Practical Advice To Leaders From Machiavelli’s Discourses


In the work usually just known as the Discourses, Machiavelli uses as springboard the history of Rome as provided by Livy. From Livy’s history, Machiavelli thinks he can discern several eternal truths about society, government, and politics.

For instance, Machiavelli, after reading his Livy, has come to the conclusion that it is not enough for a nation to be born with a good beginning, but it must also posses an improvable constitution— a flexible set of rules for government and society which can change with the changing times.

He also finds that the three types of government known since ancient times– monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy– all come with deficiencies (tyranny, oligarchy, mob-rule– respectively), and that the best way to combat these deficiencies is to implement a government which is a mixture of all three types. It is his belief that each form will work to check the worst aspects of the others, while allowing a society to take advantage of the best traits of each of the three.

Furthermore, once a people has grown accustomed to being ruled by a monarch, Machiavelli felt they were ruined for any other forms of government.  Even if revolution occurs and, say, a democracy is set-up, the country will eventually relapse back to monarchy.  Machiavelli compares the subjects of a monarchy to a domesticated animal– if suddenly given its freedom in the wild, it will simply not know how to provide for itself.  The government of modern Russia under Putin springs to mind as an example of this truth gleaned, centuries ago, by Machiavelli.

Obviously, the United States Of America and its emulators have adopted both of the foregoing suggestions of Machiavelli– that is:  1) an amendable constitution and 2) a tripartite government… and equally as obviously, the U.S. has proven one of the most successful nations of the last one-hundred and fifty years or so (people can disagree, of course, on how well it has used that success). So perhaps Machiavelli deserves some props.

Interestingly, Machiavelli points-out that Ancient Rome began with only two of the three types of government– those of monarchical and aristocratic rule.  That is why, according to him, Rome did not achieve its full greatness until it added the democratic principle, seen by Machiavelli as operating through the Tribunes of the people.

Of course, a changeable constitution does not make it wise policy to be constantly implementing radical changes. Instead, Livy’s history, says Machiavelli, teaches us that it is best, even when making changes, to maintain the outward forms of the old system.  By leaving the facade of continuity, the people are thus sedated, and they are more accepting of the changes made.

Machiavelli farther contends that, during the formation of a nation, it is best that there exists a unity of command, one leader who maintains ultimate authority.  Of course, you need this leader to be a good one, and Machiavelli asserts that the mark of the good ruler is not so much the order he maintains during his reign, but the order he bequeaths to posterity. He cites as important examples of this principle: Moses, Lycurgus, Romulus, and Solon. For America we could, with qualification, add Washington to the list, as he was the one, “indispensable man” during the birth and formative years of the republic. Indeed, America’s greatest piece of good fortune, perhaps excepting its bountiful natural defenses and resources, was the presence of the right man at the right time.

Machiavelli also believes he learns from Livy that, for the sake of the nation, power should not be inherited father to son but should be given to those deemed worthy of the succession. Machiavelli observes that of all the emperors of Rome who inherited their position, only Titus turned out to be a good emperor.

Once the nation is up and running, Machiavelli has more than few suggestions as to how to maintain domestic tranquility…

One of the best things a government can do to maintain calm and goodwill in the realm is to keep its hands of the people’s property. Beyond this, the government should facilitate the acquirement of MORE property by citizens. Machiavelli contends that people do not feel secure of their current possessions unless they are able to acquire more.

Also important, for the average nation at least– though certainly out of favor today– are the two suggestions that: 1) strangers not be allowed en masse into the country, and 2) that citizens be nor armed and allowed to serve in the army. His thinking was that an armed people leads to armed domestic conflicts, and that an influx of people from lands of different cultures and traditions would possess different habits, customs, and loyalties, and thus undermine the traditions silently under-pillaring the laws of the nation.

That said, Machiavelli thought it possible that– if a nation DID allow and survive an armed populace together with the influx of foreigners– it could be forced to greatness by sheer necessity… either it will grow stronger or else fall to pieces.

