Machiavelli and the principle of distinction

In chapter XLVII of his Discourses, Machiavelli tells two stories:

The Roman People having become annoyed with the Consular name, and wanting to be able either to choose as Consuls men of the Plebs, or to limit their authority, the Nobility in order not to discredit the Consular authority by either change, took the middle course, and were content that four Tribunes with Consular power be created, who could come from the Plebs as well as from the Nobles. The Plebs were content with this, as it seemed to them to destroy the Consulship and give them a part in the highest ranks. From this a notable case arose, that when it came to the creation of these Tribunes, and they could have selected all Plebs, the Roman people chose all Nobles. Whence Titus Livius says these words: The results of this election show how different minds are when in contention for liberty and for honors, differing according to certain standards when they (have to) make impartial judgments. And in examining whence this can happen, I believe it proceeds from men deceiving themselves in general matters, (and) not so much in particular matters. As a general thing, it appeared to the Roman Pleb that it merited the Consulship because they were the majority in the City, because they bore more of the danger in war, (and) because they were the ones who with their arms maintained Rome free and made it powerful: and this desire seeming to them to be reasonable ((as has been said)), they turned to obtain this authority by whatever means. But when they had to make a judgment of their particular men, recognized their weaknesses, and judged that none of them should merit that which all together it seemed to them they merited. So that ashamed of them (their own), they had recourse to those who merited it. Of which decision Titus Livius, deservingly admiring it, said these words: Where is there now this modesty and equity, and this loftiness of spirit, which once pervaded all the people?

In corroboration of this there can be cited another notable example which ensued in Capua after Hannibal had defeated the Romans at Cannae: while all Italy was aroused by this defeat, Capua was still in a state of tumult because of the hatred that existed between the People and the Senate: and Pacovius Calanus finding himself at that time in the supreme Magistracy, and recognizing the peril to which that City was exposed because of the tumults, endeavored through his rank to reconcile the Plebs with the Nobility: and having come to this decision, he had the Senate assemble, and narrated to them the hatred which the People had against them, and the dangers to which they were exposed of being killed by them, if the City was given up to Hannibal, as the power of the Romans was afflicted: afterwards he added that if they wanted to leave the managing of this matter to him, he would do so in a way that they would be united together; but, as he wanted to do so, he would lock them inside the palace, and by seemingly giving the people the power to castigate them he would save them. The Senate yielded to this thought, and he called the people to talk to them; and having shut up the Senate in the palace, (and) said to them that the time had come to be able to subdue the haughtiness of the Nobility and avenge themselves for the injuries received from them (the Senate), having them all shut up under his custody: but because he believed they would not want their City to remain without a government, it would be necessary ((if they wanted to kill the old Senators)) to create new ones. And, therefore, he had put all the names of the Senators into a bourse and would begin to draw them in their presence, and that one after another of those drawn would die after they should find his successor. And beginning to draw one, at his name, there was raised a very great noise, calling him haughty, cruel and arrogant: but when Pacovius requested that they make the exchange, the haranguing completely stopped: and after some time one of the Plebs was nominated, at whose name some begun to whistle, some to laugh, some to speak ill in one way and some in another: and thus there followed one after the other, that all those who were named were judged by them unworthy of the Senatorial rank.

Machiavelli’s interpretation of the stories seems absurd today – few would imagine that hereditary nobles are in fact more meritorious and deserving of authority than commoners.

A more reasonable interpretation of the stories would see them simply as a demonstration of the principle of distinction: the mechanics of elections are such that the winners must be outstanding people, people who manage to capture the attention of the public. In a society where the tools for capturing attention – organization, social status and material wealth – are controlled by the nobility, it would be very unusual for a non-noble to manage to win an election. Furthermore, those few non-nobles who do manage to capture public attention to the extent that would enable them to conceivably win elections would likely be at least as different from the typical member of society as the nobles are, and would not be any more virtuous or competent than the typical noble candidate is.

The history of Athens demonstrates the dynamics involved very clearly (and puts the lie to Machiavelli’s interpretation – he should have known better). Over the decades, as Athens shifted from being an aristocratic agrarian society into being a democratic capitalist society, influence in the mass political arena – control of elected positions and influence in the Assembly – transitioned gradually from the hands of the aristocracy to the hands of successful businessmen. While the people lost their reverence toward the aristocracy, elected offices and power in the Assembly remained in elite hands (i.e., remained non-democratic).

As absurd as Machiavelli’s claims appear, a version of those claims is an important part of the modern liberal dogma of electoralism. The dogma asserts that the fact that a person or a party win an election demonstrates that they have merit and deserve authority, while the average, anonymous Plebs do not. The dogma rejects the idea that these qualities belong to a genetically defined sector of society and emphasizes that such merit could belong to those starting from humble beginnings – and indeed is willfully blind to the statistical fact that electoral success is highly correlated with innate status – but, like Machiavelli, it regards electoral success as an indicator of merit.

Realistically, the main difference between the winning candidates and the average citizen is that the former managed to garner the public’s attention, while the latter didn’t. The idea that the ability to garner attention is associated with merit and deserves the reward of power is just as unfounded in our days as it was in the days of Hannibal.

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12 Responses

  1. I’m not sure it’s quite as absurd as you make it sound. In Athens as in Rome, being wealthy meant having a much better education, training in oratory, and time to study political affairs carefully. (Of course, not all aristocrats would have made use of these privileges.) So it’s not surprising that many of the most “meritorious” men would be aristocrats, although that would have had nothing to do with noble birth or any of that nonsense.

