25 October 2008

More Original Texts from La Sapienza!

Following up on my previous post, La Sapienza has compiled full texts of thirteen works by Machiavelli, including The Prince, The Florentine Histories, and The Art of War.

To find the Machiavelli texts, just search for "Machiavelli" in the "Autore" field of this search engine.

These full texts are part of a collection of over 1,700 Italian texts available online through their website. The same search engine can be used to peruse all of them, provided you can understand a little Italian.

Original Text of the Discourses Available Online through La Sapienza!

The Biblioteca Italiana of the Università degli Studi di Roma "La Sapienza" features the full text of the Discourses in Italian on their website!

The site also features a search function that I found quite useful.

The site suffers from only one problem that could cause confusion. Book Three has been incorrectly grouped with Book Two, so that the initial page you see as a visitor only appears to contain a collapsible table of contents for Books One and Two. If you want to access chapters in Book Three, simply expand the table of contents for Book Two and scroll down; Chapter One of Book Three will immediately follow Chapter Thirty-Three of Book Two.


22 October 2008

Blogging the Discourses: Book One, Chapter Five (Part 1 of 2)

Whether the Guard of Freedom May Be Settled More Securely, in the People or in the Great; and Which Has Greater Cause for Tumult, He Who Wishes to Acquire or He Who Wishes to Maintain

A discussion of what constituted the "guard of freedom" in the Roman Republic takes place at the end of Chapter Four and throughout Chapter Five. But what, exactly, does it mean to be the "guard of freedom?" What qualities does such a guard possess?

Machiavelli never precisely defines what the term means. Hints appear in the text, of course. Machiavelli says explicitly that the tribunes were a guard of freedom in early Rome. And he asserts that the longevity of a "free way of life" in a state directly corresponds to how well the guard of freedom has been placed in the proper institution.

So it seems reasonable to reach two initial conclusions: (1) some function or functions of the Roman tribunes are those of a guard of freedom generally, and (2) the guard of freedom does not necessarily create freedom rather than simply preserving what freedom already exists.

Machiavelli provides another clue in the middle of Chapter Five, however, when he refers to the guard of freedom as a "stick" through which powerful people can satisfy their ambition. The guard thus appears to have some sort of offensive function -- a power to elevate oneself at the expense of others -- instead of a purely defensive tool to keep one from being offended.

Where would one find such a "stick" in the Roman tribunes, then? As I understand it, among their most important powers were the authority to (1) veto measures proposed by the Senate, (2) convoke and preside over the Plebeian Council, and (3) arrest, try, and pass judgment upon those who offended the rights of the plebeians through that Council.

Of these, the last power appears to be the most closely associated with Machiavelli's idea of freedom. The veto, while powerful, was hardly unique to the tribune, given that either consul also held identical or similar authority. The power to convoke and lead the Council as a popular legislative body also carries great political weight, but that legislative function does not seem particularly germane to the tribunes' role as a guard of freedom given that Machiavelli deemed that the nobility could hold the guard of freedom as well, such as in Venice and Sparta.

Rather, the tribunes' judicial role strikes me as the heart of their ability to preserve liberty. I say this based on Machiavelli's comments, scattered throughout the Discourses and The Prince, indicating the critical role that judicial power plays in suppressing the rule of one alone. Book One, Chapter Seven, for example, states that those charged with the guard of freedom
cannot give a more useful and necessary authority than that of being able to accuse citizens to the state, or to some magistrate or counsel, when thy sin in anything against the free state.
This is essentially a judicial function, for the ability to accuse is inextricably entwined with the power to judge and to condemn. Moreover, the details of that chapter leave little doubt that Machiavelli included what moderns would recognize as the judicial power in the power to accuse. For he references the legendary case of Coriolanus, whom the tribunes called before the people to receive their judgment for alleged wrongs, as told by Shakespeare:

Sicinius [a tribune]: Draw near, ye people.
Aedile: List to your tribunes. Audience ! peace, I say !
Coriolanus: First, hear me speak.
Both Tribunes: Well, say. Peace, ho !
Coriolanus: Shall I be charged no further than this present?
Must all determine here?
Sicinius: I do demand,
If you submit you to the people's voices,
Allow their officers and are content
To suffer lawful censure for such faults
As shall be proved upon you?
Coriolanus: I am content.

