The Universities

Machiavelli, Calumny and Free Speech on Campus

I join those who are criticising schools and universities for failing to educate young members of Western societies in their own traditions of moral and political thought. But this criticism often takes the form of vague moralising which is short on examples that show how we can benefit from studying those traditions. And because it is deficient in this way, this criticism often has a small claim upon the attention of people in the business of education, and the society at large. I’d like to try to improve the situation by providing an example of how reading and thinking about works from the past can be of value in dealing with important moral and political issues, such as freedom of expression, education, and civil liberty in general. I also aim to identify a serious problem with our universities and propose a solution for it.

This essay appears in December’s Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe

Let’s remember one of the great works of the Italian Renaissance, Machiavelli’s Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy (Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio). Machiavelli wrote this work after he had completed The Prince, probably between 1514 and 1519, but it was not published until 1531, four years after his death. This work is now commonly referred to as the Discourses, and it is a commentary on the first ten books of the monumental history of ancient Rome—From the Founding of the City (Ab Urbe Condite)—that was written by the ancient Roman historian we now refer to as Livy. Despite Machiavelli’s rather sinister reputation, the Discourses is now widely seen as one of the most powerful and influential analyses of civil liberty and republics in the Western tradition of political thought.

In the first book of the Discourses, Machiavelli comments on an incident involving two of the great military and political figures of the early Roman republic, Furius Camillus and Manlius Capitolinus. Both men had displayed outstanding virtue in serving Rome: after the Gauls had sacked the city in 390 BC, Manlius Capitolinus remained with a garrison on the Capitol (the summit of the Capitoline hill on which the temple of Jupiter stood). Alerted by the sacred geese to an attack by the Gauls, he and his men repelled them and saved the Capitol (hence his cognomen, Capitolinus); Furius Camillus led the Roman military to several victories over its enemies, including the Gauls, and he oversaw the reconstruction of the city once the Gauls had been defeated under his command.

Though both men were regarded at the time as heroes of the republic, the Romans granted a pre-eminence to Camillus, which did not sit well with Capitolinus, who felt he was every bit as good. Machiavelli observes that “so fraught was he with envy that he could not remain tranquil while Camillus had such glory, but, realising that he could not sow discord among the patricians, he turned to the plebs and disseminated among them diverse sinister rumours” (I cite the Walker/Richardson translation). Among other things, Capitolinus accused Camillus and other Roman patricians of embezzling and withholding public funds, an accusation that inflamed the plebeians against the patricians and, for a while, made them think Capitolinus was on their side. The Senate appointed an official (a “dictator”) in order to deal with this standoff between Camillus and the patricians in the Senate, and Capitolinus and the plebeians. This official commanded Capitolinus to appear in public, and asked him to provide evidence for his accusations and to identify those who held the funds he claimed had been embezzled and withheld. Capitolinus provided no details, so the dictator sent him to prison. Eventually united in the view that he was a danger to the republic, the patricians and the populace ordered that he be thrown to his death (as depicted above) “from the Capitol which he had once saved with such renown”. And he was.

Machiavelli approves of the Romans’ treatment of Capitolinus. Indeed, he claims the incident “shows how perfect the city then was and how good the material of which it was composed”. On Machiavelli’s view, the Romans rightly saw Capitolinus as a “calumniator”. A calumniator is a person who makes serious accusations against other citizens without providing sufficient evidence or witnesses to support those accusations. Calumniators make these accusations unofficially, in private, and promote their circulation “in the squares and the arcades”. And, on Machiavelli’s account, the Romans also rightly saw that calumny is a potent means of achieving political power and objectives:

calumnies … are among the various things of which citizens have availed themselves in order to acquire greatness, and are very effective when employed against powerful citizens who stand in the way of one’s plans, because by playing up to the populace and confirming the poor view it takes of such men one can make it one’s friend.

Above all, the Romans understood how destructive calumny can be to the republic: they knew that calumnies not only exasperate those against whom they are made, but also incite them and their allies to hate the calumniators. They understood that if you permit calumniators to go unpunished, that hatred will result in a divided society that will curtail civil liberties and ultimately disintegrate.

Machiavelli argues that one of the reasons the Roman republic was so successful as a long-standing political society in which citizens enjoyed civil liberties was that it had institutions that could effectively deal with calumniators—he thinks the case of Manlius Capitolinus (and that of Coriolanus) shows this. And he claims that one of the reasons his own city-state, Renaissance Florence, was ruined was that it did not have such institutions. For in Florence:

at all times calumnies have been spread against such of its citizens as were employed in important public affairs. Of one they said that he had embezzled the public funds; of another that he had failed in some undertaking because he had been bribed; of yet another that through ambition he had caused such and such an inconvenience. It thus came about that hatred arose on all sides; whence came divisions; from divisions factions, and from factions ruin.

If, Machiavelli observes, “provision had been made for the accusing of citizens and for the punishment of calumniators”, the ruin of the Florentine republic could have been averted. He infers:

in what detestation calumnies should be held in free cities and in all other forms of society, and how with a view to checking them no institution which serves this end should be neglected … Manlius Capitolinus, then, was a calumniator, not an accuser; and the Romans have shown us in his case precisely how calumniators should be punished. They should be made to bring a formal charge, and, when the charge is borne out by the facts, should be rewarded or at any rate, not punished; but, when it is not borne out by the facts, they should be punished, as Manlius was.

It might be thought that modern Western polities are so different from ancient Rome and Renaissance Florence that Machiavelli’s comments and teaching have nothing to offer us. After all, Machiavelli barely made it into the age of the printing press, and this is the digital age that has nothing in common with the ages that preceded it—the old wisdom does not apply! This kind of objection to studying the past and respecting its wisdom has been around a long time. Machiavelli responds to it at the opening of the Discourses when he writes, “as if the heaven, the sun, the elements and man had in their motion, their order, and their potency, become different from what they used to be”. While there are many important differences and discontinuities between ancient Rome, Renaissance Florence, and modern Western polities, it is still worthwhile to consider our own institutions and societies in the light of institutions and societies of the past.

First of all, I think that one of the main features of “discussion” of moral and political issues on campus and beyond is the high incidence of a certain kind of accusation (calling people names, attaching labels to them) as distinct from argumentation (asserting claims, providing evidence for them, reasoning about them and their relations to other claims). I started thinking this way on the basis of my own experience while I was completing  my PhD in English literature at Johns Hopkins University in the 1980s. I was confirmed in this opinion by studies such as Dinesh D’Souza’s critique of American campuses in Illiberal Education (1991), a book I later assigned in a third-year course on censorship and responsibility at the University of NSW. D’Souza documents hundreds of cases of university staff and students who were “called” certain names, “branded” in particular ways, and “accused” of certain offences. Since then, a deluge of articles, studies, opinion pieces, novels, blogs and scholarly essays has only strengthened my belief that accusation of a specific kind is a significant aspect of life on our campuses. Among the more recent ones is an article in the American Scholar by William Deresiewicz who cites students who claim that they are “branded” if they express certain views.

Closer to home, the Australian university student Luke Kinsella recently cited his experience as a student and journalist, and cited studies by the American organisation FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) to support his observation that university students now commonly hurl “baseless insults” at and attach “labels” to people and ideas they don’t like (see his article “I’m a Student. Here’s How Free Speech Died at University”,, December 2017). Some of the voices from Australian university faculty are those of Kevin Donnelly in How Political Correctness is Destroying Education and Your Child’s Future (2018), and some of the authors of essays in Reclaiming Education, edited by Catherine Runcie and David Brooks (2018). True, this kind of thing is not limited to university campuses. For a recent example of how it is playing out in the wider society, see the article Kevin Myers published in Quadrant earlier this year, one in which he describes our age as “The Age of Character Assassination”.

The main accusations documented in studies such as these, and the ones I have observed over three decades of teaching at universities in Canada, New Zealand and Australia, are accusations of racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, imperialism and Eurocentrism. So, for example, those who oppose the legalisation of same-sex marriage stand to be accused of homophobia. Those, such as Bettina Arndt, who challenge the proposition that there is a “rape culture” on Australian campuses stand to be accused of sexism, bigotry and misogyny. Those, such as myself, who fail to place what in the eyes of some students and staff are enough female authors on their literature courses, or who fail to display sufficient enthusiasm for them, stand to be accused of sexism and misogyny. Those who fail to place an acceptable number of postcolonial or indigenous authors on their English literature courses stand to be accused of Eurocentrism, imperialism, racism and ethnocentrism. Those who support the Ramsay Centre stand to be accused of all of the above. And so on.

These accusations are obviously different from the ones that preoccupied the ancient Romans and Florentines. In those days, imperialism was widely seen as a noble aspiration for strong republics. But there are some important similarities. Like the accusations that Machiavelli classifies as calumny, accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny, imperialism and Eurocentrism are now commonly not made formally before magistrates or officials of any kind; they are made informally in casual conversation, social media, classroom discussion, lectures, student newspapers, rallies, and, in my experience, anonymous course evaluations. From there they circulate in university arcades and offices, and beyond.