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  2. The notion that election is an indication of merit has its origins in the eighteenth century (the era of “parliamentary democracy”, in Manin’s parlance). During the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries this was replaced by election as a way of indicating policy preferences (“party democracy”) and this worked reasonably well, although it led to counterproductive cycling. The problem is, with the decline of political parties (the UK Conservative Party now has only around 150,000 members), nobody really knows what election is for as it’s hard to glean exactly what the policy of each party is (less so in the US). However policy innovation is an important part of democratic politics and its hard to see how sortition could play a role here. It’s also unclear how the history of Rome and other societies where politics was based on hereditary class distinctions is of much relevance to modern societies.

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  3. I think the characterisation of Athens as a capitalist society is anachronistic. Also the reference only to elected offices in Athens ignores those selected by lot, and the importance of direct votes in the assembly, neither of which could happen in the Rome described in the passages quoted.

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  4. Peter,

    > much better education, training in oratory, and time to study political affairs

    This is a modern argument that Machiavalli saw no need to resort to.

    As I wrote, I think the modern justifications for the existence of a political elite are as invalid as Machiavelli’s, but I grant that having been habituated to these arguments they do not sound absurd to the modern ear.

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  5. Keith,

    > The notion that election is an indication of merit has its origins in the eighteenth century

    I should point out that Machiavelli lived some time before the eighteenth century.

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  6. Paul,

    > I think the characterisation of Athens as a capitalist society is anachronistic.

    In what way? The analogies to modern society seem very striking.

    > Also the reference only to elected offices in Athens ignores those selected by lot, and the importance of direct votes in the assembly, neither of which could happen in the Rome described in the passages quoted.

    I did refer to the Assembly. Like the electoral system, it was part of the mass political arena and was therefore dominated by the elites (aristocratic or capitalist).

    Yes – sortition is a wholly different matter. The allotted Council and magistrates were the democratic element of the Athenian system.

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  7. Yoram, I simply see no evidence in the posting you provided that Machiavelli thought that aristocrats, merely by virtue of being well-born, were better than ordinary people. Indeed, there’s lots of evidence to the contrary in him. He fully recognizes how power-hungry and ambitious aristocrats can be–indeed, he regards conflict between elites, and conflict between the elites and the masses, as posing some of the greatest threats to the state. He famously said that the aristocrats wish to dominate, whereas the people merely wish not to be dominated. All of that is compatible with believing that the most qualified people to lead the state usually come from the aristocracy. Machiavelli might have been wrong–that’s a separate question–but he simply isn’t some kind of mindless apologist for the ruling class.

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  8. Peter,

    > I simply see no evidence in the posting you provided that Machiavelli thought that aristocrats, merely by virtue of being well-born, were better than ordinary people.

    I see no reasonable way to interpret the passages otherwise. If he indeed saw nobility as simply being a proxy to acquirable meritorious characteristics, as you suggest, his exposition in all likelihood would have explicated that.

    > He fully recognizes how power-hungry and ambitious aristocrats can be […]

    Such recognition is not a rejection of an aristocratic worldview, in the same way that criticizing power-hungry and ambitious capitalists is not a rejection of a capitalist worldview. This is more of a noblesse-oblige ideology: “we, aristocrats, must carry out our natural role as rulers of the masses with appropriate dignity and responsibility.”

    If you have evidence that Machiavelli held ideas along the modern ideology that innate potential is equally prevalent among all classes, and that it is only the realization of this potential among the nobility, due to its favorable circumstances, that makes the nobles meritorious, I’d be very interested (and quite surprised).

    As for being an apologist: in the passages I quoted he is not so much making an apology (i.e., a defense) of aristocratic power, as simply taking its legitimacy for granted. This is probably due to there being no serious opposition to this idea at his time. Again, I’d be very interested and somewhat surprised if this turns out not to be the case.

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  9. One Roman historical note…sometimes Plebs did, indeed win election, such as from the Plebeian Council… but it was common for these elected Plebs to rise in status and wealth to that comparable of the noble patrician citizens…thus an iota of social mobility…but further evidence of how the principle of distinction inherent in elections assures a divide between the rulers and the general population.

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  10. Yoram: >I should point out that Machiavelli lived some time before the eighteenth century.

    I’m sure Bernard Manin is well aware of Machiavelli’s biography. My claim for the 18th century focus on the connection between election and merit was in response to your comment on the “modern liberal dogma of electoralism” (which originated in the eighteenth century):

    “a version of those claims is an important part of the modern liberal dogma of electoralism. The dogma asserts that the fact that a person or a party win an election demonstrates that they have merit.”

    This was true in the eighteenth century whereas, as Manin points out, during the age of party democracy election became more a way of indicating policy preferences rather than just choosing “notables”. So persons and parties don’t win elections because they have merit, it’s because their policies better reflect the interests and preferences of the majority of voters. You can vote for a scoundrel if you think it will better further your interests. It’s hard to see how sortition can fulfil this role.

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  11. Keith,

    In the U.S. both concepts are prevalent today. While some Americans proudly vote for a party and thus feel they vote based on policy, MOST American voters insist that they “vote for the person, not the party,” where character is foremost. Of course, in reality, for most offices they rely on the candidate’s party label as an indicator of their merit. (sarcasm)

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  12. Agreed. This, after all, is the era of audience democracy, which is a noxious hybrid of the two. In the UK it’s more the persona of the party leader as opposed to the constituency representative that people vote for. But there is still the residual sense — a hangover from the 19th and 20th century — that the party ticket still means something in policy terms and it’s hard to understand how sortition could rise to this particular challenge. We certainly do not share the eighteenth-century view that we simply elect members of a natural aristocracy on the basis of their intrinsic merit and then trust them to use their superior judgment to govern in the interests of the nation.

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