the Roman Republic: An Ancient Political Culture and Modern Research (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

30 Clarke, “Virtues of Republican Citizenship,” esp. 320–24.

31 Sallust, , Catiline's Conspiracy, The Jurgurthine War, Histories, trans. Batstone, William (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

32 See, e.g., Strauss, Leo, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958); Mansfield, Harvey C., Machiavelli's New Modes and Orders (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979); Sullivan, Vickie B., “Machiavelli's Momentary ‘Machiavellian Moment’: A Reconsideration of Pocock's Treatment of the Discourses,” Political Theory 20, no. 2 (1992): 309–18; Rahe, “Situating Machiavelli.”

33 Pocock, Machiavellian Moment, 40, 156, 165.

34 Maher, “What Skinner Misses about Machiavelli's Freedom,” 1009; cf. DL 3.28.

Many thanks are due to the UC Davis Political Theory Forum, and particularly to John T. Scott, Andi Rowntree, and Matthew Perry, for their helpful comments and suggestions.

The Friendless Republic: Freedom, Faction, and Friendship in Machiavelli's Discourses

  • John M. Warner


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