Systematic analysis shows the psychological premises of Machiavelli's political theory to be fairly consistent and to transcend historical circumstance. Above all, the apparent contradiction between its rapacious and consensual sides can be resolved by unearthing his distinction between necessary properties and contingent attributes qua habits. Following medieval medical theory, necessary properties include: spirit that animates the body; mind with faculties of ingenuity, imagination, and memory; desires for preservation, glory, power, freedom, wealth, and sexual pleasure; and four humors received from the stars. While serving the desires, mind stimulates them to expand into the limitless ambition characteristic of Machiavellian individuals. Habituation to laws and gods makes possible the institutional life of republics, in that cooperative habits solve the collective-action problem faced by a multitude of self-ruling citizens. However, such republics are ultimately alliances for joint gain rather than structures of virtue -- challenging the ascendant view of Machiavelli as a "civic humanist" and Aristotelian.
As with most political theories, Machiavelli's propositions on political order and foreign affairs are based on a number of important assumptions about the inner workings of human beings. Although the resulting political psychology is crucial to his overall thought and fairly consistent, Machiavelli does not present it in any orderly fashion but scatters it across his writings according to his rhetorical purposes. A number of Machiavelli's major interpreters, I believe, would agree with this assessment.(1) But none of them has provided a comprehensive and sustained analysis of Machiavelli's political psychology; instead, they have inserted psychological references across their own works, resulting in similarly disjointed and often incomplete presentations that attenuate their theoretical significance. Moreover, those who have devoted exclusive articles, chapters, or monographs to Machiavelli's psychological premises have eschewed a systematic rendering largely because they believe that Machiavelli's thinking was inconsistent and contingent upon historical circumstance; for instance, Dante Germino thus states that Machiavelli "is forever qualifying his observations about men and their behaviour in terms of the specific context" and that his conclusions are "impressionistic, insufficiently verified, and unsystematic."(2)
This study seeks to make up for the rather cursory and implicit treatment Machiavelli's psychological premises have received and to give a comprehensive account that shows them to be fundamental to his political theory. Trying to be as systematic as possible while remaining faithful to the text, this article probes the extent to which these premises were internally consistent. In so doing, it resolves the well-known tension in Machiavelli's image of man between rapacity and civicness by uncovering his distinction between natural properties and accidental attributes, and by showing how licentious self-seekers become loyal subjects and law-abiding citizens through habituation under autocratic constraint. It shows that Machiavelli considered our nature to consist of spirit, mind, desires, and humors, and that these concepts were coherently embedded in medieval medical theory. It argues that Machiavelli differentiated human beings into three kinds -- founders, princes, multitude -- according to their mental abilities, but also that he considered them the same with regard to the tendency of their minds to expand their desires and ambitions without limit. And it finds that Machiavelli's psychological premises are inconsistent in one aspect: his belief in the fatherland as a natural community of place and language.
This article also challenges the currently predominant view of Machiavelli as a "civic humanist" whose thought followed Aristotelian lines.(3) Although Machiavelli borrowed several terms from the Aristotelian tradition, such as the nature-accident distinction or the importance of habituation to citizenship, the content he gave to these concepts is decidedly anti-Aristotelian. Thus, he understood our essential nature not as a potential for virtue that is actualized by reason and corresponding habits, but as a capacity for ambitious license that is necessarily developed by the mind and that can at best be attenuated by opposing habits of cooperation. And his utterances about the fatherland notwithstanding, he transformed the civil way of life (vivere civile) from an ethical community to the merely strategic coordination of citizens who refrain from harming each other in order to jointly exploit foreigners.