Like the accusations observed by Machiavelli, these accusations can have serious consequences. This is in part because there is a widespread consensus in modern Western society that racists, sexists, misogynists, imperialists, Eurocentrists and homophobes are immoral, bad people who ought to be “stamped out”, to use a favoured expression of the accusers. In addition, universities have codes of conduct for staff and students, as well as “equity, diversity, and inclusion” policies, that identify expressions of racism, sexism and the rest as forms of misconduct for which penalties are set. Such expressions may also qualify as a breach of contract for staff. Moreover, the laws of the nation classify some expressions of racism, sexism and the rest as hate speech or hate crime which are illegal and subject to further penalties. So if you are on the receiving end of one or more of these accusations, you are being accused of being a bad person who is on the list of those to be silenced and who may well qualify for some kind of formal prosecution. These accusations can damage reputations and careers, and result in serious forms of punishment.

Like the accusations discussed by Machiavelli, these accusations are often employed against powerful people who stand in the way of particular plans and objectives, such as running educational institutions in a particular way. They are used to influence decisions about hiring, firing and suspending people (as in the case of Barry Spurr at Sydney University); preventing people from giving lectures and speaking publicly on campus (I’m thinking of Bettina Arndt, and FIRE’s “Disinvitation Database”); rejecting courses and programs (see recent “discussion” about the Ramsay Centre); establishing courses and programs that have an acceptable number of women and visible minorities on them (see the recent “diversification” and “decolonisation” of English literature courses at Yale University).

And like the evidence provided for some of the accusations Machiavelli discusses, the evidence provided to substantiate these accusations is often thin or non-existent. It is possible that you oppose the legalisation of same-sex marriage because you are homophobic (that is, you have a deep-seated fear or dislike of homosexuals and are inclined to injure them, or do in fact injure them). But you might also oppose it on grounds that you take the Bible to be the word of God, and you think the Bible forbids it. So the mere fact that someone opposes the legalisation of same-sex marriage is weak evidence for the claim that that person is homophobic (though you can always play with the definition of “homophobic” in such a way that such a person would qualify). It is possible that you challenge the proposition that there is a “rape culture” on Australian university campuses because you are a misogynist (you hate all women) or a sexist (you believe women are inferior to men, or you discriminate against women). But you might also challenge it, as Arndt does, on the basis that the studies purporting to substantiate that claim are faulty and you think the claim is false and unfairly damages the reputations of universities in this country. So the mere fact that someone challenges the claim is weak evidence for the view that that person is a sexist or misogynist.

And the reason you don’t display much enthusiasm for Renaissance female authors such as Mary Wroth, and don’t put much of her material on your English Renaissance literature course might be that you are a misogynist or a sexist. Or, rightly or wrongly, you might think her writing is not very good and there are other works of literature from the period that are more important in relation to the aims of your course—aims which do not include teaching the history of writing, representing the “viewpoint” of members of various groups in society, or furthering the feminist agenda. So the fact that you don’t display enthusiasm for Wroth or put a lot of her work on a Renaissance literature course is weak evidence for the accusation that you are a sexist or a misogynist. Nevertheless, opposing same-sex marriage, challenging the assertion of rape culture on campus, and failing to put what is deemed to be an acceptable number of female authors on a literature course is enough to qualify you for the accusations I have mentioned.

But surely we have made adequate provision for dealing with injurious accusations for which weak or no evidence is adduced? After all, those codes of conduct for both staff and students, as well as “equity, diversity and inclusion” policies say things like “all staff and students must display respect for each other as they seek to understand each other’s perspectives and endeavour to invite and explore the evidence supporting alternative points of view”. We also have defamation laws that set penalties for those who break them. One would think that injurious and unsubstantiated accusations are dealt with by these codes, policies and laws, and that we are really more like ancient Rome than Renaissance Florence.

I don’t think so. The University of Sydney has recently taken “disciplinary action” against some who were involved in a “violent protest” against Bettina Arndt. But there are to my knowledge precious few cases of universities requesting evidence from anybody who accuses other people of being racists, sexists, misogynists, imperialists, Eurocentrists or homophobes, much less of doing something in the absence of such evidence. University administrations appear to be content to allow staff and students to make these accusations against other people, regardless of what kind of evidence is adduced, regardless of how damaging those accusations may be, and regardless of the ways in which those who make such accusations may be violating codes of conduct, equity and diversity policies, and the laws of the country. They seem to regard this kind of talk as merely an instance of the free speech they would have us believe is flourishing on campus.

