Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: II.2

“Christ Crowned with Thorns” by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch in the Monastery of San Lorenzo, El Escorial, Spain


Why is it that people in the past loved their freedom so deeply that they were willing to sacrifice much to preserve it or avenge its loss? What is wrong with us in the “modern” world that we simply cannot compare with our predecessors? These are the questions Machiavelli takes up here, beginning with a survey of the effects of freedom and how those effects are incompatible with tyranny.

One effect of freedom on the people of a state is that it drives them to extremes in its defense:

Nothing made it more laborious for the Romans to overcome the peoples nearby and parts of the distant provinces than the love that many peoples in those times had for freedom; they defended it so obstinately that they would never have been subjugated if not by an excessive virtue. (II.2.1)

Machiavelli then gives a number of examples from the history of Rome’s expansion in Italy as evidence of how hard the Italian peoples fought to maintain their freedom both externally from Rome and internally from kings. He also gives us examples from the Greek world, mostly where great vengeance was taken by a people upon those who removed their freedom.

(As a historical aside, Machiavelli has a bit of an idiosyncratic interpretation of the Corcyran affair. This bloody civil war was a side note in the Peloponnesian War described by Thucydides as being particularly brutal and revelatory of just how awful people can be. Machiavelli attributes this to a people passionate over their lost freedom, rather than being strictly a reflection on the ravages of war and the wickedness of unrestrained human nature.)

The chief example of the effects of freedom on a state, however, is Rome. Upon its liberation from the monarchy, Rome achieved monumental greatness. This reflects another effect of freedom: when combined with a general pursuit of the common good, freedom leads to greatness: “for it is not the particular good but the common good that makes cities great” (II.2.1). This pursuit is found most commonly in republics, which are “free” in the sense that they are not monarchies and so pursue what is good for the state as a whole rather than what is good for the prince. Which is not to say that principalities cannot pursue the common good at all, just that they usually don’t.

This leads Machiavelli to reflect on tyranny and how the tyrant will always ultimately be at odds with freedom, since at best he can only ever indirectly benefit the people of his state. While his actions, “if fate should make emerge there a virtuous tyrant” (II.2.1), may grow the state in size, those actions are always going to be directed to his own ends rather than the common good. The tyrant has a vested interest in keeping the state weak and dependent on him personally rather than strong and self-sufficient.

In terms of corporate freedom, republics and tyrannies alike sow the seeds of their own destruction. As they expand and conquer, republics sap merit and drive from conquered states in the name of the common good: “because the end of the republic is to enervate and to weaken all other bodies so as to increase its own body” (II.2.4). Conquered cities and states that were once free and flourishing with their own pursuits of the common good begin to wither and die when under the rule of a foreign republic. When the republic itself finally falls, it takes the freedom of everyone else with it to the grave. Tyrants, or at least “princes,” on the other hand are usually happy enough to see their subject peoples thrive:

But if he [the prince] has within himself human and ordinary orders, he usually loves his subject cities equally and leaves them all their arts and almost all their ancient orders. So if they cannot grow like the free, still they are not ruined like the slaves. (II.2.4)

The end result is that the expansion of republics is detrimental to the freedom of the conquered, while the expansion of principalities is at least potentially preservative of, if not actively expanding, existing freedom. Republics destroy the freedom they desire in others, so that when they collapse there is no one left to prevent tyranny. Tyrannies, on the other hand, foster a potential freedom so that when they fall it is at least possible that they will be replaced by a republic.

And so, Machiavelli has laid out two Aristotelian options: a free state pursuing the common good and achieving greatness at the expense of others, and a tyranny pursuing the good of the ruler and always remaining weak and divided but holding the potential for future freedom. (Machiavelli does not say these are the only options.) This raises the question: what’s wrong with us that we so often choose the latter when the ancients so often chose the former?

As we should expect, Machiavelli’s answer is provocative:

Thinking then when it can arise that in those ancient times peoples were more lovers of freedom than in these, I believe it arises from the same cause that makes men less strong now, which I believe is the difference between our education and the ancient, founded on the difference between our religion and the ancient. For our religion, having shown the truth and the true way, makes us esteem less the honor of the world, whereas the Gentiles, esteeming it very much and having placed the highest good in it, were more ferocious in their actions. (II.2.2)

So, we love freedom less because we have a different view of worldly power (we are “less strong now”), which is a result of our different style of education, which flows from the values transmitted to us by Christianity. Christianity values things like humility, patience, quietness, and personal introspection. A vigorous and active pursuit of freedom requires boldness, decisiveness, brashness, and aggressive action. Machiavelli goes on:

Our religion has glorified the humble and contemplative more than active men. It has then placed the highest good in humility, abjectness, and contempt of things human; the other placed it in greatness of spirit, strength of body, and all other things capable of making men very strong. And if our religion asks that you have strength in yourself, it wishes you to be capable more of suffering than of doing something strong. This mode of life thus seems to have rendered the world weak and given it in prey to criminal men, who can manage it securely, seeing that their collectivity of men, so as to go to paradise, think more of enduring their beatings than of avenging them. (II.2.2)

Now, Machiavelli suggests that Christianity might be interpreted as a more active and vigorous religion than has traditionally been the case, but I suspect that suggestion is merely his attempt to not be totally written off as anti-Christian. Even today, “I’m a Christian, just a different kind of Christian” is most often a facade thrown up so that we don’t dismiss the general point as coming from an openly anti-Christian writer. I won’t give examples, but we all know they are aplenty.

