KoMoL Book 1, Prelude

The Prelude opens with an observation that many of the institutions we have are the manifestation of accreted wisdom from the past, but few people are willing to examine and learn from that past. So Machiavelli writes his work to assist people in learning from the past.

Expanding on my brief goal statement in my introduction, while I have no quibble with this, I also believe that there is an additional challenge for the 21st century. Humans have not changed their nature, but their organizations have, and the strategies used by the Powers and Principalities of the world have as well. Whether that is because of some intellectual refinement on their part, or simply that a changing landscape has enabled and indeed forced the use of new strategies, I wonder about often, but only intellectually. As a practical matter it doesn’t seem important.

I see at least three major dimensions along which human society has changed:

  1. The world has shrunk. I casually have a daily meeting with people across the continent. Modern communication removes the need to travel at all in many cases; in cases where it is necessary, it is orders of magnitude faster than it used to be. The Oregon Trail used to be a six month journey fraught with danger and death; now a 2000 mile flight can be done between breakfast and dinner and we complain bitterly about our lack of legroom. Travel can also be scaled, such as moving entire militaries around at speeds Machiavelli could only dream of.
  2. Communication in general has greatly accelerated. A “news cycle” in the Roman era could well be weeks if the news involved the outlying regions. Today we can run through multiple “news cycles” per day. I’m using the term sloppily here, it’s hard to be precise about what a “news cycle” is, but whatever it is it has shrunk by orders of magnitude.
  3. The sheer scale of society. Machiavelli wrote in the early 16th century Florence, considered a powerful city at the time. It had about 70,000 people in it. A recent news story had the IRS being given money to hire 80,000 additional IRS agents. The US Federal government employs approximately 4 million people. The whole of Machiavelli’s Florence could be dropped in as a new bedroom community for Washington DC and it would hardly cause a ripple.

Each of these individually has seen multiple order of magnitude changes in the past couple of centuries. Their net effect is smaller than a naive multiplication of them, though, because the net effect is to remove all limitations on society other than the limits of human cognition. Entire societies can now be as moody as a teenage girl vascillating between crushes, but it can’t be much more moody than that. Everything controlled by humans, which is still almost everything except perhaps the financial markets, is bottlenecked on the limitations of humanity itself.

I would say this is undeniably a qualitative change, if for no other reason that a large enough quantitative change becomes a qualitative change, and the changes are far beyond that size.

I say all this not to negate Machiavelli’s fundamental point, but to modulate it for a modern era. Because society is bottlenecked on humans, it becomes ever more important to study those humans rather than other transient frippery, and history remains our largest data set for that study.

But it is important to remember as we study history that our data set is intrinsically biased by being a projection of human behavior from the light cast by the conditions of the past. The additional lights that the modern world can cast does not change the underlying object of study, but it does mean we should expect to see new dimensions previously unexplored, and potentially new elaborations on old patterns. Our old knowledge is not invalidated, but it is incomplete. Students of history can expect to be better prepared than those who neglect it entirely, but modern students of history should still expect to be surprised, and to have novel work to do in the field as the new conditions play out.

As I mentioned in the introduction, I only read ahead to Chapter 7 before doubling back to do this series, but I can tell that at least up to that point the differences between Machiavelli’s world and ours is going to be a major theme of mine.

You should be able to expand this section below to read the original Prelude yourself:

Discourses on Livy - Prelude

Albeit the jealous temper of mankind, ever more disposed to censure than to praise the work of others, has constantly made the pursuit of new methods and systems no less perilous than the search after unknown lands and seas; nevertheless, prompted by that desire which nature has implanted in me, fearlessly to undertake whatsoever I think offers a common benefit to all, I enter on a path which, being hitherto untrodden by any, though it involve me in trouble and fatigue, may yet win me thanks from those who judge my efforts in a friendly spirit. And although my feeble discernment, my slender experience of current affairs, and imperfect knowledge of ancient events, render these efforts of mine defective and of no great utility, they may at least open the way to some other, who, with better parts and sounder reasoning and judgment, shall carry out my design; whereby, if I gain no credit, at all events I ought to incur no blame.

When I see antiquity held in such reverence, that to omit other instances, the mere fragment of some ancient statue is often bought at a great price, in order that the purchaser may keep it by him to adorn his house, or to have it copied by those who take delight in this art; and how these, again, strive with all their skill to imitate it in their various works; and when, on the other hand, I find those noble labours which history shows to have been wrought on behalf of the monarchies and republics of old times, by kings, captains, citizens, lawgivers, and others who have toiled for the good of their country, rather admired than followed, nay, so absolutely renounced by every one that not a trace of that antique worth is now left among us, I cannot but at once marvel and grieve; at this inconsistency; and all the more because I perceive that, in civil disputes between citizens, and in the bodily disorders into which men fall, recourse is always had to the decisions and remedies, pronounced or prescribed by the ancients.

For the civil law is no more than the opinions delivered by the ancient jurisconsults, which, being reduced to a system, teach the jurisconsults of our own times how to determine; while the healing art is simply the recorded experience of the old physicians, on which our modern physicians found their practice. And yet, in giving laws to a commonwealth, in maintaining States and governing kingdoms, in organizing armies and conducting wars, in dealing with subject nations, and in extending a State’s dominions, we find no prince, no republic, no captain, and no citizen who resorts to the example of the ancients.

This I persuade myself is due, not so much to the feebleness to which the present methods of education have brought the world, or to the injury which a pervading apathy has wrought in many provinces and cities of Christendom, as to the want of a right intelligence of History, which renders men incapable in reading it to extract its true meaning or to relish its flavour. Whence it happens that by far the greater number of those who read History, take pleasure in following the variety of incidents which it presents, without a thought to imitate them; judging such imitation to be not only difficult but impossible; as though the heavens, the sun, the elements, and man himself were no longer the same as they formerly were as regards motion, order, and power.

Desiring to rescue men from this error, I have thought fit to note down with respect to all those books of Titus Livius which have escaped the malignity of Time, whatever seems to me essential to a right understanding of ancient and modern affairs; so that any who shall read these remarks of mine, may reap from them that profit for the sake of which a knowledge of History is to be sought. And although the task be arduous, still, with the help of those at whose instance I assumed the burthen, I hope to carry it forward so far, that another shall have no long way to go to bring it to its destination.

Krymneth on Machiavelli on Livy KomoL Book 1, Chapter 1