Politics and Remembrance: Republican Themes in Machiavelli, Burke, and Tocqueville

Politics and Remembrance: Republican Themes in Machiavelli, Burke, and Tocqueville

by Bruce James Smith


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This inquiry into the nature of political action concerns what the author describes as the most precarious and uncertain of human endeavors." Focusing on specific themes in Machiavelli, Burke, and Tocqueville, Bruce Smith identifies political action as a distinct mode of human activity.

Originally published in 1985.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691611877
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Studies in Moral, Political, and Legal Philosophy , #43
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 302
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.40(d)

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Politics & Remembrance

Republican Themes in Machiavelli, Burke, and Tocqueville

By Bruce James Smith


Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07681-2



Consider the herd grazing before you. These animals do not know what yesterday and today are but leap about, eat, rest, digest and leap again; ... enthralled by the moment and for that reason neither melancholy nor bored. It is hard for man to see this ... because he wants nothing other than to live like the animals, neither bored nor in pain, yet wants it in vain because he does not want it like the animal. ... Man .. wonder[s] about himself, that he cannot learn to forget but always remains attached to the past, however far and fast he runs, the chain runs with him — Nietzsche

Politics, thought Chesterton, is inescapably symbolic. In public things, images are always in abundance. While these are occasionally given solidity and substance in carved stone, they live in the minds of men. Political action is rarely, if ever, free from such imaginings. That tradition which links action with heroes is a sound one. We've long suspected that the heroic imagination originates in images of past action. In the memorable deeds of predecessors, human beings discover what they must become. The lover of action, like Melville's Starry Vere, finds his literature in history. Reverence and piety are familiar sentiments to him, and he is often found at the temple of his ancestors.

This religiosity, however, is not without a healthy admixture of what Michael Oakeshott has called "idolatry." The lover of action labors in the mines of the past with passion, for he seeks a home for himself; indeed, he seeks himself. In action, human beings look upon the past with the eyes of the present and upon the present with the eyes of the future, and they move easily from the contemplation of an ancient glory to a contemplation of their own. Caritas may enjoin humility; still, action and anonymity have never walked hand in hand any great distance. In all action there is this irreducible element, this image of the self-in-action. "I shall yield," says Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography, "to the inclination, so natural to old men, of talking of themselves and their own actions." Revolutions are often made by religious men. They are never made by selfless ones. In political action, there is always to be found a dialectic of reverence and irreverence. Revolutionists, Hannah Arendt insists, are almost always secret traditionalists. Action, or that which makes the future, is, paradoxically, forever meditating on the past.

To these observations may be added one other, and one for which the experience of modern men is ample testimony. Where the images of the past and the affections which attach to these (and around which action is organized) decay or are pulled apart, where human beings have forgotten or no longer agree on what Walter Lippmann called "the first and last things," there is opened up "a great vacuum in the public mind, yawning to be filled," and men rush in only to exhaust themselves. At such times, society may continue to exist, or even prosper, but public life will have come to an end. I have called this relation between political action and the past remembrance. My reasons for doing so will be set forth in this introduction.

These considerations of the nature of action have a place, I believe, in the understanding of political action as a distinct mode of human activity, and in any discussion of the possibility of a truly revolutionary praxis. (In this regard, the relevant preliminary text is, of course, Karl Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire.) Such questions, however, are not the concern of this inquiry. The essays which make up this volume address an earlier tradition of discourse which also took as its starting point problems associated with political practice and which is often called by the name republican. While this designation is not inappropriate, it raises two kinds of questions regarding the parameters of my subject matter.

The first is one of definition. What is the meaning of the term republic! That it has been put to torture more than once is well known. Machiavelli's use of the word is comprehensive. "All the states, all the dominions that have had or now have authority over men have been and now are either republics or princedoms." Historically, the term has been applied most often to those states where the rule of a king has given way to that of a body of citizens. It was this practice in antiquity that Aristotle sought to capture in the idea of "ruling and being ruled." "Princedoms" are characterized by the action of one; republics by the action of many.

The existence of a republic, however, is not simply a matter of numbers. Where citizens rule and are ruled in turn or, to speak more exactly, where men are citizens, something wholly different exists — res publica — "the public's thing." The proprietary character of Cicero's phrase is appropriate, but it also suggests the difficulty. A republic, it seems, presupposes the existence of a public. A republic is more than a thing. It is at once that which makes public life possible, a space within which public life takes place, and public life itself. The republic is a set of habits, customs, traditions, and institutions which buttress public life. But the republic is also the tissue of relations between citizens in space and time, and it is this which permits us, finally, to speak of a public existence.

