Monday, December 08, 2014

BOOK: Aurelio Lippo Brandolini, "Republics and Kingdoms Compared"

Aurelio Lippo Brandolini: Republics and Kingdoms Compared. Edited and translated by James Hankins. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 40. Harvard University Press, 2009. 9700674033986. xxvi + 297 pp.

This book was an interesting but very frustrating read. It's structured as a dialogue between king Matthias Corvinus of Hungary and one Domenico Giugni, a distinguished citizen of Florence, in which they argue whether a republic or a monarchy is a better form of government. The translator's introduction (p. xiv) has some interesting remarks on the different types of dialogues: the dialogues you usually find in the works of Renaissance authors consist of first one person presenting one side of the issue and then the other person presenting the other side, both times without much interruption and debate. (I remember seeing some dialogues of that sort earlier in the ITRL series, in a book by Bartolomeo Scala.) But Brandolini's dialogue isn't like that; it's more like a Socratic dialogue instead, with king Matthias mostly taking on the Socratic role of asking questions to poke holes into Domenico's opinions.

I'm starting to think that the Socratic dialogue, although it sounds like a fine idea in principle, is somehow fundamentally flawed in practice. I already disliked this form of dialogue when I encountered in Plato's works, and I disliked it here in Brandolini for the same reasons. Much like in Plato, the debate is far from being conducted fairly, and the author is far from unbiased. In fact it's abundantly clear that the author sides very much with the monarchist side of this debate — which I thought was a bit odd since he was from Florence, which was a republic; but apparently, in his time it was a republic more in theory than in practice, as in practice the Medici family ruled it almost as if they had been its monarchs. I suppose Brandolini was also trying to ingratiate himself with them a bit (see him kissing Lorenzo de' Medici's ass in 3.38) and thought that supporting monarchy would suit him better for that purpose. Besides, he spent a few months in Hungary at the court of king Matthias, which is probably why he included him as a character in the dialogue (translator's introduction, p. x).

Anyway, as I said, the dialogue is very biased, and that's what made is so frustrating to read. Much like Plato in his dialogues always pits Socrates against inane interlocutors who act as if they were completely unable to defend themselves against his attacks, here in Brandolini's dialogue Domenico is completely useless at defending the republican idea, he caves in to every argument by Matthias and never tries to counterattack by pointing out the flaws in Matthias's own ideas in favor of the monarchy.

Thus, for all practical purposes, this is not a comparison of the republic as such and the monarchy as such; rather, it is a comparison between a concrete, really existing implementation of the republic such as it existed in Florence at that time (and which of course inevitably included many warts and flaws, like any real human society inevitably does), and a hypothetical idealized perfect monarchy, which probably didn't even remotely resemble king Matthias's Hungary (even though he claims until he's blue in the face that this is pretty much exactly how he runs his country; 1.76).

And Matthias is not at all shy to admit this. He admits that in practice, an ideal king is hard to find, perhaps impossible (3.35), but says that he wants to discuss “what the best regime is, not where it is” (3.36). Now clearly, human nature being what it is, the answer to ‘where’ is really ‘nowhere and never’, but that doesn't seem to bother him in the least.

The problem with this sort of comparison is of course that it's trivial and useless. Nobody will disagree that a monarchy governed by a perfectly just and virtuous monarch would be an excellent system of government, perhaps the best one possible; but in practice, the monarch, who is after all just a human being, inevitably falls too far from this ideal. Matthias consistently ignores the fact that in the vast majority of cases, a king reaches his position by inheritance, and occasionally by a coup or some other sort of usurpation. Instead, he pretends that a king is somehow ‘found’, as if the people could somehow make a careful search and find the best candidate for the job! Thus he points out that “it's easier to find one excellent person” (1.48) to be your king than to find a huge number of them that you'd need to staff a republican government: “if someone unconquerable by and free of all passion can be found at all, it is surely easier to find one such person than many” (2.17); “if someone of perfected excellence in every virtue may be found, this one person ought to be set before the citizens [. . .] rather than many persons” (3.76); and he says that monarchies originated because “in the beginning, the best and most self-controlled individuals were put in charge of ruling” (3.85) — wahaha!

