Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy (5/5): Why Does Machiavelli Favor Republicanism?

The Discourses of Livy shows that Machiavelli favors a republic over all other forms of government—even though the real political dialectic is between republics and non-republics (i.e. tyrannies). Machiavelli prefers republican governance mostly for state and practical purposes. While Machiavelli certainly is a fan of liberty and order, he does not believe people are naturally inclined to liberty though they may be inclined to order through servility. The task then is to awaken or inculcate a spirit of liberty in the herd.

Monarchy, oligarchy, and indeed, anarchistic democracy, are insufficient in doing this. In this way all of those other forms of government are, in Machiavelli’s reductionism, alternative forms of tyranny where some, or many, are servile slaves to the rule of one, a few, or the majority. Republics, on the other hand, in giving the greatest representation of all interests of society a stake in the body politic, allow for the greatest amount of “buy-in” from its citizens.

It is an engaged citizenry, not a passive citizenry, that is the root of liberty. Had it not been for the active citizenry in responding to the rape and murder of Lucretia, Rome would still have slumbered under the tyranny of Tarquin and his sons and their descendants. Had it not been for the active citizenry which constituted the majority of the Roman population, the plebeians, Rome’s manpower pool and ability to shepherd great will and common commitment to defeating her neighbors could never have come about—thereby having allowed other powers to trample on Rome and take away Roman liberty. Had it not been for the active citizens who led Rome in her dark hours, whether Cincinnatus or Decius or Torquates, whose individual actions inspired their citizens and soldiers to persevere, Roman liberty would have been extinguished by Rome’s foes.

Machiavelli is a theorist of liberty. But his philosophy of liberty is not one of natural liberty a la John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or Thomas Paine. Machiavelli’s theory of liberty is a liberty that emerges with struggle and the willingness to expand, or reclaim, liberty by actions of the will. Liberty and order are not antagonistic to each other. As proven by the Conflict of the Orders and Rome’s rise to greatness, the persevering order of the Roman state corresponded with her growth in liberty afforded to the multitude beyond the patrician class. That said, liberty is not necessarily guaranteed under excessive order. But excessive order which doesn’t permit enough liberty is a fragile order, again seen through the history of Tarquin and his sons. Maximum order comes with maximum liberty—but this is not a licentious liberty, it is a liberty that sustains itself through duties to protect it which require citizen engagement and sacrifice.

Therefore, the republic is the only suitable form of government for liberty and order to flourish for a long period of time. While all earthly things come to an end, those earthly polities that had the longest life were those polities that struck the balance of liberty and order by giving a great stake in its wellbeing to its citizens. Because republics give the greatest stake to the masses, the masses will more willingly defend the republic and fight for the republic than in tyrannical forms of government.

There is an ironic statism entailed in all this. For the longevity of the state it is in the state’s own interest to give its citizens a great deal of liberty. In doing so the citizens feel attached to their state for the liberty they have under it and will be more willing to fight and die for the state under the liberty they enjoy. In this sense liberty and statism go together in Machiavelli’s outlook. And that is what the Discourses and The Prince are all about: How best to maintain and run a state and all the functions of governance and political stewardship. According to Machiavelli, the best way to do this is through republican states which, in giving liberty and providing stability to its citizens, and honoring and promoting the religion of the people, is able to depend upon its citizens to undertake the hardships and sacrifices sometimes necessary in the bloody struggle that characterizes life on earth.

Thus, even in Machiavelli’s preference for republicanism we see his political realism—realpolitik—on full display. Political realism, not idealism, was the cause of his support for republican regimes. This is essential when understanding Machiavelli and the modern world.

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