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Chapter 34

By what reports, rumours, or surmises the Citizens of a Republic are led to favour a Fellow-citizen: and-whether the Magistracies are bestowed with better judgment by a People or by a Prince.

I have elsewhere related how Titus Manlius, afterwards named Torquatus, rescued his father from the charge laid against him by Marcus Pomponius, tribune of the people. And though the means he took to effect this were somewhat violent and irregular, so pleasing to everyone were his filial piety and affection, that not only did he escape rebuke, but when military tribunes had to be appointed his name was second on the list of those chosen. To explain his good fortune, it will, I think, be useful to consider what are the methods followed by the citizens of a republic in estimating the character of those on whom they bestow honours, so as to see whether what I have already said on this head be true, namely, that a people is more discriminating in awarding honours than a prince.

I say, then, that in conferring honours and offices, the people, when it has no knowledge of a man from his public career, follows the estimate given of him by the general voice, and by common report; or else is guided by some prepossession or preconceived opinion which it has adopted concerning him. Such impressions are formed either from consideration of a man's descent (it being assumed, until the contrary appears, that where his ancestors have been great and distinguished citizens their descendant will resemble them), or else from regard to his manners and habits; and nothing can be more in his favour than that he frequents the company of the grave and virtuous, and such as are generally reputed wise. For as we can have no better clue to a man's character than the company he keeps, he who frequents worthy company deservedly obtains a good name, since there can hardly fail to be some similarity between himself and his associates. Sometimes, however, the popular estimate of a man is founded on some remarkable and noteworthy action, though not of public moment, in which he has acquitted himself well. And of all the three causes which create a prepossession in a man's favour, none is so effectual as this last. For the presumption that he will resemble his ancestors and kinsmen is so often misleading, that men are slow to trust and quick to discard it, unless confirmed by the personal worth of him of whom they are judging.

The criterion of character afforded by a man's manners and conversation is a safer guide than the presumption of inherited excellence, but is far inferior to that afforded by his actions; for until he has given actual proof of his worth, his credit is built on mere opinion, which may readily change. But this third mode of judging, which originates in and rests upon his actions, at once gives him a name which can only be destroyed by his afterwards doing many actions of a contrary nature. Those therefore who live in a republic should conform to this third criterion, and endeavour, as did many of the Roman youth, to make their start in life with some extraordinary achievement, either by promoting a law conducive to the general well-being, or by accusing some powerful citizen as a transgressor of the laws, or by performing some similar new and notable action which cannot fail to be much spoken of.

Actions like this are necessary not only to lay a foundation for your fame, but also to maintain and extend it. To which end, they must continually be renewed, as we find done by Titus Manlius throughout the whole course of his life. For after winning his earliest renown by his bold and singular defence of his father, when some years had passed he fought his famous duel with the Gaul, from whom, when he had slain him, he took the twisted golden collar which gave him the name of Torquatus. Nor was this the last of his remarkable actions, for at a later period, when he was of ripe years, he caused his own son to be put to death, because he had fought without leave, although successfully. Which three actions gained for him at the time a greater name, and have made him more renowned through after ages than all his triumphs and victories, though of these he had as large a share as fell to the lot of any other Roman. The explanation of which is, that while in his victories Manlius had many who resembled him, in these particular actions he stood almost or entirely alone.

So, too, with the elder Scipio, all whose victories together did not obtain for him so much reputation, as did his rescue, while he was yet young, of his father at the Ticino, and his undaunted bearing after the rout at CannŠ, when with his naked sword he constrained a number of the Roman youth to swear never to abandon their country, as some among them had before been minded to do. It was these two actions, therefore, which laid the foundation of his future fame and paved the way for his triumphs in Spain and Africa. And the fair esteem in which men held him, was still further heightened when in Spain he restored a daughter to her father, a wife to her husband.

Nor is it only the citizen who seeks reputation as leading to civil honours, who must act in this way; the prince who would maintain his credit in his princedom must do likewise; since nothing helps so much to make a prince esteemed as to give signal proofs of his worth, whether by words or by deeds which tend to promote the public good, and show him to be so magnanimous, generous, and just, that he may well pass into a proverb among his subjects. But to return to the point whence I digressed, I say that if a people, when they first confer honours on a fellow-citizen, rest their judgment on any one of the three circumstances above-mentioned, they build on a reasonable foundation; but, when many instances of noble conduct have made a man favourably known, that the foundation is still better, since then there is hardly room for mistake. I speak merely of those honours which are bestowed on a man at the outset of his career, before he has come to be known by continued proof, or is found to have passed from one kind of conduct to another and dissimilar kind, and I maintain that in such cases, so far as erroneous judgments or corrupt motives are concerned, a people will always commit fewer mistakes than a prince.

But since a people may happen to be deceived as regards the character, reputation, and actions of a man, thinking them better or greater than in truth they are, an error a prince is less likely to fall into from his being informed and warned by his advisers, in order that the people may not lack similar advice, wise founders of republics have provided, that when the highest dignities of the State, to which it would be dangerous to appoint incapable men, have to be filled up, and it appears that some incapable man is the object of the popular choice, it shall be lawful and accounted honourable for any citizen to declare in the public assemblies the defects of the favoured candidate, that the people, being made acquainted therewith, may be better able to judge of his fitness. That this was the practice in Rome we have proof in the speech made by Fabius Maximus to the people during the second Punic war, when in the appointment of consuls public favour leaned towards Titus Ottacilius. For Fabius judging him unequal to the duties of the consulship at such a crisis, spoke against him and pointed out his insufficiency, and so prevented his appointment, turning the popular favour towards another who deserved it more.

In the choice of its magistrates, therefore, a people judges of those among whom it has to choose, in accordance with the surest indications it can get; and when it can be advised as princes are, makes fewer mistakes than they. But the citizen who would make a beginning by gaining the good-will of the people, must, to obtain it, perform, like Titus Manlius, some noteworthy action.

Niccolo Machiavelli

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