Machiavelli continues his discussion of how a people need to be restrained from pursuing its baser impulses, in these chapters focusing on the specific moment when a crowd is stirred up and chasing after its momentary passion. He suggests that “nothing is so apt to check an excited multitude as is the reverence for some grave man of authority who puts himself against it” (I.54.1). When the people are actually in the midst of their immoral, well, whatever, riot, rebellion, etc., Machiavelli gives some advice as to how those grave men of authority ought to respond:
He who is posted to an army or who finds himself in a city where the tumult arises should represent himself before it [the people involved in the tumult] with the greatest grace and as honorably as he can, putting around himself the ensigns of the rank he holds so as to make himself more reverend. (I.54.1)
As seen in an example from Florence, the presence of such a man will shame the crowd and help to restore order. At least, that’s the theory.
I suggest that this theory is increasingly irrelevant in the context of contemporary America. We no longer have this kind of respect for anyone but the mob on the national level, and heaven help those who would stand in its way. I like to think that things might be different on the state and local level, but even there I’ll confess some skepticism. Instead, I suspect we resemble more the ancient Romans in the aftermath of the murder of the Emperor Commodus. (And yes, I am using this as a chance to sneak in another Gibbon quote.) The venerable Pertinax had been appointed emperor, who was a
prefect of the city, an ancient senator of consular rank, whose conspicuous merit had broke through the obscurity of his birth, and raised him to the first honours of the state. He had successively governed most of the provinces of the empire; and in all his great employments, military as well as civil, he had uniformly distinguished himself by the firmness, the prudence, and the integrity of his conduct. (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I.4)
Rather than live under an emperor whose virtue they would be expected to emulate, the Praetorian Guard rebelled:
On the news of their approach, Pertinax, disdaining either flight or concealment, advanced to meet his assassins; and recalled to their minds his own innocence, and the sanctity of their… oath. For a few moments they stood in silent suspense, ashamed of their atrocious design, and awed by the venerable aspect and majestic firmness of their sovereign, till at length the despair of pardon reviving their fury, a barbarian of the country of [Liege] levelled the first blow against Pertinax, who was instantly dispatched with a multitude of wounds. (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I.4)
While I don’t think that an American crowd would be quite so far gone that they would tear an old man apart physically, I have a difficult time imagining a hesitation based on shame in the face of revered age if that aged individual opposes what the people want. Far easier just to write off “respectability” as “stodginess” and politically steamroll all opposition in the name of progress and the people. Please tell me I’m wrong in my read of American political culture…
From this discussion of a turbulent people, Machiavelli launches into a discussion of the nature of the people itself and its relationship to policy and the form of government in a republic.
In short, where the people are law-abiding and have the habit of virtue, public policy is easy and flexible. When the people are virtuous, the government can pass laws with expectation that the people will obey without compulsion even if the law much be modified or adjusted to meet changing circumstances. This may seem like an obvious enough conclusion, but it is critical to political science since: “truly where there is not this goodness, nothing good can be hoped for. (I.55.2)
Which raises the question, where does this law-abiding spirit in a republic come from? Having given various examples of states with and without this spirit (the German states and ancient Rome with; France, Spain, and the Italian states without), Machiavelli suggests two causes of a virtuous people. The first is “not having had great intercourse with neighbors…because they have been content with those goods, to live by those foods, to dress with those woolens that the country provides” (I.55.3). In other words, contentment and self-restraint are necessary to the formation of a law-abiding people. At least, that’s my generous way of interpreting Machiavelli’s argument. A much less generous way, and perhaps a much more accurate one, is to say that people are virtuous while they are isolated and corrupted when they encounter those wicked and opulent foreigners. The Germans, for example, because of their isolation “have not been able to pick up either French or Spanish or Italian customs, which nations all together are the corruption of the world” (I.55.3). This of course is more in tune with the prejudices of republican Rome, which was continually worried about the influence of the decadent East on its virtue.
However we interpret the first cause of virtue in a republic, the second cause is clearer:
Those republics in which a political and uncorrupt way of life is maintained do not endure that any citizen of theirs either be or live in the usage of a gentleman; indeed, they maintain among themselves an even equality, and to the lords and gentlemen who are in that province they are very hostile. (I.55.3)
By “gentlemen” in this instance Machiavelli means not so much just a hereditary aristocracy as something more along the lines of a Leftist caricature of lazy aristocrats leeching off of the hard work of the common man:
To clarify this name of gentleman such as it may be, I say that those are called gentlemen who live idly in abundance from the returns of their possessions without having any care either for cultivation or for other necessary trouble in living. (I.55.4)
If these “gentlemen” are akin to the drones in Plato’s Republic, my first thought is that their modern equivalents are college professors and talk radio hosts. But that might strike a bit too close to home… The point is that the virtuous state generates its virtue by weeding out those potential or actual aristocrats who would corrupt the citizen body.
If these “gentlemen” have some military might behind them in addition to their wealth, a republic can never truly take root where they live because they can never be weeded out. The amount of power necessary to unseat or restrain such gentlemen to the point where a republic could flourish could only be wielded by a monarch with “absolute and excessive power” (I.55.4).
All of this to say that a state with an established oligarchy or aristocracy cannot be made into a republic without the—likely bloody—removal of those who already hold the power. On the other hand, a state with a strong sense of equality and no true establishment cannot easily be made into a kingdom without breaking the spirit of equality amongst the people first. Either of these pursuits is “a matter for a man who is rare in brain and authority… For the greatness of the thing partly terrifies men, partly impedes them so that they fail in the first beginnings” (I.55.5).
There is probably a comparison to be drawn here with Tocqueville’s observations on the role of equality in sustaining the American democracy against even the slightest hint of encroachment by aristocracy.
Discourse 56 in some ways has the feel of an aside, but it is worth at least mentioning since here we see something of Machiavelli’s view of religion practically applied. Between the example of Savonarola’s prediction of the coming of the French to Italy and an ancient prophecy regarding the same thing in Republican times, we can see at the very least Machiavelli cares absolutely nothing for the source of these predictions. Moreover, he draws no theological distinction between the Christian Savonarola and the pagan Marcus Cedicius. His main (only?) concern is the relationship of these predictions to politics and public policy. He references Cicero’s suggestion that there are benevolent powers who warn us about coming disaster, but he concludes that what matters is that we take action based on this knowledge.
Whatever we conclude about this short section, we can at least be grateful for this line: “More examples could be brought up that to escape tedium I shall leave out” (I.56.1).
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.