Tumults and the Freedom of a Polity in Machiavelli's Discourses

In Miroslav Vacura (ed.), Beyond the State and the Citizen. Prague, Czechia: Prague University of Economics and Business Oeconomica Publishing House. pp. 147 - 165 (2020)

Noemi Magnani
University of Hertfordshire
In the Preface to the Discourses Machiavelli laments that the greatness of the ancients is “rather admired than imitated” by his contemporaries and expresses the belief that recurring to past examples would be most beneficial to those interested in “ordering republics, maintaining states, governing kingdoms, ordering the military and administering war, judging subjects, and increasing empire” (D I 2.2). Machiavelli is indeed persuaded that the laws governing human nature are unchangeable, and that the ancients can be imitated, since the causes for their actions and the reasons for their choices are the same that determine the conduct of the contemporaries. Thus, an analysis of Titus Livy’s work on the Roman republic might shed light on the weaknesses and strengths of existing governments and encourage men to the emulation of past greatness. More specifically, such an analysis would make clear that the greatness of Rome lied in that both the city and its citizens enjoyed a high level of freedom. In fact, the city had sovereign power over itself and other cities, rather than being ruled by others. Besides, no social group had enough power to overcome the others: people were able to foster their interests by participating in the civic life of the city and by protesting against those public decisions which they found contrary to their interests. But what did this freedom exactly consist in? In other words, does Machiavelli conceive freedom as non-interference, or rather as non-domination, by others? Moreover, does he consider participation and contestation as constitutive of liberty, or rather instrumental to it? In this paper, I will first present Philip Pettit’s account of three alternative conceptions of liberty and indicate which of them might have been endorsed by Machiavelli. I will then consider the issue of contestations and tumults and of their role within the polity. I will argue not only that Machiavelli endorses a republican view of freedom but also that, in contrast to Pettit, he maintains contestations and tumults to be instrumental to freedom, rather than constitutive of it. I will conclude by claiming that Machiavelli’s and Pettit’s different stance on the value of tumults and contestations reflects the kind of freedom as non-domination in which they are interested in. Pettit supports a more democratic form of republicanism, in which not only groups but also individuals must be able to contest given decisions. By contrast, Machiavelli endorses a republicanism in which power must be distributed among different political figures within a polity. Dissensions are seen as a means for one of these figures, i.e. the multitude, to raise its voice when its interests are damaged by public decisions. In Machiavelli’s view, the end to which a state should aim is to be great, for which it needs to be free only at the collective level. Different means might be employed in order to realise this aim. Tumults are just one of them: the one that made Rome a great city, worthy of being imitated.
Keywords Republican freedom  Machiavelli  Pettit  tumults  contestations  Roman republic
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