In these essays, I will consider the institutions and structure of republican government only to the extent that these throw light on the republican consciousness. It is a portion of the psychological geography of the republican regime that I seek. The republic is considered here as a mnemonic structure, a type of regime erected upon the injunction: remember. That this is not an outlandish proposition will be acknowledged, I think, if we reflect upon the status of the idea of the beginning in the tradition of political thought and upon the stature within that discourse of those who have founded political orders, such as Moses, Romulus, and Lycurgus. The conception of the republic as a vessel of remembrance would seem to hold out the possibility of talking about old topics in new ways. I have in mind particularly the problem of decay and its relation to forgetfulness. Part of my purpose, then, is to examine the republic as a form of government from the singular psychic vantage point of recollection.

The problem of boundaries and subject matter is not exhausted, however, by discussions of definition. The second question is the propriety of uniting the likes of Niccolo Machiavelli, Edmund Burke, and Alexis de Tocqueville into a single discourse and labeling that discourse "republican." Of the three, only Machiavelli may, with any confidence, be called a republican (Burke and Tocqueville both disclaiming allegiance to any form of government in particular). And even Machiavelli's republican sympathies often have been called into question. What is it, then, that places these thinkers in something that we are entitled to call a discourse?

Of some significance are the practical biases of all three. First, each has given us reason to believe that he preferred the active to the contemplative life, although each was possessed of great speculative powers. Machiavelli began writing in earnest only after the Medici's return to power made his active contribution to Florentine politics no longer welcome. And while Machiavelli's posture as an office seeker in the Dedication to The Prince is somewhat ironic, it also has its serious side. Burke, having once entered public life, never left it, and thereafter looked upon his writing and political speculations as a kind of theft from the pressing concerns of public business. Tocqueville, a celebrated thinker at an early age, had been first a man of practice who twice left public life, but did so in each case from principle rather than by preference. In a manner after Machiavelli, he spoke of study as consolation for his enforced leisure.

Second, each entertained more or less radical attitudes toward the proper relations between philosophy and politics. Of the three, Machiavelli's position in this regard is the most difficult to make out. The status of metaphysics in Machiavelli's work remains controversial. However, this much can be said: Machiavelli's reticence in discussing metaphysical issues has led some commentators to find in his work the teaching that politics is "autonomous." Burke's fulminations against the application of abstract theory to political things are well known. Tocqueville, by his own admission, simply found metaphysics uninteresting, in large measure because of its apparent lack of relation to practical matters.

Finally, and perhaps most important, each found in his own political practice a ground for his reflections on politics. To each the term realist might be applied. And in the work of each is to be found the belief that prudence is the proper foundation for the theory and practice of politics.

This prudential cast of mind rests, I believe, on the uncertain status of res publica in "the order of things," and yet on the enduring conviction, founded on a personal practice, of its intrinsic value. Dominion is as natural as fatherhood, its model and original form. That dominion is natural, or in nature, while political life is made — a human artifact — is suggested by the inability to trace fatherhood to its original unless one returns to the origin of the species (a point Filmer was, for related reasons, at pains to demonstrate). In any case, the ur-father must necessarily go unnamed. The unity of blood or the clan emerges from the mists of prehistory intact. The same is not true of res publica. Political communities, or associations founded upon civic rather than blood relations (and sometimes in opposition to kinship ties), are creatures of history, with a beginning and thus, presumably, an end. The suspicion that political life or public liberty is an aberration in nature and that only dominion has a natural existence, that political life is artifice and thus subject to the vicissitudes of all things human, left its mark early on the republican consciousness.

While republics have always had an acute sense of their own temporality, customary societies generally see themselves as existing since time immemorial. Indeed, this is the first meaning of custom. Kingship is older than history. Hereditary monarchies often have seen themselves as modeled on a divine pattern and, in their more extravagant forms, have found their origins in the beginning of time itself. Yet political life, observes Aristotle, was "first constructed" in time. Republics generally have conceived of themselves as having had a "beginning."

Ancient political practice understood the problem of the republic to be both spatial and temporal. To bring into being a public "space," it was thought necessary to first lay a foundation. The founder's art involved not only the creation of a political order in time, but the projection of that order through time. Of the renowned Lacedaemonian foundation, Plutarch writes:

Even so, Lycurgus, viewing with joy and satisfaction the greatness and beauty of his political structure, now fairly at work and in motion, conceived the thought to make it immortal too, and, as far as human forecast can teach, to deliver it down unchangeable to posterity.

The radical "finitude" (the phrase is J. G. A. Pocock's) of public life in space and time finds terms of correspondence in republican discourse. This discourse generally has used two words to denote participation in a public existence, citizen and patriot. While each of these terms carries a load of meaning that remains unexhausted by considering them as categories of space and time, these are the dimensions that I take to be fundamental. Citizen is a category of space. One is a citizen in relation to certain contemporaries who occupy the same space — one's fellow-citizens. Like citizen, patriot is a term of relation. But as the etymology of the word suggests, the patriot participates in a more peculiar relation, a relation through time. It is a relationship with predecessors — his "fathers" — that the patriot enjoys. The patriot commonly is thought of as the lover of a place ("land where my fathers died"), which also suggests the unity of the two concepts in any comprehensive understanding of res publica.

The foundation of a republic is that which unites a people in space and time. To the fellow-feeling which ties all citizens together into a single whole must be added that sentiment, often called reverence, which binds a generation to those who have preceded it. Only then can one truly speak of the existence of a people. To make the citizen also a patriot, this was the founder's art. Only then, Lycurgus knew, would it become possible to deliver res publica "down unchangeable to posterity."

Still, for the republic time remains the dimension of decadence. The vocabulary of republican thought is saturated with temporality. At the center of this vocabulary are the well-known polarities "virtue" and "corruption." While these terms often refer to a host of circumstances and practices, they essentially provide a language with which to discuss the process by which the integrity of public life is eroded. Moreover, the language of virtue and corruption is a temporal vocabulary of a particular kind. Decadence, the process which this vocabulary is meant to illuminate, is fundamentally psychological — the decay of a people's character over time. The well-being of the republic rests, finally, on the maintenance of a civic personality. As one contemporary theorist of the republic has put it, "a community which would preserve its ancient spirit must design the education of the latest generation to build a character identical to the first."

It is the need for such a pedagogy that has led republics to sanctify their beginnings. Few things are more striking in the history of republican practice than such sanctification, and few things are more universal. The idea of a "beginning" has been, for republics, more than a historical fact; it has been a "principle" which, as Plato remarked, "is the savior of all things, if She receives the proper honor from each of those who make use of her." This felt need to preserve the beginning consecrated memory as the most public mode of consciousness. Yet the idea of remembrance and the problem of preservation implicit in it point to the dilemma of all such pedagogies.

It is with this understanding of the republic's self-conscious temporality that we approach the text which is the true origin of the essays contained herein. In the concluding paragraph of chapter 5 of The Prince, a chapter whose avowed purpose is to teach new princes how to manage "those states ... [which are] accustomed to living under their own laws and in liberty," Machiavelh writes: "In republics there is more life, more hate, greater longing for revenge; they are not permitted to rest — nor can they be — by the recollection of their ancient liberty." Chapter 5 follows three chapters which discuss ancestral practices, the last two of which discuss the difficulties these practices pose for new princes and what must be done about them. In chapters 2 through 4, Machiavelh speaks generally of "old conditions" and specifically of the "customs" of "fore fathers." In chapter 2, which considers hereditary principalities (that is, where the rule of the prince is customary), remembrance is discussed only in connection with the forgetfulness or "oblivion" that is the foundation of such regimes. However, in chapter 5, which considers republics, Machiavelli describes the influence of the old way of life as a kind of "recollection."

Machiavelli's curious observations about republics are made more so by this change in terminology. Other regimes, the preceding chapters tell us, have "customs." Republics have "recollections." It is these, Machiavelli seems to say, which are the source of an energy and activity that are peculiarly republican and which make conquering those accustomed to living "in liberty" always difficult and dangerous.

What is meant by "recollection"? What is the nature of its relation to political action? What are the implications of this relation for a theory of the republic? These and related issues provide the direction of the remainder of this introduction and the essays that follow. We turn first to those questions of meaning which the citation from Machiavelli has raised.


Excerpted from Politics & Remembrance by Bruce James Smith. Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Preface, pg. ix
  • One. Introduction, pg. 1
  • Two. Machiavelli: Remembrance And The Republic, pg. 26
  • Three. Edmund Burke: Political Order And The Past, pg. 102
  • Four. Aleixs De Tocqueville: The Politics Of Affection, pg. 155
  • Five. Thinking About The Republic: A Note On Equality And Authority, pg. 251
  • Bibliography, pg. 273
  • Index, pg. 279

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