Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: I.7-9

Niccolo Machiavelli at his study, by Stefano Ussi


The most powerful tool at the disposal of those who are responsible for defending freedom is the power of accusation, and this for the reason that it has two “effects for a republic”:

The first is that for fear of being accused citizens do not attempt things against the state; and when attempting them, they are crushed instantly and without respect. (I.7.1)

The second effect is a sort-of catharsis for the tensions and passions that develop in cities. Without such a regular catharsis, “they have recourse to extraordinary modes that bring a whole republic to ruin” (I.7.1). That is, without proper channels for popular passion to flow through, the people turn to crime, rioting, and even open sedition. Machiavelli gives the example of Coriolanus, who in book II of Livy’s History had angered the plebeians. Rather than let him be torn apart by the mob, the Tribunes of the Plebs put him on trial. Machiavelli doesn’t even bother to tell us that Coriolanus was found guilty, because that’s not the important part. It doesn’t matter whether he was actually guilty or not; what matters is that the people had a legitimate civic outlet for their passions. Instead of the mob assaulting a noble, and the nobility responding with private action against the mob, civil strife did not erupt and life in Rome went on. On the other hand, we ought to consider

how much ill would have resulted to the Roman republic if he had been killed in a tumult; for from that arises offense by private individuals against private individuals, which offense generates fear; fear seeks for defense; for defense they procure partisans; from partisans arise the parties in cities; from parties their ruin. (I.7.2)

Florence itself provides examples that prove this point. Machiavelli cites the example of two men (Francesco Valori and Piero Soderini) who achieved power and influence against the wishes of the people. Because the people had no recourse (or at least had no effectual recourse, in the case of Soderini), open combat was the result, and instead of just the punishment or destruction of these two individuals “there followed harm… to many other noble citizens” (I.7.3).

This kind of conflict can even lead to the great disaster of external forces or mercenaries being brought in on one side or the other—the Spanish army in the case of Florence, as Machiavelli’s example. There’s no reason for Machiavelli to have used it as a case in point, but I’ve always appreciated the story of Vortigern’s invitation of the Saxons:

when all the councillors, together with that proud tyrant Gurthrigern [Vortigern], the British king, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them (like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations. Nothing was ever so pernicious to our country, nothing was ever so unlucky. What palpable darkness must have enveloped their minds—darkness desperate and cruel! Those very people whom, when absent, they dreaded more than death itself, were invited to reside, as one may say, under the selfsame roof.” (Gildas the Wise, On the Ruin of Britain, ch. 23)

And so today we have the English, in part because of exactly what Machiavelli would later warn against.

In Rome under the Republic, however, we never see the Senate or the plebeians bringing in foreign forces because, according to Machiavelli, the legal recourse in place was sufficient to satisfy everyone.

But if the ability to accuse is useful in a republic, “detestable calumnies” (I.8.2) are destructive and ought to be brutally repressed. (Which in our time would no doubt be the end of the Internet…) Because there is public recourse for legitimate accusations, backroom gossip should not be tolerated—ever.

Which raises the question of why Machiavelli is so strict when it comes to what goes on “in piazzas and in loggias” (I.8.2). Because the people are so easily swayed by gossip to take action destructive to the state. So long as there is a civil course where public accusations can be made by anyone “without any fear or without any respect” (I.8.2), there is no need to tolerate this kind of underground dissension that so easily erupts into civil disorder. “Calumny is used more where accusation is used less” (I.8.2). Rome was an example of a city that had good processes in place for public accusation. When used properly, it gives the people a catharsis for their passion. Florence is an example of a city without such processes, and as a result the people are always indignant and ready to riot.

Now, lest we accuse Machiavelli of getting ahead of himself in his very nonlinear discussion of Livy and failing to properly account for the Roman founding, military, or religion, he goes back and discusses the case of Romulus. Specifically, he tells us that Romulus was entirely correct to murder his brother and not to feel so bad about the murder (by others) of his colleague Titus Tatius. This is because:

It is very suitable that when the deed accuses him, the effect excuses him; and when the effect is good, as was that of Romulus, it will always excuse the deed; for he who is violent to spoil, not he who is violent to mend, should be reproved. (I.9.2)

In this case, the “good” in question was the founding of a stable and virtuous society—something only truly possible when done by one person. Machiavelli again:

This should be taken as a general rule: that it never or rarely happens that any republic or kingdom is ordered well from the beginning or reformed altogether anew outside its old orders unless it is ordered by one individual. Indeed it is necessary that one alone give the mode and that any such ordering depend on his mind. (I.9.2)

One of the hallmarks of a good founding is that the power of creation and ordering dies with the founder alone. His successors should be incapable of following in his footsteps as “founders”; they can only be custodians of the good policies he has created. If the system ever needs a true overhaul, steps must be taken to ensure that one man alone is in charge of the reforms—even if this means another purge of co-leaders.

