Review of Viroli, Maurizio. 2011. The Liberty of Servants: Berlusconi's Italy.
Trans. Antony Shugaar. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Charles Dumais

Is it possible to be free and yet a slave in a liberal democratic society [1]? Maurizio Viroli in The Liberty of Servants argues that the Roman republican tradition permits us to see that some sense of servitude is a real danger in contemporary democratic societies -- as, for instance, when a person of exuberant wealth and influence dominates the social and political scene, arbitrarily deciding that penalties and legal constraints do or do not apply to them on the basis of this person's ability to dominate citizens who have been made dependent, self-censoring, and non-autonomous. By reviving a classical Roman republican theory, Viroli satirizes Silvio Berlusconi's power in Italy, and offers a serious critique of Berlusconi's politics and its effect on the moral courage of Italy's citizens. He argues that despite their rights and liberties (e.g., liberties of association, of religion, of free speech, and so forth), Italians are unable to see the paradox they embody: they are "slaves," at liberty to do what pleases them, but without moral courage in the face of the domination of and dependency on an ambitious man who uses his resources to buy loyalty and excuse himself from any kind of legal constraint -- the kind of man whom Viroli calls a signore. Here, Berlusconi has seized political office and dominance over laws that should constrain him through a private, corrupt court, or curia, that in turn depends on him for private honours, luxuries, and access to other influential political offices -- partisans called "courtiers" (used at times with a certain comedic tone). With his resources and power, Berlusconi -- the Signore -- stands outside the reach of select laws; given this dominance, citizens censor themselves, as slaves do under masters. I find the republican language used in this book not only convincing -- though I have some reservations and might suggest certain modifications -- but also an interesting defense of the moral reasoning required for grounding the autonomous political action required of citizens.

Viroli's argument relies on two Roman republican concepts: domination and servitude. The concept of domination refers to the Signore's capacity to side-step, as Viroli writes, "the sanctions of law or do with them as [he] pleases": the Signore is able, if he wishes, to arbitrarily avoid or stall any legal penalty or limitation on his authority. Domination thus refers strictly to the Signore's capacity to arbitrarily decide if and when these laws apply to himself and his courtiers. The argument, however, is not that the presence of the Signore himself poses a risk but that he can command servitude by limiting the possibility of citizen recourse. This in turn makes citizens dependent on the Signore and his interests, which he can impose and protect with his influence, and which slaves can either resist or accede to.

This argument is convincing only if we further distinguish two forms of servitude. The first is what I call simply a "slave in name," which refers to the sort of servitude we might find in Cicero's political speeches against Anthony. Here, one counts as a slave if the master dominates to such an extent that he steps outside the punitive reach of the laws and, ipso facto, has mastery over the laws' capacity to penalize or constrain his behaviour. In this case, slavery stems from the Signore's mastery over the retributive and punitive aspects of the laws that would otherwise be intended to keep him in check. All slaves who are under the domination of a signore, even those who preserve their moral reasoning and disdain for corruption, are of this kind. In addition to this slavery-in-name, there is what I call "strong servitude," referring to the loss of one's moral autonomy and the institution of the will to please the Signore, anticipating his desires, and thereby make the most of living under him. In this form of servitude, the Signore has the capacity to invite citizens to give their unquestioned loyalty in exchange for professional advancement, stability, security, and other liberties. When we say, then, that one dominates, we mean that this person has an identifiable power (i.e., a real capacity) to sidestep laws that would otherwise constrain him and to modify a subject's actions and selfhood. Consequently, when we say someone is a "slave," we mean that that person is dependent on someone who dominates, or that he or she has handed over his or her self, body and soul, to his or her master.

Real liberty for an independent citizen, then, will be freedom from both senses of servitude. In both cases, liberty will not be a possession but a reward stemming from autonomous civic action -- grounded, according to Viroli, by a moral reasoning which gives an agent his or her autonomy, i.e., the self-legislated conviction and duty to oppose those who attempt to enslave the city by corrupt means. Because of the ineliminability of this corrupt ambition in social and political life, liberty must be conceived as a civic action that keeps ambition and corruption at bay. For Viroli, only moral reasoning can ground concrete political freedom because, unlike empirical or instrumental reasoning, moral reasoning is incompatible with a life of domination and servitude: the latter requires action motivated by loyalty to the Signore rather than a loyalty to oneself. Without moral reasoning there is no sure way to ensure the autonomy necessary for citizenship and the kind of action that counters corruption. It is thus only through the autonomy that we gain from our conscience that the discharge of civic duties as citizens and the protection of rights (both their recognition and the limitation) find their political foundations.

