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on September 7, 2001
These are Machiavelli's essays on the lessons to be learned from Titus Livy's first ten books about Roman history. Though other works existed, Machiavelli chose Livy's histories because Livy was an eye witness to the fall of the Roman Republic.
Machiavelli's purpose for writing The Discourses can be summed up in one line: "The multitude is wiser and more constant than a prince." More to-the-point, however is the later phraise: "A corrupt and disorderly multitude can be spoken to by some worthy person and can easily be brought around to the right way, but a bad prince cannot be spoken to by anyone, and the only remedy for his case is COLD STEEL."
With every stroke of his pen, Machiavelli sets out to prove the superiority of a republican form of government. He values freedom of the citizenry above all else, and provides princes everywhere with grizzly tales of what happens when it is restricted. His influence on the Founding Fathers, and particularly on the works of Paine and Jefferson, is evident. Our current leaders would find themselves more secure if they stuck to Machiavelli's principles.
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on October 29, 2000
Machiavelli's second most famous work, this book deals with the author's commentary on the way the Roman Republic was run and why it was so successful in expanding its borders. He stresses the reason it was so stable and successful was the solid core of reasonable laws, a standing army of professional soldiers and plunder/tribute from surrounding countries.
He illustrates the ways in which the good ideas of the ancient Romans could be applied in contemporary politics (it was written during the XVI century).
Unlike the Prince, which propandasizes his personal political opinions and describes the ideal ruler, the Discourses deal mainly with mundane economic and social issues, with little personal opinion.
It is filled with anecdotes about the lives of interesting or exceptional Romans and is not that difficult a read at all. In reading it for my first-year history class, I found it was a very good summary of the complicated life of the Roman Republic (it deals very little with the time of the Empire).
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on August 16, 2002
Although much can be learned from modern writers about the history of Italy, the sentiments and evaluations of politicians and historians of this period (sixteenth century) are unique to their day. It is wonderful to read Machiavelli's evaluation of Livy's historical accounts and see why certain actions which would be shunned by modern writers made perfect sense then. Such accounts help the reader not to be trapped in his own day's thought processes, but have an expanded scope of history. Very enlightening!
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on December 28, 2008
The 16th century Florentine statesman Niccolò Machiavelli is mostly known for his work "The Prince", arguably the most ill-reputed book ever written, perhaps apart from Hitler's "Mein Kampf". However, "The Prince" seems to have been a purely empirical study of Italian politics, or perhaps even a rhetorical exercise. In other words, Machiavelli didn't really mean it! At least that's one possible interpretation (yes, the most charitable one).

So what were Machiavelli's real positions? Many scholars believe that these are laid out in "The Discourses", a work almost unknown to the general public. Its full title is "Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy". Using the ancient Roman Republic as his model, Machiavelli attempts to analyze the role of fortune and virtue in history, the art of war, and the best system of government. There are certain similarities between "The Discourses" and "The Prince". Both works contain their fair share of pragmatic Realpolitik. On the whole, however, "The Discourses" show Machiavelli in a much better light than "The Prince". Machiavelli actually turns out to be an advocate of a democratic republic! Indeed, since Machiavelli supported the republican side during the political conflicts in Florence, it's safe to assume that *this* is the real Machiavelli.

"The Discourses" is not a particularly systematic work. It contains no fully worked-out political theory, and suffers from bad editing. (Machiavelli even admits this in his foreword.) The most interesting part is Book One, which deals with constitutional issues. Book Two, about the expansion of the Romans, is moderately interesting, while Book Three is the most disjointed. Since Machiavelli discourses on ancient Roman history, a working knowledge of the subject might be handy when reading his work. Despite the somewhat confusing character of "The Discourses", the main lines of argument are still discernible.

Machiavelli clearly believes that a free republic is the best form of government. The republic should have a division of power between the elite groups and the common people, something akin to the ancient Roman system where power was divided between patricians and plebeians. The republic should not use foreign, mercenary troops to defend itself. It must use its own soldiers. This is a point to which Machiavelli returns again and again, apparently since he believed that the Italian city-states of his own day lost their freedom due to reliance on mercenaries and even foreign officials. Wide income or class differentials are negative. Citizens should be frugal or even poor. A true citizen should be ready to serve in any position, high as well as lowly. A dictator might be temporarily appointed during a state of emergency, but only for a limited period, and only under constitutional forms. (A similar system existed in the Roman Republic.)

