Guicciardini’s Dialogue on the Government of Florence
January 30, 2011
Original text written in the 1520’s.
Translated by Alison Brown.
I have often wondered on the fact that this word ‘liberty’ is frequently used more as a disguise and an excuse by those who want to conceal their cupidity and ambition than because men in fact have a natural desire for it. I am talking of the liberty we think about in governing a city, not the liberty that concerns individuals, that is, whether a man is free or enslaved. It seems to me, unless I’m mistaken, that men have a natural desire to dominate and be superior to others; there are normally very few people who love liberty so much that if they had a chance to make themselves lords or superior to others they would not do so willingly. […] But men often let themselves be so deceived by names that they do not recognise the things themselves; and so,when the name of liberty is repeatedly invoked in civil conflicts, most people are blinded by it an do not realise that the objective is different.
Those who enjoy leading positions in the city do not primarily seek liberty as their objective as much as increase of power and making themselves as superior and outstanding as possible. As long as possible, they strive to conceal their ambition with this pleasing title of liberty. This is because those in a city who fear being oppressed far outnumber those who hope to oppress, so the person who seems to be assuming the patronage of equality has far more supporters than someone who openly goes for superiority. Nevertheless, if successful, the outcome reveals the designs of such men, since it is through this deception that they generally use the multitude to make themselves great. […] On the other hand, the people desire and choose liberty as their objective. This is because the position of the majority is such that they fear being oppressed or enjoying a reduced share of the honorary and the salaried offices in the republic, so that the first thing they must concentrate on is equality[.]
Although anyone who seeks liberty in order to obtain equality would never make it his ultimate objective, […] one cannot however deny that there are incomparably more people in all cities who want equality than those who do not. This is because the majority enjoys a smaller share in government than it should, according to its size, and is afraid of being oppressed, while the minority enjoys more than its share and is in a position to think of being able to oppress others.
[E]quality does not apply over the board – not, for example, to equality of wealth and possessions, since they decrease or grow according to how hard men work and how lucky they are – but is restricted to proper limits. For our purposes, we can consider it under two headings. First, that everyone should be equally subject to the law and no one should be oppressed by anyone else. This parity and security can be provided just as well, if not better, under another type of government when it is well ordered as in a republic; so in this instance it is unnecessary to want freedom. Under the second heading we can consider equality to mean that everyone should govern, one man as much as another. This is an unreasonable desire, because those best qualified to govern should play a larger part in magistracies and in government, in view of the fact […] that civil authority and magistrates are instituted for the benefit of the governed, not to satisfy those who govern. Therefore one should not take any notice of those who desire freedom on this account, since what they want is unreasonable and not useful. Those who legislate for cities should not foment ambitious desires; on the contrary they should do all they can to cut them down and uproot them.
Although in the days of the Medici, offices were bestowed on those who didn’t deserve them more from sheer nastiness, so to speak, than from ignorance, whereas the popular government will do so more from ignorance than from nastiness, nevertheless the people will make mistakes more frequently, with greater damage to the public interest, than the Medici. For what is done deliberately usually has weight and measure; but ignorance is blind, confused, without limit or rule, hence the proverb that it is often better to deal with someone who is evil than someone who is ignorant.
[M]en err in two ways, either by ignorance or by malice. […] [A]ll men are by nature inclined to goodness, nor does anyone who stands to gain equally from good and evil not naturally prefer good[.] It is true that human nature is very fragile and can be diverted from the straight and narrow path by the slightest opportunity, and that the things that lead man astray – the is, lusts and passions – are so many and are so powerful against a nature as weak as his, that if there were no other remedies apart from what everyone can do for himself, very few would not be corrupted. It’s therefore been necessary for founders of states to think about ways of keeping men firm in their original natural inclination. This is why rewards and punishments were invented. Where they do not exist or are badly instituted, you will never see any form of civil life that is successful; nor without this spur and this brake can you ever expect men to behave particularly well.