Niccolò Machiavelli – Excerpts on principality and republic

Niccolò Machiavelli was a Florentian diplomat, best known for writing The Prince, a short treatise, concerning absolutism and monarchical rule. Nonetheless, Machiavelli’s thought is better represented as that of a passionate republican, striving to revive the spirit of Roman antiquity. Thus, in contrast to what he expresses in The Prince, the Discourses on Livy is among the most representative works of civic humanism and classical republicanism.

Taken from Penguin Books, 2003, excerpts from pages 243-260.

Where equality exists, it is impossible to set up a Principality, and, where it does not exist, impossible to set up a Republic […] Let, then, a republic be constituted where there exists or can be brought into being, notable equality; and a regime of the opposite type, i.e. a principality, where there is notable inequality. Otherwise what is done will lack proportion and will be of but short duration […].

For, should there be masses regulated by laws in the same way as they are, there will be found in them the same goodness as we find in kings, and it will be seen that they are neither ‘arrogantly dominate nor servilely obey’. Such was the Roman populace which, so long as the republic remained uncorrupt, was never servilely obsequious, not yet did it ever dominate with arrogance: on the contrary, it had its own institutions and magistrates and honourably kept its own its own place. But when it was necessary to take action against some powerful person, it did so, as is seen in the case of Manlius, of the Ten, and in the case of others who sought to oppress it. Also, when it had to obey dictators or consuls in the public interest, it did so. Nor is it any wonder that the Roman populace wanted Manlius Capitolinus back when he was dead, for what they wanted was his virtues, which had been such that his memory evoked everyone’s sympathy, and would have had power to produce the the same effect in a prince, for all writers are of opinion that virtue is praised and admired even in one’s enemies. Again, had Manlius, in response to this desire, been raised from the dead, the Roman populace would have passed on him the same sentence as it did, have had him arrested and, shortly after, have condemned him to death: thought, for that matter, one also finds that reputedly wise princes have put people to death and then wished them alive again […] But the truth is that what our historian says of the nature of the masses is not said of the masses when disciplined by laws, as were the Romans, but of the undisciplined masses, like those of Syracuse, which made the same kind of mistakes as do men when infuriated and undisciplined, just as did Alexander the Great and Herod in the cases cited.

The nature of the masses, then, is no more reprehensible than is the nature of princes, for all do wrong and to the same extent when there is nothing to prevent them doing wrong. Of this there are plenty of examples besides those given, both among the Roman emperors and among other tyrants and princes; and in them we find a degree of inconstancy and changeability in behaviour such as is never found in the masses.

I arrive, then, at a conclusion contrary to the common opinion which asserts that populaces, when in power, are variable, fickle and ungrateful; and affirm that in them these faults are in no wise different from those to be found in certain princes. Were the accusation made against both the masses and princes, it would be true; but, if princes be expected, it is false. For when the populace is in power and is well-ordered, it will be stable, prudent and grateful, in much the same way, or in a better way, than is a prince, however wise to be thought. And, on the other hand, a prince who contemns the laws, will be more ungrateful, fickle and imprudent than is the populace. Nor is inconstancy of behaviour due to a different nature, for they are pretty much the same, or, if, one be better than the other, it is the populace.: it is due to the greater or less respect which they have for the laws under which both alike are living.

If we consider the Roman populace it will be found that for four hundred years they were enemies to the very name of king and lovers of glory and of the common good of their country. Of both characteristics the Roman populace affords numerous and striking examples. And, should anyone bring up against me the ingratitude the populace displayed towards Scipio, my answer is that I have already discussed this question at length and have there shown the ingratitude of the populace to be less than that of princes. While in the manner of prudence and stability I claim that the populace is more prudent, more stable, and of sounder judgement than the prince. Not without good reason is the voice of the populace likened to that of God; for public opinion is remarkably accurate in its prognostications, so much so that it seems as if the populace by some hidden power discerned the evil and the god that was to befall it. With regard to its judgement, when two speakers of equal skill are heard advocating different alternatives, very rarely does one find the populace failing to adopt the better view or incapable of appreciating the truth of what it hears. While, if in bold actions and such as appear advantageous it errs, as I have said above, so does a prince often err where his passions are involved, and these are much stronger than those of the populace.

It is found, too, that in the election of magistrates the populace makes a far better choice than does the prince; nor can the populace ever be persuaded that it is good to appoint to such an office a man of infamous life or corrupt habits, whereas a prince may easily and in a vast variety of ways be persuaded to do this. Again, once finds that when the populace begins to have a horror of something it remains of the same mind for many centuries; a thing that is never observed in the case of a prince. For both the characteristics I shall content myself with the evidence afforded by the Roman populace, which in the course of so many hundreds of years and so many elections of consuls and tribunes did not make four elections of which it had to repent. So much, too, as I have said, was the title of kind hated that no service rendered by one of its citizens who ambitioned it, could render hum immune from the penalties prescribed. Besides this, one finds that cities in which the populace it is the prince, in a very short time extend vastly their dominions much more than do those which have always been under a prince; as Rome did after the expulsion of the kings, and Athens after it was free from Pesistratus.

This can only be due to one thing: government by the populace is better than government by princes. Nor do I care whether to this opinion of mine all that our historian has said in the aforesaid passage or what other have said, be objected; because if account be taken of all the disorders due to populaces and of all those due to princes, it will be found that alike in goodness and in glory the populace is far superior. And if princes are superior to populace in drawing up laws, codes of civic life, statutes and new institutions, the populace is so superior in sustaining what has been instituted, that it indubitably adds to the glory of those who have instituted them.

In short, to bring this topic to a conclusion, I say that, just as princely forms of government have endured for a very long time, so, too, have republican forms of government; and that in both cases it has been essential for them to be regulated by laws. For a prince who does what he likes is a lunatic, and a populace which does what it likes is unwise. If, therefore, it be a question of a prince subservient to the laws and of a populace chained up by laws, more virtue will be found in the populace than in the prince; and if it be a question of either of them loosed from control by the law, there will be found fewer errors in the populace than in the prince, and these of less moment and much easier to put right. For a licentious and turbulent populace, when a good man can obtain a hearing, can easily be brought to behave itself; but there is no one to talk to a bad prince, nor is there any remedy except the sword. For which an inference may be drawn in regard to the impotence of their respective maladies; for, if to cure malady of the populace a word suffices and the sword is needed to cure that of a prince, no one will fail to see that the greater the cure, the greater the fault.

If all things be taken into account, however, I am of opinion that in cases in which there is imminent danger, republics will be found to be more reliable than princes. For though republics may have the same intention and the same desire as a prince, they are slower to act and take more time than a prince in arriving at a decision. Consequently they take more time over the breaking of a treaty than does a prince. Confederations are dissolved for the sake of some advantage, and in this republics abide by their agreements far better than do princes. Instances might be cited of treaties which have not been broken by a republic for a very great advantage […] in the view of what I have said above, that the populace is guilty of fewer faults than is the prince, and that, in consequence, it is more to be trusted than is a prince.