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:
- the rule of one
- the rule of the few
- the rule of the many
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:
- every generation can never fully internalize the experiences of the one that came before it; and
- this phenomenon makes change inevitable in every regime, especially in states that depend on hereditary succession.