I was asked for some book recommendations by a reader. His requests on general self-discipline and habit-forming stuff were easy enough to give recommendations on, but he also asked for some good jumping off material to learn about "democracy and other forms of government" - my reply follows -
On government... hmm... I've read a lot on the topic, but no one work stands out to me as must-read stuff. Usually what I do is put a historical era into Wikipedia, do a "wiki walk" for a while, and then google the most interesting people and events for other insights.
You might consider Machiavelli's "The Prince," which was well-read and well-admired by most of the American founding fathers. I just read "Machiavelli, Violence, and History" which is a short essay -
Machiavelli is widely misunderstood because his most striking quotes - like, "Better to be feared than loved" - are taken out of context. The essay I just linked you to talks about violence in pursuit of the common good, things like that which can be a bit of a head-trip.
The Prince is one of those books that you have think critically on, you won't agree with all of it, but there's some interesting insights. The most interesting one I got from there was reading about how the soldiers of a republic tend to be more loyal than a monarchy's soldiers. Republican troops, thus, fight more fanatically, are more willing to die, less likely to retreat, and more likely to keep fighting even if it looks like the paymaster can't make their wages for a while.
I read that around the same time I was learning about Napoleon, so it shed a lot of light on things. Republican troops (I use "republican" the way most people use "democratic" - for instance, America is a republic with some democratic elements, not a democracy - there hasn't been a pure democracy in a very long time) - anyways, republican troops tend to fight harder, fight more fanatically, give up less easily, and require less quality of life and less pay and less wages to fight on. Napoleon did a lot of other things right militarily, but I think an underappreciated reason for his success is that he was running an imperial republic for government instead of a monarchy.
I suppose I should define terms again - "imperial" has two potential connotations. First, of expansion and empire. This is the modern usage of the word.
There's an older usage of the word, from Latin "Imperator" - that's where the word Emperor comes from. But an Imperator wasn't an Emperor under modern usage of the word emperor... "Commander" is probably the closest modern translation of Imperator, though it's not quite right - an Imperator would have both civil and military authority to the end of a common cause.
So it's funny, sometimes you can wind up in a government structure that I'll call an "imperial republic" - that's a government with republican elements (ie, some democracy/voting to choose representatives, then the representatives meet and have some legislative authority), but also has a very strong executive branch run by an "imperator" - Napoleon, I think, would quality as an imperator, and indeed, he took the title "Emperor" later in his life but never "King."
Interesting, isn't it? When Napoleon re-emerged for the 100 Days, it was the Emperor Napoleon I vs. King Louis XVIII... oftentimes, the distinction isn't made in history between an imperator-style "Emperor" and a traditional monarch "King" - but there is a difference. While "Emperor" and "King" are used basically interchangeably in modern usage, people would have understood the difference back then. While Napoleon was to some extent a monarch later in life, he was always more of a commander than a monarch. Imperator, y'know?
Oh right, I'm off on a tangent, but I brought it up about Machiavelli and soldiering and republics. The problem "pure republics" with a weak executive tend to face is dissent and the inability to get things done. That happened in the United States a few times - notably with the Nullification Crisis, which Andrew Jackson smashed, and then the Confederate Succession, which Lincoln smashed.
Between those two events, America was transitioned greatly from a "pure" republic towards a semi-imperial republic (again, I use "imperial" mostly in the classic sense here, though even the classical imperator also had connotations of expansion/empire).
Machiavelli wouldn't be a bad place to start analyzing the differences between monarchies and republics, as he covers history without much embellishment and doesn't care if he looks good or bad in the process. Perhaps before reading The Prince you would do well to check out that Harvard article/essay I linked that discusses violence as a means to common good - it's fascinating stuff. It's totally taboo to even talk about these days, but this is how much everyone through history analyzed and thought up until at least the end of World War II.
I'll probably put this up on my blog, it seems to have evolved into almost a full post. Good questions here, and let me know if any of the recommendations are interesting to you. Cheers,
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