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BOOK II

Of the Different Kinds of Commonwealth [CHAPTER I]

Now that we have determined what sovereignty is, and have described its rights and attributes, we must consider in whom it is vested in every kind of commonwealth, in order to determine what are the various possible types of state. If sovereignty is vested in a single prince we call the state a monarchy. If all the people share in it, it is a popular state. If only a minority, it is an aristocracy.

It is desirable to be exact in the use of these terms in order to avoid the confusion which has arisen as a result of the great variety of governments, good and bad. This has misled some into distinguishing more than three kinds of commonwealth. But if one adopts the principle of distinguishing between commonwealths according to the particular virtues and vices that are characteristic of each, one is soon faced with an infinity of variations. It is a principle of all sound definition that one should pay no regard to accidental properties, which are innumerable, but confine oneself to formal and essential distinctions. Otherwise one becomes entangled in a labyrinth which defies exact analysis. For there is no reason why one should stop short at the difference between good and bad. There are other inessential variations. A king can be chosen for his strength, his beauty, his fame, his noble birth, his wealth, all of them matters of indifference. Or he may be chosen because he is the most warlike or most peace-loving, the wisest, the most just, a lover of display, of great learning, the most prudent, the most modest, the simplest, the most chaste. One could add to the list indefinitely and arrive at an infinity of types of monarchy. It would be the same in the case of aristocracies. The ruling class might be drawn from the rich, the nobles, or those esteemed as wise, or just, or warlike. Moreover, one would have to make a similar reckoning of bad qualities. The result would be merely absurd, and for this reason such a method of classification must be rejected.

Since then the nature of things is not changed by their accidental properties, we conclude that there are only three types of state, or commonwealth, monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. A state is called a monarchy when sovereignty is vested in one person, and the rest have only to obey. Democracy, or the popular state, is one in which all the people, or a majority among them, exercise sovereign power collectively. A state is an aristocracy when a minority collectively enjoy sovereign power and impose law on the rest, generally and severally.

All the ancients agree that there are at least three types of commonwealth. Some have added a fourth composed of a mixture of the other three. Plato added a fourth type, or rule of the wise. But this, properly speaking, is only the purest form that aristocracy can take. He did not accept a mixed state as a fourth type. Aristotle accepted both Plato's fourth type and the mixed state, making five in all. Polybius distinguished seven, three good, three bad, and one composed of a mixture of the three good. Dionysius Halicarnassus only admitted four, the three pure types, and a mixture of them. Cicero, and following his example, Sir Thomas More in his Commonwealth, Contarini,[1] Machiavelli,[2] and many others have held the same opinion. This view has the dignity of antiquity. It was not new when propounded by Polybius, who is generally credited with its invention, nor by Aristotle. It goes back four hundred years earlier to Herodotus. He said that many thought that the mixed was the best type, but for his part he thought there were only three types, and all others were imperfect forms. I should have been convinced by the authority of such great names, but that reason and common sense compels me to hold the opposing view. One must show then not only why these views are erroneous but why the arguments and examples they rely on do not really prove their point. ...

If sovereignty is, of its very nature, indivisible, as we have shown, how can a prince, a ruling class, and the people, all have a part in it at the same time? The first attribute of sovereignty is the power to make law binding on the subject. But in such a case who will be the subjects that obey, if they also have a share in the law-making power? And who will be the law-giver if he is also himself forced to receive it from those upon whom he has imposed it? One is forced to the conclusion that if no one in particular has the power to make law, but it belongs to all indifferently, then the commonwealth is a popular state. If power is given to the people to make law, and appoint to office, but all other powers are denied them, it must nevertheless be recognized that these other powers, vested in officials, really belong to the people, and are only entrusted by them to the magistrates. The people, having instituted the latter, can also deprive them, and the state therefore remains a popular one. In order to confirm what I have just said, let us look more closely at the examples of mixed states cited by Polybius, Contarini and others. ...

One of the examples given is Rome, whose constitution, it is alleged, was a mixture of monarchy, democracy, and aristocracy, in such a way that according to Polybius the Consuls embody the monarchical principle, the Senate the aristocratic, the Estates of the people the democratic. Halicarnassus, Cicero, Contarini, and others have accepted this analysis, inaccurate as it is. In the first place monarchical power cannot subsist in two persons simultaneously, since monarchy by definition is the rule of one. If it is divided, there is either no monarchy, or no kingdom. One could, with more reason, describe the Doge of Genoa or Venice as a monarch. But in any case what kingly power could be ascribed to the Consuls, seeing that they could not make law, declare war and peace, appoint any officials, pardon any offenders, spend a penny of public money, or even condemn a citizen to corporal punishment except in time of war? This last power belongs to any leader in the field. These would also have to be called kings, and with more reason. The Constable in this realm, and the great Pascha in Turkey have ten times the power of the two Consuls put together, yet they are no more than the subjects and slaves of the prince, as the Consuls were of the people. ...

Again, conduct of affairs of state undertaken by the Senate, and the decisions reached by it, had no force unless confirmed by the people, or assented to by the tribunes, as will be explained more fully when we come to deal with the council in the state. There can be no real doubt that the Roman constitution, from the moment that the kings were expelled, was popular, except for the two years of the Decemvirate, erected to revise the laws and customs. This temporarily converted the constitution into an aristocracy, or rather, oligarchy. I have said above that the authority of magistrates, of whatever degree they may be, is never properly their own, but enjoyed by them as a trust. It is clear that the people originally elected the Senate, but in order to get rid of the burden of so doing, they committed this power to the censors, who were, of course, also elected by the people. Thus all the authority of the Senate derived from the people. The people were accustomed to confirm or annul, ratify or veto the decisions of the Senate according to their good pleasure.

