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6 - Society, class, and state in Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 September 2010

John M. Najemy
Affiliation:
Cornell University, New York
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Summary

In the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy Machiavelli undertook a wide-ranging comparison of ancient and modern states and societies, enlivened by a running contrast between the ancient Roman republic and modern Florence that gives the work much of its polemical force. The proem to book 1 announces a search for “new methods and institutions [modi e ordini nuovi]” for “organizing republics, maintaining governments, ruling kingdoms, organizing militias, conducting wars, rendering justice to subjects, and extending territorial power.” Machiavelli chose Livy's history of Rome as his textual interlocutor because of its abundant material on the early history of the ancient republic, which was, for Machiavelli, the exemplary state by which all others, ancient and modern, should be assessed. This was not a purely theoretical inquiry. Motivated by the “inborn desire I have always had to work, without fear or hesitation, for those things I believe will benefit everyone” (proem, book 1), Machiavelli hopes that “those who read these analyses of mine may more easily draw from them that utility for which knowledge of history should be sought.” Asserting (proem, book 2) that ancient “virtù” and modern “vice [vizio]” are “clearer than the sun” and that the modern debasement of religion, laws, and military training has reached extreme levels of corruption, particularly among those holding the reins of power, he must “boldly” say what he understands of “past and future times, so that those, still young, who will read these writings of mine can reject the present and prepare themselves to imitate those former times whenever fortune gives them the opportunity.”

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2010

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