“Gli umori delle parti”: Humoral Dynamics and Democratic Potential in the Florentine Histories

Date01 December 2020
Published date01 December 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2020, Vol. 48(6) 723 –750
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591720914410
“Gli umori delle parti”:
Humoral Dynamics and
Democratic Potential
in the Florentine Histories
Christopher Holman1
In this essay I consider the potential of Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories
to contribute to the enrichment of contemporary democratic theory. In
opposition to both of the major groups of current interpreters of this text—
those who see it as representative of a conservative turn in Machiavelli’s
thought grounded in a newfound skepticism regarding popular political
competencies, and those who see it as merely a re-presentation of the
republican commitments of the Discourses on Livy—I argue that it reveals to
us a unique political potentiality, but one that is essential for the construction
of an internally consistent Machiavellian theory of democracy. Specifically,
through disclosing the historicity and contingency of the humors of the parts
of the city, the Histories suggests the possibility of concretely actualizing a
condition of social equality, thus overcoming the main democratic deficit
of the Discourses—the perpetuation of inequality, as represented in the
preservation of the existence of a class with a desire to oppress.
Niccolò Machiavelli, democracy, Florentine Histories, humors, equality, freedom
1Public Policy and Global Affairs Programme, School of Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological
University, Singapore
Corresponding Author:
Christopher Holman, Associate Professor, Public Policy and Global Affairs Programme,
School of Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, HSS-06-04, 48 Nanyang Avenue,
Singapore 639818, Singapore.
Email: cholman@ntu.edu.sg
914410PTXXXX10.1177/0090591720914410Political TheoryHolman
724 Political Theory 48(6)
After decades of relative neglect in relation to his other major political works
(at least within Anglophone scholarship), recent years have seen a growing
number of political theorists and historians of political thought turn to the
study of Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories and its place within his overall
intellectual trajectory. One of the most significant normative issues around
which debate has crystallized is the democratic or nondemocratic character
of this text, particularly in relation to the increasingly recognized populist
commitments of the earlier republican histories presented in the Discourses
on Livy. The majority judgment thus far tends to posit the relationship
between the Discourses and the Histories primarily in terms of break or tran-
sition, Machiavelli’s normative political goals having been redirected to the
extent that he is seen as coming to adopt a far more pessimistic position
regarding the political competencies of the commonality of citizens. The later
Florentine works are thus seen as characterized by a newfound elitism. On
the other side of the debate are democratic readers, who see in these works
the perpetuation of Machiavelli’s popular egalitarian commitments. These
commitments are seen as expressed in a continuing adherence to an intrinsi-
cally disputatious class analysis, in which the people’s desire for freedom is
articulated negatively in relation to the great’s desire to dominate.
In this essay I position myself in opposition to both of these interpretative
tendencies, although from different theoretical standpoints. I suggest that the
advocates of the conservative thesis err in uncritically accepting as a general-
izable empirical fact Machiavelli’s immediate depiction of the people and/or
the plebe in the Florentine Histories. They forget, on the contrary, that every
Machiavellian depiction of civic behavior refers us not to a positive concep-
tion of human nature but only to the particular and contingent institutional
configuration that marks the precise social-historical context under consider-
ation. The democratic readers, on the other hand, err not as interpreters of
Machiavelli but rather as interpreters of democracy. Specifically, affirming the
natural bifurcation of the humors of the people and the grandi as well as their
mutual co-constitution, Machiavellian democracy is articulated in terms of the
perpetual struggle of the former against the oligarchic drives of the latter. The
popular realization of freedom is thus seen to depend upon an apparently onto-
logical division of the social field. In other words, Machiavellian democracy
affirms popular freedom but at the cost of eternalizing social inequality,
inequality in fact being the very condition of possibility of freedom.1 In a
sense, if the neo-Roman republican readers of Machiavelli want equality with-
out freedom – that is to say, the protection of a sphere of negative liberty in
which each is equally able to pursue their private goods independently of

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