Contarini has analysed the Republic of Venice in the same way, describing it as a mixture of three pure types, as was that of Rome. He identifies royal power with that of the Doge, aristocratic with the Senate, and popular with the Great Council... But it is only a small minority of Venetians, drawn from noble families, that enjoys sovereign power. By no means all gentlemen who are natives of Venice are participants, for some of these citizens are eligible for the Great Council and others are not, although they may be of the same extraction, the same kin, and even bear the same names. I need not explain how this comes to be so, for it is all in Sabellico.[3] The Great Council, says Contarini, has power to make and unmake laws, institute and deprive officials, hear appeals, determine peace and war, pardon the convicted. But in saying this Contarini is condemned out of his own mouth. If it is as he says, it follows that the constitution of the Republic is an aristocracy, even though the Great Council's only direct power is the institution to office, for whatever power these officials enjoy, they hold them in trust. It follows that neither the Ten, nor the Senate, nor the Ministers of State, nor even the Doge himself with the six ducal councillors have any authority save by commission, and depend on the good pleasure of the Great Council. ...

There are those who say, and have published in writing, that the constitution of France is a mixture of the three pure types, the Parlement representing aristocracy, the Estates-General democracy, and the King monarchy.[4] But this is an opinion not only absurd but treasonable. It is treasonable to exalt the subjects to be the equals and colleagues of their sovereign prince. And what resemblance is there to a popular form of government in the Estates, seeing that each particular member and all in general, kneel in the king's presence, and address him by humble prayers and supplications, which he accepts or rejects as he thinks fit. What counter-weight of popular sovereignty can be set against the monarchy in an assembly of the three estates, or even an assembly of the entire people, were that physically possible, seeing that they approach the king with supplication and entreaty, and address him in terms of reverence? So far from diminishing the power of a sovereign prince, such an assembly enhances and emphasizes it. The king can attain no higher degree of honour, power, and glory, than he enjoys at the moment when an infinite number of princes and seigneurs, an innumerable multitude of people of all sorts and conditions, cast themselves at his feet, and pay homage to his majesty. The honour, glory, and power of princes lies in the obedience, homage, and service of their subjects.

If then there is no vestige of popular sovereignty in the assembly of the three estates of this realm, no more, or even less, than there is in those of Spain and England, still less is there any trace of aristocratic authority either in the Court of Peers, or any assembly of the officers of the kingdom, seeing that in the king's presence the authority of all corporations and colleges, of all officers of the realm collectively or severally, is suspended, so that no magistrate whatsoever has power to issue commands in his presence, as we shall show in due course. ...

But, someone may say, could you not have a commonwealth where the people appointed to office, controlled the expenditure of the revenue and had the right of pardon, which are three of the attributes of sovereignty; where the nobles made laws, determined peace and war, and levied taxes, which are also attributes of sovereignty; and where there was a supreme magistrate set over all the rest, to whom liege-homage was due by all the people severally and collectively, and who was the final and absolute resort of justice. Would not such arrangements involve a division of sovereign rights, and imply a composite commonwealth which was at once monarchical, aristocratic and popular? I would reply that none such has ever existed, and could never exist or even be clearly imagined, seeing that the attributes of sovereignty are indivisible. Whoever could make laws for all the rest, that is to say command or forbid whatever he wished, without there being any right to appeal against or resist his orders, could forbid the declaration of war, the levying of taxes, the swearing of oaths of fealty, without his consent. Or the man to whom liege-homage was due could forbid both nobles and people from obedience to any person but himself. Such situations could only be resolved by an appeal to arms, until by this means it was decided whether final authority remained in the prince, or a ruling class, or in the people ... Since the King of Denmark has been compelled to share sovereign power with the nobility, that kingdom has never enjoyed any secure peace. The same is true of Sweden, where the King is so mistrustful of the nobles that he employs a German as Chancellor, and a Norman gentleman called Varennes as Constable. ...

There is just one other point to be considered. The Republic of Rome, under the Empire of Augustus, and for long after, was called a principality. This appears to be a form of commonwealth not mentioned by Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle or even Polybius, who enumerated seven ... But I would reply that in many aristocratic or popular states one particular magistrate has precedence over all the rest in dignity and authority. Such are the Emperor in Germany, the Doge in Venice, and in ancient times the Archon in Athens. But this does not change the form of the state ... A principality is nothing but an aristocracy or a democracy which has a single person as president or premier of the republic, but who nevertheless holds of those in whom sovereign power resides.

Concerning Despotic Monarchy [CHAPTER II]

... ALL monarchies are either despotic, royal, or tyrannical. These however are not different species of commonwealth, but different modes of operation in their governments. It is important that a clear distinction be made between the form of the state, and the form of the government, which is merely the machinery of policing the state, though no one has yet considered it in that light. To illustrate, a state may be a monarchy, but it is governed democratically if the prince distributes lands, magistracies, offices, and honours indifferently to all, without regard to the claims of either birth or wealth or virtue. Or a monarchy can be governed aristocratically when the prince confines the distribution of lands and offices to the nobles, the most worthy, or the rich, as the case may be. Again, an aristocracy can conduct its government democratically if it bestows honours and rewards on all alike, or aristocratically if it reserves them for the rich and nobly born. This variety in forms of government has misled those who have written confusedly about politics, through failure to distinguish the form of the commonwealth from the form of the government.

Royal, or legitimate, monarchy is one in which the subject obeys the laws of the prince, the prince in his turn obeys the laws of God, and natural liberty and the natural right to property is secured to all. Despotic monarchy is one in which the prince is lord and master of both the possessions and the persons of his subjects by right of conquest in a just war; he governs his subjects as absolutely as the head of a household governs his slaves. Tyrannical monarchy is one in which the laws of nature are set at naught, free subjects oppressed as if they were slaves, and their property treated as if it belonged to the tyrant. Exactly the same diversity is to be found in aristocracies and popular states, for each in its turn can be either legitimate, despotic, or tyrannical in the way I have described.

Despotic monarchy must be considered first, as it is the earliest kind of government known to men. They are in error who accept Aristotle's opinion that the primitive kings of heroic times were elected by the people. We have evidence that the first monarchy that ever came into being arose in Assyria, in the time of Nimrod.[5] The Scriptures speak of him as the mighty hunter, which in Hebrew is a common way of referring to a robber. Aristotle and Plato themselves include brigandage as a form of the chase. Before Nimrod's time there was none who had authority or domination over others. His very name indicates his character, for Nimrod signifies 'terrible and mighty lord'. Not long after his time, during the life of Shem, Noah's son, the world was found to be full of slaves, and throughout the Scriptures the subjects of the Kings of Assyria and Egypt are always referred to as slaves. The Greeks too were convinced that whereas they themselves were free, the barbarians were enslaved, and by barbarians they meant the inhabitants of Persia and Asia. When the Kings of Persia made war, they always laid claim to both land and water, by way of indicating, says Plutarch, that they were the absolute lords of all property and all persons whatsoever. ...

