Aristotle had said that the polis must be self-sufficient. Machiavelli agrees, especially with respect to military might. It is the responsibility of the government (whether structured as a principality or a republic) to construct and maintain a strong military out of their own citizen body:
It is more true than any other truth that if where there are men there are no soldiers, it arises through a defect of the prince and not through any other defect, either of the site or of nature. (I.21.1)
The failure of arms is a political failure, not a problem of geographic location or weather or any other factor relevant to warfare. Interestingly, Machiavelli’s example of a modern prince who exercises such military “virtue” as regards an otherwise peaceful people is Henry VIII of England. I struggle to imagine Henry VIII making anyone’s short list of virtuous princes, but I suppose it may be fair enough to put him on a list of Machiavellian rulers…
Machiavelli expands this point using the story of the Horatii and the Curiatii. For those unfamiliar, Livy records that Rome and Alba Longa were at war with each other. Having drawn up their armies, instead of risking the total destruction of either side, the two powers agreed to let their champions fight it out (apparently a traditional practice in the archaic world). Each side had a set of triplets, the Roman Horatii and the Alban Curiatii, who would serve as champions. After an intense combat worthy of Hollywood, a single Horatii sibling emerged victorious. On his return to Rome, his sister went into mourning because she had been engaged to one of the Curiatii brothers. In a fit of rage/patriotism, the remaining Horatii killed his sister. He was subsequently put on trial and acquitted, largely because of his father’s impassioned plea to the Roman people not to let him become entirely childless. From this story Machiavelli draws three lessons:
1) “One should never risk all one’s fortune with part of one’s forces;”
2) “In a well-ordered city, faults are never paid for with merits;”
3) “Policies are never wise if one should or can doubt their observance.” (I.22.1)
The third lesson Machiavelli regards as having been dealt with sufficiently, but the other two he develops more fully. First, “one should never risk all one’s fortune with part of one’s forces.” How foolish is it to, as both the Romans and the Albans did, bank the success of the whole state upon the ability of three people:
by this policy all the labor that their predecessors had endured in ordering the republic, to make it live free for a long while and to make its citizens defenders of their freedom, was almost as if in vain, since it was in the power of so few to lose it. (I.23.1)
Obviously, in one sense this is what we do every time we go to war. The fate of the whole nation resides with the small percentage of the population in the military. Whatever the wisdom of that particular policy, how much worse would it be if we intentionally (and intentionally is the key point here) set aside even our military might and relied solely on a fraction of that power at our disposal. Giving the further examples of the French defeat of the Swiss and Hannibal’s defeat of the Romans, Machiavelli argues that a state ought not to rely on defending small passes for military victory. It is preferable to bring as much military force to bear as possible, which implies that the military power needs to be easily accessible, deployed in a location where maximum power can be brought to bear, and capable of actually winning the war. So perhaps two subpoints here would be:
a) have a military capable of winning;
b) use all of it—anything less is foolish.
Second, “in a well-ordered city, faults are never paid for with merits.” This point likewise has two subpoints:
a) a city should reward virtue and punish wickedness—though again, we must not apply Christian definitions to Machiavelli’s terms;
b) each reward and punishment handed out by the city must be judged in isolation.
That is, if a person saves the city, such as Horatius when he defeated the Curiatii, he should be honored appropriately. But, if that same person then breaks the law, such as when Horatius killed his own sister for mourning the death of her fiancé, he should likewise have been punished appropriately without consideration for his previous public service. This practice is necessary, Machiavelli argues,
For if a citizen has done some outstanding work for the city, and on top of the reputation that this thing brings him, he has an audacity and confidence that he can do some work that is not good without fearing punishment, in a short time he will become so insolent that any civility will be destroyed. (I.24.1)
Those who serve the city well will turn to crime if they think they can get away with it, so it’s better just to be sure that they know they can’t. Human nature is such that people will turn even good to evil purposes given the opportunity. This tendency will lead only to the decline and collapse of a virtuous state if not checked promptly. Even worse results occur when this natural tendency is combined with the fact of generational arrogance—one man who serves the city well might never truly turn to vice, but his sons might do so and think they can get away with it because of their father’s service and reputation. We must build a culture where no one thinks they are above the law, whatever their position and service to society.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.