Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy



In June 2000, The Onion published a story, “Area Applebee’s a Hotbed of Machiavellian Political Maneuvering.” Machiavelli’s name has entered into popular consciousness as a synonym for dirty politics and underhanded double-dealing in general. While a clever betrayer might be called “Machiavellian,” it is not a misuse of the word to apply it to short-sighted, counter-productive, or gratuitous violence and treachery. The statesman who opts for policies of peace, justice, and mercy as the better option cannot be called “Machiavellian” without doing some violence to the word, on the other hand. The proper use of the word “Machiavellian” requires that one do violence to the philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli.

The gross misunderstanding of Machiavelli carried by the word “Machiavellian” is matched by an equally gross counter-misunderstanding that, in rescuing Machiavelli from the charge of advocating ghoulishness, makes him into a saint. The Prince is a satire, signaling to Italian republicans how to  defend themselves against foreign invaders and unscrupulous grandees by ostensibly giving advice to those same foreign invaders and unscrupulous grandees. The Discourses reveal Machiavelli’s true republican sympathies and justify violence only in the name of the higher good—the public good. Why Machiavelli would not be straightforward in a posthumous work like The Prince is never really explained, nor is his excusal of Caesar’s overthrow of the Roman republic in the Discourses.

The view of Machiavelli as the prophet of republicanism has a long history. The use of the term res publica to describe a form of government that was not monarchical had been popularized by Leonardo Bruni only a century before Machiavelli. It was Machiavelli’s description of the Roman state, however, that inspired Englishmen to translate this into “commonwealth” and see it synonymous with a government reliant upon virtue. The English republicans and commonwealthmen in the seventeenth century drew sometimes explicit inspiration from Machiavelli, sometimes implicit. Even if the praise of early Rome does not exhaust Machiavelli’s thought or even lie at its foundation, that praise is a major component of it and has exerted a more easily traceable influence upon politics than perhaps anything else in his works.

Machiavelli has also been presented as the first political scientist, meaning that he presents the facts that govern political life without passing value judgments upon those facts. He is the neutral reporter of what brings power, regardless of whether the pursuit of power is choiceworthy. This explanation assumes that it would be permissible to advise men how to be evil. Science for science’s sake would have to justify even the enabling of the enemies of science. There are elements of modern society that do justify this view of the scientist’s duty, but they did not exist for Machiavelli. Lacking the social context in which such an activity would be acceptable, he would have to have had private arguments of his own to justify it. These arguments would not be devoid of “value judgments” or, speaking more naturally, statements about what is good. In that way, his political science could not be as conscientiously value-neutral as might otherwise appear on the surface to modern political scientists. The explanation of how one can be a teacher of evil without being evil is more central to Machiavelli’s thought than his teaching on how to be evil, and will be the main theme of this course.

Machiavelli has also been singled out as the founder of Modernity. This would mean that he has more in common with Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, and Nietzsche than with his own contemporaries or with Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, or Xenophon. In this view he is often included in the first wave of Modernity, the progenitor of Hobbes and Locke, and therefore of the Enlightenment. Hobbes is the philosopher of cowards, his Leviathan the king over all the children of pride. Machiavelli openly flatters human pride. Rousseau rebelled at the idea of a society dedicated to nothing more than commodious living. Machiavelli’s Rome is not justified by the room it makes for civic participation, but by its ability to ensure more wealth and peace for its people than would otherwise be available to them. Machiavelli is credited with removing questions of the highest good and justice from political life. Kant and Hegel took those questions very seriously. Machiavelli distinguished between the people and the great, but effaced the distinction between the noble and the base. Nietzsche rises up in the name of nobility. This course will also grapple with how Machiavelli might be said to be the founder of Modernity.

Machiavelli’s Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio will occupy our attention for most of the course. The first class will cover some of the highlights of Il Principe. Both works were published after Machiavelli’s death in 1527, both works are dedicated to men who were already dead, and both works purport to contain all that Machiavelli knows about politics. The Discourses ostensibly covers the first ten books of Livy’s Ab urbe condita, describing the history of Rome from its mythic origins through the end of the Third Samnite War in 290 BCE. These were not the only books from Livy’s history to survive. His account of the Second Punic War and the conquest of Greece have also been preserved, but Machiavelli does not point us toward these in the title of the Discourses. Nor does he tell us that he will also describe several of the Caesars, or that he will frequently contrast Roman history with modern Italy. Machiavelli’s stated subject focuses on the ancient unification of Italy, not the expansion of the Roman state throughout the Mediterranean and the return of monarchic rule to Rome. Machiavelli’s stated subject is clearly what his republican contemporaries would want to hear about. His fuller teaching requires attention to what happens to successful republics and is perhaps not as attractive to devoted republicans.

In order better to facilitate class discussion, I will post my lecture notes online after I have given them. You are thereby encouraged to ask questions during class time, rather than practice your shorthand. Submit all written work via Blackboard.



10%        Weekly Papers, no more than 300 words in length, due by the beginning of each class on topics assigned. There will be no paper due in weeks where you hand in an essay. The lowest paper will be dropped (i.e., twelve papers, eleven of which count).

10%        Attendance and class participation.

25%        Class Presentation. Beginning around the fifth week, depending on the number of students enrolled, each class will begin with a student presentation that introduces us to the most important aspects of the sections we have read for that week. Students should be prepared to speak on their own for half an hour and to be interrupted with questions from other students. These interruptions may extend the amount of time devoted to the presentation. Once the discussion is satisfactorily concluded, class will continue as normal.