Despotic monarchy must not be confused with tyranny. There is nothing unfitting in a prince who has defeated his enemies in a good and just war, assuming an absolute right to their possessions and their persons under the laws of war, and thereafter governing them as his slaves; just as the head of a household is the master of his slaves and their goods, and disposes of them as he thinks fit, under the law of nations. But the prince who by an unjust war, or any other means, enslaves a free people and seizes their property, is not a despot but a tyrant. ...

Nowadays, by comparison with the number of tyrannies, there are few despotic monarchies save in Asia, Ethiopia, and those parts of Europe governed by the Kings of Tartary and of Muscovy. According to the History of Muscovy[6] the subjects are called chlopes which means slaves ... Elsewhere in Europe, and in the kingdoms of Barbary, I know of no despotic monarchies... The people of Europe are prouder and more belligerent than the inhabitants of Asia and of Africa, and have never submitted to despotic rule since the Hungarian invasions. Thus Odovacer, who ruled at that time, took a third part of the lands of the vanquished when he subdued Italy, in accordance with the usual penalty inflicted on a conquered people. But he left them their freedom, and absolute control of the property that remained to them, without dues, or oaths of fidelity, or homage whatsoever. But subsequently the Germans, the Lombards, the Franks, Saxons, Burgundians, Goths, Ostrogoths, Angles, and other tribes, having experienced the customs of the oriental Hungarians, began to conduct themselves as lords and masters, not, it is true, of the persons of the conquered peoples, but of their property. They then gradually established rights of overlordship of land, and claims to faith and homage, and other rights knowns as feudal rights, thereby perpetuating the shadow, though in a very attenuated form, of the primitive despotic monarchies. ...

It may occur to someone to object that despotic monarchy is really a tyranny, seeing that it is a violation of the law of nature to deny anyone his personal liberty, and the free disposal of his own goods. I agree that it is against the law of nature to enslave a free man, and to seize the goods of another. But there is, and always has been, universal agreement that what is won in a just war is the property of the victor, and that the vanquished are his slaves. A monarchy so established is not a tyranny. We read in Holy Writ that Jacob left property to his children by will, which he claimed as his own because he had won it by force of arms. Moreover the custom whereby it is recognized that there can be no just war where there is a superior to settle disputes, implies that where there is no superior, recourse to arms is justified. This is illustrated in Germany, where the Princes and Imperial Free Cities are subjected to the imperial ban if they will not restore that which they have seized from another. Otherwise, if we make no distinction between despotism and tyranny, we can make no distinction between rights of war against an enemy and theft, between the just prince and the brigand, between a war justly undertaken and a mere exercise of violence.

Generally speaking we find that tyrannies quickly come to ruin, but that despotic states and despotic monarchies have proved both great and enduring, such as the monarchies of the Assyrians, the Medes, Persians, and Egyptians in ancient times, and in our own day that of Ethiopia where, if we are to believe Paolo Giovio, the Negus commands fifty kings as his subject slaves.[7] The reason why despotic monarchy is more lasting than the others is that it is the most authoritative. The lives, the goods, the liberty of the subjects are at the absolute disposal of the prince who has conquered them in a just war. This greatly discourages unruliness in the subject. As with slaves, awareness of their condition makes them humble, timid, 'servile' as they say. But men who are free, and masters of what is their own, resent any attempt to enslave them or take their property. They are quick to resist, not being debased by servitude, because they have the courageous spirit that is born of freedom. So much for despotic monarchy. Let us now consider royal monarchy.

Concerning Royal Monarchy [CHAPTER III]

A TRUE king is one who observes the laws of nature as punctiliously as he wishes his subjects to observe his own laws, thereby securing to them their liberty, and the enjoyment of their own property. I have added these last qualifications in order to distinguish kingship from despotism. A despot can be a just and virtuous prince, and an equitable governor of his people, but he is the master of their persons and their goods. If a despot who has overcome his enemies in a just war, restores to them their liberty, and permits them to dispose of themselves and their possessions as they wish, he ceases to be a despot and becomes a king. ...

In defining royal monarchy I have said that the subjects should obey the king, to make it clear that sovereign majesty is vested in him, and I have said that the king should obey the laws of nature, to show that he should govern in accordance with the principles of natural justice, which are as obvious, as clear and illuminating as the light of the sun.

It is therefore the authentic mark of kingship that the prince is as mild and pliable to the laws of nature as he wishes his subjects to be to him. This means that he is one that fears God, is merciful to the afflicted, prudent in his undertakings, brave in action, modest in prosperity, constant in adversity, true to his plighted word, wise in council, careful of his subjects, helpful to his friends, terrible to his enemies, courteous to men of good birth, a scourge of evil-doers, and just towards all. In such a state there is the rule of law rather than of men, or as Pindar puts it, the law is king, since the prince obeys the laws of nature, and the people the civil laws. The result is a condition of mutual harmony between the king and his obedient subjects, and a happy and unforced agreement the one with the other.

Monarchy so conducted is properly called royal and legitimate. This is so whether the king succeeds by hereditary right as did the ancient kings, as Thucydides truly observes; or whether the succession is governed by some law excluding women and their heirs male, as is the case in this kingdom under the salic law; or whether the king is elected as Aristotle says was the case with primitive kings (though in this case he ignores the truths of history, and what Thucydides himself records), and still is the case in many northern kingdoms; or whether the crown is received as a free gift, as when Augustus gave Numidia, recently reduced to a subject province of the Empire, to Juba the Younger, or when the kingdom of the Sicilies was given first to Charles of France, and then to Louis of France, Duke of Anjou; or whether it is disposed of by will, as is the custom in the kingdoms of Thunes, Fez, and Morocco, and as was done by Henry VIII, King of England, who left the crown first to his son Edward, and then to Mary and then Elizabeth, who later succeeded (though in this case the will was ratified by the people). If a man seize the crown by subtle practices, as did Cecrops, Hiero, and Gelo according to Pindar, and in our own times Cosimo de' Medici, Duke of Florence,[8] he is a king if he reigns justly ... Even if he conquers his kingdom by force of arms, rightly or wrongly, provided that he rules the people so conquered equitably, he is a true king, as Livy said of King Servius. In fact, one often finds that a robber and brigand turns into a virtuous prince, and a violent tyranny becomes a just monarchy ... Monarchies cannot be distinguished one from another by the method of succession, but only by the way they are conducted, and of these there are only the three varieties, despotic, royal, and tyrannical ... So much for royal monarchy. Let us turn to tyranny.

