Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: III.7-9

Scipio Africanus and his army leaving Rome to fight Hannibal.


Why is it the case that sometimes bloodshed is central in a state’s transition between freedom and slavery, while other times it is entirely absent? That is, when a free state becomes servile or an oppressed state becomes free, either death and murder and war are central to these transitions or they are missing all together. Machiavelli suggests that the reason has to do with how the state began in the first place:

That depends on this: for the state that is changed arises with violence or not, and because when it arises with violence it must arise with the injury of many, it is necessary later, in its ruin, that the injured wish to avenge themselves, and from this desire for vengeance arise the blood and death of men. But when that state is caused by common consent of a collectivity that has made it great, later, when it is ruined, the said collectivity does not have cause to offend other than the head. (III.7.1)

In other words, states that begin bloody end bloody; while states that begin peacefully end peacefully for all except their “head,” that is, the people at the top. When a nation is born in blood the habit and pattern of shedding blood is established at its inception, and so we should expect to see the same bloodshed return at the end. In the same way, when the nation is born in peace through the consent and agreement of a people—dare we say it?—contracting together to form a civil society, the end of that society will have the ease of a gentle dissolution.

Machiavelli claims that “because the histories are full of these examples, I wish to omit them” (III.7.1). I really wish he had not omitted his examples, because frankly I don’t think I buy his argument. It’s certainly true that there are examples he could have used to illustrate his point, but counter examples are likewise legion. For every French Revolution beginning and ending in blood there is an English Civil War, beginning with blood and ending with the relatively peaceable return of the king (for better or worse).

Between the discussion of conspiracies in the earlier discourse and the idea that how a republic was born affects how it transitions into a new form, Machiavelli has laid the groundwork for how to think well about social and political revolution. Specifically, potential revolutionaries need to take correct stock of their historical situation. A virtuous republic, in Machiavelli’s opinion, simply cannot be undermined even by the best and greatest of its citizens (should they turn their minds to such a task). Such a citizen may be able to plant the seeds of later corruption, “but for him it is impossible that the life of one individual be enough to corrupt it so that he himself can draw the fruit from it” (III.8.2). There is an outside chance that with enough patience such a person might be able to reap some of the rewards of revolution, but when do those who wish to corrupt virtuous republics ever have patience? Instead

they deceive themselves in things that concern them and in those especially that they very much desire, so that either by lack of patience or by deceiving themselves in it, they would enter upon an enterprise against the time and would come out badly. (III.8.2)

This works the other way as well: those who wish to make a corrupt republic virtuous may be able to put it on the right path, but they should not hope to see the results of their efforts in their own lifetimes. “For as much as it is difficult and dangerous to wish to make a people free that wishes to live servilely, so much is it to wish to make a people servile that wishes to live free” (III.8.2). Once again, Machiavelli calls us to make an honest assessment of our own times and of ourselves and act appropriately. The true train wrecks in public policy and the life of the state come when we do not properly interpret the conditions in which we live and our own abilities and motivations.

Having spoken of the benefits of being aware of the requirements of our own times, Machiavelli asks why it is that some people manage to adapt accordingly and others do not. Why was it that Fabius Maximus, who knew just how to defeat Hannibal using scorched earth policy and denying open combat, could not tell when the times had changed so that Scipio Africanus got all the glory of winning the offensive war against Carthage?

Two things are causes why we are unable to change: one, that we are unable to oppose that to which nature inclines us; the other that when one individual has prospered very much with one mode of proceeding, it is not possible to persuade him that he can do well to proceed otherwise. (III.9.3)

Sometimes it is just not in our dispositions to do what needs to be done. Those who are naturally restrained will not do well when times call for aggressive action, while those with fiery personalities will not do well when patience and caution are appropriate.

Additionally, we are creatures of habit. When we find something that works well for us, it can be hard to get away from what has succeeded in the past even when we do know that times have changed. I worked in retail at the very end of the life of the Borders chain of bookstores. While there are many, many reasons for the end of that retail chain—decline in print book sales; increase in American illiteracy; etc.—one that was painfully obvious was the blind belief of those in the corporate hierarchy that everything will get better if only we keep doing what we’ve been doing, just on a bigger scale. The point is that whether in business or politics, getting stuck in a rut can be devastating to the long-term health and security of the nation. At least, so claims Machiavelli.

He also claims that republics are both better and worse at this than principalities. They are better, because a republic can be more flexible than a principality:

Hence it arises that a republic has greater life and has good fortune longer than a principality, for it can accommodate itself better than one prince can to the diversity of times through the diversity of the citizens that are in it. (III.9.2)

But they are also worse because they can be slower to accommodate when quick change is necessary. If a principality needs to change quickly it can, since only one man has to adjust. Republics “are slower, for they have trouble varying because they need times to come that move the whole republic, for which one alone is not enough to vary the mode of proceeding” (III.9.3).

And having brought up Fabius as an example of these points, Machiavelli says that we need to look more closely at him and his tactics and draw some wider conclusions for military and public policy. This will be the subject of the next discourses.


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

3 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: III.7-9”

  1. gabe

    Not certain I would buy Nicci’s “bloody-to-bloody” thesis either.
    Most of the early historical states did indeed end due to bloodshed – but it was blood shed by a conquering power not internal rebellion.
    While there are innumerable examples of “palace” intrigue, with one Prince being replaced by another Prince, this, to my mind, does not signify ,(nor justify Nicci’s assertion) the end of a regime. At best, it may reflect the difficulties encountered by a Prince who does not evolve to match the people’s AND the elites changing expectations.

    From Egypt to Sumeria, Assyria, Persia, etc – the blood letting came from the outside – not within.

    Nicci could not be speaking of the French Revolution as he pre-dated it; in any event can it truly be said that the French State was founded on bloodshed AND that fact of its “bloodiness” would have served as a motivating factor for the rebels – I think not as the founding had occurred so far in the distant past as to have some measurable impact upon the people,
    Something else is at play – both here and in other instances.

    • Coyle Neal

      I agree with you, this is a somewhat unsatisfying analysis. If it helps at all, I think by “bloody-to-bloody” he tends to mean a fundamental transformation of the state from one thing to another, not just a transfer of power (even one involving assassination or some such). And he doesn’t seem to be discussing external conquest, only internal decline and collapse.

      But again that still doesn’t resolve all the problems, as much as I like the symmetry his argument has otherwise. [shrug]

  2. Frank

    III.8 struck me as particularly relevant to our times. Our republic seems corrupt – not virtuous anymore – such that a Founding Father or Lincoln couldn’t win an election today. And so, today’s leaders have conformed to the times, and been rewarded with election to office.


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