Intensive source reading seminar: Machiavelli’s Discourses

Course Description: 

Machiavelli’s Discourses are formally a commentary on the first ten books of Titus Livy’s History of Rome. Yet, the intent is to develop an analytical perspective on general problems and questions of politics. For this reason, Machiavelli incorporates much broader historical materials, including recent developments in Italy and Europe.

The Discourses are a less controversial, but more complex than Machiavelli’s infamous Prince. Even though both works are similar in their disregard of traditional Christian historiography and political ethics, the Discourses take a much more comprehensive look at political order. Other than the Prince, they are not exclusively focused on the person of the ruler, but look at a variety of forms government, especially republican ones. However, even in his discussion of the forms of government, the Discourses depart from the classical teachings, as found in Aristotle and Cicero. Machiavelli’s approach is not systematic and doctrinal, but rather contextual. For him, the appropriateness of a certain form of government depends much on the historical situation as well as on the quality of leadership and the character of the people.

Students will often find Machiavelli’s claims problematic if not objectionable. However, it is an advantage of the book that it formulates bold theses and does not try to please the reader’s ethical intuitions. Thus, it is a useful text for classroom discussions on a variety of questions of perennial relevance: What is the value of historical knowledge for political analysis? What should be the relation between religion and politics? What is the goal of politics? What is the meaning of civic virtue and how does public morale affect political order? What causes political instability and how to achieve stability? What is the effect of dictatorship? How does chance and fate affect political success or failure? What precisely is political success or failure? Is there a place for honesty in politics? What is the relation between philosophical truth and political expediency? What are meaningful alliances in foreign policy? How and when to conduct war and how to treat the defeated enemies? What makes a great political leader?

Students participating in the class will read and analyse the entire book, plus supporting materials from other works of Machiavelli and those of contemporary political theorists. Information on relevant secondary literature will be provided throughout the seminar.

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