I don't know if he really believes this bullshit or is just lying and hoping that Domenico won't call him out on it. In any case, since the position of a monarch is usually inherited, even if your previous monarch was virtuous, there's no reason to assume that his son will be sufficiently virtuous as well. Besides, the point of a republic shouldn't be to expect that you'll find the most virtuous people to run the country (although some starry-eyed idealists might occasionally imagine that this is the point) — the point is to ensure a uniformly average degree of corruption and incompetence, so that the country is ran in an average way and you can at least avoid the worst excesses (whereas in a monarchy these happen sooner or later, when your next monarch turns out to be a Nero or a Caligula).

Towards the end of the discussion, even Matthias admits that pimping being a king isn't easy, and provides a long list of virtues that an ideal king should possess (3.97–102). He even agrees that there is “a great lack now of excellent princes” and that in practice, a good republic (such as that of Florence) is also OK (3.106). He doesn't seem to think that this somewhat demolishes his own arguments earlier in the debate :S Maybe that's just Brandolini hedging his bets — by the time he finished this book, he had returned from Hungary into Florence and perhaps didn't want to seem too critical of the republic.

The Florentine republic

In book I, Domenico describes the system of government in Florence of his day; I found this pretty interesting since it differs in many details from the way modern republics work. But when Matthias argues against some of the problematic parts of the Florentine system, he acts as if this was an argument against the idea of a republic altogether, instead of just against the Florentine version of it. For example, it seems that in Florence a citizen was forbidden from participating in politics if he owed some unpaid taxes (1.43, 1.50); I agree that this is unfair, but it's by no means a necessary aspect of a republic. Besides, a monarchy is even worse — there, all citizens are forbidden from participating in politics, because the monarch runs everything by himself anyway.

Domenico also fails at defending some of the positive features of the Florentine system, which Matthias unfairly claims are in fact faults. For example, he mentions that some political positions are filled by choosing candidates at random (1.47), and that there are laws against people holding multiple such positions at the same time (1.50). This sounded like an excellent idea to ensure that political power is spread around evenly and in a way which is mostly out of the control of individual people, so that ambitious politicans can't gain too much power for themselves. (Of course, I wonder whether this actually worked well in practice — it probably didn't, since they ended up with the Medici as the de facto monarchs.) Matthias of course claims that choosing politicians by lot means that you can't ensure that the best and most virtuous ones will get appointed. This is true, but irrelevant — no other system can ensure that either. He would say that a monarchy is better because he as king will of course appoint the best candidates, but come on, we all know that that's bullshit; in practice, the king appoints those who are the best at sucking up to him. Similarly, if you choose candidates by an election, the winners will again not be the best candidates but those who are the best at manipulating the feelings of the voters. In the end, choosing politicians at random is the fairest policy because it takes any sort of human influence out of the process. [My ideal political system would be something along the lines of the Hunger Games: every January 1, choose the politicians at random from among all the adult citizens, let them run the country for a year, then shoot them all on December 31, preferably on live TV as part of the New Year's festivities.]

Domenico also mentions that Florentines cast their votes in secret, so that others don't see how you voted and you can vote freely as you like without worrying that others will judge you for it (1.61). Matthias has a ridiculous criticism of this practice, saying that it allows bad people to keep making their bad voting decisions without censure, and prevents the good people from being justly praised for their good voting decisions (1.62–3). Furthermore, says Matthias, voters should be willing to cast their votes publicly for the candidate whom they think is best for the city; if you are afraid that the other candidates will then retaliate against you because you didn't vote for them, you're basically being an unpatriotic coward and Matthias has no sympathy for you (1.61). Needless to say, this is all complete nonsense. It's an unfair and unrealistic demand to make of the voters, and in practice it would lead to influential people being able to pressure the voters in all sorts of ways.


There's a fair bit of talk about the notoriously slippery concept of equality, but I wasn't particularly happy with either of the two debaters. Both of them seem to be both for and against it, and accuse each other of being wrong about it :S

Domenico speaks in praise of equality and cites the ancient Spartans as an example (2.36), but then Matthias points out that the Spartans practiced equality of wealth, while Domenico freely admits that there are extreme differences in wealth amongst the Florentines, and sees nothing wrong with that (2.39).

Domenico's counterargument is not very useful — he points out that they have sumptuary laws which prevent the rich people from showing off their wealth too much (1.40, 2.44) by regulating things like dress, architecture, feasts, and other kinds of luxury.

