- As economic freedom goes global, American conservatives turn inward John Tamny, RealClearMarkets
- Machiavelli was no Machiavellian Catherine Zuckert, Aeon
- Florentine liberty and Machiavelli’s The Prince Barry Stocker, NOL
- Scaling Up: a history of dragons! Tom Shippey, Literary Review
(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)
There is a gap between ancient Athens and classical liberalism, and covering that gap will explain more about the development from antique republics to modern liberty. The trio of major antique republican thinkers mentioned above, Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero, sets up the tradition. They establish the idea of the best state – polity/politea in Greek, republic/res publica in Latin – as one of hearing political power between groups in the context of shared citizenship and decision making.
For Aristotle, that is the sharing of power between oligarchs (the rich, in practice those wealthy through commerce), aristocrats (the virtuous, in practice the educated land owning classes) and the poor majority. Polybius was a later Greek thinker who admired the Roman republic and Cicero was a Roman aristocrat-philosopher from the last years before the republic gave way to the one-man emperor rule system.
Both use arguments from Aristotle but tend to refer to Sparta rather than Athens as the ideal republic, which indicates the difficulties for antique thought in accepting a commercial and free thinking republic as model. Polybius and Cicero both admire the Roman system because they see it as based on law and on sharing power between the people (citizens’ assembly), the aristocracy (senate), and a monarchical function shared between two year-long co-rulers (consuls).
Their arguments also rest on the idea of the state as military camp. It is interesting to note that Pettit the egalitarian liberal prefers this Roman model to Athens and that Arendt prefers the Athenian model. This suggests that Arendt has something to say to classical liberals and libertarians, though she is rarely taken up within that group, and that egalitarian liberalism is rather caught up in strong state ideas, the state strong enough to force redistribution of economic goods rather than impose extreme military spirit on its citizens, but a strong intervening state.
All three of the ancient republican thinkers had difficulty with the idea of a commercially orientated republic and has some idea of virtue in restraining wealth, though Cicero in particular was staggeringly rich suggesting that ancient republican thought had some difficulty in accommodating commercial spirit, more so than some ancient republics in practice.
There is one major step left in ancient republican thinking which is the account the senator-historian Tacitus, of the early Roman Emperor period, gives of liberty in the simple tribal republics of ancient Germans and Britons. He sees them as based on independence of spirit and a willingness to die for that independence, in a way largely lacking amongst the Romans of that time.
The admiration for such ‘barbarian’ liberty also gives some insight into the difficulty of combining commercial spirit with republicanism in ancient thinking. Wealth is seen as something tied to benefits from the state, state patronage, so reduces independence of the state whether the local state or a foreign invading state.
Republicanism takes the next great step forward when some way of thinking of wealth as existing at least partly independently of state patronage appears. This is what happens in northern Italy from about the thirteenth century. To some degree this Italian republicanism has older roots in the maritime republic of Venice, but the trading wealth is still very tied up with aristocratic status and a rigid aristocratic hold on politics.
It is Florence, which serves as a thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth century Athens, where Italian culture, commercial wealth, and republican thinking all thrive. The cultural greatness goes back to the poet Dante and the republicanism to his tutor Bruno Latini. The really great moment in Florentine republicanism comes in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, though, with Francesco Guicciardini, but mostly with Niccoló Machiavelli.
Commentary on Machiavelli is heavily burdened by the image of Evil Machiavel or at least of Machiavelli the cynical advocate of power politics in The Prince. This is just a completely false image of a man whose ideal was the revival of the Roman republic, not the rule of absolute and absolutely immoral princes.
The supposed wickedness and cynicism of The Prince related to comments on how kings seize and maintain power, in which as far as Machiavelli advocates rather than analyses, he advocates minor acts of political violence. The age of Machiavelli is the age of the Catholic Inquisition torturing heretics and passing them to the state to be burned at the stake, the mass persecution and expulsion of Iberian Jews and Muslims, wars of religion and conquest, which involved systematic and mass destruction of property, torture, rape, and murder.
Those who chose to condemn the ‘wickedness’ of Machiavelli at the time were often those engaged in such activities. Machiavelli’s advice to princes does no more than advocate at the most extreme, very limited amounts of violence to institute and maintain rule, certainly very limited by the standards of the time.
Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) was born and died in Florence which already had a long history as a literary and cultural centre, and as a centre of commercial life. Guicciardini came from an aristocratic family which provided an outstanding education that included study with the great Platonist philosopher Marsilio Ficino. Guicciardini had a life of state service, which took him to Spain as an ambassador as well as working within Florence and the dependent city of Bologna. He also worked for the Papacy in a political and military capacity at a time when the Vatican was the centre of one of the major Italian states, which was also at a time of political fragmentation in Italy and of foreign interventions from France, Germany, and Spain. The Papal States centred on Rome and Florence were therefore major states within Italian politics, not just cities. In the end Spanish domination overwhelmed them all, but Guicciardini seems more concerned with the danger of French domination.
The Florentine politics of the time goes through a series of shifts between secular republic, religious republic, and Medici dominated principality, which Machiavelli also participated in and commented on in writing. Indeed Guicciaridini and Machiavelli were friends, but their versions of republicanism were not identical. Machiavelli placed Rome first among the great republics of antiquity, with particular reference to the benefits of political competition, particularly between aristocracy and common people, for liberty and patriotic spirit.
Guicciardini also refers to Rome, but with less enthusiasm for the role of the common people and political conflict. He denies that the existence of two consuls sharing the supreme leadership role was evidence of a wish to stimulate political competition, but instead argues that it was a practical adoption to war time so that one consul could direct armies in the field while the other directed government business back in Rome. It was a not a scheme to limit individual power and any political competition between the two consuls was an unexpected and undesirable outcome, weakening rather than strengthening the republic. He applied a similar analysis to the double kings of ancient Sparta, who had a largely military role.
Guicciardini refers briefly but significantly to Plato indicating his preference for an ideal of order over an ideal of competition, for rational hierarchy over plebeian street politics. He does not follow anything like the strict enforcement of virtue and rule of the ‘wise’ advocated by Plato, but evidently finds that a preferable orientation to the liberty to challenge existing order. The detail Guicciardini provides of Florentine political history shows a drama of constant change and challenge, disorder and revolution, which might confirm Plato’s fears of democratic liberty, but also suggest the difficulties of applying Plato’s ideals to reality, particularly in a commercial world with a growing civil society.
Accordingly Guicciarini’s main source of inspiration was the Republic of Venice, which already had a history stretching back to the eighth century, and with claims to have its origins in Roman antiquity, in rather legendary stories of refugees from barbarian invasion seeking sanctuary in the marshes of that area. Venice was to survive as a republic until 1797, when it was abolished by Napoleon. At its peak its territory stretched well down the Balkan coast of the Adriatic and was a major, if not the major naval and trading power in the eastern Mediterranean, so it did serve as a modern example of a powerful republic and the possibility of republican government in a largely monarchical world.
Another advantage of Venice from Guicciardini’s point of view was that it was a definitely aristocratic rather than democratic republic. There was an elective prince for life, the Doge, appointed by the aristocratic citizens of the city and ruling in cooperation with aristocratic councils. Fifteenth century scholars in Italy suggested that the constitution of Venice corresponded with Plato’s vision of a republic in the Laws, largely based on Sparta (where power was focused on the thirty man gerousia and five ephors rather than the citizens’ assembly itself based on a very restrictive definition of citizenship. This is Plato’s vision of a state that might exist in reality as opposed to the philosophical ideal proposed in the Republic. The great merchant and commercial wealth of Venice would have been disturbing for the Spartans and for Plato though, providing another example of the limits as well as real relevance of ancient republics for the modern world.
So Guicciardini is less ‘Florentine-Roman’ (democratic) and more Venetian-Spartan (aristocratic) than Machiavelli, but nevertheless he accepts that the poor have to be given some role in politics and that even if the poor are outside political citizenship at times, once a crisis brings them into politics it is very difficult to reverse that situation. The solution for Guicciardini is to allow the poor citizenship and some rights, in city assemblies, while excluding them from the highest offices of state. The high offices should be reserved to the aristocracy, with the highest offices to be held on a long-term, possibly even lifetime basis. The concern is to provide more stability and civic strength than Guicciardini believes is possible from the political activities of the poorly educated and unpropertied masses.