Concerning Tyrannical Monarchy [CHAPTERS IV AND V]

A TYRANNICAL monarchy is one in which the monarch tramples underfoot the laws of nature, in that he abuses the natural liberty of his subjects by making them his slaves, and invades the property of others by treating it as his own. The word tyrant, which in Greek was originally an honourable term, merely signified the prince who had come into power without the goodwill of his subjects, and from being an equal had raised himself to be their master. Such a one, even though he proved a wise and just prince, was called a tyrant. Plato, writing to the tyrant Dionysius, addressed him in that style as a mark of respect, 'Plato to the tyrant Dionysius, greeting'. The fact that Pittacus and Penander, who were numbered among the seven sages of Greece, were called tyrants because they had seized the government of their realms, is sufficient proof that the term was used of good as well as bad rulers.

But those who by force or fraud had seized sovereign power soon found that their lives were exposed to the vengeance of their rivals, and were compelled for their own safety to employ foreigners as a bodyguard, and to build great fortresses as a refuge. Their upkeep then compelled them to levy heavy taxes and imposts. Discovering nevertheless that their friends were weak and their enemies powerful, they were prompted to put to death or to banish the latter to enrich the former. The most abandoned ravished not only goods, but women and children. The consequence was that tyrants became loathed and detested. We read that Dionysius the Elder, tyrant of Syracuse, maintained a guard of ten thousand foot and ten thousand horse, besides four hundred armed galleys. He could rely on the loyalty of so few citizens that he forbad them to meet together, even for private banquets, however closely the participants might be related to one another, and he encouraged assaults on anyone going home from such a gathering. Nevertheless Plutarch admits that he was a good ruler, and governed better and more justly than many princes who styled themselves kings. ...

But it is possible that the same man may conduct himself as a despot to some of his subjects, a king to others and a tyrant to the rest. For instance he may tyrannize over the rich and the nobility, but be a beneficent protector of the poor. For tyranny is always a matter of degree, more or less. There is no prince, however worthy, who has not some notable vice. There is no tyrant, however cruel, who has not some virtue, or laudable quality. For this reason it is most ill-advised and dangerous to condemn a prince without a proper understanding of his conduct, and without balancing his good deeds against his bad, his heroic exploits against his mortal wickednesses. The Persians for instance never condemned anyone till it could be shown that the evil that he did outweighed the good.

In contrasting the king and the tyrant therefore we must take the extreme cases of the good and just king, and the utterly detestable tyrant, to make the distinction between them clear. But be it noted that by a good and just king I mean one who is popularly accepted as such, and not some impossible ideal figure of heroic proportions, or a paragon of wisdom, justice, and piety, without blame or reproach. Such perfection is all too rare. I mean by a good and just king one who consistently strives to be such, and who puts all that he has, even to his life's blood, at the service of his people. Such were a Codrus, or a Decius. Apprehending that victory depended on their deaths, they forthwith laid down their lives. But best of all examples is that of Moses, whom Philo calls the wise legislator, just king, and great prophet. He prayed God the rather to blot out his name from the book of life than that the people should go unpardoned, preferring rather his own damnation than that the people should perish. Here indeed is the likeness of the true prince and the father of his people.

The most notable distinction between the king and the tyrant is that the king conforms to the laws of nature and the tyrant tramples them underfoot. The one is guided by piety, justice, and faith. The other denies his God, his faith, and the law. The one does that which he believes will further the common good, and the welfare of his subjects. The other consults only his own profit, vengeance, or pleasure. The one tries to enrich his subjects by any means he can discover. The other builds his prosperity on the ruin of other people's. The one avenges injuries done to his subjects but pardons those committed against himself. The other takes a cruel revenge for injuries done to himself but pardons those done to others. The one encourages free speech on the part of his subjects to the point of wise rebuke when he has failed in his duty. The other dislikes none so much as the serious, free-spirited, and virtuous citizen. The one tries to keep his subjects in peace and unity among themselves. The other sows dissensions, that his subjects may ruin one another, and he himself grow rich on the profits thereof. The one takes pleasure in being seen and heard by his subjects. The other shuts himself away as from his mortal enemies. The one bases his rule on the love of his people, the other on their fear. The one only imposes burdens on his people when absolutely necessary, and is as moderate as possible in his demands. The other sucks the marrow from the bones of his subjects, and bleeds them white to keep them weak. The one seeks out upright men to fill the public offices. The other sells them to the highest bidder in order to vex his subjects by setting robbers on them, and then executes the thieves in order to get himself the reputation of a just ruler. The one conforms his conduct to the laws, the other makes the laws subserve his convenience. The one is loved and revered by his subjects, the other is hated by all and hates all. The one appeals to the assistance of his own subjects in time of war, and keeps no garrison unless they man it. The other makes war on his subjects and surrounds himself with foreign guards. The one lives in peace and security, in expectation of eternal felicity, honoured in this life and regretted after death. The other drags out his existence in perpetual terror, without the hope of escaping eternal punishment, defamed while alive, and cursed after his death. There is no need to verify all these truths by a wealth of examples, for they are known to all. ...

One must not however label as evidence of tyranny the executions, banishments, confiscations and other deeds of violence that mark a revolution or restoration in a commonwealth. Such changes are necessarily violent, as was illustrated by what happened at the establishment of the Triumvirate in Rome, and at the election of many of the Emperors. It is not proper, either, to call Cosimo de' Medici a tyrant for building a citadel, surrounding himself with foreign guards, and taxing his subjects heavily for their upkeep, after the assassination of Alessandro, Duke of Florence. Such medicine was necessary to a commonwealth ravaged by so many seditions and insurrections, and for a licentious and unruly populace, everlastingly plotting against the new duke, though he was accounted one of the wisest and most virtuous princes of his age. On the contrary it often happens that mildness in a prince would ruin a commonwealth, whereas severity saves it. It is sufficiently notorious that the tyranny of Domitian was terrible to the Senate, the nobles, the great lords, and governors of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless after his death he was held in great honour by the provincials, for never had they known better officers and magistrates, kept in awe as these had been by fear of the Emperor. ...

