KomoL Book 1, Chapter 1

Immediately my theme on the differences between Machiavelli’s world and ours takes center stage. There are two major themes in this chapter, a discussion of how a city is founded and how that affects the likelihood of greatness, and what amounts to the virtues of having easy local supply lines in to a city or difficult ones.

The surface level of these discussions I find mostly uninteresting in modern times. Today, there is nowhere left to create new cities that may grow in isolation to rise and fall on their own merits. Cities may change their relative position, but it is hard to imagine anyone hiking out to the middle of Kansas, founding a new city, and thereby starting some sort of empire. Attempts to found new cities, or even just “coops” and similar structures, for anything resembling this purpose tend to fail utterly because the only people who have sufficient motivation to leave behind “normal” life and make such a quixotic effort are themselves such outliers from the norm that there is little chance of them being able to form a “normal” society that can even hold together at all, let alone achieve additional objectives.

And a discussion of whether or not a city has secure supply lines in their local country rings somewhat hollow in a culture that houses people in the desert by the millions. That is not to say that the question is unimportant; “climate change” may be a complete bugaboo but there’s still plenty of reason to believe there’s a reckoning coming for some of these overbuilt areas as water levels drop. But Machiavelli isn’t talking about the sustainability of a city in the modern sense of the term; one would have to actively search for anything in his time we’d call “unsustainable” by the modern meaning. He is talking about the effect of ease-of-life has on the psychology of the residents of the city. In the modern developed world, we can have absurdly high ease of life in the harshest of Earthly environments, so it’s difficult to do much analysis on a nearly non-existent gradient of comfort.

Poking past the surface of Machiavelli’s point of view yields interesting themes to examine on their own terms, though. For instance, from the discussion of the founding of the city I extract a lens to view a city through, and more generally, any modern polity from city, through state, up through nation, and so on, which is: What problem does the polity solve?

Machiavelli focuses on the early life of cities, and for most of recorded history, one of the major problems a city solves is protection from maurading bandits. I do not find this specific problem a useful lens to analyze the modern city with.

This is not because modern cities do not have that problem… it is because they do not solve it!

If you live in a place that lacks maurading bandits, or, to put it another way, that lacks gangs and crime, it is likely because you live in an area that lacks them for some other reason. If your area has them in quantity, your city is very likely not solving that problem and is in fact greatly impacted by crime, to a degree that neither Rome nor Machiavelli’s Florence would have put up with for very long.

This is not a new fact, but this lens raises in my mind a whole host of interesting questions, which I don’t intend to directly answer here, such as:

  1. Presumably, if modern cities are not solving this problem, it is because they are designed (by accident or intent) to solve other problems that are, by whatever relevant metric, more important.

    1. What are those problems?

    2. What are the relevant metrics?

      For example, a cynical-but-realistic answer would be “it is more important to farm votes via promising to fix the problem than fix the problem”, but while there is probably truth in that, it is also a snap answer that flatters my political sensibilities. I expect more penetrating answers are possible.

    3. What forces cause those metrics to rise in importance over something as historically important and foundational as protection from crime? What is preventing other solutions from crime from emerging?

  2. The problems modern cities solve are more complicated than in Machiavelli’s time; for instance to take a simple mechanical problem, the removal of human waste from a modern urban region is a huge problem that requires sophisticated solutions. That is one example of dozens of a similar scale.

    Are these problems outscaling the city’s ability to keep up, such that there are inevitable neglected problems? As an example, in a collapse scenario, even “nice” modern suburbs are simply not designed to deal with a sudden influx of maurading gangs. A suburb is utterly indefensible. What other problems are similarly neglected? Another example might be the atomization of communities and the effects on the psychology of the city.

And so on. Analyzing cities/states/nations in terms of what problems they solve is an interesting lens.

Machiavelli also touches upon how ease of life can promote psychologies that will not strive and become great. We phrase this differently today, because at least pre-collapse we are much more independent of the exact geography we live in than he was, even in a wealthy area. But I will speak less on this, because all the readers I am likely to have are already familiar with the weak men -> bad times -> strong men -> good times cycle, which is a dynamic equivalent of Machiavelli’s discussion here.

Discourses on Livy - Book 1, Chapter 1

No one who reads how the city of Rome had its beginning, who were its founders, and what its ordinances and laws, will marvel that so much excellence was maintained in it through many ages, or that it grew afterwards to be so great an Empire.

And, first, as touching its origin, I say, that all cities have been founded either by the people of the country in which they stand, or by strangers. Cities have their origins in the former of these two ways when the inhabitants of a country find that they cannot live securely if they live dispersed in many and small societies, each of them unable, whether from its situation or its slender numbers, to stand alone against the attacks of its enemies; on whose approach there is no time left to unite for defence without abandoning many strongholds, and thus becoming an easy prey to the invader. To escape which dangers, whether of their own motion or at the instance of some of greater authority among them, they restrict themselves to dwell together in certain places, which they think will be more convenient to live in and easier to defend.

Among many cities taking their origin in this way were Athens and Venice; the former of which, for reasons like those just now mentioned, was built by a scattered population under the direction of Theseus. To escape the wars which, on the decay of the Roman Empire daily renewed in Italy by the arrival of fresh hordes of Barbarians, numerous refugees, sheltering in certain little islands in a corner of the Adriatic Sea, gave beginning to Venice; where, without any recognized leader to direct them, they agreed to live together under such laws as they thought best suited to maintain them. And by reason of the prolonged tranquility which their position secured, they being protected by the narrow sea and by the circumstance that the tribes who then harassed Italy had no ships wherewith to molest them, they were able from very small beginnings to attain to that greatness they now enjoy.