Guicciardini’s belief in liberty through the dominance of a responsible republic elite anticipates later ideas of thinking about liberty on the basis of conservative institutions for preserving order and property as preferable to democratic institutions and political contestation. Any thought about liberty is likely to have some element of this, some ideas about institutionalising property rights and legal stability, against the dangers of irresponsible temporary majorities. Whether a complete dominance of such institutions, with the risk of undermining them through overburdening them, is desirable or practicable is a matter of debate. Machiavelli and Guicciardini present a compelling classic Florentine compare and contrast on such issues.
I have already addressed Machiavelli’s Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy here and I may well come back to them later. However, in the present post I will discuss the famous Machiavelli text, which is concerned with states headed by princes rather than republics, the subject matter of the Discourses. This will itself be the the first half of a two part discussion of liberty in Florence, with a second half on Guicciardini.
The city state of Florence had a history self-government, often republican rather than princely, going back to the eleventh century, when it broke away from the control of German emperors. Its role in republican political thought goes back to the thirteenth century as does its role as an early centre of capitalism, suggesting a connection between the economic development and the movement of political thought.
The first notable republican writer was Dante’s guardian Brunetto Latini (1210-1294). That is Dante Alighieri, the author of the great epic poem The Divine Comedy, one of the very great figures in the history of European literature. So not only was Florence the focus of late Medieval republicanism and capitalism, it was a focus of the development of literature in modern European languages, and of literary Italian in general. Dante created a modern language text on a level with Homer and Virgil, so putting Italian on a level with Latin and Ancient Greek, and confirming the development of modern languages, other than the Latin of church scholars, as instruments of thought and artistic creation. Indeed Latini even has a small role in the Divine Comedy, though rather ungratefully he is placed in Hell. This seems to be based purely on his same sex activities rather than any bad character beyond breaking church positions on sexual conduct. After the secular scholar Latini, the next Florentine given a place in the history of republican political thought is Remigio dei Girolami (1235-1319), a Dominican scholar whose philosophy was influenced by Thomas Aquinas. After that the scholar and city Chancellor Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) keeps the republican tradition renewed. Detailed examination of these figures is perhaps a bit out of the scope of a historical survey series, but they certainly provide a rich tradition for Machiavelli and Guicciardini to examine and employ.
I have referred to this period in the history of Florence as late Medieval, but it can just as much be described as Renaissance. The great growth of classical learning and artistic creativity associated with the European fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had its beginnings in thirteenth century Florence and northern Italy, due to the commercial city states where there was patronage of the arts and there was contact with the Greek learning of the now highly weakened Byzantine Empire, which stemmed from Greek and Roman antiquity. Averroism, as in the legacy of the twelfth century Muslim philosopher from Cordoba, Ibn Rushd known in the Latinate world as Averroes. A period of Muslim influence, or sometimes dominance in Sicily from the ninth to the thirteenth century meant that Muslim thought was part of the general Italian heritage.
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a product of Florentine republican tradition and the general Italian Renaissance. He lived through periods of secular republican, religious republican, and secular princely rule in Florence. The religious period should be given some attention, as though Machiavelli himself was highly secular (possibly a non-believer, but a variety of views exist on that issue), the events of the religious republican period made a deep impression on him. From 1494 to 1498, the politics of Florence were dominated by the Dominican friar (like Girolami mentioned above), Girolamo Savonarola, who pushed Florence towards religious purification in anticipation of apocalyptic events. The apparent craziness was accompanied by some intellectual and literary sophistication, and was not just a pure descent into fanaticism. In the end the Pope found Savonarola too troubling too ignore so that he took action that ended with the execution of Savonarola as a heretic. Despite his lack of religious enthusiasm, Machiavelli shared a belief in the special role of Florence, though his vision of the city was as the descendent and repetition of the Roman republic rather than as the starting point of a Christian apocalypse. He wanted purification of a kind, if through the placing of laws above individuals, rather than religious observance, and an end to a corrupt aristocratic domination.