There is a great deal of ambivalence in "The Discourses" towards the common people. On the one hand, they are seen as a safeguard against tyranny. On the other hand, Machiavelli feared the fickleness and passions of the mob, and exclaims that a crowd without a head is useless. Despite his notion that wide income differences are negative, he nevertheless opposes the Agricultural Law, which would have re-distributed property in the Roman Republic from the upper class to the plebeians. There is also a contradiction between wanting the citizens to be frugal, and keeping patricians in power. Perhaps Machiavelli subconsciously identified the Roman patricians with the "bourgeois" middle class of his own time? In another part of "The Discourses", he explicitly writes that aristocratic nobles idly living off large estates should be literally exterminated! From his middling position, Machiavelli was equally suspicious of both landed gentry and the lower classes. Still, he seems to veer towards the latter.

Naturally, Machiavelli cannot refrain from giving some very pragmatic and "Machiavellian" advice in his work. His view of religion is typical in this regard (and the childish attempts of the translator to explain away the anti-Christian remarks as pro-Christian are perhaps even more typical). To Machiavelli, religion is a political tool, nothing more. If the people is religious, it's easier to keep in line. Rulers should uphold the religious traditions of their society, whatever these might be, and whatever they might think of them in private. However, one should never sacrifice the good of the state for a religious principle, and Machiavelli gives an almost humorous example of how the Romans attempted to circumvent a bad augury while still pretending to believe in it! He further states that paganism was better than Christianity, since paganism made people more virile, warlike and freedom-loving. Christianity has made people more prone to tolerate bad governments in the hope of heavenly salvation, rather than to fight for freedom in the here and now. (One almost waits for Nietzsche's statement that Christianity is a slave morality!) The out-spoken Machiavelli even questions whether Friar Savonarola (whom he supported) really was a prophet conferring with angels, although he quickly qualifies this by saying that the Friar was a very holy man, etc. (Savonarola was the leader of a republican revolution in Florence in 1494.) Please note that Machiavelli didn't mind Savonarola *claiming* that he spoke to angels, as long as this was politically useful. He makes a similar point about the ancient Roman king Numa, who claimed to have frequent meetings with a supernatural nymph about grave matters of state.

There is a great deal of ambivalence in Machiavelli's discussions about the Roman military expansion. He claims that Roman expansion was due to the Romans forming alliances with other peoples (albeit under Roman leadership), allowing non-Romans to settle in Rome, and letting conquered cities keep their own laws and traditions. In other words, he attempts to paint the Roman imperial expansion in as benign and "republican" light as possible, presumably to avoid the obvious problem that it eventually replaced the republic with an autocratic empire. However, he also admires the peoples who resisted the Roman expansion, seeing them as free republics. As a good Florentine, Machiavelli naturally feels a certain anachronistic aversion to the Roman conquest of "Tuscany" (actually Etruria). The discourses capture the dilemma in the following sentence: "Had the Romans not prolonged offices and military commands, they would not have attained such great power in so short a time, and, had they been slower in making conquests, they would also have been slower to arrive at servitude". Precisely. Here Machiavelli finally says what we somehow want him to say: imperial expansions leads to...well, empires, not republics!

Finally, I noticed that Machiavelli has some problems with Sparta and Venice. They don't conform to his more democratic republican model, and yet, Machiavelli is forced to admit that both these polities were very stable and lasted for an extremely long time. Somehow, you get the feeling that he treats them as anomalies in a world where everything else is in constant flux. The discourses also contain an interesting discussion about how Spartan and Venetian imperial expansion eventually led to their downfall.

"The Discourses" are an interesting early attempt to formulate a modern, moderately democratic republicanism. Readers who previously saw Niccolò Machiavelli as some kind of monster, might get a more positive picture of the man. He may not have been perfect, but at least he comes across as an honest statesman wrestling with difficult issues.

