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Republicanism and Critical Assessment

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Introduction to Western Political Thought
Professor Mithilesh Kumar Jha
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati
Lecture No. 11
Machiavelli – III: Republicanism and Critical
Assessment of his thought
(Refer Slide Time: 0.32)
Hello and welcome everyone. This is the third and concluding lecture on Machiavelli. Today, we are
going to focus on the first part of another important text of him, Discourses on Livy, and his
characterization of republics as a better form of government than the principalities. In the second
part of the lecture, today, we are going to assess the contribution of Machiavelli in the western
tradition of political thought.
Machiavelli was someone subjected to different kinds of interpretation as a republic thinker who
wanted an all-powerful sovereign ruler to unify. And in pursuit of such unification, he should not be
concerned about the ethical or moral concern of the conventional Christian ethics. He was someone
who was interpreted as a classical humanist thinker.
In the previous two lectures, we have discussed his views on Virtu or Fortuna. The context in which
he was writing was the fragmentation of Italy or all-pervasive political, moral decay, and the
inability of Christian ethics or religion to provide stability in that context.
Machiavelli was someone trying to rescue or move away from the dominant Christian ethics or
morality and to reset the classical humanist tradition of belief that human beings through their
reason and rationality could create a better society for themselves and their community. And Machiavelli comes as the first thinker in the medieval or late medieval era to project politics which
could create the conditions for a better life for the individuals and community.
In doing that he remained somewhat uniquely positioned in the sense he was not modern like
Hobbes, lock, and Rousseau nor he was a medieval thinker like Saint Augustine or Thomas
Aquinas. This we have discussed and his views on Virtu and Fortuna in the first lecture. In the
second lecture, we particularly focused on his text, The Price, and the advice that he gave to the
prince for the creation of new principalities. And how to govern them effectively given the corrupt
or weakened human nature.
Thus, Machiavelli through his advice to the prince was trying to develop the theory of politics
which helped human beings to create a system of government or polity in a condition where people
are imperfect, morally corrupt, or violent prone. So, how to create a perfect state in the imperfect
condition. And what kind of advice the ruler needs to create such perfect order that is the basis of
The Prince.
In today’s lecture, we are going to focus on how Machiavelli preferred the republics and explain the
nature, characteristics of such republics. His other equally significant perhaps more significant than
the text, the Prince in many political commentators is the Discourse. In the Discourse, he outlined
the nature and characteristics of the republics which we are going to focus on in the first half of the
lecture, today. And then we will conclude to assess the contribution of Machiavelli’s thought and its
different kinds of interpretation.
(Refer Slide Time: 4.54)
Machiavelli was a morally and ethically neutral thinker. So as we have discussed Machiavelli on the matter of politics or governing was not taking any ethical or moral position. In his assessment of
politics or his advice, he appeared to be an ethically or morally neutral thinker. With this approach
to politics as an ethical and morally neutral observer or a thinker, Machiavelli lived with a theory of
politics whose sole concern was how to establish a stable polity and govern them effectively.
This was the central concern of Machiavelli’s political theory to establish a stable polity given the
imperfect nature of human beings' constant warfare and the fragmentation of principalities or cities
in the Italian Peninsula. His immediate concern was to have a polity that would unify this
fragmented polity which was constantly at war with each other in a more stable or untied form of a
rule.
And then, how to govern them effectively? That was the central concern in Machiavelli’s political
thought and he provided us a theory of politics which helped us to understand how to create a stable
order and govern them effectively. And in doing so, there was an ethical or morally neutral stand
that Machiavelli took.
So, considering the wickedness and violent nature of human beings combined with the everchanging situation in politics. He wanted the rulers to know the situations as they were rather than
as we ought them to be. Machiavelli’s political thought or political thinking was based on the exact
or correct assessment of the situation.
The ethical and moral concern that everybody would behave was ideally, morally, and ethically in
an honest manner. But the given actual condition was not ideal. So, for a ruler to establish a rule he
must be knowledgeable enough through history by mixing the virtue of fox and lion to understand
the situation as it is. Rather than as we ought them to be. Thus, once a ruler understands the
situation as they are then his responsibilities are to understand what is the appropriate response to
that particular situation. In other ways, what is the necessity of that particular situation? And once a
ruler fulfills those responsibilities and responds to such situations accordingly then it will bring
glory to his rule or principalities or kingdom.
That was the advice that Machiavelli gave to the prince. He discussed the two types of government
or polity. One is principalities and the major concern in his text, the Prince was about how to rule
principalities orderly, how a new prince could acquire new principalities, and govern them
effectively. So, in the Prince, the subject matter was principalities.
And the other form of government or the types of government was the republics and he argued that
in the long run, the republics or a form of government where citizens would play a proactive role in
the government through their institutions, laws, and constitutions are more stable than principalities. Because in the principalities, there would be constant conspiracies. There would be constant traps,
enviousness among Aristocrats to outperform the ruler, the king, or the prince.
But in the republics which was ruled by the public institution through the participation of the
citizen, durability or stability of the polity could be maintained or achieved. He argued that
republics were more stable than principalities. He elaborated upon the characteristics and the virtue
of republics in the Discourses on Livy. So, Discourses is a dense and challenging text to read. But it
represented the complexities of Machiavelli’s political thought.
If you start reading Discourses, it is a very complex text. And in Machiavelli’s political theorization
you will not have a kind of systematic or scientific kind of approach to politics. Because he
combined his knowledge of history or classical Roman republics and its institutions. The Greek
states such as Sparta and Athens, he selectively talked about to argue or to use that as a basis for his
advice to the ruler or prince.
In the Discourse, if you start reading it is not an easy text to understand. However, it represented a
more complex terrain of political thinking in Machiavelli, than it appeared in the Prince. In fact, for
a century, thinkers or philosophers took Discourses more seriously than the Prince. However, the
dominant understanding that we have of Machiavelli as the thinker of evil or immoral practices in
politics is based on the prince.
Is the late twentieth century revisit of this text under the new set of ethics in Victorian England or
France about the moral and ethical behaviors in the polity. And how to govern the polity or republic
based on certain ethical and moral norms. In those approaches, Machiavelli’s image of being a
thinker of evil or immoral practices were of late development.
But much of his thinking and theorization for a very long time was based on this text Discourses
which represented the more complex terrain of his thoughts and thinking. And I request you all to
read this text to arrive at your conclusions and understanding of Machiavelli and his political
thought. Its complexities were reflected in the Discourse where he came out as a humanist and
republican thinker. This is very contrast to Machiavelli’s image in the Prince. So, in the Prince, he
appeared to be a defender of the principality that means how a ruler should acquire the principalities
or acquire new territories. And in acquiring such territories how he should not be guided by
conventional morality or Christian ethics. There was a kind of severe resentment or critic in
Machiavelli against the Christian ethics or Christian religion which he associated with corrupt
practices.
In the Prince, he wanted the ruler or prince to acquire the new territories or principalities and govern them effectively by combining the virtue of lion and fox and have the flexibility to respond
adequately to the changing circumstances in the polity. And that ability of Virtu in Machiavellian
term brought glory to the prince and his principalities. So, in the Prince, his concern was on
principalities. But in Discourses, he focused more on the republics. However, we will see in the
latter part of this lecture that how there is a kind of overlapping also. Machiavelli in the Discourses
appeared to be a republican thinker. This republican and humanist streak of thought in his writings
was evident in the Prince when we focus that how a king should seek friendship with the common
people in the long term. Thus, the rule of common people and the protection of their property or
family was the concern in the Prince and it becomes much more evident in the Discourses.
So, Machiavelli was a republican humanist thinker and it would become clearer or evident if we
read these two texts together, the Prince and the Discourses. Our crude caricature of Machiavelli as
a thinker of evil would be unsustainable if we try to understand the overlaps between the Prince and
the Discourses in Machiavelli.
He wrote another text, the Art of War. It was the basis of understanding warfare even today or
military preparedness or the relationship between citizens and military preparing the citizen's army.
So, if we read this text, the Art of War, we have altogether different notions of Machiavellian
thought and polity based on the military Virtu or military preparedness.
Therefore, Machiavelli’s work had been subjected to many and often contradictory interpretations
which were open to new newer kind of interpretation. There was no sector debate on the corrupt
interpretation of Machiavelli whether he was a republican or a defender of principalities. Whether
he was someone who disregarded the role of religion or he wanted to use it for political purposes.
So, there was a kind of contradictory or ongoing interpretation or engagement with Machiavelli’s
works. He continued to inspire different traditions of thinking and theorization about the polity and
actually, the politicians of different ages and generations continued to derive inspiration from his
text, the Prince. And of course, the reading of which was more complex than the crude caricature in
the commonsensical understanding of Machiavelli which we will return to in the second half.
(Refer Slide Time: 16:30)In the Discourses on Livy, he expressed his views on republics. Machiavelli regarded republics in
which every citizen could participate in the pursuit of common goods as a more stable and durable
form of government in comparison to principalities. In this text, Machiavelli regarded the republic
as the kind of rule which would ensure maximum participation from the citizens and their fullest
growth.
And that would lead to the development of the city both politically and economically from the
internal and external threats. Machiavelli regarded republics in which every citizen could participate
in the pursuit of common goods. And here, we have to understand that politics ultimately was not
about personal good or particularly good. It should be based on the common good.
The corruption or stability occurred in the polity when it was used for the sake of personal benefit
or the sake of particular interest. It would lead to factionalism, upheavals, or rebellions. So, politics
is the pursuit of the common good, and a prince if he can do it is good. In fact in the given condition
of it, he thought that the strong leader alone could unify the warring or fragmented city-states.
And once such unification was done where a ruler should leave governing the city to the republican
institution. He argued that in this way the durability or stability of the political order could be
maintained when the participation of citizens and functioning of the polity was for the pursuit of the
common good or public good. It is relevant even today if you look at the politicians and political
practices in different democracies or government.
When the politicians and political party’s functions for the public good or common good and take
everybody along in the pursuit of such common good, there is stability. There is support for the
government and the party. But when it tries to represent the interest of only one section or the
personal interest of the ruler or party then there is a kind of protest, demonstration and it is evident even today in different democracies and politics.
For Machiavelli, this understanding of politics was the pursuit of the common good that is
something which we have to keep in mind when he discussed why republics were a more stable
form of government than the principalities. Because in the principalities, there would be constant
enviousness and conspiracies among the nobles against the ruler or prince.
So, to avoid that a ruler or prince once established the rule should promote the republican institution
or public institution and enabling the participation of citizens which would ensure the durability and
stability of his kingdom or polity.
His support of principalities and the rule of the prince in creating such principalities or one such
rule or polity was regarded by many thinkers. It is called a kind of transitory thing. He wanted the
rule of a strong ruler like Cesare Borgia or the young ruler of the Medici family Lorenzo. So, his
support for the strong ruler or prince was to acquire or establish a strong rule and the polity.
But that was transitory which gradually paved the way for the republican institution with the
participation of citizens, to ensure the sustenance and durability of the rule. He regarded the
principalities or a prince should create one polity that is the transitory form of rule which should
eventually pave the way for the republican institution and the rule by people that enabled citizen’s
participation.
His preference for republics again shows Machiavelli’s patriotism and his historical approach to
address the challenges of Italy of his time. In Discourses as well as in the Prince, one of the things
that become very crucial is his patriotism to unify Italy and bring back the classical republican glory
of Rome.
He regarded the Roman classical republican institution as the pinnacle of success or glory for the
community. So, the way this text, Discourses on Livy started as a reflection or engagement with the
writings of Livy who wrote about them the history of the Roman Empire. And its republican
institution, its citizen’s army, and the way class interests were balanced in the classical Roman
Empire through its republican institution. And how it helped the empire to achieve glory in
philosophy, art, science, and military warfare or its political arrangements.
That becomes the basis for Machiavelli to address the contemporary challenges that the Italian
Peninsula was facing where the catholic Church or Papacy has become morally corrupt. And
politically weak city-states were constantly at warfare. In that condition, how a strong ruler or
prince would unify them and they would eventually pave the way for a republican institution thatensures the freedom and liberty of the people.
And when the freedom and liberty of the people are guaranteed that will lead to the pinnacle of
success in the polity. So, in the modern economic thinking which we trace in the writings of Adam
Smith’s, Wealth of Nation. He argued that society would become more prosperous when citizens
were given freedom or opportunity to choose in the material matters that concern them.
A society that gives maximum liberty for the citizens to choose the life which is more suitable to
them will result in a more prosperous society economically and materially. Similarly, in
Machiavelli, you have this kind of defense of liberty necessary for the prosperity of the city-states
for its better governing, and stability from internal warfare or conspiracies and external
interferences.
To do that the ruler or republic must ensure that citizens have maximum freedom that will bring
glory and prosperity to the city-states which will lead to its durability and stability. So that is the
basis of his republican thinking and theorization in his writing the Discourse.
He argued that the fullest growth of the city or community, both economical and militarily or
politically were possible in the republics alone which provided the conditions of personal safety and
liberty of all. So, when there was political stability or political upheavals or rebellions there was a
constant threat to life and liberty.
And if life and liberty were under threat, nobody would pursue the interest of economic
development or how to strengthen the polity. It will create a state of confusion that will not ensure
the stability of the order. The first and foremost thing for Machiavelli was to provide the condition
for the safety and liberty of the citizens.
Now, in the principalities, there was the relative stability or protection of individual life. However, it
was constantly at the mercy of the ruler or prince. The best guarantee of individual life and liberty
was possible only in the republican form with the republican situation, laws, and constitutions.
Therefore, he argued that the republic form of government alone could ensure the maximum
freedom and liberty for the citizen in the long term. It will ensure the stability of political rule.
So, that is the kind of interdependence between the rule and liberty of the citizens which was better
balance in the republic than in the principalities or other forms of government. Such conditions for
freedom for all were not possible in his principalities. Only a republican form of government could
guarantee the freedom of individuals necessary for the strength, the stability of the city-states, and
polity.Machiavelli’s preference for republics over principalities was based on his understanding of politics
as a domain always in flux. This defense of the republican form of government was based on the
assessment of Machiavelli about politics, constantly in flux. Ever-changing circumstances were
happening in politics.
And the ruler or government must respond to such changing circumstances. Now, which form or
which kind of rule could respond effectively or correctly? So, if a prince is wise and has sufficient
requisite knowledge and Virtu in political and military matters, he is best suitable to unify. But what
happens if the successors or the inheritors of his rule is weak.
And his successor was again weaker than the previous one. Now, that would create chaos or lead to
conspiracies or enviousness or rebellion even. In the principalities, in the long term, even when the
founder of the principality was morally or politically had sufficient knowledge and Virtu to address
changing circumstances. There was no guarantee that his inheritor or successor would be equally
virtuous or strong or capable of responding to changing circumstances.
It was the republic that could constantly innovate itself or change itself to the changing
circumstances in the polity. Therefore, it is most suitable to address the flux or challenges or
everlasting or constant changes in the life of polity or political life which characterize the polity.
The government or the ruler are constantly responding to one challenge after the other and there is
no end of the newer challenges that come the ruler’s way.
And the success and the glory of the ruler is based on how adequately and appropriately they
respond to such challenges or changes constantly occurring in the body politic. He regarded the
republican form with its institutions, laws, and constitution as more suitable to respond to the
changing circumstances than the principalities or a rule by the king.
According to Machiavelli, the republic with its institution and class conflicts would come to this
question of class conflicts and the conflict in the interests of different classes and how republic
could form better governance or manage this conflicting interest in the cause that leads to
innovation and changes for securing the liberty or freedom in a better manner in the republic in a
moment. But he regarded such class conflicts and constant changes happening in the politics were
based on respondents with the republican form of government.
(Refer Slide Time: 29:59)Let us discuss what Machiavelli meant by individual freedom or liberty which should be secured in
republics for its stability and safety. The notion of the republic or what kind of freedom and liberty
is desirable remained different from our liberation understanding of political freedom or liberty.
For Machiavelli, individual freedom was the freedom to have possessions or property and a family.
It was very different from John Stuart Mill or Isaiah Berlin or many other conceptions of freedom or
liberty for the individuals. How it should be guaranteed by the state through the constitution and the
laws?
So, Machiavelli regarded that for the protection of the state or polity, it was necessary to guarantee
certain freedom and liberty to the individual. This liberty meant that individuals should have the
freedom to have possession of the property and the state or ruler should not use those properties or
interfere with the family of the individual.
If it does it will bring rebellions or resentments from the people which will destabilize or lead to
rebellion against the rule or polity. Machiavelli’s understanding of individual freedom was the
freedom to have property and family. He wanted the rulers to respect such liberty. The resources of
the states should be increased not by unnecessarily taxing or extracting resources from the people
but by conquering the new states or expanding the territory of the states.
And once, the ruler starts extracting revenues or usurpation the property from the people it would
lead to chaos. It would lead to rebellion. So, Machiavelli advised the ruler even in the republics and
in the principality not to usurp or extract resources from the common people. He wanted the ruler to
respect this liberty of possession and family of citizens for the sustenance of their own rule.
In the republics, each class of citizens could take full participation in the economic and political life of the state if their possessions and families were safe and secured from both internal and external
usurpation or appropriation. So, what Machiavelli meant that the citizen could participate in the life
of polity when the safety of their property and family were guaranteed.
