Machiavelli’s The Discourses

Niccolo Machiavelli is the odd man out on my Italian Renaissance reading list in that he is a political theorist rather than a poet and lived around 150-200 years are the other three authors on the list: Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch. He’s also completely misunderstood by people who have only read his other famous book, The Prince.

Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy (1517) is Machiavelli’s reactions in essay form to reading the Roman author’s history of the great Republic and looking at the political world of his own day and, in particular, of his home town, Florence. It was written at the same time as The Prince and, with it, they are a manual of realist political action. The book highlights the political thinking of the time but I’m more surprised at how relevant his observations remain today.

While The Prince concerns itself solely with managing “new” principalities, The Discourses looks at the structure of government Machiavelli considers the highest, the republic, and takes as his template, that most worthwhile of republics, Rome before the empire. In each discourse he pulls incidents which support the point he’s making both from Livy and from his own time. Here’s some examples of discourse titles (there’s around 150 of them) which illustrate his thought.

I.4. That discord between the Plebs and the Senate of Rome made this Republic both free and powerful.

Unlike his contemporaries (and ours) who long for the day of Star Trek when we can all have an adventure which shows how we’re really all the same under the skin, Machiavelli shows that it is in fact the tensions between different layers of society which keeps the powers of the other(s) in check. This is not the wishy-washy checks-and-balances of modern democracies but the real gut-level discord when the citizen feels his or her rights abused. If enough of them feel this way, they act.

I.7. How necessary Public Indictments are for the maintenance of liberty.

Machiavelli highlights the importance of courts and public prosecutions to maintain social order and freedoms. Secret accusations and star chambers only result in death for the rules of the state.

I.45. It is a bad precedent to break a new law especially if the legislator himself does it.

Some truths are universal throughout all space and time.

II.25. To attack a divided city in the hopes that its division will facilitate the conquest is bad policy.

Sounds a little like the Iraq War, doesn’t it. I’m stunned at the list of examples he pulls from both Livy and his own time to support this statement. Some things just never change. If you attack a feuding couple, rather than one siding with you both united against you.

II.31. How dangerous it is to put confidence in refugees.

Iraq and the WMD scam was my first thought here. He’s not talking about the poor unfortunates our government seems so hell-bent on demonising but defectors who come bearing “intelligence” of “secret weapons programs” that are “truly-ruly real.” They are not interested in reality and they’re only interest in you is what you can do for them to punish their former country.

III.17. That to a person to whom offense has been given, no administrative post of importance should be subsequently assigned.

I reckon he’s talking about Kevin Rudd. Only a super-human or a complete idiot could take being ousted from the office of Prime Minister and accept a post like Foreign Affairs Minister without thinking how he could fuck up those who dumped him.

III.29. That the faults of the people are due to princes.

He recognises the the real power in any state at any time is the people: people who form the army, who form the merchant class, who grow the food, who make the tools for daily life, who run the households. This man, despite the reputation which has developed around him, just loves humanity.

III.36. Reasons why the French have been, and still are, looked upon in the beginning of a battle as more than men, and afterwards as less than women.

I already mentioned that some truths are universal.