Guicciardini’s Dialogue on the Government of Florence (concluded)
February 16, 2011
First part here.
Since cities were founded and survive for no other reason than for the benefit of their inhabitants, which is based principally in preserving the common good, this cannot be restricted to one particular person or individual except at the expense of all the others. So what, I ask you, could be more pernicious or contrary to the essence of a city than for one part of it to be, quite unjustly and for no reason, excluded from all or part of the public benefits and consequently made to suffer greater disadvantages and burdens more than the other?
[A]lthough it [the Venetian government] has a different name from the one we want to use, because it is called a government of nobles and ours will be called a popular government, it is not for this reason of a different type, since it is simply a government in which everybody who is qualified for office participates, making no distinction either for wealth or for family, as happens when the ottimati rule, but all are equally admitted to everything, and they are very numerous – perhaps more so than in ours. And if the plebs don’t participate, the don’t in ours either, since infinite numbers of workers, newcomers to the city and others, do not belong to our Council. And although it is more difficult in Venice for the ineligible to be qualified for office than with us, this is not because the type of government is different, but because within the same type they have different institutions. […] So if we were to call our citizens gentlemen and reserved this title for those who were qualified for office, you would find that the government of Venice is as ‘popular’ as ours and that ours is no less a government of optimates than theirs.
[A]lthough cities may be free, if they are set up well, they are sustained by the advice and talents of few people. If you take periods of ten or fifteen years at a time, you will find that in this time there are not more than three or four citizens on whom the success and the vitality of the meetings and the most important actions depend. Nor will you find things were any different with the Greeks and the Romans or any other nation, since precious stones are rare and extraordinary men are extremely rare; where they exist, it is inevitably they who normally provide the impetus. So I don’t set as much store by gently warming up a lot of people as by enflaming as many as possible of these rarer spirits on whose shoulders the republic rests; the ordinary honours of the city are enough for the others. To the former should be held out the hope of an extraordinary position, which they may think of attaining not with factionalism, corruption or violence, but with outstanding deeds, with consuming all their abilities and life for the benefit of their native city; and since their city will receive more benefit from them than from the others, it should also entice them more than the others.
The factiousness of the Romans that we discussed stemmed principally from one cause, that is, the division of the city into separate orders: part of it patricians, the other plebeian, with the government organised so that offices and honours were reserved only for the partricians, and the plebeians were excluded by law. Thus one could say that part of the city were masters, the other part slaves. This alone, perhaps, would have been insufficient to give rise to the discords that developed. For although the plebs were undoubtedly greater in number, those of them who aspired to govern and enjoy these honours were a smaller number; being a minority, they would have been insufficient to come into disagreement with the patricians. However, an additional stimulus that encouraged the lowest plebs to rise up was that the patricians didn’t exercise their authority with moderation. One the contrary, they began to abuse the plebs and squeeze them over legal matters – as over payments of debts, where they were not content to deprive them of their possessions but forced their persons into the hands of their creditors. This harsh behaviour provided the leading plebs with the opportunity of drawing the lower plebs to their way of thinking and, after forming into a single body for this purpose, of working fro new laws dealing with debts and making plebs eligible for office – which were mostly proposed under the pretence that the lower plebs would never be able to protect themselves from abuse if their members didn’t enter the government. Since men’s minds are always at work increasing personal comforts and never resting content with first plans, in the course of time the plebs added to this list the desire to share out the possessions that initially had been public property. However, this was the last incentive, for the matter of the debts which forced men into servitude was more pressing than the desire to divide up the possessions held by others; and this is according to the natural order of things, first to think of preserving your own and then to occupy what belongs to others.
28. I don’t know anyone who dislikes the ambition, the avarice and the sensuality of priests more than I do, both because each of these vices is odious in itself, and because each singly and together are scarcely fitting to someone who professes a life dependent on God – and also because they are so mutually incompatible that anyone who combines them must be and extremely odd sort of person. Nevertheless, the position I have enjoyed with several popes has forced me to love their greatness for my own self-interest. If it weren’t for this consideration, I would have loved Martin Luther as much as I love myself – not to be released from the laws taught by the Christian religion as it is normally interpreted and understood, but to see this band of ruffians reduced within their correct bounds, that is, living without vices or without authority.
69. If you look closely, you will see that from one age to the next, there is change not only in the way people talk and the words they use, in their style of clothes, in regulations concerning building, cultivation and such things, but – what’s more – even tastes change. So that food that was prized in one period is often valued less in the next.
109. The fruit of liberty and the object of establishing free republics was not to enable everyone to rule, since only those who are qualified and deserve it should do so. It was to ensure that good laws and regulations are observed, since they are much more secure in a republic than under the control of one or a few men. It is this misconception that causes so much trouble in our city, because it’s not enough for men to be free and secure: they don’t stop until they are governing it too.
140. To speak of ‘the people’ is to speak of a mad animal, full of a thousand errors, of a thousand confusions, lacking in taste, in discernment, in stability.
141. Don’t be surprised at our ignorance about the past or about what happens in the provinces and far-off countries. For if you think about it, we don’t have any proper information about the present, or about the daily happenings in our own city. There is often such a dense fog, or thick wall, between the government Palace and the square outside that the human eye is incapable of penetrating it. People then know as little about what the rules do, or why, as they do about what goes on in India. So the world is easily filled with erroneous and unfounded opinions.
176. Pray to God that you are always on the winning side, for you will be praised even for things in which you have played no part. In the same way, the loser, on the contrary, will be blamed for an infinite number of things of which he is totally innocent.