This post is not so much about Machiavelli’s psychology as it is about his philosophy. This post briefly argues that Machiavelli was a democrat, at least by the standards of his time, and that his foremost contributions to political philosophy was that he stressed conflict within states as something desirable as well as helping to develop the notion of checks and balances. For a post about Machiavelli’s psychological type, please go here.
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) was a Florentine infantry captain, magistrate and political philosopher. Most people know him only for his book ‘The Prince’ wherein he maps out how a prince should rule: Cynically, brutally and ever ready to backstab.
However, what most people don’t know is that Machiavelli was in fact no supporter of princely rule; he was in fact a democrat (or republican): During his civil service to his native Florence, there was indeed a free republic of the people. This was Machiavelli’s ideal rule. But the republic was soon overthrown by a despotic merchant family who fancied themselves princes, and so Machiavelli’s book ‘The Prince’ is a sort of job application to serve with the new regime: Machiavelli is basically saying: “I know I served the free republic, but look! I can also do princely politics.”
The grim job application was, however, ignored by the new rulers of Florence, who regarded Machiavelli as an enemy; a man of the old republic. Exiled and out of a job, Machiavelli then wrote his true masterpiece, his ‘Discourses on Titus Livy’; the great historian of the earlier Roman republic. Herein Machiavelli details his true political views, views that helped form later theories of republicanism and Anglo-American statecraft.
Machiavelli Expands on Plato and Aristotle
One theme that is central to Machiavelli’s Discourses is the Aristotelian/Platonic taxonomy of stately constitutions found in Aristotle’s ‘Politics’ and in Plato’s ‘The Republic’: Aristotle, Plato (and thus Machiavelli) distinguish between three basic forms of government:
(1) The tyranny, or dictatorship,
(2) the oligarchy, or rule of the aristocracy,
(3) and the democracy, or the rule of the people.
According to Plato/Aristotle, each type of government could be either good or bad. Thus a good dictator could easily be better than a bad democracy. But on the other hand, a bad dictator can be just as bad as a bad democracy. So there is no inherent value judgment from Plato/Aristotle, while Machiavelli, however, favours democracy, OR a mix of all three forms of government.
Machiavelli’s central contribution to this taxonomy is to introduce political dynamism and conflict as a good thing, whereas all earlier political thinkers (with the possible exception of Socrates) had trumpeted stability and the absence of conflict as the true aim of the state.
In his writings, Machiavelli looks back to the Roman Republic and finds there what he views as a true mix of all three forms of government: Machiavelli introduces the last of the three forms of government, that of monarchy, into the conception of his ideal republic, which initially seems paradoxical as republics are supposed to stand in opposition to kings and tyrants. But to Machiavelli, ‘regal power’ does not have to equal kingship and hereditary political power; instead one may find such power in public institutions, such as that of the consuls of the Roman Republic or the presidency of the United States of America.
Why would Machiavelli prefer to mix all three forms of government within the same state? The answer seems given: Because the more parties there are privy to the government of the state, the more political dynamism and conflict there will be. And conflict is a good thing, according to Machiavelli. Thus he writes:
MACHIAVELLI: “Those who condemn the feud between rich and poor attack the very instance that makes a state free. They see the clamour but not its beneficial effects. All legislature that serves Liberty is produced out of the conflict between the different orders of the state.”
Thus one of Machiavelli’s contributions to the philosophy of statecraft was his expansion and development of the doctrine of mixed government as well as the introduction and elevation of political dynamism and conflict into the ideal state. These contributions were to be hugely influential to later philosophers, both Anglo-American and Continental.
The Desirability of Conflict
In the renaissance, Machiavelli was pretty much alone in his wish that the people should actively participate in politics: Almost all other renaissance thinkers tended to believe that politics would be easier if the people just ‘stayed out’ (i.e. exercised no political power). In the face of this, Machiavelli stressed the contrary; the importance of involving the people in the governing process, even while the people do not always make the best decisions: For while the people may be labile and frivolous, unlike kings and aristocrats, the people have no wish to oppress anyone and thus the involvement of the people can be seen as a political safeguard by which to guarantee the freedom of the republic. Thus Machiavelli writes:
MACHIAVELLI: “The feud between people and aristocrats was what made the old Roman Republic both free and mighty.”
Jointly, these two observations of Machiavelli’s introduce the principle of checks and balances into Republican government; that is, power should be distributed evenly amongst mutually competing parties to “watch and keep each other in check”. The principle of checks and balances is a very important notion in modern political thought, and it was to have a huge impact on America’s founding fathers and their subsequent work with the U.S. Constitution. So while Machiavelli never got to apply his ideas himself, his ideas have nevertheless been profoundly influential across the world.