Machiavelli and the Double Politics of Ambition

Date01 February 2018
Publication Date01 February 2018
AuthorMark Hoipkemier
/tmp/tmp-18nfTz5Z299wHu/input 720375PSX0010.1177/0032321717720375Political StudiesHoipkemier
Political Studies
2018, Vol. 66(1) 245 –260
Machiavelli and the Double
© The Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permissions:
Politics of Ambition
DOI: 10.1177/0032321717720375
Mark Hoipkemier
This article explores the early modern political science of vice by setting out Machiavelli’s treatment
of ambition, which can be harnessed but never finally tamed. Even though ambition always aspires
to tyranny, Machiavelli argues that it can serve the common goods of freedom and prosperity if it
is reined in at home and unleashed abroad. This solution requires a combination of sound political
orders and civic prudence. To grasp all of his two-part account of managing ambition, this study
mines Machiavelli’s poetry and his Florentine Histories. Machiavelli not only agrees with his liberal
heirs that political institutions defuse the threat and capture the energies of ambition in the short
run but also adds that the most stable solution needs a dynamic of reinforcement between orders
and civic character.
Machiavelli, ambition, civic character, institutions, Florentine Histories
Accepted: 29 March 2017
Even in a bureaucratic age, politics is the realm of ambition. We praise the innovator in
war or diplomacy, the trailblazer bold enough to break the color barrier or the glass ceil-
ing, the rags-to-riches leader. But the memory of tyrants reminds us of ambition’s self-
regard and hypocrisy. We cannot see ambition as simply one thing or the other, and this
dual view is woven into the fabric of modern government. One can broadly characterize
liberal constitutionalism as a project of simultaneously fomenting ambition and shackling
it (see Epstein, 1984: 193–197). We need it, we praise it, but we do not trust ambition.
This moral and political ambiguity dates back only to the time of Machiavelli, one of
the first thinkers to highlight the political usefulness of what was usually categorized as
a vice (Varotti, 1998). He did not overturn this appraisal of ambition, remaining fully
alive to its destructive power. But he observed that ambition could also serve the com-
mon good. In any case, one could not be rid of it. Machiavelli is the forerunner not only
Department of Political Science, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN, USA
Corresponding author:
Mark Hoipkemier, Department of Political Science, University of Notre Dame, 217 O’Shaughnessy Hall,
Notre Dame, IN 46556, USA.

Political Studies 66(1)
of the liberal stance toward ambition but also of the constitutional response to it, which
matures in thinkers such as Montesquieu and Madison (Rahe, 2006; Sullivan, 2004). If
the ambitious cannot be trusted, political institutions are needed to reward them for serv-
ing the common good and to punish them when they subvert it. Ambition is divisive and
violent; Machiavelli proposes institutions that will unleash this violence against foreign
rivals, enriching the whole city and at the same time suppressing internal strife. Unlike
later liberals, however, Machiavelli thinks that good orders are not enough. Elites can
use institutions to gain enough power to threaten political order. The ambitions of the
great and the lowly need to be offset by a certain kind of civic character. Elites must be
prudent enough to add some vision to “blind” ambition so that they do not short-circuit
political rivalry. Both the grandi and the popolo must value the freedom of the city
enough to defend it militarily while also suspecting in fellow citizens the same self-
regard they find in themselves. In Machiavelli’s double remedy, we see the origins of not
only a familiar attitude to ambition but also an unfamiliar dimension that challenges our
heavy reliance on institutional solutions. Empirical social science is only now rediscov-
ering what Machiavelli knew, that “good incentives are no substitute for good citizens”
(Bowles, 2016).
The aim of this article is to set out Machiavelli’s understanding of ambition as a politi-
cal problem and to reconstruct the solution he recommends to republics. The ambivalent
construal of ambition is as familiar to Machiavelli scholars as it is to contemporary cul-
ture (see Duff, 2011; Price, 1982), but his full response has not been fully set out. In
particular, the limits of institutions have never been adequately brought together with the
concern for character that follows from them.1 Among the many studies on Machiavelli’s
treatment of “corruption,” an essentially sociological phenomenon, his interest in charac-
ter as a political variable in itself has been somewhat neglected (Maher, 2016; Sullivan,
2004: 58–79; Varotti, 1998: 418–441). For the sake of exposition, I draw a sharper dis-
tinction between the two aspects of his remedy for ambition than Machiavelli himself
does. They are found woven together in his poem Dell’Ambizione (DA), where he sets out
the whole topic in a few broad strokes: the nature of ambition, the political problems it
poses, and his complex solution. I show that the same elements are found with more illus-
tration but less system in Machiavelli’s prose works, especially his Florentine Histories
(FH). Because they deal with a history of ambition gone awry, both DA and the FH high-
light a republican perspective that is secondary in the better-known Discourses on Livy
(D): the viewpoint of failure (Jurdjevic, 2014: chap. 7). The past and present of Italy’s
flailing attempts to deal with ambition, and the chaos and ruin that ongoing failure entails,
afford Machiavelli a chance to elaborate aspects of ambition that Rome leaves hidden.2
Furthermore, the fact that Florence manages just one aspect of the two-pronged solution
to ambition at a given time, and this intermittently, helps the reader to grasp the need for
both together. Machiavelli’s twofold solution, theorized and applied in these Florentine
works, presents a challenging contrast to the way that his liberal heirs understand and
address the problem of ambition and of vice more generally.
The Poetry of Ambition
DA is Machiavelli’s only work devoted to the topic of ambition.3 It is a good starting point
for investigating his thought on the topic, because it is short and vivid yet comprehensive.
The 187-line terza rima poem purports to be a letter from the front lines of a war between
Venice and the Papal League, which Machiavelli witnessed in his capacity as a Florentine

