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Literature / Discourses on Livy

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The demands of a free populace, too, are very seldom harmful to liberty, for they are due either to the populace being oppressed or to the suspicious that it is going to be oppressed...
and, should these impressions be false, a remedy is provided in the public platform on which some man of standing can get up, appeal to the crowd, and show that it is mistaken. And though, as Tully remarks, the populace may be ignorant, it is capable of grasping the truth and readily yields when a man, worthy of confidence, lays the truth before it.
Anyone who studies present and ancient affairs will easily see how in all cities and all peoples there still exist, and have always existed, the same desires and passions. Thus, it is an easy matter for him who carefully examines past events to foresee future events in a republic and to apply the remedies employed by the ancients, or, if old remedies cannot be found, to devise new ones based upon the similarity of the events.
Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy

The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, often referred to as The Discourses or Discourses on Livy, is the second-most well-known book after The Prince (which is to say not very) by Niccolò Machiavelli. It covers the first ten books of Titus Livy's Ab Urbe Condita, as well as throwing in a number of other historical and (then) current examples and advice as to how to run a republic; it also includes some advice on how to run a Principality, and there is some overlap with The Prince in places.

Much of it revolves on the difference between different sets of morality, namely the old pagan morality and the current Christian morality. There is a lot of focus on doing what is necessary, even if it's not good. He also writes quite a lot about virtù (meaning princely virtues like martial valour, skill or cunning) and how a republic cannot last without it, and how lacking it was in the then present day (chiefly because of Christianity). If this sounds familiar, and you've read Nietzsche, it should: Nietzsche read Machiavelli well and took this premise as an important element. His conclusions, however, are rather different.

While he's no democrat in the current sense of the term, he did believe that the masses not only had a part to play, but that their political involvement made a republic stronger and guaranteed liberty.

An older English translation, available in the public domain, can be read here.

See also The Prince.

This work provides examples of:

  • Above Good and Evil: Necessity trumps good, since always acting good will simply result in a loss of liberty.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Well, the rural estate-owning ones, anyway. His advice upon taking over an area with a bunch of them is to start chopping some heads off.
  • Asskicking Leads to Leadership: Any state (or regime) which didn't kick sufficient ass was not around for long. Machiavelli actually had been on the wrong side of an ass-kicking while writing both this and The Prince.
  • Balance of Power: He's a large advocate of observing the balance of power, both in domestic politics (Upper and lower classes, and sometimes a prince) and in foreign relations.
  • Better to Kill Than Frighten: Discussed, as Machiavelli advises that killing one's political enemies would be better than trying to intimidate or blackmail them, since that could backfire spectactularly.
  • Dated History: Knowledge of historical events has become rather more detailed and accurate in the last 500 years.
  • Democracy Is Flawed: Unrestrained democracy, anyway. He believed that democracy had a large role to play in preserving liberty, though; to Machiavelli's mind, the common citizens had nothing to their names except their liberty, and thus would fight for it, while rich nobles were likely to be seduced by the prospect of preserving their power and wealth at the expense of freedom.
  • Demoted to Extra: He viewed the Roman willingness to be demoted to extra as a great part of their virtue. He gives examples of former consuls moving to other lower ranks in the army or bureaucracy, and praises Cincinnatus as well.
  • Foreign Culture Fetish: He has a bit of a thing for the Swiss.
  • Golden Mean Fallacy:
    • Averted. When you conquer someone, you should be either kind or completely ruthless.
    • He did believe in mixed government, though, and that no form consisting of only one could ever be as strong as one that made use of all three forms (Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy).
  • Hired Guns: He loathed mercenaries, and encouraged every republic to fight their own wars.
  • Hope Springs Eternal: No, really. Not only did he advise you to gamble when your options are limited, since you still might win, he even advocated putting yourself in a bad position sometimes to force your people to do this.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: You should always do what necesita constrains you to do.
  • Rock Beats Laser: While he felt firearms were useful in some circumstances, he was generally dismissive. Given the firearms of his time were quite inaccurate and would take some centuries to improve to a standard where they could be used much more efficiently, this mostly a practical concern than anything else.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: He devotes an entire chapter to discussing how this isn't quite true in Real Life, at least regarding warfare.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: The Plebs and the Patricians, or the lower and upper classes anywhere else. He views it as a good thing though, since they keep each other in check at home, and unite when the time comes.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: You can't dictate Fortuna, but you can try to steer it and prepare yourself to guard against her or take advantage of her.