A few paragraphs later, Machiavelli again ties the power to accuse with the power to judge, noting that in Florence "there was no mode of accusation against the ambition of powerful citizens" because there were not enough judges in that state. Half a book later, in paragraph three of Book One, Chapter Forty, Machiavelli again links the importance of the tribunes to their judicial power when he states that the Roman people initially agreed to the tyrannical rule of the decemvirate in part because the decemvirs had given to them the power to judge cases. Thus, he asserts, the people no longer felt the need for tribunes, who usually held such authority. The reader is left to conclude that the Roman plebs considered this judicial power a key component of their freedom.

Further, the importance of judicial power to the freedom of a state does not confine itself to instances where the people exercise the guard of freedom. In Venice, Machiavelli claims in Book One, Chapter Forty-nine, the powerful were held in check by the powerful themselves -- or, more specifically, by the powerful who exercised the judicial function. In the Venetian example, this judicial authority stemmed from a council of "ten citizens who could punish any citizen without appeal.[.]" Although the council delegated this power to a larger body, the root of that power, and thus the root of the Venetians' guard of freedom, came from the great citizens of that state.

Two excerpts from The Prince strongly buttress this conclusion. The first and most conspicuous of the two lies in the notorious last paragraph of Chapter XVIII, where Machiavelli writes that "in the actions of all men ... one looks to the end" and not to the means. This statement, breathtakingly bold and impious, receives one -- and only one -- caveat. "[O]ne looks to the end" when considering the actions of a prince, Machiavelli states, but only "where there is no court to appeal to ....." Any mention of a legislature, senate, or council of commoners exercising such power remains conspicuously absent. Only the judicial authority is cited as an ultimate brake on absolute princely power.

The second excerpt is found in Chapter IX. At the end of the chapter, Machiavelli discourses on the ability of a prince in a "civil principality" -- i.e. a principality ordered by some form of law -- "to ascend ... to an absolute one" -- i.e. a principality where the prince exercises power to the exclusion of all other sources, including the law. Such a power grab becomes more difficult, he says, when the prince has ruled "by means of magistrates," which should include judges, rather than through his own person. In that instance, the citizens "are accustomed to receive commands from the magistrates" (e.g., judges) and are thus less likely to obey the extralegal commands of the prince. Again, the judicial power restricts the prince's ability to overthrow the rule of law.

Taken together, these passages at the very least create the impression that Machiavelli saw the "guard of freedom" as resting to a large degree on the suppression of the excess ambitions of the powerful, and that he thought this purpose best accomplished through the exercise of judicial power. So it stands to reason that Machiavelli understood the judiciary to play a preeminent role in safeguarding republican liberty. Thus, it links Machiavelli to Chief Justice John Marshall, who centuries later cemented the American judiciary's role as ultimate arbiter of our country's rule of law through the concept of judicial review.

18 October 2008

Machiavelli Conference at Yale -- October 17-18, 2008

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale is hosting a Machiavelli conference this weekend, entitled "Machiavelli: Philosophy, Rhetoric, & History." I would love to hear any reports of what went on -- or even better, copies of handouts, transcripts, or articles that were made available!

01 October 2008

The Prince and the "Political Question Doctrine"

I had the honor of co-teaching a seminar at Yale last week with my good friend Dr. Danilo Petranovich. The seminar, titled "Democracy, Statesmanship, and Greatness," focuses on leadership and the idea of greatness in democratic political systems.

My talk centered around the concept of political virtue in The Prince, and whether that concept was viable (or desirable) in the modern American context. I chose the "political question doctrine"--a legal concept holding that the federal courts should abstain from deciding certain cases over which it has jurisdiction under Article III of the U.S. Constitution--as a vehicle for these ideas. The federal courts have applied this doctrine to many cases involving the Presidential war-making powers and authority over other issues of foreign policy, and thus its scope defines in many respects the ability of the U.S. President to act as the Machiavellian Prince.

The topic seems ripe for additional research, and if anyone is interested, have a look at the handout I distributed to the class on the subject. (I took the liberty of correcting a typo in the first paragraph, however.) If you are a lawyer, you may find the discussion of the federal courts' Article III powers a bit over-simplified. Nuances could (and should) be added to any formal writing on the topic, but I deemed them distracting for a presentation of the topic to non-attorneys.

