Sunday, 25 March 2012

Machiavelli and Democracy

A lot has been written about Nicolò Machiavelli, the notorious Florentine politician, philosopher and Renaissance man. Best known as the author of the handbook for tyrants, The Prince, he also wrote Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy, a much more republican affair. Both are considered classics of political thought, especially for the use of the ‘inductive method’ – the idea of grounding knowledge on the collection, collation, and analysis of what we call facts’ (Femia, Page 151-152). While many sought ‘explanations by a long process of inference and deduction’ about which system would be the perfect one for humans to exist, Machiavelli employed a different tack, using history to make his argument. In this essay, I will discuss his inductive conclusions about democracy being the best political system of all, comparing and contrasting them with the views of others.

What is democracy? There is no universally accepted definition for it and is open to interpretation. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as ‘a government in which supreme power is vested in the people.’ Aristotle was the first to classify the various different types of political constitutions in Politics, building on Plato’s question ‘Who would rule in an ideal society?’ (Burns, 81-82). He theorised that there are six types: kingship, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, polity and democracy. Plato preferred aristocratic rule by benevolent ‘philosopher-kings’, the product of an intensive education system. He argued that democracy was akin to ‘mob rule’, and that that the democratic man is anarchic and disordered as his desires compete with each other (Reeve, 56). Aristotle endorsed democracy, because ‘man is by nature a social and political animal. A fully human life is one of harmonious fellowship with others, living together in a community, or polis’ (Burns, 76-77), and democracy is the most just way of distributing political power. Machiavelli took the idea further:

‘There are six types of government, of which three are very bad, and three are good in themselves but easily become corrupt, so that they too must be classed as pernicious.....for Principality easily becomes Tyranny. From Aristocracy the transition to Oligarchy is an easy one. Democracy is without difficulty converted into Anarchy’ (Machiavelli, Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 2)

Though concurring with Aristotle, he presents them as a cycle, instead of six separate systems, explaining that hereditary corruption would lead to one mutating into the next. According to him, this inherent instability results in the state being ‘subject to a neighbouring and better organised state’ and eventually loses its freedom. To have the best possible regime, an amalgamation of the three should be adopted by legislators. The principality, the aristocracy and the democracy would cancel each other out and prevent corruption, resulting in a much more stable ‘republic’. The Romans, he said, had hit upon the perfect formula. ‘The Discourses are an attempt to elucidate the first four hundred and fifty years of Roman history in such a way that a modern reader might see why Rome was great; how it remained for so long incorrupt’ (Anglo, 92-93) and his main objective is ‘to explain how Rome developed in to the greatest polity the world had ever known, and thereby demonstrate the faults of modern polities.’ (Anglo, 90)

While Plato and Aristotle believed in a utopia, Machiavelli was of the opinion that a political system is always in flux. There are several factors that affect a republic, of which ‘liberty’ is the most significant. The importance he attaches to this is apparent by how the first few chapters of the Discourses deal with liberty.

‘Those who have displayed prudence in constituting a republic have looked upon the safeguarding of liberty as one of the most essential things for which they had to provide’ (Machiavelli, Discourses, 1, 5)

In a principality, because the prince holds all the power, as the nobles do in an aristocracy, the general population suffers from a lack of freedom, their desires contradicting those of the rulers. In a republic, where all the different classes have representation, liberty is easier to obtain. ‘The Roman republic achieved a perfectly moderate constitution only when the plebs obtained their place in institutional life of the city through the Tribunes, along with the nobility, represented by the Senate and the consuls. It was precisely in virtue of this moderation that the Roman republic qualified as the ‘perfect republic’’ (Viroli, 167). An issue with of power-sharing is who gets more, the people (plebs) or the nobles.

‘Whether the Safeguarding of Liberty can be more safely entrusted to the Populace or to the Upper Class’ (Machiavelli, Discourses, 1, 5)

Machiavelli acknowledges the dilemma. If the guardianship is in the hands of the nobles, their ambitions are satisfied. It also keeps the plebs from ‘acquiring a sense of power’. On the other hand, he argues, power should be in the hands of people less likely to use it for personal benefit, i.e. the plebs.  To solve this dilemma, he compares Sparta and Venice, where power lay with the nobles, to the Romans, where it was in the hands of the plebs. Since the former lasted much longer, common sense would dictate that they employed the better system, but there are distinctions to be made between both cases. If ‘one is content to maintain the status quo’ and not expand its borders, then the case of Sparta and Venice is ideal. But, if a republic wants to grow and become an empire as Rome did, power must reside in the hands of the people. By this argument, the plebs should be the guardians of liberty.

Civil discord is an aspect of liberty. Where most classified it as chaotic and detrimental to peace, Machiavelli considered it essential.

