Machiavelli’s Discourses and Space Settlements – part 2

In paragraph I-1 of his discourses Machiavelli discussed the different origins of cities. In paragraph I-2 he then turns to the different ways a city can be governed.

In this paragraph Machiavelli is only concerned with independent cities or states. He argues that there are two types of cities: cities which have been fortunate to have had a legislator and those which had to develop their own constitution.

As an example of the first category Machiavelli mentions Sparta, which constitution was designed by Lycurgus. He believes that because of Lycurgus’ constitution Sparta enjoyed eight hundred years of political stability.

On the other hand, Machiavelli gives Rome as an example of the second category. Though the city was founded by Romulus*, the Roman constitution experiences several adaptations since the cities’ foundation.

Regardless how the city’s constitution was created, there are different types of government. Machiavelli now implicitly cites Polybius and Aristotle in his discussion of different types of government.

First, he cites the following classification:

  • Monarchy – rule by one
  • Aristocracy – rule by few
  • Democracy – rule by many

Machiavelli is not quite satisfied by this classification. In addition to the above (good) types of government, he adds the following bad ones:

  • tyranny – corruption of monarchy
  • oligarchy – corruption of aristocracy
  • anarchy – corruption of democracy

Like Polybius, Machiavelli believes that the good types easily turn into their bad counterpart. After all, power corrupts and hence the good governments are short-lived.

In order to prevent the continues cycle of god governments turning into bad ones, Machiavelli argues in favour of a mixed constitution. Rather than pursuing one of the pure monarchy, aristocracy or democracy, he propose to include elements of all three in the constitution.

Sparta, Machiavelli contends, enjoyed eight centuries of stability because of its mixed constitution, while Athens suffered from  grave instability as a result of its adoption of pure democracy by Solon.

The idea behind mixed government is according to Machiavelli, that the different elements will watch over each other, i.e. a system of checks and balances. This way the abuse of power is discouraged.

Mixed government is the core of a republican constitution in classical political thought, not the question whether the head of state is inherited or elected. Kant, for instance, classified constitutional monarchies under republican governments because of their hybrid governments and their commitment to the rule of law.

Machiavelli subsequently identifies the Roman constitution as a mixed. However, he argues that it was an incomplete one at the foundation of the republic, as it had only a monarchical (the consuls) and an aristocratic element (the senate) but no democratic one. Fortunately, Rome did get a democratic institution in the form of the tribunes.

The founders of future space settlements should follow the example of Lycurgus and design a mixed constitution (in the meaning of checks-and-balances), rather than wait for a suitable constitution to evolve by itself. Of course, this will be no guarantee that freedom will never be jeopardized, as the history of the Roman Republic clearly shows, but in an imperfect world we have to deal with second best solutions.

*Though both Lycurgus and Romulus are nowadays considered to be legendary figures, who probably have never existed, M. treats them as historical persons.