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Synopsis of Niccolò Machiavelli, ‘Pour qu'une religion et un état obtiennent une longue existence, ils doivent souvent être ramenés à leur principe’ (Discorsi, III, 1)

[‘In order for a Religion and State to obtain a long existence, they must often be led back to their principles’ (The Discourses, III, 1)]

CpA 6.4:63–66

This is a four-page extract from Machiavelli’s Discourses (written around 1513, at the same time as The Prince, but only published posthumously in 1531). Along with the extract from the correspondence of Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, this text accompanies François Regnault’s article ‘The Thought of the Prince’ (CpA 6.2), which discusses these texts at length. In the section on ‘The Balance, or Conjectures on the Past produce an Oscillation in the Promises of the Future’ (41-49), Regnault considers Machiavelli’s ideas about the ‘reconduction’ [reconduction] of a republic back to its founding principles, and what a ‘return to origins’ meant for Machiavelli himself.

The text, published as the introduction to Book III of The Discourses, begins with the reflection that, given the evident truth that ‘the existence of all things has a term’ (CpA 6.4:63), the only way a being can ‘complete the whole of the course that the heavens have marked out for them’ is to maintain a portion of regularity throughout change. Machiavelli states that he will be concerned here with ‘composite bodies’, amongst which he numbers republics, monarchies and religious institutions. For these particular ‘bodies’, the most advantageous kind of change always involves a return to principles [Fr. retourner/ramèner au principe, It. riducano inverso i principii]. The best constituted such bodies are those that return to their principles most frequently, or, failing that, those which are precipitated into such a renovation by an external event. Without such a renewal of their constitution, these bodies cannot endure.

Machiavelli asserts that every republic or religion rests on a certain virtue [Fr. vertu; It. virtù], to which it can always return in order to grasp its first principles anew. But this virtue will fade and the composite body will die, unless either (1) fortuitous events force it to reclaim its beginnings, (2) good individuals emerge who by their virtuous deeds renew the constitution, or (3) it wisely plans periodic renewals. The largest part of the text is devoted to the discussion of instances of these three types of renewal [Fr. renouvellement; It. rinnovazione] in Livy’s account of the history of the Roman republic and in recent Florentine politics. Livy’s History was the main subject of the Discorsi, the full title of which is Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy. Machiavelli adds brief paragraphs on the renovation of religious institutions and monarchies at the end.

The primary example Machiavelli gives of (1) in the case of a republic is the invasion of Rome by Celtic tribes from Gaul in 386 BCE (Livy, 5.34-5.55). Machiavelli says that ‘it was necessary that Rome should be taken by the Gauls in order that it should be re-born and in its re-birth take on alike a new vitality and virtue, and also take up again the observance of religion and justice, both of which had begun to lose their purity’ (CpA 6.4:64; Discourses, 386). The external contingency of ‘the defeat in a war with outsiders’, says Machiavelli, was the condition for the renovation of the Roman republic.

An example of (2) from Livy is Horatius Cocles (whose deeds are discussed by Georges Dumézil with regard to the ‘Horace function’ in CpA 7.1:9; cf. Livy 2.10); another example is Gaius Mucius Scaevola (2.12-13). But Machiavelli also gives negative examples, such as the three Fabii, who attacked the Gauls ‘in contravention of the Law of Nations’, despite being made tribunes by the republic (Livy 5.46). According to Machiavelli, Livy’s account of the Fabii demonstrates that the Roman republic ‘had begun to take less account than was reasonable and necessary for the maintenance of a free state’ (CpA 6.4:64; Discourses 386). Order was restored only after the Fabii had been punished.

As an example of (3) – the planning of a periodic return to principles – Machiavelli gives the example of the Medicis, who governed the Florentine state between the period of 1434-1494, and who believed that a reconstitution [Fr. reprendre, It. ripigliare] of government was necessary every five years. However, their way of doing this was by ‘instilling men with that terror and that fear with which they had instilled them when instituting’ the government in the first place (65; Discourses, 388).

Drawing general conclusions, Machiavelli states that it is necessary that ‘men who live together under a government should frequently have attention called to themselves either by some external or by some internal occurrence’ (64; Discourses, 387). There are two types of internal occurrence: those due to a law that causes periodic changes in the positions occupied by the members of the social body; or those due to the example of some good man, whose ‘virtuous deeds’ have the same effect amongst the people as the renovations of an institution. Machiavelli gives further examples from Livy of Roman institutions and virtuous individuals performing ‘severe’ acts (64; Discourses, 387) with the aim of establishing authority and recalling citizens back to the founding principles of their original institutions. Without the punctuation of such acts, corruption, law-breaking and the changing of habits are inevitable. A government should not let a period longer than ten years elapse without returning to its principles, or else it will face too many delinquents to punish without danger. Machiavelli conjectures that if good examples and regular renovations had recurred every ten years in the history of the Roman republic, the latter would never have become corrupt.

Machiavelli then turns briefly to religious institutions and monarchies. In the history of Christian religious institutions, St. Francis and St. Dominic provide examples of acts and behaviour that induced institutional renovation (65; Discourses, 389). They revived the example of Christ, and their new religious orders kept a check on the corruption of the established orders. With regard to monarchies, Machiavelli takes the example of France, where, he notes, conduct is controlled more by laws and institutions than in any other kingdom. There, renovation occurs through the action of parlements against upstart princes or failing kings (66; Discourses, 389-90).

Drawing conclusions about renovations in general, Machiavelli maintains that it is periodically necessary to restore the starting points of a social body, and to ensure that it is institutions and good citizens that bring this about, rather than external contingencies. For the rest of Book III of the Discorsi, though, he remarks that he will concentrate on the role of great men in Livy’s account; he announces he will begin with Brutus, ‘the father of Roman liberty’ (66; Discourses, 390).

Regnault remarks in ‘The Thought of the Prince’ that ‘it is of secondary importance that Rome serves as the figure of the origin’ in Machiavelli’s text, but in a footnote he recalls that Louis Althusser knew how to ‘extract the Livian matrix [gangue] from this chapter’ (CpA 6.2:46). Regnault portrays Machiavelli’s return to Livy as an attempt to trace the original disturbances of the body politic, prior to its being ‘stitched up’ [recouse] and subjected to ‘secondary historicization’. Without the ‘great acts’ [grand coups] that recall a people to their origins, secondary historicization becomes the norm. The only solution is a return to what Lacan calls ‘primal historicization’ (42; cf. Écrits 261). Machiavelli is the one who, with his idea of ‘reconduction’ or ‘leading back’ (which Regnault claims is common to both the historian and the analyst), ‘takes the efficacy of the unconscious as far as the taking of power, beyond the thought of taking power one day, to the thought of taking it soon’ (46). Regnault takes both this chapter of the Discorsi and the Letter to Vettori of 10 December 1513 as exemplars of Machiavelli’s own approach (as ‘prince’ of the ‘science of politics’) to the problem of the enactment of a ‘procession back to the origins’ (46-47).

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l'Analyse

  • François Regnault, ‘La pensée du prince’, CpA 6.2:46-49.

English translation:

  • Niccolò Machiavelli. The Discourses, ed. Bernard Crick, based on translation by Leslie J. Walker. London: Penguin, 1974.


  • Althusser, Louis. Machiavelli and Us, ed. François Matheron, trans. Gregory Elliot. London: Verso, 1999.
  • Cassirer, Ernst. The Myth of the State [posthumous, 1946]. New Haven: Yale, 1977.
  • Elliott, Gregory. ‘In the Mirror of Machiavelli’, Introduction to Althusser, Machiavelli and Us [mentions Regnault’s reading of Machiavelli on p. xvi].
  • Flanagan, Thomas. ‘The Concept of Fortuna in Machiavelli’, in A. Parel, ed. The Political Calculus: Essays on Machiavelli’s Philosophy. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1972.
  • Gilbert, Felix. Machiavelli and Gucciardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth-Century Florence. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965.
  • Gramsci, Antonio. ‘The Modern Prince’, in Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978.
  • Livy. The Early History of Rome, trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt. London: Penguin, 1971.
  • Negri, Antonio. ‘Virtue and Fortune: The Machiavellian Paradigm’, in Insurgencies: Constituent Power and the Modern State [1992], trans. Maurizia Boscagli. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1999.
  • Pocock, J.G.A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975).
  • Ridley, R.T. ‘Machiavelli and Roman History in the Discourses’, Quaderni di Storia 9 (1983).