Machiavelli: The multitude


The following is a collection of every statement concerning the concept of the multitude found in Machiavelli’s Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius. I have extracted the sentences that contain the term, but no surrounding sentences (except in one case where the sentence was only a reference to a quote in the preceding sentence). As such, some of the individual statements suffer from certain gaps, but that is intentional:

The multitude, following the lead of these powerful men, took up arms against the prince and, he being got rid of, obeyed these others as their liberators; who, on their part, holding in hatred the name of sole ruler, formed themselves into a government and at first, while the recollection of past tyranny was still fresh, observed the laws they themselves made, and postponing personal advantage to the common welfare, administered affairs both publicly and privately with the utmost diligence and zeal.

For the multitude loathing its rulers, lent itself to any who ventured, in whatever way, to attack them; when some one man speedily arose who with the aid of the people overthrew them.

On the other hand, he who defends the method followed by the Spartans and Venetians, may urge, that by confiding this guardianship to the nobles, two desirable ends are served: first, that from being allowed to retain in their own hands a weapon which makes them the stronger party in the State, the ambition of this class is more fully satisfied; and, second, that an authority is withdrawn from the unstable multitude which as used by them is likely to lead to endless disputes and tumults, and to drive the nobles into dangerous and desperate courses.

In respect of this incident I repeat what I have just now said, how useful and necessary it is for republics to provide by their laws a channel by which the displeasure of the multitude against a single citizen may find a vent.

For though the multitude be unfit to set a State in order, since they cannot, by reason of the divisions which prevail among them, agree wherein the true well-being of the State lies, yet when they have once been taught the truth, they never will consent to abandon it.

But, afterwards, when these oracles began to shape their answers to suit the interests of powerful men, and their impostures to be seen through by the multitude, men grew incredulous and ready to overturn every sacred institution.

Results so opposite arising in one and the same city can only be accounted for by this, that in the time of the Tarquins the Roman people were not yet corrupted, but in these later times had become utterly corrupt. For on the first occasion, nothing more was needed to prepare and determine them to shake off their kings, than that they should be bound by oath to suffer no king ever again to reign in Rome; whereas, afterwards, the authority and austere virtue of Brutus, backed by all the legions of the East, could not rouse them to maintain their hold of that freedom, which he, following in the footsteps of the first Brutus, had won for them; and this because of the corruption wherewith the people had been infected by the Marian faction, whereof Caesar becoming head, was able so to blind the multitude that it saw not the yoke under which it was about to lay its neck.

This large expenditure had to be met by heavy taxes which gave occasion to numberless complaints on the part of the people; and inasmuch as the war was conducted by a council of ten citizens, who were styled “the Ten of the War,” the multitude began to regard these with displeasure, as though they were the cause of the war and of the consequent expenditure; and at last persuaded themselves that if they got rid of this magistracy there would be an end to the war.

CHAPTER XLIV.–That the Multitude is helpless without a Head: and that we should not with the same breath threaten and ask leave.

“Not,” says Titus Livius, “that they were at a loss what to answer, but because they had none to answer for them;” words which clearly show how helpless a thing is the multitude when without a head.

CHAPTER LIV.–Of the boundless Authority which a great Man may use to restrain an excited Multitude.

The next noteworthy point in the passage referred to in the foregoing Chapter is, that nothing tends so much to restrain an excited multitude as the reverence felt for some grave person, clothed with authority, who stands forward to oppose them.

In the course of these disturbances the people coming with arms in their hands to plunder the house of Soderini, his brother Messer Francesco, then bishop of Volterra and now cardinal, who happened to be dwelling there, so soon as he heard the uproar and saw the crowd, putting on his best apparel and over it his episcopal robes, went forth to meet the armed multitude, and by his words and mien brought them to a stay; and for many days his behaviour was commended by the whole city. The inference from all which is, that there is no surer or more necessary restraint on the violence of an unruly multitude, than the presence of some one whose character and bearing command respect.

And Titus Livius observes that, “although bold enough collectively, each separately, fearing to be punished, made his submission.” And indeed the temper of the multitude in such cases, cannot be better described than in this passage.

The other untoward humours of the multitude, should there be no powerful chief to foster them, are easily dealt with; because, while on the one hand there is nothing more terrible than an uncontrolled and headless mob, on the other, there is nothing feebler.

For which reason a multitude stirred in this way, if it would avoid dangers such as I speak of, must at once appoint a head from among its own numbers, who may control it, keep it united, and provide for its defence; as did the commons of Rome when, after the death of Virginia, they quitted the city, and for their protection created twenty tribunes from among themselves. Unless this be done, what Titus Livius has observed in the passage cited, will always prove true, namely, that a multitude is strong while it holds together, but so soon as each of those who compose it begins to think of his own private danger, it becomes weak and contemptible.

That “nothing is more fickle and inconstant than the multitude” is affirmed not by Titus Livius only, but by all other historians, in whose chronicles of human actions we often find the multitude condemning some citizen to death, and afterwards lamenting him and grieving greatly for his loss, as the Romans grieved and lamented for Manlius Capitolinus, whom they had themselves condemned to die.

And elsewhere, when speaking of what took place in Syracuse after the murder of Hieronymus, grandson of Hiero, he says, “It is the nature of the multitude to be an abject slave, or a domineering master.”

Be that as it may, I neither do, nor ever shall judge it a fault, to support opinion by arguments, where it is not sought to impose them by violence or authority I maintain, then, that this infirmity with which historians tax the multitude, may with equal reason be charged against every individual man, but most of all against princes, since all who are not controlled by the laws, will commit the very same faults as are committed by an uncontrolled multitude.

For kings who live, as these do, subject to constitutional restraint, are not to be counted when we have to consider each man’s proper nature, and to see whether he resembles the multitude. For to draw a comparison with such princes as these, we must take the case of a multitude controlled as they are, and regulated by the laws, when we shall find it to possess the same virtues which we see in them, and neither conducting itself as an abject slave nor as a domineering master.

But what our historian says of the multitude, he says not of a multitude which like the people of Rome is controlled by the laws, but of an uncontrolled multitude like the Syracusans, who were guilty of all these crimes which infuriated and ungoverned men commit, and which were equally committed by Alexander and Herod in the cases mentioned. Wherefore the nature of a multitude is no more to be blamed than the nature of princes, since both equally err when they can do so without regard to consequences.

Since we find from history that in the countless changes which have been made from freedom to servitude and from servitude to freedom, sometimes an infinite multitude have perished, while at others not a soul has suffered (as when Rome made her change from kings to consuls, on which occasion none was banished save Tarquin, and no harm was done to any other), it may perhaps be asked, how it happens that of these revolutions, some have been attended by bloodshed and others not.

CHAPTER XIX.–Whether Indulgence or Severity be more necessary for controlling a Multitude.

And yet Cornelius Tacitus, with whom many other authors are agreed, pronounces a contrary opinion where he says, “In governing a multitude it avails more to punish than to be compliant.”

With reference to which incident the historian observes: “The multitude, who always take their colour from their ruler, were filled by Timasitheus with a religious awe.”

But Camillus, and any other equally prudent captain would be of the same mind, judged otherwise, not permitting the multitude to take up arms unless they were to be bound by the rules and discipline of military service. Let him, therefore, who is called on to defend a city, taking example by Camillus, before all things avoid placing arms in the hands of an undisciplined multitude, but first of all select and enroll those whom he proposes to arm, so that they may be wholly governed by him as to where they shall assemble and whither they shall march; and then let him direct those who are not enrolled, to abide every man in his own house for its defence.

This proposal, however, was defeated by those who had been the prime movers of the revolt, who, fearing that the whole punishment might fall on their heads, to put a stop to any talk of an adjustment, incited the multitude to take up arms and make a foray into the Roman territory.

For correcting a great body of men no more effectual means could be devised; because, when a multitude have offended and the ringleaders are not known, all cannot be punished, their number being too great; while to punish some only, and leave the rest unpunished, were unjust to those punished and an encouragement to those passed over to offend again.