On Niccolò Machiavelli’s Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius

This was originally written as a five-page final paper in partial fulfillment of the requirements for  PHIL 2073.


It is often stated, by scholars and historians alike, that while The Prince (1513) is undoubtedly Machiavelli’s more widely known work, it remains a point in fact that the Discourses (1521), presumably written around the same time as the Prince, elaborates Machiavelli’s political thought in a more historical and philosophical manner than that of the first aforementioned book.

The Discourses denotes to be a commentary upon the first ten books, which were the only ones that remained of the great work, of Titus Livius’ (57-29 B.C.) History of Rome. In the Discourses, Machiavelli takes Roman history as the point of departure with an attempt to probe into the nooks and crannies of the body politic and to highlight the many aspects in the development of Roman political system that made up “the glory that was Rome” and brought the entire early Western civilization to its feet.

The Discourses is divided into three books. Book I concentrates on the constitutional evolution of Rome and on domestic politics. Book II turns to military and foreign affairs and the development of the Roman empire. Book III discusses the various qualities of the great leaders that enabled Rome to remain seated in power for such a long time, from the viewpoint of Renaissance Italy. In the introduction to the Discourses, Machiavelli speaks of his position as qualified, granted by his “long experience and continuous study of worldly affairs” that what he will be presenting in his book is something unprecedented, something no man before him has yet spoken in the realm of modern political tactics.

…it has always been no less dangerous to discover new methods and institutions than to explore unknown oceans and lands, since men are quicker to criticize than to praise the deeds of others. Nevertheless, driven by that natural desire I have always felt to work on whatever might prove beneficial to everyone, I have determined to enter a path which has not yet been taken by anyone…

Machiavelli’s exploration into the deep recesses of the past in order to give an elaborate description of it is guided by the same spirit that is also found in The Prince. History, according to Machiavelli, is viewed as a storehouse, precisely as in his first book, by the following reasons:

1. Human nature is predictably selfish.

2. Historical situations repeat themselves.

To provide a substantial explanation for these claims, Machiavelli writes in the Discourses,

“As is demonstrated by all those who discuss civic life (and as history is full of such examples), it is necessary for anyone who organizes a republic and institutes laws to take for granted that all men are evil and that they will always express the wickedness of their spirit whenever they have the opportunity; and when such wickedness remains hidden for a time, this is due to a hidden cause that is not recognized by those without experiences; but then time, which is said to be the father of every truth, will uncover it.”

···

“Anyone who studies present and ancient affairs will easily see how in all cities and in all peoples there still exist, and have always existed, the same desires and passions. Thus, it is an easy matter for him who carefully examines past events to foresee future events in a republic and to apply the remedies employed by the ancients, if old remedies cannot be found, to devise new ones based upon the similarity of events.”

···

Prudent men often say, neither casually nor groundlessly, that anyone wishing to see what is to come should examine what has been, for all the affairs of the world in every age have had their counterparts in ancient times. This is because these affairs are carried on by men who have, and have always had, the same passions and, of necessity, by the same results come from them.

Here we find, as in The Prince, that the success of the statecraft lies in the ability of men to imitate. Machiavelli points out that historical events repeat themselves in an observable manner and through such a repetition, they can obtain something from the previous circumstances that once challenged and perplexed those who came before them, either be it in a form of a leadership technique or of a political strategy. The striking point of difference of The Prince to that of the Discourses is that we are advised to imitate republics as well as great men. The former focused primarily on the leadership of a prince, whereas the latter affirmed in it the republican sentiment of the author. It is “clearer than the sun”, so as to quote Machiavelli, that “ancient Roman times” in particular should be imitated.

Moreover, Machiavelli stresses out in the Discourses his personal preferences towards a republican regime without affecting or altering, first of all, his basic views on the process of politics, regardless of the form of its constitution, be it a republican or a despotic. Machiavelli continually stresses that a republic with mixed constitution is able to create and sustain a proper citizenry. For him, because the constitution of Rome mixed elements of kingly, aristocratic and democratic authority, “Rome was a perfect state”. What Machiavelli refers to when he speaks of a “mixed constitution”, is a kind of conglomeration with the different kinds of political constitutions. For a state to attain its political victory, there must be kingly ruler to facilitate and order the state, that is for Machiavelli, must be a price, an aristocratic class to serve as the middlemen and a democratic authority to provide for the people a means to express their sentiments towards their rulers. Machiavelli points out that if the prince is let alone to govern the state, the state will surely fall into ruins, for a prince can be drastic at times, selfish and irrational in his decisions concerning the affairs of the state. This is where the democratic aspect of the state plays its vital part. The people, by the power vested upon them by their democratic rights, have the capacity to interfere with various political undertakings. Machiavelli, with the history of Rome as his guiding light, believes that the interplay of these major political structures, as what was exemplified by the Romans, contribute to the success of the state.

Aside from the fact that a republican regime with mixed constitutions is able to create and sustain a proper citizenry. Machiavelli also emphasizes that a republican regime is also able to preserve liberty. By “liberty”, Machiavelli only means that the state is self-governed. He lauds Sparta rather than Athens. Sparta lasted eight centuries precisely because it was well constituted. The people in a free republic, such as Spart and Rome, provide stability and endurance; they remember their liberty well enough to defend themselves whenever the threat arises or whenever the situation calls for it. Machiavelli strongly adheres to his claim in his book that “since there cannot be good laws without good arms, I will not consider laws but speak of arms”

Another praiseworthy feature of a republic is its capacity for innovation and expansion, which for Machiavelli must be the ultimate, if not one of the primary, goals of the state. Machiavelli does not believe that the peace and concord must be the goals of the republic. For him, expansion and greatness are thrust upon any city that wants to preserve its liberty. A republic must organize itself so that “should necessity impel it to expand, it may do so and conserve its acquisitions.”

The fourth advantage of a republic is its very capacity for attaining glory. The fear of meaninglessness, of death, or of oblivion is countered by the attainment of glory. Machiavelli gives a discussion of glory in The Prince but finds its more elaborate emphasis on the Discourses. A republic, for Machiavelli, is a far more richer ground for nourishing glory than a princedom. A republic is like an open highway with its many avenues that opens up more opportunities for men to obtain glory. A robust republic also has a long memory lane in a sense that the citizens do remember and pays tribute to the countless experiences that speaks so clearly of their greatness.

Indeed, it was unmistakable; that blinding ray of light that illuminates an empire that once stood out in the history of Roman antiquity and gave its name a peculiar immortality, and which, after the fall of the great Roman empire, still lingers the ghostly shadows of its past to remind us, that once upon a time in the history of Western civilization, there was once an empire that lived like no other in the world, and there was once a man who stood believing that classical Rome was the archetype and paragon of all attempts at politics.

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