Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: III.16-18

Viscount James Bryce


In a sentiment that would later be echoed by Viscount James Bryce, the great observer of American politics, Machiavelli notes that

It has always been, and will always be, that great and rare men are neglected in a republic in peaceful times. (III.16.1)

Why is it, Viscount Bryce would ask four centuries later, that great men are not elected president? One reason Bryce gives is that they are simply not needed when things are going well. Machiavelli puts a darker spin on it: it’s not just that great men are neglected in times of peace and prosperity, they are actively disdained:

For through the envy that the reputation their virtue has given them has brought with it, one finds very many citizens in such times who wish to be not their equals but their superiors. (III.16.1)

It would be one thing if we merely ignored the virtuous when things were going well, but in a republic we actively do our best to tear them down to our level and even raise ourselves above them. (Here, Tocqueville rather than Bryce becomes Machiavelli’s echo.)

Such is doubly damaging to a republic, first because of the injustice itself of ignoring great men’s advice—Machiavelli barely mentions this in passing, pointing to Thucydides and the famous debates between Nicias and Alcibiades over the Sicilian expedition as evidence. Greater damage, however, is done through the twofold effect this injustice has on those virtuous men:

…in republics there is the disorder of giving little esteem to worthy men in quiet times. That thing makes them indignant in two modes: one, to see themselves lacking their rank; the other, to see unworthy men of less substance than they made partners and superiors to themselves. (III.16.2)

At best this is, as already said, unjust; at worst it leads to conspiracy and revolution as the disgruntled great men become increasingly unhappy with their lot in life. And if at this point Machiavelli is beginning to sound a bit like Ayn Rand, his solution is certainly not for the capable to petulantly withdraw from society into self-indulgent isolation. Instead, Machiavelli says there are two options:

Thinking over what could be the remedies, I find two of them: one, to maintain the citizens poor so that they cannot corrupt either themselves or others with riches and without virtue; the other, to be ordered for war so that one can always make war and always has need of reputed citizens. (III.16.2)

In the first “remedy” to the problem facing republics, Machiavelli is simply arguing that an impoverished citizen body has bigger worries than fretting over its social standing relative to the virtuous and capable in society. A point with which few could reasonably disagree.

I think the second remedy is much more interesting, as it draws on a longstanding interpretation of Roman history applied by the Romans themselves. Both the pagan historian Sallust and the Christian theologian Augustine argued that Rome began its slide away from whatever original virtue it had into decadence and, eventually, tyranny only when it defeated its last military enemy and had nothing left forcing it to be good. It seems to be generally agreed that hard times build national character, however little we actually want to face those hard times if given the choice. Machiavelli’s suggestion that a state ought to intentionally cultivate virtue by being perpetually at war strikes us as abhorrent, of course,  even as we can recognize the reasoning behind it.

(As a side note: this very problem becomes a theme in mid-twentieth century science fiction. How can we have a generation that matches the virtue of the World War II generation without replicating the Great Depression and World War II itself? How can such character be built without throwing the whole nation back into such desperate circumstances? Various answers are given in the works of Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, and Cordwainer Smith, among others.)

If a state decides to reconsider its capital punishment laws, the recently released prisoner who had wrongly been sitting on death row for the last two decades should probably not be put in charge of the reforms. At least, that’s Machiavelli’s advice:

A republic ought to consider very much not putting someone over any important administration to whom any notable injury has been done by another. (III.17.1)

While Machiavelli’s example of a general who decides he will either win glory or see himself revenged in the defeat of the state is probably a more extreme condition than most republics will regularly find themselves in, he still makes a good point. Before giving someone authority or high office, we should be sure that they have no secret agendas that involve revenge on their enemies and that they are not driven by bitterness against a system that has failed them. Machiavelli notes that this is a serious danger even in a strong and virtuous state, to say nothing of republics in decline. This leads him to the somewhat tangential conclusion (which is still clearly an important point, even if oddly placed in the discourse) that

Because one cannot give a certain remedy for such disorders that arise in republics, it follows that it is impossible to order a perpetual republic, because its ruin is caused through a thousand unexpected ways. (III.17.1)

Why it is that this particular unfixable danger leads to the conclusion that there can never be an eternal republic isn’t clear. Machiavelli has commented on many such dangers up until now, and he does not especially distinguish this one beyond saying it is a danger to strong and weak republics alike. In any case, it is worth noting that for Machiavelli there should be no hope of establishing a Hobbsean “mortal god” (more on that in a few months) which will survive whatever contingencies the world may throw at it. Our expectations for our republic should be kept reasonable, historical, and limited.

The very greatest leaders are those who can correctly predict and interpret the actions and motives of the enemy. Machiavelli’s examples all involve the battlefield, but clearly there is application to every aspect of political life.

Because such knowledge is difficult, he who employs himself so as to make conjectures about them deserves so much the more praise. (III.18.1)

Careful consideration of the enemy and a correct understanding of his actions can mean the difference between victory and defeat. This is the beginning of a discussion on leadership that we will take up in the next post.


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

2 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: III.16-18”

  1. Frank

    You wrote, paraphrasing the arguments of others: “…Rome began its slide away from whatever original virtue it had into decadence and, eventually, tyranny only when it defeated its last military enemy and had nothing left forcing it to be good.” So we’re back to I.3 – necessity is a precondition to virtue?

    I don’t think modern warfare causes those of us in the U.S. to be any more virtuous. We rallied after 9/11, but I’m not sure our “national character” has improved since. But maybe our national effort isn’t at the same level of intensity as it was during WWII, coming out of the Great Depression.

    • Coyle Neal

      Great callback Frank, it does seem that necessity is a precondition for virtue, hence NM’s insistence that we falsely generate the conditions requisite for it if they’re not already in place organically.

      I think I agree with you about modern warfare, at least on the homefront. Part of the “necessity” that generates virtue seems to be the need for suffering and sacrifice. Our last few Presidents have been pretty insistent that no American should ever have to do either, and whatever else our wars in the last two or three decades have done, they haven’t affected the American populace as a whole the way WW2 did.


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