Liberty Matters

Is Machiavelli a Friend or Foe of Liberty?[1]


Machiavelli certainly believes he is a friend of liberty. Indeed, liberty is an important concept in Machiavelli’s political philosophy, but what precisely does he mean by it? This is no easy topic to unpack. My aim is not to break new ground but to offer a brief survey of some of the various uses of liberty in Machiavelli’s political thought.
Thankfully, Marcia L. Colish provides a helpful framework from which to begin. In her 1971 article, “The Idea of Liberty in Machiavelli,” Colish identifies four kinds of liberty in Machiavelli’s political thought:
  • liberty in the commonplace sense,
  • liberty as free will,
  • corporate liberty, and 
  • liberty within the state.
For the most part, I will follow her framework, but I shall add a fifth kind—one which Machiavelli develops in his comedy, the Mandragola—namely, sexual freedom. In this work, Machiavelli seems to argue for a freedom from the authority of God to do with our bodies as we please (provided all partners consent and no one’s body or reputation is harmed). But before turning to develop Machiavelli’s notion of sexual freedom—which in many ways assumes familiarity with some of the other notions of liberty—it is necessary to say a few words about Machiavelli’s other senses of liberty first.
Liberty in the Commonplace Sense[1]
Colish describes how Machiavelli uses “liberty” in a generic way to denote a variety of concepts, such as a person’s freedom from captivity, for example, or an individual’s financial independence, or a ruler's freedom for political action. The last is a particularly interesting example. According to Machiavelli, the best defense against political instability and conspiracies is for a wise ruler to avoid antagonizing the ambitious while keeping the people content. 
In Chapter 19 of The Prince, Machiavelli associates liberty with a set of laws and institutions that provide a ruler with the necessary freedom for political actions that help him to avoid being held in contempt by his subjects. Machiavelli draws upon the French monarchy to illustrate his point. In France, for example, the Prince can use the judiciary to avoid blame by using the judiciary to play the nobles and the people off of each other, simultaneously checking the destructive power of each. The French “Parliament”—a “law court,” not a legislative body—is ordered in such a way that it restrains the nobles and “their insolence.” The one who “ordered that kingdom” recognized that ambition must be checked by ambition. In Machiavelli’s words, “knowing the hatred of the generality of the people against the great [the nobility], which is founded in its fear,” the one who ordered this constitution also found a way of gaining the trust of the people by ordering government to favor the general populace. Being so ordered, the French constitution protected the prince “from the blame he would have from the great when he favored the popular side, and from the popular side when he favored the great,” thus freeing him to take action that favored the liberty of France. According to Machiavelli, “this order could not be better, or more prudent, or a greater cause of the security” and liberty of the prince, because such an arrangement would place the ruler above criticism by shielding him from accusations of favoritism.
Free Will
Statesmanship requires prudence and free will. Otherwise, individuals are reduced to mere passive spectators of determined political events. In Chapter 25 of The Prince, Machiavelli considers, “How much fortune can do in human affairs, and in what mode it may be opposed.” In this chapter, he breaks with the “many” who “have held and hold the opinion that worldly things are so governed by fortune and by God, that men cannot correct them with their prudence, indeed that they have no remedy at all.” Machiavelli addresses whether human beings possess any liberty over their lives. What place is there for prudence, if humans are subject to chance and God, Machiavelli wonders. He writes, “in order that our free will not be eliminated, I judge that it might be true that fortune is arbiter of half of our actions, but also that she leaves the other half, or close to it, for us to govern.” The conclusion is obvious: God plays a minimal role in our lives, thus leaving prudence and virtue to manage the rest. By reducing the role of God in human affairs, Machiavelli doubts there are any limits placed upon human intelligence. Rather than succumbing to a deadly fatalism when nature strikes, human beings can use prudence to provide against such exigencies. For example, though “violent rivers” may “flood the plains,” Machiavelli asserts that it “is not as if men, when times are quiet, could not provide for them with dikes and dams so that when they rise later, either they go by a canal or their impetus is neither so wanton nor so damaging.” (It is easy to see how someone like Francis Bacon could pick up on this idea and conclude that philosophy at its finest is the conquest of nature.)
Corporate Liberty
Machiavelli is of course concerned about national sovereignty; Colish calls this “corporate liberty.” A nation is free when it lives under its own laws and customs (for Machiavelli the clearest examples being the German free cities and the Swiss). However, a nation’s sovereignty largely depends on the strength, discipline, and organization of its military. According to Machiavelli, a nation cannot remain free and thus sovereign if it hires foreign mercenaries rather than possessing its own arms. In Chapter 13 of The Prince, for example, Machiavelli asserts that “without its own arms no principality is secure; indeed it is wholly obliged to fortune since it does not have virtue to defend itself in adversity.” Citing Tacitus, Machiavelli states, “and it has always been the opinion and judgment of wise men ‘that nothing is so infirm and unstable as the reputation of power not sustained by one’s own force.’” 
