Machiavelli’s Discourses and Space Settlements – part 3

In this installment we will discuss paragraphs I-3 to I-4. In these paragraphs Machiavelli discusses the relationship between the plebs and the patricians, the two classes into which Roman citizens were divided.

The main argument he makes here is that the conflicts between both classes were beneficial of the maintenance of liberty in Rome. Machiavelli points out that in every republic there are an upper and a lower class. Conflict arises because the upper class holds power and the lower class seeks to share in this power. And because of these conflicts legislation is created that promotes liberty.

Or put simply: in order to keep some power, the upper class has to take the interests of the lower class into account. In the absence of competition from the lower class, there is no need for the elite to respect the rights and liberties of their subordinates.

Machiavelli starts his argument with the observation that under the Tarquin monarchy, the nobles were “nice” to the people, because they feared that the people would make common cause with the king against them. After the fall of the Tarquins this threat disappeared and the elite started to ignore the interests of masses.

Consequently tension between the upper and the lower became a part of the politics of the early Roman republic. Over time this conflict resulted in increased influence of the common people, such as the creation of the tribunes. The job of these officers was to counteract the actions of the senate and the consuls.

The idea that conflict within a political community is good for the promotion of liberty is a controversial one. But we should realize that there is no point in having a democracy without different opinions. After all democracy is just a method to resolve conflicts between citizens peacefully.

Also having competing points of view will reduce the risk of tunnel vision. A society cannot advance if it does not allow the discussion of alternative ideas. History provides numerous examples of out-of -the-box thinking resulting in social or technological progress.

Of course, that does not imply that any idea should be equally valued. In fact any proposal should be judged on its merits and it is the primary function of the political process to determine what ideas are good for society and which ones are bad. The proponents of any point of view will have to provide arguments for their positions.

If a society does not allow citizens to form and different opinions, than it cannot be a democracy. Such a society better fits the essence of a totalitarian regime. Where a republic flourish by a plurality of opinions, a totalitarian state seeks to create more or less identical citizens – and hence completely replaceable.

The totalitarian governments of the previous century always claimed to embody the “Will of the People”. Of course, if you have an effective system of propaganda through control of both education and mass media, the will of the authorities will match that of the people. But such a system can never be a free society.

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