Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: III.(6.16)-(6.20)

“Cicero Denouncing Cataline” by Cesare Maccari, Palazzo Madama, Rome


As a reminder, the outline of this discourse is as follows:

  1. General Introduction: Conspiracy against Nations or Individuals (covered here)
  2. Conspiracy against the Single Prince
    1. Reasons for Conspiracy
      1. Hatred
      2. Patriotism
      3. Ambition
    2. The Conspirators
      1. One (anybody)
      2. Many (nobility)
    3. The Dangers of Conspiracy (covered here)
      1. The Dangers Before
        1. Exposure by report or by conjecture
        2. The written word
        3. The constraints of necessity
      2. The Dangers During
        1. Last-minute changes of plans
        2. Halfheartedness
        3. Poor planning
        4. Lack of thoroughness
        5. The effects of conscience on the imagination
        6. Accident
      3. The Dangers After (today’s post)
        1. Leaving some alive
  3. Conspiracy against the Nation as a Whole
    1. By deception and artifice
    2. By foreign powers
  4. Conclusion

The aftermath of a successful conspiracy involves only one real danger: “and that is when someone is left who may avenge the dead prince” (III.6.18). Sometimes this is beyond the control of the conspirators. Targets may escape through their own fortune, or even through being out of harm’s way when the conspiracy is executed. But sometimes this is because of the “lack of prudence” or “negligence” of the conspirators, in which case “they merit no excuse” (III.6.18). Leaving alive a potential avenger is no one’s fault but your own—Machiavelli has no room for mercy or humanity when it comes to conspiracy. Children, family members, spouses, friends, all must be removed if safety is to be the result. And woe betide the conspirator who assassinates a popular ruler:

But of all the dangers that can come after the execution, there is none more certain nor more to be feared than when the people is the friend of the prince that you have killed. For conspirators do not have any remedy for this since they can never secure themselves against it. (III.6.18)

Which brings us back to the need for completely honest analysis when planning a conspiracy. Not only must we properly judge ourselves and our acquaintances, we must judge the popular mood of the time. Failure to do so leaves no one to blame but the conspirator when an angry mob turns on him for the murder of a popular leader.

Conspiracy against the nation as a whole is in some sense a much safer enterprise than a plot against a specific political leader. There are some of the same dangers, of course, especially during the execution of the conspiracy. Accident, half-heartedness, poor planning, and all the rest are still factors. But the dangers before and after are much reduced because the target is so much larger than a single prince. As a result, one need not draw unnecessary attention to oneself until the conspiracy is in motion. Afterward, there can be no real personal vengeance.

In a republic, conspiracy is especially safe in the planning stages. Having begun thinking of conspiracy, the conspirator:

can proceed happily; if they [his plans] are interrupted with some laws, he can bide his time and enter by another way… Thus citizens can aspire to the principality by many means and many ways when they do not bear the danger of being crushed, both because republics are slower than a prince, suspect less, and through this are less cautious and because they have more respect for their great citizens and through this the latter are bolder and more spirited in acting against them. (III.6.19)

Even when conspiracies are discovered, as with the conspiracy of Catiline, if there is not absolute rock-solid proof of wrongdoing there is usually no punishment.

With all of that said, conspiracies against republics are much, much harder to successfully conclude than conspiracies against a single prince, just as fighting an army is less difficult than fighting against one man. Which raises the question of how a conspiracy might topple a republic? Machiavelli suggests three ways:

  1. Using your own army, as Caesar did;
  2. Using “deception and art” to convince the republic to put you in power voluntarily;
  3. Using foreign aid.

The first is not an option in most republics. On those rare occasions it can be done, Machiavelli believes it to be the easiest and most secure method. Deception is much, much harder but appears to have the advantage of involving the people as a whole in the elevation of the conspirator. Surprisingly, Machiavelli doesn’t spend much time discussing this option. This is unfortunate, since it would seem to be the option best suited both to his temperament and to his general project.

Using foreign aid can be hit or miss and, as Machiavelli has discussed elsewhere, can have the (presumably unintentional) effect of bringing the state under the rule of that foreign power.

So when all conspiracies made against the fatherland are examined, none—or few—will be found that were crushed in their managing, but all either were successful or were ruined in the execution. (III.6.19)

Even those that succeed are by no means exempt from danger, because the newly self-appointed tyrant has now passed from the danger of “being in the middle of a coup” to the danger of “being a tyrant.” Machiavelli tells us that becoming a tyrant as a result of conspiracy generally just involves taking on oneself “the natural and ordinary dangers that tyranny brings him” (III.6.19). And while there may be reasons to pursue this goal, they must be admitted and considered beforehand.

Having given so much consideration to the conspirators, Machiavelli closes his discussion with advice to the state:

Princes therefore have no greater enemy than conspiracy, for when a conspiracy is made against them, either it kills them or it brings them infamy. For if it succeeds, they are dead; if it is exposed, and they kill the conspirators, it is always believed that it was the invention of that prince to vent his avarice and cruelty at the expense of the blood and property of those whom he has killed. (III.6.20)

Machiavelli warns the leader who discovers a conspiracy to move carefully, fully investigate the situation, and respond with appropriate force. If the conspiracy is large and strong, it needs a large response. When the conspiracy is small and strong, the state still needs to exercise prudence and patience—rash action may drive the conspirators to desperate action and cause more disruption to the state than is really necessary.

When, however, the conspiracy is weak (whatever its size), “they can and should be crushed without hesitation” (III.6.20). Dithering, hand-wringing, middle-ground attempts at mercy only make things worse for the state. Decisive public action that both stamps out the conspiracy and shows that the conspirators were in the wrong is best for the state.

Over the past few weeks I’ve spent far more time reading, writing, and thinking about conspiracies than I ever would have imagined before taking up the Discourses—and I’ve read J. Bell’s essay “Assassination Politics.” (Nope, not linking that—you can find it on your own if you must.) And as much as Americans do seem to love conspiracy theories, I think this may be one part of Machiavelli’s work that is harder to directly translate into contemporary American politics. Because there is general contentment with the way the political apparatus works, conspiracies against the republic as a whole so far have been mostly nonexistent. Because we have presidential term limits, a multitude of Congressmen, and a fairly popular Supreme Court (relative to the other branches), conspiracies against individuals are rare. Which isn’t to say there’s nothing to be learned here. Machiavelli doesn’t discuss the role of conspiracy in foreign policy, but that may be the place where it applies most to us. Conspiracy as a diplomatic and military tool has a relatively poor track record in American history, but that doesn’t stop us from occasionally trying to use it.

With that said, feel free to speak up if you think I’m just naive and that our government is actually rife with conspiracy, and that this is in fact the most important chapter in the Discourses because it is the key to understanding how the world really works…

More seriously, comments are welcome on the role of conspiracy in politics in general, because once you get outside of the ancient world and some aspects of American government, I’m out of my element and would love to hear your thoughts on conspiracies in foreign policy, international relations, and the governments of other nations.


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

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