Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: I.18-20

Young Man between Virtue and Vice by Paolo Veronese, Prado, Spain


Is it really possible for a corrupt city to become free in the first place? Or, if a corrupt city does manage to become free, is it really possible to maintain its freedom? Machiavelli suspects that both of these circumstances are impossible in the real world, but he’s going to discuss it anyway “since it is good to reason about everything” (I.18.1).

So let’s assume that we have a truly wicked city, one so bad that “neither laws nor orders can be found that are enough to check a universal corruption” (I.18.1). By “laws” and “orders,” Machiavelli means both the formal, on-the-books rules of the city (laws) and the informal customs and traditions of the place (orders). The former are mutable and may be changed but are only as effective as the latter, on which they rest. On the other hand, good orders are only sustained by means of good laws:

For as good customs have need of laws to maintain themselves, so laws have need of good customs so as to be observed. (I.18.1)

The two exist in a symbiotic relationship, and if one gets corrupted the other collapses as well. Of the two, laws are much more mutable and change “according to the accidents in a city” (I.18.1); while orders are much more stable. Which means that laws can really never solve the problems of a city if the orders are corrupt to begin with.

Rome, for example, had excellent orders that held firm for a very long time, even as laws shifted and changed. It was only when the orders had finally been corrupted beyond the point of correction that Rome was beyond salvation. Machiavelli argues that this point was reached when Rome had no more international enemies to fear, and so no particular reason to remain virtuous. Public office was bestowed on the ambitious, rather than the capable; while the popular assemblies passed laws that favored only the few, rather than supporting the common good. At root, the problem was that the order of society was effective in creating magistrates and passing laws only so long as the people were virtuous.

So far, Machiavelli is simply echoing ancient commentators like Augustine, Sallust, and (speaking about Athens) the Old Oligarch on the limitations of popular rule by a corrupted people.

This discussion raises the question: could anything have saved Rome? Probably not, according to Machiavelli. When the customs of a society have become corrupt, there are only two options:

these orders have to be renewed either all at a stroke, when they are discovered to be no longer good, or little by little, before they are recognized by everyone, I say that both of these two things are almost impossible. (I.18.4)

The problem with the latter option is that fixing something incrementally requires both phenomenal foresight and the ability to convince the citizen body to adjust their presuppositions, ideas, and actions, not because something is currently wrong, but because it someday will be. This of course never works—a frustration shared, albeit for different reasons, by modern traditionalists and environmentalists alike.

The problem with the former option is that fixing a corrupt culture by a violent shock to the system is likewise impossible. Once the “ordinary modes” of fixing things in society have become corrupted, even if everyone realizes that there is a problem the solution must necessarily involve violence and civil conflict (because again, the “ordinary modes” are no longer effective, I.18.4). Unfortunately, the sort of person willing to use such violent means is hardly the sort of person who is going to institute virtuous reforms once actually in power. The virtuous will refuse to use wicked means; while the wicked will refuse to implement virtuous ends. And so the this method of fixing corrupted orders is likewise unlikely to occur.

Perhaps the best we can hope for in such circumstances is that rather than a republic, a virtuous kingdom might be established. Trying to force a corrupt people to be virtuous enough to govern themselves “would be either a very cruel enterprise or altogether impossible” (I.18.5).

Machiavelli uses this to bring us back to the early days of Rome and the first kings, especially Romulus, Numa, and Tullus. Romulus was of course Rome’s founder, while Numa used the time of peace won by Romulus’s bellicosity to develop and shape the Roman religion. Tullus, in turn, took the Romans to the battlefield once more. The lesson in all of this, according to Machiavelli, is not so much that one should fight a war in order to enjoy the peace, but rather that:

A successor of not so much virtue as the first can maintain a state through the virtue of him who set it straight and can enjoy the labors of the first. But if it happens either that he [the successor] has a long life or that after him another does not emerge to resume the virtue of the first, the kingdom of necessity comes to ruin. (I.19.1)

In other words, it is possible for a good ruler to govern so well that the state may endure a weak or bad leader as his successor, but after that the state needs a fresh injection of virtue or else it will be in danger of collapse. (Machiavelli provides the further examples of David, Solomon, and Rehoboam; as well as his contemporary Turkish leaders.) Best of all, of course, is to have multiple consecutive virtuous leaders, as the Romans had in the early days of the Republic under the good consuls. A good republic, Machiavelli argues, will work to be sure that this is always the case:

A republic should do so much more, as through the mode of electing it has not only two in succession but infinite most virtuous princes who are successors to one another. This virtuous succession will always exist in every well-ordered republic. (I.20.1)

The problem in every free state is how to ensure that good people, rather than demagogues and charlatans, are the ones who regularly come to power. Tying this problem to the previous discussion of orders/laws, it appears that what a state needs is a succession of virtuous rulers to habituate the people to choosing good rulers. Or, alternatively, what is needed is a people of sufficient virtue to be able to choose rulers well in the first place, and continue doing so. If this is a cycle, it’s easy to see why Machiavelli believes there is so much difficulty in getting it started in the first place.


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

10 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: I.18-20”

  1. gabe


    What are we to make of this fellow? At times, he seems downright Burkean with his notion of order – law circularity. and yet, he is not as he does not seem to support Burkean *prescription* or at least thinks it may be futile.

