Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: I.1

I.1

Machiavelli appropriately starts with a discussion of the origin of cities. “I say that all cities are built either by men native to the place where they are built or by foreigners” (I.1.1). That is, cities begin either when smaller communities coalesce into large cities, or as colonies. The former, including cities like Athens and Venice, are founded for purposes of military defense. Geography tends to dominate—as well as make or break—these cities.

Colonies, on the other hand, can have a variety of purposes behind their founding. They might be established “to relieve their lands of inhabitants” (such as Greek colonization projects), “or for the defense of a country newly acquired” (largely the Roman reasons for colonization), “or for the glory of the founder” (as with the numerous “Alexandrias” founded by Alexander the Great) (I.1.3).

But, on occasion, there is a third category, a sort of in-between kind of founding, that occurs when a whole people moves and resettles elsewhere. This means either conquest and settling in previously built cities (as with Moses and the Israelites) or the construction of new cities from scratch (as with Aeneas and the Trojans). “In this case, one can recognize the virtue of the builder and the fortune of what is built, which is more or less marvelous as the one who was the beginning of it is more or less virtuous” (I.1.4).

It’s easy to see why Machiavelli sets this kind of city into its own category (technically, it is still in the category of colonies, in that foreigners are building in a new land). The founder of the city will set the tone for everything that comes after in a way that just does not apply to the two primary categories of city founding. Colonies and cities founded for defensive purposes will to some extent already have laws in place governing the action and growth of the city. This can be an advantage, of course, but it also means there’s a limitation on the potential for virtue from the outset as a result of external factors, a limitation that does not necessarily apply to this third in-between category.

Machiavelli then asks what should be done for such a founding:

Because men work either by necessity or by choice, and because there is greater virtue to be seen where choice has less authority, it should be considered whether it is better to choose sterile places for the building of cities so that men, constrained to be industrious and less seized by idleness, live more united, having less cause for discord, because of the poverty of the site… (I.1.4)

(Almost as a tangent, Machiavelli suggests that virtue comes more from our response to “necessity,” rather than from our choices.) “If men were content to live off their own and did not seek to command others,” setting up a city in a barren wasteland would be ideal because then the city would have no choice but to either develop the kind of unity and virtue necessary to survival in difficult circumstances, or die (I.1.4).

Men, of course, are not content with such small successes. We crave greater glory than mere existence. And as a result, the “most fertile places “are going to be chosen as sites for the city, which in turn requires that the city maintain greatness so that it is not continually conquered by others desiring the same site. The enemy of those cities founded in pleasant and lush locations is going to be idleness, which ultimately leads to being conquered. In order to offset this enemy, “the laws should be ordered to constrain it by imposing such necessities as the site does not provide” (I.1.4). Egypt, both ancient and under the protection of the Mamelukes, is an example of this kind of legal wisdom being used to offset the potential indolence that comes from prosperity.

Finally, we get to Rome, which was founded either by Remus or by Romulus in a fertile place but which had leaders wise enough to put down such laws that “the greatness of its empire could not corrupt it for many centuries,” and it was kept “full of as much virtue as has ever adorned any other city or republic” (I.1.5).

In this chapter, we get our introduction to three key Machiavellian themes: necessity, fortune, and virtue. I know it’s technically “virtú” and untranslatable into English, along the lines of Aristotle’s “spoudaios.” But I’m going to follow Mansfield and generally use “virtue” anyway, so please remember that we’re not referring specifically to the Christian virtues when this comes up.

Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

12 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: I.1”

  1. gabe

    Seems clear at the outset that not only is Mach not a utopian, he sees the “pleasant and lush locations” of Utopia as destructive of man’s soul and corrosive of his conception of virtue.

    To what extent has he reached this determination out of the “necessity” he perceives arising out of the turmoil of his own somewhat *interesting* times?

    And why is action taken out of necessity better or more virtuous than one taken out of choice? This may, at a later point, give some insight into Machiavelli’s own choice to reject tradition mores.

    Reply
  2. Peter Haworth

    One initial thought is based on the following passage from Coyle’s helpful summary:

    “Men, of course, are not content with such small successes. We crave greater glory than mere existence. And as a result, the ‘most fertile places’ are going to be chosen as sites for the city, which in turn requires that the city maintain greatness so that it is not continually conquered by others desiring the same site. The enemy of those cities founded in pleasant and lush locations is going to be idleness, which ultimately leads to being conquered. In order to offset this enemy, ‘the laws should be ordered to constrain it by imposing such necessities as the site does not provide’ (I.1.4). Egypt, both ancient and under the protection of the Mamelukes, is an example of this kind of legal wisdom being used to offset the potential indolence that comes from prosperity.”

    Such a vision obviously challenges our modern liberalism that prioritizes individualism over thick conceptions of the common good. Our liberal perspective wants both material wealth and requisite negative liberty for pursuing our personal affairs, and Machiavelli’s republican notion of “laws…ordered to constrain” individual liberty to be idle is quite repugnant. Here Machiavelli’s cure for maintaining security against external enemies could be worse than the disease; one might even be tempted to be conquered by a liberal empire rather than put up with such a liberty-depriving, republican regime.

    Reply
  3. gabe

    Perhaps the issue here is that Machiavelli is placing all emphasis on the “social” aspect of being human – i.e. that to be human is to be a “social creature” as would have the ancients – and that morals, ethics are best understood and defined / delineated by a “polis” not an individual conscience. If this is so, then “necessity” as he expounds it in this case – a product of group striving – would take precedence over a “choice” which may be the product of the “pleasant and lush locations” occupied (or engendering) individualism.

    This, of course, should not minimize the possible influence that historical / contemporary events may have had on his thinking. As a practical *politican / consultant*, he may simply be proposing an immanent remedy.

    Just a thought.
    Looking forward to how this plays out.

    Reply
    • Peter Haworth

      Gabe,

      Great points. Yes, it appears closer to ancient republicanism rather than modern liberalism. It would likely be anachronistic to expect the reverse.

      Reply
  4. gabe

    While tossing the ball to my dog, the thought occurred to me:

    If Machiavelli were a sportsman, he would be a football fan. It is nothing but striving and adversity and fosters certain “ancient” virtues.
    Heck, he could be a head coach for the Patriots!!

    Reply
  5. Frank

    I vaguely recall from other readings that “virtue” is an important concept. Although NM doesn’t bother to define the concept, he gives some clues as to its sources and utility, such as: (1) The extent to which a free city is “remarkable” is related to the extent of its founder’s “virtue.” This virtue manifests itself in two ways: the free city’s site, and promulgation of its laws. (2) “Greater virtue” results when citizens work by necessity, rather than by choice. (3) Rome maintained its virtue by laws that imposed “strict discipline.”

    This could be summarized thus: virtue can be produced by the necessity to work, or by laws that impose discipline – either way, idleness is prevented. Such virtue is required at the founding for a free city (or any polity?) to be great.

    Just my random thoughts. I will be looking for further definition of “virtue.” The connection NM made between Rome’s laws and its great virtue is interesting – perhaps an argument for the rule of law?

    Reply
    • gabe

      Frank:

      good points, especially the connection between Rome’s laws and virtue.

      Yet, somehow, I am still at a loss to understand NM and the relation between virtue and necessity. As an example, one of the types of cities that he says may be founded is via transfer of conquered peoples. I suspect these folks would have to work under ” necessity” – but do you think that this sort of *slavish* response would be characterized by NM as virtuous? Or is it closer to the value that comes from the imposition of “good laws” that constrain idleness in that many who may not wish to be virtuous (or to build a new city) are compelled to do so by the obligations imposed upon them.
      In some sense, NM’s concept of virtue is far more *passive” (and obedient) than that of the ancients. Perhaps, virtu is only for great men – history would seem to bear this out.

      take care
      gabe

      Reply
      • Coyle Neal

        From what I can tell (and please do correct me on this), Machiavelli’s view of “virtue” is something akin to that of the Ancient Romans. That is, sometimes we find ourselves (by fortune or necessity) with the opportunities to achieve great glory–“virtue” is our ability to both recognize those opportunities and achieve that glory.
        In that sense, it might be passive so long as fortune or necessity require nothing from us, but the potential for action must be there as well.
        And of course, there can be a communal or social side to virtue as well–a state may be virtuous or not, depending on how it responds to fortune and necessity.

        And excellent comments/discussion folks!

  6. Frank

    Gabe, the connection between necessity and virtue is lost on me. I’d think that someone who chooses to work demonstrates virtue – they made the right choice when it was optional. They weren’t forced to work, by necessity or strict laws or whatever. Yet NM clearly sees necessity as productive of virtue.

    I can easily get in over my head, here – one reason I’m following along is a felt need to read more Great Books. I’m grateful to Professor Neal for leading us along, even if I don’t speak up too often.

    Reply
    • Coyle Neal

      Frank,
      Glad you’re following, and please do speak up when you feel so moved! (To steal a phrase from my Pentecostal friends.)
      For what it’s worth, I’m not always clear on Machiavelli and virtue either. I think I’d agree with you that at least one aspect of virtue is when someone “chooses to work,” but I suspect Machiavelli would just scoff at us and say that if that were the case, no one would ever be virtuous. It seems that he has such a low view of man (maybe not wrongly?) that if we aren’t forced to action, lethargy and apathy will so dominate that we’ll never achieve the glory that at least some people might be capable of.
      Which isn’t to say we’ll be virtuous even if necessity requires…

      Reply
    • gabe

      Frank:

      Same here in terms of getting in over my head – but that is part of the fun of it.

      I can only hope that as Mr Neal takes us along on this adventure into NM we can all get a clearer sense of what NM is advancing.
      As evidenced by the next post in this series, it is difficult to see what NM is proposing or what he truly takes to be virtuous.
      Anyway, I am looking forward to it.
      Just hope it does not interfere with my SEAHAWKS and the playoffs – now that to me is VIRTUE!!!!!

      take care
      gabe

      Reply
      • Coyle Neal

        I’m going to assume that my beloved Eagles have plenty of virtu, but that Fortune has just been against them… 🙂

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