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How are Machiavelli and Rousseau similar? The Challenge of Inequality for Republics and How to Best Address It

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (painted portrait)

How are Machiavelli and Rousseau similar? A republic is a political structure that represents the people, prioritizing individual rights and liberty. For Machiavelli and Rousseau, inequality poses an issue for republics because it erodes freedom, the primary ideology that a republic values. They assert that inequality stems from private property and the creation of class. For Machiavelli, this leads to a natural desire for one class to dominate another, hence oppressing people and eroding civil liberties.

For Rousseau, class differences create dependence that oppresses freedom.

While both see the value of the law in addressing inequality as a structural solution, their proposed mechanisms differ. Machiavelli believes that the answer is organized conflict, which best represents the desires of the people and hence creates the best laws. Conversely, Rousseau believes cooperation should be legally structured to create a general will that represents everyone and hence does not enslave anyone. They also differ in their view of the principality as an alternative. This stems from diverging views on how to best create laws to address inequality and the role of an active citizen, through violent tumults or peaceful assemblies.

Inequality is a problem for republics because it erodes civil liberties, a key facet of a republic.

Machiavelli finds that such inequality stems from the creation of class and commerce, leading to political domination which erodes freedom. In Discourses on Livy, he defines individual freedom as ‘being able to enjoy one’s things freely, without any suspicion […] not to be afraid for oneself’ (p.45). This is what the republic must defend because republics are stronger when civil liberties are protected, for a republic aspires toward a ‘common utility’ (p45).

The protection of freedom is one of two of the republic’s main goals (p.66). It is hence an issue that inequality threatens this. When a society is unequal, it is ‘corrupt’ (Book I, Chapter 55) and not ‘well-ordered’ (p.59). Inequality stems from the erasure of wrong-doing because of positive contributions to society (p.59). He believes that this mindset creates a precedence of the individual expecting forgiveness for committing harm on another due to his benefits to society, as seen through the example of Manlius (p.60).

Machiavelli further argues that such corruption and inequality are exacerbated when success is defined by commerce, not virtue.

Engraved portrait of Machiavelli, from the Peace Palace Library’s Il Principe, published in 1769

This stems from his belief that men are naturally ‘ambitious’ (p.65) and hence unable to control their pursuit of riches to attain victory. The inability to be content with one’s possessions due to commerce leads to class creation, between the Grandi and the people. Hence, a true republic cannot come to be. As the Grandi goes against Machiavelli’s belief in the ‘great equality’ (p.113) that characterizes a republic. Inequality thus erodes the primary tenet of a republic—to represent and protect its citizens. When citizens attempt to dominate others, the republic fails to support the freedom of every citizen and disproportionately prizes the rights of a gentleman over that of the people because of wealth. The republic then becomes corrupt and could transition to an oligarchy. 

Rousseau similarly identifies the problem of inequality for a republic. Like Machiavelli, he believes that the foundation of a republic is the representation of the free people (The Social Contract, p.62). Unlike Machiavelli, he believes that this stems from the natural right of people to freedom as seen in Discourse on Inequality. Inequality corrupts this. Principally, Machiavelli sees freedom of man as the ‘principle of all political right’ and ‘noblest of man’s faculties’ (p.74). This underscores his argument. Such ‘political inequality’ (p.23) encroaches upon the freedom of the people. Because a certain group is permitted to enjoy benefits at the cost of another.

As not all citizens are free, the republic fails. This explains his distrust of private property and the land-owning class which created inequality (p.62). This amplified the ‘differences of circumstance’ amongst men (p.65) and gave more power to those who had more, as the people depend on the land-owning class for employment. The unnatural dependence on each other created enslavement and eroded freedom, for one class simply could not live without the other (p.53). These hierarchies promoted comparison and preference, enslaving man to vice (p.60). An enslaved people erodes man’s natural right to freedom and hence threatens the foundation of a republic. 

While both agree on the existence of the problem, they disagree on the solution.

This is because while Machiavelli finds conflict inherently ideal, Rousseau finds it problematic. Machiavelli asserts that the answer to addressing inequality in a republic is through organized social conflict, which he believes is the best representation of the people and hence creates the best laws. In Discourses on Livy, he asserts that these tumults are the reason behind Rome’s success (p.16). It enables the airing of grievances that reveals the biggest issues of the people and are hence able to target the ‘benefit of public freedoms’ (p.16).

These grievances that laws aim to redress are seen to be an accurate representation of issues arising from the oppression of one class over the other (p.17), while such venting is necessary to improve public systems by addressing the people’s biggest problems, this must be organized and coordinated. There must be structures in place to ensure that individuals can safely accuse others of wrongdoing (p.27). Rome’s greatness, for example, is linked to its acceptance of the need for social conflict between the people and the Senate. To develop a government that prevents oppression of the people (p.23). He sees conflict as desirable because he believes that a key problem of republicanism is that people take their freedom for granted (p.63). These social conflicts thus create the risk of the people losing this freedom, and forces them to fight to retain it.

The ideal citizenry is hence active and determined to demand freedom. Machiavelli’s stance is also more extreme due to his distrust of the Grandi who pose a barrier to the creation of a true republic (p.112). Tumults erode the power of the gentleman class, as the people’s refusal to partake in everyday life would force the gentlemen to give up their political domination, attaining better equality in the republic. Machiavelli sees active citizenry as the answer as the people would naturally demand better structures to protect their freedom, creating the best laws to mitigate inequality.

Rousseau, however, is averse to conflict and instead pushes for structural cooperation.

Even if he believes that the problem lies in dependence, his answer is greater dependence via the social contract. This is because he believes that the laws must represent all citizens and all citizens must respect all laws. Hence, he proposes institutionalized and organized cooperation via The Social Contract. This would entail ‘the total alienation by each […] and all his rights to the whole community’ where alienation is ‘unconditional’ (p.60).

This stems from his belief that a good citizen accedes to the general will. They forgo individualistic impulses to belong to the collective, putting aside the desire to give in to vanity and uncontrolled accumulation of wealth for the ‘general will’ (p.61). This ensures that a man is not enslaved to anyone because everyone is represented by this general will, the will must be ‘general’ because it would then apply broadly to all the individuals it is meant to encompass (p.75), ensuring equal representation in governmental structures.

Oil painting of Machiavelli by Cristofano dell’Altissimo

This would create the best laws as citizens can reflect upon the general will and vote in assemblies, ensuring freedom in the eyes of the law as man shapes the laws he lives under (p.137). He does admit the impossibility of total equality and instead finds that power ‘stopping short of violence’ (p.96) and wealth that does not lead to exploitation is the best result. It is important to note the limits that he imposes—that the superiority of one man must stop at the point that it prevents the freedom of another, an example of seceding to the general will. His proposal of structural cooperation likely stems from believing that dependence and hence inequality is inevitable in a civilized society (Discourse on Inequality, p.62).

Unlike Machiavelli, he finds tumults counterproductive for it creates instability and extends inequality. War, the ultimate expression of conflict, infringes on the freedom to live for he criticizes the ‘so-called right to kill the vanquished’ (p.55). Conflict is often a result of the comparison across men, causing a loss of empathy (Discourse on Inequality, p.61). Once this conflict begins, instability arises, leading to the collapse of the state as opposed to the rebuilding of laws that Machiavelli suggests (p.89). It is hence necessary for a constitution not to amplify differences via conflict but to take advantage of the need for dependence and create it as a mechanism to protect a broad base of people instead. His views toward dependence and cooperation therefore shape his proposal of the best course of redress against inequality. 

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They also differ in their assessment of the principality as an alternative. Machiavelli sees value in it, recognizing the ‘impossibility’ of keeping a republic when corruption due to inequality persists (Discourses on Livy, p.51). As seen in The Prince, there is room for the representation of the people in a principality as the most effective way the prince can survive is through gaining popular support by listening to the people, as opposed to a group of unreliable elites who may vie for power (p.35).

While there is inequality between the prince and his people, the people’s satisfaction creates a ‘well-ordered state’ (p.66). Rousseau, however, is adamant against tyranny in The Social Contract. As a prince creates laws for the people in a tyranny, it breaks the bond of the social contract (p.106). Rousseau argues that ‘liberty can be gained, but never regained’ (p.89). Hence, if a people were to lose their freedom by acceding to the laws made by a prince, they would never be able to restore their role as sovereign. Unlike Machiavelli, he does not see the principality as a reasonable alternative in addressing inequality because of its fundamental contradictions to the natural rights of man.

For both Machiavelli and Rousseau, inequality is a problem because it threatens the foundation of a republic, i.e. freedom.

While both see the value of laws in mitigating inequality, Machiavelli believes this is done through organized tumults and Rousseau defends structural cooperation. To create the best laws, Machiavelli sees the need for the airing of inevitable grievances, while Rousseau aims to avoid these conflicts totally through cooperation built into the law. In Machiavelli’s world, the citizen causes commotion to incite change; in Rousseau’s, the citizen peacefully accedes his will to the general will.

How are Machiavelli and Rousseau similar? Written by Allyston Tutay

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Works Cited

Machiavelli Niccolò, et al. Discourses on Livy. University of Chicago Press, 1998. 

Machiavelli, Niccolò, et al. The Prince. Cambridge University Press, 2017. 

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discourse on Inequality. Oxford University Press, 2009. 

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. Penguin, 1968.