Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Return of the Republic


In Search of the Republic--9

After the brief excursion into recent developments in the Republican campaign, we return to the brief history of the idea of a republic.

Some previous posts at Right Detour surveyed the origins of the concept of republican government.


Aristotle described a regime he called a polity that later authors called a republic. After classifying legitimate constitutions into rule by the one (monarchy), rule by the few (aristocracy), and rule by the many (polity), Aristotle described a variety of polity that embodies both the poor and the wealth in the constitution. He suggested a mixture in which the poor assemble to make the laws, but thet elect magistrates to carry out those laws. According to Aristotle, the election of magistrates introduces an aristocratic element into an otherwise democratic government. In theory, with both poor and rich embodied in the constitution, the society would experience less of the class conflict between poor and rich that plagued many of the ancient Greek city-states.

A different sort of mixed regime developed centuries later on the Italian peninsula. Cicero described a government in which the poor met in assembly to make laws. They usually followed the lead, however, of a heredity aristocracy embodied in the Roman Senate. Cicero titled his book about this regime, which embodied both poor and rich in the constitution, de re publica, or On The Republic.

With the overthrow of the Roman republic, republicanism disappeared from the face of the earth.

In western Europe, the Roman empire collapsed under the pressure of invasion by Germanic tribes from across the Rhine River. The invaders established a series of  Germanic kingdoms across Western Europe. Without sophisticated governing institutions or administrative skills, the rulers failed to maintain the physical infrastructure and economic activity of the Roman empire. Roads lay unmaintained, cities deteriorated, and fields were abandoned to return to wilderness. Authority gradually passed to local landed warrior-nobles. Several hundred years passed in the Middle Ages before Europe experienced the rise of organized hereditary monarchies, such as under the Carolingians in France.

Republicans reemerged, however, in the late Middle Ages. Several small maritime republics emerged once again on the Italian peninsula. These included Amalfi, Venice, Genoa, Florence, and Pisa. Venice became the most powerful and well-known.

They resembled the ancient Greek city states in that they were small and war-like. They fought wars with the Arabs, the Turks, with other European kingdoms, and with each other. They differed from the ancient city-states in that they operated as commercial republics. Many ancients, such as Aristotle and Cicero, remained suspicious of some kinds of trade and the use of money. The expansion of the use of money as a medium of exchange and banking helped make these Italian city-states commercial maritime republics. But it also led to a new kind of aristocracy. Instead of a traditional landed aristocracy, the merchant class dominated these latter Renaissance republics.

Venice, for example, was an extremely restrictive mixed republic. The most democratic body, the Great Council, consisted exclusively of noble merchant families. The Great Council elected from among themselves a Senate. Finally, they elected the chief magistrate, called a Doge. Over time, however,  the government grew increasingly exclusive and restricted to the same families.

The most important theoretical writings about republicanism, however, came from Florence. Franceso Guicciardino, Donato Gianotti, and Nicoli Machiavelli all wrote several works expounding their views of republican government. In general, they argued for government resting on the authority of the people rather than monarchy. They drew upon Rome as the model republic. And they affirmed the traditional republican virtues that leaders must exert in order to preserve the liberty of the people and establish the lasting honor, fame, and glory for their republic.

Machiavelli stands out, however, because of some of his controversial variations to Florentine republican thought. In his Discourses on Livy, a commentary on the ancient Roman historian, Machiavelli starts out conventionally enough. He observed that "Experience shows that cities have never increased in dominion or riches except while they have been at liberty."  He added that "as soon as tyranny is established over a free community," the cities "no longer go forward and no longer increase in power or in riches, but in most instances, in fact always, go backward." And he asserted that virtue among  leaders is essential to the preservation of a republic.

Machiavelli became notorious in Medieval Europe--and ever since--for his transmogrification of the traditional idea of the virtues. He asserted that virtue among leaders must mean more that just possession of individual virtues like wisdom, prudence, courage, etc. For Machiavelli, virtu is a quality possessed by a leader which enables him to promote the greatness of his city and the common good of the people against both the external threats of other power and internal  threats posed by private interests. Moreover, Machiavelli argues that leader must be willing to do anything, even those things outside to bounds of conventional morality to preserve the republic. He told his readers that

"there must be no consideration of just or unjust, of merciful or cruel, of praiseworthy or disgraceful; instead, setting aside every scruple one must follow to the utmost any plan that will save her life and keep her liberty."

In addition, Machiavelli claimed that the average citizen should also possess this same kind of patriotism. He argued that this kind of patriotism among the people is what kept Rome strong for so long.

So how did Rome inculcate this kind of patriotism? Machiavelli claimed that the Romans used their religion. He saw a problem, however, in replicating the Romans in this regard because of the rise of Christianity. For Machiavelli believed that Christianity, with its virtues such as humility and mercy and its focus on the next world, undermined the patriotism needed to preserve republican liberty in this world. He wrote the Christianity has "made the world weak and turned it over as prey to wicked men."

Machiavelli expressed his hope that good laws and good lawmakers could instill patriotism in the citizens. These would inhibit the growth to two kinds of corruption that bring down republics. The first emerges when the citizens become politically apathetic and grow "lazy and unfit for all virtuoso activity." The second occurs when the citizens, especially the powerful, become more "interested in what they can get from the public, rather than in its good." A corrupt republic, consequently, is one in which the citizens seek their own private interests and advantage rather than the common good and honor, fame, and glory for their country.

These two corruption seem to be afflicting our republic today.

Corruption, according to Machiavelli, led to the overthrow of the Roman republic by the generals and serves as a lesson for leaders and citizens in all future republics.

All of the Medieval  republics eventually succumbed to the surrounding non-republican powers that eventually emerged in the late Middle Ages.. Even these surrounding kingdoms, however, developed some institutions that opened the way for another revival of the idea of republicanism.

The next post will look at these institutions.






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