Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: III.43-49

Bust of Charles VIII of France.


The end of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy references the beginning, reminding the reader that a solid understanding of the past is necessary for action in the present and for an accurate prediction of the future:

Prudent men are accustomed to say, and not by chance or without merit, that whoever wishes to see what has to be considers what has been; for all worldly things in every time have their own counterpart in ancient times. That arises because these are the work of men, who have and always had the same passions, and they must of necessity result in the same effect. It is true that their works are more virtuous now in this province than in that, and in that more than in this, according to the form of education in which those people have taken their mode of life. To see a nation keep the same customs for a long time, being either continually avaricious or continually fraudulent or having some other such vice or virtue, also makes it easy to know future by things past. (III.43.1)

Human nature does not change, therefore the vagaries of history are explicable only by the varieties of custom and tradition from place to place. Which means that when we understand human nature, local custom and tradition (particularly how that locality educates the young), and the history of that place, we can make accurate predictions about what will happen in the future.

This, however, is to be a specific knowledge even within the locality. Not only ought one understand the customs of the place, one ought to understand the particular varieties within those customs, for

It appears that not only does one city have certain modes and institutions diverse from another, and procreates men either harder or more effeminate, but in the same city one sees such a difference to exist from one family to another. (III.46.1)

Knowing even the families and individuals of a state is necessary for good planning. Facing a situation involving a citizen raised by a virtuous family requires a different approach than one involving a citizen raised in a family that values deception or craftiness (Machiavelli gives the example of how a citizen will forgive private injuries if it’s good for the state). And so Machiavelli argues that the Florentines should have known that the French king would take their bribe and then do what he wanted anyway—that’s built into the French character in general and into Charles VIII specifically. We can of course add our modern examples of choice to this principle.

With that said, the fact that we can predict future events with a solid enough understanding of the past doesn’t imply that everything we do must be thought through and carefully planned in order to succeed. In fact, some impetuosity might be just what is needed from time to time:

Here it is to be noted that when one prince desires to obtain a thing from another individual, if the opportunity allows he ought not to give him space to deliberate, and ought to act so that he sees the necessity of a quick decision, which is when he who is asked sees that from refusing or delaying arises a sudden dangerous indignation. (III.44.1)

This raises a problem: Which does Machiavelli hold to be more important: forethought, historical wisdom, and planning or the ability to respond quickly and act well on impulse? The republic that wants to last and remain free must cultivate people who can do both as the circumstances require:

It is of necessity, as was said other times, that in a great city accidents arise every day that have need of a physician, and according to their importance one must find a wiser physician. (III.49.1)

The state can only survive if it has individuals who are capable of both working slowly and in accord with history—which might mean granting citizenship to immigrants while politically marginalizing them, both actions being in line with Roman tradition (III.49.4)—and making snap decisions that solve immediate problems in a way that responds to the needs of the moment. This might mean introducing the process of decimation or exiling an entire legion or whatever the immediate demands of circumstances require.

This may seem to be an abrupt and scattered ending to a relatively scattered work, but I think on reflection we can see how the final discourse acts as a summary statement for the whole work. If the overall project of the Discourses is to examine republics and ask what makes them succeed or fail, then we can see how the individual described in Discourse 49 of book 3 is the embodiment of the virtue found throughout the text and the antithesis of the faults that cause republics to collapse. The kind of individual who deserves “to be called Maximus” (III.49.4) is the kind of individual necessary to create, save, and preserve a republic, while the kind of citizen body who recognizes such an individual is the kind of citizenry who will keep the republic strong.

And with that we are at the end of Machiavelli’s Discourses. If time permits I may tap out some kind of concluding reflection, but even if I don’t get to that I appreciate those of you who faithfully read along and added your thoughts and comments. I hope you’ll all join us for the Hobbes reading that kicks off next week.


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

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