Bernard Crick in Democracy: A Very Short Introduction makes an interesting point about the virtue of democracy with reference to Machiavelli:
“Those who condemn the quarrels between the nobles and the plebs, seem to be,” he says, “condemning the very things that were the primary cause of Rome’s retaining her freedom.” In every republic there are “two different dispositions that of the populace and that of the upper class and that all legislation favorable to liberty is brought about by the clash between them.” So, he concludes “if tumults led to the creation of tribunes, tumults deserve the highest praise.”
An inevitable tension exists between the way the rich, upper class members of a society would like to run things, and the way the mass would like to run things. A constitution is a truce in this perpetual class war. Rather than hope for perpetual peace, the best we can hope for, according to Crick, and Machiavelli, is a managed conflict. The best we can hope for and the best we should hope for. The dream of an end to the conflict is a totalitarian dream; a genocidal (or classicidal) fantasy.
Yet how do we put the Machiavellian insight into practice? Do we stand back from the war between optimates and plebians, or do we take one side and add to the tumult because in the long run it will cause the greater freedom? Maybe we participate in the conflict, but draw back from the abyss of total war because we have instrumentalized it. We understand that the conflict is only worth pursuing if it leads to a more free society. At the moment it stops doing that we lay down our arms.
It seems to me that these kind of unresolvable wars and tensions exist in personal life and inside the psyche as well as in the political community. If anybody deals with a severely mentally disabled family member you know there is a tension between saying “that is still Mom, she is just impaired” and “that is no longer Mom”. Just as Machiavelli’s war between aristocrats and plebs leads to greater tension, allowing the war between these two positions to tear at our hearts leads to — what exactly? Greater sensitivity? Greater open-heartedness. I’m not sure, but I believe it leads to something, something better than could be achieved by allowing either side to win.
How do we balance the different options? These options include:
a)letting one side win
b)letting them fight each other fruitfully
c)letting this insight lead to despair or frustration
d)letting this insight lead us back from the brink of destruction?
The tricky thing is that the recognition that the two sides of the conflict are both required, itself can be enlisted in the conflict by one side or the other.
As Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes Climacus reminds us, anybody can reflect on life. What we need is some help in the tricky art of reflecting while still living.