Machiavelli is one of the most important thinkers in the Western canon that has been identified with the shift away from the ancients and the movement toward modernity. Most people will likely know Machiavelli for his work The Prince – irrespective if they have read the text. That said, Machiavelli was a man of letters, a constitutional author (drafting two constitutions for the city of Florence during the Italian Wars), and his Discourses on Livy is probably his more important book. In fact, many political philosophers, from Leo Strauss to Philip Bobbitt, have noted that The Prince and Discourses are really meant to be read together and brought together they accrete into Machiavelli’s grand theory of the state.
It is precisely this theory of the state that is generally identified as the difference between ancient and modern political philosophy. If that is the case then Dante Alighieri (De Monarchia; but more famous for Divine Comedy and Vita Nuova) and Marsilius of Padua (Defensor Pacis) can lay earlier claims than Machiavelli to having produced such theories which mark the end of classical political philosophy and the birth of modern political philosophy. The ancients were not concerned with theories of the state as much as with questions of virtue and virtue’s role within political life. Thus, the ancients concerned themselves with the question of the best regime to lead to a relatively orderly, stable, and healthy life for the citizenry to engage in their vocations as a whole body. Modern political philosophy rejected such ancient concerns as idealistic. Instead, modern political philosophy moved toward an embrace of “realism” and began to concern itself with the question of political authority and power, from which theories of the state emerged.
Machiavelli stands out because his predecessors, Dante and Marsilius, were defenders of monarchial absolutism in some form. Hobbes, who came after Machiavelli, also embraces a form of absolutism. The usual reading of Machiavelli is that because he was a republican he is unique among the modern theorists of the state. Having, only a cursory and freshman-level reading of Machiavelli leads to this conclusion. Most serious students of political philosophy find a much different Machiavelli when you understand the core arguments of the Prince and Discourses taken as a whole.
Like the more famous state of nature theorists of a century later, Machiavelli takes conflict and chaos as the foundation for realism and, therefore, the foundation for political philosophy. In the Discourses this conflict has beneficial aspects to it: it fosters compromise and from that compromise a more even-handed and pragmatic constitution will emerge that was otherwise unlikely to have emerged if not for a conflictual dialectic. Likewise, in the Prince, Machiavelli is worried about what being caught between warring powers will do to a principality, but the prince should be a student of conflict (e.g. war) first and foremost so as to know how, and when, to act when the opportunity presents itself. Without that conflict the prince relapses into concerns unbefitting the prince which slowly weakens his rule and allows him to be open to invasion (internally and externally).
What people miss about Machiavelli’s republicanism is what the Italian philosopher and political theorist Giorgio Agamben highlighted in his seminal work Homo Sacer. For all the pretensions of monarchial states, monarchies were actually fairly limited in their executive power: limited by the church, the nobility, charters that had established and codified ancient customs into law, and there was a recognition that a monarch’s “sovereignty” could be taken away at any moment because true sovereignty rested in the hand of God. Modern states, despite their pretension to compromise, limitedness, and respect of the civil law, are, in fact, far more powerful and totalitarian than what the Whigs would have you believe. The modern state owns you. Which is why the modern state can take away your rights and decide to blacklist you an enemy of the state (relegating you to the status of homo sacer in ancient Roman society – the man who is “set apart”) whereby your life can be stripped from you because you’re nothing more than a bare animal waiting needing to be sacrificed.
Machiavelli’s republicanism fits this same trend in thinking: republics are superior to monarchies because republics have the ability to be far more powerful than any monarchy can ever dream. In part, this is because of the “buy in” to the constitution, or general myths, of the republic from the masses. After all, why would peasants care about the monarchy in its time of need? The peasants have no stake in the monarchy’s continuation. However, in a republic, the masses feel like they have something at stake: “freedom,” “social mobility,” “religious toleration,” etc. Because there is a popular “buy in” in the constitutions and mythologies of republics, republics are far more potent and powerful than what we have been told by those who benefit most by republican government (the bourgeoisie, or the commercial classes).
This follows the general theme in the Prince: centralized sovereignty. The Prince is a work all about how to keep power once you have power. The Discourses on Livy is a much more intellectual and thoughtful commentary and exercise on the nature of constitutions, states, and their internal apparatus, but it is all for the same end: the preservation of the state, which primarily is the preservation of the state’s power. Machiavelli’s republicanism is not because of some noble belief in republican “limited government,” that is the myth of the republic to get the substantive “buy in” from its populace. Machiavelli’s republicanism is predicated on his belief that republics can be much more powerful than monarchies and therefore much more centralized and capable of existing in the modern world defined by technology, power, and conflict. Monarchies will be swept away because of their inefficiency and incapability of dealing with modernity. When we look at the world today it turns out that Machiavelli was probably right. In the names of those myths that the citizenry buys into the republican state can increase its own power and authority by claiming it does so in order to defend the cherished myths of the republic. This might make you think twice about the “absolutism” of monarchies against the “limitedness” of republics – and whether or not that’s actually true?