Liberty Matters

How Machiavelli Remembers the Ladies


I see many commonalities in our approaches to the question of Machiavelli’s support for liberty.  Edward Harpham and Khalil Habib cite the same sentence in The Princeabout the importance of free will in a universe ruled by fortune.  The desire to preserve some percentage of our ability to act freely echoes Erasmus’ argument to Luther that our actions may be bound by God’s will, but we contribute something, we have both Christian and Machiavellian “virtue.”
Harpham, Habib, and I note Machiavelli’s desire for checks on a ruler’s power.  While I come at it from The Prince, James Hartley notes that the Discourses’ argument that liberty means “not fearing for the honor of wives and that of children, not to be afraid for oneself” scants civil liberties.
I’d suggest that the demand that a prince “abstain” from the women of his subjects includes, more bluntly, freedom from rape.  That is a great liberty, a crucial negative liberty, however confined to relief from only one offender and linked to patriarchal ownership.  Habib’s sense that Mandragola represents sexual liberation makes that negative liberty more consequential.  In popular New Comedy the young couple conspire together, and medieval and renaissance erotic poets emphasize persuasion of the woman and value her free choice of the suitor.  It’s troubling that Mandragola’s woman is deliberately deceived in a plot among three men who fool her mother and husband into mercilessly pressuring her to commit adultery and, possibly, murder.  Only after she bows to the fraudulent badgering and has sex with her suitor, insisting, “I don’t want to” -- and only after her husband fondles the private parts of the young couple to verify penetration -- does the lover admit that he tricked her.   
Why, after this, not to put too fine a point on it, rape, does the lady agree to live with her deceiver?  Well, the lover is advised to “tell her” that “without scandal she can be your friend, and with great scandal, your enemy.”  He can tell the world and brand her an adulteress.  Ovid’s Tarquin made the same threat, and “overcome with fear of infamy, the dame gave way.”  The name of Ovid’s heroine?  Lucretia.  The name of Mandragola’s lady?  Lucretia.  Machiavelli chose his characters’ names with some care, and they matter.
His metaphor immediately before the demand to free Italia becomes all the more disturbing now:  “fortune is a woman; and it is necessary, if one wants to hold her down, to beat her and strike her down.”  Women are property and Fortuna can be made property.  Yet Machiavelli speaks admiringly of Caterina Sforza.  Caterina offered her children as hostages to her husband’s murderers, tricking them into giving her back her fortress’ keys.  Locking her captors out, she “threatened them with every kind of revenge.  And to show that she did not care for her children, she showed the enemy her genital parts, saying that she still had the mode for making more of them.”  
Caterina lived to fight the besiegers with her own two hands, to have two more husbands and two more children, and to survive her husband’s killer by two years.  Luck, be a lady, indeed.
Machiavelli, Niccolò.  Discourses on Livy.  Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov.  U Chicago Press, 1996/1998.
Machiavelli, Niccolò.  Mandragola.  Translated by Mera J. Flaumenhaft.  Waveland Press, 1981.
Machiavelli, Niccolò.  The Prince.  Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield, U Chicago Press, 1985/1998.
Ovid.  Fasti, Book II.  Translated by James George Frazier.  Harvard UP 1976.
Tylus, Jane.  “Theater and Its Social Uses:  Machiavelli’s Mandragola and the Spectacle of Infamy.” Renaissance Quarterly 53(3), 656-686.