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Synopsis of François Regnault, ‘La Pensée du Prince’

[‘The Thought of the Prince’]

CpA 6.2:23–52

In this, the most substantial article on politics and power in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, François Regnault develops a Lacanian interpretation of the ‘unstructurable’ gap that separates Descartes (whose inability to ‘analyse’ historical events leads him to rationalise and legitimate the status quo) from Machiavelli (whose amoral realism about the origins and nature of political power represents a first hesitant step towards a materialist science of history, a step inhibited by classical conceptions of politics and right).

Regnault begins with an oblique characterisation of Descartes’ politics, gleaned from his 1646 correspondence with Princess Elisabeth (Princess Palatine),1 daughter of the deposed king and queen of Bohemia, about Machiavelli’s Prince. Like everything else, Descartes insists, politics ‘must be founded on reason’. If a ‘good man is he who does everything true reason tells him to do’, then occasional recourse to the legitimate use of violence need not, pace Machiavelli, undermine our conception of the good or its application to affairs of state (CpA 6.2:24).

Drawing on Michel Serres’ recent presentation of a ‘mathematical model of the cogito’2, Regnault’s reading of Descartes’ approach to politics relies on an initial distinction between two sorts of situation. On the one hand, there are situations that appear equivocal, in which what is required is rational clarity and distinction, i.e. the interruption of an apparent confusion through the introduction of a decisive difference. On the other hand, there are situations in which what is required is precisely the establishment of ‘symmetry and indifference’ (26), in the face of apparently stubborn (but misleading) distinctions.

The first case is the more familiar. Given evidence of the fact that our senses occasionally lead us astray, it is more reasonable and prudent to think that ‘nature deceives us sometimes, rather than deceiving us always’; given a choice of similar-seeming roads, ‘reason insists that we choose the route which is usually the safer’. The world of appearances and ‘fortune’ may seem obscure or confusing, but we can be confident in ‘the goodness of God, the immortality of our souls and the greatness of the universe’ (27). We are thus entitled to suppose that whatever seems appetising is indeed nutritious, or that the recommended road is indeed best. In politics, likewise, we are entitled to suppose that the established prince was indeed justly and rightly established. Descartes notes that actions which might otherwise be just become unjust when those who undertake them consider them so. Consequently, against Machiavelli, Descartes recommends to Elisabeth that a prince should always be advised to assume that ‘the means he used to establish himself in power were just, as in effect I believe they almost always are, when the princes who practice them think them to be so’ (24).

Regnault pauses to formalise the logic at issue here. In such equivocal situations, fortune confronts me with relations that appear ‘reflexive’, on the model of xRx (e.g. ‘the King is the King [for himself], and I must not judge him’) or ‘symmetrical’, on the model of xRy implies yRx (e.g. ‘if the unjust prince has his throne in the same way as does the just, then, alas! - the just and the unjust are alike’), and in trying to decide how to proceed, ‘my soul must act as if these situations were not reflexive or asymmetrical. It is a matter of tipping the scales, at any cost, so as to avoid that point of [mere] equilibrium which only ever indicates the degree of indifference, the lowest degree of liberty’ (26). Asymmetrical differentiation here leads the way out of equivocation, on the model of the unilateral decision of the cogito, which puts an end to corrosive doubt.

What now about the second kind of circumstance, situations in which Descartes effectively recommends the opposite course of action? We are social beings, Descartes acknowledges, and it might seem that, as a member of society, my own private interests divide me irredeemably from my fellows. But ‘God has so established the order of things and conjoined men together in so tight a society’ that even the most apparently selfish pursuit of my interests will normally further the interests of others as well (27). We can have no clear and distinct ideas of social reality, and so we are not advised to determine the limits of private and collective too precisely. It is more prudent, in these circumstances, to trust the inclinations of your conscience and the general way of things. When it comes to judging the relation between your interests and those of others, it is not advisable to try to ‘tip the scales’ one way or the other. Here the presumption of reflexivity and symmetry is to be encouraged rather than avoided.