Matthias says that citizens are more free in a kingdom than in a republic, because he doesn't impose this kind of constraints on them (1.72). But this is the sort of freedom that is useless to 99% of the population; it only means that the rich people are free to show off their wealth — wealth which they should never have been allowed to obtain in the first place!

In fact Matthias seems to be a bit of a hypocrite; he criticizes the Florentines for the great differences in wealth amongst their citizens (2.39; “how can there be equality among you when some are extremely rich, others extremely poor?”, 2.43), but he also criticizes their sumptuary laws which were obviously an effort to lessen the impact of these differences (1.72). If anything, my idea is that their sumptuary laws didn't go far enough. Ideally, with sufficiently extreme sumptuary laws, people would cease striving to be rich because there wouldn't be any point to being rich since the sumptuary laws would prevent you from spending your money on anything fun.

They return to this debate in 2.44–6, where Matthias says that distinctions in dress etc. are a useful way of rewarding people for honorable achievements etc., but this is surely bullshit again as for the most part these distinctions were based on wealth and on inherited social status (e.g. titles of nobility). Similarly, Matthias says in 2.61–2 that inequality provides useful mechanisms to encourage people to strive for excellence, and to reward them when they are successful in these pursuits.

But this is not the only way in which Matthias is being hypocritical. He complains about the differences in wealth amongst the Florentines (e.g. pointing out that the rich people are practically immune from the law, 2.49–50), but then he acts as if a monarchy is better because the king hoards all the wealth and everyone else is equally poor! Wahahahaha :))) (1.48, 2.9, 2.11, 2.26, 2.50, 3.45) Orwell would be proud! Besides, he must have known damn well that he had various social classes like the big aristocratic landowners, burghers, peasant smallholders, serfs etc.; I'm sure the wealth inequalities were no smaller in Hungary than in Florence.

There's also a bit of discussion of the idea that is still so beloved by present-day capitalists and free-market lunatics, namely that differences in wealth are necessary to motivate people towards economic activity. (In 2.41, Domenico asks: “what if there is no concern for or expectation of reward and profit? [. . .] who would undertake such great labors without profit?”) This is of course a bullshit argument because a great deal of economic activity is profoundly unnecessary anyway, and in many cases actively harmful; and in any case, when someone gets rich in the process, it's always by exploiting other people, and that's too high a cost for encouraging that economic activity.

Matthias counters Domenico's argument by an idea that I would be really impressed by if I could believe that he meant it seriously: without the incentive of wealth to motivate people, much of the economic activity wouldn't get done, which is fine and it wouldn't be missed, and what little absolutely needs to get done would get done somehow or another anyway, and as a last resort the state could force people into it (2.42). That's basically a blueprint for a plan-based economy ran by an all-powerful state government, with the bonus feature that the government focuses on arranging the economy in such a way that unnecessary work gets avoided as much as possible. This is basically my ideal type of economy — but it's impossible to believe that a medieval king could have instituted something like that; even the 20th-century communist countries didn't succeed at it.


Some of the features of the Florentine system are really a bit odd by present-day standards. For example, Domenico says that they often hire a foreigner to serve as a judge (e.g. for a six-month term), because they think it would create too much acrimony within the city if they had one citizen passing judgment on others (1.63–64). Matthias not unreasonably points out that it's a bit dodgy to talk about your city's liberty and independence if you're inviting foreigners to administer laws. But on the other hand, he doesn't really have a better answer; in his own kingdom, he appoints judges by himself and tries to send judges from one part of the country to serve in a different part of the country, so that they can be more impartial (1.72). This is clearly possible due to the size of the country and the reason it wouldn't work in Florence is not because Florence is a republic but because it's a city-state. Besides, having a king appoint your judges makes you less free than if you could hire the judge by yourself, even if you end up hiring a foreigner. But Domenico never points out these things, he just caves in under every of Matthias's complaints.

Some of Matthias's criticism is justified but irrelevant, e.g. when he complains about the way the Florentines treat the people of various provinces that are subject to Florence's control (1.74). After all, it's not like changing Florence into a monarchy would improve this situation. If anything, a monarch treats all parts of his kingdom as subject provinces, including the one where his capital city is located.

