07 September 2008

Blogging the Discourses: Book One, Chapter One

What Have Been Universally the Beginnings of Any City Whatever, and What Was That of Rome

Although the title of the first chapter suggests that it will focus on only two subjects, it actually touches on a variety of issues, including:
  • the difference between cities founded by natives and those founded by foreigners;

  • the foundation and rise of the Venetian Republic;

  • how to motivate people; and

  • the relationship between architecture and urban life.
Nevertheless, for the purposes of this blog, I wish merely to point out an apparently contradictory position Machiavelli takes with respect to the beginnings of Venice.

At the beginning of the chapter, Machiavelli asserts that the Venetian Republic primarily owed its ascendancy to its location on a handful of small islands at the tip of the Adriatic Sea. This isolation, he wrote, protected the Venetians and created conditions wherein even a glimmer of virtuous political order could flourish into a glorious state:

It turned out happily for them because of the long idleness that the site gave them, since the sea had no exit and the peoples who were afflicting Italy had no ships to be able to plague them: so any small beginning would have enabled them to come to the greatness they have.

Machiavelli’s premise in this passage therefore seems to be that geographic isolation will beget a powerful state. But just two paragraphs later, he appears to contradict that position, suggesting that a naturally safe location renders its inhabitants idle and weak:

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 … .

Indeed, Machiavelli says that founding cities where the land is infertile and unforgiving would be ideal were it not for our natural propensity to “seek to command others.” To conquer, a people must be situated in a fertile place that will support an army. But to ensure that the fertility of the land does not foster idleness, Machiavelli says that the city must adopt strong laws to create the same austerity and necessity of an infertile locale:

As to the idleness that the site might bring, the laws should be ordered to constrain it by imposing such necessities as the site does not provide.

Moreover, history offers many examples where cities founded in exposed, vulnerable locations fostered martial prowess in their peoples. The benefits that living in an unprotected place confers on its inhabitants is purportedly why Lycurgus refused to build city walls around Sparta. Living in an exposed locale may also explain why the Tlaxcalans—a small pre-Hispanic people who lived near present-day Mexico City—had the strength to hold the neighboring Aztec Empire at bay, and why they were able to resist the Spanish army commanded by Hernán Cortés. (In fact, the conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo suggests in his famous first-hand history of the Conquest that the Tlaxcalans would likely have destroyed the Spaniards had they not decided that Cortés would prove more useful as an ally against the Aztecs than as an enemy.)

Machiavelli’s observation about necessity therefore seems to contradict his observation about Venice’s geographic isolation. If the absence of necessity makes a state weak, then the “long idleness” that the Italian geography gave to Venice would tend to enervate its people absent strong laws. Consequently, it seems more logical to attribute Venice’s success to its good laws, explained at length in Book One, Chapter Six, than to its geographical isolation.

Had a lesser author written this chapter, one might attribute this contradiction to carelessness. But Machiavelli did not allow such details to escape his notice. I therefore can only surmise that some unnamed purpose lies behind the proposition that isolation made Venice strong.

What do you think?

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