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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

Machiavelli the Republican




"Further, we find that those cities wherein the government is in the hands of the people, in a very short space of time, make marvellous progress, far exceeding that made by cities which have been always ruled by princes; as Rome grew after the expulsion of her kings, and Athens after she freed herself from Pisistratus; and this we can ascribe to no other cause than that the rule of a people is better than the rule of a prince."

Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, Book 1, Chapter LVIII



In episode 44 of the, I Take History With My Coffee podcast, titled "Machiavelli the Politician," I delve into Machiavelli's political philosophy primarily through his renowned work, "The Prince." In this treatise, Machiavelli offers counsel to princes on the acquisition and retention of power, with the paramount objective being the security and stability of the state. He adopts a pragmatic stance, prioritizing stability and prosperity over ethical or moral considerations. This perspective extends beyond princely states to encompass various forms of governance, including republics. A comprehensive understanding of Machiavelli's ideology necessitates an examination of his work "Discourses on Livy." This text sees Machiavelli deeply engaging with the history of Rome as chronicled by the ancient historian Livy, presenting a series of commentaries that draw insights and lessons from Roman history to elucidate his political theories.


Livy, Roman historian

Between 1516 and 1517, influenced by the intellectual circle surrounding Bernardo Rucellai, Machiavelli reworked his commentary on the first ten books of Livy's "History of Rome" into what we now recognize as the "Discourses." The exact evolution of the book remains uncertain, but Machiavelli likely began compiling notes on Livy with a systematic treatise in mind even before his association with Rucellai's group. The discussions at the Oricellari gardens, where the circle of intellectuals met, likely catalyzed Machiavelli's process of refining his ideas, which eventually materialized into chapters for the "Discourses." Rucellai and his associates, including members of the Medicean party, played a role in this evolution, finding resonance in its admiration for republican Rome despite their political affiliations.


Throughout his lifetime, Machiavelli refrained from aligning himself explicitly as a revolutionary or fervent republican. He referenced Tacitus favorably, underscoring the significance of honoring the past while adapting to contemporary political circumstances. In the “Discourses” dedication, Machiavelli emphasized his practical political experience, drawing insights from extensive readings and real-world interactions. Much like "The Prince," specific passages in the "Discourses" elaborate on ideas derived from Machiavelli's political engagements, including his service for the Council of Ten and correspondences with figures like Soderini and Vettori. However, unlike "The Prince," the "Discourses" underwent no revisions for publication during Machiavelli's lifetime, leaving their final form uncertain.


Title Page, Discourses on Livy, 1636 English Edition

The early 15th century witnessed the emergence of civic humanism, propelled by thinkers such as Leonardo Bruni, who championed the study of classical texts and the ideal of active citizenship. Machiavelli was a product of this tradition, emphasizing civic virtue, political engagement, and the common good. His ideas in the "Discourses" reflect this focus on civic participation and cultivating virtuous citizens, deeply rooted in ancient Roman political thought and the works of authors like Livy, Cicero, and Sallust. Machiavelli also drew inspiration from classical historiography, particularly the writings of Polybius and Tacitus, whose analyses of historical patterns and cycles influenced his approach to history in the "Discourses."


Machiavelli's views on republicanism evolved, shaped by contemporary political realities and philosophical insights. Central to his republicanism was a concern for the stability and prosperity of the state, which he believed could be best achieved through a mixed form of government balancing elements of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. The tension between republicanism and principality, explored extensively in the "Discourses," reflects Machiavelli's examination of the virtues and flaws of both forms of governance, often illustrated through examples from Roman history.


He advocated for active citizen participation in a well-ordered republic, stressing the importance of virtuous citizenship and civic values such as courage, honesty, and commitment to the common good. Machiavelli sought to revive the classical republican tradition, drawing inspiration from figures like Cicero and Seneca. Rather than endorsing autocratic rule, he advocated empowering the citizenry and establishing institutions that fostered civic engagement. Machiavelli also recognized the need for strong leadership to maintain order within the republic while cautioning against tyranny and emphasizing the importance of constitutional mechanisms and checks and balances to limit the power of rulers.


Roman Forum

The essence of Machiavelli's work lies in its departure from deriving political principles solely from abstract ideals or philosophy. Instead, he advocates for learning from past rulers and politicians’s actual behaviors and experiences, viewing history not as a mere source of pride but as a practical guide for addressing contemporary challenges. While Machiavelli acknowledges the limitations of historical knowledge and the subjective nature of sources, he maintains that statesmen can still derive valuable lessons from the past to inform their actions in the present. However, he warns that the efficacy of such lessons ultimately depends on the character and courage of individuals within a society.


