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Machiavelli on Republics and on Fortune.docx

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Political Science
POLS 2900
Adam Hilton

Machiavelli on Republics and on Fortune I would like to move on now to consider two more of Machiavelli’s accomplishments, accomplishments that presuppose the break with tradition described earlier. The aim of Machiavelli’s political science is the establishment and preservation of order, order that will protect a universal egoism – the pursuit of life, liberty and property. Against the ancients, the virtues are judged by whether or not they contribute to order, not vice-versa. Only that which contributes to order is judged a virtue. And if something otherwise vicious contributes to order under certain circumstances, then it is not to be judged a vice. Thus the cruelties of a Prince, when necessary and economical, are virtues because they bring order out of chaos. 1. Yet Machiavelli is not only the theorist of princely virtue. He is also the theorist of Republics. One of the questions that has entertained interpreters of Machiavelli the most is the question of why the switch from his reliance on great men and heroic acts in The Prince to his reliance on the people and the institutions of a republic in The Discourses. The answer is, first of all, that the monarchical absolutism of a prince is a desperate remedy for a situation of near complete breakdown and corruption. But, once peace and order are established Machiavelli thinks that they can be entrusted to the people to maintain. This possibility and its conditions are explored in The Discourses. In The Prince, Machiavelli treats the people as merely malleable matter, as gullible, manipulable, open to the arts of illusion and especially as being of limited ambition. Remember as long as the Prince stays away from the property and women of the people, such a ruler will be safe. They will, he says, even complain more about the loss of their property than about the murder of their fathers. Machiavelli sees the possibility of three basic types of regime: the first is a feudal situation, where nobles exist (this is a class of very wealthy landed warriors, with their own private armies) this is the most dangerous situation, because nobles as a class are insatiable and rapacious. The second sort of situation has gentlemen, but no nobles; gentlemen may be aristocratic and wealthy, but they do not field armies. They are therefore far less dangerous. The third situation is one that Machiavelli describes as one of “equality”. Here there are neither nobles, nor gentlemen. There is instead a mercantile society together with the prominence of a “productive” bourgeoisie. This will be the best situation in which to attempt a republic – what Machiavelli calls a situation of “great equality”. This last situation is especially proper for a republic because the many, “the people”, are largely content with what they have. Now compare this with Aristotle in his Politics, who is attempting to balance the claims of wealth, numbers and moral virtue in his theory of the best of the possible states. Here, with Machiavelli, the tension is simply one between wealth and numbers. No one is more “virtuous” than anyone else. The people are not “moderate”; they are simply timid and unambitious. Their timidity is not an adherence to rational goodness; it is simply fear and/or sloth when it comes to the pursuit of glory. Groups of people are only more “virtuous” in the sense that some are more relatively non-threatening to the stability of social order. Now, compared to Aristotle, it is the few who are the greater danger, since unlike in his situation, the few in Machiavelli’s no longer want only to preserve their wealth to such an extent that it serves as the inherently limited basis of a life of rational goodness. But, like Aristotle, Machiavelli is still interested in a balance. It is, however, no longer a balance of virtue restraining power. Instead it is simply a balance of power restraining power in the mixed constitution of a republic. Rome is, for Machiavelli, the clearest example of the greatness of a republican, mixed constitution. Thus the “virtu” of a prince may be replaced by the lesser but less rare virtue of the people under a republican constitution. In such a constitution, the laws must made to engineer a tensely balanced equilibrium between opposed social forces in which all relevant parties or interests are involved in government and each keeps watch over the others. The resolution of these opposed forces means that only those laws will be passed which are “conducive to public liberty”. The selfish interests will thus be guided by an invisible hand to promote the public good. Lawfulness will be the result of a balancing of powers, set free from or indifferent to inward moral restraint and checked only by other powers. Once again, in The Discourses, good results from evil. So republics, as Rome demonstrated, are under the right circumstances possible – at least temporarily, for a few hundred years. But why are they superior to principalities? They are superior in the last analysis only because they are longer lasting. They remain m
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