Discourses on Livy (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Niccolò Machiavelli warns potential revolutionaries to expel the privileged elites of the old regime or risk certain doom. In the Discourses, he applied himself to the enduring problems of popular government, struggling to devise ways government by the people might survive in the modern world and how the transition from monarchy to republic might be managed. Political leaders, activists, and revolutionaries-from Charles V to Antonio Gramsci to Thomas Jefferson-have taken heed of...
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Discourses on Livy (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

Niccolò Machiavelli warns potential revolutionaries to expel the privileged elites of the old regime or risk certain doom. In the Discourses, he applied himself to the enduring problems of popular government, struggling to devise ways government by the people might survive in the modern world and how the transition from monarchy to republic might be managed. Political leaders, activists, and revolutionaries-from Charles V to Antonio Gramsci to Thomas Jefferson-have taken heed of the Discourses.
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Introduction

"Whoever makes a free state and does not kill the sons of Brutus maintains himself for little time." With that, Niccolò Machiavelli warns potential revolutionaries to expel the privileged elites of the old regime or risk certain doom. In addition to The Prince, his famously "infamous" manual of statesmanship, conquest, and power politics, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote another book, a monumental work that, unlike The Prince, took him years rather than months to compose. In the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, Machiavelli applied himself to the enduring problems of popular government-struggling to devise ways government by the people might survive in the modern world, how the transition from monarchy to republic might be managed, institutions which would enable ordinary people to participate in the politics of larger territorial states. Political leaders, activists, and revolutionaries, from Charles V to Antonio Gramsci to Thomas Jefferson, have taken heed from the Discourses, the fruit of Machiavelli's professional political experience as a diplomat and administrator and his ardent study of the ancient past for political knowledge that would "show the path to someone who with more virtue, more discourse and judgment, will be able to fulfill this intention of mine."

No other political philosopher is as closely associated with his hometown as is Niccolò Machiavelli, born in 1469 in Florence, which at that time was a proud independent republic controlling vast swaths of Tuscany. In the years of Machiavelli's youth, which he spent immersed in books, the Renaissance flourished in the courtyards and piazzas of Florence, while the Medici family quietly subverted the popular government inside ponderous stone palazzos that shaped the streets of a city grown rich on banking and the wool industry. Lacking the wealth and access to power possessed by the sons of the grandi, the elite families of Florence, Machiavelli had to rely on his wits. In 1498, he managed to secure a job in the state bureaucracy as Chancellor of the Second Chancery, a post he would hold until 1512. Humanists and legal specialists staffed the four Chanceries, the administrative offices of the Florentine Republic. Later appointed Secretary to the Ten of Liberty and Peace, the council in charge of foreign relations, and often sent abroad on diplomatic missions, Machiavelli met, observed, and scrutinized the notable political leaders of the era. Such was Machiavelli's life as a professional politician, but the ordinary career of a mid-level bureaucrat conceals an extraordinary political visionary. Niccolò Machiavelli was blessed or cursed to draw breath during a time of intense political change; the invasions of Italy in 1494 and 1512 marked the collision of two political worlds, the Italian world of self-governing city-states and the new northern world of territorial monarchies. The battle would be fought on the plains of Italy and the plateaus of political thought. Machiavelli wrote the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy from 1512 to 1519, in order to save his beloved Florence and government by the people before northern monarchies erased them from the map for all time.

