Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: I.2-4

Niccolò Macchiavelli statue by Lorenzo Bartolini, Uffizi, Florence


Excluding newly founded cities subservient to a larger power, Machiavelli asks what sorts of laws independent cities (whether republics or principalities) might have. Some were given a code of laws all in one go by a wise lawgiver, such as Lycurgus gave to Sparta. Others developed organically over time, such as Rome.

So that republic can be called happy whose lot it is to get one man so prudent that he gives it laws ordered so that it can live securely under them without needing to correct them. (I.2.1)

Sparta, for example, lasted 800 years without a major constitutional shift from its founding by Lycurgus through its conquest by Rome.

On the other hand, those cities which do not have good laws from the beginning must change as time and opportunity require, with the end result that “accident” determines whether these cities end up with good constitutions or get “off the right road that might lead it to the perfect and true end” (I.2.1). Any such changes as a result of accident are questionable at best, “because enough men never agree to a new law that looks to a new order in a city unless they are shown by a necessity that they need to do it” (I.2.1). (Machiavelli assumes an inherent conservatism—or at least an inherent laziness and apathy—in the normal course of human affairs. No doubt here at least he would be boggled by the contemporary lust for innovation.) But any real “necessity” is going to involve true danger to the state, with the final result that many states are destroyed before they can put in place a true “perfection of order” (I.2.1).

But what sort of government can a new city have? (We’re not yet to the question of what sort of government it should have…) Machiavelli runs through various outlines of government that should be familiar to students of Aristotle and Plato. Government can be by the one, the few, or the many; and either good governments or bad governments. The general understanding is that the good governments quite easily devolve into the bad ones, “so if an orderer of a republic orders one of those three states in a city, he orders it there for a short time” (I.2.2).

More than that, Machiavelli argues that these governments to some extent have arisen by chance, as have our opinions of how to tell a good one from a bad one. Like Plato, Machiavelli draws up a cycle that governments go through: from virtuous monarchy to tyranny to virtuous aristocracy to corrupt oligarchy to virtuous popular government (though not a very long-lived one) to mob-rule, back to virtuous monarchy again. Along the way, the standard for whether or not each of these governments is good or bad is the basic laws of society.

It is important to note here that this cycle of governments is a transition of who practically holds the power, not a radical revolution in the basic constitutional structure of the state. Machiavelli holds that a republic can remain a republic while being ruled by one, few, or many people. The laws remain the same while the kind and number of rulers evolves over time. In fact, “it is while revolving in this cycle that all republics are governed and govern themselves” (I.2.4). If it were not for the fact that republics tend to get conquered at the weaker points of this cycle, they could theoretically go on for all eternity.

Wise lawgivers will look at this cycle and realize the weaknesses inherent in the good forms of government that cause them to devolve into the bad forms and will consequently set up governments that combine these different forms in an attempt to draw on the strengths of the good while offsetting the characteristics that lead to the bad. Anticipating Madison (presumably not literally), Machiavelli argues that in this hybrid system of government the various factions are set against each other “since in one and the same city there are the principality, the aristocrats, and the popular government” (I.2.5).

We do not see this wisdom in Solon’s Athens, which collapsed even in his lifetime. But we do see it in Sparta and in Rome. Sparta, of course, had a good lawgiver, but Rome took the less likely path and developed good laws over time through the right responses to a series of accidents. It’s true, they did start as a monarchy and then kick out their kings, but they only expelled the kings from Rome, “not the kingly power” which instead was divested in the consuls. (See Polybius, Book VI for more on this idea.) Over the centuries following its founding as an (admittedly good) kingdom, “Fortune was so favorable to it that…remaining mixed, it made a perfect republic, to which perfection it came through the disunion of the plebs and the Senate” (I.2.7).

