There is an old debate among political theorists regarding the meaning of Machiavelli’s political works. A careless reading of The Prince and Discourses on Livy give the impression they are written by two entirely different authors. Or perhaps it is the same person in two different points of their life with entirely different notions of political philosophy. The Discourses is so different from The Prince in tone and message, writers are compelled to explain their divergence.
The psychology of the author is often examined to understand his frame of mind, indeed sometimes his state of mind. For my part I leave these thoughts and transgressions to the analysis of Isaiah Berlin whose article “The Originality of Machiavelli” found in his book Against the Current answers these questions. Nobody does a better job than Berlin at a psychological analysis of an author to uncover meaning within a text.
Of course, Berlin’s conclusion was there is much more in common between the two masterpieces than generally recognized. Machiavelli is not quite as comfortable with tyrannical power as commonly perceived. He makes it clear “these methods are when, either by some wicked or nefarious ways, one ascends to the principality.” But his remarks in his Discourses are not as supportive of republican government as some have implied. Machiavelli writes, “men never behave well unless compelled, and that whenever they are free to act as they please, and are under no restraint everything falls at once into confusion and disorder.” This passage from the Discourses sounds as though it were pulled from The Prince.
Machiavelli uses his Discourses on Livy to discuss his thoughts on Republican government. Livy’s histories were written amidst the transition between the Republic and the Empire in the reign of Augustus Caesar. The history of Rome was largely of the Republican era. It is in the writings of Tacitus where the study of the Roman Emperors becomes a serious study. Livy largely wrote about the glory of the Republic in his work Ab Urbe Condita which was intended as a complete history of Rome.
But Machiavelli’s Discourses were never about Livy. They are largely thoughts on the republican form of government which indirectly relate back to the writings of Livy. His Discourses introduce Florentine history, Roman history from after Livy’s death, and other thoughts and ideas. Livy is a major source of his inspiration, but his ideas do not necessarily even follow the structure of Livy’s work.
Machiavelli makes his Discourses on Livy about himself rather than his purported subject. It reminds me of Isaiah Berlin’s essay “Benjamin Disraeli, Karl Marx and the Search for Identity” where the search for the identity of his subjects becomes a search for his own identity. Machiavelli uses the writings of Livy to explore his own thoughts on political questions about Republican government.
Rome has been a motif for many writers. Americans have drawn inspiration from its history as a Republic. But it also offers a cautionary tale for its descent into autocracy. Machiavelli found inspiration from Rome as an Italian. He saw himself as the natural inheritor of Roman history. Roman history was Italian history. But the details of Rome have always blurred the lines between fact and myth. Machiavelli saw the corruption of the Roman Republic as the corruption of the Roman people. It was not the failure of Roman elites or Roman institutions, but a failure of civic virtue which brought about the failures of the Republic.
The design of institutions according to Machiavelli must reflect the people they intend to govern. Plato, in contrast, believed well-designed institutions created a virtuous population. Machiavelli believes political culture is distinct from the institutions. The virtues and vices of the people have greater influence on their political institutions than political institutions will have upon the people. There are commonalities here with the social capital theorists like Putnam, Lipset, and Tocqueville. Machiavelli views political institutions as a reflection of its people. Consequently, long term political change is difficult. He writes, “Should a people accustomed to live under a prince by any accident become free… how hard it will be for it to maintain that freedom.” But this passage is easily misinterpreted as an acknowledgement of the challenges of Republican government. In The Prince he writes, “In republics there is more vitality, greater hatred, and more desire for vengeance, which will never permit them to allow the memory of their former liberty to rest.” The citizens of a Republic are unfit under despotism just as much as those accustomed to tyranny cannot easily become citizens of a Republic.
But there is a problem. Republics have descended into despotism and autocracies have gradually democratized. Rome itself descended from a Republic into an Empire while Europe brought about a remarkable transition from dictatorship to democracy. David Stasavage has described this political transformation as the Decline and Rise of Democracy. Machiaevelli recognized civic culture was dynamic. It changes over the course of multiple generations.
Machiavelli understood how the proper institutions for one generation may not make sense for their descendants. But the key for Machiavelli was an emphasis in civic culture rather than institutions for the answer for the success or failure of a polity. Political systems fail because of the participants rather than the institutions. It becomes necessary to redesign institutions over time, but the problem is not in the failure of the institution. The problem is when it no longer reflects the people it is designed to govern. Machiavelli believed institutions needed to change as the civic culture changed over time, “It was necessary that, as in the course of events she had made new laws so likewise she should frame new institutions.”
A common criticism of the United States has been the design of its institutions. Francis Fukuyama has referred to the series of checks and balances as a vetocracy. Many critics believe the source of American polarization and partisan conflict is due to its institutions. There is some truth in this analysis, but it overlooks how the United States has been governed under its constitution for over two hundred years. Its constitution has allowed for remarkable economic and social transformations. This critique fails to explain why these problems have manifested now. Machiavelli has a different answer. He would have said the problem is the people. The representatives reflect the people. Jim Jordan, Mitch McConnell, and Donald Trump are not aberrations imposed upon the body politic. They were elected. Political elites will not change until their constituents want a change.
Political polarization does not have a simple solution. Critics of the American constitution look to the Westminster Model in Britain as an alternative where political action is eased through parliamentary supremacy. And yet, Britain has faced a crisis of inaction in its own approach to Brexit. Citizens say they want government to act, but they want extremely specific policies. Polarization breeds frustration with democracy because people begin to prefer inaction to compromise. Problems are left unresolved. And poor policies compound upon one another.
Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to Make America Great Again. But a truly Machiavellian analysis haunts this desire for nostalgia. Isaiah Berlin encapsulates the American dilemma in this single passage, “Machiavelli’s cardinal achievement is, let me repeat, his uncovering of an insoluble dilemma, the planting of a permanent question mark in the path of posterity. It stems from his de facto recognition that ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration, and that this happens not merely in exceptional circumstances, as a result of abnormality or accident or error… but (this was surely new) as part of the normal human experience.” The ghost of Machiavelli warns us that a commitment to American values may require an abandonment of a part of its political inheritance. The polarization between the political right and left today surrounds the traditions they choose to embrace and those they must forsake.
There is a fundamental insecurity in the nostalgia of the right. There is a worry in the writings of intellectuals like Patrick Deneen about whether liberalism has reshaped civic culture in ways which are irretrievable. The politicians of the right no longer reflect the family values they purport to espouse. Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich have been divorced twice. Anne Case and Angus Deaton go further to explain how white working class culture has been transformed over the past fifty years. There is a fear among the right that the problem has not been liberal policies, but a decline in their virtue.
Machiavelli saw corruption as a natural tendency in any people over time. He different historical experiences shape each generation. He saw polarization as a consequence of success rather than struggle, “The causes of division in a commonwealth are, for the most part, ease and tranquility, while the causes of union are fear and war.” The great Pax Americana has brought about peace and security. But conservatives worry whether it has made its people soft and decadent. Machiavelli recognized there is a fear in the descendants of any great tradition. Are we good enough? Do we deserve all this? These are not questions for politicians to solve. These are challenges we must answer for ourselves.
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