A Quick Note on Machiavelli’s Discourses, I.7 and I.8

It is rare that reading classical history or philosophy overlaps with anything we’re going through today. In fact, I want to eliminate many of the entries where I’ve contended that something is wrong because it doesn’t match up with some older example of how things should work. These are very tricky issues to sort through, and what one should be reading for is a sharpening of judgment generally.

Still, I just got through arguing with a conservative friend who was willing to give Breitbart a free pass merely because he’s successful. I know that in a country even remotely just, Michael Moore would have been sued successfully for libel over Fahrenheit 9/11 and bankrupted. It’s not only wrong not to hold Breitbart to the same standard – I see more from his sites circulating daily, as if lying is something all Americans should aspire to – but it’s definitely not healthy for us politically. It isn’t really the nature of politics to lie about other people’s reputation consistently and win votes (and yes, there are people who are accountable for the nastiness of what was/is said about President Bush).

We have to build up to the present consideration from a more general understanding. From Discourses I.7:

…I wish this example of Coriolanus to suffice among the ancient ones, concerning which everyone may consider how much ill would have resulted to the Roman republic if he had been killed in a tumult; for from that arises offense by private individuals against private individuals, which offense generates fear; fear seeks for defense; for defense they procure partisans; from partisans arise the parties in cities; from parties their ruin (I.7.2).

Machiavelli’s account: Coriolanus was opposed to the popular faction and tried to get the Senate, during a famine, to hoard grain for itself and give it out as it would to the people. The people, quite naturally, formed a mob and were about to kill him (“tumult”). The tribunes, representatives of the people, had him  instead appear in a court of sorts.

A major reason why we have procedures (“due process”) isn’t justice. It’s to prevent people forming parties purely out of fear of another faction, and arming themselves to the teeth. If one group feels they can’t prevent another from literally killing them, that’s pretty much the end of civic life. Note that these “parties” responsible for the cities’ ruin aren’t like our Republicans or Democrats, broad-based coalitions meant to take in a diversity and win nationally. These are parties that are much narrower, much more private, definitely not open to hearing what other people have to say. They’re primarily defined by fear. I’ll let you make of that what you will.

Now Coriolanus was “accused” by the tribunes, and that accusation took on a shape because of the laws and procedures. While the general logic holds, something about Christianity may change the political problem. Machiavelli gives us two Florentine examples following his discussion of Coriolanus. One man wanted to “transcend a civil way of life;” he had to be resisted with a “sect contrary to his” because there was no way to oppose him through laws and procedures (the “ordinary,” literally – I.7.3). Another actually was accused, but was tried only by the few/noble and eventually a foreign army was brought in because of the “scandal.” Part of the accusation seems not to have been his “ambition” but also his “living badly” (I.7.4). If the problems in pagan times are earthier – “he’s going to starve us, kill him” – the Christian world perhaps presents the problem that people want to look into each other’s soul, as Bush did with Putin. Machiavelli argues in this last case, still, for a serious mode of accusation. A serious mode of accusation would have made people who want to accuse him, say, of something like drug abuse to be able to take on those charges themselves and resist them. If he did lose for “living badly,” he could only be punished appropriately, with maybe even a mild censure at most.

All this is to say, before we get to I.8: even if the media considers itself a fourth estate, it is not a serious mode of accusation. It can completely destroy reputations and lives over nothing, and there’s nothing like a court where the other side has to be heard and evidence evaluated. You can pick what you listen to and only hear that. Do note that we’ve moved from examples of life and death for the populace to examples far less menacing for them, but still just as threatening to the republic.

I.8 shifts the discussion from “accusations” to “calumnies.” Accusations are useful – they’re a venting of sorts, an airing of grievance. Calumnies are “pernicious.” One general felt he did as much as another who was being honored, so he made up a story about some “private citizens” stealing money from the rest of the citizenry, causing no small revolt. His “calumny” – an utterly false statement, slander – was met with a formal accusation on the part of the Senate and the executive appointed by them. Not able to account for where the money he claimed was stolen actually was, he was put in prison (this is Machiavelli speaking. The account in Livy is a bit different).

Calumnies are very dangerous in Machiavelli’s thought, partly because they  end up turning on issues of property and rights which form a more secular basis of government (see esp. I.8.2 – the calumny/accusation distinction gives us procedural justice as we know it today). In other words: our order is constructed in such a way that we can’t really just throw any old lie around and say “1st amendment, can’t stop me from making anything I want up.” We note that the Sherrod case Breitbart is most famous for lying about concerns property as well as racism: would one group be inclined to steal from another if charged with responsibility? It’s a very dangerous calumny that Breitbart perpetrated, and there should be consequences beyond a bad reputation for his editing the tape and persisting in the lie. He should be formally accused and brought to justice in some way. That his voice is more powerful than yours, mine, in some cases even heads of state – that’s a disgrace, and we can stop that now by being better citizens and not listening to that piece of trash.

1 Comment

  1. Ashok, you always give me food for thought. In addition, there’s a free education :)

    Now, I must raise my hand and ask this: what do the notations I.7 I.8 and others refer to?

    I’ve never sat down and tried to read any of the older writings that deal with the structure of civilization. It’s a fascinating topic, but I have no clue how far back to begin and which authors should be studied in what order.

    On the post itself, I get what you’re saying. The lack of accountability for the utterings of the press may lead to needless disruption in the normal flow of the business of state.

    Do you suppose that this is a corruption of the independence of the watchdog? In times where journalistic integrity has exposed wrong-doing, the fact that the press was (supposedly) beholden to neither church nor state created a de facto unassailable authority.

    Once this authority became accepted, in became expected. Now, we are loathe to except it! :)



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