29 September 2008

Worth Reading -- Machiavelli as Revolutionary

I recently read this lecture on The Prince, given in October 2006 by Professor Steven B. Smith of Yale. It is an excellent read, especially the portion referencing Robert Kagan's article "Cowboy Nation," where Dr. Smith suggests that the American republic, and all others like it, are by their very nature expansionist and aggressive.

22 September 2008

Blogging the Discourses: Book One, Chapter Four

That the Disunion of the Plebs and the Roman Senate Made That Republic Free and Powerful

Does Machiavelli favor bicameralism? Chapter Four suggests so. Here he explains why he does not believe that a republic can govern in a united, “bipartisan” manner absent some external threat. There are, he says, “two diverse humors” in every republic:
  1. that of the people, and
  2. that of the great.
The "humor" of the people is rarely pernicious in and of itself, because it "arise[s] either from [their] being oppressed or from suspicion that they may be oppressed." In other words, the people want to be left alone. They only threaten the republic with disorder (tumults, or tumulti, in Machiavellian parlance) when this ability to be left alone is or appears to be under attack.

Thus, civil disorder—"running tumultuously through the streets, closing shops, the whole plebs leaving Rome"—permits the people to express these desires and frustrations without jeopardizing the state's integrity. Without these outlets, the people might be tempted to empower a citizen to overthrow the nobility entirely and set up a popular government, a type of government that, as Machiavelli noted in Chapter Two, rapidly descends into license and chaos.

Thus, Machiavelli advocates the creation of people’s assemblies that, along with the occasional "tumult," allow the people to express their desire to be left alone without risking regime change. In this way, Machiavelli appears to be a proponent of bicameral republics. The people's assembly stands as a formal counterpoint to the aristocratic upper house, and gives the people a voice within the confines and regulation of the republic.

The great, on the other hand, are not so easily managed. Unlike the people, they are ambitious. They therefore threaten the state by their very existence, even when they have their own legislative assemblies to vent their ambitions.

Unlike the people, who desire merely to be left alone, the humors of the great naturally undermine the state because—as noted in Chapter Three—they are presumably bad. As a consequence, without some external compulsion, the great will use their ambition to better themselves or a private group at the state’s expense.

The state therefore cannot manage the great simply through creating a legislature. More complicated measures are required, measures which are closely intertwined with Machiavelli’s idea of creating liberty through the struggle between the great and the humble. He continues to develop this idea in Book One, Chapter Five, to which this blog now turns.

15 September 2008

Blogging the Discourses: Book One, Chapter Three

What Accidents Made the Tribunes of the Plebs Be Created in Rome, Which Made the Republic More Perfect

Central to Chapter Three is Machiavelli’s statement that:
[I]t is necessary to whoever disposes a republic and orders laws in it to presuppose that all men are bad, and that they always have to use the malignity of their spirit whenever they have a free opportunity for it.
Machiavelli provides a single example to support his thesis: the temporary unity of Rome upon the expulsion of the Tarquin kings. The seeming union of the nobility and the plebs—the two political factions in early Republican Rome—was not, Machiavelli posited, the result of a natural goodness of either faction, but rather of the fear that the deposed Tarquins inspired in the nobility. Antagonizing the plebs, the nobility thought, might induce them ally with the dethroned royalty to accomplish a Tarquin restoration at their expense.

To avoid this possibility, the patricians allied with the plebs until the Tarquins passed away. But once the Tarquins had died, and the fear of their return dissipated, the nobles once again opposed the plebs politically.

This renewed opposition resulted in “many confusions, noises, and danger of scandals [] arose between the plebs and the nobility[.]" To keep the peace, and protect the plebs against the nobility’s power:
[T]hey arrived at the creation of the tribunes for the security of the plebs. They ordered them with so much eminence and reputation that they could ever after be intermediaries between the plebs and the Senate and prevent the insolence of the nobles.
Three thoughts on this vignette:


Who are “they” to whom Machiavelli refers in his statement about the creation of the tribunes? The language, both in the Mansfield & Tarcov translation and the original text, reads as if the tribunes were the brainchild of some far-thinking men with the incentive, wisdom, and foresight to create a position to mediate early Rome’s political conflict. This appears to contradict not only the title of Chapter Three itself, which ascribes the creation of the tribunes to “accidenti” (“accidents” or “incidents,” according to both Mansfield & Tarcov and my own understanding), but also to Livy’s own account, which attributes the creation of the tribunes to political compromise in the wake of the plebs’ threat to leave Rome over the military levy.

