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Machiavelli's Principio: Political Renewal and Innovation in the Discourses on Livy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 September 2020


Although Machiavelli argues that “return to first principles” is a necessary and perhaps even sufficient condition for counteracting political corruption, few scholars have engaged in a sustained textual analysis of Discourses III.1, the chapter in which he outlines the meaning of this enigmatic concept. Reassessing Machiavelli's exempla in this chapter will reveal that return to first principles consists in the revival of the ethos of innovation and public-spiritedness that accompanies every successful political founding. This process of renewal entails reviving the psychological forces that initially guide human beings to establish new political orders, including fear of violent death and longing for glory. Existing interpretations of D III.1 have tended to emphasize renewal through fear-invoking punishment, neglecting Machiavelli's examples of renewal through exemplary acts of civic virtue. A careful analysis of instruments and agents of return to first principles will illustrate how both spectacular punishment and virtuous acts of self-sacrifice converge to counteract corruption and foster political innovation.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of University of Notre Dame.

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I would like to thank Clifford Ando, Adam Chan, Alex Haskins, Kinch Hoekstra, Michèle Lowrie, John P. McCormick, Nathan Tarcov, and several anonymous referees for their help with and feedback on earlier stages of this paper.


1 Citations to the Discourses on Livy (D) refer to the translation of Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) by book and chapter number, and to Machiavelli, Niccolò, Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, in Opere I: I Primi Scritti Politici, ed. Vivanti, Corrado (Turin: Einaudi-Gallimard, 1997)Google Scholar.

2 Pocock, J. G. A., The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), 358, 407Google Scholar; Rahe, Paul A., Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 175, 431, 932Google Scholar.

3 Benito Mussolini, “Ritorno al Principio,” Popolo d'Italia, July 24, 1921; Carl Schmitt, “The Age of Neutralizations and Depoliticizations,” trans. Matthias Konzett and McCormick, John P., in The Concept of the Political, expanded ed., trans. Schwab, George (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 94Google Scholar.

4 See, e.g., Parsons, Lucy, “The Principles of Anarchism,” in Freedom, Equality and Solidarity: Writings and Speeches, 1878–1937, ed. Ahrens, Gale (Chicago: Kerr, 2002), 32Google Scholar.

5 See, e.g., Hallberg, Budd J., Return to First Principles, 2nd ed. (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2012), xviGoogle Scholar.

6 Rakove, Jack N., Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 340Google Scholar.

7 Lefort, Claude, Machiavelli in the Making, trans. Smith, Michael B. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2012), 469Google Scholar.

8 Shumer, S. M., “Machiavelli, Republican Politics and Its Corruption,” Political Theory 7, no. 1 (1979): 2627CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 34n23.

9 Vatter, Miguel E., Between Form and Event: Machiavelli's Theory of Political Freedom (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 2000), 254–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Sidney, Algernon, Discourses Concerning Government (Carmel, IN: Liberty Fund, 1996), II.11Google Scholar; cf. Nelson, A. Scott, The Discourses of Algernon Sidney (Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 1993), 4546Google Scholar.

11 Pitkin, Hanna F., Fortune Is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolò Machiavelli (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 278–79Google Scholar.

12 Two notable exceptions include Pitkin (Fortune Is a Woman, 254–84) and Vatter (Form and Event, 219–20, 237–63).

13 Skinner considers the prevention of corruption the fundamental theme of the Discourses as a whole (Skinner, Quentin, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, vol. 1, The Renaissance [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998], 164Google Scholar), but curiously omits consideration of return to first principles. Other influential treatments of the theme of corruption in Machiavelli's political thought that neglect D III.1 include Levy, David N., Wily Elites and Spirited Peoples in Machiavelli's Republicanism (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014), chap. 3Google Scholar; Sullivan, Vickie B., Machiavelli's Three Romes: Religion, Human Liberty, and Politics Reformed (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996), chap. 4Google Scholar; and Viroli, Maurizio, Machiavelli (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 131–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar. A rare exception is Shumer, “Machiavelli, Republican Politics and Its Corruption” (see 22–27).

