Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: I.30-33

Roman general Coriolanus and the women of Rome

Roman general Coriolanus and the women of Rome


Continuing his discussion of ingratitude, Machiavelli argues that princes ought to always lead their military forces in war: “For if they win, the glory and the acquisition are all theirs” (I.30.1). Leaving it in the hands of their generals, on the contrary, means they now have competitors for the minds and hearts of the people. This in turn means that “they [the princes] become ungrateful and unjust, and without doubt their loss is greater than the gain” (I.30.1). It is vastly better for the prince to go into combat himself in the first place and avoid this decline in the quality of his rule.

As for the general or captains who are sent out by a prince who does not go to war, these generals have two options.

  1. First, they can stay home as much as possible and take every opportunity to show their loyalty and stay in the prince’s good graces.
  2. Second, they can take the exact opposite course and try to guarantee that the maximum amount of glory and the loyalty of the army fall on themselves instead of on the prince. If they can’t or won’t regularly show themselves loyal, they must make their position so strong that they are unassailable by a jealous prince.

The true problem here, Machiavelli argues, is that most generals in such a position are going to waffle, and “so, remaining ambiguous, they are crushed between their delay and ambiguity” (I.30.1).

Republics don’t have the same options in terms of who goes to war—it must be a citizen of some sort. The best any republic can hope to do is follow the Roman model in which the whole state was engaged in warfare—commoner and noble alike—and as a result the whole state shared in the glory. This also allowed the citizens to keep an eye on each other and hold themselves to a virtuous standard. Ingratitude never really had a chance to take root and grow, at least not for a very long time.

This meant a much safer and happier life for military leaders in the Roman Republic:

This mode of proceeding was well considered by them; for they judged that it was of such importance to those who governed their armies that they have a free and ready spirit, without other extrinsic hesitation in making policies, that they did not wish to add new difficulties and dangers to a thing in itself difficult and dangerous, since they thought that if they added them, no one could ever work virtuously. (I.31.1)

The general had great flexibility when it came to facing Rome’s enemies and was able to adapt as the situation required. Which is not to say there was no punishment if a general intentionally acted badly, just that the punishment was usually of a monetary nature and heavily tempered by mercy. Losses or mistakes made out of ignorance were forgiven completely. (A common treatment for the various Roman generals who tried their hands against Hannibal.)

I am not sure how to think well about the subject of the relationship between gratitude and military leadership as an American. In fact, it might be a tribute to the genius of our Founders that we think so little about internal military danger that so obsessed republics of old. It may be that worrying about insurrection from military forces is simply not an issue given the structure of our system. Though of course, we did have a Civil War and treason on the part of military leaders was an issue there. (Hopefully that’s vague enough that everyone is offended—I’m a Westerner by birth and temperament and so have no dog in that particular fight.) Still, that example aside, I have yet to hear about a serious contemporary threat to the American state from the military.

Much more relevant is the question of how to hold the military and its leadership accountable for their actions, while leaving them the flexibility and secrecy they need to be able to do what we want them to do. Theoretically, I suspect that we’re content to let the military do what it will and hold only its civilian leadership accountable. (Whether “accountability” ever actually equals “punishment” may be a different story.) That said, I am by no means an expert in anything regarding the modern American military, so I’ll leave it to you folks to sort out just how Machiavellian we should be when it comes to the armed forces…

Machiavelli works his discussion of the treatment of military leadership into a broader point: states, whether republics or principalities, should be merciful to the truly needy as a general policy. Rome, for example, lowered taxes in a time of danger to make the difficulties of wartime conditions more bearable. However, this sort of model does not work in the long term. The problem is that if we only lower taxes and show general charity to the common people when times are bad and the enemies are beating down the door, we’re just teaching the poor to love the enemies of the state. Instead, a leader:

should consider beforehand what times can come up against him, and which men he can have need of in adverse times; and then live with them in the mode that he judges to be necessary to live, should any case whatever come up. The one who governs himself otherwise—whether prince or republic, and especially prince—and then believes in the fact that, when danger comes up, he can regain men with benefits, deceives himself. (I.32.1)

This connection of domestic policy to foreign policy is one which is not always clear to modern Americans, and the idea that we should tighten our belts in a time of war is virtually anathema—so heaven help the politician who suggests it in a time of peace!

If the key to success in times of difficulty is generosity in times of prosperity, the key to success when facing and actual challenge is moderation. Machiavelli uses this to springboard into a discussion of the Roman office of dictator, which we will get back to when he picks it up again in the next section. Here, he argues (persuasively, I think) that when a challenge confronts a state—whether an internal challenge or an external one—the best plan is always to try to offset its effects, not eliminate it completely. When such a disaster strikes,

it is a much more secure policy to temporize with it than to attempt to extinguish it. For almost always those who attempt to allay it make its strength greater and accelerate the evil that they suspected from it for themselves. And accidents such as these arise in a republic more often through an intrinsic than an extrinsic cause. (I.33.2)

Machiavelli gives the example of a citizen who is noble (but has a hint of excessive ambition) and becomes so well respected/loved that people start to realize that he is a danger to the state. Any overreaction against him leads to greater difficulties, as we see in the examples of Julius Caesar or Cosimo Medici.

Whatever else he gets wrong in these sections, Machiavelli is on to something here. Any time a society sets out to “utterly exterminate” its enemies instead of “appropriately and proportionally engaging them,” disaster is the result. We could all find counterexamples to this point, but in the general course of events Machiavelli is certainly correct. Overreaction to a perceived threat can quickly become worse than the threat itself. A policeman getting shot is surely a tragedy, but when we overreact we end up with militarized cops. On the other side of that example, racial profiling can be damaging to minorities and the police alike, but overreact against it and we take away important discretion and tie the hands of our own public protectors. And we could go on. What we need instead of an attempt to obliterate public problems is a healthy dose of temperance and measure in our reactions. Our question should not be “how far must I go to quench this evil?” it should be the Machiavellian “how can I offset this evil so that its effects our negated with a minimum of fallout?”


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

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