What exactly is meant by “bad”? The Italian word Machiavelli uses is “rei,” an archaic word that does not survive in modern Italian dictionaries like Lo Zingarelli. Does it simply mean being selfish, as in the “self-interest properly understood” championed by Alexis de Tocqueville, or in Adam Smith’s classical view of selfish economic behavior as expressed in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations? Or does it denote a tendency for “corruption” (corruzione), in the sense Machiavelli appears to use it—that is, having ultimate allegiance to any entity other than the state?


Machiavelli does not assert that all men are bad. He merely says that whoever rules a state must assume that they are. Thus, men can be good in Machiavelli’s eyes, especially those common people that are ordered under good laws like those in the as-yet-uncorrupt Roman Republic. (See Chapters 25, 55, and 58 of Book One for Machiavelli’s discussion of their alleged goodness.) Moreover, as noted in Book One, Chapter Two, Machiavelli believes that individuals who overthrow a state that has sunk into degeneracy can act virtuously in founding a new one, much like Lucius Junius Brutus did after the expulsion of the Tarquins.

Once can assume, however, that a ruler cannot easily discern who is good from who is bad, much less predict how future generations will behave. Indeed, as noted in the previous chapter, the generations that follow the foundation of a new order tend to exhibit a degeneracy lacking in their forebears. Machiavelli’s purpose, therefore, seems less to make a philosophical pronouncement on the morality of all men, but simply to make a policy recommendation based upon the tendency of the majority of people. While virtue exists, the state must act as if it did not.

09 September 2008

Blogging the Discourses: Book One, Chapter Two

Of How Many Species Are Republics, and Which Was the Roman Republic

It is a common-sense notion that we have to learn some lessons in life through our own experience. That is, we believe that there are some things that we cannot teach to others.

For law students, this experience often manifests itself when they start their first job with a large law firm. They know it involves a lot of work. They know the hours are difficult and unpredictable. Many have told them so: career counselors, alumni, friends. Yet, from my own experience, most of them find themselves overwhelmed and unprepared for the reality nonetheless.

The experience of going hungry, of truly lacking enough food to sustain oneself, is another such example. Many have written about how three meals a day stands between civilization and barbarity, such as Art Spiegelman in his Pulitzer Prize-winning work Maus, or the late Solzhenitsyn’s unparalleled Gulag Archipelago. But I never really grasped the lesson until a hiking excursion went wrong and I was faced with passing a day of strenuous activity with little more than a piece of bread to eat. By the end of the experience I would have done a great deal more for a meal than I had ever imagined possible. And that was just after a relatively short period of time.

Could you have told me how that felt? Sure. Could you have convinced me that being hungry would change the way I would view the world? Probably. Is there any way you could have taught me that lesson without actually depriving me of food? I doubt it. And I still know only the tip of that iceberg of suffering, having returned a day later to a full table and safe lodging.

Chapter Two asserts that this quotidian principle operates in politics, too. Machiavelli focuses this chapter upon the natural progression of republics—the “cycle [in which] all republics are governed and govern themselves.”

The Machiavellian natural cycle of “republican” governments (as explained in Chapter Two, at least) passes through three stages:
  1. the rule of one
  2. the rule of the few
  3. the rule of the many
Machiavelli understands problems inherent in generational succession to underpin this cycle. Governments initially form under the aegis of a single individual for military reasons. In the beginning, groups of people naturally chose the person who was “the most robust and of the greatest courage” to defend them, and in so doing, to rule them.

But this one-man regime inevitably fails because the group at some point starts “to make the Prince by succession and not by election[.]” (Why states ruled by one person ineluctably choose rule by succession, Machiavelli never explains.) The heirs degenerate, forgetting the “virtuous works” wrought by their forebears, and sink into decadence:

But then as the prince began to be made by succession, and not by choice, at once the heirs began to degenerate from their ancestors; and leaving aside virtuous works, they thought that prices have nothing else to do but surpass others in sumptuousness and lasciviousness and every other kind of license.

The unavoidable degeneracy of the hereditary principality prompts just and courageous men among the group to rise up and unseat their oppressor, forming the government of the few. (Incidentally, this description contrasts sharply with the description given in Chapter II of The Prince, which identifies hereditary principalities as relatively easy to maintain by a prince of “ordinary industry … unless there is an extraordinary and excessive force which deprives him of it ….”)

