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familiar with the adjective "machiavellian," very few are actually knowledgeable about the political philosophy of Niccolo Machiavelli. However, Machiavelli does in fact have a great deal to teach us and we should be careful not to dismiss Machiavelli's thoughtfulness and acuity as an observer of human society by relegating his contributions to a single, uncomplimentary adjective. Especially in his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius (much more so than in the more famous The Prince), we see in this writer of the Italian Renaissance a man who was truly engaged in the intellectual work required to create a system of government that was based on ideals and yet that also acknowledged the realities of human society as he understood them from his particular historical perspective. This paper examines the particular suggestions that Machiavelli outlined in Discourses for a well governed republic.
We may begin our analysis of Machiavelli's understanding of the ways in which a republic could - and should - function by a very brief foray into The Prince, for Machiavelli's examination of republican government is in many ways only half of an argument, for he was at least implicitly contrasting it to traditional, monarchial forms of rule. Although from our vantage point from the other side of the Enlightenment we are inclined to focus on what we now consider to be Machiavelli's encouragement of the rule of force, in actuality his arguments in The Prince - and to all princes - was a relatively benign one. Machiavelli's major point in writing The Prince was to offer to monarchs advice that would help them keep their thrones, and his advice to this end is in many ways allied with republican ideals about the balance of power and authority between the governed and those in power - ideals that the republicans of ancient Rome would have certainly agreed with even as progressive writers from the Enlightenment onward would also have found completely acceptable.
Among Machiavelli's pieces of advice to royal rulers was a judicious use of force (while this may sound barbaric to us, in fact many royal rulers of Machiavelli's time used force unrestrained by any sense of mercy) along with a respect for the private property of individuals and local traditions and customs. Machiavelli did also argue that the same standards of morality cannot be applied to rulers as to those that are ruled because the conditions of their lives and the extent of their responsibilities are so different from each other that a single set of standards for behavior cannot obtain. Machiavelli's insistence on this position - which is also present in Discourses - no doubt reflected the political realities of his own times, in which the city-states of Italy as well as a number of other sovereign interests across Europe all eagerly engaged in promoting political turmoil and violence for personal gain. Machiavelli urged royal leaders to look beyond possible personal gains of the moment to work for the common good of their royal lines and their people.
These same ideas run throughout Discourses in an even clearer form. The overall intent of the author in this work is to discuss and evaluate republican forms of government. Machiavelli defined a republican state as one in which a politically active citizenry has control over the mechanisms of governance. Just as in The Prince he offers advice to monarchs on how to ensure the survival of their dynasties, in Discourses he offers advices to republican governments on how to extend their rule. His advice (which remains sound for today) is that republican forms of government survive and even flourish to the extent that they are capable of instilling a spirit of honest patriotism and civic dedication amongst the population. In addition to this very still-very-current sentiment. Machiavelli argued that a republic is strengthened by open and honest debate and criticism by the population and that republican governments should thus encourage rather than try to suppress the open marketplace of ideas.
The third book of Discourses, which includes discussions of all of these ideas, differs from the first two books in its focus, which is less on the past and particularities of the Roman republic and more inclined to consider republics in general. Another way of looking at the relationship between the first two books and the third is to say that in the first two Machiavelli is concerned primarily with what has happened in the past while in the third he is more interested in discussing how the lessons of the past may be applied to the present, for Machiavelli was deeply concerned with the political anarchy that existed in Italy in his own time and very much hoped that his treatises would not be treated as simple abstractions but rather would help his contemporaries to build a stronger and more united Italy.
The vision of human society that Machiavelli puts forth in the third book of Discourses (as elsewhere in his writings) is certainly in many ways a dark one. But on the same hand it must be noted that it is hardly one without optimism: Machiavelli makes it quite clear that he believes that people do have the capacity to make better societies than the ones that he sees around him. (He does not believe that human history is a straightforward trajectory toward ever higher states, but nor does he believe that we must simply accept the conditions of whatever historical moment we are born into). People are in many ways free to improve or worsen their own lots, he argues.
To want to assume authority in a Republic, and install there a bad form of a Government, therefore, there is need to find the people corrupted by the times and that, little by little, from generation to generation, it is led to this corruption; these are led by necessity to this, unless they are ((as has been discussed above)) reinvigorated frequently by good examples or brought back by good laws to their principles. Manlius, therefore, would have been a rare and memorable man if he had been born in a corrupt City. And therefore the Citizens in a Republic who attempt an enterprise either in favor of Liberty or in favor of Tyranny, ought to consider the condition of things, and judge the difficulty of the enterprise; for it is as difficult and dangerous to want to make a people free who want to live in servitude, as to want to make a people slave who want to live free. And as it has been said above that men in their actions ought to consider the kind of times and proceed according to them, we will discuss this at length in the following chapter.
One of the most important themes that runs through the third book of Discourses (although, again, it should be pointed out that the major arguments that he makes in this book are all found in other places in his works as well, for Machiavelli is a very consistent writer) is the insistence that while bad leaders (whether republican or otherwise) use human weaknesses and institutional weaknesses in social structures to gain power for themselves without regard for the social chaos - including violence - that may ensue.
In this section of Discourses, Machiavelli is asking us to question what had for centuries been considered as carved in stone. The accepted relationship between rulers and ruled seemed to be unalterable to many at the beginning of the Renaissance, even if the ways in which such relationships were constituted tended to lead to oppression, violence and cultural decline. Machiavelli argues that while it is essential and inevitable for societies to change over time, it is not necessary for them to decline. But the only way that they may prevent such a decline is to make conscientious and repeated efforts to adhere to the original principles that the leaders believed in at the founding of each republic. We should note that Machiavelli does not underestimate the difficulty of doing so - he is not in any way ignorant of the fact that there are vast differences between the most elegantly described systems of all political philosophers, including himself, and the practical realities of governance. But he is also adamant in his warnings that to allow republics to slip away from the principles on which they were founded is to invite disastrous consequences, as he writes in the first chapter of the third book:
It is a most true thing that all the things of the world have to have an ending to their existence. But these only run the entire course that is generally ordained by Heaven, which does not disorganize their body, but keeps it so organized that it is not changed, or if it is changed, it is for its welfare and not its injury. And as I speak here of mixed bodies, as are Republics and (Religious) Sects, I say that those changes are for the…[continue]
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