    Is he so taken with the need for glory and / or, at minimum, the prospective advantages that may accrue to a people governed / founded by a “glorious” man / Prince.

    • Coyle Neal

      Yeah, agreed that I have no idea what to do with this guy. But that may just be the mark of a great philosopher: sometimes you love them and sometimes you loathe them.

  2. Frank

    This quote caught my eye (I’m using the Penguin Classics edition): “[I]nstitutions and laws made in the early days of a republic when men were good, no longer serve their purpose when men have become bad.” A couple of thoughts about that.

    First, I would hate to think this has contemporary application. Many of our governing institutions seem out of joint, but I still think what the Founders set up merits retention.

    Second, we know from I.1 that NM thinks laws are important to promote virtue and prevent idleness. Yet the quote suggests that laws/institutions ultimately won’t prevent men from “becom[ing] bad.” From I.12, although NM thinks religion a useful civic glue, apparently he thinks it won’t work forever, either. So in the end, it all comes back to maintaining virtue? But how? NM doesn’t seem to think that man can ultimately avoid being corrupt, either.

    This is not promising.

    Finally, in my continuing quest to define “virtue,” I take from I.19 that NM would define a virtuous prince as “fierce and warlike” as opposed to a weak prince that is not prepared for (or to go to?) war. Is that right?

    • Coyle Neal

      “Finally, in my continuing quest to define “virtue,” I take from I.19 that NM would define a virtuous prince as “fierce and warlike” as opposed to a weak prince that is not prepared for (or to go to?) war. Is that right?”

      I’ll waffle in answering that and say it depends on the nature of the state. If the state is unprepared for war, unwilling to fight, or unable to win, I suspect Machiavelli would think that cleverness rather than brute aggression would be called for. So a prince should be bold in all things, but that need not mean necessarily “warlike.”

    • gabe

      Great points / questions:

      “… I still think what the Founders set up merits retention.” (As do I).

      “[I]nstitutions and laws made in the early days of a republic when men were good, no longer serve their purpose when men have become bad.”

      NM seems to contradict himself here. In one instance he argues that it is good laws that make men good. But at some point they no longer serve that purpose. If the laws have not changed, then what is to account for the change in human behavior?

      Back to your point about “retention”: One can conclude from this (and NM) that the laws, once sufficient to maintain order, having not changed, are presumptively good. (To my mind this is true with the US Constitution). what has changed is both behavior and, perhaps, continued application of those laws.
      One can argue that the US constitution is still a pretty effective structural impediment to tyranny – the clauses of it remain as written – yet, what has changed is the peoples understanding (more specifically) the elites understanding of it. Typically, these elites are in service to the Prince and it is these elites, via their *cleverness*, ambition, etc. who have seen to it that the clauses of this document (and NM’s laws) are no longer tied to the “orders” inherent in the people / culture. Eventually, the peoples sense of these *orders* are transformed to more reflect the view(s) of the elites.
      And yet, the law remains the same. Who / what is at fault here?

      An interesting (but not directly related) take on this may be found at Online Library of Law and Liberty:

      As for NM, I suspect he may blame the Prince for the deterioration of civic virtue. He may have a very valid point considering our own history – of course, we would need to include not just the Exectuive (Prince) but his minions (Congress, Judiciary).

      Anyway just some wild speculation on my part as NM is as Coyle says, perhaps, as great philosopher who may at times be unfathomable. Leo Strauss called him the first great modern philosopher, albeit, an Evil One.

      Oh, and GO SEAHAWKS!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Frank

    Gabe, I concur with your analysis, except I might not characterize our contemporary Congress and judiciary as “minions” of the Executive. Maybe parts of those branches are minion-like when their party’s guy is president, but the two institutions as a whole are either too docile (Congress) or aren’t content to do their limited duty (the judiciary, in being too willing to do policy and too unwilling to enforce the strictures of the Constitution). But yeah, I agree with you about the elites, whichever branch they happen to inhabit.

    Somewhere in here education has to matter, but that’s not all we’re missing.

    And thanks for the response, Prof. Neal. I’m still keeping notes about “virtue”!

  4. Coyle Neal

    Well, I’ll play the devil’s advocate in this discussion and say that I think the problem in modern America is neither with the elites nor with the Constitution, but with the American people. The laws are still okay–albeit crumbling–but the orders have become corrupted as the people have become more democratized a la de Tocqueville. We can hardly expect elected elites to behave themselves and obey the laws when the dominant voice of the people is no longer virtuous and instead is little better than that of a whiny, self-indulgent child.
    I guess the short version is, I blame the common people rather than the “nobility,” since in America the common people tend to have the most say in the direction of the nation.

    Frank, I definitely look forward to hearing what you decide about NM on virtue when we’re through the book…

    • Frank

      Fair enough, Prof. Neal. But if certain “nobility” – those that run our university faculties of education, and help develop curriculum, and teach our young ‘uns – don’t see that the common folk are properly grounded in history, civics, Great Books, etc., how can we expect the common folk to steer the ship of state on the right course? They are rudderless! That’s one context where I think Gabe is spot on. And don’t get me started on parents’ responsibility in all of this….

      And switching to virtue, and your earlier statement about “waffling” – so NM might say that virtue is situational? If the state is unprepared for war, virtue means cunning, but if it is prepare, virtue means warlike?


Please Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: