Changing events require flexibility of response, and since it ispsychologically implausible for human character to change with thetimes, the republic offers a viable alternative: people of differentqualities fit different exigencies. The diversity characteristic ofcivic regimes, which was so reviled by Machiavelli'spredecessors, proves to be an abiding advantage of republics overprincipalities.
Machiavelli illustrates this claim by reference to the evolution ofRoman military strategy against Hannibal. After the first flush of theCarthaginian general's victories in Italy, the circumstances of theRoman required a circumspect and cautious leader who would not committhe legions to aggressive military action for which they were notprepared. Such leadership emerged in the person of Fabius Maximus,“a general who by his slowness and his caution held the enemy atbay. Nor could he have met with circumstances more suited to hisways” (Machiavelli 1965, 452). Yet when a more offensive stancewas demanded to defeat Hannibal, the Roman Republic was able to turnto the leadership of Scipio, whose personal qualities were more fittedto the times. Neither Fabius nor Scipio was able to escape “his waysand habits” (Machiavelli 1965, 452), but the fact that Rome could callon each at the appropriate moment suggests to Machiavelli an inherentstrength of the republican system.
A state that makes security a priority cannot afford to arm itspopulace, for fear that the masses will employ their weapons againstthe nobility (or perhaps the crown). Yet at the same time, such aregime is weakened irredeemably, since it must depend upon foreignersto fight on its behalf. In this sense, any government that takesvivere sicuro as its goal generates a passive andimpotent populace as a inescapable result. By definition, such asociety can never be free in Machiavelli's sense ofvivere libero, and hence is only minimally, ratherthan completely, political or civil.
Machiavelli holds that one of the consequences of suchvivere sicuro is the disarmament of the people. Hecomments that regardless of “how great his kingdom is,” theking of France “lives as a tributary” to foreignmercenaries.
The case of disarmament is an illustration of a larger differencebetween minimally constitutional systems such as France and fullypolitical communities such as the Roman Republic, namely, the statusof the classes within the society. In France, the people are entirelypassive and the nobility is largely dependent upon the king, accordingto Machiavelli's own observations. By contrast, in a fully developedrepublic such as Rome's, where the actualization of liberty isparamount, both the people and the nobility take an active (andsometimes clashing) role in self-government (McCormick 2011). Theliberty of the whole, for Machiavelli, depends upon the liberty of itscomponent parts. In his famous discussion of this subject inthe Discourses, he remarks,
Machiavelli has also been credited (most recently by Skinner 1978)with formulating for the first time the “modern concept of thestate,” understood in the broadly Weberian sense of animpersonal form of rule possessing a monopoly of coercive authoritywithin a set territorial boundary. Certainly, the term lostato appears widely in Machiavelli's writings, especially inThe Prince, in connection with the acquisition andapplication of power in a coercive sense, which renders its meaningdistinct from the Latin term status (condition or station)from which it is derived. Moreover, scholars cite Machiavelli'sinfluence in shaping the early modern debates surrounding“reason of state”—the doctrine that the good of thestate itself takes precedence over all other considerations, whethermorality or the good of citizens—as evidence that he wasreceived by his near-contemporaries as a theorist of the state(Meineke 1957). Machiavelli's name and doctrines werewidely invoked to justify the priority of the interests of the statein the age of absolutism.
A similar range of opinions exists in connection withMachiavelli's attitude toward religion in general, andChristianity in particular. Machiavelli was no friend of theinstitutionalized Christian Church as he knew it. TheDiscourses makes clear that conventional Christianity sapsfrom human beings the vigor required for active civil life(Machiavelli 1965, 228–229, 330–331). And The Prince speakswith equal parts disdain and admiration about the contemporarycondition of the Church and its Pope (Machiavelli 1965, 29, 44–46, 65,91–91). Many scholars have taken such evidence to indicate thatMachiavelli was himself profoundly anti-Christian, preferring thepagan civil religions of ancient societies such as Rome, which heregarded to be more suitable for a city endowedwith virtù. Anthony Parel (1992) argues thatMachiavelli's cosmos, governed by the movements of the stars and thebalance of the humors, takes on an essentially pagan and pre-Christiancast. For others, Machiavelli may best be described as a man ofconventional, if unenthusiastic, piety, prepared to bow to theexternalities of worship but not deeply devoted in either soul or mindto the tenets of Christian faith. A few dissenting voices, mostnotably Sebastian de Grazia (1989) and Maurizio Viroli (2010), haveattempted to rescue Machiavelli's reputation from those who view himas hostile or indifferent to Christianity. Grazia demonstrates howcentral biblical themes run throughout Machiavelli's writings, findingthere a coherent conception of a divinely-centered and ordered cosmosin which other forces (“the heavens,”“fortune,” and the like) are subsumed under a divine willand plan. Cary Nederman (1999) extends and systematizes Grazia'sinsights by showing how such central Christian theological doctrinesas grace and free will form important elements of Machiavelli'sconceptual structure. Viroli considers, by contrast, the historicalattitudes toward the Christian religion as manifested in theFlorentine republic of Machiavelli's day.
Another factor that must be kept in mind when evaluating the generalapplicability of Machiavelli's theory in The Princestems from the very situation in which his prince ofvirtù operates. Such a ruler comes to power not bydynastic inheritance or on the back of popular support, but purely as aresult of his own initiative, skill, talent, and/or strength (all wordsthat may be translated for virtù). Thus, theMachiavellian prince can count on no pre-existing structures oflegitimation, as discussed above. In order to “maintain hisstate,” then, he can only rely upon his own fount of personalcharacteristics to direct the use of power and establish his claim onrulership. This is a precarious position, since Machiavelli insiststhat the throes of fortune and the conspiracies of other men render theprince constantly vulnerable to the loss of his state. The idea of astable constitutional regime that reflects the tenor of modernpolitical thought (and practice) is nowhere to be seen inMachiavelli's conception of princely government.
What is the conceptual link between virtù and theeffective exercise of power for Machiavelli? The answer lies withanother central Machiavellian concept, Fortuna (usuallytranslated as “fortune”). Fortuna is the enemy ofpolitical order, the ultimate threat to the safety and security of thestate. Machiavelli's use of the concept has been widely debatedwithout a very satisfactory resolution. Suffice it to say that, as withvirtù, Fortuna is employed by him in adistinctive way. Where conventional representations treatedFortuna as a mostly benign, if fickle, goddess, who is thesource of human goods as well as evils, Machiavelli's fortune isa malevolent and uncompromising fount of human misery, affliction, anddisaster. While human Fortuna may be responsible for suchsuccess as human beings achieve, no man can act effectively whendirectly opposed by the goddess (Machiavelli 1965, 407–408).
Machiavelli adopted this position on both pragmatic and principledgrounds. During his career as a secretary and diplomat in theFlorentine republic, Machiavelli came to acquire vast experience ofthe inner workings of French government, which became his model forthe “secure” (but not free) polity. Although Machiavellimakes relatively little comment about the French monarchy in ThePrince, he devotes a great deal of attention to France in theDiscourses.