The Prince both pays tribute of a kind to Savonarola as a prophet without arms and sets Machiavelli on a path of hoped for cooperation with the dominant family, the Medici who had replaced republican with princely rule, arresting and torturing Machiavelli in the process, as he was a civil servant and diplomat in the former republic. The part admiration for Savonarola comes from an antique tradition of revering founders of republics and great law givers to states of any kind. This reaches a peak in Cicero who described founders of republic as god like. However secular Machiavelli was, he was aware of ancient Jewish history as recorded in the Hebrew Bible and the law giving role of Moses, which is one model of state foundation for Machiavelli and therefore of possible conditions for liberty, since liberty requires law rather than personalised rule.
The Prince is the product of a man who though very talented at the life of a private scholar which he pursued after his political fall, wanted to be working on public affairs even under a prince rather than a republic. It is a lengthy job application to Lorenzo Piero de ‘Medici (not to be confused with his grandfather Lorenzo the Magnificent) and despite composing the longest and best covering letter in all history, Machiavelli did not become a counsellor to a prince. So, we should not regard Machiavelli as a successful ‘Machiavellian’ and perhaps think again about any preconception that The Prince is some key to all knowledge in the dark arts of power and a place of voyeuristic pleasure in observing the inner workings of the state.
Machiavelli does offer his potential employer (who may never have read this extraordinary application material) some ruthless sounding advice on how a prince should gain and maintain power, including the execution of those who create the most obstacles to power. This is not exactly shocking advice for the time. The death penalty was widely used and extra-legal killings for political reasons were normal if not in line with the sort of moral standards rulers publicly proclaimed. The whole outrage of the church and others at the suppose shocking immorality of The Prince is one rather absurd and lengthy exercise in hypocrisy. There was certainly little Machiavelli could have taught Popes of the time in the darkest arts of power. Condemnation of Machiavelli was due to his making public unpleasant realities so that anyone who could read would now be aware of how kings used their power. The book was not published in Machiavelli’s time, so the torrent of vilification came after his death.
The more brutal aspects of The Prince do not even begin to match the horrors of dynastic wars and religious persecution at the time, particularly if we take into account the behaviour of colonists of the time. Machiavelli recommends none of these things which political and religious leaders of the time were willing to have on their conscience. Some passages recommend complete colonisation of newly acquired territories as one means of maintain control, in preference to partial colonisation which is as close as Machiavelli gets to advocating generalised suffering for civilians. In any case he does not recommend the kind of massacre and rapine normal at the time, and the main thrust of the argument is not towards conquest, but a state which has some community with its citizens.
Machiavelli was sceptical of the military value of walls and fortresses compared with a citizen army willing to defend its own land. Opposition to royal fortresses was opposition to one of the main forms of state control at the time. The prince is expected to dispose of individuals dangerous to assuming power, but this is advice to princes who newly have power and need to consolidate it, not advice on long term methods of government. The long term approach is to respect law, respect the property of citizens, and leave women free from forced advances. The prince is advised to hunt a lot as a means to improved military abilities, in knowing the terrain of his own land in detail so knowing how to defend it. The martial interests are presented as the prince’s main area of interest, so that the prince is more of a commander in chief of the military than a man of political power. The idea of a monarch who is mostly a chief of the military was a republican idea at the time and anticipates liberal ideas about the limited scope of any state apparatus.
The relationship between morality and political principles is where Machiavelli departs from antique republican thinkers like Aristotle and Cicero who present politics as the extension of virtue and moral principles. Machiavelli even overturns some of their ethical limits on power. He does so through a sophisticated dialogue with Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca, which largely does not mention them by name but is very recognisable to those who have studied them, which was a high proportion of likely readers of Machiavelli in his own time. Both Aristotle and Cicero refer to the tyrannical ruler as a wild beast or worse. This itself refers to an antique way of thinking about ethics as self-control, which puts us above the supposed level of animals. Machiavelli challenges this by advising the prince to be a mixture of human and beast, and as beast to combine the cunning of a fox with the fierceness of a lion. None of this is Machiavelli advocating tyranny, it is an appreciation of power and desire which ancient thought was not good at accommodating. The good ruler rules from a desire to pursue the good life and be a friend of citizens in ancient thinking. They could not think of power and self-referring desire except as negatives, even if their own actions went against their words. Cicero’s political career included a willingness to go to the limits of law and beyond where he saw it as necessary to defend the republic, he simply had no language to explain this in the moral terms he used. His main political work, The Republic includes the positive contribution of Scipio Africanus the Younger, the Roman general who physically destroyed the city of Cartage and slaughtered every last inhabitant.
