Is it really possible for a corrupt city to become free in the first place? Or, if a corrupt city does manage to become free, is it really possible to maintain its freedom? Machiavelli suspects that both of these circumstances are impossible in the real world, but he’s going to discuss it anyway “since it is good to reason about everything” (I.18.1).
So let’s assume that we have a truly wicked city, one so bad that “neither laws nor orders can be found that are enough to check a universal corruption” (I.18.1). By “laws” and “orders,” Machiavelli means both the formal, on-the-books rules of the city (laws) and the informal customs and traditions of the place (orders). The former are mutable and may be changed but are only as effective as the latter, on which they rest. On the other hand, good orders are only sustained by means of good laws:
For as good customs have need of laws to maintain themselves, so laws have need of good customs so as to be observed. (I.18.1)
The two exist in a symbiotic relationship, and if one gets corrupted the other collapses as well. Of the two, laws are much more mutable and change “according to the accidents in a city” (I.18.1); while orders are much more stable. Which means that laws can really never solve the problems of a city if the orders are corrupt to begin with.
Rome, for example, had excellent orders that held firm for a very long time, even as laws shifted and changed. It was only when the orders had finally been corrupted beyond the point of correction that Rome was beyond salvation. Machiavelli argues that this point was reached when Rome had no more international enemies to fear, and so no particular reason to remain virtuous. Public office was bestowed on the ambitious, rather than the capable; while the popular assemblies passed laws that favored only the few, rather than supporting the common good. At root, the problem was that the order of society was effective in creating magistrates and passing laws only so long as the people were virtuous.
This discussion raises the question: could anything have saved Rome? Probably not, according to Machiavelli. When the customs of a society have become corrupt, there are only two options:
these orders have to be renewed either all at a stroke, when they are discovered to be no longer good, or little by little, before they are recognized by everyone, I say that both of these two things are almost impossible. (I.18.4)
The problem with the latter option is that fixing something incrementally requires both phenomenal foresight and the ability to convince the citizen body to adjust their presuppositions, ideas, and actions, not because something is currently wrong, but because it someday will be. This of course never works—a frustration shared, albeit for different reasons, by modern traditionalists and environmentalists alike.
The problem with the former option is that fixing a corrupt culture by a violent shock to the system is likewise impossible. Once the “ordinary modes” of fixing things in society have become corrupted, even if everyone realizes that there is a problem the solution must necessarily involve violence and civil conflict (because again, the “ordinary modes” are no longer effective, I.18.4). Unfortunately, the sort of person willing to use such violent means is hardly the sort of person who is going to institute virtuous reforms once actually in power. The virtuous will refuse to use wicked means; while the wicked will refuse to implement virtuous ends. And so the this method of fixing corrupted orders is likewise unlikely to occur.
Perhaps the best we can hope for in such circumstances is that rather than a republic, a virtuous kingdom might be established. Trying to force a corrupt people to be virtuous enough to govern themselves “would be either a very cruel enterprise or altogether impossible” (I.18.5).
Machiavelli uses this to bring us back to the early days of Rome and the first kings, especially Romulus, Numa, and Tullus. Romulus was of course Rome’s founder, while Numa used the time of peace won by Romulus’s bellicosity to develop and shape the Roman religion. Tullus, in turn, took the Romans to the battlefield once more. The lesson in all of this, according to Machiavelli, is not so much that one should fight a war in order to enjoy the peace, but rather that:
A successor of not so much virtue as the first can maintain a state through the virtue of him who set it straight and can enjoy the labors of the first. But if it happens either that he [the successor] has a long life or that after him another does not emerge to resume the virtue of the first, the kingdom of necessity comes to ruin. (I.19.1)
In other words, it is possible for a good ruler to govern so well that the state may endure a weak or bad leader as his successor, but after that the state needs a fresh injection of virtue or else it will be in danger of collapse. (Machiavelli provides the further examples of David, Solomon, and Rehoboam; as well as his contemporary Turkish leaders.) Best of all, of course, is to have multiple consecutive virtuous leaders, as the Romans had in the early days of the Republic under the good consuls. A good republic, Machiavelli argues, will work to be sure that this is always the case:
A republic should do so much more, as through the mode of electing it has not only two in succession but infinite most virtuous princes who are successors to one another. This virtuous succession will always exist in every well-ordered republic. (I.20.1)
The problem in every free state is how to ensure that good people, rather than demagogues and charlatans, are the ones who regularly come to power. Tying this problem to the previous discussion of orders/laws, it appears that what a state needs is a succession of virtuous rulers to habituate the people to choosing good rulers. Or, alternatively, what is needed is a people of sufficient virtue to be able to choose rulers well in the first place, and continue doing so. If this is a cycle, it’s easy to see why Machiavelli believes there is so much difficulty in getting it started in the first place.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.