A meditation on the form of government best suited to accommodate—but by no means depend on—the active participation of citizens.
A native of Italy and close student of Renaissance politics, Viroli (Political Science/Princeton Univ.; Niccolò’s Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli, 2000) apparently conceived this volume in a fit of righteous pique after the election of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a communications magnate who “concentrates in his hands a personal power that no democratic leader before him has ever enjoyed.” To Viroli’s mind, Berlusconi’s rise signals a collapse of civic virtues among his compatriots, and this discourse on republicanism—a form of government perfected, if not invented, in Italy—is intended to tweak civic consciousness on his native ground. Its relevance to American readers, used to a low level of individual political involvement before mid-September 2001, extends even to the most apolitical or apathetic, whom Viroli’s elusive definition of republicanism assures that their involvement in government isn’t really necessary, since “it is often more important to have good rulers than to have citizens participate in every decision. What counts is that those who govern and decide wish to serve the common good.” Classical republicanism, he notes, promotes a blend of governmental forms, including monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, in order to serve the public good. Its liberal, democratic, and conservative variants differ chiefly in their conception of individual liberty. In Viroli’s view, republicanism “sustains a complex theory of political liberty that incorporates both the liberal and the democratic requirement” but insists that liberty requires the absence of impediment and domination. Without a return to republican virtues, he insists, “we shall have to resign ourselves to living in nations whose governments are controlled by the cunning and the arrogant.”
Though repetitive and sometimes vague, Viroli’s examination of political ideals should be of great interest to students of civics and practical philosophy.