Those who go about uttering extravagant praises of princes who are mild, gracious, courteous, and simple, are greatly in error. Simplicity without prudence is dangerous and pernicious in a king, and much more to be dreaded than the cruelty of a severe, close-fisted, and inaccessible prince. Our forefathers did not without reason coin the phrase 'a bad man makes a good king'. This sounds strange to sensitive ears, and to those not accustomed to weigh one thing against another. The tolerance and foolish simplicity of too good a prince admits flatterers, place-hunters, and undesirables of all sorts to the offices, charges, and places of profit in the commonwealth. Thereby the finances are exhausted, and the faces of the poor ground to serve the benefit of the rich. Instead of one tyrant they suffer ten thousand. When there is too great generosity of this kind, wicked men, assassins, and disturbers of the peace of all kinds commit their evil deeds with impunity, for the good and liberal king cannot bring himself to refuse a petition of grace. The public good is sacrificed for the benefit of individuals, and the whole burden of the commonwealth falls on the poor.

One can verify what I say by many examples from both Greek and Latin history. But one need go no further afield than this country. Its condition was never more miserable than under a Charles the Simple. It was correspondingly great and prosperous in war and in peace under Francis I, who became most haughty and unapproachable as he grew older, so that none dared ask anything from him. In consequence lands, offices, and benefices all went to men of honour only. ...

A prince then must not be judged a tyrant because he is harsh and severe, provided always he keeps the laws of God and of nature. This point elucidated, let us consider whether it is right to make attempts upon the life of the tyrant.

The misuse of the term tyrant has misled many, and led to all sorts of unfortunate consequences. We have already said that the tyrant is one who on his own responsibility makes of himself a sovereign prince without election, hereditary claim, just conquest, or special divine commission. The opinions, and the laws of the ancient world condemned such to death. What is more, the ancients bestowed praise and honour in the form of titles of nobility, of chivalry, and statues and other marks of honour on the slayers of tyrants. They regarded them as the liberators of their fatherland, or as the inhabitants of Candia said, their motherland. They made no distinction between the virtuous prince and the evil and corrupt one. They did not think it proper that any man living should seize sovereign power, and make himself master over those who had been his equals and companions under any pretence of virtue and justice that he could allege. What is more, according to the civil law, anyone who assumed the authority reserved to the sovereign merited death. Wherefore if the subject tries to seize the government from the hands of his king by any means whatsoever — and the same principle applies in popular states and in aristocracies — he is worthy of death. It would seem then that our question is answered.

The Greeks and the Romans were at variance however as to what form the proceedings should take, whether by the operation of the law, or the act of an individual. The Lex Valeria, published at the instance of Publius Valerius Publicola, permitted homicide if one could make out a reasonable case for supposing that the dead man had indeed aspired to sovereign power. It was based on the argument that it was better to have resort to violence than to risk the destruction of both law and government in an anxiety to maintain the rule of law. If one insisted on a legal process, it was unlikely that such could be effected before the would-be tyrant had actually seized power, and once he had done so, it would be impossible to accomplish anything against one in control of all the organized forces in the commonwealth. On the other hand Solon legislated in the opposite sense, by expressly forbidding the resort to violence, and the assassination of the aspirant to power, until he had been brought to justice and condemned by due process of law. This seems more equitable than the Lex Valeria, for many good citizens and men of note have been murdered by their private enemies under the pretence that they were aiming at tyranny. After all, one can in such a case always regularize the situation by a retrospective trial after the fact. But it seems to me that both these principles can be accepted if one applies the law of Solon in the case where the prospective tyrant has not as yet got any armed forces under his control, and the Lex Valeria when the tyrant has come into the open and seized the citadel and its garrison. ...

But the real problem we have to consider is whether the legitimate ruler who has succeeded to power by election, hereditary right, just conquest, or divine commission, and then abandons himself to cruel exactions and every sort of wicked oppression can be killed, for this is the sort of man one generally means when one uses the word 'tyrant'. Many of the jurists and theologians who have considered the question have concluded that it is justifiable to kill the tyrant and without distinction. Indeed some have used the mutually exclusive terms 'tyrant-king'. This doctrine has been the ruin of many great and nourishing monarchies.

Before this question can be resolved, one must make a distinction between the prince who is an absolute sovereign, and the one who is not, and between the position in relation to him of the subject and the foreigner. For just as it is right and proper for anyone to take forcible action to defend the honour and life of those who are oppressed unjustly when the law offers no remedy, so it is highly honourable, and befitting a prince, to take up arms in defence of a whole people unjustly oppressed by a cruel tyrant. Such a one was Hercules when he went about the world destroying monsters of tyranny everywhere. For these exploits he was deified. Such also were Dion, Timoleon, and other generous princes who earned the title of scourge of tyrants ... In such a case there is no doubt that a virtuous prince can proceed against a tyrant either by force of arms, diplomatic intervention, or process of law. If he takes the tyrant captive, it is more to his honour to punish him as a murderer, a parricide, or a robber than to allow him the benefit of the law of nations.

But when it comes to the question of the conduct befitting a subject, one must distinguish between the sovereign prince and one who is not so. If he is not sovereign, sovereignty must lie with the people or with the magnates. In such cases one is justified in taking legal proceedings against him, if this is practicable, or in resorting to force and violence if there is no other way of bringing him to reason. Action of the first sort was taken by the Roman Senate against Nero, and of the second against Maximian, for the Roman Emperors were only the first magistrates of the Republic, sovereignty remaining in the people and the Senate ... A parallel case is the Empire of Germany. It is an aristocratic principality, in which the Emperor is only the first magistrate. The power and majesty of the Empire is vested in the Diet, and the Diet deposed the Emperor Adolf in 1296, and again in 1400 the Emperor Wenceslas, in each case by due process of law, for it had jurisdiction over them. ...