Regnault deduces, from this point of departure, a non-Cartesian political ‘method’, consistent with Cartesian metaphysics, which is governed by two general rules:

First rule (of optimism through the lifting of equivocations): Providence, in its metaphysical perfection, has only created asymmetrical truths (for nothingness, if it has no properties, cannot then possess the property of inverting being). If fortune therefore leads you to believe that xRy implies yRx, your soul should assume instead that only either xRy or yRx is the true relation.

Second rule (of optimism through equivocation about dangerous univocities): Providence, in its metaphysical perfection, has only created symmetrical truths. If therefore the urgencies of life or the impositions of History present you with an unequal situation - one where xRy implies non-yRx (for example, the prince has taken power unjustly, and nobody can confuse him with a just prince) - your individuality (the union of your soul and body), by trusting its inclinations, and by not requiring you to measure too precisely ‘just how far reason’ commands you to take an interest in ‘public affairs’, re-establishes the ordinary symmetries of fortune. And then you can by right proceed to the application of the first rule (28).

Application of these two rules invites submission to the established order of things. ‘The Prince ends up simultaneously playing the roles of a deciding Providence and the representative of the urgencies of life, which can be invoked to testify to the legitimacy of his power (through the usual metaphysics of decrees from above, founded on eternal reason) as much as to dissimulate his usurpations (through appeal to the benefit of the doubt that accompanies the equivocations of the hazards of fortune)’ (29). Since we cannot judge the wisdom of divine Providence, since ‘there are no clear and distinct ideas in politics’, so then ‘one must therefore wager that the King who reigns is the good one’ (29).

Descartes’ brief discussion of Machiavelli, Regnault goes on to show, obeys his two rules. That prince is legitimate who thinks of himself so (or as Regnault puts it, ‘I think myself just therefore I am: the proximity with the Cogito is unmistakable’). Suppose we are faced with an equivocal situation, and that the means by which a prince came to power cannot easily be characterised as either just or unjust. In that case, rule number one encourages us to assume that God favours justice: we should side with the established prince. Alternatively, suppose that the signs of usurpation seem unequivocal, and the prince appears manifestly unjust. In that case rule number two encourages us to ‘re-establish the equivocation: no one can know what goes on in the thought of the prince’ (29). It is better not to look for clarity and distinction in circumstances where it is neither available nor desirable. The upshot is the same: we should give what is established the benefit of the doubt. ‘Since in all worldly affairs there are some reasons for and some against, one should consider principally those that make one approve of what happens’ (30).

Like other classical philosophers, Descartes objects to Machiavelli’s realism, his presumption that since ‘the world is very corrupt, it is impossible that one will not ruin oneself if one always wants to be a good man, and that a prince, in order to maintain himself, must learn to be wicked when the occasion requires it.’3 Descartes argues that insofar as ‘a good man is he who does everything true reason tells him to’, so then one should invariably strive to be good. He is only prepared to accept Machiavelli’s point to the degree that we might confuse ‘good’ with merely ‘simple-minded’, i.e. to the degree that ‘by a good man he means a superstitious and simple man who does not dare to go to battle on the Sabbath’ (30). But this, Regnault points out, is precisely Machiavelli’s own argument: as far as politics is concerned, to be ‘good’ is precisely to be the sort of person who refuses to fight on the Sabbath. The political ‘field’ or ‘place’ that Machiavelli establishes, the hitherto ‘unthinkable and unthought field’, is one in which this insight applies: an invariable determination to be good leads to ruin. In spite of himself, Descartes confirms this, when he implies that in the light of such insight, to be ‘good’ is indeed to be nothing more than superstitious. What interests Regnault is the fact that Descartes himself, and with him ‘the whole of classical politics’, cannot recognise this extra-moral place. It’s not that he seeks to evade Machiavelli’s realism or logic, it’s that he cannot recognise or ‘hear’ Machiavelli’s argument at all (31).