Medieval and Renaissance Psychology
When Machiavelli wrote about the inner constitution of man, he did so in the context of a well-defined and fairly coherent tradition of psychological thought. Originating in ancient philosophy and medicine, this tradition was elaborated during the Middle Ages first by Islamic physicians and philosophers, like Costa ben Luca (d. 923), Razes (d. 923 or 932), Haly Abbas (d. 994/5), and Avicenna (d. 1037), and then by Christian scholastics, such as Albertus Magnus (d. 1280), Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), and Duns Scotus (d. 1308). Renaissance thinkers affected this tradition to the extent that they sought a return to the ancient sources and favored physiological over philosophical explanations; but, on the whole, men like Paul of Venice (d. 1429), Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (d. 1494), Gregor Reisch (d. 1525), Pietro Pomponazzi (d. 1525), Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola (d. 1533), Agostino Nifo (d. 1538), and Juan Luis Vives (d. 1540) remained well within the assumptions, concepts, problems, and solutions proposed by their medieval predecessors.(4)
Two large currents can be distinguished within this premodern account of the soul: first, an immanent theory of bodily spirit, inner senses, and humors, proposed by physicians who drew mostly on Aristotle's theory of perception and Galen's compendium of ancient medicine; second, the integration of these medical concepts with the idea of a transcendent soul that contains intellect and will, undertaken by philosophers and theologians.
Going back to the Stoic notion of pneuma, spirit is an ethereal substance that mediates the various functions of living organisms. It comes in three varieties -- natural, vital, and animal. Natural spirit is produced by the liver and dwells in the dark blood of the veins, whence it regulates nutrition, growth, and generation. This natural spirit is rarified by the heart into vital spirit and sent out with the lighter blood of the arteries. When vital spirit is moved by events like pleasant sensations or bad dreams, the organism experiences an emotion; thus, anger consists of the rushing of vital spirit towards the extremities, fear consists of movement in the opposite direction. Vital spirit is in turn rarified into animal spirit (spiritus animalis, animus) by blood vessels at the base of the brain, whence it fills the nerves and the brain's three ventricles. Animal spirit first of all carries impressions made by external objects from the sensory organs to the front ventricle of the brain, where the faculty of imagination (imagination, fantasia) resides. Imagination then transforms fleeting sense impressions into more abstract and durable images, which the animal spirit carries into the central ventricle, where the faculty of cogitation or ingenuity (cogitatio, ingenium) is housed. Cogitation then performs the tasks of instrumental reason by correlating images newly received from imagination with old ones, previously carried by animal spirit to the faculty of memory in the rear ventricle. In addition, cogitation controls the movement of muscles through animal spirit flowing down the spinal cord and motor nerves. Together, the faculties of imagination, cogitation, and memory constitute the "inner senses" or "mind" (mens).
The proper functioning of such an organism depends in large measure on its "humors," the four bodily fluids of blood, choler, phlegm, and black bile. Humors also determine temperament, making a person more or less sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic. They affect the inner senses and thus account for mental differences among men; for instance, a preponderance of black bile results in superior imagination because its coldness slows down the animal spirit that brings on new sense impressions and-because its dryness makes already formed images last longer. And since the humors receive their inherent qualities of hot, cold, dry, and moist from the four elements of earth, water, air and fire, they also transmit climatic and astral influences to organisms; accordingly, the dry cold of northern lands makes their inhabitants strong, fierce, and long-legged, while the dry heat of the planet Mars makes those born under his sign active, fierce, and short-tempered.
To medieval Christians and Muslims, the absence of the immortal soul from this medical account of body, mind, and spirit must have been striking. Of course, the doctors paid their respect to religion by denying that the soul could be reduced to animal spirit and by classifying the latter as an intermediate substance between soul and body. But, further inquiry they left to professional philosophers and theologians.
The Aristotelian tradition, which became dominant during the thirteenth century, defined the transcendental aspects of human beings as their intellective soul, endowed with free will and a reason capable of abstracting universals from sensory experience, while ascribing immanent powers such as digestion and emotion to the organic soul. The Platonists differed from this account mostly by defining the soul as the link between the divine and earthly realms, by maintaining a stricter separation of soul and by explaining knowledge of supersensibles through recollection rather than abstraction. All were agreed, however, that the soul governs the body through mind and spirit; in particular, it was believed that cogitation follows the motions of reason and free will when the animal spirit in the central ventricle is subtle and clear, and that it turns toward satisfying the appetites when spirit becomes heavy and moist -- for instance, from excessive consumption of wine.