But if the prince is an absolute sovereign, as are the true kings of France, Spain, England, Scotland, Ethiopia, Turkey, Persia, and Muscovy, whose authority is unquestionably their own, and not shared with any of their subjects, then it is in no circumstances permissible either by any of their subjects in particular, or all in general, to attempt anything against the life and honour of their king, either by process of law or force of arms, even though he has committed all the evil, impious, and cruel deeds imaginable. No process of law is possible, for the subject has no jurisdiction over his prince, for all power and authority to command derives from him, he can revoke the commissions of all magistrates whatsoever, and his mere presence suspends the powers of all magistrates, corporations, colleges, estates, and communities. And if it is not allowable for the subject to pass judgement on his prince, the vassal on his lord, the servant on his master, that is to say proceed judicially against them, how much less is it allowable to proceed by force of arms. It is not a question of whether the subject has the means to do so, but whether it is lawful or within the competence of the subject to do so.

Not only is the subject guilty of high treason who kills his prince, but so also is he who has merely attempted it, counselled it, wished it or even considered it... We read that the most holy doctors that the Jews ever knew, those who were known as the Essenes or experts in the law of God, held that sovereign princes, of whatever character, should be regarded by their subjects as sacred and inviolable, and given of God. One cannot doubt that David, king and prophet, was informed by the spirit of God if ever man was, having always before his eyes the law of God. It was he who said, 'slander not the prince, nor speak evil of the magistrate'. Nothing is more insisted on in Holy Writ than the wickedness of compassing the death of the prince, or any responsible magistrate, or even making any attempt against their life or honour, even though, adds the Scripture, they be evil men.

If then the man who merely slanders the magistrates commits high treason by both divine and positive law, what punishment is sufficient for the man who attempts their lives? The law of God is much more precise on this point than are positive laws. Under the Lex Julia it is high treason to counsel the death of the magistrate or public official. But the law of God forbids any sort of detraction of the magistrate.

It would be waste of time to meet point by point the trivial arguments of those who maintain the opposite view. One does not argue with the man who doubts if there is a God, one merely subjects him to the merited penalties of the law. They should be treated in the same way who have called in question a principle so obvious, and have maintained in print that the subject can justly take up arms against a tyrannical prince, and compass his death by any means in their power. Albeit, some of the most undoubted scholars among theologians[9] have denied that it is ever justifiable to kill or even resist a sovereign prince, unless by a special and indubitable commission from God. We have an example of such a one in Jehu, who was chosen of God, and anointed king by the Prophet with the express command to bring about the destruction of the race of Ahab. He was a subject, and never attempted anything against his prince, despite the latter's many cruelties, exactions and massacres of prophets, until he had received an express command from God through the mouth of the Prophet. ...

But one must not use these occasions of special divine commission to justify in general the conspiracies and insurrections of rebellious subjects against their sovereign lords... I cannot find a better analogy than the relationship between a father and his son. The law of God declares that the son who defies his father or mother should be put to death. If the father is a murderer, a thief, the betrayer of his country, incestuous, a parricide, a blasphemer or an atheist, though all the punishments imaginable would not be sufficient penalty for him, it is not for his son to play the executioner. But the person of one's native ruler is even more sacred, and should be regarded as more inviolable even than that of one's father, for he is ordained and set over his subjects by God.

I conclude then that the subject is never justified in any circumstances in attempting anything against his sovereign prince, however evil and tyrannical he may be. It is however permissible to fail to obey him in any commands contrary to the law of God and of nature, but one must then seek refuge in flight, go into hiding or suffer death rather than attempt anything against his life or his honour. What a great number of tyrants would be discovered if one might kill them. The prince who imposed heavy taxes would be one in the eyes of the vulgar. The man who ruled contrary to the wishes of the people would be one in Aristotle's eyes. The man who kept a body-guard for his protection and the man who executed those who conspired against his life would also be tyrants. What security could virtuous princes enjoy? I do not wish to deny to neighbouring princes the right to pursue tyrants by force of arms. I only wish to deny it to the subject. ...

Concerning the Aristocratic State [CHAPTER VI]

ARISTOCRACY is that form of commonwealth in which the minority of the citizens have sovereign authority over the rest considered collectively, and over every citizen considered individually. It is therefore the opposite of the popular state, for there the majority of the citizens command the remainder considered collectively. But they resemble one another in this, that in either commonwealth the governing body has authority over the whole body of citizens only in their individual capacity, and not considered as a corporate whole. The monarchical commonwealth excels the other two in this respect, since the authority of the king extends over all, both in their aspect of a corporate whole, and in their aspect of a collection of individuals.

Just as monarchy can be royal, despotic or tyrannical, so aristocracy can be legitimate, despotic or factious. In ancient times the latter was called oligarchy, or the rule of a small handful of magnates. Such were the thirty rulers of Athens denounced by Thrasybulus, who were known as the Thirty Tyrants. Such also was the Decemvirate appointed to reform the laws and customs of the Romans. By force and violence, and aided by a faction of the citizens, they seized the government. Such practices explain why the ancients always used the term oligarchy in a bad sense, and aristocracy in a good, since they confined the latter to the rule of good and honest men.

But we have already shown that commonwealths cannot be classified according to the vices and virtues of their rulers when considering the form of the state. Such classification only applies to the form of the government. Moreover it is difficult, if not impossible, to erect a government which consists solely of honest men. Casting lots is no way of securing their selection, and election by their fellows is hardly more likely to do so. These are the two methods commonly used, though a third method got by combining the other two is sometimes employed. One must suppose all the electors to be honest men themselves if one is to be sure that honest men will be elected. Rogues choose others like themselves and in such a case honest men have not the effrontery to put themselves forward... In any case what guarantee can there ever be that the electors will not choose some relative, rather, son, brother, or even some friend, rather than a stranger however deserving he may be? This is why there are not now, and perhaps never were, any such states as pure aristocracies.