The new rulers govern justly at first. The memory of tyranny remains fresh in their minds, and convinces them to “plac[e] the common utility before their own advantage; and [to] govern[] and preserve[] both private and public things with the highest diligence.”

Like the prince’s children, however, the descendants of the aristocrats lack personal experience with tyranny. And so, not knowing the sufferings of their progenitors, these aristocrats' scions pervert the regime and render it an oligarchy:

This administration came next to their sons, who, not knowing the variation of fortune, never having encountered evil, and unwilling to rest content with civil equality, but turning to avarice, to ambition, to usurpation of women, made a government of few, without respect for any civility.

The people, for their part, feel the boot of these oligarchic oppressors, and still recall the abuse of the tyrant. (Why they still remember that abuse while the oligarchs do not is never explained, however.) Feeling contempt for both types of government, the commoners upend the regime of the few and institute the regime of the people.

But, similar to its predecessors, the government of the people lasts only one generation, whereupon it degenerates into license. That anarchy in turn spawns a desire for stability and order under a single head, and the regime reverts to the rule of one:

Because all states have some reverence in the beginning, this popular state was maintained for a little while, but not much, especially once the generation that had ordered it was eliminated; for it came at once to license, where neither private men nor public were in fear, and each living in his own mode, a thousand injuries were done every day. So, constrained by necessity, or by the suggestion of some good man, or to escape such license, they returned anew to the principality ….

We can thus infer from Machiavelli’s account of natural regime change that we are somehow unable to pass on to the next generation exactly how unpleasant it is to live under an oppressive government. It also appears to be an indictment of hereditary rule in general, in contrast to the more sanguine description of that type of state in The Prince. Each type of government begins with virtuous rulers, but their children are unable to continue their good policies.

On the other hand, the younger generation’s propensity to disregard their elders’ advice also prevents evil regimes from lasting forever. All tyrants must die someday, and their regimes must suffer a succession. And because the same problems with hereditary succession in good regimes can also afflict those tyrannical regimes, there is no guarantee that the successors of tyrants will follow in the same footsteps as their progenitors.

As such, Hannah Arendt noted that intergenerational succession stands as humankind's bulwark of last resort against totalitarianism:

But there remains also the truth than every end in history necessarily contains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only “message” which the end can ever produce. Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man’s freedom. Initium ut esset homo creatus est—“that a beginning be made man was created” said Augustine. This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.

(The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harcourt Brace & Co. (1973) 478-79.)

Or as an unnamed art critic on The Simpsons says about Mr. Burns in the episode “Brush with Greatness”:

“He’s bad, but he’ll die."

Accordingly, the political instability that birth and death creates both undermines and supports virtuous government. It undermines virtuous government because no good regime can last forever. Good rulers will inevitably die and bad rulers will take their place. But it also supports virtuous government because no oppressive regime can last forever, either.

To be sure, the typology of regimes Machiavelli lays out in Chapter Two seems deceivingly simplified, and the contradictions between that typology and other things he wrote in The Prince and the Discourses hints that he does not fully believe his own theory in this section. Nevertheless, it appears clear that he believes at least two things that he says here:
  1. every generation can never fully internalize the experiences of the one that came before it; and

  2. this phenomenon makes change inevitable in every regime, especially in states that depend on hereditary succession.
This theme also appears to serve Machiavelli’s idea that republics need continuous foundation (i.e., constant reform), an idea elaborated at greater length in Chapter Forty-Nine of Book One, and Chapter Forty-Nine of Book Three.

07 September 2008

Blogging the Discourses: Book One, Chapter One

What Have Been Universally the Beginnings of Any City Whatever, and What Was That of Rome

Although the title of the first chapter suggests that it will focus on only two subjects, it actually touches on a variety of issues, including:
  • the difference between cities founded by natives and those founded by foreigners;

  • the foundation and rise of the Venetian Republic;

  • how to motivate people; and

  • the relationship between architecture and urban life.
Nevertheless, for the purposes of this blog, I wish merely to point out an apparently contradictory position Machiavelli takes with respect to the beginnings of Venice.

