Continuing his discussion of how cruelty and kindness are different paths to the same kind of glory, Machiavelli recounts the lives of Manlius Torquatus and Valerius Corvinus:
They lived in Rome with like virtue, with like triumphs and glory, and each of them, in what pertained to the enemy, acquired it with like virtue; but in what belonged to the armies and to their dealings with the soldiers they proceeded very diversely. For Manlius commanded his soldiers with every kind of severity… Valerius, on the other hand, dealt with them with every humane mode and means and full of a familiar domesticity. (III.22.1)
Both had the full obedience of the troops in battle and both defeated the enemy on the battlefield in the name of Rome, and so by their “virtue” (which means in this case military victory) achieved glory. From these facts, Machiavelli considers four things:
1) Why Manlius was so strict;
2) Why Valerius was so humane;
3) Why these two approaches had the same result;
4) Which is better for us to copy.
1) Looking at the character of Manlius as recorded in Livy, we “see him as a very strong man, pious towards his father and his fatherland, and very reverent to his superiors” (III.22.1). In other words, Manlius was a strong Roman commander of the old school who saw perfection in himself and demanded it from others, and so made up the gap between his demands and the imperfections of his soldiers with harsh discipline. Manlius is the Clint Eastwood character who knows he can march fifty miles in a day and demands that his men do the same, driving them to it with the cruelty necessary to keep them going but simultaneously being able and willing to set the example himself. Machiavelli notes that the wisdom needed to be this kind of leader is the ability to see the proper proportion between the abilities and demands of the commanders and the abilities—even if only latent abilities—of those being commanded:
Here it is to be noted that if one wishes to be obeyed, it is necessary to know how to command; and those know how to command who make a comparison between their qualities and those of whoever has to obey, and when they see proportion there, then they may command; when disproportion, they abstain from it. (III.22.1)
The good commander, even if he uses cruel methods, will be honest about the disparity between himself, what he wants from his men, and their actual abilities. When he sees a disproportion between these things, he adjusts his commands accordingly. When he sees them existing in balance, he issues his commands and demands obedience even if those being commanded do not believe themselves capable of obeying.
In an aside, Machiavelli notes that the same is true on the larger scale in the republic as a whole. When tough reforms are being undertaken, this balance must likewise be maintained because it is how we see that the violent means of reform have an end point. We can understand, for example, that by tightening our belts now we are becoming the sort of citizen body who in the future will be able to live well, to the point where tight belts no longer hurt. If, however, there is disproportion in the violence of the reforms, we cannot see this end and believe the suffering will be perpetual, which means we will follow whatever aspiring tyrant promises us a return to normalcy.
At the end of the day, Machiavelli thinks that people like Manlius are especially useful for the republic since they embody the founding spirit of the state, and open a door for a renewal of those founding principles in the present:
They are useful in a republic because they return its orders toward their beginning and into its ancient virtue. As we said above, if a republic were so happy that it often had one who with his example might renew the laws, and not only restrain it from running to ruin but pull it back, it would be perpetual. (III.22.3)
Manlius represents the type of person who embodies the spirit of a nation and inspires the citizens to remember who they are and who restores in the modern world the ideals of the past.
2) Valerius gets much less attention than Manlius, for reasons that are not entirely clear.
On the other hand, Valerius could proceed humanely as one to whom it was enough that things be observed that were customary to observe in the Roman armies. That custom, because it was good, was enough to honor him; and it was not toilsome to observe it, and it did not necessitate Valerius’s punishing transgressors, whether because there were none or because, when there had been some, they imputed their punishment, as was said, to the orders [traditions/laws] and not to the cruelty of the prince. (III.22.3)
Valerius likewise respects the customs and traditions of the state, but instead of driving men to the extreme of excellence by cruelty, he drives them by a generous interpretation of custom. Which means when he does have to punish men they understand that he is following custom and not drawing from a well of cruelty within himself, and so they love him all the more for it. Love for their commander drives the men rather than fear of his wrath.
