Cicero’s Concordia Ordinum: A Machiavellian Reappraisal
28 Pages Posted: 5 Sep 2010
Date Written: September 2, 2010
It is a scholarly commonplace that Machiavelli sharply diverges from the republican tradition of political thought when he says that it was precisely “due to the disunion between the plebs and the senate” that Rome became a great republic (Disc. 1.2). To Quentin Skinner, for instance, this feature of his thinking, which “astonished” Machiavelli’s contemporaries, represents a “completely heterodox stance” (Foundations of Modern Political Thought, p 181). What Machiavelli repudiates in the Discourses, Skinner concludes, “is nothing less than the Ciceronian vision of the concordia ordinum” (“Pre-humanist origins of republican ideas,” in Machiavelli and Republicanism, p 136).
This paper argues that the view of Cicero’s concordia ordinum represented here is flawed, and that a proper understanding of it sheds new light on the role of internal conflict in republics as Cicero conceived them. Cicero’s concordia ordinum is not a “theory” in the sense defined by Greek philosophers like Plato. It describes not a permanent ideal state but a temporary state of affairs in general conditions of class antagonism.
If we fail to grasp the role of class conflict and popular action in Cicero’s thinking, we lose sight of what may be the most important insights of Roman political thought: that politics arises as the interruption of the effects of domination by those with dignitas, who counter-claim politics as the sphere of dignitas and thus as their proper field of action, their property; and that the institution of power, whether it privileges wealth, family, custom, or any or all of these, demands counter- practices and counter-institutions capable of disrupting the settled workings of political decision-making. We miss, too, the acute awareness at the core of Cicero’s thought that class antagonism is capable of policing elite excess and chastening elite expenditure. This is why I call my reading of Cicero a “Machiavellian” reappraisal.
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