Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: II.14-16

The Battle of Actium, by Laureys a Castro, National Maritime Museum, London


Without directly mentioning Christianity at all, Machiavelli makes it patently clear that an ethic based on one’s responsibility to “turn the other cheek” has absolutely no place in foreign policy. Giving an example of a rare occasion when the Romans attempted appeasement rather than responding aggressively to a nearly equal power, Machiavelli suggests that the lesson we ought to learn is that “humility not only does not help but hurts” a state on the international stage (II.14.1).

To be fair, the example Machiavelli uses and the general principles under consideration have to do with responding to an aggressive opponent who is of equal or greater military power. In these situations, a state that responds by passively hoping not to offend the other side will only embolden the aggressor and make the overall situation that much worse. Nations that would otherwise be allies begin to be hesitant about forming common cause with a reluctant state, which only further encourages the enemy. On the other hand, the state that boldly stands up to a bully will find that it is respected, especially if it is militarily inferior in the first place. Respect from both the enemy and potential allies will be the result of demonstrating preparedness for war. In this sense, and perhaps only in this sense, Machiavelli is not directly contrary to Christianity. Christianity teaches that those who are stronger ought to be humble and turn the other cheek, as Christ did when as God He let His enemies crucify Him so that His people might be saved. The weak and the lowly ought also to be humble, so there Christians will disagree with Machiavelli. It’s just not so absolute a disagreement as might at first appear to be the case.

As destructive as humility can be for a republic, indecision and slowness are infinitely worse. Machiavelli recounts a public discussion among the Latins (the native peoples of Italy, excluding the Romans in Machiavelli’s usage) concerning the wording of their policy about Rome. One official says:

I judge it to belong to the highest of our affairs for you to consider more what we ought to do than what is to be said. Once the counsels are made clear, it will be easy to accommodate words to things. (II.15.1)

Machiavelli thinks this is pretty good advice, to say the least:

Without doubt these words are very true and should be relished by every prince and by every republic…. I have often known such ambiguity to have hurt public actions, with harm and with shame for our republic. It will be verified that among doubtful policies, where spirit is needed to decide them, this ambiguity will always be there when weak men have to give counsel about and decide them. Slow and tardy decisions are not less hurtful than ambiguous ones, especially those that have to be decided in favor of some friend; for with their slowness one aids no one and hurts oneself. (II.15.1)

Machiavelli gives several examples where indecision ultimately cost more than a decisive action taken promptly in one direction or another.

We need to remember that in this discussion Machiavelli is being very specific to the context of immediate war, rather than making general principles about all policies in a republic. All of his examples have to do with war on a state’s doorstep, and the chapters preceding and following are about military policy and action. Machiavelli is not saying that the truly great republics will shoot quickly from the hip with both barrels in all possible circumstances—that would remove any question of wisdom from the discussion. Rather, he is arguing that there are times when virtuous action for a state is action of any kind, rather than delay or hand-wringing indecision. And as long as we remember this distinction, I think we have a useful point being made for a republic. The problem is, it is very easy for us to lift this principle out of its military context and begin to apply it across the board. Instead of only thinking of immediate action in the face of immediate war, we begin to think of immediate action in all circumstances as the desirable course. Thence comes unjust wars, destructive domestic policy, and a general decline of government into rule by the impulse of the moment.

Chapter sixteen begins Machiavelli’s comparison of “modern” armies with the Roman legions that runs on-again-off-again through the rest of book two of the Discourses. Again, I’m no military historian or tactical expert and am not really the person to judge Machiavelli’s accuracy in comparing the arms of his own time with those of two millennia prior. I will say that his opening salvo is bold, if perhaps poorly aimed:

The most important battle ever waged by the Roman people in any war with any nation was that which it waged with the Latin peoples in the consulate of Torquatus and Decius. For every reason agrees that as the Latins became servile through having lost it, so the Romans would have become servile if they had not won it. (II.16.1)

The second part of this statement is probably true enough—the Romans may very well have become subject to the Latins had they lost, so far as we can tell (this part of Livy’s history is about events far enough in the past that we can’t be completely sure how accurate his arguments are). And yet the first part hardly holds up to historical scrutiny. The war with the Latins was important enough, but the decisive battle was certainly not the most important battle ever fought by Rome. After all, Rome still had to fight any number of critical battles with Carthage, the Greek states, the Gauls, the Germans, or even other Romans—any one of which could have resulted in the subjection of Rome to foreign powers. For example, had Mark Antony won the battle of Actium instead of Octavian, a Roman Empire with a distinctly oriental flavor may very well have been the result.

Whether he’s correct in this specific historical assessment or not (he’s not), Machiavelli’s overall claim is that the ancient Romans were more virtuous in their approach to war than any of their opponents. Unfortunately, this virtue has not transmitted through the ages despite the fact that the knowledge of their way of waging war has. Military leaders in Machiavelli’s own time know exactly what has to be done to have an effective military machine, “nonetheless not even one of our contemporary captains is found who imitates the ancient orders and corrects the modern” (II.16.2). These modern leaders excuse their failure of virtue by pointing to technological changes, specifically the rise of gunpowder and artillery, but Machiavelli is having none of that and plans to spend the next chapter showing us exactly how irrelevant these developments are to modern warfare’s refusal to embrace the virtuous methods of the past.


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

3 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: II.14-16”

  1. gabe

    “Nations that would otherwise be allies begin to be hesitant about forming common cause with a reluctant state, which only further encourages the enemy”

    Middle East? Central Europe? NATO?

    Was Nicci related to Nostradamus, I wonder?

    • Coyle Neal

      Heh, I thought about that too. Our current supreme leader is certainly reluctant, to say the least. And that has cost us quite a bit on the international scene.
      The problem is, everything the President has said he wants to do in terms of foreign policy I have thought to be a terrible idea. So the fact that he has yet to follow through on Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, Libya, North Korea, Iran, or any of the other entanglements he has said we should take up, well, I’m consistently unsure whether I should support his foreign policy or not. He’s doing what I want him (or any president) to do, but I suspect he’s doing it because he’s incompetent rather than on the same page as me.

      • gabe

        Possibly correct.

        Is it better to be *hesitant* when one is Supremely Incompetent.
        I suppose then we could only hope that the One who Would Lower Sea Levels would desist in ANY activity. Unfortunately, The Guiding Light has decided to bless the Middle East with his wisdom.

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