What is known as the mystery of Machiavelli has puzzled and beguiled ordinary readers, political philosophers, and critics for centuries. Still the subject of intense debate in scholarly circles, the design and purpose of The Prince remains obscure. To this longstanding controversy, add the Discourses, an extensive book on republics that appears to contradict the teaching of The Prince, and therein lies the mystery. Readers continue to wonder how one man could simultaneously write a slender manual of advice for a power-hungry prince and an elaborate exploration of republican practices and institutions. Machiavelli could be an advocate of princes or of republics, as states ruled by citizens in common are known. He has been praised as a friend of liberty and chastised as an enemy of it. Intriguingly, according to the historical record, Emperor Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and the greatest political figure of the sixteenth century, kept both The Prince and the Discourses together at his bedside-an illuminating clue that perhaps the two books share a deeper accord. In 1512, Machiavelli's life changed drastically. A Spanish and Papal army conquered Florence and brought the Medici, who had been in exile since 1494, back to Florence as rulers. Overnight Florence, a republic since time immemorial, turned into a principality propped up by foreign powers. A few months later the Medici fired Machiavelli from his post and tortured him, hanging him from a strappado, on second-rate evidence linking him to a conspiracy to overthrow the Medici. Sent into exile, Machiavelli retired to his farm at San Casciano in the country outside Florence. This forced retirement from politics, which he deeply resented, spurred him toward a life of the mind. As he relates from his celebrated letter to his friend Francesco Vettori, Machiavelli would while away the day in gaming and gossip and then, when night fell, he would read, poring over histories of Rome as an archeologist might, imaginatively reconstructing an extensive territorial republic. He pored over the classical political historians-Plutarch, Livy, Sallust, Tacitus, and Polybius-and sought to cull from republican Rome political knowledge that might remedy the Italian situation and modernize republics. Above all, Titus Livy's The Rise of Rome, which covers the founding and early years of the Roman Republic, inspired him to believe in the real possibility of a rebirth, that it might be possible to found a new kind of republic. To his excavation of Roman texts, he added his experience with contemporary politics; and composed his meditation on ancient and modern politics, the Discourses. Profoundly impressed by all that the impetuosity of Cesare Borgia or Julius II, "the warrior pope," could accomplish provided the times were right, Machiavelli began to think an individual with virtue (i.e., political acumen, courage, and public spirit) could redeem a corrupt people. While he waited for someone to lead Italy and Florence to redemption, Machiavelli wrote The Art of War, A Dialogue on Language, The Life of Castruccio Castracani, and plays such as The Mandrake Root and Clizia. In 1520, Pope Clement VII asked Machiavelli to write a History of Florence. Machiavelli obliged with the last of his odysseys into the past. Remaining an indomitable patriot dedicated to Italian and Florentine liberty, Machiavelli presented a plan for a Florentine citizen militia to the pope along with the History of Florence.

Machiavelli wrote the Discourses in Italian rather than Latin, defining himself against the civic humanists, the elite public intellectuals of Florence. In a similar vein, he expressed contempt for his countrymen's obsession with architecture and art. Wealthy collectors prize fragments of ancient statues that artists study and seek to imitate, but no one seeks to imitate examples of ancient statecraft, Machiavelli observes ruefully in the preface to the Discourses. There are models for constructing republics, organizing the military, fighting wars, expanding territory, if only Italians would study and try to imitate them.

If culture, the arts and letters, could be born again through a recovery of the ancient world, could not political life undergo a similar rebirth? Machiavelli tested his ideas at the Orti Orcellari, a literary and philosophical society that met in the gardens of the Rucellai Palace. The Discourses is dedicated to Cosimo Ruccellai and Zanobi Buondelmonti, fittingly two young noble members of the society, as one of the goals of the Discourses is to persuade patricians that a republic, rather than a monarchy, is in their interest.

While Machiavelli read and wrote, Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel for Pope Julius II, who appears in The Prince and the Discourses. The age glowed with richly hued personalities, the infamous Cesare Borgia and the saintly Erasmus, the fiery Luther and the urbane courtier Castiglione, the consummate Raphael and the sardonic Guicciardini. Ferdinand and Isabella united Spain, and Columbus discovered the New World. Not without reason, Machiavelli believed his own enterprise in the Discourses to be as dangerous as those voyages of discovery seeking new lands and seas. In 1527, the year of the brutal Sack of Rome, Machiavelli died in Florence, in his own bed. Shortly thereafter, Florence rose in rebellion against the Medici for the last time.