Regnault finds in this Cartesian ‘deafness’ part of an explanation for the length of time it took for the new field of ‘historical materialism’ to constituted, a field which had to ‘await Marx to find its place [...]. We mean that Descartes precisely did not wait for Marx in the way that one leaves a field for a future pioneer to cultivate; he simply ignored the field and arranged the registry of lands [le cadastre] in another way’ (33-34).

Like Descartes and other classical philosophers, Machiavelli inherited an understanding of history as a sort of political laboratory, a reservoir of past actions and decisions that help to illuminate future actions and decisions. Prudent statesmen rightly imitate the actions of their illustrious forebears, which ensures that most of what happens in history conforms to a pattern of eternal return; there is only new history to be learned to the degree that some actors ‘forget solutions that have already been found’ (34). Unlike Descartes and the rationalists, however, Machiavelli considers historical examples as means to discover political principles, and not the reverse. Machiavelli ‘reasons through examples’. He doesn’t seek to clarify a rational law or ‘model’ but rather to establish or ‘set an example’, in the sense whereby justice serves to set an example and thereby end an injustice.

It might seem, then, that the unilateral and asymmetrical establishment of justice (the new establishment of a just prince) stands in relation to the cyclical domain of eternal return as the metaphysical decision of the cogito stands, in Descartes, in relation to the equivocal domain of fortune (36). The cogito would then be like the prince, and vice versa: both would serve to clarify and order the ambiguous domain of fortune. Regnault considers this analogy but rejects it as fruitless and forced. He emphasises difference instead. ‘In Descartes, metaphysics makes possible the subsumption by right of cases under the rule that will decide upon the legitimacy of the prince. In Machiavelli, it is materialism which makes impossible the subsumption of examples under any rule; it is this that subverts the notion of the rule and historicises it by exemplifying it. In sum, from whichever side our analogies are approached, there is always one through which difference emerges’ (37).

The crux of Regnault’s argument is that this difference cannot be ‘structuralised’. Between Machiavelli and Descartes there is an irreducible break:

It is precisely because Machiavelli declares that there is no law except of the object of which it can be the law (not the example of the law, but the law of the example, just as there will be laws of the mode of capitalist production in Marx), that there can be no recourse here to an analogism understood in the structural sense; insofar as the aim is to make an analogy between two objects, one of them in particular, rather than either one indiscriminately, will repel it. We must then leave a break [une coupure] between Machiavelli and Descartes gaping open, regardless of the difference between epochs, while freely admitting that Machiavelli himself scarcely advances beyond this break (37).

Machiavelli was more of a proto-scientist than a genuine scientist (in the Althusserian sense), and the steps he took towards the constitution of historical materialism were cautious and small. If Regnault goes on to characterise this break as ‘epistemological in the Bachelardian sense’, it’s because ‘nobody is capable of inhabiting a break, not Descartes, not Machiavelli, not us, not I - one must be either before or after it, and it is by having given a place to a science that the break and its traversal are constituted. The only breaks are therefore epistemological’ (37). As Canguilhem says of Galileo, Regnault’s Machiavelli ‘is in the true but does not say the true’.

Whatever the field of knowledge, Regnault argues, ‘there is only ever one point from which one knows’. In Descartes, there is only ‘one point of view’, namely that of philosophy or metaphysics, to which all others should be subordinated. In Machiavelli (as in Archimedes), by contrast, the point is material and gives the political theorist leverage on what happens in history. Regnault insists that, ‘beyond the points designated here, there are no other points, and more particularly, there is no tertium punctum, no Sirius from which to consider Descartes and Machiavelli’ (40). There can be no epistemological or archaeological configuration (in Foucault’s sense of the word) that might include them as members of the same field. Where Machiavelli takes the first steps towards a science of history, Descartes does not so much refuse such a science as ‘deny’ it in advance, by ‘going beyond it’, i.e. by privileging metaphysics over history. Clear and distinct ideas have no purchase on politics, and thus ‘Cartesian politics is a politics like any other; not a science, but a [mere] strategy’ (40).

