Notes on Machiavelli's Discourses

Say "Machiavelli" and everyone thinks of The Prince. But, about 1978, I ran across his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy in a public library and liked them better. Here are my notes on them:

First Book

He distinguishes the three kinds of government according to Aristotle, and their corruptions:

kingship, aristocracy, polity
tyranny, oligarchy, democracy

(What Machiavelli, following Aristotle, calls "democracy," we would probably call "demagoguery" or "mob rule.")

Ideal, or at least superior, republics have all three elements in a dynamic balance of power. In Rome, this was the Consuls (inheriting royal power), the Senate, and the Tribunes.

He makes a weak argument for saying the nobles are better at preserving liberty than the commons – just barely.

A system of accusation keeps down trouble-makers and helps vent spleen – keeps peace among commons and between commons and nobles.

History shows founders and reformers of republics must be individual men.

Religion is good for public morals and military morale. The people (noble and common) should be pious.

It is virtually impossible to introduce or maintain liberty in a corrupt state. This requires a change of constitution. You can't change is slowly – virtually no one will see sufficient cause. Fast change means violence. Violent men are seldom good ones. Therefore, etc....

Two militarily weak princes in a row are sure death for any republic. Two strong ones in a row can work miracles. (Examples taken from history.)

Never defer punishment on the basis of past honors, or the individual will feel there is nothing he cannot do.

When reforming a state, try and keep as much semblance of the old forms as possible. Contrariwise, when subjugating a state, change everything, so that all will be seen as your work.

Princes and republics both have an unfortunate bent of ingratitude toward their great men, especially generals. This is either because of avarice (cost of reward) or fear (the general is now powerful after his victories). Offended generals are dangerous. To avoid this syndrome:

  1. The prince should lead all military expeditions himself.
  2. The republic should be generous, even if it hurts, and have a large number of generals, so they can keep an eye on each other.
  3. The general should leave his office as soon after victory as possible and comport himself meekly, or (if he can't bear that), start carving out his own empire, since he is bound to be treated harshly if he doesn't act meek fast.

A republic is less ungrateful the more it can trust its citizens.

Generals should not be punished for defeat, or even seriously punished for misconduct, so that they may give their whole attention to their job.

Never delay securing the good will of the people until a time of danger – they will see through it and not feel grateful.

If an evil arises, internally or externally, it is better to delay than to attack violently. The one way, the evil may die out; the other way, it will rally against you.

It is wise for every republic to have some institution like that of Rome's Dictator – able to take free and rapid action but only in a limited sphere, for a short time, and without anulling any of the permanent powers.

"Those only who combat for their own glory are good and loyal soldiers."

Ambitious men start by trying to insulate themselves from attack by acquiring friends and clout – which looks innocent but must be guarded against.

People are easily deceived in matters of generality, but not in particulars. Therefore:

No council or magistrate should have it in their power to stop the public business of a city.

A republic or prince must feign to do of their own liberality that to which necessity compels them,

The safest and gentlest method of repressing an individual's insolence or ambition is to use his own methods against him. If he appeals to the commons, so do you, etc. Avoid polarizing.

The people judge proposals by surface impression and are difficult to dissuade. They are susceptible to promises. They should not have authority in matters of daring or subtlety.

Machiavelli believes in omens.

Mobs are courageous, but their members are cowardly. Thus, if you can outlast a mob's fury, it will be harmless when it breaks up – unless it can appoint a chief to keep it together.

Machiavelli believes the people are "wiser and more constant than princes." Both are improved by being restricted by constitutional law, but even without that, the people are less given to enormities than princes.

Second Book

To encourage population growth, a republic should make citizenship easy to acquire and/or ruin other cities and take in the refugees or captives.

There are two kinds of war – conquest and colonization. The latter are much more vicious, since the two sides must fight to the death, especially if the invaders were sent migrating by famine, war, or other threat of death.

Sovereigns get into war with each other by means of treaties, as often as not. If a sovereign attacks a small state, the smaller may sign up as a client to the other sovereign and sit back and watch the giants fight. Or if one sovereign wants to attack one with which it has treaties – and wants to look kinda honest – it can attack the sovereign's client on a pretext.

"The sinews of war are not gold, but good soldiers; for gold alone will not procure good soldiers, but good soldiers will always procure gold." (Remember he despises mercenaries.)