In addition, the philosophers increased the number of the inner senses from three to five: in front of imagination, they inserted the common sense (sensus communis), defined as the capacity to combine qualitatively different impressions streaming in from the various sensory organs; in the central ventricle, they separated estimation (estimatio) from cogitation, assigning the former to the intuitive capacities of animals while reserving the latter for the ratiocinations of human beings.(5) Also, they assumed that human beings acquire quasi-permanent dispositions (habitus) by repeatedly performing particular actions -- such as retrieving stored images from memory or willing what is just -- and that they lose them by disuse. Following Plato's analogy of soul and city, they took the humoral theory of health to justify the mixed regime, claiming that the welfare of cities rests on the proportionate satisfaction of their constituent groups -- just as the well-being of bodies depends on the proper balance of their humors.(6) And they arranged the various faculties of living things from the noblest to the basest -- as shown in Figure 1.
[FIGURE 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
The Duality of Machiavellian Man
The key to a systematic reconstruction of Machiavelli's psychological premises consists of his distinction between necessary properties and contingent attributes. Most fundamentally, Machiavelli phrases this contrast in terms of "nature" and "accident."(7) Thus, princes have their qualities "either by nature or by accident" (FL 133, 922); generals have authority over their troops either "by nature" if they are born in the same place or "by accident" if their assignment has lasted long enough for the soldiers to become accustomed to their command (AW, I, 593); and the "natural fury" of the Gauls was no match for the "accidental order" of the Roman legions, with "accidental" obviously meaning acquired by training rather than occurring by chance during battle (D, III, 36.2).(8) Also, a region that "lives unbridled by its nature" may "by accident be instructed and ordered under good laws," i.e., naturally licentious multitudes may acquire lawful habits if they chance upon a founder (Tercets on Ambition, p. 737, my translation). In second place, Machiavelli contrasts "nature" with "art" in the sense of acquired characteristics: men under emotional duress "naturally believe many things that are false, and from art add many more" (D, II, 31.1); those Roman emperors were ruined "who by nature or by art did not have a great reputation such that they could hold both [the people and the soldiers] in check" (P, XIX, 76); and since even Dante assimilated foreign phrases to his native tongue, it follows that "art can never hold aloof entirely from nature" (DL, 185).(9)
But the most important form of contingent attributes are habits. For habits express the idea that acquired characteristics can become stable determinants of action that enable the theorist to make general statements about human affairs -- in addition to those he grounds in necessary properties. In Machiavelli's words, there are lessons to be learned from history because "worldly things ... are the work of men who have and always had the same passions," which are part of their nature, and also because "to see a nation keep the same customs for a long time ... also makes it easy to know future things by past" (D, III, 43.1). In the context of human action, this means that both natural inclinations and acquired habits impede rational freedom: "the mind of man ... grants no protection against either habit or nature" (Golden Ass, p. 752).
While it is clear from these citations that contingent attributes are acquired skills, thoughts, and habits, Machiavelli's idea of nature needs to be determined more closely. To begin with, "nature" quite commonsensically refers to the world at large(10) and the essential or ordinary aspects of things.(11) More pertinent to our topic, "nature" stands for the universal properties of human beings as in "the nature of men is ambitious and suspicious" (D, 1, 29.1).(12) Then, "nature" indicates the innate characteristics of particular individuals, groups, and animals. Thus, one man may suffer from a "natural defect of spirit" (P, IX, 40), while another has an "agreeable nature" (P, XVII, 68).(13) Regarding groups, we are told that "to know well the nature of peoples one needs to be prince, and to know well …