Machiavelli’s ‘materialist epistemology’, by contrast, contributes to the establishment of a science of history insofar as ‘materialism means the abandonment of the subsumption of examples under a rational law and the adoption of the epistemological point of view according to which there is only a theory of objects’ (41). More precisely, although ‘Machiavelli does not content himself with given history, nor does he manage to construct the theory of history; rather he remains between the two’, which is to say that ‘he undoes the first kind of history.’

Regnault explains what this involves via a distinction between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary historicisation’, and orients himself here according to Lacan’s insistence that ‘history [...] constitutes the emergence of the truth in reality.’4 Recollection of the (historical or psychic) past is concerned to establish ‘not reality but truth, because the effect of full speech is to reorder past contingencies by conferring on them the sense of necessities to come, such as they are constituted by the scant freedom through which the subject makes them present.’5 The real per se can accessed only as a ‘kernel of the impossible’ (42): a traumatic primal scene, for the individual, or, in the domain of history, an inaugural usurpation of power. What the historian or analyst encounters in the past is not what actually happened in its raw or brutal state but an already-elaborated historical account, ‘riddled with lies and blank spaces’ (via primary, unconscious historicisation of the traumatic real) and which is then to some extent ordered and rationalised (via secondary, conscious historicisation and censorship). Genuine analytic and ‘scientific work consists in unstitching the secondary distortions that have persisted under censorship’, so as to learn not that your history is determined by an extra-historical (instinctive, primordial...) unconscious but rather that ‘your “history” is itself, in truth, the unconscious’. Analysis thus allows us to ‘substitute for the distorting historicisation of conscious discourse a true history’, i.e. one that allows the subject of that history to appropriate the contingencies of the past as so many ‘necessities to come’ (42).

Regnault applies Lacan’s logic to history and the question (via Marx and the critique of ideology) of a collective prise de conscience, and a fortiori to ‘politics, which, as action, presupposes a freedom and a goal, and which, more than anything else, makes the truth emerge in the real’ (43). In this perspective, conscious or secondary historicisation tries to affirm an illusory ‘ideal’ or (after Kant) impose an ‘imperative’ - Lacan gives the example of the ‘presumed laws of history’, insofar as they serve to portray historical development on the model of biological genesis or pedagogical progress. A genuine science of history, on the other hand, will interrupt the illusions of secondary historicisation so as to analyse, ‘without censorship or distortion’, the ‘primary historicisation of the censored ideas (all the stronger for being censored) of subjects and peoples’.

The ‘secondary’ historians of antiquity were those writers who (like Polybius) sought to obscure the ugly circumstances of princely or imperial usurpation and who thus, ‘concealing the fact that primitive traumas were originally historical events (and not origins without tears), go on to sketch out a continuous and progressive history’ (44). Bossuet and Voltaire follow in their footsteps, as does Regnault’s Descartes. Descartes abandons interpretation of the primary domain (the traumatic usurpation of power) to the princes themselves, and accepts any secondary account so long as it ‘suffices to wreath the primary in smoke’ (45). Cartesian philosophy therefore cannot recognise any place for true history at all.

Machiavelli, by contrast (and without altogether abandoning his own belief in progress and the ideal) returns via Livy to the origins of Rome before they were ‘stitched up’. He analyses the ‘efficacy of the unconscious not only with respect to the taking of power in the past but also with respect to the powers to be taken one day - to be taken soon.’ He thus recommends that the rulers of a state, in order to pre-empt sedition, should periodically return to the traumatic foundation of their rule, so as to re-instil among their subjects ‘that terror and that fear which they had instilled when they first assumed power’ (46).6 Alternatively, a return to originary principles can serve to revive the virtue and zeal of an individual or organisation (as the Church, for instance, was renewed via the revivals preached by Saint Francis or Saint Dominic).

What remains to be done is clear: to make someone who never passed through the origins to pass through these origins now - a process that will require this person to dismantle all that has covered them over. [Machiavelli’s book] The Prince has the precise function of developing this second possibility of a return to principles, devoting itself therefore to a single virtù, that of the renovator (48).