Therefore whether the government is in the hands of men of birth, of merit, of wealth, a military caste, the poor, the workers, or a set of scoundrels, provided it is a minority that rules, that state I call an aristocracy. When I say the minority of the citizens, I mean the greater number of that minority when assembled together as a corporate body. If there are ten thousand citizens of whom one hundred gentlemen only share sovereign power, if sixty of those are in agreement, they have an absolute right of command over the remaining nine thousand nine hundred citizens in general, who have no part in government, as well as those other forty who have. In other words the sixty have sovereign authority over all the ten thousand citizens considered as individuals, just as much as the hundred considered as a corporate body would have had, had they been in agreement. Neither the size of the state nor the proportion of the minority ruling class to the rest is significant. If there are a hundred thousand citizens and ten thousand of them participate in sovereignty the state is no less an aristocracy than if there are ten thousand citizens of whom one thousand govern the rest. In each case a tenth part governs. The same is true if it is only a hundredth or a thousandth part. But the smaller the governing minority, the stronger and more secure the state.

The state of Germany needs rather more careful examination in this connection. Even many well-informed persons think that it is a monarchy. I have said something about this already, but it is here convenient to show with more preciseness that it is an aristocracy. From the time of Charlemagne to that of Henry the Fowler it was a pure monarchy by right of succession in the line of Charlemagne. After Henry the Fowler, the monarchy long continued as an elective one, till the seven Electors gradually established their own sovereignty, leaving nothing to the Emperor but the symbols of power. All real power was in the seven Electors, the three hundred or so Princes of the Empire, and the representatives of the Imperial Free Cities. We have defined the aristocratic state as one in which the minority of citizens command the rest considered collectively, and each and all severally. Can it be shown then that the Imperial Diet, made up of three or four hundred men, has sovereign power to the exclusion of the claims of the Emperor on the one hand, and the Princes and Cities individually on the other, to make law for all the subjects of the Empire, to declare war and conclude peace, impose taxes and imposts, appoint judges ordinary and extraordinary with jurisdiction over the possessions, the honours, the life of the Emperor, the Princes and the Imperial Cities — for such are the authentic marks of sovereignty — ? If this is the case, and it is certain that it is, then it cannot be denied that the state of Germany is a true aristocracy.

That what I say is true is evident from the fact that sovereign commands are issued in the form of rescripts and decrees of the Diet. Decrees are published by the authority of a body consisting of the seven Electors, who have a third voice, by the other Princes of the Empire who hardly number three hundred in all, who have another third voice, and by the deputies of the Imperial Cities to the number of about seventy, who have the remaining third voice. Together they have full authority to enact or retract, confirm or reject, whatsoever is proposed. There is nothing peculiar about this constitution to distinguish it from any other aristocracy, save that the Electors have one vote, the Princes a second, and the Cities a third, so that if the seven Electors and the deputies, or the deputies and the Princes, or the Electors and the Princes are in agreement, the measure becomes law. ...

There are others who think that the Princes and the Imperial Cities severally enjoy sovereign power, and that the Imperial Diet has no more power than the assemblies of the Swiss Confederation. There is, nevertheless, a great difference between them. Each Canton is sovereign, without subjection to the laws and commands of the others; they have no obligation to one another other than those specified under the terms of their defensive and offensive alliances. But the Empire of Germany is united in its Diet. The Diet can place Cities and Princes under the Imperial ban, and depose Emperors from their estate by the sovereign authority inhering in it, as on the occasion of the rejection of Adolf, and of Wenceslas son of Charles IV, and many others. Moreover the Diet regularly publishes decrees and ordinances binding on all the subjects of the Empire, both in general and in particular.

What is more, the ten Circles, or circuits of the Empire, hold their separate diets to formulate their particular petitions, grievances, and complaints, to the Imperial Diet, in order that it may issue its decisions in the matter. Again, the Electoral Princes, after the coronation of the Emperor, take an oath of allegiance to the Empire, not to the Emperor, though they actually swear the oath between his hands... Finally, the Emperor as head unites the Empire even more closely in a single commonwealth than if it was only united in the Diet. I have said 'as head of the Empire', or captain in chief, but I do not mean by that as sovereign lord, such as many think he is. For whereas kings and monarchs make princes, the Emperor on the contrary is elected and made such by the Princes. ...

In the face of these facts how can anyone persist in the opinion that the Emperor is a sovereign, and the Empire a monarchy united in a single person?... It must also be conceded that there is no Prince or Imperial City which has sovereign authority. Each is a member of the Empire, governing the state under his authority subject to the laws and ordinances of the Empire ... It is only when the Empire is divided into hostile factions, as has so often happened, and the Princes banded together the one against the other, that the communal governments of the towns, and the subordinate jurisdictions of the Princes, are converted into a number of separate aristocracies and monarchies. Each member of the Empire then constitutes itself a particular sovereign state. ...

A well-ordered aristocracy is extraordinarily satisfactory as a form of government. A corrupted one is correspondingly pernicious, for instead of a single tyrant there are a multitude. This is most likely to happen, and often does when the nobles band together against the common people. In ancient times, when the nobles were admitted to power in aristocratic states, they took an oath that they would be from that time forth the sworn enemies of the people. This was the ruin of aristocracies. Let us now turn to popular states.

Concerning Popular States [CHAPTER VII]

A POPULAR state is that form of commonwealth in which the majority of the people have collectively sovereign authority over the rest considered collectively, and over each several member considered individually. It is the necessary mark of the popular state that the greater part of the people have authority to command not only each particular citizen as such, but the minority of the people as a body. If there are thirty-five clans, or groupings of the people, as in Rome, eighteen of them have sovereign power over the other seventeen and can bind them by the laws they make. This was the case when Marcus Octavius was deprived of the tribunate at the instance of his colleague, Tiberius Gracchus. ...

When I say that the majority of the people are invested with sovereign power in a popular state, this holds good when votes are counted by head as in Venice, Ragusa, Lucca, Genoa, and practically all aristocratic republics. But if one counts votes by clans, or districts, or communities, it suffices that the majority of clans, districts, or communities as the case may be, are agreed, even if the majority so determined includes only a minority of the actual number of citizens. This was practically always the arrangement in the popular republics of the ancient world. ...