diplomat. The savagery of the war and the apparent ignorance of the poem’s addressee,
Luigi Guicciardini, prompt the poet to consider the origin and effects of ambition. The
poem is didactic both in tone and in structure: a semi-pagan creation story is followed by
an abstract psychology of ambition and a report of its modern effects, with advice at the
end. Yet, the poet’s grisly images and laments at the horrors of war show him to be no
detached moralist. He sees ambition as a powerful and dangerous goddess whose work
ends in blood. Moved to spare Tuscany the carnage of unbridled ambition, the poet con-
cludes by proposing that “better order” can “extinguish” (DA 187) its flames. The picture
of ambition in DA is complete but lacking in crisp detail, as befits a poem.
Machiavelli begins the poem by chiding his friend for ignorance of a basic fact: “In
every place, ambition and avarice penetrate …” (DA 11–12). To explain this endemic
problem, the poet retells the story of Genesis, adding pagan elements that highlight the
role of ambition. In Machiavelli’s version, Cain and Abel are “living happy in their poor
dwelling” (DA 23–24) even outside of Eden, which suggests that Cain’s ambitious sin
against his brother, not Adam and Eve’s sin against God, was the true Fall of Man. A “hid-
den power” (DA 25) from heaven, not further identified, sends down avarice and ambition
in the form of two Furies that incite Cain to murder Abel. Ambition begins, then, with the
very first human relationships to involve rivalry among peers. The poem does not men-
tion that Cain is also the founder of the first city (Genesis 4:17), which would further
suggest that all politics is grounded in ambition. The two Furies have four faces and eight
hands, allowing them to see and grasp everywhere at once. Unlike the classical Furies,
Machiavelli’s vices are beautiful “to the eyes of many,” who see in them “grace” and
“delight” (DA 31–33). Here as elsewhere, the poet clearly announces his disagreement
with the crowd (see DA 176) by describing the Furies’ “pestilence” and the retinue of
other vices they bring. The Furies are sent “to dwell on the earth” (DA 30) in order to sate
their “limitless desire” (DA 41), but they disappear unexpectedly from the action of the
poem. By the end of the story of Cain, the poet begins to address the human spirit as itself
the source of ambition, “above all else malignant, iniquitous, violent, and savage” (DA
56–57). In contrast to the story of Eve and the serpent, the Furies implant ambition into
Cain without his consent, but like original sin the Furies’ “evil seed” (DA 61) transforms
not just Cain but also all persons to come. The hardy weed of ambition requires only the
slightest of nourishment (DA 52, 70–71). Ambition appears on the scene as foreign to the
human soul, yet by the end of the opening sequence of DA, it...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT