|Algernon Sidney (1623-1683), English Machiavellian|
So much, then, for The Prince, with its advice on how to rule a state newly founded or conquered. What about old and established states?
This is the subject matter of the Discourses which was printed in 1531, though it had probably been written around 1517. As I mentioned, the work is a commentary on the first ten books of Livy’s history of Rome. Therefore, it concentrates — with occasional digressions — on the earlier history of Rome, i.e. the time of the kings and the early Republic. Since the Roman Republic lasted from the sixth to the first century BC, Machiavelli fairly looked on it as an exemplar of a stable state. (By “stable” he meant that it maintained its integrity as a state with a certain form of government, not that there were not times of upheaval and change. The idea is merely that for those five centuries, Rome remained a republic and was not conquered by foreign powers.)
What was the secret of the Romans’ success, and how might this success be repeated in the modern world? Well, to begin with, it must be noted that Machiavelli followed a certain tradition in political thought. He largely followed ancient writers on the subject, and in particular he was greatly influenced by Polybius, the Greek historian of Rome. Much like Machiavelli, Polybius was concerned to find out the secret of the Romans’ success, and of how in the space of fifty-three years, Rome emerged from a backwater city-state on the Tiber, to become master of the Mediterranean.
Polybius identified three basic forms of government: monarchy (“rule by one”), aristocracy (“rule by the best”), and democracy (“rule by the people”). In looking at the histories of various ancient city-states, he believed he could divine a sort of natural life cycle to all these forms of government. Each of these forms, on its own, tended to degenerate into a bad version of itself. Thus, monarchy degenerated into tyranny, aristocracy degenerated into oligarchy (“rule by the wealthy”), and democracy degenerated into anarchy (“rule by none”). When a form degenerated into its bad version, it would be replaced by another form. For example, when a monarch inevitably became a tyrant, he would be overthrown by a conspiracy of leading citizens. The ensuing aristocracy would degenerate into oligarchy, its members would take to squabbling amongst themselves, upon which the people would overthrow them and set up a democracy. This would in turn degenerate into lawless anarchy, until a demagogue or strong man emerged from among the people to impose order by force, thus returning the state back to monarchy.
The Holy Grail of political theory was figuring out a way of escaping from this dreary historical cycle and instituting a stable and flourishing state without degeneracy. Polybius (and Machiavelli) saw the answer in a mixed constitution like Rome’s republican one, in which all three good forms of government co-existed. Aristocracy was represented by the Senate, in which laws were proposed and debated. Democracy took the form of the popular assemblies, which could not propose or debate legislation, but had the power of accepting or rejecting what was proposed. Democracy was also represented by the tribunes of the people, who had veto power over the actions of both Senate and magistrates. Finally, the power of monarchy resided in the magistrates, particularly the two annual consuls, who executed the laws that were proposed by the Senate and adopted by the people, and who led the legions in war.
There were enough checks and balances in the Roman constitution that although every now and again one of the elements threatened to degenerate, the other elements could turn it round. Among such checks were annuality (magistrates elected annually), collegiality (magistrates elected in pairs to act as checks on each other), and division of responsibilities (e.g. one consul would lead the armies in war, while the other stayed behind to look after affairs in the city).
To really understand Machiavellian republicanism, we must first get over a certain modern political prejudice. Today, when we ask ourselves what an ideal state would be, we tend to have a vision of stability, of a happy and well-fed people, getting along in harmony with each other, and in which there are few if any major changes to the system of government. “If only we could tweak the constitution a bit,” says this habit of thought, “if only we can get the clockwork of government just right, the whole machine should run on its own, with little interference.”
Machiavelli would never understand this kind of thinking. For him, thanks in part to the whims of fortune, change is an inevitable and even desirable element of human affairs. In addition, Machiavelli accepts that there will always be opposed interests within a state. Thus, the goal of a well-ordered republic is to provide an outlet for the play of healthy struggle between these opposed interests. This gives the state a creative energy. If we look again at the clockwork metaphor, even a clock must work by the fine balancing of forces and counter-forces, of various parts impacting and operating on one another. A state without such opposed energies would be dead. As Adam Ferguson, a Scottish republican, later put it in 1767, in criticizing our the steady-state view,
“our notion of order in civil society is frequently false: it is taken from the analogy of subjects inanimate and dead; we consider commotion and action as contrary to its nature; we think it consistent only with obedience, secrecy, and the silent passing of affairs through the hands of a few. The good order of stones in a wall, is their being properly fixed in the places for which they are hewn; were they to stir the building must fall: but the order of men in society, is their being placed where they are properly qualified to act. The first is a fabric made of dead and inanimate parts, the second is made of living and active members. When we seek in society for the order of mere inaction and tranquility, we forget the nature of our subject, and find the order of slaves, not that of free men.”
