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Chapter 28

That a Republic must keep an eye on what its Citizens are about; since often the seeds of a Tyranny lie hidden under a semblance of generous deeds.

The granaries of Rome not sufficing to meet a famine with which the city was visited, a certain Spurius Melius, a very wealthy citizen for these days, privately laid in a supply of corn wherewith to feed the people at his own expense; gaining thereby such general favour with the commons, that the senate, apprehending that his bounty might have dangerous consequences, in order to crush him before he grew too powerful, appointed a dictator to deal with him and caused him to be put to death.

Here we have to note that actions which seem good in themselves and unlikely to occasion harm to any one, very often become hurtful, nay, unless corrected in time, most dangerous for a republic. And to treat the matter with greater fulness, I say, that while a republic can never maintain itself long, or manage its affairs to advantage, without citizens of good reputation, on the other hand the credit enjoyed by particular citizens often leads to the establishment of a tyranny. For which reasons, and that things may take a safe course, it should be so arranged that a citizen shall have credit only for such behaviour as benefits, and not for such as injures the State and its liberties. We must therefore examine by what ways credit is acquired. These, briefly, are two, public or secret. Public, when a citizen gains a great name by advising well or by acting still better for the common advantage. To credit of this sort we should open a wide door, holding out rewards both for good counsels and for good actions, so that he who renders such services may be at once honoured and satisfied. Reputation acquired honestly and openly by such means as these can never be dangerous. But credit acquired by secret practices, which is the other method spoken of, is most perilous and prejudicial. Of such secret practices may be instanced, acts of kindness done to this or the other citizen in lending him money, in assisting him to marry his daughters, in defending him against the magistrates, and in conferring such other private favours as gain men devoted adherents, and encourage them after they have obtained such support, to corrupt the institutions of the State and to violate its laws.

A well-governed republic, therefore, ought, as I have said, to throw wide the door to all who seek public favour by open courses, and to close it against any who would ingratiate themselves by underhand means. And this we find was done in Rome. For the Roman republic, as a reward to any citizen who served it well, ordained triumphs and all the other honours which it had to bestow; while against those who sought to aggrandize themselves by secret intrigues, it ordained accusations and impeachment; and when, from the people being blinded by a false show of benevolence, these proved insufficient, it provided for a dictator, who with regal authority might bring to bounds any who had strayed beyond them, as instanced in the case of Spurius Melius. And if conduct like his be ever suffered to pass unchastised, it may well be the ruin of a republic, for men when they have such examples set them are not easily led back into the right path.

Niccolo Machiavelli

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