These sections obviously raise a number of questions. What happens, for example, if a state provides a means of recourse for the people, but they begin to lose confidence in it? I thought specifically of the events in Ferguson when reading this. One of the problems even before the grand jury decision was released seems to have been a general sense on every side of the discussion that no matter what the actual outcome happened to be, justice was not going to be done. Or a decade ago when the government aggressively prosecuted CEOs who were dishonest with stockholder money. At the time, there was a feeling that even if punished “rich guy prison” wasn’t actually any kind of justice that mattered given the destruction they had wrought on employees and shareholders, however embarrassing the “perp walks” were at the time.

If this malaise about our existing institutions is a general trend (and I do not think it is exactly), does this mean we need a new founding? Or are our current institutions strong enough they can be gradually reformed by a happy combination of virtue, necessity, and fortune? Or is Machiavelli simply not a sufficient guide in an age of instant communication and instant outrage?

And of course, we have the broader ethical and political questions: Do the ends truly justify the means? (I’m not sure than Machiavelli’s unreserved “absolutely!” is really the right answer.) Can a founding be done well by committee, or even across generations? Is the same true of reform? I know that there is some nuance here, and that we’re only a few paragraphs in, but I’ll admit some difficulty siding with the Machiavelli apologists at this point…


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

10 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: I.7-9”

  1. gabe

    ” Can a founding be done well by committee, or even across generations? Is the same true of reform?”

    As to the first question, both Part A and B. one would have to answer in the affirmative. Part A: I would offer the American founding which not only was done by committee but also by rather disparate elements of Fed and Anti-Feds. It did seem to work for a good while. Part B: Edmund Burke would answer affirmatively. Indeed, he would insist that a Founding is an “ages long” endeavor of prescription and respect for the traditions of both the founding and the succeeding generations.

    As for *reform*: Again Burke would answer affirmatively and not just by a committee but rather by the collective sense of the people. I am not so certain that this is currently true given the present predilection for having prescription turned into proscription by the Left and the Courts.
    Would Machiavelli have approved of a Supreme Court as exalted in status and self importance as is our current cast of Black robed characters? or would he have preferred one Supreme Judge conducting Florence’s equivalent of the Moscow show trials?

    • Coyle Neal

      Heh, I might disagree a bit with your read on the US Supreme Court–given the current state of American politics, I’ll usually pick them over Congress or the President any day of the week…

      That said, I don’t at all agree with your points–my question were more focused at Machiavelli. (And I didn’t do a very good job making this clear.) Is there room in Machiavelli’s thought for a founding-by-committee, or reform across decades? Is there any room for progress in his thought, or is there only a virtuous founding (by one person) followed by a quicker or slower decline and fall?
      He obviously hadn’t read his Hegel or his Burke, so there’s no room for a systemic traditionalist metanarrative that incorporates the individual life of nations, but he had read his Livy and knew at least some Medieval history, so maybe he will have some wider approach?

      Anyway, I don’t know the answers from a Machiavellian point of view, though I’m pretty much on board with what you said otherwise 🙂

  2. Frank

    Although we are not far into this project, I found these sections to be the most interesting to date.

    His argument for the power – or tool – of “indictment” is most interesting. I’d never thought of that as a means for letting off a bit of civic steam. What he doesn’t address about the power to indict also happens to be a major issue of our time: what if the indicting authority is itself part of a faction, or perhaps uses its discretion to not charge when it should? What then – riots? Occupy Wall Street? These are the very things that NM seems to argue would happen without the power to indict. It seems to me that with or without the power to indict, we still have trouble if the indicting authority – and the populace at large – lack the necessary civic virtue. (And by the way, I respect the Ferguson grand jury.)