To be fair, Machiavelli says that the collapse of freedom is not all the fault of Christianity. Some of the blame has to fall on the Roman Empire itself—which was obviously around before there were any Christians. The Empire “eliminated all republics and all civil ways of life” (II.2.2). That there was no love of freedom in Europe by 400 AD was the fault of Rome, not Christianity. But that freedom did not make a comeback in the independent cities that arose after the empire collapsed—that is the fault of Christianity, at least according to Machiavelli.

Whether he is correct about the proper interpretation of Christianity or not, I think we have to admit that Machiavelli has at least something of a point here. Pursuit of national glory as an ultimate end is anathema to traditional Christianity. And while Christians can encourage each other to submit themselves to the governing authorities, even that is submission, rather than dominance. Nowhere are Christians commanded to go out and seize control of the state (or anything, for that matter). As we’ve already mentioned Christians can never have more than a secondary allegiance to the state at all, and never more than a secondary concern with issues like political freedom or military victory.

And, to grant even more of his point, Machiavelli is correct about the sorts of virtues that Christians pursue. Christians should in fact be willing to suffer and die for their faith, but they should never be willing to kill for it. Even when they have to disobey the powers that be, even the rare Christian disobedience should be marked with an attitude of regret and humility. Again, this is not the sort of thing that wins war or conquers nations or achieves the kind of glory that the world and Machiavelli care about.

And yet, for all that I think Machiavelli is still off a bit in his analysis here, I’ve said before that Christianity is to some extent always going to be something of a cancer within a nation, drawing ultimate loyalty and authority away from earthly states and putting it onto the Heavenly City. But that is not the same thing as saying that all the problems of the world are caused by Christianity. Whether we’re talking about fifth century Europe or twenty-first century America, I’m not convinced that there are enough Christians to have that kind of wide-ranging impact in the first place. At least, if we assume that “Christian” is not just someone who says “I am a Christian,” but rather means “those who actively embrace the traditional doctrines of Christianity and pursue a faithful life accordingly,” I’m not really convinced that there were enough Christians then or are enough now to drag down a whole state, let alone all of Western Civilization. There might be enough to draw attention and generate persecution, but enough to affect the victory of a nation on the battlefield or cause the collapse of an economy, or whatever else it is that Christians are being accused of at the time in question? Hardly…


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

4 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: II.2”

  1. wlindsaywheeler

    I think that Machiavelli did a great disservice by juxtaposing the rule of kings to “freedom”. Machiavelli was an atheist. The first thing about atheists is the core of their being is “freedom from god”. This then is transferred to all spheres. “Freedom” is not a Good per se. Monarchy is an essential ingredient to a group. The Natural Law is “The Rule of one is best”. As we can see today, the collapse of Europe and soon disappearance of European peoples can be laid at modern republicanism that required the extermination of kings.

    The Natural Law is “the parts make up the whole”. Can we be free of the whole? Aren’t we parts of the whole? To push and propagate “freedom” which brings chaos to the whole–is that not evil?

    Also Aristotle doesn’t mention a “free state”. That is a pleonasm. The Spartans had a state and Aristotle writes that many people praised it as the best. Socrates favorite form of government was Crete and Sparta and Sparta always had kings. Were the Spartans a “free state”.

    St. Peter in his letter says to “Supplement the Faith with Arete (Virtue)”. The virtue of “righteousness” requires duty to one’s country. Duty is opposite of “freedom”. I am required to do my duty.

    Under Christendom, the states were Christian with Christian monarchs. How could Christianity be a cancer?

    The true cancer of a state is atheism. Machiavelli, the father of modern republicanism, was the cancer. Plato saw this very thing when in the Laws he called atheism a malady and that atheists were to be interdicted and if not converted, to be executed.

    And the ancient peoples were not all “lovers of freedom”. What about the Spartans? Plutarch, a priest at the Doric temple of Apollo at Delphi, summed up their ideal, “We are not in this world to give the laws …but in order to obey the commands of the gods”. Obedience and Piety were the highest values of the Spartans–not freedom. Machiavelli was an ideologue who twisted much to further his atheistic goals.

