Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: I.42-46

“Tete-de-centurion-verre-égliomisé-théatre-de-Poitiers” by Danielclauzier – Own work.


Rounding out his discussion of the decemvirate, Machiavelli argues that from this event in Roman history we need to learn “how easily men are corrupted and make themselves assume a contrary nature, however good and well brought up” (I.42.1). It is absolutely essential that this option be removed if we wish the state to be preserved:

If this is well examined, it will make legislators of republics and kingdoms more ready to check human appetites and to take away from them all hope of being able to err with impunity. (I.42.1)

How contrary to our modern impulse to enable the individual to give in to the appetite of the moment, so long as no one else is harmed—maybe even if someone else is harmed, if contemporary entertainment trends are any indication.

Perhaps nowhere is Machiavelli’s point more true than in the military life of a nation. Just as the impulse to corruption must be prevented in the state, so it must be prevented in the military. This is best accomplished by:

1) Arming the citizen body, rather than relying on mercenaries, which in turn requires
2) Tying the affections and glory of the army to the success of the state.

While this remained somewhat the case under the rule of the decemvirate, they managed to undermine the military with their own ambition enough that it lost a series of battles. Once they were gone, Rome resumed its military dominance. At least, so goes Machiavelli’s argument as he follows Livy.

Whatever the historical accuracy of these claims (I’ll leave it to the historians to hammer out at what point the legions truly began to dominate the ancient world), Machiavelli’s argument is an intriguing one in a modern setting, where mercenaries are to some extent lost to time. We of course have contractors and from time to time either outsource our military operations or are outsourced ourselves by the UN, EU, etc., but that’s not quite the same thing as hiring a foreign army to fight our wars for us. In one sense, I think we could argue that the Founders did their job well and established a Constitution which pretty successfully binds the military to the nation and vice versa—so long as we ignore the questions raised by that pesky Civil War…

Anyway, those of you who know more about the modern military than I do will have more to say here.

In a final parting shot at the decemvirate, Machiavelli recounts the retreat of the plebeians to the Sacred Mount and their disorder in the face of an attempted rapprochement from the Senate. “Such a thing demonstrates precisely the uselessness of a multitude without a head” (I.44.1). The plebeians realize their mistake and proceed to elect officers capable of treating with the Senate, only to make another mistake: in addition to demanding the restoration of the traditional magistracies, they demanded the heads of the decemvirs:

Here one knows openly how much stupidity and how little prudence there is to ask for a thing and to say first: I wish to do such and such evil with it. For one should not show one’s intent but try to seek to obtain one’s desire in any mode. (I.44.2)

Machiavelli’s broader point is not just that the common people are poor at planning and management without the nobility (though he makes that point as well), it is of course that no one should show their hand in advance if they wish to do something wicked or unpopular. It’s far better to do it and deal with the fallout than to announce your plans and give the opposition a chance to stop you, as indeed happened to the plebeians in their demands for the execution of the decemvirs. This should be a point familiar to readers of The Prince.

This raises the question: how does a state execute justice with people like the decemvirs once they’re out of office? What should Rome, for example, have done with Appius once the status quo had been restored? Of course he was put on trial, but given the nature of the Roman judicial process and the avenues of appeal available, there was at least the possibility that he would escape through the system. Therefore, those in power declared that “he [Appius] was not worthy of having the appeal that he had destroyed” (I.45.1). Before he could be executed Appius committed suicide. When considering the difficult question of justice, a republic must respect the rule of law, not doing so is possibly the worst evil that can happen to a free state:

For I do not believe there is a thing that sets a more wicked example in a republic than to make a law and not observe it, and so much the more as it is not observed by him who made it. (I.45.1)

Machiavelli also provides the more recent example of Savonarola, who in his reforms of Florence had established an appeals process, which was then denied to five citizens who had been sentenced to death. This undermined the very reforms Savonarola was trying to bring about: “For if the appeal was useful, it ought to have been observed; if it was not useful, he ought not to have had it passed” (I.45.2).