55%        Seminar Paper, due April 20 by 5:00pm. Papers should be between 5000 and 6500 words, and  not exceed 8500 words.


Required Readings

  • Niccolò Machiavelli. The Prince. Second Edition. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Niccolò Machiavelli. Discourses on Livy. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Recommended Readings

  • Harvey C. Mansfield. Machiavelli’s New Modes and Orders. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • Harvey C. Mansfield. Machiavelli’s Virtue. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Leo Strauss. Thoughts on Machiavelli. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Literature Often Cited

  • Gisela Bock, Quentin Skinner, and Maurizio Voroli, ed. Machiavelli and Republicanism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Alfredo Bonadeo. Corruption, Conflict, and Power in the Works and Times of Niccolò Machiavelli. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.
  • Frederico Chabod. Machiavelli and the Renaissance. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.
  • Patrick Coby. Machiavelli’s Romans. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 1999.
  • Martin Coyle, ed. Niccolò Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.
  • Dante Germino. “Second Thoughts on Leo Strauss’s Machiavelli.” Journal of Politics 28 (1966): 794–817.
  • Myron Gilmore, ed. Studies on Machiavelli. Florence: Sansoni, 1972.
  • Sebastian De Grazia. Machiavelli in Hell. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
  • Eugene Garver. Machiavelli and the History of Prudence. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.
  • Felix Gilbert. Machiavelli and Guicciardini. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965.
  • Mark Hulliung. Citizen Machiavelli. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.
  • Roger Masters. Machiavelli, Leonardo, and the Science of Power. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996.
  • Clifford Orwin. “Machiavelli’s Unchristian Charity.” American Political Science Review 72 (1978): 1217–28.
  • Anthony Parel, ed. The Political Calculus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.
  • Anthony Parel. The Machiavellian Cosmos. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
  • J. G. A. Pocock. The Machiavellian Moment. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.
  • Wayne Rebhorn. Foxes and Lions. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.
  • Quentin Skinner. Machiavelli. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
  • Leo Strauss. “Machiavelli.” In The History of Political Philosophy, ed. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey. 3d. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
  • Maurizio Viroli. Machiavelli. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • J. H. Whitfield. Machiavelli. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965.

Course Expectations & Policies

CANCELLATIONS: I have a cell phone, and will call to cancel class if necessary.

LATE ESSAYS: No weekly papers will be accepted if submitted late. Late essays will be penalized 1% per day (including holidays and weekends). The last day to turn in the seminar paper is three days before grades are due, unless you have been granted an incomplete for the course.

INCOMPLETES: Incompletes will only be given in rare circumstances, such as illness, death in the immediate family, or other unusual and unforeseeable circumstances not encountered by the other students in the class. Incompletes are given at the discretion of the instructor and only when it is possible that the completion of the remaining work could result in a passing grade. An incomplete must be resolved within the appropriate time limit or it will automatically be changed to an F. The student is responsible for seeing that incompletes are made up before the expiration date. Unless you want your paper graded by somebody else, you should not take an incomplete in this class.

ACADEMIC AND RESEARCH INTEGRITY: All work must be the product of the student’s own original effort. The graduate catalog states,

Good academic work must be based on honesty. The attempt of any student to present as his or her own work that which he or she has not produced is regarded by the faculty and administration as a serious offense. Students are considered to have cheated if they copy the work of another during an examination or turn in a paper or an assignment written, in whole or in part, by someone else. Students are responsible for plagiarism, intentional or not, if they copy material from books, magazines, or other sources without identifying and acknowledging those sources or if they paraphrase ideas from such sources without acknowledging them. Students responsible for, or assisting others in, either cheating or plagiarism on an assignment, quiz, or examination may receive a grade of F for the course involved and may be suspended or dismissed from the university. … The university has adopted additional policies and procedures for dealing with research misconduct among its students, faculty, and staff, … and pertain to the intentional commission of any of the following acts: falsification of data, improper assignment of authorship, claiming another person’s work as one’s own, unprofessional manipulation of experiments or of research procedures, misappropriation of research funds.

It is the student’s responsibility to familiarize him- or herself with university policy academic and research integrity. Students should take the university’s Academic Integrity tutorial ( Those uncertain how to avoid plagiarism should consult the Political Science graduate handbook and the resources that the Political Science Department has made available on its website ( All work will be run through SafeAssign.

DISABILITIES: Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, NIU is committed to making reasonable accommodations for persons with documented disabilities. Students who believe that their disability may have some impact on their coursework and for which they may require accommodations should notify the Center for Access-Ability Resources (CAAR) on the fourth floor of the Health Services Building. CAAR will assist students in making appropriate accommodations with course instructors. It is important that CAAR and the instructor be informed of any disability-related needs during the first two weeks of the semester.


Tentative Class Schedule

01/18         The Prince
01/25         Discourses, Dedicatory Letter – I 8
02/01         Discourses, I 9 – I 18
02/08         Discourses, I 19 – I 32
02/15         Discourses, I 33 – I 45
02/22         Discourses, I 46 – I 60
02/29         Discourses, II Pref. – II 10
03/07         Discourses, II 11 – II 18
03/14         [Spring Break]
03/21         Discourses, II 19 – II 25
03/28         Discourses, II 26 – II 33
04/04         Discourses, III 1 – III 6
04/11         Discourses, III 7 – III 15
04/18         Discourses, III 16 – III 27; Seminar Paper due Friday
04/25         Discourses, III 28 – III 34
05/02         Discourses, III 35 – III 49

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