At the beginning of the chapter, Machiavelli asserts that the Venetian Republic primarily owed its ascendancy to its location on a handful of small islands at the tip of the Adriatic Sea. This isolation, he wrote, protected the Venetians and created conditions wherein even a glimmer of virtuous political order could flourish into a glorious state:

It turned out happily for them because of the long idleness that the site gave them, since the sea had no exit and the peoples who were afflicting Italy had no ships to be able to plague them: so any small beginning would have enabled them to come to the greatness they have.

Machiavelli’s premise in this passage therefore seems to be that geographic isolation will beget a powerful state. But just two paragraphs later, he appears to contradict that position, suggesting that a naturally safe location renders its inhabitants idle and weak:

Because men work either by necessity or by choice, and because there is greater virtue to be seen where choice has less authority, it should be considered whether it is better to choose sterile places for the building of cities so that men, constrained to be industrious and less seized by idleness, live more united, having less cause for discord, because of the poverty of the site … .

Indeed, Machiavelli says that founding cities where the land is infertile and unforgiving would be ideal were it not for our natural propensity to “seek to command others.” To conquer, a people must be situated in a fertile place that will support an army. But to ensure that the fertility of the land does not foster idleness, Machiavelli says that the city must adopt strong laws to create the same austerity and necessity of an infertile locale:

As to the idleness that the site might bring, the laws should be ordered to constrain it by imposing such necessities as the site does not provide.

Moreover, history offers many examples where cities founded in exposed, vulnerable locations fostered martial prowess in their peoples. The benefits that living in an unprotected place confers on its inhabitants is purportedly why Lycurgus refused to build city walls around Sparta. Living in an exposed locale may also explain why the Tlaxcalans—a small pre-Hispanic people who lived near present-day Mexico City—had the strength to hold the neighboring Aztec Empire at bay, and why they were able to resist the Spanish army commanded by Hernán Cortés. (In fact, the conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo suggests in his famous first-hand history of the Conquest that the Tlaxcalans would likely have destroyed the Spaniards had they not decided that Cortés would prove more useful as an ally against the Aztecs than as an enemy.)

Machiavelli’s observation about necessity therefore seems to contradict his observation about Venice’s geographic isolation. If the absence of necessity makes a state weak, then the “long idleness” that the Italian geography gave to Venice would tend to enervate its people absent strong laws. Consequently, it seems more logical to attribute Venice’s success to its good laws, explained at length in Book One, Chapter Six, than to its geographical isolation.

Had a lesser author written this chapter, one might attribute this contradiction to carelessness. But Machiavelli did not allow such details to escape his notice. I therefore can only surmise that some unnamed purpose lies behind the proposition that isolation made Venice strong.

What do you think?

05 September 2008

Blogging the Discourses: Greetings & Book One, Preface

The Preface to Book One of the Discourses begins with an observation on envy:
[T]he envious nature of men has always made it no less dangerous to find new modes and orders than to seek unknown waters and lands, because men are more ready to blame than to praise the actions of others … .
Machiavelli evidently places significant political importance on envy (defined as a “feeling of discontent and resentment aroused by and in conjunction with desire for the possessions or qualities of another”) given that he dedicates all of Book Three, Chapter Thirty to the subject. Envy also plays a role in numerous political vignettes related throughout the Discourses, including:
  • the calumnies of Manlius Capitolinus (Book One, Chapter Eight);

  • the conspiracy of the Latins and Campanians against Rome (Book Two, Chapter Fourteen); and

  • the ruin of Girolamo Savonarola (Book Three, Chapter Thirty).
Machiavelli chooses, however, to introduce envy in a decidedly non-political way, as a commentary on how it affects writers like himself. This seems like a strange choice at first, since the book focuses on politics and the fate of peoples instead of on the afflictions of a single author.

But Machiavelli asserts that envy affects political innovators much as it does their literary counterparts. The literary innovator, he says, is like a conquistador, exploring heretofore unknown intellectual territory. And because “men are more ready to blame than to praise the actions of others,” whatever the context, he claims that both explorers and authors risk much in seeking new lands.

So, writing just decades after Italian daring and Spanish money first uncovered the Western Hemisphere, and almost contemporaneously with Cortés’ conquest of Mexico, he boasts that only a brave and fearless man such as himself would strike out to publish something truly new:
[N]onetheless, driven by that natural desire that has always been in me to work, without any respect, for those things I believe will bring common benefit to everyone, I have decided to take a path as yet untrodden by anyone, and if it brings me trouble and difficulty, it could also bring me reward through those who consider humanely the end of these labors of mine.
Nevertheless, Machiavelli never takes the time to explain why we tend to assign blame more readily than praise, despite the important role this tendency plays in his worldview. He merely assumes it as a given. And although his characterization of envy’s power may be correct, it would be beneficial to know why we so often criticize innovation, so that we may better understand its role in influencing world affairs.

