Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: III.32-34

“Legio-V-Caesar-PAX-Augusta” by CVDSCO – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


There are times when individuals or factions within the state desperately want war, either because they have committed war crimes and fear the consequences of peace or because they think they can win—if only their state will put its whole effort into it. Machiavelli uses several ancient examples to suggest that when this is the case, the best option is to do the political and military equivalent of burning the bridges that might have led to a peaceful resolution.

And truly, when anyone wishes that either a people or a prince should altogether take away the spirit for an accord, there is no remedy more true or more stable than to make them use some grave criminality against the one with whom you do not wish the accord to be made. For the fear of that penalty which will appear deserved to him because of the error committed will always keep it at a distance. (III.32.1)

So when the war hawks in the government are concerned that the hippies might be winning in the court of public opinion, their best bet is to (drawing on one of Machiavelli’s examples) murder the ambassador from the opposing nation—after torturing him extensively and then promising to do the same to every citizen from that nation they can find. And while we undoubtedly would reject the specific suggestion, there’s still something about Machiavelli’s advice that resonates in the modern world. There are always those in every nation who want war, and by words and actions played carefully and at just the right time, they manage to drive their nation in that direction.

Of course, if we’re going to go to war, we’d better be darn sure we’re going to be able to win it. Which means taking appropriate steps in advance: “If one wishes an army to win a battle, it is necessary to make it confident so that it believes it ought to win in every mode” (III.33.1). Confidence is key, but not the kind of confidence you get from a modern self-help book. The power of positive thinking comes not from feeling good about yourself, but from hard work, practice, quality equipment, and community:

The things that make it confident are: that it be armed and ordered well, that [its members] know one another. Nor can this confidence or this order arise except in soldiers who have been born and have lived together. (III.33.1)

The confident army is one that lives together, trains hard, and has good equipment. But even this isn’t quite enough; if the army itself must be capable, its leader must be invincible in the eyes of the men:

The captain must be esteemed of a quality that they trust in his prudence; and they will always trust if they see him ordered, solicitous, and spirited and if he holds up the majesty of his rank well and with reputation. (III.33.1)

The ancient Romans generated this confidence between the captain and the men through the use of religion. That is, in addition to being competent and hard working and a great tactician and all the other characteristics we’d expect in a great general, the captain was publicly devout. No battles would be undertaken without consulting the oracles and no movements would be made contrary to the auguries. This in turn convinced the men not only that the captain was a great man, but that he was in tune with the gods themselves. The confidence resulting in the army was such that even in the face of the worst fortune and the occasional bad general, the battle could still be won.

Again, Machiavelli is playing somewhat fast and loose with history for the purpose of making his overall point. One of the things that distinguished Roman generals was their willingness to march and fight contrary to the results of the hepatoscopy (yes, that’s a thing). But in the context of book 3 of the Discourses, the point is that the link of confidence between the army, the general, and whatever the binding agent—whether religion or something else—must be maintained if the state is to stay strong. When those things begin to break down, when the norm is fighting contrary to the revelations of the oracles or under an incompetent general or with an ill-equipped or ill-trained army, then the state is in serious trouble. At least, that seems to be the implication given the placement of this discussion in book 3 instead of with the rest of the military observations in book 2…

How exactly should we pick our political leaders? Are the people as a whole better at it than the prince as an individual? (In a modern American context, for example, we might consider whether the Supreme Court ought to be elected, or at least have some form of popular input in the selection process.) Machiavelli addressed this question earlier and concluded that the people are better, but here he returns to the question and expands on his original answer.

The people are better at picking public officials because of how one comes to the public’s attention in the first place. Specifically, we only know of these potential office-holders either as they are filtered “through public word and fame” or “through the presumption or opinion that one [already] has of him,” or “through his known works” (III.34.2). That is, we know someone because they are new celebrities, because they’ve been in the public eye for a while, or because they’ve done something great for the civic body. Those who are new in the public eye are, according to Machiavelli, usually just there because of their connections to other famous people. This really isn’t the best way to choose a leader, but he also thinks that the unworthy will eventually crash and burn anyway when their good reputation “is soon consumed when the virtue proper to him who has to be judged does not accompany it” (III.34.2).

The second method, that of already being known by the people, Machiavelli thinks is slightly better since over time the people get to know your strengths and weaknesses. Best of all is the third method, because once a public figure has done something great for the state his reputation is now founded on “fact and your own work,” rather than “opinion, which… is very easy to cancel” (III.34.2). Over time and with repetitions of this kind of service, these individuals rise in the public opinion and are quite rightly voted into office.

And it’s at this point that Machiavelli throws a big fat disclaimer into his conclusion that the people are better at selecting leaders than a single prince:

Because it can be that peoples might deceive themselves about the fame, opinion, and work of a man, esteeming them greater than they are in truth—which would not happen to a prince because he would be told and warned by whoever counseled him—so that peoples too do not lack these assemblies, good orderers of republics have ordered that when they have to create the supreme ranks of the city… when it is seen that the popular vogue is directed toward creating someone who might be inadequate, it is permitted to every citizen and is attributed to his glory to make public in councils the defect of that one, so that the people, not lacking knowledge of him, can judge better. (III.34.4)

So the people can make better decisions about who should fill public office so long as there is an institutional apparatus in place similar to that which we might expect to see in a principality. Namely: there must be some kind of mechanism to reveal the weaknesses and defects of candidates for office so that the people aren’t completely hoodwinked by a well-run campaign. Whoever happens to be the popular man of the moment needs to be examined and his faults made public lest the people make a poor judgment call.

In one sense this passage is pretty straight-forward compared with what we’ve seen so far. Just as in war and foreign policy and conspiracy, Machiavelli is encouraging us to be honest about public officials and their capabilities. We should be aware that however popular someone is, they are going to have weaknesses and deficiencies that need to be accounted for before putting them into office.

And yet, I might be misreading this passage, but Machiavelli surprised me here with his sunshiney optimism about the people’s ability to make good judgment calls when electing officials. It may be that this discussion only applies to a virtuous republic, but he doesn’t explicitly say that. Which leaves us in the position of wondering what he would do with a society that has total access to every aspect of the private lives of public figures, sees them warts and all, and still insists on selecting officials for shallow, ideological, or even lazy reasons. We have an upcoming presidential election, and as one of my friends said: we know well that there are people who will still vote for Democrat Candidate X or Republican Candidate Y even if both candidates get together and worship Satan on stage. And I’m just not sure Machiavelli would know what to do with a society like ours, again unless I’m missing something in this discourse…


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

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