3) “Hence it arises that since both had the same obedience, they could produce the same effect while working diversely” (III.22.3). Why is it that both methods led to the same glorious result? Because they generated the same kind of obedience on the part of those receiving the general’s orders. Each produces “the same effect,” despite “working diversely.” Machiavelli notes that both have their dangers which can only be escaped “with an excessive virtue that is in you, and not otherwise” (III.22.3).
4) “It remains now to consider which of these two modes of proceeding is more praiseworthy” (III.22.4). While both have their historical proponents, Machiavelli notes that those who advise princes tend to prefer the path of generosity and kindness. Although both methods have something to recommend them, at the end of the day Machiavelli thinks that it depends on whether we’re looking at a republic or a principality. If the state is a republic, then the path of Manlius is preferable if only because it is more honest:
I say that in a citizen who lives under the laws of a republic, I believe the proceeding of Manlius is more praiseworthy and less dangerous, because this mode is wholly in favor of the public and does not in any part have regard to private ambition. (III.22.4)
In other words, no one chooses to be cruel in order to make friends, and if such an individual does manage to achieve glory all can see that he has done it by himself and through his own virtue. None of his detractors will be able to argue that he has achieved his glory by climbing deceitfully over the backs of others through affected friendliness.
If, however, we’re looking at a principality, “we shall take the side altogether of Valerius… for a prince ought to seek obedience and love in soldiers and in subjects” (III.22.5). This spirit of generosity may work for a short time in a republic as well, but Machiavelli worries about the long-term effects on the freedom of the state of being regularly gentle. Over time, such a generous republic will eventually come to hate those who display the characteristics of Manlius, and the benefits these individuals bring to the republic will therefore ultimately be lost. Camillus is Machiavelli’s example of this, who was cruel and strict in a time of liberality, and so was considered proud by the people and consequently was hated, despite his repeated military victories.
Why did the Roman republic eventually fall? Machiavelli gives two reasons:
1) “the contentions that arose from the Agrarian law” (discussed here);
2) and “the prolongation of commands” (III.24.1).
Focusing on the second reason, Machiavelli argues that as terms of service became longer and longer in various offices of the Roman Republic—including those of general and provincial governor—the number of people who could fill them decreased, until finally only a handful of aristocrats were working in government anyway. This had, according to Machiavelli, the two-fold effect that on the one hand, when new people did manage to enter the higher ranks of government, they were ill-equipped to do the job well and so made those who had long terms of service look that much better; and on the other hand the commanders of armies had more opportunity to make those armies loyal to them personally instead of being loyal to the state. “Because of this, Caesar could seize the fatherland” (III.24.1).
What’s more, even though longer-serving commanders meant that Rome had better generals, it also meant that Rome could expand more quickly, which in turn grew the state geographically and economically. This expansion continued until Rome was corrupted by its size and opulence. After all, the best way to preserve freedom, Machiavelli argues in Discourse III.25, is to keep the citizens of the republic poor. When the Roman Republic was poor in its early days, it was virtuous across the board:
…nothing frightened or terrified them [on the battlefield]. When they later returned to private status, they became frugal, humble, careful of their small competencies, obedient to the magistrates, reverent to their superiors… (III.25.1)
The great example of this, according to Machiavelli, is Cincinnatus. Where we might expect to think of Cincinnatus as the model of civic virtue and humility contrasted with the lust for power, Machiavelli seems to think that he best represents the free soul who is content with poverty. I’ve got mixed feelings about this analysis. Yes poverty can provide the opportunity for great virtue, but Marx was on to something when he held that filling bellies should probably be the first priority of the state. It’s one thing to be intentionally self-restrained in the face of modes—or immodest—wealth, it’s another thing to intentionally impoverish the nation in the hopes of keeping it virtuous. Then again, maybe I’ve just been in academia long enough that I’ve drunk the leftist Kool-Aid. For what it’s worth, I feel the same way about my faith. Suffering is one of the means of sanctification, which does not mean that I rush to embrace suffering. I suspect that both politically and religiously I am the one in the wrong…
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.