In fact, one reasons we criticize innovation has nothing to do with envy. We readily find flaws in something new and untested because it often arrives plagued by errors and inconsistencies. Only through empirical observation and refinement does the innovator sculpt a work of art from the raw materials of his first effort. Any lawyer who has ever drafted a brief can attest to this phenomenon—as can anyone who bought a 3G iPhone on the release date. Consequently, many new things probably merit criticism.

Moreover, criticism is more fun to give and to read than praise. Case in point: restaurant reviews. Although we find positive reviews useful in guiding our dining choices, they do not evoke the joy we derive from reading a devastating critique. We laugh as the reviewer rips into a new offering, dismantling months or years of careful preparation by the restaurateur with just a few columns of text.

This power of critics to destroy is all the more ironic considering that most of them, save those that were once masters of the art they review, cannot hope to imitate even the least of the artistic efforts subject to their judgment. (Maybe recognizing this harsh reality secretly inflames their envy for a talent they can never have?) Criticism, therefore, allows those without artistic ability to participate in the development of an art to which they would otherwise be unable to contribute. It also lets the critic vent his envy by tearing others down to make a name for himself. He becomes the kingmaker, even though he can never be the king.

An unlikely source—a cartoon, no less!—illustrates these psychological impulses with startling prescience. Ratatouille, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Film of 2007, centers on a Francophone rat’s efforts to run a pedigreed Parisian restaurant with the help of a hapless line cook, and concludes with the visit of the influential (and therefore feared) food critic, Anton Ego.

An earlier critical review by Ego, written before the rat’s arrival on the scene, had cost the restaurant its coveted five-star status. Ego therefore arrives for his meal like a shark smelling blood in the water, relishing the opportunity to gut a wounded culinary institution already in its death throes. But after sampling a stupendous and unusual meal of ratatouille (a traditional French peasant dish), and learning that a rodent had prepared it, Ego is rendered speechless. He leaves without saying a word and returns to his office to write his review.

The viewer expects Ego to place the final literary nail in the restaurant’s coffin, but he waxes philosophical on the nature of critique instead, writing:
In many ways the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.

The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.
This is, of course, essentially Machiavelli’s point in the Preface. But the surprising beauty of Ratatouille consists in how it goes further, demonstrating how innovators can use the inherently envious nature of critics to their advantage.

Every so often, Ego notes, the critic can further his own ambition by supporting the new rather than criticizing it. As a champion of something new, he can expose it to the public eye in the hopes of riding the coattails of its success. He therefore becomes, in some sense, a “discoverer” just like the innovating artist or conquistador. By the same token, however, supporting the new also invites great risk, because the critic will share in the innovation’s failure in the same measure as he will share in the benefits of its success:
[T]he bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things …the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something …and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.
The critic, then, can prove a powerful ally if the innovator can convince him to risk his reputation and throw his weight behind a novelty. Through the critic, the innovator can link the “new methods and systems” he has created to established practice, and legitimizes them. In the case of Ratatouille, Ego writes a glowing review naming the rat as the “finest chef in France,” lending his credibility to the rodent’s humble origins.

The Greeting and Preface also allude to this point, although less directly than the cartoon food critic. The Greeting dedicates the Discourses to Cosimo Rucellai and Zanobi Buondelmonti, members of the notable Rucellai family of Florence. The Rucellai, however, were not politically powerful at the time. Rather, they busied themselves with philosophical and cultural pursuits—in other words, literary critics of Machiavelli’s era.

Perhaps, as Professor Mansfield has suggested, Machiavelli dedicates the Discourses to them in the hopes that one day they will arrive in a position of political power and assist him. But perhaps Machiavelli also knows what Anton Ego knows—that sometimes an innovator can harness critics’ natural envy and ambition to his own advantage. Perhaps his careful flattery is an attempt to pitch his work as an innovation they should support and profit from, or as something whose success might help propel them to power as a notable patron of the arts:
Hence … I have chosen not [as recipients of this book] those who are princes but those who for their infinite good parts deserve to be; not those who could load me with ranks, honors, and riches but those who, though unable, would wish to do so. For men wishing to judge rightly have to esteem those who are liberal, not those who can be … .
This may also explain Machiavelli’s comment that the Discourses “could also bring me reward through those who consider humanely the end of these labors of mine”—that is, through sympathetic critics like Rucellai and Buondelmonti.