If you attack a republic while it is full of dissension, you will be dismayed at how fast they re-unify. The proper way to exploit dissension is to try to act as an arbiter between parties – then guide them as you like. If the parties have already taken up arms, favor the weaker side sparingly, so as to keep up the quarrel until they are exhausted. Then they may even ask you to rule them.

"Contempt and insults engender hatred against those who indulge in them, without being of any advantage to them." (In fact, they only encourage the foe to try more.)

Therefore, be clement in your victories, offensive or defensive, or else you may be reversed and defeated by an enraged enemy. Neither insult nor otherwise outrage.

If the prince or republic fails to avenge a public or private injury committed by one of its subjects against anyone else, subject or not, the victim will turn all its resentment against the sovereign, who thereby acquires a dangerous enemy, often willing to throw away its own and many other lives.

Third Book

"To ensure a long existence to religious sects or republics, it is necessary frequently to bring them back to their original principles." This may happen by outside menace, spontaneous reform by good men, or by laws making people accountable for their deeds.

Princes risk losing their thrones when they violate good custom and take away old rights.

Of conspiracies. (A long one.)

Conspiracies against princes are a greater cause of death to princes than is war. Nonetheless, they are extremely risky to undertake.

The most important cause of conspiracy against princes is universal hatred – since then his special enemies have a greater chance of success and of surviving their success.

Therefore a prince should generally avoid injuring subjects in their persons, possessions, or honor. In fact, in personal injuries, threats are worse than punishment (=execution), since the dead cannot avenge. The other two injuries are also non-fatal, hence very dangerous.

Men will also conspire to liberate their countries.

Conspirators are more often nobles, since they have more access to the prince. Likewise friends and family. You can trust those you benefited more than those you injured.

"When the number of accomplices in a conspiracy exceeds three or four, it is almost impossible for it not to be discovered, either through treason, imprudence, or carelessness." Therefore do not tell your associates until the moment of execution – giving no time for betrayal and little for mishap.

Therefore the best conspiracy is one man's plotting with one friend enlisted at the last moment (and better still is working alone).

Put NOTHING in writing.

Spur-of-the-moment-to-save-your-life conspiracies often work well. (Corollary – avoid putting people in a "your life or mine" position.)

Execution of the conspiracy is endangered by (1) bad planning, (2) last-minute changes in circumstances, (3) failure of nerve, (4) unnecessary flourishes (e.g., screaming "Die, tyrant!" before you stab). Assume good planning. Then, even if things change at the last minutes, it is better to proceed with the old plan than try to re-arrange things (unless you have ample time). Failure of nerve may be brought on by awe of pomp and dignity or by the intended victim's affability and kindliness. Don't flourish.

It is hard to conspire against one; to conspire against many is much worse, especially if you mean to kill them successively. Better not try; survivors will be ruthless.

If you succeed, the main danger is vengance. This is why it is so dangerous to conspire against a popular prince – too many potential avengers.

Conspiracy against the state is safer. Safer to plan, no worse to execute, no vengance. [He means conspiracy to take over a republic.]

If you discover a strong conspiracy, pretend ignorance and make them think they have plenty of time. Then strike. Weak conspiracies should be crushed quickly.

Never punish informants or use double agents. The latter may really conspire. The former will make you more unpopular than ever. (Executing conspirators is always bad for your image.)

Revolutions are bloody when motivated by revenge, bloodless when they occur by the "general consent of the citizens." [But look at France and Iran, where the general consent was to revenge.]

"Whoever has to contend against many enemies may nevertheless overcome them, though he may be inferior in power, provided he is able to resist their first efforts" since, given time, they may fall out with each other or he can foment division among them.

"Whether gentle or rigorous means are preferable in governing the multitude." Use gentle measures if they are your equals and moderate severity if they are your subjects. But don't get yourself hated, for no good can come of that.

Cincinatus was poor before, during, and after his term as Dictator. It is a measure of the republic's greatness that wealth and political power were independent. (And, of course, a measure of Cincinatus's that he didn't seek wealth.)

The best way to restore unity is to execute the leaders of the factions. Second best, imprison or exile them. Third, swear them to reconciliation.

Factions are not useful. For a prince, one side or the other is sure to become his foe and he risks civil war. For a republic, you have all the evils of the two-party system: inconstant policy and infirm purpose.

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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2011