The decline and fall of the Roman republic is a focal point in Machiavelli’s The Discourses on the First Ten of Titus Livy. He goes to great lengths to commend the superior historical legacy of Rome while drawing connections to critique the contemporary Italian geopolitics of his time; as such, a cursory glance would suggest that he looked to Rome as a guide for its restorative nature and tenacity while blaming its fall on inauspicious circumstances. Yet, a close reading of the Discourses reveals Machiavelli to be a disillusioned romantic who believes that although a corrupt republic can be cured of its corruption, it is practically impossible: the best one can do is to stop people from becoming susceptible to corruption in the first place.
It is first imperative to pinpoint exactly what Machiavelli means when he speaks of corruption. In one instance, he defines corruption in opposition to virtue, which he loosely takes to mean pride, alacrity, and even the willingness to do evil when necessary; in another, he intends it to mean moral degradation—the egomaniacal acts of persons fallen from grace. It is used to label both state institutions and individuals, as in I 18 (In What Mode a Free State, If There Is One, Can Be Maintained in Corrupt Cities) and I 42 (How Easily Men Can Be Corrupted). In piecing together scattered evidence from throughout the text, however, I think it is fair to conclude that when talking about institutions, Machiavelli associates corruption most pertinently with the lack of desire for and attachment to freedom and one’s agency to “enjoy one’s things freely, without any suspicion, not fearing for the honor of wives and that of children, not to be afraid for oneself” (45). In other words, corrupted people forget how to reason about “public defense or public offence,” instead preferring the repressive life (if unwittingly) found under the yoke of tyranny (44). When he talks about corrupt individuals, he refers to those who are working actively to subjugate people out of their own desire for power and glory, as opposed to those who out of goodness keep people free and work towards “a good end,” even if by bad means (48).
As such, we are ready to first discuss why Machiavelli believes that corrupt people can never gain freedom under princes. In I 16 of the Discourses, Machiavelli claims that people used to living under a principality cannot expect to maintain their freedom even if they are freed out of a stroke of luck. Since these people no longer embrace public, republican virtues, they quickly return to subjugation as they have been too corrupted by the long period of tyrannical rule and have thus lost the desire to live freely. As soon as the balance is tipped—when there is more “of the spoiled” than of the “good”—a republic becomes degenerate and virtually irredeemable (44). On one hand, the corrupt people are in their stupor; on the other hand, old guards of the prince who profited off the regime will be compelled to “take up the tyranny again so as to return to their authority” (45). The only reason that Brutus was able to transform Rome into a republic, reasons Machiavelli, was that the Romans were “not yet corrupt” when the old Tarquin monarchs were driven out, and the sons of Brutus (corrupt princes) were eliminated (47). If two or such despots were to rule Rome in succession, the balance would be tipped, and their corruption would quickly and irreversibly infect the whole of society. In I 11, Machiavelli goes so far as to argue that, just as how a sculptor would find it easier to artifice a statue from “coarse marble than from one badly blocked out by another,” whoever wished to make a republic in the present times would find it easier among mountain men, where there is no civilization, than among those who are used to living in cities, where civilization is corrupt” (35).
Now that Machiavelli has established that a corrupt principality cannot be redeemed, he offers a thin sliver of hope for corrupt republics that unexpectedly come into freedom. With the fall of the republic, many princes will rise from its ashes, vying for domination and the accumulation of power; eventually, one will eliminate the others, establishing control. If this one individual happens to be an enlightened prince, he could keep the city free by his personal “goodness” and “virtue” (47). Yet, even this freedom will prove to be short-lived; for when this enlightened philosopher-king dies, the formal tyranny will be restored. For example, even though Epaminondas was able to break Spartan domination and transform Thebes by the sheer strength of his own virtue and military prowess, Thebes quickly returned to “its first disorders” upon his death (48). Fundamentally, this is because Machiavelli believes that people are more easily corrupted than persuaded to goodness. Even good men with good upbringings fall prey to ambition and the marginal utility that is attained from being malignant, as demonstrated by the youths of Appius and Quintus Fabius (91). Thus, Machiavelli concludes, “there cannot be one man of such long life as to have enough time to inure to good a city that has been inured to bad for a long time” (48). Clearly, Machiavelli is disillusioned with both forms of government and strongly implies that there is little chance for a corrupt republic to be cured of its corruption for good, even if luck frees its people or an enlightened prince tries his best to rule by his own virtue. It seems possible that if, by sheer chance, many enlightened princes succeeded one another to the throne, unified in their desire to keep the city free by their personal virtues, that a corrupt people could be restored to either a liberal principality or eventually a full-fledged republic; alas, I suspect that Machiavelli finds this possibility too insignificant to even mention.
