There is no doubt, in our time or in Machiavelli’s, that women have an important role to play in the life of the state. But just what is that role? We might think in terms of suffrage, equal rights, or grrrl power. Machiavelli, however, doesn’t take such a developmental or progressive view. Having told a story about a mixed marriage that led to civil unrest that led to the conquest of the state, he concludes:
…one sees that women have been causes of much ruin, and have done great harm to those who govern a city, and have caused many divisions in them. (III.26.2)
In fairness, men have historically done far more “harm to those who govern a city” and been the cause of far more divisions in the state than women have ever dreamed of. And I say this as someone who would by no means be classified as a modern feminist (despite my persistent belief that women should be able to vote, hold office, and be paid the same as men for doing the same work). In some ways, this section really does seem unnecessary and ill-thought-out—conditions made worse by the section’s brevity. Of course, we might have even stronger reactions to a longer reflection by Machiavelli on the role of women in the state. Yet a longer essay at least wouldn’t have the feel of so casually and thoughtlessly dismissive an opinion that this section has.
Still, Machiavelli seems to be aiming at something worthwhile, whatever the value of his conclusions. In these last few discourses he is reflecting on the relationships between leaders and the people in a state and the role those relationships have in the decline and collapse of a nation. Women do need to be included in such a reflection, I’m just not sure Machiavelli has really given their role the thought it deserves. If you want to read a different perspective on the place of women in the Middle Ages, Christine de Pizan’s Treasure of the City of Ladies is an excellent place to begin.
Machiavelli uses this discussion to spring into a reflection on how to properly unite a state divided into warring factions. He thinks there are three options, of which only one is truly effective:
1) Kill the leaders of the factions and force the rest to live together;
2) Exile the leaders of the factions and force the rest to live together;
3) Force the leaders of the factions to be at peace with each other and to promise to play nice in the future.
“Of these three modes, this last is the most harmful, least certain, and most useless” (III.27.1). To be fair, Machiavelli is considering a state that appears to have been through some form of extreme civil war (based on the examples he provides). When so much blood has been shed,
it is impossible… that a peace made by force last, since every day they together look themselves in the face; and it is difficult for them to abstain from injuring one another, since every day new causes of quarrel can arise among them through interchange. (III.27.1)
The second option does work to some extent, but not nearly as well as the first, since it always involves the possibility of one side or the other making a return and bringing back civil strife. Alas, people these days are wimps and refuse to follow the strict examples of the past by executing those who divide a state. “The weakness of men at present, caused by their weak education and their slight knowledge of things, makes them judge ancient judgments in part inhuman, in part impossible” (III.27.2).
Whether one adopts the first or second option, in either case the recognition must be that ruling a divided state is impossible. At the end of the day, the government will find that
it is impossible for you to maintain both these parties [in the divided state] friendly to yourself, whether you govern them as prince or as republic. For it is given by nature to men to take sides in any divided thing whatever, and for this to please them more than that. (III.27.3)
This is especially pernicious in a republic, where the two factions will race each other into corruption in an attempt to get the upper hand over and above the other. And whenever the government takes one side in a given issue (however just and right it may be that they do so), the other side automatically becomes rebellious.
I’ve mentioned this before, but here Machiavelli is in exact agreement with Madison and the Federalist Papers. In Federalist 10, Madison comments on the danger of faction:
The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it. The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations.
While Madison believes the Constitution rather than the gallows is the solution to the problem of faction, his view of the root issue is functionally the same.
Yet another danger to the state is… mercy. That is, the state is endangered when the rich and powerful use mercy to buy support for themselves in their bid for power. “Here,” Machiavelli says, “it is to be noted that many times works that appear merciful, which cannot reasonably be condemned, become cruel and are very dangerous for a republic…” (III.28.1). Obviously such works cannot be forbidden by a strong state—not least because “a republic without reputed citizens cannot stand” (III.28.1). The state which does not have the kind of people willing to give and serve generously is a wicked republic and will collapse; yet the citizens who are willing to give and serve generously are those who gain the sort of reputation that becomes the foundation for tyranny.
The best way to offset this danger, according to Machiavelli, is to maintain a clear and publicly acknowledged (even legally acknowledged) separation between different kinds of charitable works. Works that are done in public, through public means, and for the good of the public are to be encouraged by the state and rewarded with the appropriate reputation. Charitable works, however, that are done privately, through private means, and for the personal aggrandizement of the benefactor are to be condemned—and maybe even punished.
If a principality does begin to decline, its prince has no one to blame but himself. The people always imitate what they see in their leadership. If the leader is greedy, the people become greedy. If he is violent, they become violent. And so on. While this principle may not work as a stand-alone political idea, in the context of Machiavelli’s discussion of the collapse of a state it is an important note. The organic and causal relationship between the governors and the governed has to be a part of our overall analysis of the collapse of the state.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.