Machiavelli On The Unjust Republic’s Susceptibility To Treason

In Book I, Chapter VII of The Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli writes:

[N]othing makes a republic so stable and strong as organizing it in such a way that the agitation of the hatreds which excite it has a means of expressing itself provided for by the laws….whenever one finds foreign forces being called in by one faction of men living in a city, it may be taken for granted that the bad ordinances of that city are the cause, for it does not have an institution that provides an outlet for the malignant humors which are born among men to express themselves without their resorting to illegal means.

The laws of the republic are, for Machiavelli, part of its leader’s political toolbox for maintaining its stability and ensuring its longevity and prosperity. A crucial and indeed, essential, function of the laws is the channeling of discontent toward safe and speedy resolution. Where such channeling does not take place, the citizens “have recourse to illegal means, which cause the eventual ruin of the entire republic.”

These passages remain instructive. As I read them, I scribbled the following note in the margins of my copy of The Portable Machiavelli (Penguin Classics, Bondanella and Musa trans., 1979):

Treason is more likely in an unjust state.

Indeed. Where there is no forum for the expression of discontent with the republic, we might come to see, through a Freudian or Nietzschean lens, that this repressed desire or drive for amelioration of injustice will find expression through some other means. If the republic is lucky, this drive will be directed inwards and result only in the destruction of the discontented. If not, that drive will find outward expression, directed against the republic, by any means necessary. Violence and treason will come to seem reasonable alternatives to the oppressed; aid will be sought wherever it may be found, and then pressed rapidly pressed into service. Allegiance to the republic will fall away; redressal of oppression and injustice will come to occupy center stage in their politics of those who protest. The republic will come to stand for something other than its republican ideals; its laws, supposedly its most noble possession, will appear debased and unworthy of commanding obligation.

We should keep this in mind when we rush to criticize those who would dare choose unorthodox means of protest. Merely urging them to legal forms of protest is not enough; it must also be asked whether the legal arrangements of the republic in question would allow their experienced injustice to actually be addressed, or will merely cause their protest to fizzle out. The wise ruler witnesses discontent in his state and wonders the republic law’s may be amended his laws so that future protests find a forum for expression and redressal; the unwise merely ratchets up the repression or becomes defensive, blaming the discontented for having the temerity to speak up and act.

Note: These passages led to a vigorous discussion today in my Political Philosophy seminar, an always gratifying response to an assigned reading.

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