Using the story of Camillus and Rome’s two-front war with its Latin neighbors, Machiavelli gives his interpretation of the role of a good man in a republic:
By this text [about Camillus] one notes what a good and wise man may do, and of how much good he may be the cause, and how useful he can be to his fatherland when by means of his goodness and virtue he has eliminated envy. (III.30.1)
Envy, according to Machiavelli, is the major roadblock great—or even just “competent”—citizens must face when they have a solution to the problems of their nation. Such is human nature that envy must be accounted for in politics even in times of catastrophe for the state. The idea that all of us will automatically work together during emergencies is not a given. Something must be done to offset this problem. Machiavelli suggests there are two possible solutions:
1) That in which each citizen “seeing himself perishing, puts aside every ambition and runs voluntarily to obey him who he believes can free him with his virtue, as happened to Camillus” (III.30.1).
2) Alternatively, envy can be overcome when “those who have been your competitors in coming to some reputation and to some greatness die” (III.30.1).
Either people will see their desperate need to follow a great man in time of crisis, or they will not see it and we just have to hope they die “either by violence or by natural order” before it’s too late and the state is lost (III.30.1).
Why do some states take the first option and some the latter? Why are some saved when they thrust a great man into leadership and follow him, and others lost when they decide they’d rather burn than see that person get the glory? According to Machiavelli, the difference is found in (of course) virtue. This, in turn, is the result of education:
When they [those driven by envy] are men who are used to living in a corrupt city, where the education has not produced any goodness in them, it is impossible that by any accident they ever gainsay themselves; and to obtain their wish and to satisfy their perversity of spirit, they would be content to see the ruin of their fatherland. (III.30.1)
Those who are poorly brought up in a corrupt city in one sense are not at fault—they simply do not have the virtue to be able to see what they ought to do and then actually do it. In another sense, this lack makes them even more guilty, if for no other reason than because at the end of the day their characters are such that only their death will make the city a better place. They may be worthy of pity, but they are also worthy of blame for continuing to be pitiable to the point of ruining the nation.
I’d be curious to hear from those of you who follow individuals in American government more closely than I do. Is “envy” still a serious problem facing our republic? It really doesn’t seem to be something we talk about other than the occasional rhetorical flourish about the envy of the 99 percent for the 1 percent (or vice versa).
At the end of III.30, Machiavelli inserts a brief note about the necessity or order in defending a state. In waging his war, Camillus actually created three armies—one for each front and one to stay home and defend Rome. Machiavelli points out that contrary to the popular wisdom of his own time, this is the best way to defend the homeland. Where some would argue that raising three armies is a needless expense when there are only two battles to be fought and the citizen body (as mentioned earlier) is an armed and trained one to begin with. Of course having an armed population is a great help, but
One ought to note in this text that there is no more dangerous nor more useless defense than that which is done tumultuously and without order. (III.30.2)
I suppose in modern terms we might say that it’s all well and good that you (and I) live in a “red state,” where people are armed to the teeth and aggressively certain that invasion, civil unrest, mob violence, and all other manner of undesirable social conditions will never happen here as long as we have a Second Amendment; but Machiavelli would say we’ve missed the point. Our safety in part involves being armed, trained, and willing to fight; but it mostly involves coordinated effort and top-down organization.
Another lesson we learn from Camillus is that
great men are always the same in every fortune; and if it varies… they do not vary but always keep their spirit firm and joined with their mode of life so that one easily knows for each that fortune does not have power over them. (III.31.1)
Fortune, as Machiavelli has repeatedly emphasized both here and in The Prince, is fickle and cannot be trusted. But men of true virtue will rise above both good and bad fortune so that their characters are unshaken by whatever comes their way. And again we see Machiavelli bypassing the Christian tradition—which says we should be above the influence of the world but not necessarily unaffected by it—and tapping into the old Stoic beliefs of imperturbablity. True greatness is rising above the flux of the world and living the life of divine impassibility.
The same principle of Stoicism applies equally to the republic as a whole. Rome is of course the model of this, never becoming arrogant in its victories nor despondent in its defeats. Machiavelli’s history here is a bit fuzzy at best, if not openly wrong. The Romans were notoriously arrogant. As just one example:
At the time when Antiochus approached Ptolemy and meant to occupy Pelusium, Caius Popilius Laenas, the Roman commander, on Antiochus greeting him from a distance and then holding out his hand, handed to the king, as he had it by him, the copy of the [declaration from the Senate], and told him to read it first, not thinking it proper, as it seems to me, to make the conventional sign of friendship before he knew if the intentions of him who was greeting him were friendly or hostile. But when the king, after reading it, said he would like to communicate with his friends about this intelligence, Popilius acted in a manner which was thought to be offensive and exceedingly arrogant. He was carrying a stick cut from a vine, and with this he drew a circle round Antiochus and told him he must remain inside this circle until he gave his decision about the contents of the letter. The king was astonished at this authoritative proceeding, but, after a few moments’ hesitation, said he would do all that the Romans demanded. Upon this Popilius and his suite all grasped him by the hand and greeted him warmly. (Polybius, The Histories, 29.27)
Clearly the Romans are not exempt from the vice of arrogance, despite Machiavelli’s attempted whitewashing.
With that said, Machiavelli’s point is still worth consideration. Arrogance should not be the result of good fortune, and despondence should not be the result of bad:
…[becoming] insolent in good fortune and abject in bad arises from your mode of proceeding and from the education in which you are raised. When that is weak and vain, it renders you like itself; when it has been otherwise, it renders you also of another fate; and by making you a better knower of the world, it makes you rejoice less in the good and be less aggrieved with the bad. What is said of one alone is said of many who live in one and the same republic: they are made to that perfection that its mode of life has. (III.31.3)
Even if we disagree with his promotion of the Stoic ideal, we can agree with Machiavelli that the response an individual or a republic has to circumstances is the result of education and custom and can be good or bad. Likewise, we can admit the value of an upbringing that enables the citizen or the republic to face both good and bad fortune with moderation, rather than swinging from extreme to extreme with the shifting of the wind.
Machiavelli believes—and I think he’s on to something here—that the military is the best way to measure how well- or ill-prepared a state is to respond to good and bad fortune. A state cannot always be at war, but it should always be training its military. This, in turn, means requiring certain things from the citizen body (who make up the military) that they may not be inclined to do. Who, after all, wants to do push-ups, run laps, and be screamed at by a drill instructor? To say nothing of being willing to do those things during peacetime when such things are not immediately necessary? Those states which do pursue military preparedness thoughtfully, carefully, and with the devotion of the citizen body, are the kinds of states that we should expect to be prepared to respond virtuously to fortune. In the face of good fortune they will be moderate and restrained, and in the face of bad fortune they will work harder without despair. Those states which in times of peace let the military fall by the wayside and trust primarily to luck—either for protection or to give them a chance to catch up when the war does come—are the states which are going to overreact to good and bad fortune alike, and they will ultimately collapse because of their own wildly swinging passions.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.