Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: III.35-37

“Scipio Africanus” by Theodoor van Thulden


The adage “if you want something done right, do it yourself” may or may not be true—Machiavelli thinks a long, philosophical discourse is necessary before coming to a solid conclusion about it—but if you are going to do it yourself, you’d better know exactly what you’re getting into:

I shall speak only of those dangers that citizens or those who counsel a prince bear in making oneself head of a grave and important decision, so that all the counsel of it may be attributed to him. For since men judge things by the end, all the ill that results from it is attributed to the author of the counsel; and if good results from it he is commended for it, but the reward by far does not counterbalance the harm. (III.35.1)

If the punishments for giving bad advice outweigh the rewards for giving good advice, the temptation will be at the end of the day to just give no advice at all. Machiavelli rejects this option, noting that if your job is to give advice you can’t just ignore your job because it’s hard or dangerous. Even more, he doesn’t really think people—especially political advisers—are capable of keeping their opinions to themselves in the first place. And of course there’s the possibility that remaining silent and saying “I knew it all along” after the fact can be even more dangerous if the leadership finds out that you knew the answer and kept it to yourself. Instead,

I do not see any other way for it but to take things moderately, and not to seize upon any of them for one’s own enterprise, and to give one’s opinion without passion and defend it without passion, with modesty, so that if the city or the prince follows it, it follows voluntarily, and it does not appear to enter upon it drawn by your importunity. (III.35.2)

In other words, give your advice as an option, being clear and honest about the pros and cons, and especially being clear that the final decision to take the advice rests with the leadership. To be sure, you give up the glory if your suggestion is taken and the program is successful, but you also give up the punishment if your advice is taken and the program fails. At least this way if your advice is ignored and an alternative plan succeeds, no dishonor falls on you; and if the alternative plan fails “very great glory redounds to you” (III.35.2).

What might be Machiavelli’s greatest discourse title is worth quoting in full, just to tweak the Francophiles out there:

The Causes Why the French Have Been and Are Still Judged in Fights at the Beginning as More Than Men and Later as Less Than Women. (III.36)

Aside from the title, Machiavelli says almost nothing about the French—and the little he does say is simply wrong. The French in Machiavelli’s time were ethnically, culturally, and politically a different people than the Gauls discussed in Livy.

Even with this weakness, there are still some useful points about armies made here. Like Gaul, all categories of military forces are divided into three parts:

  1. Those which are ordered and passionate, “where there is fury and order—because order arises from fury and virtue” (III.36.2).
  2. Those which are passionate but have no order.
  3. Those which have neither passion nor order.

The Romans were the exemplars of the first type, being ordered in all that they did but also being able to channel their passion in productive directions.

But virtue, where ordered, uses its fury with modes and with the times, neither does any difficulty debase it nor make it lack spirit. For good orders refresh spirit and fury for them, nourished by the hope of conquering, which never fails as long as the orders remain steady. (III.38.2)

The French, by contrast, Machiavelli believes to be exemplars of the second type. Quick to attack and quick to crumple if that first attack fails, since they lack the discipline to stand in the face of adverse fortune. The third type are found in the Italian armies of Machiavelli’s day, which he says “are altogether useless,” lacking both order and passion and little better than wandering mobs that collapse on meeting even the slightest resistance without even bothering to make the initial assault that the second type of army so excels at (III.38.2).

Whichever type of army one has, keeping morale high is obviously important. This means that generals on the one hand have to avoid driving their men into “anything that is of small moment and can produce bad effects on his army” (III.37.1), while on the other have to be well aware of what is needed to defeat a new enemy with a reputation for having a tough military. Machiavelli puts these two things side-by-side because he thinks the best way to get an army mentally ready to face a strong enemy with a frightening reputation is to skirmish with them at a time and place where the outcome doesn’t affect the overall war other than teaching your army about their style of fighting, weaknesses, and so on. The problem is that losing even an unimportant skirmish can do much to demoralize the men and can lead to a disproportionately negative effect compared to the small gain of the information gathered.

Machiavelli doesn’t completely work out this problem here. Instead he references his earlier discussions about not banking everything on a single act of fortune, and then gives a few examples of creative ways various Roman commanders offset demoralization in their troops at various times in Roman history. The unifying factor here is the competence and virtue of the commander, who must know how not to tempt fortune and how to build up confidence in his men. The various characteristics of such a commander are generally the topic of the rest of the book, and specifically the topic of the next two discourses—to be taken up in the next post.

As we’re finishing up Book 3, our temptation will be to assume that Machiavelli is just trying to fit in all of the random topics he hadn’t yet gotten to before bringing the book to a close. And as we noted at the beginning of this series, it’s certainly true that Machiavelli is not really a systematic philosopher. Yet I think even in these three discourses we can still see the underlying theme of the last book. As a state declines, political advisers begin to worry more for their own safety than for the success of the state. (Check out Adrian Goldsworthy’s excellent book How Rome Fell for more on that.) Likewise as a state declines the military will begin to crumble, losing first its order or its passion and eventually lacking both. When a new enemy has to be faced, a single skirmish lost will be enough to demoralize the whole military, and all the tricks a competent general may have up his sleeve will have mixed results at best. Which I think should be somewhat encouraging, since I don’t see these things as necessarily defining the current American political situation. Then again, these are only three discourses, and as we’ve seen many of the others could have been written yesterday.


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

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