Where Descartes is content to suspend judgement so as to embrace the status quo and its established ideal, Machiavelli analyses what is at stake in the actual ‘germination’ and corruption of power. He strips away the ideological obstacles of secondary historicisation so as to expose the scene of their ‘original inscription’ (always at the risk of merely reviving and revalidating the initial usurpation). He undertakes the ‘work of dehistoricisation, clearing the way for historical science, but remaining on its threshold. For, with regard to science, there is no historicisation, but rather a historicity’ - a historicity whose concept, Regnault admits (with a final reference to Althusser)7, is ‘still to be constructed’.

In a speculative but suggestive concluding section (50-52), Regnault indirectly hints at what may be at stake in this construction via a final evocation of the ‘latent discourse’ that speaks through the quasi-analytical relation between Descartes and Elisabeth - between an apparently therapeutic Descartes who can offer nothing more than the resources of secondary historicisation, and an Elisabeth who, resenting a life of disempowerment, exile and loss, remains haunted by lessons half-learned from a ‘repressed Machiavelli’.

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:


English translation:


Primary bibliography:

  • Descartes, René. Oeuvres de Descartes, vols. 3, 4 and 5, ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery. Paris: Vrin, 1964-1974.
  • Descartes, René, and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia. The Correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and Rene Descartes, ed. and trans. Lisa Shapiro. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. The full French text of the correspondence is posted at
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits [1966], trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince, trans. George Bull. London: Penguin, 1975.
  • ---. The Discourses, ed. Bernard Crick, based on the translation by Leslie J. Walker. London: Penguin, 1974.
  • Livy. The Early History of Rome, trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt. London: Penguin, 1971.

Selected secondary literature

  • Althusser, Louis. Machiavelli and Us, ed. François Matheron, trans. Gregory Elliot. London: Verso, 1999.
  • Atherton, Margaret. Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994, ch. 1.
  • Harth, Erica. Cartesian Women: Versions and Subversions of Rational Discourse in the Old Regime. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.
  • Néel, Marguerite. Descartes et la princesse Elisabeth. Paris: Éditions Elzévir, 1946.
  • Negri, Antonio. Political Descartes: Reason, Ideology, and the Bourgeois Project [1970], trans. Matteo Mandarini and Alberto Toscano. London: Verso, 2007.
  • ---. ‘Virtue and Fortune: The Machiavellian Paradigm’, in Insurgencies: Constituent Power and the Modern State [1992], trans. Maurizia Boscagli. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1999.
  • Ridley, Ronald T. ‘Machiavelli and Roman History in the Discourses’. Quaderni di Storia 9 (1983).
  • Thompson, Janna. ‘Women and the High Priests of Reason’. Radical Philosophy 34 (1983): 10-14.


1. Elisabeth von der Pfalz (1618 – 1680) was the eldest daughter of Frederick V and Elizabeth Stuart, who in 1619-1620 briefly ruled as King and Queen of Bohemia. She was renowned for her intelligence and piety, and for the magnanimity with which she endured a long series of personal and political misfortunes. In the 1660s she withdrew to the large Protestant convent at Herford, in Westphalia, and from 1667 to her death in 1680 served as its Abbess. Elisabeth’s correspondence with Descartes lasted from 1643 until his death in 1650. They exchanged a total of 58 letters. As Eileen O’Neill explains, Elisabeth ‘questioned [Descartes’] accounts of mind–body interaction and free will, and persuasively argued that certain facts of embodiment, the unlucky fate of loved ones, and the demands of the public good, constitute serious challenges to Descartes’ neo-Stoic view of the happy life of the autonomous will’ (O’Neill, ‘Elisabeth of Bohemia’, in Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy,

2. Michel Serres, ‘Un Modèle mathématique du cogito’, Revue philosophique 2 (April, 1965).

3. Machiavelli, The Prince, 91.

4. Lacan, ‘The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis’, Écrits, 257/214

5. Ibid, Écrits, 256/213.

6. Machiavelli, Discourses, 388.

7. Regnault cites Althusser, Lire le Capital, II, p. 58 et sq.