‘Discord between the Plebs and the Senate of Rome made this Republic both Free and Powerful’ (Machiavelli, Discourses, 1, 4)

He also discusses this at length in Chapter 6 of Book I in the Discourses, debating whether Rome could have functioned under a government without hostility between the classes. Again, he uses the examples of Sparta and Venice. ‘Rome had a large population and employed it in war, and consequently though Rome acquired a great empire, there were also endless opportunities for rebellion amongst the plebs. Venice did not employ its populace in war and Sparta kept its populace small and did not admit foreigners into this city. When they tried to enlarge their territories, they failed and collapsed’ (Viroli, 159) If a republic is to maintain freedom and expand, it must tolerate social conflicts. He recommends this despite witnessing the time of Girolamo Savonarola (Kreis, The History Guide), the anti-Renaissance preacher. He had seen mobs support the purges of the puritanical monk, and then turn against him, hanging and burning him. In spite of these threats of violence, he saw more benefits to sacrificing the peace than keeping it.

Another significant factor is ‘virtù’ in the populace. ‘The term is used to describe the range of capacities that each one of us as a citizen needs to possess: the capacities that enable us willingly to serve the common good, thereby to uphold the freedom of our community, and its consequence to ensure its rise to greatness as well as our own liberty’ (Skinner, 303). This includes courage and determination, for self-defence from external threats. Prudence and other civic qualities are also needed so as to be able to play an active role in public life. Lack of these leads to corruption, ‘a failure of rationality, an inability to recognise that our own liberty depends on committing ourselves to a life of virtue and public service.’ (Skinner, 304) Machiavelli holds a very cynical view of the nature of men, and says that corruption is inevitable.

‘It must needs be taken for granted that all men are wicked and that they will always give vent to malignity that is in their minds when opportunity offers’ (Machiavelli, Discourses, 1, 3) and ‘How easily men are corrupted’ (Machiavelli, Discourses, 1, 42)

This is a view echoed much later by Hobbes in Leviathan, with his concept of ‘egoism’, arguing that individuals are ‘motivated by self-interest’ (Baumgold, 164-165). As opposed to Machiavelli, he advocated monarchy as the best method to counter it, appointing a leader in whose interests it would be to ensure everyone’s needs are met. Machiavelli also held Christianity, or its interpretation, partly responsible, despite agreeing that religion has the power to unify a state. It ‘demands of its adherents the fortitude to bear suffering, not to achieve great things...this has come about from the baseness of men who, interpreting Christianity according to sloth and not according to virtù, have not considered how it permits us to exalt, honour, and defend our fatherland’ (Anglo, 111,112). He suggests a civic religion to get the best out of men, though he does not clarify what he means by it. Virtù is necessary to stop corruption and combat the inherent human condition that ‘the natural selfishness of men will regularly subvert the state, reduce it to chaos, and transform it into something different’ (Femia, 154), which leads to the instability mentioned earlier.

Hobbes and Locke thought that ‘the image of the social contract makes it apparent that we are looking for the functionality of government in the benefits it confers on individuals’ (Waldron, 185), that governments are born out of a moral need to overcome man’s nature. Machiavelli, on the other hand, believes that it is for the good of the whole state, not just one individual.  It should aim for greatness, and only a democracy can fulfil that aim.  This is reinforced in the Discourses:

‘...a republic has a fuller life and enjoys good fortune for a longer time than a principality, since it is better able to adapt itself to diverse circumstances owing to the diversity found among its citizens than a prince can do. For a man who is accustomed to act in one particular way, never changes, as we have said. Hence, when times change and no longer suit his ways, he is inevitably ruined.’ (Machiavelli, Discourses, 3, 9)

He explicitly states that a prince would find it difficult to alter his approach to ruling. This shortcoming would be ultimately detrimental to the state, whereas in a republic, those with virtù and suited to the situation would be nominated to lead according to the prevailing circumstances. He gives an example of the benefit of elections.

‘For, if the immediate succession of one virtuous prince by another suffices for the conquest of the world, as it did in the case of Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great, a republic should be all the more successful, since, thanks to its practice of electing its rulers, it has not merely a succession of two highly virtuous rulers, but an infinite number each succeeding the other; and this virtuous succession may always be kept up in a well-ordered republic.’ (Machiavelli, Discourses, 1, 21)

As Alexander had no clear successors, his death prompted civil wars, fracturing the Empire. This would not have been the case in a democracy, like the Roman Empire. After one virtuous leader, another would be elected to lead the republic forward.

Hence, of the six kinds of regimes described by Aristotle, Machiavelli believes in not one, but all of them, combined together to form the ideal administration, and compares the Roman Empire to others to prove his point. Even though Machiavelli concedes that the Spartan/Venetian model is better, having lasted much longer, yet he still puts forth democracy as what a republic should endeavour for, giving it the ability to expand its borders, as in the case of Rome. This argument is used to prove that plebs should be the guardians of liberty. The only aspect that Machiavelli seems confused about is religion, as his views are contradictory. As they say, Rome was not built in a day, but took a long time to perfect. This is the advice he gives to all governments: implement a democracy with liberty and virtù. Thus, greatness will be assured, as it was for Rome.

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