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Florentine Fancy

The Vanishing Community

A second conversation with Niccolò Machiavelli


My second meeting with Niccolò Machiavelli took place in L’Albergaccio, the tavern where he spent much of his time after being exiled from Florence by the Medici. It was a heated midafternoon, and so we were alone together.

Buon pomeriggio,” I said. “Good afternoon.”

Buona sera,” he replied, less formally.

Tutto posto?” he asked. “Everything all right?”

“No,” I replied, “everything is not all right.”

“Peccato!” he said. “Too bad! Still the political problems in your country?”

“Yes,” I said. “And they are getting worse. The conservatives—as they call themselves, although they are in actuality subversive radicals—are now talking about launching civil war.”

Guerra civile!” Niccolò expostulated. “Are they armed?”

“Yes, they are. The ones who are talking the most seriously about it are armed to the teeth. They are comparing themselves to the American patriots who started our Revolution in 1775.”

“And what of the patriots on your side of the fence? The liberals, ? Are you armed, or getting yourselves armed?”

I was reluctant to give Niccolò the answer to his question. We just looked at each other. Finally, his face contorted, and he said, “So, the radical reactionaries are armed, and the democratic liberals are unarmed.? That is an unstable and dangerous situation.”

“I think,” I said, “the liberals assume that if it comes to that, the military will step in and save the day. The American military has the sufficient troops and the necessary hardware to take care of such a situation.”

“That may be the case. But meanwhile, those maledetti could kill a lot of good people.”

At that point, I changed the subject, to give my interlocutor a different perspective on the problem.

“Niccolò,” I said, “we in America have an amendment to our Constitution, the Second Amendment, which has been associated with you.”

“I think I’ve heard of this amendment, but it has never been explained to me.”

“Let me read it to you. It says: ‘A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’”

“Bravo! I strongly endorse this amendment. You know I’m the one who created the militia in the city of Florence.”

“Yes, I know that well. Professor Quentin Skinner, whose work we discussed last time we spoke, has written about it, I know. When you were young, in your early thirties, you were dispatched by the authorities in Florence to the court of Cesare Borgia. He was one of the first in Italy to disband his mercenary troops and replace them with a local militia. And you, years later, as an official in the government of Florence, persuaded the authorities there to let you follow his example.”

“Yes, soldiers who are actual citizens of a political order are always going to be more loyal, and more dedicated, than strangers doing it only for money.”

“Agreed. But the controversy surrounding our Second Amendment in our country doesn’t have to do with that.”

“What does it have to do with then?”

“It’s about what rights citizens have to own and use guns personally, completely apart from when they are serving in any military.”

“In Renaissance Florence,” Niccolò responded, “gun ownership was widespread among the male population. Male citizens would be called to service if the city were under siege.”

“Yes, I realize that was a major component of the political theory of civic republicanism, which you were a leader in developing. J.G.A. Pocock, who in 1975 wrote The Machiavellian Moment, and Skinner have both been active in explaining the underlying theory of civic republicanism. As someone wrote on a blog called The Genealogy of Consent, ‘Pocock and Quentin Skinner assert that the right to bear arms is one of the founding tenets of civic republicanism. Cultivating the civic virtues meant participating actively in the political process and taking part in the military endeavors of the republic.’”

“Just so,” affirmed Niccolò.

“OK,” I rejoined, “but the American Supreme Court has detached the right to own a firearm from the original purpose of the Second Amendment. It is now an individual right unto itself, with no connection to any formal military purpose. And this is a very recent development. Since 2008, the court has given individuals permission to own a gun and keep it in their home, prohibited state and local jurisdictions from passing gun laws suited to their specific needs, and decreed that the only acceptable criterion for a law restricting gun rights is whether such a law has already existed in America for a long time. Whether it is deemed necessary by local authorities for a particular problem in the present is deemed irrelevant.”

“As you know,” Niccolò said, “civic republicanism has its origins in the concept of a group of people trying to live together as a community rather than leading separate, individual lives. It sounds as if that idea, for your country, has vanished. As in the case of the guns, it’s every man for himself.”

“Today, in the United States, it is difficult for anyone to imagine they are living in any kind of community, even a very small one. And I fear there is no end to this atomization, no engine to reverse it.”

“The afternoon is late,” I ventured. “J.G.A. Pocock has advanced some interesting thoughts about the relationship of civic republicanism and capitalism relevant to our discussions. I suggest that as the topic for our next meeting.”

“Yes,” said Machiavelli, “I am aware scholars have noted my uneasiness with the development of mercantile society in the early Renaissance. I look forward to discussing the subject.”

“As do I. Ciao, Niccolò.”

Ciao,” said Machiavelli, and vanished from sight.