As the stated goal of Niccolò Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy1 is to re-incline modern men towards imitation of the examples found in ancient histories, prudence commands that Machiavelli write for a wide audience—for all those who, in his time or in subsequent ones, can learn from his commentary on and presentation of Roman history. Like Machiavelli himself, Machiavellian man is envious and ambitious by nature, but he can be led to acknowledge the importance of prudence, particularly political prudence if he sees that it can serve his driving ambition. This combination, Machiavelli expects, will allow him to escape the dangers of envy by appealing to man's natural ambition, a prudent ambition which will likely be persuaded by Machiavelli's presentation of his peculiarly conceived image of the common benefit.
In pursuing these ends, Machiavelli emerges not merely as a theorist of practical political orders, but as a cultivator of a certain dialectical habit of mind. This duality, most obvious to readers who notice the intentions behind the seemingly contradictory historical examples he presents throughout, serves not only to present his historically ignorant readers with sly interpretations of nearly forgotten histories, but also to illustrate the ways in which skilled lawgivers mold their peoples through opinions and laws. If successful, both lawgivers and peoples will benefit: future lawgivers will discover the importance of the forgotten modes and orders and learn from Machiavelli's accounts how best to educate the people through law and opinion, allowing them finally to renovate old orders to create better and more glorious regimes; and, peoples generally will develop regard for the past and histories concerning it, so that when wise lawgivers make judicious use of the traditions unearthed (and modified) by Machiavelli, citizens will already be more open to similarly constructed efforts of persuasion. Thus here, in an attempt to understand the complicated foundation of Machiavelli's modernity, initiated by the new modes and orders he claims to have discovered, we will examine primarily the first two stages of the Discourses—foundings in Part I and maintenance in Part II—particularly as they treat lawgivers and peoples, and the opinion and law that bind them.
From the beginning of Part I, Machiavelli attempts to harness the power of opinion in political orders. However, he writes not so much about what contemporary political scientists think of as "public opinion" as about the effects of opinion on men generally, a study which necessarily examines those who inculcate opinion in citizens (the lawgivers) and the various uses and ends of that seemingly ever-shifting opinion (the creation and maintenance of political regimes). Given this, it seems that when Machiavelli criticizes opinion held by people of his day, it is not opinion qua opinion that he rejects, but rather, dangerous or unprofitable opinion—the definition of which is never clearly or concretely defined. Furthermore, as Machiavelli's examination of right opinion encompasses numerous (seemingly) contradictory passages, events, and analyses throughout, the reader is forced to search for patterns in or intentions behind these shifts to gain any comprehension at all.
Many of these contradictions become soluble once we understand the main divisions within the Discourses and the goals of Machiavelli's pedagogical technique. The former is immediately evident, as the book is divided primarily in three parts: Part I on foundings, Part II on maintenance, and Part III on refoundings—where implementation of each requires different necessary opinions. As for the latter, it seems that the role of opinion is bound up with Machiavelli's dialectical education, an education that not only teaches careful readers (and perhaps potential Machiavellian lawgivers) about dialectic, the art of thinking and writing pedagogically, and the changes opinion must undergo to be effective, but also about the connection between a Machiavellian education and law's usefulness. Past lawgivers were masters of opinion, and can teach Machiavelli's readers much about the creation and implementation of political orders; future lawgivers...