Machiavelli gave us an early sense of hurdles we face

Samuel Damren

This is the first commentary in a series examining the political observations, analysis and admonitions of Niccolo Machiavelli.

Machiavelli is a controversial figure of the Italian Renaissance.  He is best known as the author of “The Prince,” a work which is routinely vilified as a calculating lesson in amoral politics.  In contrast, Machiavelli’s later work, titled “Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy,” is a scholarly and reflective guide to the pursuit of ideals through applied political theory.

The reason for the difference in direction and tone of the two works is that they were composed with different objectives.

Machiavelli lived in an unstable and violent world where deceit, betrayal, and conspiracy were political currency.  Italian city republics openly vied for power and advantage in episodic military conflict as well as through secret and shifting alliances.  The threat of foreign invasions and violent regime change from internal forces were ever-present.  A brief chronology proves the point.

By the late 1400s, the Medici, an Italian banking family, had indirectly ruled Machiavelli’s birthplace, Florence, for several decades.  A French invasion ousted them from power in 1492.  Under the leadership of charismatic monk Girolamo Savonarola, the city re-constituted itself in 1494 as a republic. Four years later,  Savonarola was burned at the stake in the city square when the populace turned  against him.

 Machiavelli, then age 29 and the son of a lawyer, served succeeding authorities in Florence over the next decade and a half.  Highly regarded, he travelled to other Italian city-republics as well as France, Germanic provinces, and Switzerland as part of his official duties.

The Medici returned to power in Florence in 1512. Machiavelli sought to retain his position.  In 1513, he hastily composed “The Prince” believing its authorship would be evidence of his value.  Addressed to “The Magnificent Lorenzo De Medici,” the work was cast as a survival manual fit for the time and place of the new ruler.

Machiavelli’s plan was derailed after a conspiracy against Lorenzo was uncovered.

Machiavelli and others were taken into custody.  He was tortured on the rack (spared permanent injury) then declared innocent.  As a precaution, however, the Medici directed him to reside outside the city.

Exiled from politics, Machiavelli began to compose “Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy.”  “The Discourses,” which took five years to complete, compares the history of ancient Roman government institutions with the political circumstance of 15th and 16th century Italy.

In “The Discourses,” Machiavelli applied his first-hand knowledge of the fraught, devious and unvarnished workings of the politics of his time to expose and dramatize the competing forces, tensions and ambitions inherent in various forms of government, past and present. 

In the introductory pages, Machiavelli states his agenda: to show the people of Florence and Italy a path to stability, participation, and liberty modeled on a brief period of the ancient Roman Republic when, in Machiavelli’s estimation, government came close to perfection.

“Some who have written about republics declare that in each of them is one of three forms of government, which they call principality, aristocracy and democracy … Wiser men hold the opinion that there are six kinds of government: three of these are very bad; three others are good in themselves but so easily corruptible that they also come to be pernicious {when they} jump from one form to the other: the principality easily becomes tyrannical; aristocracy quite easily becomes the government of the few; and democracy without difficulty turns to anarchy…,” Machiavelli wrote.

“Let me say, therefore, that all the forms mentioned above are defective, because of the brief duration of the good ones, and because of the evil nature of the bad ones,” he added. “Thus … men who were prudent in establishing laws recognized this defect … and chose a form of government that combined them all, judging such a government steadier and more stable, for when in the same city … one keeps watch over the other…

“And fortune was so favorable to Rome … since this authority remained mixed, it created a perfect republic.”

If this description of institutional “checks and balances” as the foundation for a “perfect republic” sounds familiar, it should. The Founding Fathers borrowed many of Machiavelli’s lessons in “The Discourses” to model the American “form of government.”

Government institutions were broken in Machiavelli’s time.  From history and from experience, he knew how that happened. His forewarnings and admonitions on that account will be the focus of commentaries to follow.

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