Home > Political Theory > Machiavelli: Stability over Ideology

Machiavelli: Stability over Ideology

Machiavelli is widely considered to be one of the most immoral or, at the least, amoral political figures in history, and his seminal work The Prince is largely responsible for this image. However, as I intend to show, The Prince does not fully encapsulate Machiavelli’s complex and subtle critique of the polis and how it ought to be structured. By investigating selections from The Discourses, a larger political theory emerges which values checks and balances and attempts to address the difficulties young republics face as they struggle to become established. Upon this analysis I believe it is clear that Machiavelli supports a form of checks and balances which includes a prince as a strong central ruler who is restricted by laws created by the governed. To this end I shall first discuss the role of the prince as a founder, establisher, and reformer of institutions and laws. From there I shall highlight the weaknesses and dangers Machiavelli associates with hereditary rule, as well as his call for the formation of checks and balances to create a more stable system. Finally, I shall address Machiavelli’s sentiments that ultimately the type of government matters much less than the stability and order of whatever government is established.

The Founder and Law-Giver

Machiavelli begins The Discourses by drawing a dichotomy between cities built locally and those established by foreigners. Those cities built locally either arise spontaneously among inhabitants or are created and united by a single individual who has authority. According to Machiavelli, a spontaneously arising group of individuals who attempts to govern themselves through laws without a prince will rarely succeed, and the city of Venice was only able to do this due to geography and Fortune.[1] Following this, Machiavelli tells us also that a city is most fortunate if a single individual can establish enduring laws: “A state can be considered most fortunate if it can bring forth a man who is so wise that he established laws organized in such a way that the state can exist securely under them without these laws needing to be revised.”[2] Founding a city and establishing laws and institutions takes the drive and power of a single person. As Machiavelli says:

It is a general rule that rarely, if ever, has a republic or kingdom been set up well from the beginning, or had its old institutions entirely reformed, unless this was done by a single man. In fact, it is necessary that one man alone give it form. Its organization must depend entirely on his ideas.[3]

Machiavelli cites numerous examples of rulers who were given absolute power but established enduring laws that protected the common good, such as Theseus, Moses, Lycurgus of Sparta, Solon, and Agis of Sparta. A single individual must necessarily form all of the laws and institutions because groups of men are not able to come to an agreement on anything due to conflicting opinions, and so the city would fail before it began.[4]

It is also necessary that these laws be established by a single ruler for a long period of time to avoid constant restructuring as different factions take power and gain or lose influence. Such a constant changing of the institutions and orders is destructive to a state and ultimately lead to the downfall of the Republic of Florence.[5] To that end, the prince who utilizes his absolute power to establish strong institutions, like Romulus establishing the senate, deserves praise and not blame for “acting outside the law in order to set up a kingdom or establish a republic.”[6] Once a prince has founded a city and created laws and institutions, these laws and institutions must be cultivated. It is to this point that I shall now turn.

Checks and Balances

Once the skilled founder has established laws and institutions, he must ensure that his power cannot be inherited but most be given. As Machiavelli says:

The founder of a state must be prudent and skillful enough not to leave his power for another to inherit, because…his successor might use with greed what the founder used with skill. A single man might be capable of establishing a state, but the state established tends not to last long if it remains on the shoulders of one man, while it does last when it remains under the control of many and relies on many to maintain it.[7]

This passage points to the instability of a city whose sole power passes from one individual to another, since even a wise and just founder cannot ensure that the next ruler, or the one after him, will be as just or as wise, and so a principality can easily degenerate into a tyranny. Similar issues plague the ruler who seeks to establish an aristocracy, which inevitably slides into an oligarchy where the nobles think more of their own power than the stability of the state. Similarly, a democracy would soon devolve into nothing more than chaos and disorder.[8] From here Machiavelli proposes that a truly wise ruler who seeks to establish an enduring government will avoid a pure system which can become corrupted and instead will mix these types. This leads to the development of checks and balances. On this he says:

Prudent rulers setting up laws were aware of this shortcoming, and steered clear of each of these forms in itself, choosing a government that combined them all, judging it steadier and more stable, because one form can keep the other in check when there are a principality, an aristocracy, and a democracy in the same city.[9]

Machiavelli offers up an example of such a system working well, namely that established by Lycurgus of Sparta. This system, which combined all three forms of government to create a system of checks and balances, was able to last over 800 years without changing at all.[10]

In this system of checks and balances it is important for some laws to exist that limit the scope of the prince’s power. When such laws are made and the people see that the prince will not violate them, the prince is able to do what he is required to do and the people are able to feel safe and secure. A government that does not set up such a system of controls will regret it later on the line.[11] One such example of laws successfully checking the power of a single individual which Machiavelli cites is that of the Roman dictator. By establishing laws that allowed the Senate to elect a dictator during times of crisis, but which also restricted the power of the dictator, Rome (according to Machiavelli) never experienced a corrupt dictator. Some of the checks against the dictator’s power were that (1) he was elected by the Senate, and so his power was temporary and was due only to the consent of the people, (2) he could only be dictator for a maximum of 6 months, and (3) he was not allowed to alter the institutions of Rome, such as disbanding the Senate, etc. [12]

In a similar spirit, Machiavelli encourages that in this system of checks and balances, no one institution should have the ability to block all of a state’s proceedings. As an example of this, Machiavelli cites an instance when two Roman Consuls were in disagreement about how to govern but would not allow the Senate to appoint a dictator, Rome benefitted from having the Tribunes which successfully kept the Consuls from blocking all political progress.[13] In this way we can see that Machiavelli values the stability which a system of checks and balances can provide. Now I shall turn to a discussion of Machiavelli’s desire for stability.

