Political Philosophy Politics

Conflict and Republicanism: Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy

Niccolò Machiavelli was one of the foremost man of letters in the Late Renaissance.  He is remembered as the author of the “primer for princes” generally translated as The Prince in English.  His name is associated with manipulation and the idea that it is better to be evil than good to maintain political power.  However, Machiavelli’s more important treatise was his historico-political reflection on philosophy, politics, and history—a commentary over the Histories by the Roman historian Livy interwoven with additional ancient historical examples to ground his theory of political governance and development—The Discourses on Livy.

Machiavelli asserts that there are only two types of government: republics and monarchies (or anything that is not a republic).  What is a republic?  A republic, according to Machiavelli, is “the public thing.”  But what is the public thing?  Taking in considerations from all sectors of social life: religion, economics (within an economy the divisions of an economy such as industry, agriculture, fishing, etc.), class, and so forth.  Republics, in Machiavelli’s mind, do not need to be “democratic” in the sense that all men have the right to vote.  Nay, a republic is a republic as long as the form of government takes into consideration for political decision making all the sectors of political life.  As mentioned, this includes religion as much as economics; it includes class as much as big business, small business, craftsmen and so forth.

Rome serves as Machiavelli’s historical backdrop to ground his vision in history.  The Roman Republic, which was superior to the Empire, did not have “one man one vote.”  But what developed over the course of the republic’s rise (and eventual fall) was that the interests of the “disenfranchised” class of plebeians was represented by political movements in the Roman Senate.  Pro-plebeian tribunes, like the Gracchus Brothers, ensured that Rome was a republic even if the plebeians didn’t have the right to vote.  Likewise, the complex network of what we would today call “special interest groups” advocating on behalf of their constituents: farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, land owners, etc., is by definition republican.

But how does a republic come about?

Conflict.  Machiavelli sees conflict as essential for the development of the most practical and most efficient form of government.  Here we see Machiavelli as a sort of “ruthless pragmatist” rather than naïve idealist.  Yet, his ruthless pragmatism does have an idealistic slant to it.  He does not slouch into pessimism but calls for activism.  Those who have no power, i.e. no representation or interest groups, should become active and fight against the representatives and interest groups that keep them down.  Through this purely political dialectic, which is not the Marxist class dialectic, conflict ensures greater equality and liberty, greater work for the common good, and greater representation of interests (though not always proportional to population size).  In a word Machiavelli’s republican government is very Catholic.  But it is Catholic without Christianity.

Reflecting upon religion, which has its own interests in a republic and does not get closed out by the “separation of church and state” (any such government that does not take into consideration the religious dynamic of a polity is not a republic), Machiavelli favors a sort of militant and activist religion rather than a humble, merciful, and contemplative religion.  Machiavelli’s esoteric criticism of Christianity—though his book was published with Papal approval—was that it too often favored the meek and intellectual rather than the strong and engaged.  But Machiavelli doesn’t write paeans to classical paganism either, since the ancient pagan cults never had a unified vision of man (and indeed had a very, very, very bleak anthropology) or the same corporate understanding of society and the world (as Catholicism developed).

Machiavelli’s religion was part pagan (the strong and warlike) and part Catholic (corporate, social, and public).  The main task of religion, in Machiavelli’s eyes, was to maintain an engaged and active citizenry, public order, and to confront wicked and domineering men wherever they prop up.  In other words, religion ought to make men strong and willing to sacrifice for the community rather than make men weak and wanting to seek peace instead of conflict.  Religion has an integral role to play in creating, reorienting, and advancing man’s roots.  In commenting over Rome’s renewal after the sack of the city by the Gauls in 390 B.C., their rejection of religion led them down a path of a decadence and injustice.  Their renewal of religion led them to a renewal of virtue and justice.  In fact, the vitality of religion in a society is a good indicator of where a society is in its life cycle.

It is here that one need to understand Machiavelli’s bleak understanding of the world—a sort of non-Christian Augustinianism where man drowns in sin and his only hope of salvation is to confront, rather than humbly accept, the libido dominandi of other men.  This is the primary task of religion.  And it is this confrontational activism that is necessary for the advancement of the body politic and republican politics to achieve the most pragmatic and orderly form of government possible that mixes greater liberty (in the sense of represented interest) with order (that which allows people to live their lives without fear of violence or disorder in their neighborhoods).  If one fails to confront the libido dominandi then there is no republican advancement.  The patrician class, the land-owning economic interests, the priestly class (without consideration of the concerns of the laity) would reign supreme.