Matthias similarly pointlessly congratulates himself on appointing people from multiple provinces into his senate (1.72, 2.7, 3.53), which again is possible simply because his country is larger than a city-state.


Book 2 has some interesting discussion of economic issues, though it's not really relevant to the comparison of republics and monarchies. Domenico points out that the Florentines are very active in international trade while Matthias's subjects tend to stay within their own borders; but as Matthias rightly points out, this is unrelated to the political system, since some monarchies are active in international trade and some republics aren't (2.19–20).

Matthias's economic ideas struck me as being a little schizophrenic. On the one hand, he is in favor of free trade and criticizes the Florentines for protecting their own industries by customs and import taxes and the like (2.32–4). On the other hand, he has some delightful rants against international trade altogether: “These things pervert the mores of the young, adulterate the native language, make well educated minds effeminate with wanton allurements [. . .] These things carry along with them, besides foreign wealth and foreign wares, avarice, ambition, gluttony, lust and other foul and wicked sins.” (2.21; and see more along the same lines in 2.22.) “What the devil is this madness anyway, sailing to the Ethiopian or Indian Oecan to pluck gems and pearls from those shores? What insanity is this, traversing the whole globe for the sake of gluttony and dissipation?” (2.27)

He even has a hilarious argument against international trade: god surely designed the world so that each province provides whatever is necessary for people to live there. He admits that in some areas you can't even produce things like bread and oil, but hey, those are just unnecessary luxuries anyway — you can always be a hunter/gatherer instead! (2.25–6) Seriously, a goddamn king who spends his life wallowing in wealth is telling people that bread and oil are a frivolous luxury? Marie Antoinette was a rank amateur compared to this :))) I'm starting to wonder if Brandolini was secretly trying to champion the republican side after all, by ascribing all these ridiculous arguments to Matthias. . .


Towards the end of book 2 they also discuss culture; Domenico points out how many famous artists and scholars come from Florence, but Matthias reasonably objects that this isn't really a feature of the republican system as such, for not all republics are strong in that area, and he cites examples of arts and learning flourishing in some monarchies too (2.51–5).

I for my part am inclined to think that there is something to be said for the idea that artists and scientists are more likely to be creative if they live in a system with greater political freedom. But on the other hand, a lot can be done in a more repressive system as well, as long as it is willing to finance and sponsor such activities. In fact this seems to be Matthias's point when he mentions how he is trying to strengthen the University of Vienna and how his father-in-law the king of Naples is the patron of various artists and writers.

Matthias comes up with a hilarious explanation for the Florentine achievements in culture: it must be due to its mild climate! :)) (2.56–7) And he furthermore says that perhaps the reason why so many famous Florentine artists can be found all over Europe is because they don't get enough honor and recognition back home — another jab against the Florentine sumptuary laws and the like (2.61).

The monarchical principle

Book 3 contains a number of silly arguments in favor of monarchical rule. Matthias argues that if a number of leaders are giving commands to a number of followers simultaneously, it results in chaos, so what you really need is a clear hierarchy with an individual person at the top. In support of this monarchic principle, he cites examples such as a ship's captain, a military commander (1.25, 3.4–12), head of a household (3.13–17), various supposed examples of individual rule in the animal world (3.87), the fact that the various parts of a person's body are governed by one soul (3.88), even the Platonic principle of unity (“the One”, 3.88 and see my recent post about Ficino's commentary on the Parmenides) and the monotheistic christian god (3.89).

But this is all completely irrelevant to the monarchy-vs-republic discussion, and it's frustrating that neither Matthias nor Domenico seem to realize that. Matthias always whines about how in a republic, the rulers will just quarrel among themselves all the time, which is why you need a monarch who will not have this problem (unless he is schizophrenic :P). But in reality, if the rulers of a republic disagree amongst themselves, they can still make decisions by voting and seeing which proposal got the majority of votes. Additionally, a republic can easily elect an individual person as a prime minister or president, so they get some of the benefits of single-person leadership without its downsides. Domenico has some good arguments in favor of having multiple people lead the city in 3.25–28.

