Plato’s Republic, Note Machiavelli’s View of Government

In his Discourses Upon the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, Niccolò Machiavelli, more famous for The Prince, describes the “various kinds of states” in a fashion similar, but in some important ways different, from Plato. Plato’s description (at left) is really a thought experiment of how his ideal state, the Aristocracy of philosophers, would decay. His description is generational, that unworthy children fail to perpetuate the virtues of their parents. Thus, the Timarchy is produced by children who value themselves just for their honor and ability to use force, the Oligarchy is produced by children who decide to use their force to become wealthy, the Democracy is produced by children who think they have a right to that wealth just by being citizens, and the Tyranny is produced by children whose total lack of discipline and restraint produces a chaos that is only ended by one of their number seizing personal power. True to his generation, the tyrant uses his power to take whatever he wants. Plato’s description is often psychologically true of many specific events and persons in history.

Machiavelli’s description is also generational, but it also introduces another principle, and it results in a kind of conclusion foreign to Plato’s thinking. The principle that Machiavelli introduces is simply that of a classification by the distribution to power, i.e. power is exercised by one, by a few, or by the many. This is a useful device, and is used here in the theory of Liberties in Three Dimensions. Thus, power exercised by one is a Monarchy, by a few, an Aristocarcy, and by the many, a Democracy. However, Machiavelli allows that there are good and bad versions of each of these, reserves these terms for the good forms, and introduces “Tyranny,” “Oligarchy,” and “Anarchy” for the bad versions of rule by one, the few, and the many, respectively. These terms are conveniently schematic and descriptive and ignore a utopian possibility like Plato’s government of philosophers.

Upon the scheme, Machiavelli imposes his generational thought experiment, beginning with a “state of nature” origin for Monarchy of a sort that we still find later in Thomas Hobbes. The good monarch, however, is succeeded by corrupt rulers who begin to use their power for their own gain, becoming tyrants. The tyrant is then overthrown, and the rebels decide to retain power among themselves collectively, producing an Aristocracy. The aristocrats are succeeded by a generation that again begins to use its power to oppress the people, producing the Oligarchy, and so they end up getting overthrown like the tyrant. Now political power passes to the people, making for Democracy. Unlike Plato, Machiavelli, does not view democracy per se as worse than the other “good” forms of government. Indeed, Machiavelli includes a chapter in the Discourses (Book II Chapter LVIII) on how “The Multitude is Wiser and More Constant than a Prince.” The propensity of Democracy to decay into Anarchy, which Machiavelli describes in much the same terms as Plato, is therefore no more a failing of Democracy than the similar propensities were of Monarchy and Aristocracy. The only difference might be in the next step:  Plato sees a tyrant benefiting from the Anarchy produced by Democracy, while Machiavelli brings his thought experiment full circle by having Anarchy, which mimics the “state of nature,” followed once again by Monarchy. As a matter of historical fact, we have no difficulty finding chaotic conditions that led to both tyrants (Hitler) and virtuous monarchs (Diocletian).

Machiavelli’s thought experiment, like Plato’s, would seem to be entirely pessimistic. Plato’s only hope would be his government of philosophers where precautions are taken to prevent the principle of hereditary succession from beginning. Machiavelli also sees hereditary succession as a source of evil; but, as a realist and a historian, he does not imagine that it can be long prevented, especially when people are inherently bad. His solution for the corruption of the “good” governments must therefore come from a different direction.

His inspiration turns out to be a historical one, the Roman Republic, which, although followed by the Empire, nevertheless endured for several centuries and accomplished great things. The strength of the Republic, according to Machiavelli, depended on its combination of the devices of the “good” forms of government:

I say, therefore, that all these kinds of government are harmful in consequence of the short life of the three good ones and the viciousness of the three bad ones. Having noted these failings, prudent lawgivers rejected each of these forms individually and chose instead to combine them into one that would be firmer and more stable than any, since each form would serve as a check upon the others in a state having monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy at one and the same time. [The Prince by Nicollo Machiavelli, With selections from THE DISCOURSES, translated by Daniel Donno, Bantam, 1981, p. 94, boldface added]

The Roman Republic thus had monarchical authority in the Consuls, aristocratic authority in the Senate, and popular authority in the Tribunes. In Machiavelli’s phrase, “…since each form would serve as a check upon the others,” we see the introduction of the idea of checks and balances as means to prevent the corruption and oppression of government. If people cannot be good, then we must have a government where the interests and power of some work to secure the conscientiousness and honesty of others. This idea is later expanded by 17th and 18th century thinkers, until we have the great system of the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary, and the States and the Federal Governments, designed as checks upon each other in the United States Constitution. That this system has now failed to actually protect freedom and virtue is a consequence of historical circumstances, failure in the original design, and changing, fallacious, unsympathetic ideology. Nevertheless, it is clear that the principle is sound and is able to secure responsible government for extended periods. The fallacy in Plato is exposed:  the problem is not who is in power, since none is wise.

Over time, of course, what we see is that the ingenuity of those in power never ceases to undermine the limitations of their power, and the cupidity of some citizens never tires in the hope of extracting the substance of their less politically powerful fellows. Our challenge, then, is simply to perfect the design and prepare the ground so that, when the next Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson come along, it may be put to the test — hopefully to even more enduring results.

As it happens, Machiavelli was not the first to admire Roman government as succeeding through the sort of “mixed” constitution that had originally been described by Aristotle. Such a view of Rome began at least with the Greek historian Polybius (c.200-120 BC), who saw the Roman Republic in one of its more successful periods (as a hostage from the Achaean League), before civil wars began to unhinge its institutions.

Source: accessed 8/3/2010 at 10.31pm

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