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On Political Power and Personal Liberty in The Prince and The Discourses
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On Political Power and Personal Liberty in The Prince and The Discourses

Although liberty is a recurring concern in Machiavelli’s writings, there is no consensus regarding either the definition of the concept or its relevance for his overall political thought. One direction of Machiavellian interpretation that has gained prominence in recent decades has focused on the concept of “libertas” in relation to a republican mode of government, even though Machiavelli’s use of liberty cannot be simply equated with republicanism.1 In tracing the various occurrences of the term in Machiavelli’s political works, Marcia Colish has pointed out that in the context of internal affairs “Machiavelli often connects libertà with certain personal rights and community benefits that characterize free states regardless of their constitutions.” She specifies, in fact, that “he clearly identifies freedom with the protection of private rights” (1971, 345–6).2

Following up on Colish’s findings, this essay focuses on liberty in The Prince and The Discourses as it relates to freedom from government infringement on one’s person and rightful property. The theoretical backing for this approach can be found in Murray N. Rothbard’s understanding of freedom as “a condition in which a person’s ownership rights in his own body and his legitimate material property are not invaded, are not aggressed against” (2011, 50; emphasis in the original). In this definition, “the invasion of another’s person or property” occurs through “the use or threat of physical violence” (Rothbard 1982, 223).3 I also suggest that Machiavelli’s considerations [End Page 107] of personal liberty in opposition to state power have relevance for our contemporary political milieu.

In The Discourses Machiavelli posits two theoretical scenarios for the origin of cities: voluntary internal accord and external aggression.4 Considering Venice as an example of the first, he explains that “without any particular person or prince to give them a constitution,” those who reached the site that would become Venice “began to live as a community under laws which seemed to them appropriate for their maintenance” (Discourses 1.1, 101). In the second scenario, a foreign predatory group (genti forestiere) takes over a territory and builds a city that is not free and that consequently does not have the same chance to achieve greatness.5 This latter case, Machiavelli points out, corresponds to the origin of Florence under the Roman empire.

When Machiavelli composed The Prince, Florence had recently been taken over once again. In September 1512 the Medici faction seized power when the threat of invasion by a Spanish army—fresh from its sack of nearby Prato—led to a coup in the city.6 Nor does it appear there was any scope for freedom under the new regime. Machiavelli, following his dismissal, was barred from Palazzo Vecchio, prohibited from travelling beyond the boundaries of Florentine territory for one year, and ordered to pay a bond of a thousand florins. He was subsequently arrested on a charge of conspiracy against the state and subjected to physical and mental torture.7 Although he was innocent of the charges, only the election of a Medici as pope in March of 1513 brought an end to his imprisonment as part of a general amnesty.

If prudence consists, as Machiavelli maintained, “in being able to assess the nature of the particular threat and in accepting the lesser evil” (The Prince xxi, 73), what would be considered the “lesser evil” if someone who valued liberty were to offer advice to a prince in power? His objective would have to be—to borrow Rothbard’s phrasing—“to confine any existing State to as small a degree of invasion of person and property as possible” (1982, 193).8 And this, I would argue, is exactly what we find in The Prince, albeit presented as precepts designed to help the ruler retain power.9 Given the reality of both local predators [End Page 108] and foreign invaders with huge armies at their disposal, Machiavelli was not offering a utopian vision of how the world should be, but proposing measures that could safeguard some level of freedom from aggression by political power. Let us first address two of...