Machiavellians – Lessons from Republican Politics



Preface to the recently released book by Sérgio Cardoso

This book is the result of a long and fruitful journey. It combines profound analyzes of Machiavelli's work with themes from the republican tradition. It would be difficult to summarize Sérgio Cardoso's contribution to the debate on Machiavelli and republicanism in Brazil. It has influenced a large number of students and researchers and has followed a path of great fruitfulness. The result is a harmonic work which reveals the depth and originality of his political thought, but also the fundamental traits of a gait long-thought-out investigation.

Let's turn our gaze to the central character of this book. Sérgio's contact with Lefort's analyzes of Machiavelli's work was very early and left traces that last until today. Among the various references to the Lefortian interpretation of Machiavelli, I can highlight the concern with the so-called theory of the two humors. Indeed, Lefort showed in his book Le travail de l'oeuvre Machiavelli, from 1972 (Paris, Gallimard), how the division of the body politic between “the great” and the “people” was fundamental to understand the Machiavellian operation. Based on this observation and the way Lefort thought about it, Sérgio Cardoso explored with originality, in several texts presented here, the meaning of what he called the “negative desire” of the people. If this approach to the theme was already, to some extent, present in the French philosopher, the way in which Sérgio develops and transposes it to the core of his political thought is something entirely new and of great radicalism.

This true theoretical position-taking strongly impacted studies on Machiavelli in Brazil, leading colleagues such as Helton Adverse and José Luiz Ames to entertain a fruitful debate with the author. Likewise, he influenced political studies in Brazil by suggesting a basic structure of republican thought, which is not clear in the works of those who only deal with the history of ideas. This intervention in the field of theory and methodology of political thought makes Sérgio Cardoso a key player in the development of Brazilian republican studies.

To account for the scope of this trajectory, let us begin by analyzing what Sérgio called “the Machiavellian rupture”. A common reading of the works of the Florentine secretary, in many cases supported by the fifteenth chapter of the Príncipe, points to the realistic character of his thinking as the nerve of his departure from ancient philosophy. This is not a flawed approach, since it is the Florentine thinker himself who makes the criticism of the authors of the past his point of support for the rupture that operates with tradition, accusing them of leading political actors to catastrophe by proposing as a reference regimes that never existed.

Sérgio does not entirely abandon this reference, nor does he fail to use the notion of “effective truth”, which is at the center of the aforementioned passage, in his interrogations. He is also aware of the importance of the debate on the mixed regime in Machiavelli's work and in his time. To imagine, therefore, that his passage to Machiavelli's thought (in his critique of Antiquity) represents a departure from his previous thought is to follow a false trail. What characterizes his thinking is the internal coherence and care that leads him to articulate its various stages.

If what I just said is correct, then it is up to us to find out how the various elements that make up the texts in this book are articulated. My hypothesis is that the structuring element of all the chapters is the notion of conflict.

Reading Machiavelli and combining his reading with Lefort's lessons, Sérgio Cardoso radicalizes some theses and establishes a rich dialogue with some interpreters of the Florentine, in particular with Helton Adverse, José Luiz Ames and Marie Gaille-Nikodimov. All of them focused on the subject and reached conclusions that are at the heart of the Brazilian debate on the Florentine's work. Ames, when analyzing the division of the political body between two opposing desires, ends up betting that only the desire of the great is productive, since since the people have launched themselves in the fight against oppression, they have made the desire to dominate the desire par excellence of politics. From Adverse's point of view, which does not agree with Ames' conclusions, the people want not to be oppressed, but for that they must make this desire positive, if they do not want to see themselves excluded from the political game. Starting from the same statement by Machiavelli that the city is always constituted by opposing desires — that of the great who want to oppress and that of the people who do not want to be oppressed —, Sérgio arrives at more radical conclusions than those of the other interpreters.

Following Lefort, Sérgio Cardoso says that popular desire is eminently negative. By leaving aside the idea that it is necessary to make the people's desire positive, our author does not, however, condemn the popular element to inaction. If popular desire is pure negativity, it is from this place that it can be universalized as opposed to the desire of the great, which can only be expressed in particular. Having already pointed to the fact that since antiquity the republican regime, which is often confused with the mixed regime, only exists as a regime of laws, Sérgio concludes that it is from this point of view that we can understand the birth of the law that is at the heart of free regimes.

The author elaborates here what I will call the negative ontology of the political. What I want to indicate by using this term is the radicalism of a thought that transits between the investigation of politics and its attics and the investigation of the foundations of the political. Now, it is precisely in this register that we must understand the affirmation of the pure negativity of desire. It is not a question of building a kind of metaphysics of life in society, but of looking for the roots of what can only appear in history and at the hands of men. For this reason, we can say of Sérgio Cardoso's thought, what he affirms of Machiavelli, that the raw material of all political reflection “is the effective; they are the facts that happened, objects of the narrations of the stories”.