Regardless of Machiavelli’s motivation, his instincts appear to have prevailed, as he is ultimately, albeit posthumously, more successful than Anton Ego’s rodent protégé. In the movie, envy ironically ruins both the restaurant and Ego. The former head chef, thirsting for vengeance after his displacement by the upstart rat, tells the public about the rodents in the kitchen. The restaurant is shut down. Ego’s reputation meets the same fate:
The food didn’t matter. Once it got out there were rats in the kitchen, the restaurant was closed and Ego lost his job and his credibility.
But that aside, both Machiavelli and Ratatouille illustrate how innovators can turn the envious nature of their potential critics to their advantage. The critic gains a stake in the innovator’s success, and the two rise and fall together.

04 September 2008


MachiavelliBlog is dedicated to Professor Harvey C. Mansfield of Harvard University, whose patient regard for and tutelage of undergraduate students taught me to appreciate the simple beauty and power of Machiavelli’s writing.

Quotations from and Citations to the Text and Other Sources (updated 9 Sept. 2008)

All English-language quotations from the Discourses are reproduced from Dr. Harvey Mansfield and Dr. Nathan Tarcov’s excellent translation. English-language quotations from The Prince are reproduced from Dr. Mansfield’s equally excellent translation. At times the original text is quoted from Volumes One and Two of a compendium published in Italian.

As regards secondary sources, I harbor no pretensions that my work does not unknowingly duplicate the insights of others. I am a lawyer, not a professor of political science, and do not claim to have read the canon of Machiavelli scholarship other than a few notable works like Leo Strauss’ Thoughts on Machiavelli.

Thus, where I know that I am referencing ideas already put forth by others, I will acknowledge them as any responsible lawyer would. Any repetition of pre-existing ideas that are not cited is entirely accidental, resulting from my lack of background knowledge rather than from plagiaristic intent.

Updated (9 Sept. 2008): I have changed the reference to the original Italian source referenced here as the on-line version I was previously using seemed prone to errors.

A Note on Style

As a recent article from Slate explains, the average person reads content displayed on a computer screen in a manner quite different from how he or she reads words on a printed page. In particular, online readers tend to lose interest—and therefore navigate away from—pages with long paragraphs, little white space, and text that spans more than one screen.

Thus, unlike articles destined for print, entries on MachiavelliBlog liberally use:
MachiavelliBlog also strives to use simple prose. It shuns six-dollar words, abhors jargon, and rejects complex sentences. It believes that if you cannot explain your idea to a child, you do not fully understand it yourself. Should MachiavelliBlog ever violate these precepts, please flush out its hypocrisy in a comment.

Why Should You Read MachiavelliBlog?

Why should you read this blog over countless others?

Simple. You should read it because—if you are at all interested in Machiavelli—it will provoke you into seeing Machiavelli’s work from new perspectives.

MachiavelliBlog accomplishes this in two ways. First, it represents a novel approach to Machiavelli’s works. It considers them chapter-by-chapter, beginning with the Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy, commenting upon each before passing on to the next. It does not aim to provide an exegesis of every one; rather, it aims to ferret out an interesting topic or two per chapter to stimulate thought and discussion. I do not know of anyone else who has examined Machiavelli in this manner, and have found that the process has opened my eyes to subtleties in the text that I had not perceived before.

Second, I am a lawyer, not an academic, and am writing about Machiavelli simply because I enjoy his work. I therefore have not been trained to read Machiavelli through any particular set of critical lenses. This does not mean that I think that the humble effort of this dilettante can eclipse the nuance, detail, or importance of Machiavelli scholarship. Instead, I merely hope that by not being planted firmly in the footsteps of others, I might accidentally stumble upon a few ideas that lie off the trails already blazed.

To that end, I encourage comments on everything that you read here. The only requirement is that you keep those comments respectful to other readers and to me. I also hope that some scholars will take the time both to critique what I have written and to add their depth of knowledge to this website.

Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoy MachiavelliBlog.