Continuing with his discussion of the relationship between the nobility and the common people, Machiavelli notes that an impassioned and well-organized mob is virtually irresistible in a state, while a disorganized mob—however passionate—is easily defeated.
For the multitude is often bold in speaking against the decisions of their prince; then, when they look the penalty in the face, not trusting one another, they run to obey. (I.57.1)
The best thing a people can do when it is rising up against the governing institutions is appoint leaders for itself. These leaders have the responsibility of holding it together and providing stability and constancy, given that otherwise the tendency of the mob is to have a burst of passion and then fly apart “when each begins later to think of his own danger” (I.57.1).
We need not assume that Machiavelli is only speaking of open rebellion here, this may very well include resistance to individual policies and anger over specific leadership decisions. Indeed, the example from Roman history Machiavelli uses does not involve the Roman people wanting to overthrow the entire state; rather they oppose a single unpopular policy.
The best thing political leadership can do in such circumstances is retreat to a position of strength and wait patiently for the passion of the people to die down as they adapt to new circumstances and resolve themselves individually to obey. And again, I don’t know that we need to read this only as dealing with military insurrection or revolution (though we should also read it with those in mind). Any popular outrage can be thought of this way, even if the outrage only takes verbal and emotional form. So long as the people remain leaderless, from the perspective of the nobility it is simply a matter of waiting until the mob adjusts itself accordingly.
These ideas found in I.57 need to be taken in the context of I.58, but even standing alone we can see that so far Machiavelli has neither condemned the common people nor praised them. Obedience to and acceptance of the law can be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the nature of the law in question. Moreover, Machiavelli’s observation that, given time, without leadership the mob will fly apart is a critical one—and one we see increasingly in American life. Our attention span being what it is, and our refusal to submit to any leadership whatsoever being what it is, we can conclude that most momentary outrage can simply be waited out. Again, this can be a good thing when the outrage is poorly directed (and when is it not?) or a bad thing when a bad law becomes generally accepted as a result of the fearful or apathetic collapse of popular resistance. And yet, when we take these arguments in the context of the next chapter, we see that Machiavelli does not end in a position of neutrality toward the common people.
The common wisdom is that the people are fickle: “that nothing is more vain and inconstant than the multitude so our Titus Livy, like all other historians, affirms” (I.58.1). Perhaps surprisingly to readers more familiar with The Prince, Machiavelli disagrees. The “multitude” to be sure can be fickle, vain, inconstant, etc., but that is a problem of human nature rather than a problem of social status:
I say, thus, that all men particularly, and especially princes, can be accused of that defect of which the writers accuse the multitude; for everyone who is not regulated by laws would make the same errors as the unshackled multitude. (I.58.2)
When we say that the common people are more fickle than the nobility we are usually making a categorical error. We are most often comparing the multitude at its most disorderly to princes who live under the rule of law. (Egyptian, Spartan, and French monarchs are Machiavelli’s examples of the latter.) When we correct our categories and compare the people at its worst with princes who have cast off all external restraints, we see that in fact the multitude comes out the better in the comparison. “All err equally when all can err without respect” (I.58.2), but when all legal restraints are removed the powers of custom and virtue remain in greater force over the people as a whole than they ever can over a single prince:
But as to prudence and stability, I say that a people is more prudent, more stable, and of better judgment than a prince. Not without cause may the voice of a people be likened to that of God….
If princes are superior to peoples in ordering laws, forming civil lives, and ordering new statutes and orders, peoples are so much superior in maintaining things ordered that without doubt they attain the glory of those who order them. (I.58.3)
The people and the prince each have their strengths and weaknesses. We do a disservice to both when we remember only the weakness of one and the strength of the other. Fortunately, both the nobility and the people at the end of the day need the same thing:
In sum, to conclude this matter, I say that the states of princes have lasted very long, the states of republics have lasted very long, and both have had need of being regulated by the laws. For a prince who can do what he wishes is crazy; a people that can do what it wishes is not wise. (I.58.4)
No one should be above external restraint in a nation. We all need to be bound by higher powers and authorities than ourselves or else run the risk of ruination.
However, to say that the people are not worse than the nobility is not to say they are above reproach—”When a people is quite unshackled” the real danger is not what they themselves will do but the tyrant that may grow in their midst (I.58.4). A corrupt prince, by contrast, inspires thoughts of freedom among the people who long for his overthrow. Which gives us our final point of comparison between the people and the prince:
The cruelties of the multitude are against whoever they fear will seize the common good; those of a prince are against whoever he fears will seize his own good. (I.58.4)
Again, the people and the prince share a common human nature: they are both out for their own good. But the “good” of the people is tied to the well-being, the “common good,” of the state. The “good” of the prince is himself. Which raises the question of who is most trustworthy when dealing with foreign nations, given that both are out for themselves—albeit in different ways?
This question, Machiavelli believes, requires us to bring another factor into the discussion: what kinds of dealings are we talking about? Relationships between states established by force and fear will be broken by the weaker party as soon as it reasonably can no matter what kinds of governments are involved. We can also expect both republics and principalities to act with an eye toward their own self-preservation, which may mean at times breaking treaties with other nations. And we can expect both sorts of government to betray friends under extraordinary circumstances. And yet, even all of these points taken together, republics governed by the people come out slightly ahead in the “faithfulness” category if only because they move more slowly than principalities. This can mean both that the actual wheels of government turn more slowly and so an opportunity where a betrayal might otherwise happen is passed by, or it can mean that the people have time to deliberate and choose a wiser and more virtuous course of action. Therefore, “the people makes lesser errors than the prince, and because of this can be trusted more than the prince” (I.59.1).
Likewise, the question of domestic leadership and filling the magistracies with qualified candidates may be best decided by the people. Left to the nobility, political offices would be filled by “blood,” that is based on family and social status. However, in Rome the office of consul (the highest office of state) was thrown open to everyone at first to mollify the plebeians with the thought that they might make it into high office, and then in actual fact when plebeians started to hold the position. The point is that the people must be able to place in office those who ought to be there: “When a young man is of so much virtue that he makes himself known in some notable thing, it would be a very harmful thing for the city not to be able to avail itself of him” (I.60.1). The people have the ability to choose the most virtuous to hold office that the nobility simply lacks. At least, that seems to me what Machiavelli is getting at—this final chapter of the first book feels a bit unfinished…
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.