Sunday, 30 December 2018

Machiavelli on Brexit

From Discourses on Livy, Book 1, Chapter 53.

The People, Deceived by a False Kind of Good, Often Desire Their Own Ruin, and How Great Hopes and Bold Promises Easily Move Them

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Here, two things should be noted. The first is that very often the people, deceived by a false image of good, desire their own ruin, and unless someone they can trust can make them capable of distinguishing the good from the bad, this will bring endless danger and damage to republics. When fate decrees that the people will have faith in no one, as sometimes occurs, after they have been deceived in the past either by events or by men, this inevitably leads to ruin. In this regard Dante declares ... that the people frequently cry out: ‘Long live’ their death and ‘Death’ to their life.

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Thus, turning to consider when it is easy and when it is difficult to persuade a people, this distinction can be made: either what you have to persuade them of represents at first sight either a gain or a loss, or the proposal truly seems either courageous or cowardly. When profit is seen in matters put before the people, even though there may be a loss concealed beneath them, or when something sesems courageous, even though the ruination of the republic may be concealed beneath it, it will always be easy to persuade the crowd to follow, and thus, it will always be difficult to persuade them to accept those decisions that appear to involve either cowardice or loss, even though salvation and profit may be concealed beneath them.

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I must say, therefore, that there is no easier way to ruin a republic where the people have power than to involve them in bold enterprises, because wherever the people have any importance whatsoever, such proposals will always be accepted, and anyone of a contrary opinion will have no way to prevent this. But if this gives rise to the city’s ruin, it even more frequently gives rise to the ruin of particular citizens who are put in charge of such undertakings, because once the people have taken victory for granted, when defeat arrives, neither fortune nor the incompetence of the commander is blamed but, rather, his wickedness and ignorance, and the people usually either kill or imprison or banish him, as happened to countless Carthiginian and Athenian generals.

Taken from Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella’s translation of Niccolò Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, published in Oxford World’s Classics.

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