Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Jeffrey Dymond on Machiavelli’s Debt to Polybius

by contributing editor Max Norman

Jeffrey Dymond is a PhD candidate in History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He works on Renaissance humanism and on early modern European intellectual history more generally. He is interviewed by contributing editor Max Norman about his article, “Human Character and the Formation of the State: Reconsidering Machiavelli and Polybius 6” that appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (January, 82.1).

Max Norman: Your article attempts to bring some clarity to a long-standing debate on the sources of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, in particular the potential use of the Hellenistic Greek historian Polybius as a source in Book 1, Chapter 2. But before we get to that: The central idea of Book 6 of Polybius’s Histories is anacyclosis. Can you explain this term?

Jeffrey Dymond: Anacyclosis is a Greek term that signifies cyclical movement.  Polybius uses it to describe what he sees as the natural tendency for political constitutions to change in a cyclical pattern. Behind the idea is Polybius’s belief that human beings possess certain psychological dispositions that, when interacting with particular historical circumstances, lead to cyclical change For example, the dispersion and violence of the natural state of human beings elicits a psychological response in them that, in turn, results in the institution of a monarchy. Later, the interaction between the particular attributes of monarchical government and Polybius’s psychological apparatus will create the conditions first for tyranny and then, through the same process, aristocracy. Eventually, and again following the same process, aristocracy will degenerate into oligarchy, before being replaced by a democracy that will then become an ochlocracy, or mob rule. The cycle then comes to completion when ochlocracy, which resembles the dispersion and violence of the natural state, is replaced by a new monarchy. 

Anacyclosis works through two types of change. First is degeneration, when monarchy descends into tyranny and aristocracy into oligarchy; the second is alteration,when tyranny, a species of one-man rule, becomes aristocracy, a form of government of the few. Degeneration is caused by the corrupt behavior on the part of the rulers, which Polybius believes will eventually happen if they are unchecked in the exercise of political power–something that is likely to be granted to them, Polybius holds, after a period of virtuous rule. Alteration, on the other hand, comes about as a response to corruption, leading to change. It is important to note that here circumstantial factors shape the response, but that they are circumstances that will be repeated in every cycle. So, for example, the nature of tyrannical corruption is most upsetting (according to Polybius) to a group of noble and virtuous individuals who then lead a rebellion against the tyrant, later becoming the aristocracy.  The same process can be seen when oligarchy is replaced by democracy: a leader emerges among the people who then collectively move them to dispose of the oligarchs and institute a democracy. A new aristocracy isn’t created because the few are implicated in the corruption of the oligarchy, and a new monarchy isn’t established because the people remember the degeneration of monarchy into tyranny. The final alteration—from ochlocracy to monarchy—unfolds the way it does because it resembles the natural state that had, at the beginning, created the first monarchy. With this new monarchy, the cycle then commences again. 

All of the circumstantial attributes of the cycle notwithstanding, the motor of anacyclosis is the fact that every leader will, eventually, on account of the supreme power conceded to them as reward for their earlier virtuous government, become tyrannical and self-aggrandizing. The problem, in short, is that human psychology is structured in such a way that vice grows out of virtue. Polybius does, however, present his readers with a way to escape the cycle, and that is the mixed constitution. The mixed constitution, by imposing limits on absolute political authority, will stop (or at least slow down) the cycle by taking away the primary cause of corruption: the unchecked political power awarded to people on account of their virtue. But the institution of the mixed constitution requires foresight and affirmative action, since, otherwise, the cycle will continue. Polybius’s explanation of anacyclosis and its causes in Book 6 intends to equip prospective legislators with the means to do just that.

MN: You reconstruct a prevailing interpretation of Book 6 of Polybius’s Histories in early sixteenth-century Florence, against which you read the Discourses to demonstrate the ways in which Machiavelli was simultaneously indebted to the Greek historian but original in his reading. Methodologically, how did you reconstruct something like a ‘standard reading’ of Book 6? How widely-held do you believe this interpretation to be?

JD: Reconstructing this interpretation mainly involved looking at the ways early modern readers of Book 6 incorporated the text into their own works. A particularity of this case, though, is that the text had just recently been re-introduced, meaning that reconstructing a commonly held reading did not involve a long process of excavating a great and complicated tradition of interpretation: it went back only a couple of decades before the Discourses and, crucially, to a group of Florentines who also happened to be in Machiavelli’s circle. Over time, of course, alternative readings emerged, but this one I believe was quite prominent since there is evidence, as I note in the article with the examples of Paolo Paruta, Jean Bodin and François Hotman, that it spread to other parts of Europe. An interesting point to consider for how this particular reading spread is that the man responsible for the first Latin translation, Janus Lascaris, travelled widely in Europe. After leaving Florence in the late fifteenth century, he moved to France, where he helped establish the Royal Library at Blois and corresponded with famous French humanists such as Guillaume Budé. He then spent his later years in Venice as a representative of the French monarchy, before moving to Rome, during which time he continued to travel across Italy and to Florence in particular.  Lascaris was an acquaintance of both Bernardo Rucellai and Machiavelli, so any input they received from Lascaris that helped to shape their readings of Polybius could also have been given to others in France and then later in Venice and Rome. In other words, Lascaris’ position as a highly mobile first translator of Book 6 could help explain the early prominence and diffusion of a particular reading of it.

