Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: I.5-6

Map of Venice c. 1650


Republics that are well structured from the beginning will be most concerned with protecting and preserving their freedom. The question is, who should bear the responsibility for that preservation? Sparta and Venice gave it to the nobles; Rome to the plebeians. While both of these choices have legitimate reasoning behind them, at the end of the day “the freedom of Sparta and Venice had a longer life than that of Rome” (I.5.2). Which is not necessarily to negate the value of the Roman approach! There is wisdom, Machiavelli argues, in putting the protection of freedom in the hands of those “who have less appetite for usurping it” (I.5.2). Nobility always desires the power to dominate, while the common people simply wish not to be dominated. Consequently they fight all the harder not to let anyone else seize a power they themselves cannot have.

On the other hand, giving this responsibility to the nobility results in “two good works: one is that they [the nobles] satisfy their ambition more, and… have cause to be more content” (I.5.2). The other is that the tumults which so often come from the people (and just as often result in an overreaction from the nobility) are reduced. So in Rome, as soon as the plebeians were granted an office in the government (that of Tribune), they began to lust after other offices (consul, then both consulships, then censor, praetor, etc.), and then finally after all offices. Until finally they simply followed those who promised the most violence to the nobility, “from which came the power of Marius and the ruin of Rome” (I.5.2). (If you don’t know the history here, the classic works are Scullard’s From The Gracchi to Nero and Syme’s The Roman Revolution.)

So which should it be? Should the nobles be the guardians of liberty, or the people? That depends on whether we want a republic that remains a republic all its days (Sparta and Venice) or a republic that becomes an empire (Rome).

This of course doesn’t answer the question of whether the nobles or the people are more dangerous to liberty in a state. Once again there are reasonable arguments and good historical examples on both sides. The people can be grasping, and the nobles can be corrupting, while ambition can drive each side equally. Machiavelli makes three points which still do not completely give us an answer, but at least put us on the path to one:

1. The nobility will be just as scared of losing what they have as the common people will be desirous of gaining it.
2. The nobility, because they have more material wealth, “are able to make an alteration with greater power and greater motion” in the state (I.5.4).
3. The common people are more easily stirred up, since even those without ambition can be driven to action in self-defense against perceived wickedness in the nobility. Those are the exception: more often there are multitudes of commoners with overly inflated ambition and the desire for riches and power.

(As an aside, in his discussion of who should be guarding liberty Machiavelli recites the story of Marcus Menenius from book IX of Livy’s history. If nothing else this shows us that Machiavelli has no interest in systematically expositing Livy’s work. Instead, he is using Livy to make the points he thinks need to be made. Something I suppose we’re all guilty of from time to time…)

Machiavelli had already mentioned that the greatness of Rome came from the tension and hostility that existed between the nobility and the common people, the Senate, and the plebeian class. He now asks whether the same greatness could have been achieved without that hostility, given how destructive it eventually was with the rise of the Gracchi and the end of Republican Rome. He briefly surveys the governments of Sparta and Venice, both of which were relatively stable in terms of noble/commoner relationships. Both republics were small and treated the common people well in general without requiring much of them in terms of public service—nothing, at any rate, that visibly differed from the responsibilities of the nobility.

Again, this comes down to the question of goals of the state. If we are content with a small nation and have no ambition to ever go beyond our own borders, the model of Venice (which did not allow the common people to serve in the military) or the model of Sparta (which maintained a xenophobic immigration policy) will work fine. And, so long as said republic stays quiet and somewhat geographically isolated, the model should continue to work for a very long time.

The problem is that it is not in the nature of a republic to stay quiet and isolated.

Without doubt I believe that if the thing could be held balanced in this mode, it would be the true political way of life and the true quiet of a city. But since all things of men are in motion and cannot stay steady, they must either rise or fall; and to many things that reason does not bring you, necessity brings you. So when a republic that has been ordered so as to be capable of maintaining itself does not expand, and necessity leads it to expand, this would come to take away its foundations and make it come to ruin sooner. So, on the other hand, if heaven were so kind that it did not have to make war, from that would arise the idleness to make it either effeminate or divided; these two things together, or each by itself, would be the cause of its ruin. (I.6.4)

The system which worked well on the small scale collapses when thrust onto an empire. So the Spartans and Venetians alike discovered that their form of government could not hold all that it had seized through aggressive military expansion. If expansion never begins in the first place, the foundations of the state are still eroded by the eventual development of laziness and indolence. The Roman model, on the other hand, gives this expansionist tendency an outlet without immediately exposing the state to the same dangers that Sparta and Venice encountered; namely the control of an empire too large for the existing model of government.

I might be missing something here, but it seems that there’s an unresolved tension in these chapters. If it is in fact in the nature of a republic to expand (or at least change), and if Sparta and Venice are examples of states that could not stand the strain of expansion, how do they simultaneously work as examples of long-lived (800 years!) republics? I know this is a book about Rome/Renaissance Italy and not Ancient Greece or Medieval Venice (mostly), but they seem to have known something about offsetting that internal republican tendency that should be relevant to the discussion.


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

5 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: I.5-6”

  1. gabe

    What to make of this man?

    At times, he seems to be nothing more than a mere tactician who today would reside on K Street as a senior partner in a political consulting firm.

    Tension – yes!

    Unresolved – so far!

    Is there to be nothing more than a general tactical approach to localized problems imbued with a more general perspective from NM?

    Let’s wait and see.

  2. Frank

    I know drawing analogies from history can be risky, but his description of how to build a long-lasting republic modeled on Sparta and Venice reminded me of Switzerland: out of the way, small, a history of not offending anyone but being quite willing to defend itself.

    And it didn’t seem to me, either, that NM resolved the question of which is better for guarding liberties, the upper or lower classes.

    • Coyle Neal

      Heh, glad it’s not just me…

      And, at least according to Black’s bio, NM switches from being generally positive about the Swiss in The Prince to being neutral to slightly-negative about them in the Discourses, apparently because they finally lose a battle to France. If accurate, I can understand his waffling. Sometimes I read about things going on in Switzerland and am nothing but impressed, and sometimes I have the exact opposite reaction.

      • gabe

        Yeah, me too – but they do have really cool uniforms when they guard the Pope!

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