On Political Power and Personal Liberty in The Prince and The Discourses

Cavallo, Jo Ann

Although liberty is a recurring concern in Machiavelli’s writings, there is no consensus regarding either the definition of the concept or its relevance for his overall political thought. One direction of Machiavellian interpretation that has gained prominence in recent decades has focused on the concept of “libertas” in relation to a republican mode of government, even though Machiavelli’s use of liberty cannot be simply equated with republicanism. In tracing the various occurrences of the term in Machiavelli’s political works, Marcia Colish has pointed out that in the context of internal affairs “Machiavelli often connects libertà with certain personal rights and community benefits that characterize free states regardless of their constitutions.” She specifies, in fact, that “he clearly identifies freedom with the protection of private rights” (1971, 345–6). Following up on Colish’s findings, this essay focuses on liberty in The Prince and The Discourses as it relates to freedom from government infringement on one’s person and rightful property. The theoretical backing for this approach can be found in Murray N. Rothbard’s understanding of freedom as “a condition in which a person’s ownership rights in his own body and his legitimate material property are not invaded, are not aggressed against” (2011, 50; emphasis in the original). In this definition, “the invasion of another’s person or property” occurs through “the use or threat of physical violence” (Rothbard 1982, 223).3 I also suggest that Machiavelli’s considerations of personal liberty in opposition to state power have relevance for our contemporary political milieu.


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Social Research: An International Quarterly

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Johns Hopkins University Press
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May 6, 2014