Lecture Summary, November 21
Today was a religious holiday for some students in the class and so I am posting a summary of my
I left off last time speaking about Machiavelli’s unorthodox approval of the tumult characteristic of
Roman politics. Machiavelli admits that the people (the plebeians) can be mistaken about some
perceived threat to their liberty, but in that event freedom itself provides a remedy. “Some sensible man
has to get up and harangue them, showing them how they are wrong. The populace, as Cicero says,
although they are ignorant, are capable of recognizing the truth, and it is easy for a man whom they have
reason to respect to persuade them to change their mind by telling them the truth.” I take this observation
to have less to do with the rationality of the people than with their reasonableness. What I mean is this:
Machiavelli is not saying that the people can be persuaded because the rational part of their soul is
dominant; rather, he is saying that the common people know where their interests lie and are willing to
listen to advice from someone they trust. This makes them reasonable in the ordinary sense of that word.
The People and the Preservation of Republican Liberty.
As I remarked in discussing The Prince, Machiavelli’s political sociology posits that every city
will consist of rich and poor and thus every city will experience class conflict. In the Discourses he tells
us not to worry overly much about this conflict, because it actually tends to preserve liberty rather than
put liberty at risk. The liberty he has in mind is not primarily the personal liberty of citizens to do as they
like. Rather, it is the liberty of the republic itself.
Machiavelli thinks of liberty in terms of non-domination. E.g., consider the paradigm case of un-
freedom: slavery. The slave is under the absolute dominion of a master. His entire life is subject to the
will of another person. Likewise, a city is deprived of freedom when it is subject to the will of some
foreign city, as happens when one city is conquered by another. A free city (i.e., a republic) can also lose
its freedom when it falls under the control of a single individual, or a single family, or even a single class.
This is why the ambitions of the Roman nobility constituted a threat to the liberty of the republic. Bear
in mind, however, that from Machiavelli’s perspective a dictatorship of the common people would be no
less of an attack on republican liberty.
What is the best way to safeguard liberty? For Machiavelli that question requires inquiring into
which persons are best suited to the task of preserving the republic. Or rather, which group (class) has
the strongest interest in protecting liberty? He takes up this question in chapter 5 of the first book. There
he notes that republics have given two conflicting answers to this question. Some, like ancient Sparta
and modern Venice, put their faith in the nobility. Rome, on the other hand, relied on the common
Machiavelli professes to see good reasons on both sides of the question. The people would appear
to be reliable guardians of liberty because they desire only not to be oppressed. On the other hand,
entrusting the responsibility to the nobles satisfies some of their aspirations, making them more content
with their situation.
Machiavelli’s ultimate answer to the question of which class makes the best guardian of republican
liberty turns on what sort of republic you have in mind. Sparta and Venice are used by him to illustrate
small, self-contained republics that do not aim to enlarge either their territories or population. So
constructed, a republic of this sort can survive a long time by remaining true to its original constitution.
Both Sparta and Venice, as Machiavelli explains in chapter 6, vested political authority in a relatively
small group of citizens and this was largely acceptable to the other inhabitants of these cities who lacked both the expectation of a share in governance and sufficient numbers to make much trouble for those who
Rome, on the other hand, was an expansive republic –it conquered a large empire. To
accomplish that feat it required a large population under arms, and so it could not exclude the people
from power entirely. In order to survive and thrive, the Roman republic had to trust in the people.
Machiavelli is not neural between these two sorts of republics. He favours the Roman model.
That’s because he thinks the model represented by Sparta and Venice ill-equipped to survive in a world
of change. “…[N]othing in life stands still,” he says in chapter 6. Republics like Sparta and Venice are
too easily undone by a change in circumstances, such as the rise of a neighbouring power capable of
overwhelming their defenses. “In drawing up the constitution of a republic one should, therefore, aim
high and construct it in such a fashion that if circumstances force it to expand it will be able to hold on to
what it has acquired.”
This feature of his thought should not be lost on those of you who have an interest in international
relations. We have already noted that Machiavelli sees politics as being intimately wed to violence. To
be a Machiavellian statesman is to know when and how to use violence for purposes of state. A prince
uses violence to acquire and retain his realm, which may require the assassinations of rivals, their
families and allies. A republic commits violence chiefly in war, which Machiavelli treats as vital to the
health and longevity of a Roman-style republic. War breeds good republican citizens. The mind of the
citizen soldier is focused on his city, its survival and its glory, not on his own petty concerns. War makes
When we come to read Rousseau’s Social Contract we will learn about a rather mysterious figure called
“the legislator,” whom Rousseau invokes as a supernaturally wise founder capable of designing political
institutions that will turn selfish individuals into socially-minded citizens happy to work together for the
common good. The idea of a founding legislator figures prominently in republican political theory, and
not surprisingly we find a discussion of the legislator in Machiavelli’s Discourses. The discussion
occurs in Book 1, chapter 9. There Machiavelli says “One ought to recognize this as a general principle:
It rarely (if ever) happens that a republic or a kingdom has good institutions from the beginning, or is
completely reformed along lines quite different from those on which it was previously organized, unless
one person has sole responsibility.” Machiavelli does not tell us why this is so, but we might well suspect
that it has to do with the rarity of men who possess the necessary virtu to found a city.
A founder, Machiavelli explains, “wants to serve not his own interests but the public good, not to
benefit his own heirs but the nation as a whole.” Given how little Machiavelli thinks of human nature, so
selfless an individual must be rare indeed. In fact, Machiavelli is quick to caution us that a legislator
must use care and skill (virtu) “to ensure that the power he has seized is not inherited by a successor; for
since men are more inclined to do evil than good, his successor is likely to use for selfish purposes the
power he [the founder] has been using for the public good.”
But there is another, more practical reason why the founding of cities must be entrusted to a single
individual. Many people cannot plan effectively because they are not likely to agree among themselves
concerning what is best. Recall what Machiavelli said in The Prince about the achievements of Moses,
Cyrus, Theseus and Romulus –each of them achieved glory by uniting a weak and divided people into a
strong nation. A committee of individuals at odds with one another is not a suitable instrument for
drawing up a constitution that will unify the people and make them a nation. That task requires an
individual of singular vision and purpose, someone capable of placing his historic role as a founder ahead of his personal interests. Small wonder, then, that Machiavelli’s models both in The Prince and the
Discourses, where he lists Moses, Lycurgus and Solon in addition to Romulus, are all legendary figures.
Some may have existed only in legend.
In Rousseau’s Social Contract the legislator is described as a god. Machiavelli’s legislator, if not
quite divine, is on a par with the mythic heroes of antiquity. You might pause to wonder why this is so.
Why does it take a mythic hero to found a republic? At the very least the question calls our attention to
the problem of origins. Machiavelli’s republican theory relies on institutional mechanisms that balance
the antagonistic social and political forces at play in every city. These institutional checks and balances,
like the office of the tribunes and the senate in Rome, also help cultivate civic virtue. I.e.,