In the second case, namely of a city being founded by strangers, the settlers are either wholly independent, or they are controlled by others, as where colonies are sent forth either by a prince or by a republic, to relieve their countries of an excessive population, or to defend newly acquired territories which it is sought to secure at small cost. Of this sort many cities were settled by the Romans, and in all parts of their dominions. It may also happen that such cities are founded by a prince merely to add to his renown, without any intention on his part to dwell there, as Alexandria was built by Alexander the Great. Cities like these, not having had their beginning in freedom, seldom make such progress as to rank among the chief towns of kingdoms.

The city of Florence belongs to that class of towns which has not been independent from the first; for whether we ascribe its origin to the soldiers of Sylla, or, as some have conjectured, to the mountaineers of Fiesole (who, emboldened by the long peace which prevailed throughout the world during the reign of Octavianus, came down to occupy the plain on the banks of the Arno), in either case, it was founded under the auspices of Rome nor could, at first, make other progress than was permitted by the grace of the sovereign State.

The origin of cities may be said to be independent when a people, either by themselves or under some prince, are constrained by famine, pestilence, or war to leave their native land and seek a new habitation. Settlers of this sort either establish themselves in cities which they find ready to their hand in the countries of which they take possession, as did Moses; or they build new ones, as did Æneas. It is in this last case that the merits of a founder and the good fortune of the city founded are best seen; and this good fortune will be more or less remarkable according to the greater or less capacity of him who gives the city its beginning.

The capacity of a founder is known in two ways: by his choice of a site, or by the laws which he frames. And since men act either of necessity or from choice, and merit may seem greater where choice is more restricted, we have to consider whether it may not be well to choose a sterile district as the site of a new city, in order that the inhabitants, being constrained to industry, and less corrupted by ease, may live in closer union, finding less cause for division in the poverty of their land; as was the case in Ragusa, and in many other cities built in similar situations. Such a choice were certainly the wisest and the most advantageous, could men be content to enjoy what is their own without seeking to lord it over others. But since to be safe they must be strong, they are compelled avoid these barren districts, and to plant themselves in more fertile regions; where, the fruitfulness of the soil enabling them to increase and multiply, they may defend themselves against any who attack them, and overthrow any who would withstand their power.

And as for that languor which the situation might breed, care must be had that hardships which the site does not enforce, shall be enforced by the laws; and that the example of those wise nations be imitated, who, inhabiting most fruitful and delightful countries, and such as were likely to rear a listless and effeminate race, unfit for all manly exercises, in order to obviate the mischief wrought by the amenity and relaxing influence of the soil and climate, subjected all who were to serve as soldiers to the severest training; whence it came that better soldiers were raised in these countries than in others by nature rugged and barren. Such, of old, was the kingdom of the Egyptians, which, though of all lands the most bountiful, yet, by the severe training which its laws enforced, produced most valiant soldiers, who, had their names not been lost in antiquity, might be thought to deserve more praise than Alexander the Great and many besides, whose memory is still fresh in men’s minds. And even in recent times, any one contemplating the kingdom of the Soldan, and the military order of the Mamelukes before they were destroyed by Selim the Grand Turk, must have seen how carefully they trained their soldiers in every kind of warlike exercise; showing thereby how much they dreaded that indolence to which their genial soil and climate might have disposed them, unless neutralized by strenuous laws. I say, then, that it is a prudent choice to found your city in a fertile region when the effects of that fertility are duly balanced by the restraint of the laws.

When Alexander the Great thought to add to his renown by founding a city, Dinocrates the architect came and showed him how he might build it on Mount Athos, which not only offered a strong position, but could be handled that the city built there might present a semblance of the human form, which would be a thing strange and striking, and worthy of so great a monarch. But on Alexander asking how the inhabitants were to live, Dinocrates answered that he had not thought of that. Whereupon, Alexander laughed, and leaving Mount Athos as it stood, built Alexandria; where, the fruitfulness of the soil, and the vicinity of the Nile and the sea, might attract many to take up their abode.

To him, therefore, who inquires into the origin of Rome, if he assign its beginning to Æneas, it will seem to be of those cities which were founded by strangers if to Romulus, then of those founded by the natives of the country. But in whichever class we place it, it will be seen to have had its beginning in freedom, and not in subjection to another State. It will be seen, too, as hereafter shall be noted, how strict was the discipline which the laws instituted by Romulus, Numa, and its other founders made compulsory upon it; so that neither its fertility, the proximity of the sea, the number of its victories, nor the extent of its dominion, could for many centuries corrupt it, but, on the contrary, maintained it replete with such virtues as were never matched in any other commonwealth.

And because the things done by Rome, and which Titus Livius has celebrated, were effected at home or abroad by public or by private wisdom, I shall begin by treating, and noting the consequences of those things done at home in accordance with the public voice, which seem most to merit attention; and to this object the whole of this first Book or first Part of my Discourses, shall be directed.

KoMoL Book 1, Prelude KoMoL Book 1, Chapter 2