Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: I.25-29

Giampaolo Baglioni and Pope Julius II


Machiavelli has already said that to establish a good state out of a bad one radical reform is necessary. Here, he reminds us that such reform must have complex layers:

If someone who desires or who wishes to reform a state in a city wishes it to be accepted and capable of being maintained to the satisfaction of everyone, he is under the necessity of retaining at least the shadow of its ancient modes so that it may not appear to the peoples to have changed its order even if in fact the new orders are altogether alien to the past ones. For the generality of men feed on what appears as much as on what is; indeed, many times they are moved more by things that appear than by things that are. (I.25.1)

Machiavelli gives the example of the establishment of the Roman Republic in place of the old monarchy. It’s true that the sole monarch was replaced by a dual consulship, but most other offices were maintained, at least in name if not always in function. An established state needs to feel a sense of continuity even when necessity demands a change.

I would argue that, at least in this case, Machiavelli missed his mark a bit in choosing his examples. In some ways, the transition from republic to empire under Augustus Caesar was a better example of a transition that changed the substance of the state while leaving its forms largely intact—though of course in that instance we have an ancient republic shifting into a new monarchy, so maybe he intentionally avoided that example…

The point is, citizens of old states becoming republics psychologically require a degree of stability in times of turbulent political change. Even the facade of traditional offices and institutions can provide enough stability to put our minds at ease while fundamental changes happen in a society moving toward greater freedom.

For a society collapsing into a tyranny, on the other hand, all of the old must be swept away—especially if the new tyrant’s power base is insecure. This requires the tyrant to overturn everything, uproot citizens and whole cities, and do as much as possible to make the people forget what they had before they lost their freedom. This is a great evil, contrary “to every way of life, not only Christian but human” (I.26.1); but crueler still is establishing a tyranny and failing to recreate the state in the tyrannical image. This “middle way” is what most tyrants end up doing—putting themselves in power and then not doing what is necessary to secure that power. The result of this waffling is worst of all. A hand-wringing government does more evil than a decisively wicked one could possibly imagine, because it lacks the ability to perform even the most basic function of government: defending its own citizens. Machiavelli’s example of this is Giovampagolo Baglioni, who had set himself up as a tyrant and pursued all of the stereotypically evil things that tyrants do, only to be overthrown by Pope Julius II, who acted with decision and promptness. Baglioni had every opportunity to defeat the pope, but he hesitated out of some kind of pang of conscience (it hardly matters what kind it was). As a result, instead of attaining the glory of defeating a mighty enemy, he himself was lead away in chains and his city fell.

From his digression on decisive tyranny, Machiavelli returns to republics and raises the question of gratitude. “Whoever reads of things done by republics will find in all of them some species of ingratitude toward their citizens” (I.28.1). This ingratitude is directly proportional to the number of civil insurrections and attempts to overthrow the state individual citizens have attempted. In Rome this number was small, and so public ingratitude was less common. In Athens there were many, many attempts to overthrow the state, and so the citizen body always held everyone in suspicion—to the point where they even established the practice of “ostracism.” Because ingratitude so often is grounded in historical reality, Machiavelli tells us that we must not morally judge a people for being ungrateful. Instead, we should try to understand ingratitude and how it affects our study of republics and principalities. We see in the case of principalities that the prince must be ungrateful to anyone who distinguishes himself overmuch. The general who wins too many victories in the name of his emperor is only putting himself in more danger with every triumph. Machiavelli doesn’t use the example here, but I at least, thought of the case of the Emperor Justinian and his too-successful General Belisarius.

If this is true of a principality, it is also true of a republic:

For since a city that lives free has two ends—one to acquire, the other to maintain itself free—it must be that in one thing or the other it errs through too much love… As to errors in maintaining itself free, there are these among others: to offend those citizens whom it ought to reward; to have suspicion of those in whom it ought to have confidence. (I.29.3)

While these instances of “too much love” (I’ll admit I chuckled a bit at the idea that the biggest problem in free states is that they just love too darn much) can be destructive in a corrupt state, “in a republic that is not corrupt they are the cause of great goods and make it live free, since men are kept better and less ambitious longer through fear of punishment” (I.29.3).

At the end of the day, in a principality ingratitude tends to have the effect of cutting off the best men. In a healthy republic, it can contribute to the virtue and life of the state by keeping people in line and discouraging ambitions that would otherwise threaten freedom.

