Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: III.38-42

“The March to Valley Forge” by William B. T. Trego


Winning wars requires great armies, and having great armies requires great generals. But where do these great generals come from? According to Machiavelli, they are made from men who have already achieved greatness elsewhere. A general quoted in Livy says to his men:

I want you to follow my deeds, not my words; to seek from me not only discipline but also example, who have won for myself with this right hand three consulates and the highest praise. (III.38.1)

“These words,” Machiavelli tells us, “considered well, teach to anyone whatever how he ought to proceed if he wishes to hold the rank of captain” (III.38.1). Now in one sense of course Machiavelli hasn’t actually told us anything. How did that man become great in the first place? What did he do to win the consulate three times? What sorts of training and self-discipline did he undergo? But asking those questions is to some extent missing the point. If we want to win, we need to have great men in charge of our military—and that means not just men who can sell themselves well with eloquence (“ferocious only in words”) but who have proven themselves capable time and again (II.38.1). When we’re considering who should lead the military, how great candidates have achieved their greatness elsewhere really isn’t relevant.

With that said, there are some areas of achievement that are better than others for forging generals. One place in particular where greatness will show itself is in hunting. The great general must be able to get a feel for terrain at a single glance, and the best way to do that is by becoming an accomplished hunter, even if only in one specific region. Intimate knowledge of one place grants the skills necessary to understand any place:

Once one individual has made himself very familiar with a region, he then understands with ease all new countries; for every country and every member of the latter have some conformity together, so that one passes easily from the knowledge of one to the knowledge of the other. But whoever has not well practiced one of them can only with difficulty—indeed never, unless after a long time—know the other. Whoever has this practice knows with one glance of his eye how that plain lies, how that mountain rises, where this valley reaches, and all other such things of which he has in the past made a firm science. (III.39.2)

I can’t quite buy Machiavelli’s idea that if you know one kind of terrain you’ll automatically have a sense for them all, but his point that being able to read the land quickly can be learned through familiarity with one’s home is probably still a good one. Nor is hunting the only way to get this kind of skill—George Washington gained it through surveying.

In addition to a feel for the land, the great general will have a mastery of deceit. Machiavelli is clear that although deceit “may at some time acquire a state and kingdom for you… it will never acquire glory for you” (III.40.1). But that is off the battlefield; on the battlefield anything goes, and “he who overcomes the enemy with fraud is praised as much as the one who overcomes it with force” (III.40.1). And Machiavelli is certainly correct. We do glorify the army that wins because of its courage, hard work, and technological prowess; but we also glorify the army that wins because the general was clever and set an ambush at just the right time and in just the right place. At least, when they’re our army we glorify them. It goes without saying that when the other side wins—by whatever means—they’re just in the wrong, either stupidly stubborn or sneaky and treacherous but never courageous or clever. But that is getting us away from Machiavelli.

A great general will also be willing to do whatever it takes to win the war. In a sentiment we will see echoed and amplified in Hobbes, Machiavelli says:

…where one deliberates entirely on the safety of his fatherland, there ought not to enter any consideration of either just or unjust, merciful or cruel, praiseworthy or ignominious; indeed every other concern put aside, one ought to follow entirely the policy that saves its life and maintains its liberty. (III.42.1)

When the safety and future of the nation are at stake, anything goes. The troublesome conscience must be quieted in this case and dealt with after the fact. This can include accepting terms of surrender or defeat after a loss and then violating those terms when doing so grants the upper hand. In fact, such deception may even be ultimately glorious:

Here are two things to be noted: one, that glory can be acquired in any action whatever, because in victory it is acquired ordinarily; in loss, it is acquired either by showing that such a loss did not come by your fault or through doing at once some virtuous action that cancels it. The other is that it is not shameful not to observe the promises that you have been made to promise by force; and when the force is lacking, forced promises that regard the public will always be broken and it will be without shame for whoever breaks them. (III.42.1)

The short version of all this is that in victory or defeat, the great general is the one who works for the survival and glory of the state, even if that means staining his own record through deceit, compromise, or treachery.

When we take all of these factors together, we really can recognize the kinds of people Machiavelli thinks ought to be put in charge of the military, even though he never gives us a specific list of what they do or the sorts of training they put themselves through in order to achieve glory in the first place. The great general will have an eye for the land, no problems with deceit, a willingness to do whatever it takes to win, and absolute dedication to his homeland.

Once in command, the great captain will go to work training, practicing, and teaching combat so that the men are accustomed “to obedience and order.” This in turn builds confidence and wins wars (III.38.2). Anyone who fails to instill these traits in his men has no one to blame but himself if the war is lost, “for that prince who has plenty of men and lacks soldiers ought to complain not of the cowardice of the men but only of his own laziness and lack of prudence” (III.38.2).


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

Please Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: