Machiavelli and the benefits of civil strife

Niccolo Machiavelli, Renaissance statesman and political theorist, saw factional politics as essential to the prosperity of the Roman Empire and his native Florence. Are today's partisan divisions as beneficial?
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When most of us think of Renaissance Florence, our minds probably turn to Michelangelo’s David or Brunelleschi’s dome. But for Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), what distinguished his city was its history of civil discord. Almost from the moment it had begun to govern its own affairs, he argued in the Istorie fiorentine, it had been beset by never-ending strife. First, the nobles had fought amongst themselves; then the nobles had fought the popolo (the ‘middle classes’); and finally, the popolo had fought the plebe (the common people). Though often catalysed by tax hikes, foreign threats, or famine, these struggles invariably revolved around the question of political participation – and almost always turned violent. In 1378, during the Ciompi Revolt, disenfranchised cloth-workers burned palaces and lynched a public official; while in 1513, Machiavelli himself was imprisoned after being implicated in a conspiracy against the Medici regime.

Admittedly, Machiavelli was not the first to draw attention to Florence’s fractiousness. It had been a common complaint since at least the thirteenth century. In Li libres dou tresor,Brunetto Latini (1220-94) observed that the Florentines were ‘always…in discord’. A few decades later, the chronicler Dino Compagni (c.1255-1324) noted that, while his fellow citizens were ‘bold in arms’ and ‘proud’, they were also ‘contentious’. And in the Commedia divina, Dante Alighieri (c.1265-1321) shed bitter tears over the fate of his ‘città partita’ (divided city). 

What set Machiavelli apart was his attitude towards civil discord. In contrast to virtually everyone else, he did not think that it was necessarily a bad thing. To be sure, it could be dangerous – especially for those who got caught up in the violence. But from a purely political point of view, it could actually be positive. Indeed, if the history of ancient Rome taught anything, he argued in the Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, it was that civil strife was essential to a city’s liberty.

For many of Machiavelli’s contemporaries, such a claim was manifestly absurd. As Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) argued, the conflicts by which Rome had been rocked were far too destabilising to have been productive of anything, let alone liberty. If the Romans had stayed free for such a long time, he suggested, it must have been in spite of their disunity, not because of it. 

Guicciardini had a good point. For centuries past, liberty had carried two subtly different meanings. On the one hand, it could be understood simply as self-government and the freedom from external domination. But on the other hand, it could also mean as the freedom to live on an equal footing with one’s fellow citizens, under the protection of just laws. Though each of these carried its own implications, the former could not exist without the latter. After all, people only willingly participate in the political process or fight to defend their city if they can be sure of enjoying the same rights and of sharing in public goods to the same degree.

Of course, this wouldn’t just happen on its own. Inspired by their reading of Cicero, most Renaissance philosophers recognised that it required citizens to subordinate their private interests to the pursuit of equity and the common good. This, in turn, depended on the cultivation of certain Stoic/Christian virtues – such as prudence, mercy, and temperance. But its implication was that liberty and social harmony were inextricably intertwined. A people at peace were, by definition, free. But if a society fractured, its liberty would be lost – either to an unjust tyrant, who ruled in his own interests, or to a foreign aggressor.

* * *

There was method in Machiavelli’s madness, however. Curiously enough, he actually agreed with most of what his critics said. He was happy to accept that liberty was in some way related to equity and the common good; and that both were dependent on virtue. Where he differed was with regard to the meaning of virtue itself. Having spent much of his adult life in public life, he had come to believe that traditional conceptions of virtue were out of step with the harsh realities of politics – and that a more ‘muscular’ definition was required.

In the Discorsi, Machiavelli explained that virtù should be understood as the willingness to do whatever necessary to uphold the liberty of your city – irrespective of ‘moral’ considerations. For the ‘virtuous’ man, the public good must be put first, ahead not only of private interest, but also of any notions of good and evil. ‘When it is absolutely a question of the safety of one’s patria,’ Machiavelli claimed,

‘there must be no consideration of just or unjust, merciful or cruel, praiseworthy or disgraceful; instead, setting aside every scruple, one must follow to the utmost any plan that will save her life and keep her liberty.’

The only problem was that people weren’t always particularly ‘virtuous’. In Machiavelli’s experience, they were craven, self-serving fools, who would sooner sell their own grandmother than pass up a chance to enrich themselves. Indeed, the wealthier and safer a society was, the more egotistical and greedy the citizenry grew, the more divided society was, and the more inevitable conflict became.  

This was particularly evident in the early history of Rome. In the decades after its foundation, Machiavelli recalled, the city had been ruled by kings. The first of these had been bold, upright men who had given it just laws, strong religious beliefs, and a firm grounding in virtù. But as time passed, the more liberty was taken for granted and the more prosperity corrupted the social whole. Disparities of wealth opened up, and a bitter enmity arose between nobles and plebs. As Machiavelli pointed out, their goals were irreconcilably opposed. While the plebs wanted not to be oppressed, the nobles were determined to grind them underfoot at any cost.

For a while, royal authority sufficed to keep the nobles in check. But as the kings succumbed to luxury, they too were corrupted. Growing steadily more overbearing and tyrannical, they aroused such hatred that, eventually, the nobility overthrew the monarchy. In its stead, a Republic was founded. As Machiavelli explained, this was designed to avoid the old tensions breaking loose. Combining monarchical, aristocratic, and popular elements, it was structured so that each element would theoretically keep the others in check. But no sooner had the kings been expelled than the nobles once again began to vent their hatred against the people. A bitter conflict erupted – and before long, the disorder had become so severe that the survival of the Republic itself was in doubt.

To avert disaster, it was decided to establish the ‘tribunes of the plebs’ (493 B.C.). Able to veto any legislation that might be harmful to the people, the tribunes were intended to act as a restraint on the abuses of the nobles. It was, however, a very imperfect solution. Almost immediately, the people began agitating for still more powers, and the nobles looked for any opportunity to clip the tribunes’ wings. Though ‘the dissentions… rarely caused exile and even more rarely resulted in bloodshed’, the ‘quarrels and the noise that resulted’ were nevertheless so unceasing that, for more than three hundred years, social conflict was the defining characteristic of civic life.

It looked chaotic. And in theory, it should have destroyed Rome’s liberty. But paradoxically, it did the opposite. Rather than weakening the Roman state, all that disunity actually compensated for its moral decline. It was obvious, when you thought about it. What people like Guicciardini forgot was that, while the nobles and the plebs may have battled it out for centuries, neither of them had emerged victorious. It was as if they were stuck in a never-ending tug-of-war. Fearful of what might happen if they lost, but unable to beat their opponents, neither could afford to relax their grip for a moment. And in doing so, they not only held each other in check – but inadvertently made everyone stronger, too.

Self-interest, in other words, compensated for a lack of virtue. Under constant threat from the nobles, the plebs always had to be on the look-out for any attack on their rights – thus ensuring that equity and the common good were respected. At the same time, the rumbling conflict had also obliged the plebs to take up arms. Since this allowed them to play a more active role in military decision-making, they were able to counteract the nobles’ instinctive aversion to risk and open the doors to territorial expansion – thereby securing the city against foreign aggression. As long as social tensions existed, therefore, Rome’s liberty was guaranteed.     

* * *

Unfortunately, things didn’t always pan out as they were meant to. As Machiavelli had noted, conflict only had a positive effect if the delicate balance between the nobles and the people was maintained. Provided they were more or less evenly matched, all would be well; but were one to succeed in defeating the other, liberty would collapse and tyranny would invariably follow.

Of course, there were plenty of things you could do to prevent this from happening. The Romans had given the tribunes the power to prosecute anyone who threatened liberty; and, in times of crisis, had even appointed a dictator to restore order. But none of these measures really worked – least of all in the long term. Whatever steps you took to restore equilibrium to the body politic, you would essentially be gambling on someone putting equity and the common good above private or sectional interests. But as Machiavelli had already pointed out, this whole situation had come about precisely because the population lacked the virtù this required. If the scales suddenly tipped in one side’s favour, he argued, you could hardly expect to reset the balance using something that wasn’t there.

Once the rot had set it, what usually happened was that a despotic figure would seize control. Sometimes, the very person the plebs looked to for salvation would end up using his office to take power. On other occasions, a resurgent nobility might splinter into factions. Since these generally strove to subvert the organs of state for their own benefit, the frightened plebs would try to align themselves with one or the other – only to find that, in doing so, they had inadvertently handed an unscrupulous leader the reins of government.

This, of course, was the fate which had ultimately befallen Rome. After centuries of tense liberty, an attempt to reform the agrarian laws in 133 B.C. resulted in a bitter factional struggle, which led to a series of destructive civil wars. In the ensuing chaos, Julius Caesar emerged as the leader of the ‘popular party’ – and eventually used the plebs’ support to transform himself into ‘Rome’s first tyrant’.

Machiavelli saw that Florence could easily go the same way. It had already come close. Back in the early fifteenth century, Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464) had become the city’s de facto ruler simply by ‘befriending the people’. To be sure, he hadn’t been all that bad. As Machiavelli later admitted in the Istorie fiorentine, he far surpassed his contemporaries ‘in liberality and prudence’. But there was a serious danger that, if Florence’s present divisions went unchecked, someone far worse might emerge in future – and the city’s liberty lost for good.

* * *

So, how could Florence be pulled back from the brink? For much of the last six years of his life, Machiavelli tried hard to devise a constitution capable of balancing the city’s social classes. But even he knew that this, on its own, would not be enough. As he had already pointed out, any settlement would eventually be destroyed by vice. If social conflict was to be kept within ‘acceptable’ bounds, therefore, a dose of virtue would have to be injected into the body politic. The only problem was: how?   

It wouldn’t be easy. If, as Machiavelli had claimed, men were naturally wicked, and prosperity only corrupted them further, it would be like flogging a dead horse. But he still thought it might be possible.  

By looking carefully at Rome’s period of liberty, Machiavelli identified four methods of reviving a state’s virtù. The first was to minimise the disparities of wealth which had corrupted popular morals in the first place. The best way of doing this was by keeping the citizens poor. Even if they had little inclination towards virtue, their lack of resources would prevent them from corrupting either themselves or others. If this proved impractical, however, the same effect could be achieved by coming down hard on the rich. To some extent, Florence was already on the right track. Although it was perhaps not quite as ‘equal’ as some of the German states, Machiavelli believed that it still enjoyed equalità of a kind. All that was needed was to complete the process – and make it the basis of political life. 

The second method was to make full use of the law. Here, Machiavelli was not thinking of law as an instrument of social control, but as a form of education. As he had already explained, men were naturally inclined to the bad. Unless there was something to stop them, they would invariably act in accordance with their worst impulses. What Florence needed to do, therefore, was to give its citizens a positive incentive to choose virtù instead. And what better incentive was there than the rule of law? By punishing those who harmed the state, and rewarding those who served it, Machiavelli argued, Florence could ‘teach’ men to be good.

A third was to nurture religious belief. If it was true that law could make men virtuous with punishments and rewards in this life, Machiavelli reasoned, then religion should be able to do exactly the same by promising salvation or damnation in the next. Indeed, given that it was grounded in the fear of an omnipotent God, it should be even more effective. Of course, this is not to say that Machiavelli was attempting to defend Christianity as it was then understood. He was bitterly critical of the Catholic Church for having weakened people’s faith by meddling in temporal politics, and for glorifying values (‘humility, abjectness,’ etc.) which made men weak and cowardly. Instead, he envisaged a Christianity which was more like Roman paganism. While remaining true to its core beliefs, the Church should interpret them in a more ‘virile’ manner – valorising courage, strength, and glory. And, at the same time, the Church itself should stay out of politics.  

By far the most important way of cultivating virtù, however, was to have an outstanding leader. Though Machiavelli was generally pessimistic about the moral character of the common people, he was convinced that a truly exceptional figure could help them overcome their deficiencies – and restore balance to civil strife. There was no need for there to be someone like this around all the time. If a suitable virtuoso appeared once every ten years or so, that would be enough. There were various ways he could protect the people from corruption. He could, for example, inspire others with his example. Alternatively, if he had a particularly strong character, he could simply impose his virtue on them – either by cultivating a reputation for cruelty, or by being exceptionally kind. Most importantly, he could take steps to combat vice directly. If there was a conspiracy, for example, he would know how to diffuse it without provoking further unrest. Similarly, if opponents blocked him out of mere jealousy, he would have the foresight to dispose of them swiftly.

* * *

But while Rome had been blessed with many such figures in the period 493 B.C.-133 B.C., Florence had not been so lucky. In the twenty or so years before Medici’s return, its two most prominent leaders – Fra Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) and Piero Soderini (1451-1522) – had been a bitter disappointment. They had not been kind or cruel enough to inspire virtù in others; they had failed to tackle their opponents; and, at times, they had been almost morbidly indecisive. As a consequence, the Florentines had slid ever deeper into corruption; social tensions had grown worse; a foreign army had invaded Tuscany; and – at the time Machiavelli was writing the Discorsi – liberty itself seemed to be slipping away.

Despite everything, Machiavelli still hoped that, if a suitable leader were to emerge, the situation might still be saved. Where such a person was to be found, however, was another matter. Of course, there was always a slim chance that one of the Medici might prove up to the task. But Machiavelli couldn’t help thinking that Florence should look elsewhere. In the dedication to the Discorsi, he hinted that the best candidates were to be found among the young men on the fringes of political life. Granted, they weren’t perfect. They were impulsive and, at times, a little crazy. But they were brave, idealistic, and true – the perfect people, in short, to build a rotten world anew.

Machiavelli intended the Discorsi to meet the specific challenges of his own times. But his dissection of civil strife nevertheless remains as compelling today as ever it did. As we confront the deep divisions afflicting our own society, we should perhaps console ourselves with the thought that, while conflict may be inevitable, it can still have positive role to play – and that our best hope for the future lies with the next generation. 

Alexander Lee

Dr Alexander Lee is a research fellow at the University of Warwick and the author of Machiavelli: His Life and Times (London: Picador, 2020).

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