14 Such misreadings of D III.1 include, for example, the interpretations advanced by Hallberg, Return to First Principles, xvi; Rakove, Original Meanings, 340; Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, 2.11; and representatives of the American Whig Party in “Opinions of the Council of Three: Political Bigotry, Conservatism, Radicalism,” American Whig Review 6, no. 3 (1847): 243.

15 This point has been emphasized by radical-democratic interpreters such as Holman, Christopher, Machiavelli and the Politics of Democratic Innovation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 259–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lefort, Machiavelli in the Making, 343; and Vatter, Form and Event, 250–51. Strauss and his followers also tend to emphasize the need for ongoing political innovation (Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, 167; cf. Mansfield, New Modes and Orders, 299–300), but Strauss stipulates that this continual refounding must be carried out by a republic's “leading men throughout the ages, or its ruling class” (Thoughts on Machiavelli, 44; cf. 130). This stipulation seems unwarranted, given that Machiavelli explicitly cites the tribune of the plebs—an institution established and controlled by the plebeian class—as an instrument of return to first principles. See McCormick, John P., Reading Machiavelli: Scandalous Books, Suspect Engagements, and the Virtue of Populist Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 164–66Google Scholar, on class politics in Strauss's reading of Machiavelli.

16 See McCormick, John P., “Addressing the Political Exception: Machiavelli's ‘Accidents’ and the Mixed Regime,” American Political Science Review 87, no. 4 (1993): 892–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Clarke, M. T., “Machiavelli and the Imagined Rome of Renaissance Humanism,” History of Political Thought 36, no. 3 (2015): 465–69Google Scholar; Nederman, Cary J., “Machiavelli and Moral Character: Principality, Republic and the Psychology of Virtù,” History of Political Thought 21, no. 3 (2000): 360–61Google Scholar.

17 See D I.18, where Machiavelli notes that the tribunes possessed authority to propose laws and conduct discussion among the assembled people; cf. McCormick, John P.'s discussion in Machiavellian Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), chap. 4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Cf. Mansfield, New Modes and Orders, 148 and 252; Parsons, Jotham, “The Roman Censors in the Renaissance Political Imagination,” History of Political Thought 22, no. 4 (2001): 565–86Google Scholar.

19 “The mode of renewing them [rinnovargli] is, as was said, to lead them back toward their beginnings [ridurgli verso e’ principii suoi]” (D III.1).

20 Vatter, Form and Event, 219–20, 241, 245, 247, 260–61.

21 See Mansfield, Harvey C., Machiavelli's New Modes and Orders: A Study of the “Discourses on Livy” (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979), 299305Google Scholar; Spalding, Matthew, “The American Prince? George Washington's Anti-Machiavellian Moment,” in Machiavelli's Liberal Republican Legacy, ed. A., Paul Rahe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 175Google Scholar; Vickie B. Sullivan, “Muted and Manifest English Machiavellianism: The Reconciliation of Machiavellian Republicanism with Liberalism in Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government and Trenchard and Gordon's Cato's Letters,” in Machiavelli's Liberal Republican Legacy, 70–71; Sullivan, Three Romes, 153–57; Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern, 266; Warner, John M. and Scott, John T., “Sin City: Augustine and Machiavelli's Reordering of Rome,” Journal of Politics 73, no. 3 (2011): 857–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Strauss, Leo, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 166–67, 278Google Scholar; Zuckert, Catherine H., Machiavelli's Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 208–12, 487CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, 167.

23 Pocock, Machiavellian Moment, 184; Skinner, Quentin, “Machiavelli on Virtù and the Maintenance of Liberty,” in Visions of Politics, vol. 2, Renaissance Virtues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 163–64Google Scholar; Skinner, Foundations, 164. Skinner's and Pocock's account of corruzione finds support in D I.17, where Machiavelli identifies early Rome's “lack of corruption” with its “men having a good end,” and D I.18, where he equates the corruption of the late republican period with the tendency of the few to propose laws that advanced their own power rather than the common good. Similarly, Machiavelli later defines a corrupt political proposal as one “put forward by men interested in what they can get from the public, rather than in its good” (D II.22).