Liberty within the State
Machiavelli’s most sustained treatment of liberty for citizens within the state is found in his Discourses on Livy. According to Machiavelli, men “however good and well brought up,” are easily corrupted by a little power and ambition. The prudent lawgiver, he says, ought to avoid a constitution that relies on the virtue of each ruling element in one of the three simple forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy. Instead, Machiavelli advises a wise founder to choose a mixed constitution “that share[s] in all [forms of government], judging it firmer and more stable, for the one guards the other.” Machiavelli attributes Roman liberty to Rome’s mixed constitution, which managed the internal strife between the plebs and the nobles through institutional “checks” without completely sapping the citizens’ energies, thereby maintaining a republic fierce and largely balanced. Indeed, Machiavelli argues that the “tumults between the nobles and the plebs” is “the first cause of keeping Rome free,” the office of the tribunate playing a uniquely critical role. Machiavelli calls the creation of the tribunes in Rome the cause of its “perfection,” as it gave Rome a full complement of modes: rule of one by the consuls, rule of the few by the Senate, and rule of the many by the tribunes. The representation of the people through the tribunes naturally served as a check on the “insolence of the nobles.” Rome’s liberty relied on the ability of the state to continually manage the tumults between the people and the senatorial class. 
Sexual Liberty
According to Cicero, the laws governing theater and music “cannot be changed without bringing a change in the laws of the state.” Although he admits that the arts helped to civilize Rome, Cicero, like Plato and Aristotle before him, is nevertheless wary of the influence of music and theater on the morals of the state. Ancient Greece, he observes, used to punish those who performed music that would cause the “audience to rock to and fro jerking their necks and eyes in time with the inflections of the singer’s voice,” because music has the power to “infect” citizens “with pernicious crazes and pernicious ideas [that] would suddenly bring about the collapse of entire states.” Hence, in the Republic, Cicero elaborates on the damage done by dramatists, pointing out that “since [the ancient Romans] regarded the theater and show business in general as disgraceful, they thought that such people should not only be deprived of the public offices enjoyed by other citizens but should also be removed from their tribe by the censor’s stigma.”
By contrast, in his comedy Mandragola, Machiavelli introduces a new concept of liberty: sexual liberation. The play centers around a wealthy old man, Nicias, and his much younger and beautiful wife, Lucrezia. But there is a problem: Nicias wishes to have a child and heir, but he is infertile. The solution, as Machiavelli sees it, is sexual liberty. At the outset of the play, Machiavelli proclaims that there are certain “tricks to the world” that can be used to help the audience achieve their desired ends, which he takes to be erotic desire. Once his audience learns these “tricks,” he explains, it is possible for anyone to satisfy their urges while maintaining order and a good public reputation. The “trick” is figuring out how to successfully satisfy one’s wishes by learning how to help others satisfy theirs. Such a scheme works, Machiavelli suggests, so long as everyone conspires together to keep up appearances by maintaining publicly respectable decorum and by refusing to upset the political order. 
In the comedy, a young man named Callimico falls in love with Lucrezia and is determined to win her over. The problem, of course, is that Lucrezia is married and virtuous. Callimico, however, hatches a plan with a friend. Callimico pretends to be a doctor with a solution to Nicia's troubles. He claims to have a potion made from mandrake that will result in pregnancy. There is only one problem: the first person to sleep with her after she ingests the potion will die the following day. Callimico convinces Nicias to find someone to sleep with his wife and, with a fitting disguise, manages to be that someone. Her virtue somewhat tarnished, Lucrezia is able to provide her sterile husband with an heir by sleeping with a younger man. The play celebrates her adultery by focusing on the good effects of her deed, namely, providing her husband with a child. By demonstrating the usefulness of sexual liberty, Machiavelli frees his characters, not just from the shame of public opinion, but also from the Church’s authority over marriage by undermining the notion that marriage is a holy sacrament.
Machiavelli sees himself as a friend of liberty. He uses liberty in a variety of ways in order to enlighten nations and individuals on how, through the strength of their own intelligence and will, they may achieve sovereignty and control over their lives.
[1] I wish to thank Sarah Weaver and Joshua Robe for their helpful comments and feedback on earlier drafts.