Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: II.30-31

“The Capture of Major Andre,” by Asher Brown Durand, depicts New York militia men detaining an English spy.


Money should play no role in the foreign policy or warfare of a virtuous republic, at least according to Machiavelli. As evidence, he cites the occasion when in 387 BC the Romans had lost all of their city except the citadel to the invading Gauls and were about to pay a ransom for their own lives when their army arrived and saved the day. Sort of—the bulk of the city was still burned leaving only just enough standing for Machiavelli to be able to argue that the Romans had triumphed because of their virtue. The lesson here and from Rome’s wider history is that we see

that they never acquired lands with money, never made peace with money, but always with the virtue of arms—which I do not believe ever happened to any other republic. Among the other signs by which the power of a strong state is known is seeing how it lives with its neighbors. And if it governs itself so that to keep it friendly the neighbors become its tributaries, then that is a certain sign that state is powerful; but if said neighbors, although inferior to it, draw money from it, then that is a great sign of its weakness. (II.30.1)

We should note the gradual transition from the language of “virtue” to the language of “power” and “weakness.” Which means I need to modify my original statement—it’s not that money has no role to play in the foreign relations of a virtuous state, it’s that money will only flow into that virtuous state, not pass out through bribes or tributes. When the Romans, under the emperors, “began to buy themselves off, now from the Parthians, now from the Germans, now from other peoples round about” (II.30.2), such was the sign that virtue and strength had departed Rome.

As much as I would love to simply condemn Machiavelli across the board, I do think that once again we need to keep in mind the context. He is discussing foreign relations generally and the state of war specifically. Presumably when a state is not at war, it can be virtuous and strong without shaking down its neighbors financially. That still leaves us with the problem of might seeming to make right (or vice-versa here), but at least it’s not quite as awful as it seems at first glance.

In contrast to this morally disturbing analysis of foreign policy, Machiavelli has something to warm the hearts of the gun nuts among us (among whom I will cheerfully include myself, with certain reservations to be listed below):

Similar inconveniences proceed, therefore, from having disarmed your people, from which results another greater one: that the nearer the enemy draws to you, the weaker he finds you. (II.30.3)

What Machiavelli means by this is that a nation is committing suicide by foreign policy if its laws are intended

  1. To disarm the citizens;
  2. To maintain a strong military on the national borders;
  3. To bribe neighboring states to stay away.

Such a state has achieved the equivalent of an individual exercising his arms and legs while living on a diet of only fast food. He might technically have some strength somewhere, but ultimately he has signed his own death warrant. In the same way, a state’s foreign policy that relies on border security and financial relations with other nations rather than on domestic strength and virtue is doomed from the start. “Defense” in the broadest sense of the word begins at home—where “home” means literally your house and mine.

Does this mean Machiavelli is in favor of two guns in every garage and shooting first and asking questions later? Will we pry his sword only from his cold dead hands? Not so much the way it might be meant by Red State Americans today (and here are my qualifications in listing myself on the pro-gun side of things). When Machiavelli talks about an armed citizen body, we should remember that he is living in a time when the options are either relying on mercenaries as a nation’s primary combat forces or training soldiers drawn from the citizen body. Machiavelli was a staunch defender of the latter over the former.

Machiavelli regularly used both the ancient Romans and the Swiss of his own day as examples of a people who largely armed, trained, and defended themselves rather than relying on foreign mercenaries to do their fighting for them. An army drawn from the citizen body means, as we have seen in earlier discourses, that the deeper into the state an enemy gets, the more armed and angry soldiers that enemy faces. Hence Rome could take defeat after defeat from Hannibal and still win the war, “for the foundation of its state was the people of Rome… from which they drew so many soldiers that with them they were sufficient to combat and hold the world” (II.30.4).

So would Machiavelli today be considered a Second Amendment advocate? Yes, but only in the sense that he would insist we all be able to march out to the nation’s defense as a trained military. Not necessarily in the sense that we should be sitting on a stockpile of C-4, “just in case.”

Though he tells us it is not an aside (it is), Machiavelli puts here a brief note on what we should do with the writings of those banished from their homelands. These individuals, whether well-intentioned or not, are usually untrustworthy in their analysis of the state of their former homelands. Machiavelli suggests that they are so blinded by their desire to get back to their homeland by any means necessary that their encouragements to their host states to invade are usually grounded in fantasy rather than reality. Which is not to say that these exiles are totally without wisdom—we don’t want to dismiss all of the works of a Solzhenitsyn, a Rushdie, or a Machiavelli just because they were at times exiles from their homelands.


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

6 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: II.30-31”

  1. Frank

    If a republic’s payment of “tribute” or whatever to foreign countries is a sign of its weakness, what does that say about our copious use of foreign aid? Am I comparing apples to oranges, or does the U.S. show its lack of virtue (and a corresponding weakness) by giving aid so widely and generously? Perhaps you could exclude situations like the Marshall Plan – and there was certainly an element of permissible self-interest in restarting European economies, in part to defend against communism and perhaps in part so they’d buy our goods (that’s a win/win) – but I wonder what NM would think about the rest of our foreign aid.

    On the other hand, receiving tribute from other countries surely has its own corrosive, corrupting effect. I don’t think we’d want that.

    • Coyle Neal

      I suppose it depends on how, well, Machiavellian we are in our interpretation of American foreign policy. That is, are we giving as much foreign aid as we do (not really all that much in terms of our overall budget, of course) because we are virtuous, generous, and concerned about the welfare of other nations? Or are we doing it to buy friends and buy off enemies? I don’t know that you could claim we are doing it solely out of self defense, though increasingly talk about free trade and dealing with ideologically hostile nations (Cuba, for example) has started to take that timbre.

      • gabe

        ” but if said neighbors, although inferior to it, draw money from it, then that is a great sign of its weakness.”

        Consider Iran and the $50 billion that Obama is going to release to them IF they sign on the dotted (or is it vanishing) line. One could say this is weakness.

        Then again, one is not quite sure how to describe a situation where only THE LEADER believes (or WISHES) that his country is weak.
        I wonder what Nicci would have to say about that as well as the predilection of THE LEADER and his ilk to *disarm* the interior defenses via the gutting of the 2nd Amendment.

  2. Frank

    Gabe, that $50 million payment to Iran came to mind for me, as well. My knowledge of foreign aid programs is limited, but I think it’d be fair to say that, during the Cold War, we were buying friends to some degree. That certainly fell in line with a “containment” strategy, and I don’t know that NM would criticize that. Today, I think the Iran payment crosses the line to buying off an enemy.

    Oh, well. I continue to be amazed at the breadth and depth of NM’s commentary.

    • gabe


      It was $50 Billion.

      And it goes even further than “buying off the enemy” – it seems as if it is “supporting” the enemy as does the entire structure of the agreement.


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