Remember when I was talking about Rousseau? Well, I’m not doing that anymore. But there’s one thing I saw when I picked up Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, a common idea stood out.
So I’m going to tell you right now – I need a scholar.
The idea is the inevitable fall of any city, any society. All living things are born as pure and strong specimens, but then grow corrupted, decaying as the body turns on itself. From generation there is corruption.
That includes human communities like Machiavelli’s Florence, Rousseau’s Geneva, Livy’s Rome, and my Toronto. But cities don’t experience the corruption of individual organisms, of course. A community doesn’t degrade from cardiovascular failure, auto-immune disorders, or cancers.
Maybe just metaphorically. The corruption of a city is the erosion of public virtue – of dedication to public good, the health of the community, spirit of patriotic brotherhood among citizens.
He consolidates power as a monarch, and his ethical personality results in a period of greatness – the people are prosperous, the city is famous for its good works. Then the prince’s sons take over the government.
Raised in privilege, the inherited rulers have none of the virtue and ethical sense of their father. They’re selfish bastards who steal from the citizens and squander the city’s wealth on their own pleasure. So the noblemen get together and stage a coup.
No matter how virtuous and dedicated to public good those nobles may have been, their children will be just as corrupt and self-serving as the princes. So the multitudes themselves overthrow the oligarchs.
Yet after so many years of repetitive corruption, so many regimes that have led to constant disappointment, there’s no faith left in leaders. No one bothers to respect or obey the authorities. Even when they run the city in their name, bitterness and resentment have taken over the public imagination.
No faith left that a leader wouldn’t be hostile to his people. And the republic is destroyed.
That cycle of generation and corruption is cyclical – in Machiavelli’s thinking, it occurs throughout human history, infinitely in both directions. What I’d like from some of my scholar friends is some perspective on how Aristotelian this was.
For almost the entire medieval period, Aristotle’s works were core sources for many of the subjects that are empirical sciences today – physics, cosmology, and biology. I haven’t focussed study on Aristotle since my undergraduate days, taking a few courses from Memorial’s resident Aristotelian scholar.
But I remember many of the basic concepts, and Machiavelli’s (and later, Rousseau’s) account of human societies’ inevitable corruption, collapse, and rebirth strike me as very similar to Aristotle’s ideas.
Would early 1500s Florence still have been shaped by that Aristotelian way of thinking about the world? Would those texts still have provided so many truisms of popular education? One of my historical scholar friends, do let me know, please. . . . To be continued