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The real Machiavelli
on 24 December 2010
The 16th century Florentine statesman Niccolò Machiavelli is mostly known for his work "The Prince", arguably the most ill-reputed book ever written, perhaps apart from Hitler's "Mein Kampf". However, "The Prince" seems to have been a purely empirical study of Italian politics, or perhaps even a rhetorical exercise. In other words, Machiavelli didn't really mean it! At least that's one possible interpretation (yes, the most charitable one).
So what were Machiavelli's real positions? Many scholars believe that these are laid out in "The Discourses", a work almost unknown to the general public. Its full title is "Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy". Using the ancient Roman Republic as his model, Machiavelli attempts to analyze the role of fortune and virtue in history, the art of war, and the best system of government. There are certain similarities between "The Discourses" and "The Prince". Both works contain their fair share of pragmatic Realpolitik. On the whole, however, "The Discourses" show Machiavelli in a much better light than "The Prince". Machiavelli actually turns out to be an advocate of a democratic republic! Indeed, since Machiavelli supported the republican side during the political conflicts in Florence, it's safe to assume that *this* is the real Machiavelli.
"The Discourses" is not a particularly systematic work. It contains no fully worked-out political theory, and suffers from bad editing. (Machiavelli even admits this in his foreword.) The most interesting part is Book One, which deals with constitutional issues. Book Two, about the expansion of the Romans, is moderately interesting, while Book Three is the most disjointed. Since Machiavelli discourses on ancient Roman history, a working knowledge of the subject might be handy when reading his work. Despite the somewhat confusing character of "The Discourses", the main lines of argument are still discernible.
Machiavelli clearly believes that a free republic is the best form of government. The republic should have a division of power between the elite groups and the common people, something akin to the ancient Roman system where power was divided between patricians and plebeians. The republic should not use foreign, mercenary troops to defend itself. It must use its own soldiers. This is a point to which Machiavelli returns again and again, apparently since he believed that the Italian city-states of his own day lost their freedom due to reliance on mercenaries and even foreign officials. Wide income or class differentials are negative. Citizens should be frugal or even poor. A true citizen should be ready to serve in any position, high as well as lowly. A dictator might be temporarily appointed during a state of emergency, but only for a limited period, and only under constitutional forms. (A similar system existed in the Roman Republic.)
There is a great deal of ambivalence in "The Discourses" towards the common people. On the one hand, they are seen as a safeguard against tyranny. On the other hand, Machiavelli feared the fickleness and passions of the mob, and exclaims that a crowd without a head is useless. Despite his notion that wide income differences are negative, he nevertheless opposes the Agricultural Law, which would have re-distributed property in the Roman Republic from the upper class to the plebeians. There is also a contradiction between wanting the citizens to be frugal, and keeping patricians in power. Perhaps Machiavelli subconsciously identified the Roman patricians with the "bourgeois" middle class of his own time? In another part of "The Discourses", he explicitly writes that aristocratic nobles idly living off large estates should be literally exterminated! From his middling position, Machiavelli was equally suspicious of both landed gentry and the lower classes. Still, he seems to veer towards the latter.
Naturally, Machiavelli cannot refrain from giving some very pragmatic and "Machiavellian" advice in his work. His view of religion is typical in this regard (and the childish attempts of the translator to explain away the anti-Christian remarks as pro-Christian are perhaps even more typical). To Machiavelli, religion is a political tool, nothing more. If the people is religious, it's easier to keep in line. Rulers should uphold the religious traditions of their society, whatever these might be, and whatever they might think of them in private. However, one should never sacrifice the good of the state for a religious principle, and Machiavelli gives an almost humorous example of how the Romans attempted to circumvent a bad augury while still pretending to believe in it! He further states that paganism was better than Christianity, since paganism made people more virile, warlike and freedom-loving. Christianity has made people more prone to tolerate bad governments in the hope of heavenly salvation, rather than to fight for freedom in the here and now. (One almost waits for Nietzsche's statement that Christianity is a slave morality!) The out-spoken Machiavelli even questions whether Friar Savonarola (whom he supported) really was a prophet conferring with angels, although he quickly qualifies this by saying that the Friar was a very holy man, etc. (Savonarola was the leader of a republican revolution in Florence in 1494.) Please note that Machiavelli didn't mind Savonarola *claiming* that he spoke to angels, as long as this was politically useful. He makes a similar point about the ancient Roman king Numa, who claimed to have frequent meetings with a supernatural nymph about grave matters of state.
There is a great deal of ambivalence in Machiavelli's discussions about the Roman military expansion. He claims that Roman expansion was due to the Romans forming alliances with other peoples (albeit under Roman leadership), allowing non-Romans to settle in Rome, and letting conquered cities keep their own laws and traditions. In other words, he attempts to paint the Roman imperial expansion in as benign and "republican" light as possible, presumably to avoid the obvious problem that it eventually replaced the republic with an autocratic empire. However, he also admires the peoples who resisted the Roman expansion, seeing them as free republics. As a good Florentine, Machiavelli naturally feels a certain anachronistic aversion to the Roman conquest of "Tuscany" (actually Etruria). The discourses capture the dilemma in the following sentence: "Had the Romans not prolonged offices and military commands, they would not have attained such great power in so short a time, and, had they been slower in making conquests, they would also have been slower to arrive at servitude". Precisely. Here Machiavelli finally says what we somehow want him to say: imperial expansions leads to...well, empires, not republics!
Finally, I noticed that Machiavelli has some problems with Sparta and Venice. They don't conform to his more democratic republican model, and yet, Machiavelli is forced to admit that both these polities were very stable and lasted for an extremely long time. Somehow, you get the feeling that he treats them as anomalies in a world where everything else is in constant flux. The discourses also contain an interesting discussion about how Spartan and Venetian imperial expansion eventually led to their downfall.
"The Discourses" are an interesting early attempt to formulate a modern, moderately democratic republicanism. Readers who previously saw Niccolò Machiavelli as some kind of monster, might get a more positive picture of the man. He may not have been perfect, but at least he comes across as an honest statesman wrestling with difficult issues.
This is the real Machiavelli.