Thus, the danger that Roman republican theory highlights includes both the omnipresence of the ambition that always threatens a free way of life and the danger that the domination of a signore invites us to forego our moral duties in exchange for short term gain. The danger, in other words, is that once moral reasoning is self-censored (although never lost), we tend to relinquish our capacity to defend our freedoms. Under the fear of and dependency on a signore, an instrumental and empirical form of reasoning becomes useful. There is, writes Viroli, a

servile mentality in those who are subject to [servitude], with all the retinue of qualities and actions such as adulation, vicious gossip, inability to judge clearly, identification with the words and actions of the [master], scorn for the generous and great hearted, cynicism, indifference, simulation, abuse of the weak and bullying of one's adversaries, lack of an inner life and obsession with appearances. (8)

When the people lose any recourse to law or any other means to limit the Signore's action, they come to possess, as Aristotle claims in the Politics, the form of instrumental reasoning appropriate for slaves for calculating the means to economic ends – i.e., those of the household. Right and just action come to be based not on moral conscience, but on identification with the will of that person upon whom the people are dependent (23): the slave must not only obey but also anticipate orders and desires and torment himself with his or her master's interests, paying "heed to his words, to his intonation, to his gestures, and to his glance." The slave must betray his "inner heart," and "empty" and "transfer" "his inner being" "into the external appearances of a behavior modeled on an imitation of the man on whom he depends," because fame and success are achieved through "favour," not "hard work or brilliance." Unlike the oppressed person, the slave is required (although only in the strong sense I outlined above) to be someone other than himself -- to become a "flatterer." As Viroli writes,

while oppression binds one's actions but leaves the will and the mind unfettered, dependency on another man and servitude that has been sought and desired both enter into one's will and thoughts. A servant who seeks his servitude, unlike a servant who is coerced by force, must learn to think, speak, and act like his master. (23-24)

Viroli describes this self- and moral-abnegation -- the exchange of autonomy for favor and security -- as the moral weakness of Italians. In censoring themselves, Italians do not merely fail to disagree with a Signore who uses his private resources and solidifies "a vast network of electoral consensus," who imposes his interests, and who reinstate himself and his courtiers once they have been found guilty of some crimes: they suppress any motivation to act. Thus the malaise is moral, not constitutional or political (xx-xxi). There are historical reasons for this malaise: Italians have suffered foreign masters, despotic government, and the spiritual/temporal dominion of the Catholic Church, all of which have not only perpetuated social mores that are antithetical to the struggle and autonomy that are at the heart of the work of being a citizen, but have also in the process constructed a sense of self that has "little worth" or "self-respect," and that is "indifferent" to "customs, character, and morality." For Viroli, they have "forgotten" the "intimate conviction that a person's self is a good so precious that no price can be set on it, and it can therefore never be sold to other men."

The Liberty of Servants makes a strong argument in defense of moral reasoning, autonomy, and republican citizenship in its critique of Berlusconi's politics and courtiers, but I have some reservations about the argument. The first is with Viroli's critique of the liberal (or Hobbesian) concept of negative liberty as freedom from interference: for Viroli, that concept of freedom provides an inadequate defense for liberal individual rights. Viroli's aim in part is to show that liberalism, if only conceived as the exercise of rights, is both unsustainable (given the inevitability of ambition in social life) and compatible with the liberty of servants. While he demarcates the concept of liberty as freedom from impediment from the liberal tradition of individual rights and freedoms by identifying a spirit of freedom from domination in liberal thinkers like John Locke, he nevertheless speaks as if servitude is nothing but a moral abyss. Viroli is not always clear about whether there could be a deeper competing moral claim in liberal rights; he seems not to recognize that the liberal ideology that Italians do take up is rooted in social mores. As we saw, a citizen can preserve some moral autonomy as a "slave-in-name," and so it is conceivable at least that there could be deeper competing moral claims at work than Viroli recognizes. This is the chief reason that I believe that Viroli's proposal to simply teach a moral and social Roman republican ethos to Italians is problematic. What is missing is a deeper recognition of the normative moral value of liberal rights and a dialogue between what intuitively seems to be competing liberal and republican moral claims. Erasing the liberal ethos by re-teaching republican liberty is too simplistic: it cannot be rethought; rather, it needs to be confronted and clarified in dialogue with actual moral identities and ethos. While the book clarifies a sense of republican agency that can be grounded on moral autonomy, it lacks a more nuanced engagement with and recognition of liberal values.