These arrangements provide the answer to those who say that there cannot be, never was, nor ever could be a truly popular state where the whole assembled people make law, appoint to office, and exercise all the prerogatives of sovereignty, seeing that the greater number are generally absent, and it is only a small group that actually makes the law. But it suffices if the greater number of clans are agreed, even if there are only fifty people in one and a thousand in another, provided that the right of recording his vote is secured to each individual, should he wish to be present. But in order to prevent a faction securing the ascendancy by intriguing with the most influential members of the various clans, it was customary when some law of importance was under discussion to add some clause, such as that the law about to be published could not be rescinded save by the assembly of the whole people, six thousand citizens at least being present. One finds many examples in Demosthenes, and in the Lives of the Ten Orators, and Plutarch adds that a sentence of ostracism could not take effect if less than six thousand citizens consented. A similar safeguard is provided by the ordinances of Venice, whereby in all matters of consequence, or touching the administration of justice, it is provided that there shall be no amendment of the ordinances of the city by the Great Council unless there are at least a thousand Venetian citizens present, and of these four-fifths, or five-sixths, as the case may be, are in agreement. Only when such conditions are satisfied can a law be imposed on the rest of the community. This law is the same in principle as the law governing the procedure of guilds and corporate associations, by which two-thirds of the members are required to be present in session, and the majority of this two-thirds in agreement, to make a regulation binding on the rest. ...

We have said above that the state can be a pure monarchy and its government popular, as happens when the prince distributes lands, offices, and rewards indifferently to rich and poor, noble and commoner without exception of persons. Or a state can be a monarchy governed aristocratically if the prince confines his gifts of lands and offices to a few nobles, or a handful of rich men, or his personal favourites. On the other hand if the majority of the citizens share sovereign power, but only bestow the responsible offices, honours, and prerogatives on the nobles, as was done in Rome till the publication of the Lex Canuleia, the state will be a popular one, but the government aristocratic. If government is in the hands of the nobles, or the wealthy, but they open offices and privileges to poor and simple citizens, as well as to the rich, without favour shown, the state is an aristocracy governed democratically. If the people have sovereign power and give lands and political privileges to all without respect of persons, or if all offices and benefices are filled by lot, the state is not only a popular state, but governed as such... In the same way, if the nobles or the wealthy alone govern the state, and reserve lands and honourable charges for their own class, one can say not only that the state is an aristocracy, but also that it is governed aristocratically. Such is the case of Venice.

It may be objected that I am alone in making such distinctions, and that none of the ancients, still less contemporary writers on politics, have developed such views. This I don't deny. But it seems to me necessary to make such distinctions if one would understand the true character of every type of commonwealth, and avoid falling into a maze of errors, such as did Aristotle. He confused the popular and the aristocratic state, and vice versa, against common opinion and even common sense.

But one can never build a secure superstructure on ill-founded principles. Such confusions lead to the ill-formed opinion of those who think one can have a commonwealth compounded of all three basic types which we have rejected as impossible. We consider it indisputable that the form of the commonwealth is always simple, even though the government may be of a contrary type, as a monarchy is clearly contrary to a popular state in principle, yet nevertheless sovereign majesty may reside in a prince who governs his realm as if it were a popular state. But this is not a commixture of monarchy and democracy, which are mutually incompatible. It is a monarchy with a popular government, and this is the most secure kind of monarchy there is. The same may be said of the state which is an aristocracy whose government is popular. It is much more secure than if its government were aristocratic. ...

Popular government can admit of degrees of more and less, as can be seen in the case of the Swiss Republics. Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Zug, Glarus, and Appenzel are governed by sovereign communes, and there is not a fortified town in any of the five, save only Zug. The other nine Cantons and Geneva are governed by a council of magnates, as I learn from M. de Bassefontaine, Bishop of Limoges, who has long discharged the duties of ambassador there in the most unexceptionable and honourable manner. Even the Bernese, whose senate is composed of craftsmen, choose the Advocate from the most noble and ancient families. It is in consequence more stable than the others. The three leagues of the Grisons, which are the most popular in organization, are much the most disturbed, as foreign ambassadors have always found.

For the true nature of a people is to seek unbridled liberty without restraint. They would make all equal in goods, honours, punishments, and rewards, without any respect whatsoever for noble birth, education, or virtue. As Plutarch said in his Symposia, they want everything decided by lot or by divination, without respect of persons. If the nobles or the wealthy show any signs of wishing to make their influence felt, they hasten to massacre or banish them, and divide their confiscated property among the poor. This happened at the foundation of the free Swiss republics, after the battle of Sempach.[10] The noblesse were all but exterminated, and the remnant compelled to renounce their title to nobility, yet nevertheless they were ejected from their lands and offices, save in Zurich and Berne. ...

On the other hand nobles and wealthy men generally look at things in quite a different way. They think that those who are distinguished by birth, wealth, education, or experience should be more esteemed, deferred to, and honoured than the rest, and that all honourable charges should be reserved to such men. They therefore take pains to exclude the poor from any share in the management of affairs of state. It is impossible to compound two such diametrically opposed attitudes, in spite of Solon's claim to have made laws which were equal alike for rich and poor, noble and simple. For the rich understand by equality, proportional equality, the poor, absolute equality. We shall explain in the proper place what is meant by these terms, and the advantages and disadvantages of each type of commonwealth. At the moment it suffices to have defined and described them.


1. In his work on Venice, Della Republica e Magistrati di Venetia, 1563.

2. In his Discorsi supra la prima deca di Tito Livio, first published 1532, and in a collected edition, 1550.

3. Historian of Venice. His Rerum Venetarum ah urbe condita ad Marcum Barbaricum Libri XXXIII was published in 1487.

4. There is a marginal reference in the Latin version made by Bodin in 1586 to Du Haillan. He wrote a book De I'estat et succes des affaires lie France, published in 1570, which Bodin very largely drew on for his account of the French monarchy.

5. This belief that lordship began with Nimrod, and was rooted in iniquity, was a tradition enshrined in the canon law. Gratian ascribes the founding of societies of men regulated by laws to Cain, and their refoundation after the flood, to Nimrod.

6. Its author was Sigismund, Baron d'Herberstein. His Rerum Muscoviticarum Commentarii was published in 1549 and several times subsequently.

7. Historiarum sui temporis Libri XLV, Lib. xviii. 1530.

8. Succeeded in 1537. He founded a stable dynasty and so put an end to the chronic instability of Florentine politics.

9. There is a marginal reference to Luther and Calvin.

10. 1377. It was fought against their Hapsburg overlords, and the victory laid the foundations of the effective independence of the Forest Cantons.


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