The respected Florentine publishing house Biondi printed the manuscript of the Discourses in 1531. It was too late, for by that time, all Italy was "an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names." The hope embodied in the Discourses for a revival of republics, and the liberty they protected, had been shattered. In 1494, again in 1512, and repeatedly until 1559, the republics and principalities that comprised Renaissance Italy were invaded and subjugated by the great emerging states beyond the Alps. The "barbarous" monarchs of feudal Europe (France, Spain, and Germany) turned Renaissance Italy into their personal battlefield having overpowered Italian princes and republics. The Italian peninsula would remain a conquered land until the nineteenth century. Republics, city-states where citizens govern themselves collectively, were in dire shape. Republican city-states could not compete with the endless rounds of wars fomented by the new territorial states beyond the Alps. In the later fifteenth century, while Italian republics such as Florence and Venice developed economies based on trade and production and expanded tentatively into the countryside, the great states of France and Spain were busy swallowing huge tracts of territory, devising new forms of taxation and techniques of mass conscription. In terms of territory, manpower, and financing, independent cities could no longer compete with large monarchies. Increasingly, republicanism appeared to be a form of government limited to small urban city-states, useless in an era of territorial expansion. As a result, the freedom and participation republics nourished came to be dismissed as anachronistic.

In the early sixteenth century, in theory as well as practice, monarchy's influence was growing, the demands of modern war required innovations in the medieval tradition of limited monarchy. The monarch needed to be an efficient unitary executive, armed with discretion and able to make decisions quickly and effectively. Deliberation, discussion, and participation were not required and occurred less frequently as monarchies stretched across Europe. Nevertheless, freedom and political rights are not so easily forgotten. Popular uprisings for republics against the monarchies would shake Europe for generations, from the Comunero Movement in Spain, the Swiss Rebellion and subsequent independent republican Swiss Confederation in the sixteenth century, to the doomed Revolt of Naples and the successful revolt of the Netherlands in the seventeenth.

Although there are many reasons to consider the Discourses as the companion volume to The Prince, the latter work, though slight, has loomed larger in the public imagination. However, free of the fame and the attendant misunderstandings plaguing The Prince, the Discourses has exerted more influence on the history of political thought. The Discourses was read by the loyal republicans in the dark years of the Italian Wars and by Algernon Sydney and his comrades in the equally gloomy years of the English Civil War. The Enlightenment did not diminish the book's relevance for Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, and especially for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the Discourses' most discerning readers, who would follow Machiavelli back to the plebs of Rome to become the first modern democratic political theorist. John Adams, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson, who studied Italian specifically to read Machiavelli, are among the most celebrated readers of the Discourses. According to Machiavelli, the challenge for the modern age was to devise an extended territorial republic, the challenge we find the Founders met in Federalist # 10, 14, and 37. "Why should the experiment of the extended republic be rejected merely because it is new?" queried James Madison.

Several of the themes and ideas in the Discourses have moved readers in various times and places. The concept of a civic militia rather than a professional standing army to defend a republic captivated the American and French revolutionaries. Machiavelli's Italian patriotism and passionate resistance to the invasions and conquest of the Italian peninsula made him a hero of the Risorgimento, the nineteenth-century movement that succeeded in unifying an independent Italian state. Marxists found in Machiavelli a foreshadowing of their own populism and hatred of elites. Contemporary political theorists who worry about subtle forms of power and domination find the conception of politics as a realm of conflict and the invigorating effects of nonviolent class conflict presented in the Discourses remarkably relevant. From his study of Rome and experience with the methods the Medici used to subvert the Florentine Republic, Machiavelli believed political theorists should think about institutions to regulate conflict rather than produce consensus, which is, more often than not, a mask for hegemony. The Prince is a window through which one can view the Discourses. In the last chapter of The Prince, Machiavelli exhorts the Medici to liberate Italy from the barbarians and to follow the example of Cesare Borgia and conquer territory in central Italy. Looking out from chapter twenty-six, in the distance Rome rises from the ruins. As Leon Battista Alberti measured the ruins of Rome in order to rebuild the city's majestic spaces in the modern world, so Machiavelli imagines a new spacious republic that will be founded on the ruins of the old. Reading the Discourses is a voyage of the political and geographical imagination, surveying republics ancient and modern, crossing confederacies, ranging over the Tuscan and Swiss leagues, sweeping through principalities and seigniories to the kingdoms of Spain and France, comparing, contrasting, evaluating "modes and orders" institutions, policies, and laws.