Cicero, like other ancients, had difficulty in discussing politics as power and civilised individual action as based on desire, rather than a morality of self control, so they had little way of accommodating theories of power and desire. This is why there are no ancient writers praising commerce except maybe within very limited and constrained circumstances and then only in a very minimal way, even Seneca who was a major money lender of the whole empire. Machiavelli did have vocabulary and understanding of power in politics and desire in human action. He was convinced that general application of moral principles about always being truthful, merciful, generous, and so on, were not adequate to understanding the possibilities of human creation in politics and in commerce. Moral outcomes mattered to him, and he is clear in The Prince that some acts are too immoral to accept for any reason, but he thought moral outcomes come from skill in political arts and in trade offs between different moral demands. If one can sincerely claim to be always purely moral and never accept a lesser evil for a greater good, then one maybe has the right to be shocked by Machiavelli, but who can claim such a thing?
The Prince conforms to the wish of a prince to have power and glory and use violence to seize power where the chance arises. However, as far as possible, it always pushes the prince to do so through through respecting the rights of citizens, working to gain their consent, respect peace and stability, and the regular application of law. The prince is urged to avoid the virtue of generosity, because the ‘generosity’ of princes comes from taxations and is therefor a burden on citizens undermining their economic welfare. So that is the wickedness of Machiavelli! Avoid so called virtues which harm those they are supposed to benefit. It is advice to the prince to work so much through law, public good, and concentrating on his military duties, that a republic is bound to emerge under the nominal rule of a prince. That is the goal of all the wickedness in service of dark power.
There is a leap of more than a millenium from my last post on Seneca to Marsilius (originally Marsiglio) of Padua (c. 1275 to c. 1342). I am not saying that no one wrote any texts advancing liberty during that time, but the major texts of late antiquity and the Middle Ages up to the thirteenth century concerning political ideas lean towards the desirability, or at least unavoidability, of law making and governmental powers centralised in a monarchical figure, rather than constraints on power, or a positive vision of individual autonomy.
One might argue that the spread of Christian monotheism enhanced the value placed on individuality, and that the codification of Roman law in Constantinople in the sixth century CE (commanded by the Emperor Justinian) advanced the idea of liberty under law. Even if we take a very positive view of those developments, and they are certainly deeply important, they can be no more than elements in the creation of laws and institutions that promote liberty.
There must be more to social and political liberty than a belief in an inner soul and the institutionalisation of the law outside the individual. The importance of the individual and the rule of law at least require some further articulation in how to form a political community that recognises the merits of individual liberty in every sense.
There were great thinkers who addressed political questions during the time between the early Roman Empire (Seneca) and the late Middle Ages (Marsilius of Padua), most obviously Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Al-Farabi (872-950), and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), but in my judgement they lean too far towards emphasising the sovereign power, assumed to be be ideally a monarch, who can enforce law and religiously inflected notions of virtue, to be regarded as promoters of liberty, even if much of what they wrote is of value from a liberty advocating point of view.
Others may disagree, Murray Rothbard for example thought of Aquinas as very close to his own individualist anarchist point of view, which however does not strike me as the strongest point in his writings. My argument is that Marsilius made a decisive step in turning a rich tradition of writing on virtue, civil law, natural law, and sovereignty, towards a concern with individual diversity and the right for everyone to play some part in determining the laws that one is obliged to obey.
In this, he was maybe anticipated by Florentine humanist and republican thinking, but not by any great historical distance, and there is lack of readily obtained in print or online texts in English from that time in Florentine history, though I hope to return to this in a future post.
