28 November 2016

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

Chapter Five of Book One also reveals an interesting theory about the connection between a state’s domestic policies and institutions and its foreign policy.

After a lengthy discussion of the topic in the title—should the state trust the “guard of liberty” in the ambitious but smaller upper class, or in the masses, who due to lack of power or lack of drive seek only to be left alone?—Machiavelli ultimately decides that it depends on the state’s foreign affairs.  Does the state, Machiavelli asks, wish to become “a Republic which wants to create an Empire, as Rome”?  Or would it prefer to simply “maintain itself” and stay within its present borders?

Moreover, it is interesting that Machiavelli implicitly connects the concept of empire with a republican government.  The choice he gives us is not just between an imperial state and a more tranquil one that stays within its borders, but between a republican state with imperial ambitions and a tranquil nation ruled by nobility. 

This discourse first implies that republican governments in which the masses play a significant role tend naturally towards empire.  In other words, there is something inherent in such a republic that tends towards expansion and annexation of other territories and other peoples.  Moreover, since such imperial states are largely ethnically and politically heterogeneous as more territory is added to the empire, they would seem to erode the underpinnings of the republican government that created the empire in the first place, as in the Roman example.

Second, this suggests that a government where the nobility is the “guard of liberty” will not tend towards expansion.  This is ironic, since in the same text Machiavelli indicates that the nobility is actually ambitious, aggressive, and covetous compared to the masses.  So why would a government led by them be less inclined to expand abroad?  Would we not expect the very opposite from the ambitious few?


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