Politics is not physics. It is radically indeterministic (thanks to fortune), and its main components — citizens — are active, not passive.
And for Machiavelli, because history is always moving, and because citizens are (hopefully) active rather than passive, so too a state is always moving, and is always either advancing or in decline. Where it is in decline, it needs to be brought back to its founding constitutional principles, to “get back to basics” as we might say, whether this was to be done by the people or by a strongman of the type portrayed in The Prince. This is the core of the idea of revolution — the Latin roots of the word mean a “turning back”. Whereas we tend to think of political revolution as a break with the past, Machiavelli and his early modern followers thought of it as a return to the past. And when you think of a wheel revolving, it’s typically not something that only happens once, but happens periodically, with regularity. This idea that a state must periodically return to its founding principles would end up having a profound historical influence, as we’ll see.
Machiavelli and the Wars of the Roses
There is one characteristic of this Roman constitution that Machiavelli identified as an advantage, which Ricardians might wish to reflect upon. One of the benefits of the Roman Republican system, according to Machiavelli, was that it provided an outlet for the aristocracy to exercise their virtù in martial exploits. As a famous philosopher (Friedrich Nietzsche) once said, “in times of peace the warlike man attacks himself”. Imperialism was indispensable to the Roman system, because without being able to turn that competitiveness and aggression outward, the state would eat itself in aristocratic rivalries.
Can the Wars of the Roses be cast in a similar light? The feudal system was predicated upon a ruling class whose main social function was warfare. It is notable that so long as the nobility of England was kept busy killing Frenchman, they weren’t busying themselves with killing each other and destabilizing the state back home. I frankly don’t know enough about the Wars of the Roses to be able to assess whether this is a plausible viewpoint. However, at least on the surface, the late feudal nobility of England does seem to fit the Machiavellian/Polybian pattern of a degenerate aristocracy.
As long as an aristocracy is just that — rule by the best, the virtuous — then they will have a certain political legitimacy, a right to take a leadership role in the state. They are unlikely to be overthrown by either an angry people or a power hungry monarch. But when they lose that legitimacy, the form of government upon which it is based falls apart. The benefit of a mixed constitution is that there are other stabilizers; the other elements of the constitution can pick up the slack — or at least that is the hope. Did this happen in England after the Wars of the Roses? Well, England at the time did not quite have an ideally mixed constitution. The democratic element was practically non-existent, Parliament being more of a talking shop, and only summoned when the king felt he could use some advice or more money. And the Crown was too weak to act as an effective check on the nobility, at least until it was worn by someone who could reassert effective rule. The throne simply waited for a man with few enough scruples to realize its full potential. That man ended up being Henry VII, who did everything he could do to squeeze out the traditional aristocracy and bring in a civil service beholden to none but himself.
Machiavelli would say that, when a form of government breaks down, a new founder is required, someone who will sweep aside the old institutions and build anew. Put another way, the book England needed in 1485 was The Prince, not the Discourses. Now, was Richard III that ruler? Shakespeare’s caricature notwithstanding, probably he was not. To be fair to Richard, he did not rule long enough for us to really assess how effective he would have been. But he did make some crucial errors that a true Machiavellian prince would never make, including trusting too much in the traditional nobility, people like Stanley and Buckingham. As we know, Henry VII’s policy was much different in this regard.
Machiavelli in England
To reiterate, we seem to be presented with two Machiavellis, the Machiavelli of The Prince, and the Machiavelli of the Discourses. If you take any university course in the history of political thought, you are most likely to learn more about the first one. He is also the one most prominent in English literature, as Shakespeare’s famous reference in Henry VI, Part 3 illustrates. He was also known to his English audiences in Tudor and Stuart times by the infamous play on his name: Nicholas “Make-Evil”.
In a way, this is rather appropriate, because frankly, the fact is, in Tudor times, Machiavelli would only have been known by his name. The first evidence of his works actually being read by anyone in England was at Cambridge in 1573. He first makes his appearance upon the English stage in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta in 1588. However, none of his works was translated into English until 1636, so Shakespeare, unfamiliar with Italian, could have had only the vaguest idea of what Machiavelli was about. If he read Machiavelli at all it was probably through a badly bowdlerized and liberally edited French “translation” of 1577. And I’m unsure even about how good Shakespeare’s French was.
Once Machiavelli was translated into English, it was the Discourses that had by far the most influence on English political history. This is, of course, because it became available in English just in time to be taken up by the commonwealthmen during the Civil War period. Political thinkers like Marchamont Nedham (1620-1678), James Harrington (1611-1677), and Algernon Sidney (1622-1683) took up various of the republican themes to be found in the Discourses. These Commonwealth republicans came to see themselves as fighting for a semi-mythological “ancient constitution” that they believed had been lost during the years of Tudor and Stuart despotism. They were engaged in revolution, but as noted earlier, theirs was a revolution in the sense of a “returning”, a restoration of traditional institutions. They were bringing the state back to its original principles.