    The “calumny” section was also interesting. I’m no legal historian – but I guess NM’s era lacked the equivalent of today’s libel and slander laws? Those seem to be decent tools against “calumnies” in our time.

    • Coyle Neal

      “what if the indicting authority is itself part of a faction, or perhaps uses its discretion to not charge when it should? ”

      Good point/question! The answer is, I don’t know. My gut says that Machiavelli would fall back on one of his ideas from The Prince and say that it doesn’t matter if the indicting authority is part of a faction or not, so long as the popular perception is that it is still a venue they can use. The facade of legitimacy may be enough.
      When that facade breaks down, then your question is even harder to answer and I still don’t know.

      Also, interesting point about “civic virtue.” It raises the question of whether one would need avenues of indictment if a community had civic virtue already, or is the indicting authority only useful when a society is no longer virtuous?

      • gabe

        But hasn’t Nm already indicated by his assertion that strong or good laws are necessary to maintain a virtuous people and that “necessity” is what *compels* men to virtuous behavior. I take this to mean that NM perceives man to be somewhat coarse, prone to base motives unless otherwise COMPELLED to be different. Given that he expects the low out of man (paraphrasing Struass’s discussion of perceiving the high through the low), does he not expect faction to be lurking below the surface because man qua man is somewhat base. Thus, given such an expectation / perception would not *indictment* be a necessary tool to assure civic virtue.

        I do like Khalil’s exposition on “blowing off steam” and shareholders. This may also indicate that NM expects there to be an underlying tendency towards the “low” on the part of the populace and thus indictment should be available to temper civic disorder.

        BTW: ( It was not you at fault for my misperception of intent. I can be quite the dunderhead sometimes and miss the obvious )

      • Coyle Neal

        Good point gabe (which for some reason I’m not able to directly reply to), I’ll have to think more about that. I hadn’t thought of the “necessity” connection.

  3. khalilhabib

    Excellent, as usual Coyle. Thank you.

    Like Frank, this section is one of my favorites in all of the Discourses. I do not have much to add here, but I wonder if Machiavelli’s presentation of accusations as a healthy means of blowing off civic steam (as Frank calls it) inspires other political philosophers, such as Montesquieu (who also comments on this part of the Discourses, by the way) to think of healthy government in terms of including the people as shareholders and balancing their passions (powers) against other shareholders (nobles, etc). I am not a historian, but I also wonder if Machiavelli is the first to present the people in Roman history as playing a vital role in its greatness. I might be wrong, but I remember thinking that when I first studied this work.

    Question: while Machiavelli does not explicitly discuss religious accusations and persecution, which destabilize politics, does he have that in mind here, too? How might one look at religious accusations in light of his treatment here?

    • Coyle Neal

      I have no idea if Machiavelli inspires others here or not–though he’s not really the first person to have this idea. The Athenian practice of ostracism was discussed pretty often in the ancient world, and it had the same sort of pressure-release valve function.
      I also don’t know if Machiavelli is the first person to talk about the Roman people as vital, depending on what you mean by the question. There was of course a “popular” faction in the Roman Republic that tended to use the language of “the greatness of Rome is its people”, with its most visible proponent being Julius Caesar. But that might not be exactly what Machiavelli had in mind when he discusses “greatness.” I’d have to defer to a historian of philosophy on that one.

      As for religion, I suspect Machiavelli would include religious accusations here. I have yet to see him treat the church as anything other than just another political power/institution in Italy, so I suspect it’s include. Which if true is just… awful. While I firmly believe churches need methods and processes for disciplining members, that process ought to be separate from political institutions (and vice-versa).

  4. Frank

    Gabe – you’re right, and I was forgetting about the necessity for strict laws to maintain civic virtue. And if the hoi polloi are brutish, then sure, indictment is a necessary tool. But you still have the potential problem: what if the indicting authority is itself corrupt, party oriented, or abuses its discretion? In that case this tool won’t serve the good purpose that NM asserts. It won’t be a tool for releasing civic steam – it’ll cause tension to build up even more.

    And I’ll say it often: thank you, Professor Neal, for your time and effort.

    • gabe


      You are absolutely right about “corruption” and the difficulty it poses for NM as for us today.
      In a sense the media today are the means through which public indictment is presented to the populace – anyone care to assert that the media is virtuous?

      Seems to be doing wonders for us. NM would probably roll over in his grave a few times!


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