The reader who has followed the outline of our author's reflections so far may be led to believe that he starts from a sociological division between rich and poor — taken from Aristotle — to arrive at a negative ontology, which would lower the value of his point departure to a reduced sphere of knowledge of the political world. Nothing more false. For my part, I believe that there is a double stratum in his thought, but that it has value because its constituent elements, poor and rich, great and people, complete each other in their appearances in the public and historical scene. If the division of primary desires points to the origin of the law, the dispute over the possession of riches points to the origin of the conflicts that run through the city.

As the author shows in the text dedicated to the analysis of some chapters of the Florentine Stories, cities are crossed by a wide range of conflicts, which often plunge them into a turmoil that prevents any stabilization of power. What happened in Florence at the end of the fourteenth century is a living example of how the conflict between those who aspire to power can degenerate into a factional struggle, which does not find in institutions the adequate mechanism for stabilizing the parties' disputes. This is the picture of the degeneration of republican institutions and the transformation of political conflicts into factional strife. The author, however, does not draw from this statement the conclusion that the corruption of the republic should be treated with instruments taken from other spheres of knowledge such as ethics. On the contrary, ethics, when used as a tool for understanding the degeneration of institutions, becomes the language of moralism, which is usually the expression of one of the parties in struggles.

A thinker of conflict, Sérgio Cardoso follows, at the hands of Machiavelli, the unfolding of struggles in the city to the limits where they signal the disappearance of polis as a political entity. This allows him to conclude that from reading the Florentine Stories it is possible to remove “the same fundamental knowledge” that, placing social division at the center, also points to the illusion of those who intend to overcome it by occupying the place of power. Therefore, in his thinking there is no ontology that would oppose and overcome a sociology of conflict. What defines him as a thinker of conflict is precisely the fact that his negative ontology is expressed at the historical level and reveals the real divisions of the political body. Ontology here is not synonymous with metaphysics, but with foundation.

For this reason, the analysis of history, such as the one carried out after the Revolt of the ciompi, starts from the affirmation of the founding character of conflicts in the division of moods present in cities (those of the great and of the people), to find its concrete expression in the separation between irreconcilable strata of life in common (rich and poor). The two formulations are the expression of the belief that structures his political thought in the affirmation of the primacy of the notion of conflict and anchors it in the heat of historical events. A thinker of conflict, Sérgio Cardoso is a realist thinker of politics.

The book offers an innovative thought, responsible for the transformation of Brazilian republicanism and Machiavellian studies. Through the analyzes of the Florentine secretary, he leads us to reflect on the mainstays of every republic: freedom, equality, participation. At the same time, he affirms one of the structuring points of his thought, namely, that every republic only exists through its laws. Going through the paths opened by this type of formulation is what moves his investigation. What gives it strength and importance is the fact that it does so from an innovative point of view.

We can understand the path taken from two points of view. First, there is the fact that the author places the notion of conflict at the center of his gait. This theoretical gesture guarantees him a perspective of politics that, inheriting something from Lefort's thought, welcomes the historical experience in its fullness and transforms it into a philosophical problem. But there is another gait interior to Sérgio Cardoso's thought, which makes him even more important in our philosophical scene. It is common these days to take as a given the idea that a conception of what freedom is is only current if it takes into account the emergence of liberalism. Now, Sérgio is far from unaware of this thesis, but he takes his thought to another level by restoring the dialogue with the Greco-Roman past at the moment when he seeks to think about the challenges posed to a republican philosophy and walks the path that, passing through Machiavelli , reaches our days.

It is clear that, as with Arendt, there is not even a shadow of nostalgia in her thinking. What he does is carry out the debate on the problems posed to republicanism in current conditions, opening a new path. Thinkers like Pocock revived Roman republicanism in its connection with the Italian Renaissance. Cicero is of interest to him because it served as the basis for the birth of the “Machiavellian moment”. By rescuing old thinking, Sérgio operates in another way. On the one hand, he dialogues with Antiquity through the Renaissance, with Machiavelli in particular.

On the other hand, when addressing, for example, the issue of rhetoric, it dialogues directly with Antiquity and confronts the theses of ancient writers directly with our time. Thus, in his works, the debate about the nature of the mixed regime is at the same time about a theme of the history of political thought and a discussion about the nature of regimes based on freedom and equality in the present day. Perhaps it is an exaggeration to say that we find a neo-Machiavellian republicanism in Sérgio Cardoso, but we can certainly say that we have in this book a sample of the best that was and is being done in the political philosophy of our country.

*Newton Bignotto is professor of philosophy at UFMG. Author, among other books, of Matrixes of republicanism (UFMG Publisher).



Sergio Cardoso. Machiavellians: lessons from republican politics. Foreword: Newton Bignotto. Comments: Helton Adverse and José Luiz Ames. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2022, 312.


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