In fact, Matthias perversely cites some examples of such republican heads of state — the doge of Venice, the standard-bearer of justice in Florence (3.93–4) — as a further justification of monarchies, saying that by having these individual quasi-monarchical people at the top of their hierarchy, these republics implicitly admit that they think the monarchical principle is better than the republican one. (By the way, his view of the Venetian doges seems to be highly misguided; from what I remember from Norwich's history of Venice, the doge's position was purely ceremonial and the system was very carefully designed to prevent the doge from having any real power whatsoever. Hardly an endorsement of monarchy.)

The main problem with a monarchy is not that there is a single ruler, but that he usually obtains that position by inheritance and holds it for the rest of his life, and that there are no effective limitations to his power.

Interestingly, Matthias is not opposed to the idea that a monarch should consult with some sort of senate. But he wants to choose the senators by himself and not be required to follow their advice, of course (2.7, 3.51–53).

Matthias makes another hilarious defense of the monarchical principle in 2.9: “we cannot be so easily inluenced or corrupted, not having many blood relations — we are [socially] isolated”, whereas the leaders of a republic “can be influenced or corrupted much more easily [. . .] since you are many, you necessarily have many blood relations, marriage alliances, relations of clientage and personal ties” (2.10). As if the number of these people mattered! The king, no matter how few relatives he has, will appoint them to command entire armies and govern entire provinces, and they will perpetrate similar kinds of corruption at the lower levels, so that in the end the country will be no less corrupt than if it had been a republic.

Another odd argument in favor of monarchy: even in a republic, any particular law is likely written by an individual person (2.4–5), so why wouldn't you want to have a wise monarch writing all your laws by himself? But this neglects the fact that in a republic, the parliament can amend or reject such a law if they dislike it; so that, even if most of the original text was written by one individual, the final result represents the wisdom of a larger group of people. Matthias later says that since a law cannot cover all contingencies, it will need to be amended and interpreted, which is best left to the same person who originally wrote it (which is, of course, the king himself); 2.14–6.

Matthias also suggests that a monarch can enforce the laws better than the magistrates of a republic can, because he has all the resources of the entire state concentrated in his hands (2.11; which is patent nonsense, since in practice a monarch will appoint a hierarchy of governors and magistrates to enforce the laws on his behalf, so the dispersion of the resources is the same as in a republic). He points out that, as a result of this: “If we ourselves do not keep the laws, we cannot be punished by man.” (2.11). He does not seem to notice that this is actually an argument against the monarchy, not for it :)))

He goes on in a similar vein in 3.44–45; republican politics are marred by the politicians' greed and ambition, none of which applies to a monarch, because he has all the power and wealth already :))


Some of Matthias's arguments in book 3 are pure sophistry, so ridiculous that they wouldn't be out of place in the work of Plato himself. (In fact he deliberately cites Plato as his influence, 3.29, which I guess shouldn't surprise us; Plato's views seem to be downright perfectly suited to appeal to all sorts of authoritarians.) For example, Matthias suggests that different systems of government can be arranged from best to worst; the worst is clearly tyranny; so the best one must be that which is the exact opposite of tyranny, and that's monarchy (3.82). (The complete series is: monarchy, aristocracy, republic, democracy, oligarchy, tyranny; 3.85–6.) But clearly, that's just playing with words. By these definitions, there is no monarchy anywhere in the world, and every country with an individual ruler is a tyranny, so you haven't really proven anything. He half admits it in 1.76: “I have been explaining my own practice to you, not that of other kings. If there are those who do not rule their kingdoms this way, they seem tyrants to me, not kings.”

He likeswise seems to have oddly ‘platonic’ ideas about the very process of running a country (3.30). He acts as if there was some well-defined best™ course of policy in any given situation, and the problem is just to find a sufficiently wise™ ruler who will be able to figure out what course this is. Once you have this ruler, it's obviously superfluous to have him share power with anyone else, since it can't possibly improve his decision making (he's already making the right™ decisions after all). Voilà — there's your ideal monarch!

He even illustrates this by an analogy from mathematics (3.31–3): if you can find the center of a circle by yourself, then it's redundant to add multiple team members to help you with that. He suggests that the analogy is especially relevant because the ruler's job is likewise to find the mean policy between various extremes.