In the absence of that, they would not take interest or participate in public life. For creating the
condition, where citizens could proactively participate in the life of the city both politically and
economically. And thereby to ensure its stability, the ruler needed to secure the personal property or
safety of their family life. That enabled or motivated citizens to participate in public life, in the
pursuit of the common good. In its absence, citizens couldn't be driven by public interest rather than
personal interest. There was a dichotomy between the pursuit of personal interest and the public
interest.
The republic and its strength lie when the citizens were driven by the public interest. When the
public institutions, laws, and constitutions were in the pursuit of the common good and not the
personal or particular good of any sections of the population. Machiavelli thought that the economic
and political life of the state was more secure when the citizens were guaranteed their possession
and families without any appropriation by the internal or external forces. For Machiavelli, if a
citizen’s family and property were secured, it could be the greatest defender of both republic and
freedom. And this you can contrast with the apprehension about the rule of nobility or aristocrats or
noble birth in the sustenance of republic.
Even in the principalities as I have said, Machiavelli advised the ruler to have friendship with
common people in the long run. Machiavelli wanted that the republics could be better secured and
defendant by citizens in the long run, and not by the nobles or aristocrats or even by the prince. So,
Machiavelli was aware of the existence of different classes and their conflicting interests in a polity.
And this was very strange or unique in Machiavellian political thinking and theorization. Unlike
Marcus or even in Plato, there was a kind of search to remove the class conflicts. So, in Plato, the
idea was to have harmony of existence or in Marcus, there was the idea of revolution which would
end the classy nature of society and thereby the rule of polity and state.
So, the idea is to have communism of life where there is no private property, no need of the state,
polity, and harmony would prevail. Machiavelli was someone who wanted this class conflict to
acquire a kind of permanent nature. And the rule of the republic was to manage the class conflict
rather than eradicate or remove it.
Machiavelli acknowledged the existence of different classes and their conflicting interests. So they
had different interests which were not similar. That is something that should not be extreme. Like nobody should be truly wealthy or not, the majority of the population should not be too poor. Of
course, that will lead to rebellion or upheavals or political stability.
However, the class conflict to a great extent was necessary for the health of the republic for its
sustenance. And the role of republican institutions was to manage this class interest or conflicting
interest in the classes. He again went back to the classical Roman republic times, where its
institution managed those interests perfectly well. That led to glory in the field of arts, politics,
poetry, philosophy, and military.
He regarded that these classes were chiefly divided into two groups. They were plebeians and
patricians. Plebeians were the people or populous and the patricians were the nobles. It was the
interest of harmony interest that sustain the republic. According to Machiavelli, the Classical
Roman Empire achieve this harmony through their republican institution that resulted in its glory
and the pinnacle of success in all spheres of individual and collective life – art, culture, poetry,
philosophy, and so on.
He wanted that to be reestablished or achieved again under the republican form of government. So
he seemed to suggest that classes and their conflicting interests were suitable for the durability of
the republic. He wanted to give them a kind of permanent place. The interest of which could be
reconciled through political institutions, laws, and constitutions. He wrote that in every republic,
there were two different dispositions that of the populous and of the upper class. All legislations
were favorable to the liberty of securing the liberty that was brought by the classes between them.
This was the conflicting interest between the plebeians or patricians that resulted in the lesson
which secured maximum liberty and freedom for the individuals. Therefore, he wanted these class
conflicts to remain and be managed for the health of republics. He did not want it to be eradicated.
He did not want the harmony of existence as we have seen in Plato.
It was necessary for the health of the republics. Thus, the arts and science of politics, according to
Machiavelli was reconciling these conflicting class interests which were not a threat to the republic,
instead, it helped in the sustenance of its rule.
(Refer Slide Time: 39:30)He argued about the mixed constitution for the health or strength of republics. So, Machiavelli did
not prefer one form of polity over the others such as monarchy or aristocracy or tyranny or
oligarchy or rule by the populous or rule by the mini in the form of democracy. He was not taking
any moral or ethical position on preferring one form of polity over the others. And he regarded all
of them as far from satisfactory in practice.
So, each of them, for Machiavelli had their specific strengths and weakness. He wanted the republic
therefore to be based on a mixed constitution. That is the combination of the virtue of different
forms of polity. There could be a ruler. But he alone could not govern the polity effectively for the
long term. Thus, he wanted to combine the virtues of the strong leader or king or prince with that of
aristocracy and democracy of popular rule.
The republic for Machiavelli was the combination of all these three: a strong leader with a set of
aristocrats knowledgeable in governing and the participation of many, or the