Thursday, December 5, 2013

Keys to the Republic: The Wisdom of Machiavelli

I recently finished reading the illuminating book Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius by Niccolo Machiavelli.  Unlike The Prince, this book is a fascinating treatise on the successes and failures of ancient republics and governments while also comparing them to contemporary republics of Machiavelli's time, especially those of renaissance era Florence and Venice.  The book is dripping in wisdom from the ages.  I strongly encourage anyone interested in politics and policymaking to acquire a copy.

Here are some of the best quotes.  I have loosely categorized them for your benefit.


"Let no man, therefore, lose heart from thinking that he cannot do what others have done before him; are born, and live, and die, always in accordance with the same rules."

"He who would reform the institutions of a free state, must retain at least the semblance of the old ways."

"Remaining undecided, he will be crushed while he still wavers and doubts."

"For nothing, I think, is of worse example in a republic, than to make a law and not keep it; and most of all, when he who breaks it is he who made it."

"Of all the many princes existing. or who have existed, few indeed are or have been either wise or good."

"Men, moreover, in proportion as they see you averse to usurp authority over them, grow the readier to surrender themselves into your hands; and fear you less on the score of their freedom, when they find you acting toward them with consideration and kindness."

"Excellence is praised and admired even by its enemies."

"More glory is to be won in being beaten by force, than in a defeat from any other cause."

"A great man is constantly the same through all vicissitudes of fortune; so that although she change, now exalting, now depressing, he remains unchanged, and retains always a mind so unmoved, and in such complete accordance with his nature as declares to all that over him fortune has no dominion." - Marcus Furius Camillus

"Very different is the behavior of those weak minded mortals who, puffed up and intoxicated with their success, ascribe all their felicity to virtues which they never knew."

"For as a captain cannot be present everywhere while a battle is being fought, unless he have taken all measures before hand to render his men of the same temper as himself, and have made sure that they perfectly understand his orders and arrangements, he will inevitably be destroyed."

"The criterion of character afforded by a man's manners and conversation is a safer guide than the presumption of inherited excellence, but is far inferior to that afforded by his actions."

"It is men who give lustre to titles and not titles to men."

Corruption of the State

"For the corruption I speak of is wholly incompatible with the free government, because it results from an inequality which pervades the state and can only be removed by employing unusual and very violent remedies, such as few are willing or know how to employ."

"But where corruption is universal, no laws or institutions will ever have force to restrain it.  Because as good customs stand in need of good laws for their support, so laws, that they may be respected, stand in need of good customs.  Moreover, the laws and institutions established in a republic at its beginning, when men are good, are no longer suitable when they have become bad."

"But when the people grew depraved, this [the tribune] became a very mischievous institution; for then it was only the powerful who proposed laws, and these not in the interest of public freedom but of their own authority, and because, through fear, none durst speak against the laws they proposed, the people were either deceived or forced into voting their own destruction."

"The vices of our age are the more odious in that they are practiced by those who sit on the judgement seat, govern the state, and demand public reverence."

Freedom Gained and Freedom Ruined

"There is no difficulty, therefore, in determining whence that ancient greatness and this modern decay have arisen, since they can be traced to the free life formerly prevailing and to the servitude which prevails now.  For all countries and provinces which enjoy complete freedom, make, as I have said, most rapid progress.  Because from marriage being less restricted in these countries, and more sought after, we find there a greater population; every man being disposed to beget as many children as he thinks he can rear, when he has no anxiety lest they should be deprived of their patrimony, and knows not only that they are born to freedom and not to slavery, but that they may rise by their merit to be the first men of their country, in such states, accordingly, we see wealth multiply, both that which comes from agriculture and that which comes from manufactures. For all love to gather riches and to add to their possessions when enjoyment of them is not likely to be disturbed."

"The multitude...formed themselves into a government and at first, while the recollection of past tyranny was still fresh, observed the laws they themselves made, and postponing personal advantage to the common welfare, administered affairs both publicly and privately with the utmost diligence and zeal.  But this government passing, afterwards, to their descendants who, never having been taught in the school of adversity, knew nothing of the vicissitudes of fortune, these not choosing to rest content with mere civil equality, but abandoning themselves to avarice, ambition, and lust, converted, without respect to civil rights what had been a government of the best into a government of the few; and so very soon met with the same fate as the tyrant."  

"A lost freedom is avenged with more ferocity than a threatened freedom is defended."