(As a side note, Ricardians might be amused that in his semi-fictional utopia The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), James Harrington portrayed Henry VII as Panurgus, a historical king of Oceana. In a good dictionary you’ll find that the adjective “panurgic” means “subtle, crafty, knavish”).
For these English Machiavellians, it became not only possible, but desirable, to imagine an England without a king. Most importantly, they took up the ideal of republican liberty as being the “rule of laws, not of men”, where no citizen was in a position to dominate over any other with arbitrary power. They were ultimately unsuccessful (indeed, Sidney was martyred for his republicanism, executed after laughably rigged treason trial), but their legacy lived on in at least two respects.
In effect, far from being a blueprint for despots, Machiavelli’s political views became a weapon in the struggle against Tudor and Stuart absolutism. While Henry VII might have been the sort of ideal Machiavellian king for troubled times represented in The Prince, the thinkers of the commonwealth better represented the Machiavelli of the Discourses. Which of these two Machiavellis ultimately had the greater influence in England?
First, although the parliamentarian “Grand Old Cause” of eliminating hereditary monarchy did not become a reality in England, they did manage to eliminate arbitrary monarchy. In the Glorious Revolution of 1688 the king became, in theory at least, subject to the rule of law, and the commonwealthmen became Whigs, supporters of limited constitutional monarchy. If we define a republic in its broadest sense as a form of government in which no one is above the law, then to that extent Britain is a republic.
Second, the ideas of the commonwealthmen crossed the Atlantic in a purer pre-Whig form and provided support for the American colonists in their Revolution. Indeed, in this connection, one notable historian has called Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government (1698) “the textbook of revolution”. In an age where the works of English Machiavellians like Sidney were in the process of being forgotten back in England, John Adams wrote in an 1823 letter to Thomas Jefferson:
“I have lately undertaken to read Algernon Sidney on government. ... As often as I have read it, and fumbled it over, it now excites fresh admiration that this work has excited so little interest in the literary world. As splendid an edition of it as the art of printing can produce—as well for the intrinsic merit of the work, as for the proof it brings of the bitter sufferings of the advocates of liberty from that time to this, and to show the slow progress of moral, philosophical, and political illumination in the world—ought to be now published in America.”
For his part, Jefferson too was, through the filter of writers like Sidney, a Machiavellian. As one of its founders, Jefferson introduced Sidney to the curriculum of the new University of Virginia. But Jefferson’s Machiavellianism was a mixture of both of the two Machiavellis we’ve seen. From the Discourses he borrowed much of his republicanism, his hatred of monarchy, and the ideal of the rule of laws rather than of men. However, more notoriously, he seems to have taken to heart the idea that every now and then a state becomes decadent and needs to be returned it to its founding principles. The difference is that Jefferson did not see this renewal — or this re-founding — as being accomplished by the virtue of a ruthless monarch such as that portrayed in The Prince, but rather through popular revolution, by the sovereign people. Thus, in one letter Jefferson speculated that a new revolution is perhaps necessary every fifteen years or so (indeed, he saw his own popular election as president in 1800 as just such a “revolution in the principles of government”). And of course, there is this infamous passage in a letter of 1787: “What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
(This is somewhat reminiscent of the old joke that government is like underwear; it needs to be changed frequently or it starts to stink.)
These ideas about periodically returning the state to first principles were not merely the idle speculations of philosophers. They made their way into legislation too. There is, for example, Article XV of the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, which states that “no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”
In taking our leave of Machiavelli, we might reflect on several ironies surrounding his life and legacy that we’ve come across at various points.
First, considering Machiavelli’s subsequent renown as a political theorist, he was better known by his Florentine contemporaries as a playwright and man of letters.
Second, he was himself an utter failure as a practical politician.
Third, as Shakespeare’s ignorant reference in Henry VI, Part 3 illustrates, the English-speaking world has tended to look on Machiavelli as an apologist for absolutist tyranny and dirty hands politics, thanks to bad translation, and to certain pungent lines from The Prince being taken out of context by people unfamiliar with the larger body of his work.
Fourth, while caricatures like Shakespeare’s are drawn almost entirely from The Prince, Machiavelli’s greater and more considered political work is the Discourses, as demonstrated by the influence it began to exert almost the moment it became available in English.
Fifth, the effects of Machiavelli’s political ideas have arguably been felt most acutely not in his native Florence, or even in Italy, but rather in England and her trans-Atlantic colonies.
And finally, sixth, his Discourses, by a circuitous route, has ended up being an inspiration for the toppling of the very tyrannies Machiavelli has been unjustly thought to support.