Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: III.19-21

“Erasmus” by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1523


Is it better to rule with an iron fist that brooks no dissent or with an open hand that reflexively forgives and judges charitably when resisted? Machiavelli unequivocally argues that we need a bit of both, depending on our circumstances:

Considering how one could have both of these opinions, I say: you have to rule either men who are ordinarily partners with you or men who are always subject to you. When they are partners with you, one cannot use punishment entirely…. But whoever commands subjects…ought to turn rather to punishment than to compliance so that they do not become insolent and do not trample on you because of too much easiness from you. (III.19.1)

A citizen of a republic who finds himself in command of other citizens ought to rule with a generous and compassionate attitude. Machiavelli argues that this is the example set by the Roman republic in their greatest victories. Their losses were often the result of commanders arrogantly oppressing their own soldiers to the point where the Roman generals were hated almost as much as the enemy.

A prince, however, ought to rule with an appropriate degree of harshness so that the subjects being ruled do not start to think of themselves as his equals. And yet with that said, Machiavelli tempers even this seemingly harsh language:

But this ought also to be moderated so that one escapes hatred, for to make oneself hated never turns out well for any prince. (III.19.1)

Caligula‘s maxim that a ruler ought to “let them hate, so long as they fear” is simply mistaken in Machiavelli’s view. A good prince will avoid hatred as much as possible, which means doing no harm to his citizens unless he is simultaneously robbing them, or it is absolutely necessary—”and this necessity comes rarely” (III.19.1). If the prince is using his power to take the goods of his subjects, then, as he had argued earlier, bloodshed is necessary. Nevertheless, Machiavelli thinks these actions are generally bad policy and to be avoided if possible, especially in light of how powerful generosity and a humane approach to government can be.

As proof of the ability of kindness to win power above what arms could accomplish, Machiavelli recites one of my favorite stories from Roman history:

When Camillus was with the army around the city of the Falisci and besieging it, a schoolmaster of the noblest children of that city, thinking to gratify Camillus and the Roman people, went out of the town with them under covor of exercise, led them all to the camp before Camillus, and presented them, saying that through them the town would give itself into his hands. Not only was that present not accepted by Camillus, but, having stripped that master and bound his hands behind him, and given each one of those children a rod in hand, he had him accompanied to town with many beatings from them. (III.20.1)

The besieged were so impressed by the Romans that they opened their gates and ended the war. “Here,” Machiavelli says, “it is to be considered with this true example how much more a humane act full of charity is sometimes able to do… than a ferocious and violent act” (III.20.1). And if the temporary glory of contemporary victory is not enough, Machiavelli points out that these are the things that historians and poets like to highlight, making the generous leader all the more glorious throughout history.

All of this is not, however, to say that cruelty and viciousness have no place in victory and glory. Machiavelli shows that the opposite may be the case through the example of Hannibal. Machiavelli asks how is it that the Roman commander Scipio could achieve lasting glory and immediate success by generosity and humanity, while Hannibal could achieve exactly the same ends “with modes all contrary—that is, with cruelty, violence, robbery, and every type of faithlessness” (III.21.1)?

Machiavelli gives a cursory answer to his question, arguing that “men are desirous of new things, so much that most often those who are well off desire newness as much as those who are badly off” (III.21.2). Listlessness and ennui drive us to embrace whatever is new and exciting, even if it is offensive to our liberal sensibilities. And I think this is a true and useful observation as far as it goes, but Machiavelli doesn’t work it out as much as he might have. I suspect his true purpose is more of an attempt to soften what follows than anything else. Specifically, he’s padding his answer to the question why do cruelty and kindness have the same results in the course of human affairs?

Besides this [listlessness], men are driven by two principal things, either by love or by fear; so whoever makes himself loved commands, as does he who makes himself feared….

Therefore, it is of little import to a captain whichever of these ways he walks in, provided that he is a virtuous man and that the virtue makes him reputed among men. For when it is great, as it was in Hannibal and in Scipio, it cancels all those errors that are made so as to make oneself loved too much or to make oneself feared too much… for he who desires too much to be loved becomes despicable, however little he departs from the true way; the other, who desires too much to be feared, becomes hateful, however little he exceeds the mode. One cannot hold exactly to the middle way, for our nature does not consent to it… (III.21.2–3)

In other words, kindness and cruelty can lead to the same end when they are driven by “virtue,” which in this case quite clearly means “being able to win battles.” If you are a competent, capable, virtuous leader, it doesn’t matter whether you choose to go the route of generosity or the route of violence—so long as you stick to that route and don’t waffle between the two (again we see Machiavelli’s loathing of “the middle way” make an appearance). To be sure, the leader needs to offset his tendency to go too far to one extreme or the other—cruelty must be somewhat tempered, while forgiveness likewise should never be absolute in politics—but that offsetting is something which occurs on the extremes, not from a moderate balancing of violence with gentleness.

And, well, if saying that kindness and cruelty can equally be put into the service of virtue sounds extreme to a jaded twenty-first-century American used to thinking about politics through the filter of Watergate, illegal government wiretapping, and college professors-turned-presidents drunk with their own egos, how much more so must this have been a shock to the medieval literary world. Not that they wouldn’t have been familiar with such attitudes being expressed by power hungry princes or corrupt popes, but you weren’t supposed to say these things out loud. Instead, philosophers were to write books which encouraged leaders to embrace the classical and Christian virtues of humility, self-control, patience, and so on; they certainly were not to equate these virtues with viciousness and violence because they could equally accomplish the same ends. How this can be the case, Machiavelli takes up in the next discourse.


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

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