I’m a bit curious as to what people think the role of ingratitude in American life is. I realize that it’s debatable as to whether we are a republic or a principality (or in transition between the two?), but I don’t know that I’ve heard a public discussion on ingratitude and whether it makes us better or worse as a people. My gut says that ingratitude is generally looked down on, especially if exercised by the poorest of the poor on welfare or by the richest of the rich who refuse to exercise generosity. But even if that’s accurate, it doesn’t account for the majority of the nation. Anyway, I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts on the subject.


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

5 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: I.25-29”

  1. gabe

    “he is under the necessity of retaining at least the shadow of its ancient modes so that it may not appear to the peoples to have changed its order even if in fact the new orders are altogether alien to the past ones”

    This fairly accurately describes the “ruse” perpetrated by the Progressives, in thrall to the notion of the German Reichstraat (sp?) notion of governance, upon the American people beginning in the latter part of the 19th Century. What we have today is the form, but not the substance, of a representative republic. In effect, through the machinations of the Administrative State, consent of the governed is completely illusory and where due process has been reduced to affording “whatever process is due.” We still use the same terminology but we neither recognize nor practice the “ancient ways.”

    What has this to do with *ingratitude*?

    Simply this: It may be argued that it is the ingratitude of the “knowledge class” and its pretenders and “hangers-on” that has effected this radical “re-forming” of the Republic. (see Dennis Durst’s essay here: for a particularly salient example of this phenomenon))
    Yet the more insidious effects are to be found in an almost Kafka-esque world comprised of a byzantine labyrinth of Executive Agencies, whose inhabitants scurry about creating, inventing and “interpreting” new offenses against the State that the poor unsuspecting plebe has no way of knowing / understanding and against whom the full power of this “Republic” may be brought to bear. Yet, we continue to use all the terms that would have been familiar to the Founders of the Republic while at the same time continually disdaining the efforts, intelligence, good will and common sense of the citizenry.

    I would surely take the envy of the materially disenfranchised over the ingratitude of the knowledge classes as the offense against liberty emanating from the poor have, at least, some plausible basis and are far less likely to have almost universal and corrosive effects as those propagated by our new “masters.”

    • Coyle Neal

      Gabe, excellent comments as usual. I think I’m probably on board with preferring the “envy of the materially disenfranchised over the ingratitude of the knowledge classes.”
      I’ll have to think more about your comments on the bureaucracy–this is something that has been coming up lately quite a bit in various social media outlets with the vaccination issue. Should Americans have to vaccinate their children or not, and what is the role of the bureaucracy (and other parts of government) in that debate?

      Anyway, like I said excellent comments–keep ’em coming!

      • gabe

        re: vaccines:

        1) WWNMD? What would Mach do? I suspect he would have ’em all vaccinated.
        2) What should a civil society do? Good question. If one acknowledges that as a member of a “city” we do owe obligation to other members than a case can be made for mandatory vaccination. That being said, where do we draw a line, e.g., HPV vaccine – is this something for which I as a citizen owe obligation to the other members of society. forget for the moment that it was one of Rick Perry’s blunders and was a “sop” (to be kind) to certain drug interests, should we not consider the degree to which something is transmittable and the potential for lethality or serious injury, when determining obligations. I suspect on such a scale HPV would not qualify. Measles, smallpox, etc. do, at least to my mind.
        3) The bureaucracy: If one admits the necessity of vaccination, albeit in limited situations, then one must also admit that some sort of bureaucracy is required. In my childhood, however, this was accomplished by the local Department of Health and the School Administration of the school that one attended. My goodness, how has this morphed into the beast that Health and Human Services has become. so I say yes, but let us not feed the monster!

  2. gabe

    Oops, forgot to mention:

    I am growing more convinced that Woody Wilson was a student of Machiavelli.

  3. Frank

    This concept of “ingratitude” is intriguing. I get the necessity for a prince to exercise ingratitude toward his more successful lieutenants – can’t have anyone getting any ideas. But the notion of an ungrateful republic leaves me with questions. The best I can make of NM is that he means this: a republic can be quick to punish (ostracizing, executing) citizens that put everyone else’s liberty at risk. But that reaction to the risk of loss of liberty doesn’t sound like “ingratitude,” it sounds more like self-defense or self-preservation. Maybe something is lost in the translation.

    As to contemporary application of the concept, I can’t improve on Gabe’s comments, other than to add that the coasts seem to be full of ingratitude to those of us in fly-over-land that are paying taxes they need, watching the movies they produce, and otherwise supporting our “betters.”

    And (again, from the Penguin edition), I can’t let this quote go without comment: “men [do not know] how to be either magnificently bad or perfectly good… evil deeds have a certain grandeur and are open-handed in their way….” I’m not advocating for that kind of deed, but NM’s prose on the topic is great!


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