Moreover, Machiavelli rejects fatalistic attitudes towards fortune, asserting that while its influence is undeniable, knowledge and proactive measures can mitigate its effects. He envisions a future ruler who, through a deep appreciation for antiquity, can govern in a way that minimizes the erratic nature of fortune's sway over political affairs. He warns against dependence on external factors such as God or fortune, emphasizing the importance of centralized preparation and personal strength. According to Machiavelli, effective opposition to adversaries requires a citizen army to defend the nation’s heart rather than relying on diplomacy or mercenaries. He stresses the enduring value of traditional military virtues, asserting that victory still hinges on the qualities of individual soldiers. Machiavelli advocates for a disciplined citizenry that prioritizes the state's welfare and leaders who apply lessons from history decisively.


Personally influenced by the societal ills of his time, Machiavelli is pragmatic rather than idealistic, and he is closer in spirit to figures like Savonarola than Sir Thomas More. He critiques the decadence of Florence while expressing a longing for the disciplined vigor of ancient Rome. Machiavelli seeks to reform character and eradicate corruption through religious and military discipline, even if this requires temporary authoritarian control.

In Machiavelli's "Discourses," his preference for a republican form of government is evident. This preference aligns with the historical context of Florence, where even during the rule of Lorenzo the Magnificent, there was a sense of pride in their republican system compared to other less democratic societies. Despite the return of the Medici family to power in 1512, Florence remained a republic, indicating a collective attachment to republican ideals.

Machiavelli's apparent oscillation between admiration for republics and princes is clarified by his belief that republics should emulate princes' decisive and unified actions in their dealings with the external world. He also suggests that republics might sometimes require the influence of a reforming prince. However, his emphasis on republics in the "Discourses" doesn't signify a departure from his views in "The Prince." Instead, he sees the need to advise princes and republican authorities on effective governance.


His central concern was not debating whether Florence should be governed by a republican constitution or by an absolute prince but rather how to restore the vitality of a faltering state and showcase its virtues to the outside world. Machiavelli believed the greatest political glory lay in establishing or reforming a republic while establishing tyranny was the greatest shame.


Bust of Cicero

Living in a tumultuous period, Machiavelli drew lessons from historical crises, prioritizing the practical over the theoretical. He focused on the moments of conflict and transition, where the balance of power shifted, akin to the clash between Caesar and Brutus in ancient Rome. Machiavelli's approach to governance may seem simplistic, often portrayed in stark contrasts of right and wrong. However, his writings address pressing issues of his time, emphasizing the necessity of prioritizing the survival and liberty of the state above all other considerations, even morality or reputation.






In contemporary society, governments grapple with complex challenges requiring decisions that balance security, stability, and long-term liberty against ethical principles and reputation. Machiavelli's writings resonate because they address enduring dilemmas in political philosophy and practice, reminding us of the ongoing need for thoughtful, principled leadership in navigating these challenges.

For example, national security and counterterrorism measures often raise questions about the extent to which civil liberties should be curtailed in the name of public safety. Governments may grapple with decisions regarding surveillance, privacy rights, and the use of force, weighing the potential benefits for security against the infringement on individual freedoms and ethical considerations.


Similarly, in international relations, states may confront dilemmas regarding pursuing their interests abroad, including military intervention, economic sanctions, and diplomacy decisions. These decisions may involve trade-offs between strategic objectives, moral principles, and the desire to uphold a positive international reputation. Moreover, contemporary political leaders and policymakers must navigate an increasingly interconnected and transparent world, where their actions are subject to scrutiny from both domestic constituencies and the global community. Concerns about maintaining credibility, legitimacy, and ethical standards can influence decision-making processes and shape public perceptions of government actions.


Ultimately, the tension between the imperative to safeguard the state's survival and liberty and the ethical considerations inherent in governance reflects fundamental questions about the nature of power, responsibility, and the relationship between rulers and the ruled. As societies continue to evolve and confront new challenges, the legacy of thinkers like Machiavelli serves as a reminder of the enduring relevance of these dilemmas and the ongoing need for thoughtful, principled leadership in navigating them.


Niccolo Machiavelli

The "Discourses" are a personal record of Machiavelli's thoughts on various political issues, characterized by commentary rather than systematic theorizing. Despite contradictions and unfinished ideas, Machiavelli's exhortatory tone urges readers to learn from history and apply its lessons to contemporary politics, emphasizing the educative power of historical examples.













I Take History With My Coffee podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other streaming platforms.


 

Further Reading:

Discourses on Livy: Niccolo Machiavelli


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