"Those states consequently stand surest and endure longest which, either by the operation of their institutions can renew themselves, or come to be renewed by accident apart from any design.  Nothing, however, can be clearer than that unless thus renewed these bodies do not last.  Now the way to renew them is, as I have said, to bring them back to their beginnings, since all beginnings of sects, commonwealths, or kingdoms must needs have in them a certain excellence, by virtue of which they gain their first reputation and make their first growth.  But because in progress of time this excellence becomes corrupted, unless something be done to restore it to what it was at first, these bodies necessarily decay; for as the physicians tell us in speaking of the human body: "something or other is daily added which sooner or later will require treatment."

"Nothing is so necessary in any society, as to restore to it that reputation which it had at first, and to see that it is provided either with wholesome laws, or with good men whose actions may effect the same ends, without need to resort to external force."

"For it is no less arduous and dangerous to attempt to free a people disposed to live in servitude, than to enslave a people who desire to live free."

The Decline of Religion Presages the Decline of a State

"And as the observance of the ordinances of religion is the cause of the greatness of a state, so their neglect is the occasion of its decline; since a kingdom without the fear of God must either fall to pieces, or must be maintained by the fear of some prince who supplies that influence not supplied by religion."

"Princes and commonwealths that would save themselves from growing corrupted, should before all things keep uncorrupted the rites and ceremonies of religion, and always hold them in reverence; since we can have no surer sign of decay of a province than to see divine worship held therein in contempt."

"Wherever there is fear, the want of faith will be the same."

Balance of Power

"In every republic there are two conflicting factions, that of the people and that of the nobles, it is in this conflict that all laws favorable to freedom have their origin."

"The cruelties of a people are turned against him who it fears will encroach upon the common rights, but the cruelties of the prince against those who he fears may assert those rights."

"For a monarchy readily becomes a tyranny, an aristocracy an oligarchy, while a democracy tends to degenerate into anarchy.  So that if the founder of a state should establish any one of these three forms of government, he establishes it for a short time only, since no precaution he may take can prevent it from sliding into its contrary by reason of the close resemblance which, in this case, the virtue bears to the vice."

The People

"For though they be ignorant, the people are not therefore, as Cicero says, incapable of being taught the truth, but are readily convinced when it is told them by one in whose honesty they can trust."

"For though the multitude be unfit to set a state in order, since they cannot, by reason of the divisions which prevail among them, agree wherein the true well-being of the state lies, yet when they have once been taught the truth, they will never consent to abandon it."

"But when a people is led to commit this error of lending its support to some one man, in order that he may attack those whom it holds in hatred, if he only be prudent, he will inevitably become the tyrant of that city."

"A people deceived by a false show of advantage will often labor for its own destruction; and unless convinced by someone whom it trusts, that the course on which it is bent is pernicious, and that some other is to be preferred, will bring infinite danger and injury up on a state."

"So blinded are men in favor of what seems a spirited course."

"Nothing tends so much to restrain an excited multitude as the reverence felt for some grave person, clothed in authority, who stands forward to oppose them."

"For often a people will be open-mouthed in condemning the decrees of their prince, but afterwards when they have to look punishment in the face, putting no trust in one another, they hasten to comply."

"On the one hand there is nothing more terrible than an uncontrolled and headless mob, on the other, there is nothing feebler."

"But as for prudence and stability of purpose, I affirm that a people is more prudent, more stable, and of better judgement than a prince, nor is it without reason that the voice of the people has been likened to the voice of God; for we see that wide spread beliefs fulfill themselves, and bring about marvelous results so as to have the appearance of presaging by some occult quality either weal or woe."

"How greatly men are governed in what they do by necessity."

Miscellaneous Wisdom

"For men, if they would judge justly, should esteem those who are, and not those whose means enable them to be generous; and in like manner those who know how to govern kingdoms, rather than those who possess the government without such knowledge."

"Whence it happens that by far the greater number of those who read history, take pleasure in following the variety of incidents with it presents, without a thought to imitate them."

"Calumny is most rife in that state wherein impeachment is least practiced and the laws least favor it."

"For men used to live in one way are loath to leave it for another, especially when they are not brought face to face with the evil against which they should guard, and only have it indicated to them by conjecture."

"For the causes of division in a commonwealth are, for the most part, ease and tranquility, while the causes of union are fear and war."

"The past should have our reverence, the present our obedience, and that we should wish for good princes, but put up with any."

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