The historical background to Marsilius’ thought includes the political life of medieval north Italian city states, little republics often known as communes. Conflict between the Papacy and German Emperors gave them the opportunity to maintain independence through playing off the great medieval political powers against each other.
Their independence, like that of the ancient Greek city states, ,involved a good deal of conflict with each other about boundaries and alliances, and internally with regard to governmental power. This of course was a violent process, but there was violence elsewhere with less productive results for liberty.
Some background on the Papacy and the Empire is necessary here, as general background, and with regard to the life of Marsilius, who was very much part of the struggle between the two. The Roman Empire was revived, in name anyway, in 800 for Charlemagne, the ruler of what is now France, Germany, Austria and neighbouring territories, including northern Italy.
Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope in Rome in a move the emphasised separation from the continuing eastern Empire in Constantinople and a strong ally for the power of a Roman centred Catholic church in the west. By the time of Marsilius, the title of Emperor had disappeared, revised, and evolved in its meaning.
The stage reached was the Emperor was elected by major German princes and was known as the Emperor of Germany, though also as Holy Roman Emperor, or Emperor of the Romans, in recognition of his preeminence in Catholic Europe, and apparent role of providing secular partnership to the divinely ordained role of the Papacy.
The Emperor’s power over most of Germany, outside the hereditary lands of the prince elected, was very limited, so that Germany was essentially a patchwork of a very large number of very varied kinds of sovereign entity (city republics, bishoprics, monasteries, domains of a margrave, duke, knight, etc) under a grand but weak monarch, who had some claim to universal monarchy within the Catholic world but only at the level of symbolism .
The Emperors had continuing claims in northern Italy, which brought them into conflict with the political ambitions of Popes to dominate the region, and generally the supposed partnership of throne and alter led to violent conflict about how to share the power.
It was also a time of growing commercial life in Europe, with northern Italy as part of the vanguard. The erosion of traditional forms of authority and loyalty which accompanied increasing commerce, combined with an intensification of conflicts between Emperor and Pope, along with competing candidates to be Emperor or Pope.
Marsilius was in the middle of this, born in northern Italy, in the city of Padua as his name indicates. He trained as a doctor, after a period as an Imperial solider and became Rector of the University of Paris, then engaging in work on theology and politics which led to conflict with the Papacy. He was sheltered by the German Emperor at his base in Munich.
The major result of this was the large book, The Defender of the Peace, often known by its Latin title of Defensor Pacis. It contains three discourses, the first of which is less than half the book, but contains his thought on the nature of politics, civil law, and the state. This might be seen as a defence of the role of the Emperor as defender of the peace, who the right to autonomy from the Pope with regard to worldly matters.
However, there is much about the First Discourse, which challenges the role of princes. That Marsilius was able to do so while relying on the Emperor for protection from accusations of heresy, is suggestive of the value of the papacy-empire and church-state splits in medieval Europe along with competition between states and the contestation of Church doctrine by ‘heretical’ groups, in fostering liberty in a Europe, which lacked any absolute overarching political or religious power centre.
As is normal with medieval philosophy, Marsilius writes with regard to the text of the Bible and even more with regard to the writings of Aristotle, which in this case means mostly the Politics and the politically oriented parts of the Nicomachean Ethics. As normal, there is also reference to the Commentator, that is Ibn Rushd, known in Latin as Averroes (1126-1198), a Muslim philosopher who like Seneca was born in Cordoba, Spain. His commentaries on Aristotle transformed Medieval philosophy, Christian and Jewish, as well as Muslim.
Marsilius builds up his political ideas taking Aristotle as the major philosophical source, which raises questions about the correctness of his view of Aristotle. I won’t go into that issue any further and will just note that since Marsilius, one way of taking Aristotle has been as a proponent of republicanism with a democratic emphasis. The ‘republican’ thinking is not about abolishing monarchs, and strictly speaking republican political thought has always been about how to share power between all citizens, or some significant part of the citizen body, rather than the abolition of all monarchical titles. This is why Marsilius can be both a republican and support the power of the Emperor, at least in relation to the Pope.