  2. gabe

    Isaiah Berlin may have best summarized Machiavelli’s religious disposition: He was a pagan. I do not intend that term as a pejorative but rather as a descriptor of one who venerated the ancient attributes of ” strength, honor, courage, and virtue.”

    It is because of this veneration for the ancient ways / ethos that Machiavelli can conveniently / willfully disregard the actual effects of Christendom on both the State and the Individual.
    To begin with, Christianity with its emphasis on *personal* redemption may be said to be the great progenitor of modern freedoms and individualism fostering as a does a sense of “apartness” from the tribe and placing an inherent value within the individual apart from the city. One is great or freed in pagan times only as a member of the tribe and salvation / glory comes from or is directly attributable to how much one fosters the interests of the tribe.

    Also, Nicci also ignores the role of Christian warriors during the late Roman Republic, the efforts of Charlemagne and the Crusades. These were anything but meek, self abusers fearful of advancing the interests of either the state or their own belief systems.

    Ultimately, it was in the Christian West, and only in the Christian West, that freedom truly arose. When one compares the history and progress of the West with the early Roman, Greek, or Levantine systems can one truly argue that freedom prospered more under the pre-Christian systems than under the Christian West. I think not.
    I would also contend that while there is something to the argument that Christianity does tend to displace the State as primary focus, clearly it has never been sufficient to prevent Christian citizen soldiers from actively fighting for the freedoms and rights of both themselves and their “cities.”

    In this Machiavelli is simply wrong.

    • gabe

      Here is the essay by Berlin on Nicci that I mentioned above.

      Not TOO long but worth the read.

  3. Coyle Neal

    Hey folks,

    Gents, you’ve got some excellent comments and lots to respond to here, so apologies if I don’t hit everything.

    wlindaywheeler, it sounds like you and I might have a basic disagreement here not so much on Machiavelli as on Christianity. I would argue that one of the major problems of the Middle Ages was its idea that there is such a thing as “Christendom,” wherein the City of God and the city of man are confused in this world and, as Voegelin warned us not to do, the eschaton was immanentized (at least, they made a good effort at doing such). There really can’t be such a thing as a “Christian state” this side of the Second Coming, because the sole Christian institution established in this world is the church–the body of believers gathered around the faithful preaching of the Gospel and the proper administration of the sacraments. There is a political aspect to that institution to be sure, but it is also the only “Christian” institution. You can fill up a state or a school or a business or a city or whatever with people who self-identify as Christians, maybe even actually are Christians, but that in no way baptizes the institution. It remains a part of the city of man and could do exactly the same job in the same way even if it were full of pagans or atheists or whichever else you care to choose.
    Which is where your point about virtue comes in. As Christians, we are called to be citizens of two kingdoms, with our primary obligation to the City of God and our secondary obligation to our own state. In that sense, you’re exactly right. We should be living virtuous lives based on faith. The problem is, our own states–whether modern America, Ancient Rome, Medieval Florence, or whichever you care to choose–will never be content in the long term with its citizens giving their primary obedience elsewhere. Which doesn’t change our obligation, of course, but it does mean that we will always be working somewhat at odds to what our states want us to do. And that’s just part of the tension of living in the world as Christians–we are commanded to respect and obey those who oppose us so much as we are able. (Do remember the Emperor Paul ordered the Romans to obey in Romans 13:1-4 was Nero…)

    And with that extended caveat, I’m quite happy to agree with you on both your natural law and monarchy points–we do have limited access to knowledge about the world and about virtue through natural law, and I don’t know that it matters by and large what kind of political state we live in (as Augustine said, so long as its not ordering us to sin, what does it matter anyway?). Monarchy can be just as virtuous and free as a republic, and vice-versa, depending on a number of other factors.

    I would, however, quibble with your points about the Ancient world and freedom. I wouldn’t say that there was NO freedom in the Ancient world, just that they had different ideas about what “freedom” meant. Sparta, for example, along with Athens, really was considered “free”, because by that word most states at that time would have meant “freedom of the city to act without international constraints” rather than our post-Enlightenment “autonomy of the individual,” or even, as gabe points out, our Christian “freedom of conscience.”

    gabe, it’s probably obvious now that I’ll quibble with your Charlemagne/Crusades/Christendom points, even while granting your conclusions that Christians can be good citizens and good soldiers. That said, you’re right about Christianity and the origin of “personal” or individual freedom of religion and conscience and the rest, so long as we remember that’s not the only possible kind of freedom (again, freedom of the city, e.g.).
    I also think you’re probably right about Machiavelli–he is a pagan living in a highly Christianized world, but a “Marcus Aurelius” kind of pagan who worships the virtues rather than the “Homer” sort who worships specific deities.
    And you’re right, the Berlin essay is excellent!

    Again, good thoughts guys, you’ve given me quite a bit to chew on!


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