For instance, the language of moral weakness and moral malaise oversimplifies the liberal heritage and its own moral claims. It seems difficult indeed to understand that an Italian people with such a complex intellectual and cultural heritage, even under a signore like Berlusconi, can simply suffer from "moral weakness" or a "lack of self-esteem" (79, 81, 84-85). This oversimplification muddies Viroli's otherwise insightful criticisms of Italy's liberal heritage. It also muddies, from a practical standpoint, the relationship between the Italian liberal social mores that I have identified and the republican virtue that Viroli so strongly endorses. Furthermore, it leaves the term virtue largely unclear and in want of clarification. This conception of virtue is at times grounded in historical Italian social mores and the Italian constitution, yet at other times in the sort of moral, humanist theory of action that could perhaps be associated with the Italian humanism found in Quentin Skinner's The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (1978). This latter ambiguity unfortunately detracts from the moral and political insights Viroli offers concerning Berlusconi and the liberal concept of liberty: they beg further questions about the relationship between the moral claims of liberalism, Italian social mores, and the social place of Roman republicanism in Italian social mores.

The republican critique of the liberty of servants and its liberal heritage calls for further clarification. It is unclear whether Viroli believes that the liberal heritage simply fails to live up to a republican ideal against non-domination or whether it has its own competing moral claims that need to be challenged or are in essence compatible. As I have suggested, there is something deeper than a moral abyss with the kind of servitude that Viroli describes in The Liberty of Servants. At times, he seems to suggest that the Lockean heritage of negative freedom prove to be fertile grounds for thinking about the theoretical compatibility between liberal rights and the republican defense of liberty. This returns me to my previous criticism of fully recognizing the liberal view of moral agency. Should we approach the liberal heritage as having its own competing moral claims or are these claims a weaker form of republicanism? At times, Viroli suggests there is a possibility that the liberal view of rights can make the jump to a republican point of view of civic duties. He notes this possibility when he writes that "this concept [of being born free] has been defended both by liberal political authors and by their republican counterparts." In the first chapter and elsewhere, Viroli briefly surveys passages from Locke and Rousseau that both address this idea of freedom from servitude (9-10, 44).

This ambiguity encourages more normative, dialogical and contrasting studies on the ethos of current theories of liberty and of Roman republicanism. Furthermore, in this context, the defense of inner moral freedom required for republican citizenship itself seems to offer an interesting humanist view of civic and moral agency that also begs further questions about an agent's moral self-sufficiency, civic duties, and conditions of dependency. The works of Quentin Skinner (especially The Foundations of Modern Political Thought) and Paul O. Kristeller (including Renaissance Humanism: Foundations, Forms, and Legacy, Volume 3: Humanism and The Disciplines (1988)) address these aspects of republican thought more specifically [2]. For its part, The Liberty of Servants clarifies a number of important distinctions between liberalism and republicanism in the context of the domination and servitude in the politics of the Signore. It is for us to further develop these distinctions.


[1] For other philosophical and historical resources that have recovered and attempted to pose this question, see in particular Quentin Skinner's The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Volume 1 (Cambridge University Press, 1978) and Liberty Before Liberalism (Cambridge University Press, 1998) and Philip Pettit's Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford University Press, 1997) and Vision of Politics series (Cambridge University Press, 2002). Other major works consist of J.G.A. Pocock's The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton University Press, 1975), Gisela Bock, Quentin Skinner and Maurizio Viroli's Machiavelli and Republicanism (Cambridge University Press, 1990), and the two volumes of Martin Van Gelderen and Quentin Skinner's Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[2] For Kristeller's major essays in Italian humanism, see Paul O. Kristeller, "Humanism," in Charles B. Schmitt, Quentin Skinner, and Eckhard Kessler (eds.), The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2009, 113-138; Kristeller, Paul Oskar, Philip Wiener, and William J. Connell (eds.) Renaissance Essays, University of Rochester Press, 1992; Paul O. Kristeller, "The Philosophy of Man in the Italian Renaissance," Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1969, 261-278; Paul O. Kristeller, "Augustine and the Early Renaissance," Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1969, 355-372; Paul O. Kristeller, "Humanism and Scholasticism in the Italian Renaissance," Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1969, 553-583; Paul O. Kristeller, Renaissance Humanism: Foundations, Forms, and Legacy. Volume 3: Humanism and The Disciplines, edited by Albert Rabil Jr., University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988, 271-309; Paul O. Kristeller, Renaissance Philosophy and the Mediaeval Tradition, Archabbey Press, 1966; Paul O. Kristeller, Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic, and Humanist Strains, Harper and Row, 1961; and Paul O. Kristeller, Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1969.

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