The argument is built up through reading of Aristotle, which emphasises the merits of elective monarchy, so turning the monarch into an elected for life president. If that life time tenure rests on the will of citizens, then at least some possibility is raised on ending that tenure early should the monarch prove unsatisfactory.
Of course the German Emperor was elected by a few princes, but Marsilius is very clear that he is referring to a broader electorate of all citizens. He contests readings of Aristotle, according to which Aristotle only allows for the election of a king by a small aristocracy of those citizens supposed to be very best. Marsilius both denies this is what Aristotle supports and makes his own arguments for saying that the wisdom of all citizens collectively is greater than that of a few privileged citizens taken to be particularly wise.
The wisdom of a few, however intellectually accomplished, cannot match the wisdom of all citizens as that collective wisdom contains all the knowledge there is of the society concerned. Social knowledge comes from the many thousands and even millions of individual perspectives on experienced reality, not the distanced theoretical wisdom of a few. Therefore the wisdom to elected the best candidate as monarch must come from all citizens, and they must all have the right to participate in the vote.
A decision resting on such a multitude also creates a strength and endurance in the state, with regard to external enemies, but more importantly with reference to the capacity of the state to sustain itself and allow a ‘sufficient’ life for citizens. That is a sufficient life of fully developed human faculties, not just pure physical survival which might take place without laws, but only in conditions of insecurity and with little hope of a ‘sufficient’ life.
The laws which allow sufficient life are more a matter of codifying the wisdom and experience of history, in forms which are acceptable to all citizens, than the kind of innovations in state power we have come to associated with new law in more recent times. The citizen body which participates in electing the head of the government must also participate in making laws since the same arguments invoked for electing a leader must apply to the laws. Laws, which Marsilius understands as what has the consent of all, or close enough, rather than the imposition of the views of a narrow temporary majority on everyone.
He does not make explicit barriers to majoritarian abuse of power, but does not need to since law clearly means to him what is acceptable to the community as a whole with regard to its collective wisdom and the historical experience of laws. The ‘monarch’ or ‘prince’ is clearly expected to apply those laws and to exercise no further powers beyond what defends the existence of the community from lawlessness and external aggression.
Marsilius emphasises the viability and sustainability of the community as a community of sufficient life rather than as a deduction of law making sovereignty from individual rights. His approach, grounded in antique political and legal thought, might sound less respectful of individual liberty than the deduction from individual rights, but the modern tradition of such deductions, these days forming the major part of ‘normative’ political theory/analytic political philosophy, have not proved at all immune to statist ideas, while individual rights to pursue ‘sufficiency’ are so deeply embedded in Marsilius’ assumptions as what is natural to an individual and to a sustainable community, that it does not need articulation in the form of pure abstract rights detached from the necessary conditions of lived communities.
How democratic Marsilius is, by our standards, can be debated on at least two counts. One count is that at this time, and right into the nineteenth century, ‘democratic’ politics might might still exclude ‘dependent’ individuals from political rights, that is those who were thought to be lacking in the economic independence and self-dependence, which would supposedly allow for free and considered judgement.
Those excluded included those making a living from employment by someone else rather than through property, self-employment as a skilled worker, or membership of some legally recognised corporation of individuals with equal rights (like a university or a trade guild). Farm labourers, employees of urban enterprises, vagrants, and domestic servants were likely to be excluded along with women, religious minorities, and those still carrying the vestiges of medieval serfdom in their legal status.
The second count is that Marsilius offers little indication of how his democratic ideas could be applied in practice, though he was presumably relying on memories of Italian communed, still leaving a huge gap on how to apply such principles to a political community as large as the German Empire, leaving the suspicion that he was mainly arguing for the power of the Emperor on the basis of pretended democracy, and a supposed rule by laws rather by any individual.
There is nevertheless more than enough in Defensor Pacis overall to stimulate considerable creative thinking about what it is to create the laws and government best suited to liberty. His criticisms of the supposed wisdom of few at the top, are very powerful and necessary now with regard to the pretences of state planning and regulation. His understanding of how wisdom arises from the multiple experiences of the multitude, with regard to the limited goals of government and legislation, have great application to the role of markets and voluntary co-operation in a society of free individuals.
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.