Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: I.47-50

Funereal busts of Cato the Elder and his wife Portia by Carlo Brogi in the Vatican Museum, Rome


According to Machiavelli, the common people cannot be easily led astray in the details and minutia of life—only in their broad, sweeping ideological conclusions can they be deceived. (Here we should note that Machiavelli seems to be discussing only a virtuous rather than a corrupt populace.) As an example of this principle Machiavelli emphasizes the belief of the common people in the early republic that because the might and glory of Rome depended primarily on their labor, they should have at least an equal—if not a greater—share of the political power. The nobility accordingly created four special offices which could be filled by either plebeians or nobles, and instructed the people to fill these offices accordingly.

But as it [the body of plebeians] had to pass judgment on its men particularly, it recognized their weakness and judged that no one of them deserved that which the whole together appeared to it to deserve. (I.47.1)

Now, I think it’s a little unclear on exactly which general principle Machiavelli thinks the common people are mistaken: is it the general idea that they should have more power? This seems suggested by the quote above. Or is it the general idea that these new offices will be effective in providing that power? Whichever he means,  Machiavelli’s broader point is that the common people just aren’t very good at understanding the big picture of politics. Their strength comes in details, not in sweeping visions and ideas. Which means that one aspect of good leadership in a republic is being able to constantly direct the attention and thoughts of the common people away from generalities and onto specifics.

At the risk of being overly divisive, this section made me think of the difficult issue of reparations. If you haven’t read it, you can find the excellent case for reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates here, and the thoughtful response by Noah Millman here. On the one hand—and I’ll go ahead and out myself as one of the “common people” here—clearly there has been great racial injustice in the past and in the present in the United States, and clearly some kind of general action satisfying the demands of justice would be wonderful. But when we break this down into the particulars, and start asking “who should pay?” “how should payment be made?” “who should receive payment?” and so on, we find that the general principle cannot stand the weight of practical application. While Machiavelli may not give us an explicit answer to the difficult problem of reparations, at least he gives us the useful reminder that we must not separate the real world from our political ideals, however high our passions may be running over those ideals at any given moment. Practical application is always a good place to encourage reflection when the passions get stirred up over abstract principles.

Machiavelli moves on to discuss the office of censor. Among other things, the task of the censor was to keep track of Roman citizenship—including by taking the census—and to ensure that Roman citizens were living up to the high standards of Roman virtue. Famously, during his tenure as censor, Cato the Elder punished a Roman citizen for kissing his wife in public.

Machiavelli uses this office to reiterate his argument that any state which is not free from its original founding cannot hope to continue to be free, while any state which is free from the start might maintain its freedom through an arduous pursuit of good laws. Rome is an example of a state which, through the use of offices such as censor, managed to preserve its freedom longer than might otherwise have been expected. Florence, on the other hand, is an example of a city which has never truly been free, and whenever given the opportunity only manages to make its slavery worse.

This is not to say that any one office, even that of censor, should have absolute sway. In fact:

It should never be ordered in a city that the few can hold up any of those decisions that ordinarily are necessary to maintain the republic. For instance, if you give an authority to a council to make a distribution of honors and of useful things, or to a magistrate to administer business, one must either impose a necessity on him so that he has to act in any mode, or order that another can and should act if he does not wish to act. (I.50.1)

Overall, Machiavelli gives us some good analysis: a republic must continually work to renew and protect its legal freedoms by safeguarding the underlying customs and orders. This should not, however, turn into permission for an individual person, institution, or faction to tyrannize the state—no one person should have the power to thwart the actions of a virtuous people. This is not to say that a people should be able to do whatever it wants whenever it wants; checks on the populace are necessary, as we’ll see in the next chapters.


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

3 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: I.47-50”

  1. gabe

    Not certain what to make of this one.

    “Whichever he means, Machiavelli’s broader point is that the common people just aren’t very good at understanding the big picture of politics. Their strength comes in details, not in sweeping visions and ideas. Which means that one aspect of good leadership in a republic is being able to constantly direct the attention and thoughts of the common people away from generalities and onto specifics.”

    I suppose in depends on what the meaning of “big picture of politics” is.
    Nicci himself says that the people recognize that the glory of the State comes from their own efforts – so apparently they are able to recognize that “big picture.”
    If one includes certain *creedal* aspects / beliefs, such as “life, liberty, pursuit of happiness”, I would argue that again the people are fully capable of understanding this.
    Grand military / diplomatic strategy – probably not!

    I suppose in an uncorrupted city, “good” leadership may be supposed to *direct* the people to details. In a society such as ours, this *diversion* (my choice of words) to details is best typified by the power of the sound bite wherein some politico constructs a snappy phrase that focuses on *detail* while obscuring both the philosophical *big picture* as well as some other salient little picture details, I am not certain that this should be considered “good” leadership – but rather self serving and disrespectful of the common citizen. Yet, it appears to work. I do not blame the people as their concerns are primarily with the *details* of their own lives and have neither the time nor the inclination to familiarize themselves with the big picture (and some other pertinent details). No, I blame the *good* leadership!

    And yet within this situation there does exist the possibility for renewal. One thing about Ronnie Rayguns was his ability to reach the common voter with simple detailed examples while also reminding / educating them on the *big picture* issues. In so doing he inspired confidence and a sense of right into many citizens.

    Sadly, he is gone as is the notion of responsible *directing* of the people.
    Heck, maybe Nicci is right after all? Once virtue is lost in a Republic – it ain’t easily found again.

    • Coyle Neal

      That’s a good point gabe, maybe there should be some kind of “intermediate picture” category. So the people understand “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” and “paying the sales tax at the grocery store,” but can’t quite grasp “welfare reform.” Or some such…


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