24 Cf. Livy, Histories 2.3–5.

25 Cf. ibid., 3.56–58.

26 Cf. ibid., 4.13–16.

27 Cf. ibid., 6.11–20. Several of Machiavelli's other examples of renewal through punishment involve figures who allegedly harmed the public good in some other manner: Titus Manlius and Fabius each disobeyed important military orders (D I.31–32), and the Scipios were accused of misappropriating public funds (D I.29); cf. Livy, Histories 8.7–8, 8.30–36, 38.50–60; Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings 3.7.

28 See McCormick, Machiavellian Democracy, chap. 5 (esp. 115–17).

29 Delinquenti is etymologically derived from the Latin word dēlinquō, “to transgress,” which in turn comes from the verb linquō, “to leave” (e.g., a system).

30 Rubinstein, Nicolai, The Government of Florence under the Medici (1434 to 1494), 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 7780Google Scholar.

31 Cf. Machiavelli's discussion of Romulus and Cleomenes in D I.9, of the sons of Brutus in D I.16, and of new princes in D I.26. See also Winter, Yves, Machiavelli and the Orders of Violence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), chap. 4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 Citations to The Prince (P) refer to the translation of Harvey C. Mansfield (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985) by chapter number.

33 See Pedullà, Gabriele, Machiavelli in Tumult: The “Discourses on Livy” and the Origins of Political Conflictualism, trans. Gaborik, Patricia and Nybakken, Richard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), chap. 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tarcov, Nathan, “Law and Innovation in Machiavelli's Prince,” in Enlightening Revolutions: Essays in Honor of Ralph Lerner, ed. Minkov, Svetozar (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006), 89Google Scholar; Warner and Scott, “Sin City,” 866–68.

34 See P chap. 9 for Machiavelli's view that the grandi are predisposed to disregard the common good and oppress the popolo; for his belief that acquisitive instincts of the grandi must be held at bay through extralegal violence, see P 8–9; D I.9 and I.55; and McCormick, Reading Machiavelli, 52–68. But cf. Zuckert, Catherine H., “Machiavelli: Radical Democratic Political Theorist?,” Review of Politics 81, no. 3 (2019): 499–502CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for a critique of McCormick's interpretation of class conflict in Machiavelli.

35 Zuckert, Machiavelli's Politics, 18. In her insistence that return to first principles operates strictly within the parameters of the rule of law, Zuckert—unlike Strauss and Mansfield—tends to misunderstand the relationship between return to first principles and political innovation. See, for instance, her remark that the executions in D III.1 are meant to “remind people of the fearsome punishments they face if they dare to transgress the laws or try to innovate” (209, emphasis added).

36 Michèle Lowrie, “Spurius Maelius: Homo Sacer and Dictatorship,” in Citizens of Discord: Rome and Its Civil Wars, ed. Brian Breed, Cynthia Damon, and Andreola Rossi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 173. In Livy's account, the dictator Cincinnatus, who is deemed “free and exempt from the shackles of law,” claims that Maelius's deeds place him outside the natural boundaries of political life: “nor could one treat him as if he were a citizen, who was born in a free people among rights and laws” (Livy, Histories, trans. Valerie M. Warrior [Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2006], 4.13–15).

37 In Livy's Histories, Virginius justifies this extrajudicial punishment on the grounds that “[Appius] was the one man who had no claim on either the laws or the agreements that bind citizens and men” (Livy, Histories 3.57).

38 In a passage of Polybius's Histories with which Machiavelli was intimately familiar (see J. H. Hexter, “Seyssel, Machiavelli, and Polybius VI: The Mystery of the Missing Translation,” Studies in the Renaissance 3 [1956]: 75–96), the classical historian depicts these killings as moments of justified exception to otherwise universal ethical norms: “there have been instances of men in office who have put their own sons to death, contrary to every law or custom [παρὰ πᾶν ἔθος ἢ νόμον], because they valued the interest of their country more dearly than their natural ties to their own flesh and blood” (Polybius, Histories, trans. Ian Scott-Kilvert [London: Penguin Books, 1979], 6.54, emphasis added).

39 Cf. Livy, Histories 38.50–60.

40 Mansfield, New Modes and Orders, 304.

41 Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, 166 (emphasis added), 278.