This is the real Machiavelli.
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on March 4, 2004
I'd recommend this book to anyone who might've enjoyed books like Sun Tzu's "Art of War" or Robert Greene's "The 48 Laws of Power" or even someone who is even religious (Muslim, Christian, etc.) who might not be too afraid of understanding the perspective of a politician. I mix in religion because, perhaps to someone who subscribes to a more "pious" take on life, Machiavelli may hold a severely secular stigma. But this book may offer an alternative, if even more secular, view on the decisions made by religious/state leaders like Moses and Muhammad. As for those who also are into government conspiracy theories I'd also recommend this book- mix it with what you already think and you may come up with some more original theories of your own! ;)
Machiavelli comes across as a learned observer of mankind and expresses a rare understanding of the continual state of flux of mankind. Through his studies of history and in comparing past events to "present" (circa 1500s) ones Machiavelli makes strongly supported arguments throughout the discourses. Where Robert Greene falls short in "48 Laws" I believe is Machiavelli's stronger point- applying the [quite helpful] description of the characteristics of the parties involved which helps the reader summate the outcomes [of many of the events that are described throughout his discourses] right along with the reading. "48 Laws" does this well at times but falls short of this fluidity with many of his examples which can leave a certain level of disparity between the example(s) given and the "Law" to which it applies.
In summary I'd note that this is one of the few books that I wish didn't finish. I don't agree with him on every point, but I admire the proofs to his arguments on every page.
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on February 24, 2010
THIS IS ABOUT the edition with Ninian Hill Thomson as the translator. i returned it, which is exceedingly rare for me, because the table of contents lacked the descriptive notations and there was no commentary or introductory analysis with the edition. the book itself is also in a cumbersome format, but that could have been excused. i sent it back and bought the modern library edition (prince and discourses combined) instead.
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on January 17, 2016
There are some works of philosophy/political science that attempt to explain how the world "should be" viewed according to an often rigid and static theory of knowledge. Machiavelli's Discourses instead explains how the world "is" and because of this is not a work of mere philosophy but of prophecy. Machiavelli notes that people's "passions and desires" are the same in the present as in the past and at his frequent best, he unearths these eternal penetrating truths of human and social behavior. Purists have often criticized Machiavelli for his apparent contractions although he is no more contradictory than human behavior itself. In many respects The Discourses reminds me in both its framework and style of De Tocqueville's Democracy In America, another great work of political psychology/sociology, as both works are based on nothing more than a master observer relaying to their readers their discovered truths of human behavior.

Among other topics readers of these pages will learn the following:
*That religion is the cause of greatness in republics and the neglect of it the cause of their ruin;
*Why a prince/republic should not seek to immediately eradicate an issue that has gripped the state;
*Why generals should immediately resign after a great victory;
*Why a "city that at its outset was in servitude to another should find it not merely difficult, but impossible, ever to draw up a constitution that will enable it to enjoy tranquility" (clearly reminiscent of the former Soviet Union)
*That prudent men always make a favor of doing that's that of necessity they are constrained to do anyhow;
*Why it will always be easy to persuade the populace to adopt bold actions even though disaster is concealed within them, and why it will be difficult to persuade the masses to adopt a course of action that appears cowardly or hopeless even though safety and security lies beneath.
*That men always praise bygone days and criticize the present;
*That cities have never increased their wealth unless they have been independent, and that its not the well-being of individuals that make cities great but the well being of the community...As soon as tyranny replaces self-government it ceases to make progress in power and wealth;
*That successful wars should "short and crushing" and that money is not the sinew of a successful war:
*That a prince who wants to do great things has to learn to practice deceit;
*That it is better for a concession to be extracted by force rather than by the threat of force;
*That it is impossible for a state to remain for ever in the peaceful enjoyment of its liberties and its narrow may not molest others but it will be molested;, and,
*That discord in a republic is usually due to idleness and peace and unity to fear and war.

Bernard Crick's introduction and endnotes are very helpful.
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on October 2, 2011
Most people know Machiavelli for The Prince, which they probably read in high school. Then they learn that he believed that the end justifies the means and that it is better to be feared than loved, etc. etc. The truth of the matter is that Machiavelli was quite brilliant, logical and very reasonable in his thinking. That between the Discourses and The Prince, he created a wonderful course in The Lessons of Leadership and Running a Country or a Business. He actually knocked out The Prince in short order, where The Discourses took him a great deal of time to write. My recommendation is to do your due diligence on the life of Machiavelli, his relationship with the DeMedici's, background on some of those he writes about like Cesare Borgia, and by all means come to understand who Livy is and what he wrote and accomplished. It will not take you long to do this. It will just provide you some worthwhile insight to Machiavelli and will allow you to better understand and interpret what he was promoting and why he wrote the things he did. And in this case, if you are a student of leadership or even political science, the end will indeed justify the means!
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on May 6, 2015
For those interested in a very interesting take on the functioning of democracies and republics and their history this is a good choice. Machiavelli is certainly one of the most misrepresented writers. His main theme is pragmatism.
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on November 23, 2014
Like so many other authors, "educators" don't get Macchiavelli. They try and demonstrate his greatness with The Prince, which, while quite good, is a work of sycophancy. No, the work that shows his genius is Discourses - his ruminations on Livy, Roman History and the Modern World - a work written in exile, without any audience to please but himself.
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