Despite having quoted from it earlier today, Maurizio Viroli's book on Machiavelli rather annoyed me. You do not rebut the accusation that a man who ended his most famous book with an exhortation to use physical violence towards someone simply in virtue of the fact that she is a woman might have been a bit misogynist by pointing out that he was friendly with and not overly patronising to some women in his personal life, mostly because if you think it's appropriate to use physical violence towards someone simply in virtue of the fact that she is a woman, that's kind of definitionally misogynist. There also seemed to me to be rather a lot of handwaving in the general direction of an idea of rhetoric designed to quite purposely avoid actually giving Machiavelli any real political theory, rather than clever-clever handbooks on public speaking particularly cunningly disguised as bits of advice for would-be princes and republicans. Somehow this was supposed to be a challenge to the dominant paradigm in political theory of trying, patiently and with the careful application of conceptual and normative analysis, to work out how it might be a good idea to resolve political questions and arrange political institutions. I'm not saying it wouldn't be nice to have rousing political speeches, I just think applying some thought to what they might want to rouse us to first - or even as well - would be an idea.
What's really annoying about this is that actually I have a degree of sympathy with Viroli about this, and there's little more annoying than a really piss-awful argument for a position you hold, because it makes you look like an idiot by association. A sensible version of Viroli's scepticism about the abstraction and formalism of a lot of contemporary political theory would, rather than doing some relativist hand-waving or dismissing anything which didn't, and wasn't designed to, have immediate practical implications - the two usual moves against hard, analytical political theory - ask whether thinking about highly simplified, single-shot, typically two person cases could really tell us anything about the structures of coercion in which all of our lives are lived out. It would ask, for example, how it is that lots of apparently leftwing political theorists have ended up thinking that what is objectionable about the heirarchies of domination and subordination we call the class system is not that they are heirarchies of domination and subordination, but that people's places within those heirarchies are arbitrarily distributed. Because if we all had a chance to go to Eton and all that entails, then everything'd be fine. When Kantian liberals care more about class then people whose first book was a defence of Marx's theory of history, something has gone wrong.