Why don’t universities enforce their own codes and policies? First, because there is a widespread failure to understand or acknowledge that the accusations I’m discussing here are being used as weapons in the culture wars, that they can cause serious harm to other people, and that they can violate existing codes, policies and laws. Second, some in positions of power at universities sympathise with the outlook and political agenda of those who are making the accusations and are therefore averse to taking action against them. Third, some people in positions of power who are aware of the problem are afraid of becoming the objects of those accusations themselves if they do anything about it. But whatever the reasons may be, the provisions that have been made for dealing with such accusations are not working.

So one of the dimensions of campus life and our society at large now is that people are free to make, informally, a certain kind of accusation against fellow students, teachers and others without being obliged to provide good evidence for it. One of the underlying assumptions of this kind of behaviour is that the only reason a person takes issue with “correct” views on a wide range of issues is that they are racists, sexists, imperialists and so on—they are immoral. These accusations are, in the current climate, serious allegations that can cause significant injury to others, and that can and are used by people to fulfil their moral and political agendas. Another important dimension of this situation is the absence of discussion and definition of key terms. Accusations proceed on the premise that we all know what, for example, “imperialism” means and we all know that imperialists are bad people. But what exactly do we mean by “imperialist”, and why is it so bad? What is wrong with all those Hong Kongers who now long for the good old days when they were part of the British Empire? Why is it that we think our current moral sensibility is not only superior to the moral sensibilities of the past, but is the right moral sensibility, the one in relation to which all things past, present and future ought to be assessed? No time for discussion of such trivial matters. We just know what “imperialist” means, and that imperialists, no matter when or where, are bad people who ought to have been and ought to be silenced, rebuked or punished.

What are the consequences of this situation? They are the consequences that Machiavelli teaches us to expect, and that many students and staff have been observing. Those who feel falsely accused are exasperated. And there is a factionalism on campus: in general, there is of course the ever-deepening divide between the so-called “Right” and “Left”. But this factionalism takes different forms in different departments. Thus, in literature departments, it is the ever-dwindling numbers of teachers of British/Irish literature from Old English through to the present versus the feminist/postcolonial/theory group. In history departments, as the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson observes, it is the ever-shrinking number of scholars concerned with Western constitutions, revolutions, major military conflicts and political thought, versus the race/gender/class studies people; in philosophy departments, it is the traditionalists who study the history of Western philosophy and Anglo-American analytic philosophy versus the French post-structuralist/continental group.

And though several of our university officials have been assuring us that everything is fine, and the French Report assures us that there is no crisis, there has been a significant curtailment of civil liberties on campus and beyond, the freedom of expression in particular—as the “Free Speech on Campus Audits” recently conducted by the Institute of Public Affairs make clear. True, some of those on the Right, and some of those independents who, resisting the current pigeon-holing, simply fail to share “correct” views, have the guts to express their views and stand up to the accusations that come their way. But many are afraid of being the target of these accusations if they express views on touchy subjects, such as same-sex marriage, “the rape culture” on campus, immigration, Islam, the achievement of women in the arts, the history of Australia, the nature of European canonical literature, the history of Western civilisation. They are also afraid of being the target of these accusations if they tell jokes about such matters, or fail to take them deadly seriously at all times. For reasons outlined above, they have good reason to be afraid. Out of this fear, they tread lightly (I know I do), or they just shut up completely and tell their jokes to friends in private.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that our universities lie in ruins, but one of the consequences of the cavalier attitude to accusation on campus is that universities—faculties of arts in particular—are failing in their mission to be places of free inquiry and debate about important moral and political issues. By and large, I agree with Deresiewicz and many others who claim that tertiary education institutions are becoming places of suppression and indoctrination in the new secular religion.

So even though twenty-first-century Australia is different in many ways from ancient Rome and Renaissance Florence, Machiavelli’s thinking about calumny and civil liberty in these earlier polities is borne out by our current situation. Machiavelli is wise, which is why we might do well to bear him in mind when we are trying to understand and solve some of our problems.

Let me finish by suggesting some of the things we might consider were we to do so. First of all, we might understand that when we call other people “racists”, “homophobes” and “sexists” we are making an accusation against them that goes to their person and moral character and that can have serious consequences for their well-being, their reputation and their professional life. This might incline us to take these accusations more seriously than we do—I take it that both Right and Left would be happy with that. But Machiavelli would also urge us to see that, in the current climate, these accusations serve as potent weapons in a wide range of important power struggles (culture wars) involving, among other things, hiring, firing, promoting, publishing, admissions and establishing programs of study in schools and universities. Recognising these accusations as weapons of war might help those against whom they are used, as well as those who wish to deal with their pernicious effects, to deal more effectively with them.

One way of doing so would be to adopt something along the lines recommended by Machiavelli. People working at universities and other institutions who hold and express “incorrect” views need to understand that other people are not entitled to vilify them simply because they hold and express these views. They need to understand that there is a range of rules, codes, policies and laws that are already in place and that are supposed to protect them against the kind of thing Machiavelli calls “calumny”. If they get wind of this kind of thing, they should thus lodge a complaint with a university grievance committee. That complaint would include evidence that a person is informally making serious accusations against them. If, after fairly investigating the matter, the committee finds that the person has been making these accusations, and has good evidence for doing so, the accused pays whatever penalties are specified by those codes and policies. What the penalties for racism, sexism and so on should be is a complex issue, one that I am not addressing here. But we need to think much more carefully about what these offences really are, and what is wrong with them, before banning them on campus and devising penalties for them.

If the committee finds that the person making the accusations fails to provide adequate evidence for them, then that person should pay the penalty that is laid down by those codes and policies for unsubstantiated, injurious accusation. Machiavelli would also of course insist on the importance of grievance committees imposing the penalties, and ensuring that those codes and policies establish sufficient penalties for calumny. Those penalties would have to be severe enough to reflect a detestation of calumny and to deter people from calumniating other people—a fine, suspension or expulsion. If that fails, then those who feel unfairly accused should go to the courts, and prosecute not just accusers for defamation, but also their university for failing to provide them with a workplace in which they are not vilified and harassed. They could also make a case to government that, because their university is failing to do its proper job, its funding should be cut.

Some of those who are subject to these accusations don’t like to play the victim. And who wants to run the risks and bear the expense of prosecuting the university that employs them? But however unpleasant and costly they might be, such measures would I think be more effective in dealing with the problem than complaint, exasperation, resignation, hatred, silence, or more codes and “umbrella principles” as recommended by the French Report.

It is important to point out that such measures would leave us free to accuse others of racism, sexism and the rest. But such measures would make us more accountable for making these accusations by making us aware that there is a price to pay should we make them without good reason.

These measures are aimed at enhancing and protecting free speech on campus. They are grounded in Machiavelli’s perception that some kinds of speech can destroy the conditions under which members of institutions and political societies enjoy freedom of speech. They are grounded in his argument that you protect civil liberties, including freedom of speech, not by eliminating laws that restrict speech (as many free-speech proponents suggest), but by adopting and enforcing laws that restrict speech in the right way. The right way would include establishing and imposing penalties for calumny.

All of which is not to say that reading Machiavelli is necessary in order to come to this conclusion, or that reading him necessarily results in reaching this conclusion. But I hope to have shown that his analysis of how societies maintain or fail to maintain civil liberty—an analysis that is supported by examples from ancient and early modern republics—is borne out in some important ways by our current situation. I hope to have shown that reading him can improve our understanding of this situation and therefore help us to address it effectively. And I hope to have provided a few good reasons for reading and teaching great works in the tradition of Western political thought, works such as Machiavelli’s Discourses.

William Walker is the author of “Paradise Lost” and Republican Tradition from Aristotle to Machiavelli, and other books and scholarly articles on Locke, Milton and Shakespeare. He is an Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of NSW, but is resigning at the end of this year.


  • DG

    One would need to ensure careful definition of the ‘trigger’ words to be able to trust a university to deliver natural justice. The definitions should link to actions and hang off incitement to action to restrict the freedom and safety of another. Loose neologisms such as ‘homophobia’ are meaningless shill and convey nothing but the unconsidered prejudices of the user…or their mental domination by the banalities of the press.

  • Rob Brighton

    While I agree with the diagnosis the treatment involves more star chambers and the accrual of more power to those most likely to sit on those committees who usually are the least likely to be the type one wants in such positions.

    Better to not have the regulation.

    Be wary of introducing levers of power someday your opposition will have their hands on those levers.

  • ianl

    >” He is an Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of NSW, but is resigning at the end of this year” [author of this essay]

    Irony, poignancy or just coincidence ?

Post a comment