In The Discourses Machiavelli looks at the political reasons for the expansion of Rome during the Third Samnite War in 293 BCE. However, Machiavelli also draws on the generals of the Peloponnesian War and other ancient rulers of antiquity up until the medieval era in which he was writing in. Machiavelli discusses the utility of historical knowledge, reality and appearance, prudence and moderation (259), ingratitude (267), human commonalities, the power struggle (275), equality (248), and the human condition (268), among other things. As for the composition of this volume, The Discourses are comprised of three books which I will discuss in succession.
NOTE: This blog post is an excerpt from a previous series of posts I did. If you want to read them, here they are in succession:
Redirecting History in the Study of International Relations: Pt 1
This post will be a part of a new series I am doing.
Redirecting History in the Study of International Relations: Pt 2
This is my second blog post in a series I am doing on history. In my first blog post, I mentioned that I will do a…
Redirecting History in the Study of International Relations: Pt 3
This is my 3rd blog post in this series I am doing.
In Book One Machiavelli comments on Roman affairs that are intrinsic to the state. Machiavelli discusses how a city is established, citing Athens and Venice as examples. He discusses the homicide of Romulus by his brother Remus and Titus Tatius and pardons Romulus for this crime because he was acting for the greater good. This can resemble the line of thinking seen throughout the Peloponnesian War where justice was an instrumental rather than intrinsic good, often used to justify self-interest rather than act as a good in itself.
Machiavelli proceeds to discuss which leaders were the most effective and why republics are difficult to keep in power if they have taken over power from a monarchy, which leads to a discussion of freedom and why a free society is valuable. Machiavelli believes that dictatorial power is necessary for maintaining a Republic and indeed writes that the Romans were the freest citizens of the past. Republics are “slower to act” than a prince, Machiavelli argues (259). Therefore, where there is an immediate threat, republics are more “reliable” than princes (259). This can be contrasted with Cleon’s appeal during the Mytilenian Debate where rashness was needed, Cleon argued.
Book Two is about the growth of the empire outside its borders. Machiavelli discusses whether virtue or fortune gave the Roman empire an upper-hand (270), how Rome came to power (281), how Rome declared war on neighboring nations (291), how to get ahead if you come from nothing (310), the false belief that humility is important (312), that fortresses and walls are not as useful as they are made out to be, making the case by pointing to Sparta (352), and much more. To simplify, thematically, The Discourses can be understood as a blend between Thucydides and Sun Tzu.
Book Three is primarily concerned with what specific men did for Rome to find examples of leadership. It can be contended that Machiavelli argues from a basic premise that all humans are the same and thus looks at history because, as King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes, “Nothing is new under the sun” (1:9). Once again, realists glorify history and find patterns between human actions to simplify the complexities of human behavior. We can not make the same conclusion Machiavelli made today, for reasons that I have already given. We can, however, still appreciate Machiavelli’s grasp of history and learn from the past through his writing.
In particular, we can appreciate Machiavelli’s novel approach to his discussion of the importance of liberty. Machiavelli argues that government by free people is much more beneficial than the government by princes (316). This can be summarized with a statement at the beginning of Book Two: “Experience shows that cities never have increased in dominion or riches except while they have been living in liberty” (329).
- Machiavelli, Niccolo, et al. The Discourses. Penguin Books, 2003.
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