A fundamental responsibility of good government is to protect the people— not just from foreign invaders, but from themselves. If the domestic environment is unstable, then the people will live in fear even in their day-to-day lives, and they will begin seeking extra-governmental remedies to alleviate their plight. Foremost among these remedies– or rather, attempted remedies, for they ever prove no solution– is the formation of gangs or factions. Such is the common fate of any society in which its members feel insecure– be it prisons or inner-cities or even nation-states. “Fear seeks for means of defense,” writes Machiavelli, “and for that purpose seeks partisans, and from partisans arise factions.” Factions in turn can lead to an endless cycle of vendetta-feuds. For men, says Machiavelli (here quoting not Livy but the historian Tacitus), “are more ready to repay an injury than a benefit, because gratitude is a burden but revenge a pleasure.

But for the State to act as the final agent of justice and retribution, it must maintain its status as the most powerful entity of all the groups, families, or factions forming the Society. As a matter of good policy, says Machiavelli, the State must remain rich– and the people, at least relatively, poor. In modern times I can again point to Russia as an example of a State, arguably in an act of pre-emptive self-defense, swatting down those citizens, its new class of billionaires, who had grown too powerful after the implementation of capitalist reforms.

After reforms are implemented, there will always be a reactionary element who long for their old days of privilege. The State must put down these reactionaries with extreme prejudice. In Ancient Rome, Machiavelli tells us that after Octavian, Marc Antony, and Lepidus set up the post-Caesar regime, all the sons of Brutus were killed for fear that they would foment a counter-revolution in order to re-establish the prerogatives of themselves and the other deposed elite.

Another warning Machiavelli gives us is that, in one’s pursuit of power, he must be wary of his friends as well as his enemies, as history is replete with stories of co-conspirators and allies turning upon each other after the common foe has been vanquished. It is also not uncommon for this reversal of loyalties to catch the victim by complete surprise.  Machiavelli gives the example of a bird of prey so intent upon its prey, that it doesn’t realize that it, itself, is falling under the shadow of a bigger bird of prey above it.

When the nobles of Heraclea called back their former ruler Clearchus to restore order by subduing the rabble, Clearchus returned and did just that– and then determined that his position could be made even more powerful and secure if he switched loyalty to the people and annihilated the very nobles who had begged him to return. This he did, wiping out the power of the aristocracy while simultaneously gaining the good will and support of the people. The take-away? If you grant power to someone in order to help crush you enemies, they may afterwards turn that power against you.

Machiavelli observes that, in any government, there are only a certain number of real power-holders at any given time. The thing for a new administration or regime to do is to either appease the powerful or get rid of them. If appeasing, Machiavelli additionally suggests that the new ruler should make their position and wealth dependent upon him, so that they have incentive to maintain his power and to stay in his good graces. Loyalty comes at a price– but it’s usually affordable.

Such measures may injure our modern sensibilities, but from Machiavelli’s point of view, the sin of the act is excused by the virtue of the result. And lest we forget, Machiavelli reminds us that men seldom rise from low position to high rank without employing either force or fraud. If you want the spoils, you must make the war.

Speaking of war, Machiavelli says there are two reasons for making war: 1) the desire to subjugate, or 2) the fear of being subjugated.

Before entering upon any war, Machiavelli cautions us to remember that anyone can start a war at his pleasure– but he won’t be able to end it likewise.

When being threatened by violence, Machiavelli says that a government must not give-in to the mere threat of violence.   Stand up to the threats, and if violence then comes, resist it with all your strength. When you allies see that you have the fighting spirit, they will likely come to your assistance to tilt the scales in your favor. On the other hand, if you quiver before mere threats, your allies will not be likely to want to sacrifice their lives and treasure for cause already lost. And although I don’t remember Machiavelli explicitly stating this, it is also true that if your enemy has not had to back-up his threats with actions, then he has suffered nothing, and will only keep coming back against you, stronger and stronger.

If faced with multiple enemies, Machiavelli suggests that a government make a separate peace with one power by yielding them something.  This will take their forces out of the war against you. Better to lose several slices of bread than the whole loaf.

Also– never, ever risk the entire campaign or war on one battle unless you are also pouring into that battle your entire strength. If the battle means everything, that it is worth using everything on to win.

Lastly, if your people are unarmed and unaccustomed to war, Machiavelli recommends attempting to keep the war as far away from the home-front as possible. On the other hand, if the people are well-armed and disciplined for war, allow the enemy to approach— for there are numerous advantages to fighting close to home- everything from shorter supply lines to a better knowledge of the field to the greater possibility of furloughs to refresh the fighters.


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