Another Liberty Canon

For my first post, I’ll pick up on the bio under ‘About the Notewriters’ and start to address the issue of what kind of texts I find most valuable with regard to thinking about liberty, though there are other reasons for selecting those texts, in particular I favour the kind of texts which are deeply embedded in literature, culture, and history. It is not an either/or situation with regard to whether one prefers the alternative canon here or more standard canons in introductions to liberty, and the like, but I think there are good reasons for paying more attention to the suggested texts, which apply to individual toms of  engagement, and more institutional ways in which groups promote liberty.

My own personal ‘canon’, apart from my favourites among the more obvious liberty oriented thinkers,  includes Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900),  Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), and Michel Foucault (1926-1984).  If anyone is disturbed by the inclusion of any of these figures, I hope they will be less so by the end of the series of posts I am now starting on these figures.

I suppose that Montaigne is the least controversial inclusion, but nevertheless I have not seen a great deal of liberty oriented writing devoted to him. The word ‘canon’ is itself necessary when talking about what texts and writers count the most, but let us beware of any idea that there is a self-evident canon, rather than a variable canon, or canons, constructed from the shifting aggregations and interactions of the preferences of many individuals concerned with liberty.

Let us start at the beginning of the list in this post with Machiavelli, traditionally condemned to the extent of being identified with  the devil, and often seen as the arch-apologist for the cynical use and abuse of power, so as to promote state authority without regard to individual rights. A more favourable variation on this is to see the exposure of cynicism in politics as a justification for an anti-political streak of liberty oriented political thought.

On this last point, the anti-political position is really the opposite of the truth about Machiavelli, since he was very rooted in an antique republicanism for which human flourishing includes politically active citizenship, or at least living in a community where many are pursuing their rights through politics. Machiavelli was very attached in particular to the ancient Roman Republic, which he discusses in some detail in The Discourse on the First Ten Books of Livy, usually just known as The Discourses. 

Livy was the Roman historian Titus Livius Patavinus,  living at the beginning of the period in which one man rule by Emperors had taken over from shared republican government. His massive History of Rome only survives in part, including those books discussed by Machiavelli, which cover the foundation of Rome, the rule of the early kings, the overthrow on monarchy, and the early republic, including its struggles between aristocratic and democratic political forces.

In his commentary, Machiavelli certainly has ‘Machiavellian’  moments in which he welcomes ruthless use of force or manipulation of religious symbols for state purposes. However, these moments are very much concerned with state foundation, changes in political regime particularly to a more liberty based regime, and wars. The reading of ‘auspices’ (pagan interpretation of avian  behaviour and the innards of sacrificed birds) is manipulated only when necessary to rouse soldiers in battle.

War is a deeply unpleasant and destructive business and we should all hope we  are moving to a world without it, but we do not live in a world free of bad governments, or proto-governments, willing to use force to extinguish liberty in other states as well as within their own. Machiavelli certainly did not and nether did Livy.  The use of some psychological manipulation to raise military morale in the heat of battle is not the last word in tyranny.  The foundation of states, including those most inclined to liberty, law and peace, and the overthrow of tyrannical regimes has largely happened by force.  This certainly applies to the foundation of the United States.

Machiavelli’s view of republics is that they are strongest, and most resistant to the return of tyranny, where the citizen body are motivated to defend their rights in the public political sphere, and that an unruly rambunctious democracy is the antidote to feudal oligarchy as well as one person tyranny.  This is surely a powerful argument against anti-politics, which risks leaving liberty advocates unable to participate in the political process in order to resist tyranny.  We can certainly find that argument in the conventional heroes of thought about liberty like Alexis de Tocqueville and John Locke. Despite his willingness to excuse extremes of force and deception in certain situations of  necessity for survival, Machiavelli is overall and overwhelmingly an advocate of the rule of law, and recommends republican government, partly on the basis that it is more favourable to the universal enforcement of law than the more personalised and arbitrary attitude to law arising from monarchy.

Sometime Machiavelli’s Discourses are divided from his most famous work, The Prince on the grounds that the latter text just is a cynical manifesto to obtain favour from the Medici rulers of Florence. However, careful reading will show many ways in which Machiavelli argues for the limitation of the power of a prince, and of the state in general. Again law is regarded with the utmost favour and respect, so that, for example, France is praised at least a couple of times for the many laws and legal institutions built up during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, in implicit contrast with Italian princely states.

Again force and deception are advocated where necessary, but only where necessary and in strictly limited terms. It is said that the prince should use  force like a lion and deception like a fox, and that to be feared is better to be loved. However, the force, deception,  and ‘fear’ is oriented towards the stabilisation of institutions of law, followed by the  regular  enforcement of laws, and Machiavelli places limits on how far the force, deception, and fear can go . The unloved prince is unloved, because he does not attempt to bribe the people with money raised through taxes on them, and does not bankrupt the state with unfunded ‘generosity’.  We can surely all agree that liberty would be better preserved if contemporary governments followed such maxims.

Machiavelli recommends that a prince should avoid contempt through showing respect for the property of subjects and the honour of women, that is the prince should not use state power to seize property, or sexually abuse women. In general the prince should be mostly concerned with the art of war, which is really a way of trying to nudge princes into accepting the de facto republics that  will arise if monarchs if they limit their powers and activities to defence of national sovereignty.

In his views on the proper limits of state power and the consequences of over extension, Machiavelli is a forerunner of public choice theory, one of the major aspects of recent liberty oriented social science, and like James Buchanan he had a strong belief in democracy, where it is concerned with laws that apply equally to all, and is to opposed the extension of state activity beyond strictly defined public goods.

I would say that Machiavelli is a great lover of liberty and though there is an increasing amount of good scholarship and commentary on his thought, the lingering associations around his name still create problems in the proper appreciation of his thought. There is a streak in the liberty community of suspicion of politics and of suspicion of  any state action even in emergency situations, outside the strictest legal supervision. There are some good impulses behind those suspicions, which I welcome, but taken to the extreme they would have prevented the formation of the United States or the Swiss Confederation, the Glorious Revolution in Britain, or any of the historical republics which explored the possibilities of liberty. Leaving aside such purism, I don’t see anything disturbing in Machiavelli beyond a taste for presenting brutal realities for what they are.  Even the most pure and fastidious of min-archists, and individualist anarchists, should at least find some value in Machiavelli’s analyses and his impulses towards liberty under law.

7 thoughts on “Another Liberty Canon

  1. Machiavelli was an influence on America’s founding. Not only his republicanism, but his realism and his methodological approach to history were also echoed by America’s founders. That’s not necessarily a point in his favor as far as pure anarchists are concerned, but for those inclined to believe that a constitutional republic is about the best we can do as a species, Machiavelli isn’t a bad place to start.

  2. […] and external danger. Here Milton runs into the problem Niccoló Machiavelli, an ardent republican despite frequent misrepresentations, encountered in The Prince, how to get a people that is not very republican and maybe not very […]

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