But why would this become a problem?  Stagnation breeds complacency and, in of itself, leads to decadence.  Thus, even a “powerful” class and group of people who have long held power and not felt the threat of losing power themselves grow weak and unable to confront the problems of society when they beset them.  Had Machiavelli grown passed Livy to comment on the fall of the Roman Empire he would have likely commented on the nature of imperial complacency and the decadence of the ruling class that had no threats of conflict from the underclasses.  Threats to the “ruling class” and “ruling interests” keep them on their toes, keep them sharp, keep them ready to face greater threats (such as external ones) when they emerge.

Likewise, the activism of the sectors of political life shut out from representation gain in liberty as they aggressively pursue their interests.  Machiavelli sees the starting point of political government not of unity or harmony but of disorder and totalizing control of one group or sector over all others.  Through conflict this disorder yields to order, and totalizing control breaks down into representative interests.  Rather than “coming together” as many politicians and movements preach today Machiavelli would assert “pursuing your own interests” which, counter-intuitively, leads to a better “coming together” than “coming together” does.  (Since the argument of “coming together” really means remaining subjected to the already established powers that be; something that is bad for you if you’re not in that group and something that is bad for the ruling powers as they grow complacent and weak without confrontation to their ways.)

Thus, the golden age of the Roman Republic was born through the Plebeian-Patrician conflict.  The “Conflict of the Orders” as it is sometimes called was two centuries (ca. 500-287 B.C.) of conflict between the senatorial and large land-owning patrician class which controlled all of the interests and powers of the Roman State and the plebeians, an assortment of low-skilled to high-skilled, noble and non-noble, soldiers, tenant workers and small scale land owners who held no power.  As such, only the interests of the patricians were represented and thus Rome was not truly a republic.  The Roman Republic only came into being after the Conflict of the Orders when the Senate made concessions to the plebeians and their interests, small as they still were, were finally represented by the pro-plebeian tribunes.

Therefore, conflict is necessary for liberty.  Machiavelli is proto-Hegelian and proto-Schmittian; or, more properly, Hegel and Schmitt were influenced by Machiavelli.  Man is not born free as Rousseau and Marx asserted but some men were born free and most other men were not.  Men become free through conflict and acquisition of security (two driving forces that run through the founding of cities and their ascent to prominence); whereas Rousseau and Marx saw man as becoming enslaved through conflict (only when the exhaustion of conflict dissipates to nothing do all return to their original freedom in the historicism of Marx).  Conflict is essential to bringing about the best order, the most practical order, the most stable order; conflict is essential to bringing about a republic where all interests and sectors of life are represented, whether by one man or a hundred men; whether by “one man one vote” or a duly appointed lobbyist on behalf of the constituents he represents.

Machiavelli also gives us consideration in the present.  If conflict is necessary for the enlargement of liberty (which he means the representation of interests) and the bringing about of the best and most practical political order, and if man is essentially a domineering animal, how are we to address the problem of liberalism?  Liberalism, as a philosophy and political theory, asserts the very opposite of what Machiavelli sees through the development of Roman history and the history of his own time in Italy.  Liberalism shuns conflict and seeks a world of non-harm, i.e. non-conflict.  Liberalism preaches “compromise” and “tolerance,” rather than conflict and aggressively pursuing self-interest.  Liberalism preaches the common good but does not know how to make the common good a reality; Machiavelli asserts the common good comes about by the conflict of competitive interests inadvertently bringing about greater wealth, greater representation, and ultimately greater “cooperation” by each pursuing his own end.

Order and unity do not come from submission but from conflict.  Republican governance, the government form that represents all interests and sectors of political life, also only comes about from conflict.  Moreover, the greatness of the Romans was because of their willingness to seek conflict and confront their enemies: domestically and externally.  The collapse of the Romans, if we extend Machiavelli’s commentary out further, was because of their decadence and weakness; their attempt to rely on foreign mercenaries and bribery to deal with their crises rather than confront them head on.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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