Machiavelli on Creating a Republic from a Corrupt State

Thu Aug 23 01:37:46 2007
In Book I, Chapters 16-18 of The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy Machiavelli talks about the great, almost impossible difficulty of trying to create a Republic in a corrupt state that is accustomed to the rule of a prince. “Many examples in ancient history prove how difficult it is for a people that has been accustomed to live under the government of a prince to preserve its liberty, if by some accident it has recovered it.”

A corrupt state has not allowed for the creation of the social conditions that are needed to build the free institutions that form the basis for a republic. To eliminate the corruption and create the necessary conditions requires extreme measures. “For corruption and incapacity to maintain free institutions result from a great inequality that exists in such a state; and to reduce the inhabitants to equality requires the application of extraordinary measures, which few know how, or are willing, to employ.” He outlines two ways to go about the transformation. “Since old institutions must either be reformed all at once, as soon as they are seen to be no longer expedient, or else gradually, as the imperfection of each is recognized, I say that each of these two courses is all but impossible.”

His first suggestion is for gradual reform. It is less of a change for the population and its institutions and so will encounter less resistance. However, “for to effect a gradual reform requires a sagacious man who can discern mischief while it is still remote and in the germ. But it may well happen that no such person is found in a city; or that, if found, he is unable to persuade others of what he is himself persuaded.” The complexity and the difficulty of building support for such a program undermine the potential for gradual reform.

His other suggestion, similar to methods he has outlined in The Prince but to different ends, is for a comprehensive, immediate and rapid reform. The change is great, but happens quickly. However, in order to create immediate reform “recourse must be had to extraordinary means, such as violence and arms.” This creates a paradox, one that is central to Machiavelli’s ethical system. To create benevolent reform requires a benevolent ruler. But these particular circumstances require violence, not benevolence, to set up and enforce the reform, at least initially. But violence and force are rarely the methods employed by benevolent rulers. “It can, consequently, very seldom happen that, although the end be good, a good man will be found ready to become a prince by evil ways, or that a bad man having become a prince will be disposed to act virtuously”

Again, after investigating both options, Machiavelli’s conclusion is not optimistic. “From all these causes comes the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, which a corrupted city finds in maintaining an existing free government, or in establishing a new one.” This is curiously similar to arguments in Warrior Politics and The Coming Anarchy by Robert Kaplan, a writer who also likes to draw examples from recent events and classical antiquity.


~ by severalfourmany on August 23, 2007.

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