42 Mansfield, New Modes and Orders, 304; Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern, 36.

43 Pocock, Machiavellian Moment, 521 (emphasis added).

44 Strauss, Leo, “Machiavelli,” in History of Political Philosophy, 3rd ed., ed. Strauss, Leo and Cropsey, Joseph (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 310CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 This being said, Strauss's comparison may also rest partly on a simplification of Hobbes, who, despite his emphasis on fear of violent death, stresses that the establishment of political society has more than one motivational spring: “The Passions that encline men to Peace, are Feare of Death; Desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a Hope by their Industry to obtain them. And Reason suggesteth convenient Articles of Peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement” (Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996], 90).

46 Many scholars who have followed Strauss's example, such as Mansfield and Rahe, have similarly underestimated the importance of honor and glory in Machiavelli's political thought. Mansfield and Rahe each seem to reduce Machiavelli's entire political psychology to the single natural impulse of fear. Mansfield argues that Machiavelli's gloria is only another manifestation of terror: “When glory is understood in a system of necessity, so that glory-seekers perform a necessary function, it must somehow be reducible to fear” (New Modes and Orders, 140). Likewise, Rahe states that the terror that is renewed through Machiavelli's return to first principles is “the foundation of the only loyalty and friendship and the only sense of common purpose [human beings] will ever know” (Republics Ancient and Modern, 266). Predictably, both Mansfield (Machiavelli's Virtue [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966], 51, 294) and Rahe (Republics Ancient and Modern, 36) present Hobbes as the direct inheritor of Machiavelli's political project.

47 Strauss, Leo, “What Is Political Philosophy?,” in What Is Political Philosophy? and Other Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 4849Google Scholar.

48 Ibid., 47–48.

49 Ibid., 49.

50 See Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, 248; cf. Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 180 and 184n23. Strauss seems to think that much of the trajectory of modern political thought—including even the Romantic backlash against liberal contractualism—is essentially a radicalization of Machiavelli's call for “return to beginnings.” Strauss argues, for instance, that “romanticism as a whole is primarily a movement of return to the origins,” and that the core of Rousseau's philosophical project consisted in his claim that “man ought to go back . . . [to] the absolute beginning, . . . [to] the feeling of the sweetness of mere existence” (“What Is Political Philosophy?,” 50, 53, emphasis added).

51 For an example of Strauss's tendency to interpret Machiavelli in Lockean as well as Hobbesian terms, see his discussion of industriousness and property accumulation in explicating Machiavelli's doctrine of “necessity” (Thoughts on Machiavelli, 248–49).

52 Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, 167.

53 Cf. Lucretius, De rerum natura 5.90–140.

54 Leo Strauss, “Notes on Lucretius,” in Liberalism Ancient and Modern (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 135; cf. Thoughts on Machiavelli, 248.

55 See Pitkin, Fortune Is a Woman, 276–67.

56 Mansfield, New Modes and Orders, 303.

57 See Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, 166–67; “Machiavelli,” 309–11.

58 Mansfield, New Modes and Orders, 303.

59 Zuckert, Machiavelli's Politics, 210.

60 Zuckert's account of these figures’ contribution to political renewal is especially weak when applied to Fabricius, whose “awe-inspiring” action consists not in any form of bodily self-sacrifice, but in his refusal to accept enemy bribes.

61 Cf. Polybius, Histories 6.54–55; Livy, Histories 2.10.

62 Cf. Livy, Histories 2.11–13.

63 Cf. Plutarch, Lives, trans. John Dryden (New York: Random House, 2001), 1:535.

64 Cf. Livy, Histories 6.9, 10.28–29.

65 Cf. Livy, Periochae 18.

66 Livy, Histories 2.10.

67 Ibid., 2.13.

68 See Mansfield and Tarcov, Discourses, 60n4; Walker, Leslie J., The Discourses of Niccolò Machiavelli (London: Routledge, 1991)Google Scholar, 52n5.

69 Livy, Histories V.47; see Mansfield and Tarcov, Discourses, 60n5. Few scholars have noticed Machiavelli's changes to these stories, and none seem to have reflected at length upon his intention in making these alterations.