The Discourses began as a learned commentary on the first ten books of Titus Livy's The Rise of Rome. Many aspects of the Discourses' structure bear the marks of its beginnings in the ideas suggested by Livy's history of the birth of Rome and its ascent to greatness. As the work began to encompass ideas and examples beyond those found in the first ten chapters of Livy, Machiavelli organized his writings in three books. Book one discusses the institutions and politics inside Rome, essentially domestic policy. Book two covers foreign policy, and book three explores individual political actions as well as issues relevant to the previous two books. This division is not to be taken too seriously, because similar topics and themes appear in all three books. Some chapters are independent, such as the famous chapter six of book three, "Of Conspiracies," while others develop points from earlier chapters or form interrelated arguments. The individual chapters make use of examples, often one from ancient Rome and one from Machiavelli's Florence, to illustrate a point. The duality between Rome and Florence animates the work and illustrates Machiavelli's method, which combines historical observation with direct observation and is believed to be the origin of the inductive science of politics. Furthermore, the Discourses stands alone, isolated in a brief historical void between two traditions of political thought-the civic republican tradition of the past and the social contract one to come.

To the attentive reader, the Discourses reveals unprecedented vistas of political thought and practice. In the search for devices and institutions to breathe new life into republican government, Machiavelli explores how to govern occupied provinces and cities so that they will coalesce with the conquering republic to form one political body. The concept of nonviolent regime change, the peaceful transition from monarchy to republic, appears for the first time. Certain Roman institutions hold the key to adapting popular government to large states: For instance the dictatorship in war, which gave one leader executive power in times of emergency, enabled a republic to act as decisively as a monarchy without turning into one. Republics desperately needed to improve their military prowess, so the Discourses addresses a variety of military reforms, especially the use of a citizen army, to ensure the survival of republics in a world of monarchies on the move. Most important of all is the Tribunate, the Roman institution charged with protecting the plebeians, the common people of Rome, from the abuse of elites and the aggressiveness of the Senate. The Tribunate protected the people through the power to veto senatorial legislation and make accusations against ambitious citizens who appeared to threaten liberty or transgress the constitution. Political institutions should be designed to be class conscious, as in Rome where the plebeians had their Tribunate and the patricians their Senate, because peaceful class conflict is healthy for a republic, a belief based on the theory that politics is essentially about managing conflict rather than reaching agreement. The contrast between public interest and private ambition forms an important subsidiary theme of the Discourses, "For so great is the ambition of the great that it soon brings a city to its ruin if it is not beaten down in a city by various ways and various modes." As with any political thinker of the past, one cannot help but wonder what remains of Machiavelli beyond the clarity with which he elucidated the problem of free government in the modern world. What remains beyond the Discourses' historical circumstances and remains of relevance to every thinking person, rather than every professional thinker, are the great crowds of Rome, who rise up once more on the pages of the Discourses. The plebeians of Rome, the common people, the working classes, have always had an unpopular press in political thought. In contrast, Machiavelli sees, hears, and appreciates ordinary people as no one has before or since, recognizing the power of people to work together in order to peacefully contest social and political oppression. A populist and a democrat, Machiavelli calls out to readers, to free Italy or any oppressed homeland, to build a state founded on the people, to be on guard for signs of domination by the rich and powerful.

Machiavelli's quest for a rebirth of free government ends with the melancholy recognition that no form of government lasts forever. Even the great Republic of Rome eventually turned into an empire. Rome gradually destroyed itself through prolonging military and civil terms in office, which seemed necessary due to the continual wars the republic waged in order to expand its influence. The challenge of each generation is to stave off the inevitable corruption. As Benjamin Franklin told a crowd gathered outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia, "You have a republic. If you can keep it."

Alissa Ardito received her doctorate in political science from Yale University, where she studied political philosophy, intellectual history, and the history of architecture. She is currently a visiting professor at Duke University.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2009

    A manual on creating successful leaders and governments

    This is the perfect book for anyone who is interested in learning about political theory and leadership. Machiavelli describes in detail of what it takes to have a successful and lasting government. If you liked Machiavelli's "the Prince" or if you are interested in learning about politics and leadership I highly recommend this book. Machiavelli uses examples from the ancient Roman republic and also examples of governments from his own time to support his theories on what is necessary to do in order to create and maintain a successful goverment. He also gives advice on how to be a successful leader and politician along with advice on how to manage war.

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    Posted December 17, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted July 15, 2011

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