Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: I.37-39

Did James Madison read Machiavelli?

I. 37–39

Again apparently anticipating Madison, Machiavelli argues that human nature is such that ambition and aggression will drive us in all that we do:

It is the verdict of the ancient writers that men are wont to worry in evil and to become bored with good, and that from both of these two passions the same effects arise. For whenever engaging in combat through necessity is taken from men they engage in combat through ambition, which is so powerful in human breasts that it never abandons them at whatever rank they rise to. The cause is that nature has created me so that they are able to desire everything and are unable to attain everything. So, since the desire is always greater than the power of acquiring, the result is discontent with what one possesses and a lack of satisfaction with it. From this arises the variability of their fortune; for since some men desire to have more, and some fear to lose what has been acquired, they come to enmities and to war, from which arise the ruin of one province and the exaltation of another. (I.37.1)

It is impossible to read this and not wonder if Madison had it in mind when writing Federalist 10. (I know Madison did a study of historical republics prior to writing up the first draft of the Constitution, but does anyone know if he read Machiavelli along the way?)

Machiavelli discusses here the Roman agrarian law. This particular set of Roman laws put a cap on the amount of land any one person could own and required that newly conquered territories be distributed justly to the common people. This law, at least in theory, lines up with the principle that in “well-ordered republics,” it is necessary “to keep the public rich and [the] citizens poor” (I.37.1). For whatever reason—and Machiavelli has mixed thoughts about this—the agrarian law never quite worked like it should have. Perhaps because as the republic expanded, conquered lands were farther and farther away from Rome and therefore unattractive to the common people. Or perhaps the nobility simply never fully consented to rigorously obey a law that was only sporadically enforced in the first place. In any case, the point is that whatever this law may have done in delaying the rise of tyranny in the republic, it did not prevent it. Eventually the passions and ambitions of the nobles and the people were released rather than restrained, and as a result the freedom of the republic was lost.

And again, I think we have to see at least echoes of The Federalist Papers here, with the Constitution being held up as a channel for the proper expression of ambition and faction. Which in turn raises the question of whether the Constitution still successfully performs that function, or is it crumbling such that tyranny is in our near future? Is it more of an ineffective agrarian law that can delay but not prevent collapse?

Just as Madison wanted our Constitution to act as a channel for ambition, so Machiavelli would have passion respond appropriately to the necessity of the situation. In a strong and virtuous republic, such as Rome, the state will act with decisiveness in pursuit of its own advantage. A weak republic, on the other hand, will dither and ultimately fail to do anything useful:

The worst part that weak republics take is to be irresolute, so that all the policies they take up are taken up by force; and if any good comes to be done by them, they do it forced and not by their prudence. (I.38.2)

Even if a weak republic manages to do the right thing, it cannot claim to have mastered the situation and acted with virtue. It was merely some form of compulsion (external or internal) that eventually led to a happy outcome. This happy outcome is, however, not the usual course of affairs—usually indecision leads to the wrong answer rather than the right one.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that such situations occur repeatedly in history, we just refuse to learn from the past and act accordingly in the present:

Whoever considers present and ancient things easily knows that in all cities and in all peoples there are the same desires and the same humors, and there always have been. So it is an easy thing for whoever examines past things diligently to foresee future things in every republic and to take the remedies for them that were used by the ancients, or, if they do not find any that were used, to think up new ones through the similarity of accidents. But because these considerations are neglected or not understood by whoever reads, or, if they are understood, they are not known to whoever governs, it follows that there are always the same scandals in every time. (I.39.1)

Machiavelli supports this with examples of conflict between the nobility and the common people in Florence and in the Roman Republic and highlights similarities between them.

All of this discussion of law and motive points us back to Machiavelli’s introduction, where he argued that the lessons from history would be useful if only we could learn them. In the context of the preceding chapters, here we can see more clearly why this is so. History is useful not because you and I are ever likely to be facing down a Pict or a Goth at the gate of our city, but because human nature is stable and unchanging. As long as we understand that people are motivated by ambitions and passion and greed, we can respond appropriately to the political situations in which we find ourselves.

And I think I’m mostly on board with this analysis, even though it leaves out the possibility of grace. Human nature is wicked, ambitious, etc., but that’s not to say that everything is as bad as it could be all the time. Not to get too theological, but there is a common grace which makes the world livable for all, and a special grace which enables a few to actually pursue virtue within the context of the church. How one would work that into a political philosophy I do not know, not least since by definition grace—especially of the latter variety—is entirely out of our hands…


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

5 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: I.37-39”

  1. gabe


    I rather liked this and it is somewhat timely (at least in terms of some of my current mental ramblings).
    On the topic of grace, it strikes me that so much of what is missing in todays world (politics and daily life) is grace. There is a line from a 1960’s-ish folk song by Tim Hardin – “ upset the grace of living when you lie.” Looking about us, do we not see that this is true. Consider politics and the scurrilous attacks upon opponents. Yes, this may be the result of factious differences but it also manifests a deeper illness – the lack of grace, defined in this case as the ability to accept (although not necessarily submit to) one’s condition(s) in life and to accept the validity of the other persons perspective. Or consider, the whole business of “being offended” that is so much in vogue today and is merely a subterfuge (in many instances) for compelling someone else to accept your view of the world. There was a time, even in my lifetime, where one would simply brush it off, move along and accept the difference. To my mind, this is a form of grace – an attitude toward life that yielded benefit to both the “offended” and the offender” as it was a recognition of the individual human conscience. This does not exist any longer and the result is a republic which is compelled by force (in Niccis terms) to make rules and law governing conduct that would previously be accommodated by the grace of the people.
    The effects of this change have not been especially salutary.

    As to Madison reading Machiavelli, I would certainly be interested in knowing that as well. There is of course a certain similarity and one could argue that the structure (as well as explanation Madison gave to that structure) of the American Republic could be said to have a Machiavellian influence with its countervailing balance, its attempt to have “ambition counter ambition”, etc.
    Yet, even if it can not be shown that Nicci had a direct influence upon Madison, it is clear that Madison also recognized that there were some things about human nature that are unchanging – “If men were angels”…. – and that one would be better served, a republic would be better served by acknowledging this fact.

  2. Frank

    Our constitution may yet be able to block and channel ambition. While Congress continues to disappoint – regardless of the party in power – it seems that the states more and more step into the breach to constrain a centralizing federal government. The lawsuit brought by the states challenging the president’s executive action on immigration – resulting in a federal court injunction earlier this week – is an example of the structure created by the constitution functioning as it should to block ambition. There’s cause for optimism here, whether you disagree with the states or not.

    “[H]uman nature is stable and unchanging” – there is nothing new under the sun. I am totally with NM on this one. We really should pay more attention to history.

    • gabe


      Some current state action is indeed encouraging and I hope successful.
      I have almost given up hope on the Legislature regaining a sense of their duty.
      So let us wait and see.


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