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.