Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy (1/5): Polities and Political Forms

Niccolò Machiavelli is either scorned or considered the realist thinker par excellence. Even those who laud his realism may keep distance from his moral implications of politics. Such readings of Machiavelli have, more recently, been challenged thanks to individuals like Quinton Skinner, Harvey Mansfield, and Philip Bobbitt. Many people remember Machiavelli for his primer for princes—The Prince; however, his more serious and insightful work is the Discourses on Livy.

Where the Prince was a far more practical work, the Discourses straddles political theory, military theory, philosophy, and practical politics. All Machiavelli scholars know that it is the Discourses which is the superior work—though many equally assert that the two works should be read as companions. I agree. That said, it is time to examine some of the substantive content of Machiavelli’s less well-known but more profound and deep masterpiece.

The Discourses is divided into three books and draws upon mostly the history of the Roman Republic by Titus Livy, though Machiavelli draws on other ancient works and contemporary events to underscore his points. The first book largely deals with political philosophy and theory. The second book largely deals with military theory and warfare, things that rulers and nations cannot avoid so must have a grasp of. The third book is largely a miscellaneous collection of reflections on leadership, religion, politics, and heroism.


Machiavelli begins his great treatise on the questions of polities and political forms. This is standard political philosophy basics. Machiavelli observes that there are two types of polities, native and colonist (or non-native) polities. That is, cities are either inhabited and maintained by the original founders or having been taken over by foreigners or constructed by migratory peoples who are not natives of the land they build their city in, “[A]ll cities are built either by men who are natives of place where they are built or by foreigners.” The concern for liberty, customs, and traditions, which is a major side concern for Machiavelli, is also tied to this problem. Native cities tend to be established in liberty as they were constructed through the open association and union with neighbors. Cities that have been conquered by foreigners are almost never free. Only cities built in foreign lands by a disposed people, in building their own city (like Aeneas and the Trojan-Romans), are free because it was their own labor that brought about the formation of their city which they call home.

The crux of Machiavelli’s argument on liberty vs. slavery, here, is that it is rooted in genus—beginning. A city that starts in slavery rarely becomes free. A city that starts in freedom struggles to maintain its freedom. Polities and political forms are generally premised on native liberty and foreign subjection and slavery. A city that is native but overrun, that originally native population falls under the yoke of the foreign conquerors. A city that that is native but wards off the foreign influx, remains free. A city that has been founded by foreigners generally makes use of the existing native infrastructure and, in that sense, is also enslaved to the structures and systems which they have imposed onto themselves rather than build anew from the ground. Only in rare circumstances do a disposed people build from the ground up—Aeneas is the shining example of this rare differentiation.

Unlike the multitude of political philosophers before him, Machiavelli rejects the trifold/six-fold schema of political forms: Monarchy, Oligarchy, Constitutionalism for students of Aristotle, Principality, Aristocracy, Democracy in the words of Machiavelli (with their contingent deformed iterations leading to the six forms). A deeply dialectical thinker, as book one makes clear, Machiavelli sees all political forms being reducible to two: Republic and Tyranny. A republic, res publica, is the public thing. A republic is the political form which sees all interests represented in the body-politic. Now, this representation does not need to be equal (and it often isn’t). But if all parties and interests are represented such a political form has claim to be a republic. Majority-rule (democratic-tyranny) is not a republic just as much as divine monarchy (single-rule tyranny) is not a republic. A tyranny, then, is any form of government which does not include representative interests from all segments of society.

Machiavelli makes clear his disdain for monarchy. Monarchy is the form that is most likely to be tyrannical. Democracy, on the other hand, is the form that is likely to be most unstable. Machiavelli’s republicanism is premised on the mixed constitution; but the mixed constitution, he believes, comes about through political conflict. The mixed constitution represents all segments and factions of society; this is why it is a mixed constitution. Only a mixed constitution, that is, a republic, has claim to be a republic because all parties are represented in some fashion in the political form.

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