It's sad how little Domenico has to say against these ridiculous ideas. Of course, nowadays we know that anybody who tries to tell you that running a country is as easy as solving a mathematical problem is either a dangerous utopian or a lying bastard with some ulterior motives. Nowadays you usually find this sort of thinking among lunatic free-market economists who prefer to deal with mathematical models, which they can easily analyze, than with messy reality, which they can't. In the past, builders of utopian socialist plan-based economies also subscribed to this line of thinking. Anyway, from Domenico's point of view these things were still far in the future, and he doesn't make any objection to Matthias's views.

But it's even harder to understand why he doesn't object to the idea that there's just one clear best course of policy in any given situation. Best for whom? And under what assumptions, considering that we can't possibly have complete information about the situation and that we don't know how the future will evolve? Surely it must have been obvious to both of them that in reality, you always have a number of different possible courses of action, each with various advantages and disadvantages, and you don't have nearly enough information to reliably proclaim one of them to be the best™ in some objective sense.


There are also some arguments from history, which I'm not sure I agree with but at least they were interesting to think about. Matthias points out that in all recorded history up to his time, monarchies were much more prevalent than republics (3.90) — which is technically true, but does that really prove the monarchy is a better system, in some suitably platonic sense of better™? I suspect the problem might be that for a republic to work, especially for any state larger than a city, you need a certain level of civilization, technology, education etc., and this just wasn't available before the last few centuries. And I also suspect that there's something in human nature that inclines us to accept various hierarchies rather more readily than we should, and monarchy takes advantage of that very successfully. Even nowadays we see that democracy is a fragile system that is constantly at risk of slipping into various kinds of totalitarianism and tyranny.

Also on the subject of arguments from history, Matthias argues that monarchies are more stable than republics (3.62–68). I wonder if that's really true; it would be interested to see some sort of objective review of history. Matthias can certainly point to various instances of factional strife in republics, even civil wars and the like; but surely such things are nothing uncommon in monarchies either.

Besides, I think he exaggerates the importance of harmony and unity (which he says are more easily provided in a monarchy than in a republic; 3.78): “united power was more effective than dispersed power [. . .] one ruler was preferable to many” (3.81). Whom does he think he's fooling with this? Sure, united power is more effective, but that doesn't mean it's preferable (unless you're the one wielding that power, I suppose). If everyone is forced to shut up and do as the king commands, I suppose you can say that this is a kind of harmony, but that's hardly a desirable condition.

He complains against factional strife in republics (3.37), but I think factional strife is actually good. The more they strive against each other (and pull the state in different directions; cf. 3.46), the less time they will have to govern (and thus oppress) the people. But I guess Matthias wouldn't agree with that kind of anarchist thinking :P Maybe it's all a matter of degree; ‘factional strife’ to me suggests politicians yelling at each other in the parliament in the media, but in Renaissance Italy it meant civil war and half the city being exiled by the other half every few years.


Although some parts of this post might seem as if I was a bit exasperated by this book, in fact I rather enjoyed reading it. I just have a hard time imagining how anybody could be persuaded by its arguments; but perhaps that wasn't even its purpose. Perhaps it's best to think of it as an unabashedly partisan political book; like many such books, it may have been written more for people who already shared the author's opinions (in this case, monarchism) and wasn't seriously intended to convert those from the opposite side of politics.

Additionally, reading this book gave me a somewhat better appreciation for some of the things that we take for granted in our modern-day republics, but that apparently really weren't that obvious in e.g. Brandolini's time: the idea that you can resolve disagreements by a vote in the parliament, rather than by having a monarch bang his fist on the table and laying down the law; the idea that insofar as you need an individual person as the head of government, you can just elect him for a limited term instead of having a hereditary monarch; the idea of splitting up the government into various bodies with a web of checks and balances to prevent any of them from becoming too powerful, etc. These things seem obvious now, at least as ideals, but they are more or less completely absent from Domenico's defense of the republic. But maybe that's just because the author was biased in favor of monarchies — otherwise, he wouldn't be comparing an idealized monarchy to real-world republics.

By the way, the translator's note as p. 268 has some very interesting remarks on the changes in the meaning of certain words: the Latin word respublica originally meant “ ‘the state,’ ‘public affairs’ or ‘disinterested government’ ”, not necessarily a non-monarchical one. The modern meaning (i.e. republic as the opposite of monarchy) emerged “in Italy in the later fifteenth century”, and Brandolini's book is one of the early examples of this usage.

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