70 Cf. Machiavelli's argument that soldiers “who engage in combat for their own glory” are more effective and trustworthy than mercenaries (D I.43); cf. P 12 and Niccolò Machiavelli, Art of War, trans. Christopher Lynch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 109–10 (5.94–106).

71 Plutarch, Lives, 535. On Machiavelli's appropriation of Plutarch in D III.1, see Mansfield and Tarcov, Discourses, 211nn19 and 22.

72 See Zuckert, Machiavelli's Politics, 147n63 and “Machiavelli: Radical Democratic Political Theorist?,” 502.

73 See D I 10.6; P 24 and 26; cf. Kahn, Victoria, “Revisiting Agathocles,” Review of Politics 75, no. 4 (2013): 572CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

74 See Fischer, Markus, “Machiavelli's Political Psychology,” Review of Politics 59, no. 4 (1997): 811CrossRefGoogle Scholar, who argues, adapting a phrase from Neal Wood, that Machiavelli's gloria endows self-interested human beings with an “unsocial sociality”; cf. Wood, Neal, “The Value of Asocial Sociability: Contributions of Machiavelli, Sidney, and Montesquieu,” in Machiavelli and the Nature of Political Thought, ed. Fleisher, Martin (New York: Atheneum, 1972), 282307Google Scholar.

75 Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, 134, 250; Mansfield and Tarcov, introduction to Discourses on Livy, xxviii.

76 Niccolò Machiavelli, Discursus on Florentine Affairs, in Opere I, 741–42, 745; cf. McCormick, Machiavellian Democracy, 103–7, esp. 104.

77 I am in agreement with scholars who have argued, pace Strauss, that Machiavelli is neither strictly “ancient” nor “modern,” but rather an interstitial figure between antiquity and modernity. See Coby, Patrick J., Machiavelli's Romans: Liberty and Greatness in the “Discourses on Livy” (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 1999), esp. 2–12Google Scholar; Masters, Roger D., Machiavelli, Leonardo, and the Science of Power (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996), 338CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Nederman, Cary J., “Machiavelli and Moral Character: Principality, Republic, and the Psychology of Virtù,” History of Political Thought 21 (2000): 363–64Google Scholar.

78 On Hobbes's rejection of the Roman honor ethic, see On the Citizen, trans. Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), Epistle Dedicatory, p. 3, and Leviathan, chap. 2. For his emphasis on peace as the overarching objective of the state, see Leviathan, chaps. 16 and 25.

79 See Pocock, Machiavellian Moment, 358–59; see also 518; cf. Wood, Gordon S., The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (New York: Norton, 1969), 613Google Scholar.

80 Machiavelli seems to identify the “goodness” (bontà) of political beginnings with the quasi-religious “reverence” citizens feel toward new leaders and nascent laws or institutions: his statement that “all the beginnings of republics, sects, and kingdoms must have some goodness in them” (tutti e’ principii . . . conviene che abbiano in sè qualche bontà) (D III.1) mirrors his assertion that “all states have some reverence in their beginning” (tutti gli stati nel principio hanno qualche riverenzia) (D I.2). In the context of the anacyclic sequence of D I.2, this spirit of “reverence” seems to originate from citizens’ recollection of the horrors of tyrannical government and their gratitude to live under a “popular state.” The “reverence” Machiavelli identifies with the “goodness” of beginnings is, then, a collective attitude of respect and appreciation the people feel toward their regime and its laws.

81 See Zmora, Hillay, “A World without a Saving Grace: Glory and Immortality in Machiavelli,” History of Political Thought 28, no. 3 (2007): 449–68Google Scholar.

82 Pocock, Machiavellian Moment, 394.

83 Ibid., 358.

84 Nelson, Discourses, 45–46.

85 Kramnick, Isaac, Bolingbroke and His Circle: The Politics of Nostalgia in the Age of Walpole (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), 248CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sullivan, Vickie B., Machiavelli, Hobbes, and the Formation of Liberal Republicanism in England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 244–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

86 Spalding, “The American Prince?,” 175.

87 Sumner, Charles, No Property in Man: Speech of Hon. Charles Sumner on the Proposed Amendment of the Constitution Abolishing Slavery through the United States (New York: Loyal Publication Society, 1864), 19Google Scholar.

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