To Be Incorruptible I: The Virtues of Free People, Composing, 18/04/2017

The series of posts I’m starting now is very important to my thought process putting together Utopias the book. I’ll be writing about an answer to the core question of utopian political thinking that I found reading Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy.

I’m considering utopian thought at three scales. The most broad scale of thinking, you can call the problem: Figuring out the relationships of our ideals with real-world action, and what of those relationships are best for democratic life.

Make your thinking a little more concrete and it becomes a question. You’re focussing the problem around a particular inquiry. Reading and reacting to Machiavelli’s thinking, that question is: How can we change human nature so that no one will ever be corrupt again?

The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins
Remorse from power: and, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections sway'd
More than his reason. But 'tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round.
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent.
Increase the concreteness of your thinking one more time. Now you have a hypothesis, a detailed argument responding to that question, an answer. Identify an answer to that question that Machiavelli offers in the Discourses.

I'm going to talk about one answer that he returns to at different points in that book – institutions that engender trust in each other throughout the community, a love of freedom, and a devotion to the public good.

Machiavelli considers those three values to be most important for maintaining a free society. People who hold fast to these values will always be virtuous people, whose lives will include a devotion to public service that strengthens their community.

Since he understands corruption inescapable in life, Machiavelli also concludes that these values won’t dominate a society forever. Spoken like a man who’s worked in government for years.

But you can encourage those values to grow in your society, and promote them in daily life. Institutions – basic frameworks of your community life from birth to death – can boost these values so that people will naturally fall toward them.

I’m not talking about the state in a modern sense, but any powerful organization whose structures and actions shape public morality. It’s been churches or shamanic traditions, groups of elders, elected leaders, any propagator of moral ideas, imperatives, and virtues.

Education is only the most obvious of the institutions that propagate values. Here’s one example that Machiavelli makes pretty explicit. I’ll even give you a direct reference this time – Book One, Chapter 59.*

* If you want to read the book, don’t be intimidated by the number of chapters. They average maybe three pages apiece.

If you run your government on democratic processes, it will tend to increase trust in your society. Yes, today this sounds hilariously unrealistic. But the way democratic institutions are supposed to work, it makes sense.

I mean, I’ll tell you tomorrow, because it’s going to take a while to lay all this out. But I promise you, it’ll make sense.

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