Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469. He held a series of high offices in the Florentine Republic, and as chancellor of the Nove di Milizia he organized an infantry force which fought at the capture of Pisa in 1509. When the Republic was defeated by the Holy League in 1512, the Medici returned to Florence, and Machiavelli was imprisoned, tortured, and afterwards exiled to his farm in San Casciano. There, he devoted himself to study and writing, until he was rehabilitated in to Florentine public life by Cardinal Giulio de' Medici in 1520. He died in 1527.
Macchiavelli described his daily life in exile in a famous letter to his friend Francesco Vettori: consorting with the local people in the fields and taverns by day, "when evening comes, I return home and go into my study, and at the door I take off my daytime dress covered in mud and dirt, and put on royal and curial robes; and then decently attired, I enter the courts of the ancients, where affectionately greeted by them, I partake of that food which is mine alone and for which I was born …" Amongst the products of these nocturnal sojourns were his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy. By contrast to his better know work The Prince, the Discourses are a part historical, part philosophical treatise on the form of government that Machiavelli himself held to be the best – republican government, or what we would today call constitutional democracy. Many of his observations and arguments are of great interest to the current debate on democratization.
To many readers, Machiavelli is best known as the author of The Prince, and hence thought of as an advocate of absolutism. But such an in interpretation captures only half of Machiavelli's political thought. In his Discourses, Machiavelli makes clear that the authority of an absolute monarch is appropriate to some circumstances – the conquest of states, or their total revolution – but in the long run, only republican government can generate security and prosperity:
"And if princes are superior to populaces in drawing up laws, codes of civic life, statutes, and new institutions, the populace is so superior in sustaining what has been instituted that it indubitably adds to the glory of those who have instituted them."
Machiavelli argued that the strength and stability of the republican state lies in its ability to reconcile the interests of opposing factions. A republic draws its strength from political conflicts; and these are even to be encouraged. He cited the example of the ancient Roman Republic:
"To me those who condemn the quarrels between the nobles and the plebs, seem to be cavalling at the very things that were the primary cause of Rome's retaining her freedom, and that they pay more attention to the noise and clamour resulting from such commotions than to what resulted from them, i.e. to the good effects which they produced. Nor do they realise that in every republic there are two different dispositions, that of the populace, and that of the upper class and that all legislation favourable to liberty is brought about by the clash between them." § 1.4
Institutional means of dispersing power between different interest groups are therefore a particular virtue of republics, since they facilitate political conflicts:
"Squabbles between the populace and the Senate should, therefore, be looked upon as an inconvenience which it is necessary to put up with in order to arrive at the greatness of Rome. For, besides the reasons already adduced to show the authority of the tribunes was essential to the preservation of liberty, it is easy to see what benefit a republic derives when there is an authority that can bring charges in court, which was among the powers vested in the tribunes, as will be shown in the following chapter." § 1.6 finit.
Of course, if political conflicts are allowed to rise to such a level of violence as to endanger the state itself, they can become counterproductive, and must be quelled. The fundamental importance of conflict to the system means that the bar must be set high for intervention, but when it is required, the introduction of princely rule for a limited time is justifiable. Once again, the Roman Republic, with its constitutional provision for the Senate to appoint a Dictator in times of emergency, provides Machiavelli's example:
"… without such an institution [as was the Roman dictatorship] cities will with difficulty find a way out of abnormal situations. For the institutions normally used by republics are slow in functioning. No assembly or magistrate can do everything alone. In many cases, they have to consult with one another, and to reconcile their diverse views takes time. Where there is a question of remedying a situation that will not brook delay, such a procedure is dangerous.
In conclusion then, I claim that republics which, when in imminent danger, have recourse neither to a dictatorship, nor to some form of authority analogous to it, will always be ruined when some grave misfortune befalls them." § 1.34