The central theme of book one is how the best form of political governance, or how the Roman republic became a more perfect republic, is through conflict. Machiavelli does not believe in the “from heaven” concept of constitutions. Nor does he agree with the classical political philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, etc.) that the best political regime can be rationally constructed by a study of nature replicated into a constitution. The world is a messy and imperfect place. But it is precisely this messiness and imperfectness that drives progress forward.
Given the reality of no polity ever having achieved that utopian constitution, constitutional formations are imperfect and can trend in two directions: worse or better. In other words, more tyranny or less tyranny. Or as Machiavelli preferred, more tyrannical or a more perfect republic. Machiavelli’s general thought is very much compatible with Abraham Lincoln and the idea of constructing “a more perfect union.” As Machiavelli states, “It is necessary for anyone who organizes a republic and establishes laws in it to take for granted that all men are evil and that they will always act according to the wickedness of their nature whenever they have the opportunity.”
Machiavelli’s bleak vision of man is reflective of his mixed Catholic heritage. On one hand Machiavelli is very Catholic. His vision of man is akin to Augustine’s fallen man. Man is tainted, if you will, by original sin and the lust for domination and self-interest and power. The task of law and government is to curb the wickedness of man and move him in the direction of the common good. But Machiavelli was a heterodox Catholic at best, a closet atheist at worst. Machiavelli had no love for the institutional church, that is for sure. In fact, he saw the Roman Court—the Papal States—as a barrier to possible Italian unification. (Therefore, Machiavelli was a sort of forerunner to Italian nationalism.) Nevertheless, it is Machiavelli’s understanding of man as a conflictual animal that undergirds his political theory of dialectical advancement.
Since polities do not start out with “ideal” constitutions, all polities suffer from internal strife that either destroys the polity or strengthens it. As it relates to Rome, the subject of his analysis, internal conflict strengthened it. Again, Machiavelli—reflecting on what is now called the “Conflict of the Orders” between the patricians and plebeians—writes, “In this way, after many disorders, disturbances, and the danger of disagreements that arose between the plebeians and nobility, the creation of the tribunes came about for the security of the plebeians, and these tribunes were established with such power and prestige that they could always thereafter act as intermediaries between the plebeians and the senate and could curb the insolence of the nobles.”
The conflict of the orders brought about greater republicanism because, although a de jure republic, Rome was de facto tyranny (or oligarchy). Only the interests of the rich land-owning patrician elite were represented after the expulsion of Tarquin and his sons. The conflict of the orders, which created the plebeian tribunates, was instrumental in achieving several things. First was the greater representation of the interests of Roman society—thus making the republic more perfect and more republican and less tyrannical because republicanism is about having all interests in society represented (even if unequally). Second is that the representation of the plebeians gave them a “buy in” (so to speak) to perform duties and defend the republic which they now had a stake in. This is the greater value of republican government over all other forms of government (i.e. tyranny in whatever constitutional guise it manifests itself): The common populace feel they have a stake in its success and survival and will therefore be more willing to make sacrifices for its preservation. Look at this way, if in a tyranny the peasants have zero representation in government, they will not defend the nation when the going gets tough. People yearn for liberty and justice (another Augustinian inheritance in Machiavelli albeit secularized in his thought) and will seek liberty and justice in whomever they think will best dispense it to them. In a republic, however, since the peasants have a represented stake in the nation, they will more enthusiastically fight for its defense and survival in times of trouble because they have a motivating reason to do so. Third is that the compromises reached in political conflict leads to greater liberty and stability in society. Liberty and stability, as Machiavelli sees it, are two sides of the same coin; they share a sort of symbiotic relationship. A nation with excessive liberty and no stability will collapse into anarchy where liberty is subsequently deprived. A nation with excessive “stability” (i.e.: authoritarianism) will slip into civil war where stability is subsequently deprived. Thus, the relationship between liberty and stability is a tenuous one but one that binds together through political conflict leading to compromise like the establishment of the plebeian tribunates.
Since conflict is the product of greater political representation and therefore liberty and stability, political conflict (rather than unity) is to be celebrated. “If these disturbances were the cause of the creation of the tribunes, they deserve the highest praise, because besides giving to the people its role in democratic administration, the tribunes were established as the guardians of Roman liberty.” Rome’s republic was great because it developed over the course of centuries of conflict, beginning with the overthrow of Tarquin where the aristocrats reasserted their ancient privileges and rights, and the conflict of the orders between the patrician aristocrats and the plebeian underclass which established privileges and rights to the plebeians. It is because the plebeians achieved privileges and rights through conflict that made them more attached to the body-politic than before, “The Roman plebeians generally thought that they deserved the consulate, because they compromised the largest part of the city; they ran greater risks in the wars; and they kept Rome free and powerful with their own might and muscle.”
The development of the best form of government is, in Machiavelli, almost by force of historical accident. Constitutions development over the course of history, becoming better (ideally) over time. It is not the rejection of ancestral lineage that creates the best constitution but the development of that ancestral lineage that manifests itself in fruition over the course of history. The Romans, Machiavelli tells us, had an instinct for liberty however imperfect their founding was. Machiavelli also says the Romans were right in honoring their history, their founding, and founders—precisely because it was the spirit of struggle and liberty that continued to be developed on leading to the overthrow of Tarquin and the eventual inclusion of the plebeians into the constitutional order. None of this would have been possibility without conflict. And it would have been equally unlikely that this would have developed had not the Romans had the seed and taste for liberty in their genus.
The formation of the Roman Republic, the Twelve Tablets of the Roman Law, and its propagation throughout the rest of Europe, came about through historical development. Conflicts between Rome and its tyrant kings, conflicts between patricians and plebeians, compromise and new creations, all worked to produce that great messiness that was the Roman Republic and her laws. The republic that was so venerable and great did not descend from heaven at the snap of Juno’s finger, nor was the Roman Constitution crafted by Romulus or Aeneas. Instead, the republic and her laws were the product of dialectic conflict in history which produced the most remarkable form of government ever to grace the earth with its just laws embodying liberty and order as the byproduct of these conflicts.