But this good government does not come either by chance or by choice—in a sense, good government is even contrary to the basic desire of human nature and exists only when necessity so compels. Why? Because:

As all those demonstrate who reason on a civil way of life, and as every history is full of examples, it is necessary to whoever disposes a republic and orders laws in it to presuppose that all men are bad. (I.3.1)

At every opportunity we will pursue our own selfish ends, even if these ends are only revealed long after the fact. This is not to say that humanity is incapable of good, just that we do not pursue it unless forced to:

Men never work any good unless through necessity, but where choice abounds and one can make use of license, at once everything is full of confusion and disorder. Therefore it is said that hunger and poverty make men industrious, and the laws make them good. Where a thing works well on its own without the law, the law is not necessary; but when some good custom is lacking, at once the law is necessary. (I.3.2)

(If we were ever in any danger of thinking of Machiavelli as an idealist, passages like this should convince us of his gritty realism.) Again, Rome is the example of this and the office of the Tribune of the plebs the evidence. When times were good, both the aristocrats and the people pursued their own selfish means, leading to less-good times, in turn forcing the creation of a new office that served the state well for centuries.

Now, this good result doesn’t mean we whitewash the “tumults” of Republican Rome. But neither do we completely condemn its success and write it off as a combination of fortune and military might. People who make this claim, argues Machiavelli, “are not aware that where the military is good, there must be good order” (I.4.1). Likewise, the presence of so many great men suggests that there must be something good going on in the political system, “for good examples arise from good education, good education from good laws, and good laws from those tumults that many inconsiderately damn” (I.4.1).

This last leads in to Machiavelli’s main point. The main reason not to write off the tumults of Rome is that these very troubles are the source of Rome’s eventual greatness, for it is from conflict that good laws are born:

In every republic are two diverse humors, that of the people and that of the great, and… all the laws that are made in favor of freedom arise from their disunion. (I.4.1)

When the people are agitated and take one of the available routes for dissent, the result is that the aristocrats respond and some kind of good policy results. The people may of course be wrong, but a free people “are capable of truth and easily yield when the truth is told them by a man worthy of faith” (I.4.1). (The implication is that there is some level of respect between the two classes—the people for the good man who speaks truth to them, and the aristocrats in at least hearing the people’s grievances. This again further implies that there is already something good going on in the government of the state, whatever the current crisis may be.)

Again, the critical point is that rather than social tension and strife being necessarily a sign of a republic in danger, in Rome at least Machiavelli argues that it was the source of their strength and success. And again, we should note the parallels with Madison and the claim of the Federalist Papers that factional interest is the means to arrive at the true “genius” of the people.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

2 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: I.2-4”

  1. gabe


    Interesting take on Madison & NM.

    Common means, perhaps, towards distinctly different objects?

    Also, a recognition that the polity is not necessarily diminished by *tension* but rather is in fact strengthened.

    Question: so what does that say about modern phenomenon that insists upon uniformity of opinion masquerading as “diversity?”

    It will be interesting to see what role religious tension plays in NM scheme.

    • Coyle Neal

      Gabe wrote: “Question: so what does that say about modern phenomenon that insists upon uniformity of opinion masquerading as “diversity?””

      This is such a good question! (And those of you who are more familiar with Madison or Machiavelli, please do chime in!) It would seem that for either Madison or Machiavelli, political uniformity implies the death of society. For the former because uniformity can only mean tyranny of some sort; and for the latter because uniformity leads to lethargy, apathy, and the death of virtue. Diversity, on the other hand, leads to either good policy (Madison’s “genius of the people”) or virtue (for Machiavelli). Which, if either of these is true about America, means that the true enemy of our republic is cooperation. “Reaching across the aisle” or “being a uniter and not a divider” are exactly what politicians ought not be doing.

      I’ll even add that I think as a Christian to some extent I can get on board with this. I think we should all be suspicious of any one person, party, or ideology that claims to have all the right answers all the time. Even if at the end of the day I disagree with another position, in humility I ought objectively to recognize that a diversity of opinions has more truth than I do by myself. (Recognizing this subjectively is a different story all together–personal humility has never been a strength of mine, just ask my wife!) Now, this might have to be balanced with other virtues like courage in speaking the truth, but it at least means I don’t get to just condemn a person, policy, or ideology across the board.


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