Maurizio Viroli is Professor Emeritus of Politics at Princeton University, Professor of Government at the University of Texas (Austin) and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Italian Switzerland in Lugano. His main fields of research are political theory and the history of political thought, classical republicanism and neo-republicanism.


Viroli distinguishes between realist and critical “theories of politics”.



The former describe or define actual political processes, the latter investigate what a true or just politics should be. Theories of the first family clearly dominate in our time. Elaborating on Weber's famous passage at the outset of Politik ats Beruf, many scholars have been assuring us that politics is simply a struggle for power among states and among groups within the state. The wording changes, but the substance remains the same; political action deals with power, or control, to be achieved and sustained through the machinery of government. (Viroli, 1992, p. 282)



For Viroli there is sharp distinction between state and city (polis), between pursuit of power through the use of so-called “art of the state” and pursuit of freedom and justice through politics.



However simple and persuasive, this definition of politics as the pursuit of power is astonishingly similar to that of the art of the state. The pursuit of power is the modern version of the pursuit of the stato, a position of preeminence with the capacity for imposing one's own will upon others or upon other communities. That modern scholars speak of groups instead of leaders changes little. (…)

To speak of politics as allocation is another, no less conventional, way of regarding it. In this view, politics is the "authoritative allocation of values” material or spiritual, for the society. Like the theory that politics is pursuit of power, this one jibes with the accepted beliefs of our times. Few would deny that politics for the most part concerns the setting of policies, that is, allocating values. Nor would they deny that this view has a general descriptive validity: any society has its own ways for authoritatively resolving conflicts, "for deciding who is to get what there is of a desirable thing”. The main proponent of this view has said that the starting point of his inquiry was the "commonsense idea of politics.

This conception of politics is troublesome also. It, too, seems to derive from the art of the state.

(...) only those authoritative allocations of values that are congruent with preserving the city deserve to be regarded as truly political allocations. Moreover, to conform to the ideal of the city, they must satisfy appropriate criteria of justice. A ruler's decision to prefer his partisans as civil servants over those best qualified is certainly authoritative, but it is not political. It would surprise none of us to hear a candidate say "I am a politician and therefore I take care of my friends and supporters." I would respond, however, that a truly political man promotes those most entitled, and takes care of all the citizens. (Viroli, 1992, p. 282-283)



Struggle of weaker party against coercion, inhabitants of the city against superpower provides some of the clearest historical examples.



The citizens of East Berlin and Prague, who are trying to transform their states into free republics, are not merely pursuing power. Neither do they seem particularly concerned with different allocations of values. They are engaged, rather, in reshaping their political institutions in order to live as citizens, not as subjects. They want a different status - to be recognized in a different way. They are trying to attain new political values, not to redistribute the preexisting ones. They are involved in architectural politics, since they are building a new city in which they can all live in a different way. Seen from the perspective of the predominant theories, however, their efforts are only vaguely and incompletely political, or not political at all.

The "realist" theories of politics do not help us to understand actual or possible political practices that are concerned with a particular way of using power and the implementation of particular values, namely, the use of power and the values appropriate for life in a city. If the ideal of the city is still important for us, we cannot afford to abandon the language of civil philosophy. Politics is the only tool available to us to make cities of our communities, instead of congregations of foreigners or dominions of the powerful and the arrogant. But it has to be the politics of civil philosophy, not that of raison d’etat. (Viroli, 1992, p. 283-284)



Viroli praises Arendt’s political philosophy – first of all participation in politics is critically important  for full self-realization of human being.  



The ideological victory of the theorists of the state at the end of the sixteenth century was almost crushing. Nonetheless, even in our own times some thinkers have tried to recover the ideal of politics as the art of the city. One, of course, is Hannah Arendt. In a culture that denies the intrinsic value of politics and which has lost its practices, her work represents the most important recent attempt to recover the classical notion of politics as the highest form of life. Though with varying clarity at different points in her intellectual life, Arendt took the Greek polis - a community of the citizens directly participating in public life as diverse equals - as her model of political life. She was not prepared to call "political" most of the activities that are normally regarded as such. For her, genuine political action is "conversation" between free equals, conversation that fosters deliberation on matters of public importance; political speech should either preserve or institute conditions that make political conversation possible; and the task of politics is the creation and preservation of rules, procedures and institutions that establish the polis or keep it alive. One is tempted to say that, for Arendt, to act politically is to act for the polis. She would probably refuse a periphrasis of her position, however, that conveys the idea that political action is instrumental. To create a constitution, the quintessence of political action, is to create a framework for future political action which may in turn modify this framework. The excellence of political action consists in the action itself, not its usefulness in reaching a goal external to it.

For Hannah Arendt, only in political action, in direct participation in political conversation, can we attain freedom, escaping from necessity, from the rigidity of social roles, from the repetitiousness of economic and domestic life. (Viroli, 1992, p. 285)



Viroli corrects Arendt’s moral absolutism, accepting some level of instrumentalism, leaning towards Machiavellian sort of morality.



Like Arendt, I think that politics is a noble and praiseworthy activity, but I also regard it as an essentially instrumental one. It is the art of preserving the respublica, the good city where we can live in liberty - liberty in the sense of freedom from subjection to someone else's will, rather than freedom to participate directly in government. If we reveal our true selves and realize our greatest human capacities in politics, that fact is less important than preventing the enactment of unjust laws or violation of the common good by factional interests. Liberty means to be able to live securely, attending to one's own business without fear of being offended, harmed, outraged, humiliated, or made the tool of others. We should commit ourselves to politics in order to protect our own and our fellow citizens' liberty, not for its own sake.


To entrust the rule of the republic to truly political men is more important than giving the people a say in all public decisions. What matters most is that the common good is properly maintained. (…)

I would agree with Hannah Arendt that absolute Christian goodness is misplaced in political life. The ideal political man or woman is one committed to the common good, the most precious good because it is the foundation of the individual's liberty and security. Hence, to be political is to be good, to love civic equality and liberty. However, the politician unprepared to leave aside the Christian virtues, even in exceptional circumstances, is almost certainly bound to come to grief and to ruin the republic. (…) It takes little investigation to understand that almost all appeals to political necessity are specious. A tyrant who invokes necessity to justify immoral acts perpetrated to preserve his own power or factional interests has no legitimacy whatsoever. A legitimate ruler who has to perpetrate an immoral act to protect the lives and the liberty of the women and men who have entrusted upon him political authority is justifiable and even praiseworthy. By Christian standards he cannot be absolved, but the after-life of the soul is uncertain while present life of living individuals and the life and the liberty of future generations is certain. (…)

A true political man or woman has to be good, but he or she must also be capable of winning against immoral enemies. (Viroli, 1992, p. 286-288)



One may compare Viroli’s approach with the views of Raymond Geuss, a proponent of realism in political philosophy. See “ABOUT NORMATIVE TURN”



Maurizio Viroli (1992): From Politics to Reason of State. The Acquisition and Transformation of the Language of Politics (1250-1600), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


The positive thesis I favor states that it does not matter that there is no unitary and separate “normative ethics” because political philosophy is always in itself already praxis-orienting and potentially interventive. Even political philosophy that takes itself to be simply descriptive and enjoins abstention from action is already intervening, because taking any position at all is intervening...