Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: I.16-17

Augustus Caesar’s Ara Pacis, Rome


A people who have lived under a tyranny and then become free has little hope of maintaining its freedom—at least according to Machiavelli. And really, “such difficulty is reasonable; for that people is nothing other than a brute animal that, although of a ferocious and feral nature, has always been nourished in prison and servitude” (I.16.2). This newly freed people will quickly submit itself to the first tyrant who comes along and offers to put them back into comfortable and familiar subjection.

If this inborn inability to exercise freedom isn’t enough, a recently freed state will likewise generate its own enemies without creating any friends. Friends of a free state are only born when there is a certain level of honesty and public honor freely and openly given to those who truly deserve it. This people, however, has had no training in freedom or openness and as a result never gets beyond mutual fear and suspicion as the defining political features of society.

Enemies, on the other hand, will abound. The class of people (especially the rich and powerful) who had heretofore received their livelihood at the hand of the ruling tyrant will now have no choice other than to try to seize power themselves and restore the old order.

So we have a newly free state with a source of enemies but no friends. What is to be done?

If one wishes to remedy these inconvenience and the disorders that the difficulties written above might bring with them, there is no remedy more powerful, nor more valid, more secure, and more necessary, than to kill the sons of Brutus. (I.16.4)

The sons of Brutus famously attempted to restore or replace the monarchy that their father had ended. We should learn from this episode that if we want to be certain that a new state becomes a lasting one, we must have some means of defeating its enemies. If this means using brutal methods, so be it—though Machiavelli does note that “the more cruelty he [the leader of the new state] uses, the weaker his principality becomes. So the greatest remedy he has is to seek to make the people friendly to himself” (I.16.4). A political system must have some means by which it can mollify those who oppose the state without cruelty so that the people are not angered or offended.

In an important aside, Machiavelli briefly engages the question of what to do when the opposite of this happens: that is, when a prince comes to power in a previously free state. Two things are key.

  • First, the prince must publicly avenge the people for the loss of their freedom. Those who helped to overthrow the old state (excepting himself, of course) must be punished visibly.
  • Second, the prince must realize that the people will desire a restoration of their old freedoms. While this is technically not possible (if it were, at the very least he would no longer be the prince—more likely Machiavelli is thinking of states no longer capable of enjoying freedom responsibly), the prince can at the very least satisfy the desires the people would use their freedom to fulfill. Specifically, some people in society will wish “to be free so as to command” (I.16.5). These can either be executed or promoted into the ranks of civil service, publicly honored, etc. Most, however, simply wish to live safely. These for “whom it is enough to live secure,” can be dealt with by setting up “orders and laws in which universal security is included” (I.16.5).

In other words, ruling with competence and justice is going to be sufficient to establish a prince in a former republic in the minds of most people. One might think here of the rule of Augustus Caesar

But that is an aside. What of the republic that forms after the deposition of a prince? This depends entirely on the virtue of the people. If the people are corrupt, it will not continue as a republic. At most, the period of freedom will be a intermission between tyrants. (Of course it is possible that a good prince might come to rule over a corrupt people, in which case “the goodness of one individual, together with virtue, keeps it [the state] free,” I.17.1. This freedom does not outlast the life of the virtuous prince.)

We see what happens to a corrupt people freed from a tyrant in Rome repeatedly after the time of Julius Caesar. The death of one prince—even one as central as Caesar—could never result in the restoration of the Republic. Instead, one tyrant followed another in swift succession. When the people have virtue, however, the republic may indeed be maintained. We see this in the example of the expulsion of the kings from Rome and the founding of the Roman Republic.

So, at the end of the day, the virtue of the people will determine the course of the state. If they are virtuous, they will be able to maintain their republic. If they are not virtuous, they will come to be ruled by a prince. If they were virtuous and become corrupt, barring extraordinary circumstances it is unlikely that they will ever return to whatever virtue they once had:

For it is seen…that if a city that has fallen into decline through corruption of matter ever happens to rise, it happens through the virtue of one man who is alive then, not through the virtue of the collectivity that sustains good orders. As soon as such a one is dead, it returns to its early habit…. The cause is that there cannot be one man of such long life as to have enough time to inure to good a city that has been inured to bad for a long time. (I.17.3)

Again, extraordinary measures like a radical refounding in this case would be the only hope of the state that has collapsed into vice.

This section is a tough one to discuss in a contemporary setting, because we tend not to like to think of an entire people as being unvirtuous or corrupt. After all, wouldn’t it be oddly racist/elitist to say that democracy failed in Iraq and—short of Divine intervention—will fail in Afghanistan because the people are too corrupt to rule themselves? Maybe I have consumed too much of the modernist/relativist Kool-Aid, but I would certainly be uncomfortable with that kind of language if I heard it from someone else, let alone used it myself. At the very least I would want to talk in good Burkean terms about traditions and customs and long development of cultures being necessary to prepare a people to exercise freedom virtuously. But were I to use this traditionalist language, I suspect Machiavelli would accuse me of prevaricating and demand that I be up front from the start: do I think the people as they exist today lack the virtue to exercise republican freedoms or not? If so, why are we trying to establish a free society? If not, why isn’t it working?

I’m no expert on contemporary Middle Eastern or Central Asian geopolitics and so I don’t actually have answers to these questions, but those are the examples that came to mind when I was reading through this text. Just how would Machiavelli analyze our attempts to build free republics in Iraq and Afghanistan?


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

6 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: I.16-17”

  1. gabe

    “At the very least I would want to talk in good Burkean terms about traditions and customs and long development of cultures being necessary to prepare a people to exercise freedom virtuously”

    I guess I would too – but it is difficult to tell what NM would do / say. On the one hand, he may be arguing that good laws comport to *order* and virtue but I am not clear as to whether he is using this in any Burkean sense. After all, he does say earlier that the imposition of good laws AT the outset of the founding is what is necessary for instilling (questionable, perhaps) and compelling virtue. This seems to me to be quite different than a tradition of good practice / custom and argues that people may be MADE virtuous by an effective Prince rather than by the slow accretion of custom / compromise, etc.
    So maybe he would say that we should have tried to create a Republic in Iraq / ME – all that was lacking was a noble Prince (Crimminies!! John Bremmer certainly did not qualify).

    • Coyle Neal

      Excellent point! I hadn’t tied in the idea of a great lawgiver of some sort, even though when we invaded in the first place I did wonder if we could build a nation with a Madison/Hamilton/Jefferson/etc to guide us…

  2. wlindsaywheeler

    I would like to point out a discrepancy in this sentence: “We see this in the example of the expulsion of the kings from Rome and the founding of the Roman Republic.”

    Cicero marks the start of the Roman Republic under Romulus. Sparta had a true republic and it kept its kings. At Rep. II 50, he states that , “our ancestors , imitating his [Lycurgus’s] example”. Paul A. Rahe, in his book, Against Throne and Altar, has Livy, Sallust and Cicero all starting the Roman Republic under Romulus.

    Here is an article that discusses that:

    A Republic is mixed government with king or without king.

    • Coyle Neal

      You’re technically right of course. However, the Romans saw in their own history the foundation of their Republic as starting with the expulsion of the kings, and eventually the end of their Republic with the return of monarchs (not that they ever used that name) in the form of the Emperors.
      Machiavelli’s point is the one that you make: the republican spirit existed already under the old monarchy, so that when the King was expelled by Brutus the Roman Republic had a stable foundation on which to build.


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