Further evidence for the irredeemability of corrupt peoples is found in Machiavelli’s treatment of Julius Caesar. When Brutus founded the Roman republic the people were uncorrupted, so they maintained their freedom with ease; yet, after the long chain of corrupt imperial rule stretching from Caesar, Augustus, Caligula, to Nero, Rome could no longer even hope to “give a beginning to freedom” (47). Even before Rome became an empire de jure, one needs to look no further than the drastic measures—the assasination of Julius Caesar—that Marcus Junius Brutus took in an attempt to restore the republic. Even such determination proved to be ineffective because he was too late and the people too corrupted by the despot. Viewing Caesar as a de facto emperor, Machiavelli detests Caesar in I 10 for having “spoil[ed]” a “corrupt city” (33). He urges that none should blind oneself to the glory of Caesar as those who praise him are “corrupted by his fortune” (31-32). He blames Caesar for putting an end to the republic, denouncing him as the “first tyrant in Rome,” and highlighting how after his corruption “never again was that city free” (80). Thus, writes Machiavelli, it was lucky that the Roman monarchs had become “corrupt quickly, so that they were driven out before their corruption passed into the bowels of that city”—if they were anything like Caesar, Junius Brutus would be of no use (48). This points to an interesting paradox within Machavelli’s philosophy: that corruption can lead to a lack of corruption and that the absence of corruption, which leads to success and complacency, tends to be the root cause of corruption in the long run. Anyhow, this lack of corruption was chiefly responsible for the remarkable durability of the Roman republic, and when people are free, tumults and scandals may in fact build up its character rather than destroy it (48). Yet, I sense a certain determinism to Machiavelli’s treatment of Caesar; he seems to suggest that the general was only able to corrupt the people and tip the balance because the spirit (or goodness) of the people has already been muted in the republic and they became susceptible to corruption; naturally, then, it falls prey to a tyrant like him. So, the question becomes, how do we keep up spirits and keep susceptibility to corruption at bay initially?
The answer to this question lies in systematically bringing a republic back to its beginnings, which has a renewal effect. “For all the beginnings of sects, republics, and kingdoms must have some goodness in them, by means of which they may regain their first reputation and their first increase,” writes Machiavelli, in III 1; as public spirit is slowly diminished in the passage of time, unless a republic is led back to its founding, it will become susceptible to corruption since it cannot renew itself (209).
Machiavelli believes that this renewal can be achieved both internally and externally. Externally, Rome was “reborn” after the “external beating” from the French; yet, this method of renewal is too drastic and destabilizing (209, 210). Internally, there are two ways of rejuvenation: through the virtue of a man or civil laws. Of the former, Machiavelli counts Haratius Coclus, Scaevola, Regulus Attilius, and more, who through their rare virtue produced “almost the same effect that laws” produced (211). Nonetheless, Machiavelli implies that this method, too, is unsustainable, because it would be necessary to rely on luck to bring forth such men. Instead, Machiavelli prefers the workings of inner civil laws that go “against the ambition and the insolence of men,” namely those that stir up the “fear of punishment” that keeps men “better” and “less ambitious,” which brings a republic back to its noble beginnings (66). Once again, the brutal execution of the sons of Brutus served this good end—it restored fear. “Unless … punishment is brought back to their memory and fear is renewed in their spirits,” writes Machiavelli, many will band together until they can “no longer be punished without danger” (211). If Rome was to have held similar purges “every ten years,” it would “never have been corrupt”; it was only when they became rarer, that men corrupted themselves and began to “transgress the laws” (211). Clearly, Machiavelli believed that republics thrived on instability and should avoid falling into the trap of steady development.
In sum, Machiavelli shifts his focus in Book III to the importance of bringing a republic back to its beginnings through excessive punishments like executions because he saw it as the only way to maintain itself. There is little hope that a republic, once corrupted, could be cured of its corruption, except potentially in the unlikely event that many exemplary leaders succeed one another united in the goal of freeing the people by the sheer force of their own virtues. Overall, Machiavelli places great hope and ambition in republics; In contrast to his views laid out in the Prince, his position on republicanism and his desire to maintain a population unsusceptible to corruption raises questions about the completeness of his scholarship in the Discourses; only a comparative reading could potentially answer the vagueness surrounding his definition of corruption to paint a more balanced and complete picture of his deeply complex political philosophy.
Machiavelli Niccolò, and Harvey Mansfield. Discourses on Livy. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996.