On Machiavellian Moderation

In 1525, two years before his death, and well after his years in the world of Florentine politics, Machiavelli wrote a play, Clizia. A reworking of the Roman playwright Plautus’ comedy, Casina, Machiavelli’s Clizia is set in Florence in 1506. The action centres on a father and son, Nicomacho and Cleandro, who both fall in love with a young woman, Clizia, who has been adopted by the family. The disputes which ensue are mediated by Nicomacho’s wife and Cleandro’s mother, Sofronia. As Nicomacho and Cleandro squabble and spar, it is Sofronia, the matriarch, who emerges with her reputation enhanced. Through a sequence of well-executed moves, she manipulates her husband, protects the absent Clizia, prevents her son from entering into a rash marriage, and safeguards the family’s reputation.

Because she directs the movements of the characters around her, Sofronia has been interpreted as representing fortuna, and so as quashing the vain virtù of Nicomacho, a thinly veiled Nic(c)o(lo) Mach(iavelli)o. This sees Clizia as a world-weary meditation on human limitations by a Machiavelli nearing the end of his life.[1] A better reading, based on an alternative language-game played by Machiavelli-the-humanist, associates Sofronia not with fortuna but with sophrosyne, with moderation-as-temperance – a virtue which, like fortune, is traditionally depicted as a woman.[2] Sofronia manages a disruptive, and potentially dangerous, situation effectively. Her interventions enable the family to recover an order akin to that with which it was governed before Nicomacho’s fall from grace.[3] She keeps in check the forces and passions at play around her, closes down a series of rash decisions, and keeps the family on an even keel.

Yet Sofronia’s moderation is less classical virtue and more Machiavellian virtù. The new order she establishes is a species of Machiavellian politics, based not on moralised rule from the centre, but rather on dynamic sets of interlocking conflictual relationships which Sofronia is able to moderate through calculation, persuasion and, sometimes, deceit.[4] She is the only character in the play to ‘break the fourth wall’, in the final act addressing the spectators directly, inviting them to depart.[5] Like Machiavelli’s Principe she is in the midst of the dramas unfolding around her, but is also detached, a third party elevated above the fray. It’s on this basis that it has been remarked that Sofronia the calculating matriarch, and not Nicomacho the foolish knave, “appears to be the Machiavellian character par excellence”.[6]

The character of Sofronia showcases a species of Machiavellian moderation which is worth drawing into the present. Machiavelli is renowned today as a radical thinker, a disruptor, a critic of traditional authority, a harbinger of a new age. It was against the empty, placid and compromising moderation of his contemporaries that Machiavelli incited his prince to be audacious, to reject the inevitability of fate, to eschew the via media solution, and to forge a new world.

This well-established judgement is rooted in an assumed juxtaposition of ‘radicalism’ to ‘moderation’. This dichotomy, forged in the nineteenth century, doesn’t hold up to the gaze of the historian.

Moderation, in antiquity as in early modern Europe, meant governance – the governance of the self, as well as the governance of others. This translates into a species of self-restraint, which, in Machiavellian terms, is akin to his ideal of prudenza. At base this means governing by making the right decision at the right moment, the wise man being open to “vary his conduct as the winds of fortune and changing circumstances constrain him”. Pragmatism and flexibility are, for Machiavelli, core virtues, both princely and civil.

The mechanics of Machiavelli’s governance-as-moderation is, however, more refined. Repeatedly, in The Prince and the Discourses on Livy Machiavelli eschews the middle way (via di mezzo) favoured by his contemporaries as a strategy for political decision-making and humanist thought. Against the pursuit of an ill-defined middle course Machiavelli applauds decisive action: the balanced neutrality of “holding exactly to the middle way”, is, in Machiavelli’s view, a dangerous myth.

But if Machiavelli praises audacity, he certainly doesn’t endorse recklessness. The move towards extremes and away from the centre ground needs to be measured and systematic. Moreover, the prudent prince works hard to keep both extremes in sight at all times, to keep open potential recourse to both if it suits his needs. Politics is both managed and navigated best not once two extremes are folded into a static golden mean, but rather when one can fluctuate between the two.

This alternative, dynamic, Machiavellian via media, recurs throughout Machiavelli’s writings. It receives its archetypal form in his depiction of the Prince as half-man, half-beast in The Prince, able to deploy both natures to suit circumstance. It recurs in the ruler’s recourse to both love and fear, the “two principal things” which drive man, as devices to govern the people.

This bi-frontal gaze is central to Machiavelli’s entire political philosophical enterprise. To moderate others and to moderate the self – to exemplify Sofronia’s moderation-as-sophrosyne – means embodying the tension which exists between two opposed concepts. The Machiavellian operator must absorb dichotomies which, to others, appear oxymoronic, as paradoxes in terms. This is a load which must be borne for the exercise of Machiavellian moderation. For Machiavelli, it is a load worth bearing, because it encloses the secret to good governance.

The construct of ‘Machiavellian Moderation’ proposed here is expounded in greater depth in an article published in early 2022 in History of Political Thought, ‘Politics as Moderation in Machiavelli’.

[1] Salvatore Di Maria, ‘Nicomaco and Sofronia: Fortune and desire in Machiavelli’s “Clizia”, Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 14, no.2, 1983.

[2] As observed in Ronald L. Martinez, ‘Benefit of Absence: Machiavellian Valediction in Clizia’, in Machiavelli and the Discourse of Literature, eds. A. Ascoli and V. Kahn, 1993, pp. 117-144, followed by Zuckert, Machiavelli’s Politics, 2017, p. 367.

[3] In a long soliloquy (Clizia 2.4) she laments the “gran mutazione” which had taken hold of Nicomacho, and the family’s demise from when “le cose andavano ordinate e liete”.

[4] Martin Fleisher, ‘Trust and deceit in Machiavelli’s Comedies’, Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 27, no. 3, 1966, pp. 365-380, pp. 368-375. Recently Lorenzo Fabbri (‘Early modern media theory: Comedy and government in Machiavelli’s Clizia’, MLN, vol. 134, no. 1, 2019, pp. 65-83) has associated Sofronia with the art of government. In the light of the above, (p. 23) moderation is a better term.

[5] Clizia, 5.6, “Andiamo. E voi, spettator, ve ne potrete andare a casa”

[6] Zuckert, p. 369