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Materialism and Realism: Lucretius and Machiavelli

Political Theory
Political Violence
Political Ideology
Power
Protests
Camila Vergara
Columbia University
Camila Vergara
Columbia University

Abstract

Within the elitist strand of republican thought, Machiavelli’s realism is studied mostly from the point of view of The Prince. His taxonomy of principalities, together with his realist approach to politics, are understood not just as an accurate description of power structures, resources, and the strategies that are used to maintain a principality, but also as a manual to achieve absolute power, and teaching, condoning, and endorsing any means necessary towards this end. This interpretation has been challenged by a plebeian strand of thought that focuses on Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, a study of republics in three volumes that analyzes popular governments in history as well as of paths to liberty “not yet trodden.” Here he presents us with a realism that originates in the material division between the few —the rich and powerful, who desire to dominate and rule— and the many —plebeians who wish to be left alone and live free from oppression— and the necessary actions that must be taken to renew a republic, in which its laws and institutions have been corrupted and the liberty of plebeians has eroded to the point of oppression. I will show how Machiavelli’s realism is profoundly materialist as well as distinctively plebeian, normatively committed to the liberty of the many, and discuss the contributions of plebeian realism to analyze our present conjuncture, in which extraordinary power and authority seem to be necessary to revert the further corruption of liberal democracies. The source of Machiavelli’s realist and materialist political philosophy comes from the Roman Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, a poem that was as demonized as Machiavelli’s The Prince. The paper will analyze Lucretius's poem alongside Machiavelli's The Prince and Discourses, highlighting their insights on materialism and realism from the perspective of plebeian normativity.