Maurizio Viroli, , trans. from the Italian by Anthony Shugaar. . Hill & Wang, $20 (144pp) ISBN 978-0-8090-8077-9

In this slim volume, Viroli (Niccolo's Smile) bemoans the general "decline in civic consciousness" that has marked recent decades, and by giving a history of the theory and practice of republicanism, he reflects upon ways to resuscitate civic concerns. Focusing largely on Renaissance writers, Viroli seeks to define and explain republicanism as a richly lived tradition rather than an ideal theory (which was how writers who fashioned the subsequent liberal tradition understood it). It's most accurate "to regard both liberal and democratic theory as provinces of republicanism, based in its classical form on the two principles of the rule of law and popular sovereignty," Viroli writes. Later, however, he bases his distinction of republicanism from liberalism on differing concepts of liberty: freedom from domination (with the help of self-made law) vs. freedom from interference (including that of law). Viroli's underexplained shifts like this and underdeveloped yet repetitive statements can be frustrating, but gradually some truly provocative ideas emerge, like the notion of republican patriotism as a passion vital for preserving self-government and created through participating in the self-creating life of a republic. No such patriotism is possible, according to republican theory, among subjects of an absolute ruler (a conviction that stands in striking contrast to the supposedly natural ethno-nationalist passions developed in the 19th century under the name of patriotism). If Viroli is sometimes maddeningly fragmentary or repetitive, it may be because he is struggling insistently to excavate a meaningful but obscured—indeed, almost buried—tradition from its modern descendants. (Feb.)