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.

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