MN: In what ways was Machiavelli’s thought in the Discourses influenced by Polybius? How was his reading of Book 6 different from his contemporaries?

JD: The most straightforward way to see the influence of Polybius in the Discourses is in the ways his psychological apparatus helps explain certain arguments made by Machiavelli that are often otherwise perplexing. For example, a commonplace in the Discourses is that the great (the grandi) in any state aim to oppress the other, while the people (the popolo) seek not to be oppressed.  But there are also several instances in the Discourses where Machiavelli seems to suggest that the popolo are just as capable of oppressing as the grandi. A prominent instance of this is in D.I.37, where Machiavelli addresses the Agrarian Laws in Rome. Here he states that after the popolo in Rome acquired access to all the city’s magistracies, and no longer possessed a lower political standing than the grandi, they also began to exhibit grandi-like ambition. This suggests that Machiavelli’s claims about the popolo and the grandi rest on a general account of human psychology, which holds  certain instincts to be dependent on the particular condition an individual finds themselves at a certain time. I argue that Machiavelli  extracted this psychological apparatus from Polybius 6, and that it can explain what kinds of behaviors Machiavelli attributes to each group on account of their condition (e.g. the vulnerable seeking protection, the great dominance), how and why changing circumstances yield different behaviors, and finally the sequences of events that could cause these changing circumstances.

With respect to the relation between Machiavelli’s reading of Polybius and that of his contemporaries, Machiavelli’s was for the most part rather conventional in this respect. However, one notable difference between them is that among Machiavelli’s contemporaries, Polybius was frequently mentioned alongside Aristotle. For example, Donato Giannotti and Bartolomeo Cavalcanti, two humanists mentioned in the article, integrate Polybius’s psychology with material from Aristotle’s Politics, and especially material from Book 5’s discussion of revolutions and constitutional change, suggesting that they viewed the two works as to some extent complementary.  Machiavelli does not at all. This could suggest some tension between Machiavelli’s Polybius and that of his peers.  It also makes the lack of reference to the Politics in D.I.2 even more conspicuous.

MN: To what extent does Machiavelli’s Polybian theory of politics and its relationship to human psychology in the Discourses align with his positions in his more widely-read book, The Prince?

JD: Although there is no explicit mention of Book 6 in The Prince, some of Machiavelli’s recommendations there are compatible with the way he puts Polybius to use in the Discourses. Chapter 9 of The Prince, for example, makes the same statement about the differing dispositions of the nobles and the people, with the more powerful nobles more likely to dominate, and the less powerful people more likely to seek protection. Because I argue that Polybius 6 had been known in Florence, and in Machiavelli’s circle, since at least a decade before the composition of The Prince, it is more likely than not that Machiavelli’s Polybian thoughts would be consistent throughout his works, since they do not depend on a singular event from which he would have been made aware of Book 6’s argument. Much of J.H. Hexter’s argument in his famous article on the question of Machiavelli and Polybius hinges on dating a meeting between Machiavelli and Lascaris; on my account, though, Machiavelli did not require such a meeting in order to know Book 6.

MN: What was the influence of this reading of Polybius on later political theory in Italy and beyond?

JD: This reading of Polybius was very influential on later political theory and especially on the evolution of constitutional thinking. On the basis of his psychological theory, Polybius—and his early modern readers—endorse a kind of mixed constitution, in which political power is distributed between different centers in order to restrain each other’s worst tendencies by mandating cooperation. The idea of constitutional mixing was of course present in Europe before the re-introduction of Polybius and had been an important part of Aristotelian political thought since the thirteenth century.  This Aristotelian form of mixing is quite different, however: it aimed to produce virtuous “middling” or “moderate” outcomes by creating a government composed of members of different classes. For the Polybians, on the other hand, the aim of a mixed constitution was balance, not moderation. The notion of a “separation of powers” so central to the US Constitution is more indebted to the Polybian idea of mixed government than the Aristotelian. But this idea did leave the Polybians open to the charge that their proposed mixed governments risk creating multiple bodies with multiple heads, with each part of the constitution using its constitutional authority to create partisans from among the citizenry. Perhaps somewhat ironically, this view would frequently be expressed by people who endorsed Polybius’s psychological apparatus, arguing that the needed balance can only be maintained in stable circumstances. If circumstances change, like, for example, in the case of a war, then one of the constitution’s parts could leverage its position to gain the upper hand, destroying the balance between them. This is was such an important concern, in fact, that this argument would be frequently deployed in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in support of a kind of pacifist republicanism, which saw war and imperial expansion as the means by which the executive parts of mixed constitutions can swell up and upset the constitution’s balance in their favor. In the decades after Machiavelli, though, the risk of Polybian mixed constitutionalism degenerating into “two bodies, two heads” would feature prominently in the emergent discourse of sovereignty. Polybius’ psychological apparatus, I would suggest, helped to shape the conceptual problem to which ideas of sovereignty were a response.

Max Norman studied comparative literature and classics in America and England, and now writes often on art and literature for magazines in both countries.

Featured Image: A statue of Niccolò Machiavelli in the arcade of Florence’s Uffizi museum. Courtesy of Elan Ruskin/flickr.

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