Stability Over Idealogy

Conspicuously absent from Machiavelli’s discussion of political systems is any claim of Natural or Divine Law which dictates that all men must be given certain rights. Rather, as I have shown, his treatment of this topic centers on the stability of a government rather than pursuing a pure form for idealistic purposes. This can be seen in passages like the one below, where Machiavelli discusses order and stability. Discussing the various types of states, Machiavelli says, “Of these states, the most unfortunate is the one furthest from order, and the state furthest from order is the one whose institutions stray from the path that could lead the way to a perfect and proper existence.”[14] His discussion elsewhere of the three types of government also is devoid of any idealistic language and instead focuses on the longevity of a government and how no single, pure type of government can resist degradation without checks and balances: “Thus if the founder of a republic institutes one of these three kinds of government [principality, aristocracy, or democracy,] he cannot hope for it to last long, for no precaution can keep it from lapsing into its opposite.”[15] Similarly, his discussion of liberty and freedom does not stem from a normative, populist ideal that freedom ought to reside with the people but instead he frames his investigation in terms of security and stability.[16] In this way Machiavelli’s focus is on the stability of a government rather than pursuing a theoretical ideal, and the exact composition of the government matters less than whether it is ordered and stable.

Concluding Remarks

In short, it does Machiavelli and his corpus of work an injustice to take The Prince and its various machinations as the sole voice of Machiavelli’s political theory. Rather, I believe I have shown that it should serve only as an introductory chapter. This is because the establishment of a strong and stable government first requires a powerful ruler to take control and dictate the laws and institutions. Sometimes this requires extreme measures, as in the case with Romulus: “While his actions might accuse him, the result excuses him, and when the result is good, as it was in the case of Romulus, the result will always justify his actions,” and again when he says that Romulus is one of the rulers who should be pardoned for murdering his brother to gain power, since what he did was for the common good.[17] The Prince can also be seen as an introduction to Machiavelli’s wider theory in that he cites the same figures as exemplar in both The Prince and The Discourses: Moses, the profit who used force but also set up laws, Romulus, who founded the Roman Empire as well as the Roman Senate, and Theseus, who united the Athenians and made later Athenian superiority possible.[18] In this way, by emulating these figures, a ruler would hopefully also emulate their establishment of enduring institutions. I believe Machiavelli wrote The Prince in hopes that a strong and uniting prince would emerge to unite Italy, and wrote The Discourses to plant the seeds for the necessity of forming checks and balances to ensure that Italy remained united.[19] As I have shown, when taken as a whole, Machiavelli’s collected works present a systematic approach for not only establishing a strong city or state but also ensuring that it remains stable for as long as possible.

[1]Niccolo Machiavelli, The Essential Writings of Machiavelli, trans. Peter Constantine (New York: The Modern Library, 2007), 109-110.

[2] Machiavelli, 113.

[3] Ibid., 140.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 114.

[6] Ibid., 140.

[7] Ibid., 141.

[8] Ibid., 114-116.

[9] Ibid., 116.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 161.

[12] Ibid., 189.

[13] Ibid., 201.

[14] Ibid., 113.

[15] Ibid., 114.

[16] Ibid., 126.

[17] Ibid., 141.

[18] Ibid., 22-25 and 140.

[19] Compare Ch.26 of The Prince regarding freeing Italy from the barbarians (pgs 97-100) with Machiavelli’s critique of the Church for standing in the way of Italy being united in Ch. 12 of The Discourses, Book 1 (pg 151-154).

  1. April 1, 2011 at 3:27 PM

    Shrewd take. It is unfortunate that philosophers are sometimes caricatured by a small snippet of their writing. Bertrand Russell writes in his “A History of Western Philosophy”, “Wisely, [so-and-so] never published any of his philosophy in writing.” I think what he might mean is that putting something in ink can be the most regrettable thing a philosopher can do. It gives readers the opportunity to forever critique your thinking.

    After reading this, I think of poor Blaise Pascal. He is most often known only by his wager — not the most ground-breaking contribution to theology or philosophy. It seems, however, that he had much more to say — though it rarely shows up in the syllabi of undergraduates. Alas, professors can only cover so much in their classrooms in they time they are allotted, so the pictures that are painted of various thinkers are, necessarily, unjustly brief and sometimes lacking more than half of the full context.

    I will add Machivelli’s Discourses to my reading list. Thanks for making this important point.

    • April 3, 2011 at 12:22 AM

      Thanks, Nick. I think the pidgeon-holing of philosophers can be negative, but also positive in some respects. While Machiavelli is not known for his plays (The Mandrake is great!) or even the Discourses, and while he has been demonized by his association with The Prince, his name has lived on and has sparked interest in the rest of his work, both person and political. I think it is through these threads that slowly we can begin to learn more about those philosophers we once thought were “one-trick ponies.”

      You are right that the brevity of coursework, coupled with the inability for anyone not on a grant to read and discuss the wealth of a single person’s work, leads to marginalization. But I should only hope to be so marginalized some day!

  2. April 11, 2011 at 10:40 AM

    Just noticed this in Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy: “He says in the beginning of the Prince…. Those who do not read also the Discourses are likely to get a very one-sided view of his doctrine.” (Book III, Chapter III)

    • April 12, 2011 at 12:50 AM

      Yes, Machiavelli is one of those figures who is best read with reservations and a ready supply of his other works. Often his ideas clash with one another, though such clashes can appear paragraphs apart and most certainly were intended. Though I am usually suspect of utilizing the personal life of theorists to draw conclusions regarding their writings, Machiavelli’s personal life is so sordid and interesting that one can’t help but examine it. One of the most interesting aspects of his life was that he spent some time with Cesare Borgia as well as Leonardo da Vinci.

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