Machiavelli: Discourses on Livy, Part II

Editor’s note: This is the 13th essay by Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo on the origins of western political thought with a focus on the great political thinkers of the times.
Without doubt, Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy is unsurpassed among works of political philosophy. Neither Plato’s Republic, nor the Laws, nor Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics stand above it. And it is far more readable. It is a browser’s delight, and easy to navigate.
Each of its 142 chapters, which are divided into three books, is headed by a descriptive title that tells the reader what it’s all about. The titles are gathered in a table of contents, which, together with several prefaces, offer an overview of the whole work to which readers can repeatedly return without losing their place. Machiavelli began writing the Discourses soon after his forced retirement, around 1512, but unlike The Prince, he lingered over it, and it remained a work in progress until he died in 1527. It gave him consolation.
Unlike his illustrious predecessors and successors, Machiavelli does not start off with a declaration of fundamental principles derived from mere reason, but with examples from history. I do not mean that Machiavelli was unprincipled—as is commonly supposed. He employed an inductive method, deriving principles from well-tried practices, which is why he chose a work of history as his primary source. Discourses on Livy reads like a user’s manual. Each chapter, regardless of length, treats a substantial topic. The shortest (I. 42), which is less than a page, observes how easily men are corrupted, even those who are well-educated and are otherwise well-reputed, and why it is necessary to have laws to restrain them from evil doing.
The longest chapter (III. 6) is about conspiracies; it discusses the motives that lead to them, the hazards of engaging in them, and how best to defeat them. It should be required reading for all conspiracy theorists (they may be enlightened by it) and anyone else with an interest in current politics.
Nowhere in the book does Machiavelli bother with ideals or ideal narratives. He writes about the past, recent or remote, describing the actions of princes and peoples and their outcomes. He never fails to be enlightening, but also troubling. For example, Bk. II, Ch. 8 is all about wars of conquest. He compares the conquests of princes or imperial republics, like Rome before the Caesars, with those of migrating peoples. The former enlarge their empires by subjecting other nations to their rule; their purpose is mere acquisition, and so they are willing to allow their newly conquered subjects to retain their ancestral land and to continue to live according to their own laws and customs, so long as they remain peaceful.
However, when entire peoples and their families are driven by famine, or war, or oppression, or imagine themselves led by God to seek another land, their desire is not just to rule over it, “but, rather, to possess it, even private property, and to drive out or murder its ancient inhabitants,” in short, to exterminate them. Machiavelli adds the comment: “This kind of war is extremely cruel and frightful,” which he intended as a statement of fact and not as a moral judgment.
The comment is calculated, nonetheless, to open the minds of his readers to political reality and its inherent cruelty. His explanation should enlighten and disturb us, because it fits too well to events in the founding of our own nation and its western expansion and the motives of the early settlers to possess the land as though it were a wilderness, which it was not.
Related to this is the two-faced policy Roman conquerors employed to increase Rome’s population—for without a growing populace any city cannot become great. They accomplished this by the joint use of force and love, “by keeping the pathways open and safe” for immigrants, or by destroying nearby cities and enslaving their inhabitants (II. 3). The policy of love is the seed of beautiful idea of a nation of immigrants. But we have not outgrown the policy of force.
There are many more illuminating and disturbing moments in Machiavelli’s book, and I could go on forever commenting on them, but there is room for only one more. I have selected the first chapter of the third book (III. 1), because, more than any other, it offers a key to understanding the whole work.
In this chapter, Machiavelli imagines that a civil society is like a living body, that it is mortal, but nevertheless can live long and prosper if it does certain things: two, in particular. The first may be likened to setting up exercises: those states live longest that renew themselves by constantly returning to their beginnings.
He goes on to explain why this is so. It is because the good that a republic is supposed to embody and which is the source of its health is most abundantly present in its beginning or founding. The preamble of our constitution may serve as an example of such good. It tells why the People of the United States have established the constitution: “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty, to ourselves and our posterity.” If a nation could follow this, it is all the good that a civil society needs to live a long and happy life, and to continue as a whole nation of integral and well-functioning parts; a just society. It is our highest good. When Machiavelli mentioned the good in this chapter, he was alluding to Aristotle’s notion that political science was the science of the highest human good, and so it is.
The second way that a civil society is able to live a long life is by recognizing the noble achievements of its great personages. He had in mind individuals who occupied high office in the government of Rome, and who remained faithful to the laws, especially those “instituted against men’s ruthless ambition and insolence.” In this way, he perceived that the laws and institutions of government became alive “through the virtue of single citizens” who exemplified them in action, who bravely endeavored to enforce them and prevailed. This is the sort of leadership that breathes life into institutions and makes them noble.
Thus it would seem that Machiavelli was not lacking in principles, in spite of his realism and the ambiguities of political life that he described. Rather, he was an advocate of the classical ideal of the noble and the good. He discovered it arising spontaneously in the active life of a political society, in the city. May it long endure!
One last word: Machiavelli, like the ancients, regarded the city — the polis — as the archetype of civil society, as the highest good. He regarded the city more as a sanctuary of law than a school of virtue, but he nevertheless endeavored to endow it with his own variety of pragmatic virtue. He is our link to ancient values and the first real modern.
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