Liberty Matters

Liberty Is an Unconquered Country: Machiavelli’s The Prince and Liberty


As I write this, a European country whose land has been fought over for centuries is again battling for its existence against an invader. The question of the basic conditions for liberty leaps to mind and, in considering whether Machiavelli is a friend or foe to liberty, one of his most difficult writings preoccupies me. More strongly than usual I see The Prince as born out of the twin existential crises of its author and of Italy herself.
It seems central to the question of whether Machiavelli supports liberty to consider the traumatized condition of Renaissance Italy. In a place where life and property are suddenly forfeit, what does liberty mean? Whose liberty are we talking about? What answer, if any, does the renaissance context help us see? 
Italy was subject to repeated external conquest and internal conflict between city-states over territory. In Machiavelli's lifetime six major Italian states invade one another, assassinate one another's leaders, and foment revolutions among one another's people. Naples has five different kings in less than two years. Northern Italy falls to the French, who are then defeated by the Emperor Charles V. Rome is sacked by Charles’ mercenaries, Castiglione is taken captive, and Machiavelli dies, all within a few months. Italy has become a depopulated battlefield.
Machiavelli’s life parallels Italy’s. In his own Florence, Medici rule is shaken when Machiavelli is 9, and they are expelled when he is 25. Machiavelli serves the republic that follows as defense minister, ambassador, and later as historian. When the Medici roar back, he is imprisoned and tortured. Exiled from his city, recovering from torture, writing his Discourses on the Roman historian Livy with the ruins of the Roman empire all around him, desperate for employment, and positioning himself against both brilliant contemporaries like Baldassare Castiglione and past greats like Dante and Petrarch, Machiavelli creates The Prince. His most famous work, it most often seems to present the greatest difficulty for those hoping to prove that he defends liberty. 
Fourteenth-century Florentine political factionalism had sent the poet Dante into exile, to dream of a new Charlemagne who might conquer, and reunite, Italy. That dream endured, inspiring a fundamental question underlying The Prince. How was it possible that the peninsula that had once conquered the known world and held it for centuries, whose renaissance artists, poets, bankers, architects, and philosophers had captured the imagination of all of Europe, could not master itself?
The Prince’s answer troubles the mind more than Machiavelli’s Discourses does. It encourages rulers to abandon classical and Christian virtues in order to maintain power. It suggests that a ruler emulate animals (rather than saints). “Ancient princes,” it claims, “were given to Chiron the centaur to be raised . . . To have as teacher a half-beast, half-man” because a prince has to “know well how to use the beast. . .”.
The Prince advises killing entire royal families. It commends Cesare Borgia for having a subordinate pacify Romagna, then leaving him “in the piazza . . . in two pieces, with a block of wood and a bloody knife beside him.” It advises what sounds like hypocrisy: it’s not necessary to have traditional virtues, but instead “necessary to appear to have them. . . . [by] always observing them, they are harmful, and by appearing to have them, they are useful, as it is to appear merciful, faithful, humane, honest, and religious, . . . but to . . . know how to change to the contrary.” A prince “cannot observe all those things for which men are held good, since he is often under a necessity to maintain his state, of acting against faith, against charity, against humanity, against religion.” And, of course, Machiavelli proves that “it is much safer to be feared than loved,” because fear can be compelled. 
This is pretty strong meat. What does it say about liberty, though? 
Machiavelli points out the importance of perspective: the people can understand the prince and the prince can understand the people better than either can understand themselves. And perhaps, if it isn’t too postmodern to suggest it, liberty in The Prince needs to be seen from different angles: liberty for the people, liberty for the powerful (“the great”), and liberty for the prince. 
Because the prince needs the people, he will have to secure them these liberties: enough stability to run their businesses and families safely and a stable tax environment that is not excessive or punitive; he must also not take the women to use as sex toys. Droit de seigneur is not a right for Machiavelli’s prince.