Failure to obey the law merely undercuts the social order and leads to conflict and strife between competing factions. Machiavelli has already noted that a good republic will provide a means of legal recourse for both the nobles and the common people, and so it’s easy to see why he thinks the laws must be respected: if the law is the means of a letting off of steam on the part of the people, undermining those laws can only lead to a buildup of pressure that ultimately will destroy the state.

And yet, on very rare occasions, there may be some necessity for circumventing the laws—as in Rome after the decemvirate. What should a republic do in such circumstances?

It is necessary either not to offend anyone ever or to do the offenses at a stroke, and then to reassure men and give them cause to quiet and steady their spirits. (I.45.3)

That is, if we have to go around established laws, we should do so in a way that upsets absolutely no one. This was what the Romans did following the decemvirate, when at the instruction of a tribune they suspended all civil suits for a year to keep the common people from trying to tear down the nobility and the nobility from undermining the state out of fear for themselves. If offending no one is impossible, if there must be some offenses given, these offenses should be bundled together and happen all at once, and be accompanied by the guarantee that this is a one-time occurrence.

These instructions concerning legal circumnavigations are not just for times of crisis, as we see in Livy, they are central to the continual operation of a republic. In a sense, there is never a true pax Romana. That is, a true republic will never really have an extended period of rest—as we might have expected to see in Rome once the problem of the decemvirate was resolved. This is because “either the people or the nobility always became proud when the other humbled itself” (I.46.1). We’ve already seen that for Machiavelli, a republic is always in a state of flux and tension between these two factions.

Theoretically, as long as that tension is kept within appropriate bounds and channeled in directions that benefit the state, the republic remains secure. In reality, we see two things develop side-by-side that eventually come together and destroy the state. First, we see each side (the nobility and the common people) become increasingly aggressive in defending its own rights and liberties:

So the desire to defend freedom made each one try to prevail so much that he oppressed the other. The order of these accidents is that when men seek not to fear, they begin to make others fear; and the injury that they dispel from themselves they put upon another, as if it were necessary to offend or to be offended. (I.46.1)

The nobles push against the people, and the people overreact when they push back, to which the nobles in turn overreact, and so on.

At the same time, within the good and proper customs and institutions (orders) of the state, either one individual or a small group of people begin to develop relationships that appear (and may even be) perfectly respectable. Citizens come together to form associations, clubs, organizations, societies, and so on with explicitly good and allowed goals:

Those citizens who live ambitiously in a republic, as was said above, seek as the first thing to be able not to be offended, not only by private individuals but also by the magistrates. They seek friendships so as to be able to do this; and they acquire them in ways honest in appearance, either by helping with money or by defending them from the powerful. (I.46.1)

Almost without anyone realizing it, someone (Julius Caesar, in the case of the Roman Republic) has risen through the ranks of these legitimate associations and come to a position of power such that he either cannot be touched at all, or he cannot be removed without “danger of sudden ruin” for everyone involved (I.46.1).

Machiavelli suggests that this individual may have had such a rise in mind all along as he was working his way through friendships and institutions—and with Julius Caesar this may very well be the case. I would want to push back just a bit on that and say that the establishment of these kinds of organizations is usually so long in the making that it’s virtually impossible to attribute it to deliberate intent. Working one’s way through them once established may be a different matter, but even then it would require phenomenal foresight and ability to succeed.

Either way, Machiavelli’s point is one worthy of reflection for modern Americans: the collapse of a republic will often come through (1) tension between factions in society continually escalating or (2) the rise of an individual through a legitimate institution or association into a position of unassailable power. The second of these is the most troubling, because the idea is clearly that the institution in question is one that is accepted and agreed upon by the society it ultimately undermines. In the case of Caesar, it was the military. What it might be someday in the American republic I would hesitate to guess.


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

2 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: I.42-46”

  1. Frank

    These last few commentaries have been interesting to follow – without any greater personal knowledge of “the ten,” it appears to me that NM has mined that situation for many nuggets of good advice.

    And, how timeless NM’s commentary seems to be! Take this quote from I.45 (also quoted by Professor Neal above): “For I do not think a worse example can be set in a republic than to make a law and not to observe it; and when it is not observed by the man who made it so much the worse.” Administrative “adjustments” to the Affordable Care Act, anyone?


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