In fact, the prince appears to have all the liberty power grants, but he cannot use it. His liberty is restricted to choices focused on staying alive and in power. He is bound by fear. Every moment of his life must focus on war and self-defense. His appearance must be rigidly controlled. Alliance and fidelity can kill. Friendship is impossible. Lieutenants fail. The prince must be an obsessive micromanager, and it is difficult to imagine when he sleeps. Abdication means death; a successor would destroy all rivals. Machiavelli does not mention marriage or children; their absence from The Prince suggests that even those must be eschewed. After all, Liverotto da Fermo assassinated his surrogate father, so having children destroys princes. The practice of Christian faith is dangerous, so the Christian heaven is denied. No friends, no love, no allies, no assistants, no sleep, no leisure, no offspring, no fame, no salvation. Machiavelli sacrifices the individual liberty of the prince to make the civil liberties of the people possible.
In many ways, Machiavelli’s prince seems merely a tool for securing the people’s liberty, especially against the great, because the people only want liberty, while the great desire enough power to destroy others, including the prince: “One cannot satisfy the great with decency and without injury to others, but one can satisfy the people; for . . . the great want to oppress and the people want not to be oppressed.” Machiavelli advises that the great be granted little liberty, little power, and little future.
Machiavelli is not the only contemporary writer worried about the great. Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier looks to prevent precisely these dangers to, and from, them. Castiglione wants to make rivalrous “renaissance men” into counselors to princes, because:
Without restraint [princes] . . . do not tolerate friendships or societies or common interest among the citizens; instead they foster spies, informers and murderers, to create terror . . . cause the wretched people endless loss and ruin, and often enough ensure the cruel death of the tyrant himself or at least cause him to live in a state of perpetual fear. 
For Castiglione, who reminds us that princes can only sleep safely in a chest or suspended in midair, the prince both is, and is in, the greatest danger. However, the prince’s courtier may ensure everyone’s safety: “if he knows that his prince is of a mind to do something unworthy, he should be in a position to dare to oppose him, . . . to remove every evil intention.” 
The prince must be restrained. For Machiavelli that restraint is internal, fear of assassination; for Castiglione the restraint is external, the benevolent courtier. Both express the yearning of Italians for the peace and stability that ensure the people’s liberty to trade, associate freely, build a business, have families, and create without interference. Where there must be a prince, and where there must be the great, they must be bound -- or eliminated -- to secure the liberty of the people.
And yet a prince may serve a purpose. Dante dreamed of a new Charlemagne to unite and defend Italy; Castiglione yearned for a past when the Duke of Urbino provided liberty discourse to his court; The Prince dreams of one, stable Italy. Fulfilling that dream requires a sovereign to “heal her wounds, and put an end to the sacking,” to stop her tribute to foreign conquerors, “and cure her of her sores.” The Prince ends screaming, “this barbarian domination stinks to everyone.” The weakness of Italy “follows from the weakness at the head,” and she lacks one sovereign, whose sword Machiavelli expects to see turned not against the people, as Hobbes would allow, but against outside invaders and the great. 
Machiavelli borrows Petrarch’s voice for his conclusion: “Virtue will take up arms against fury/and make battle short/because the ancient valor in Italian hearts/is not yet dead.” In the middle of the Canzoniere’s amorous introspection, Petrarch demanded, “what are so many foreign swords doing here?” The end of Petrarch’s canzone grounds The Prince: “’Who will protect me? I go crying: Peace, peace, Peace!’” 
Would Machiavelli’s prince, living in fear, chained for survival to his people, guarantee their liberty in the real world? I don’t know. But the cry of late medieval and renaissance Italy echoes in the cries of Europe today for an unconquered country and the liberty it provides. It is the cry of human nature when in free fall, whatever the commitment to liberty. 
Castiglione, Baldassare. The Book of the Courtier. Translated by George Bull, Penguin Books, 1967/1976.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield, U Chicago Press, 1985/1998.
Petrarch, Francesco. Petrarch’s Lyric Poems: The Rime Sparse and Other Lyrics. Translated by Robert M. Durling, 1976.