Machiavelli’s Discourses and Space Settlements – part 1

Preliminary remarks

The Discourses of Niccolò Machiavelli consists of three books, which each are divided into paragraphs. In our discussion of The Discourses we will use a Roman numeral to indicate the book and an Arabic numeral for the paragraph, so in this part we will discuss paragraph I-1.

The first book of the discourses deals with the constitution of the Roman Republic. The next book deals with the growth of the Roman Empire and the final book deals with the personal aspects of Roman politics. Nevertheless the discourses is not a history book as such, but a critical reflection of Titus Livius’ history of Rome.

Machiavelli is a very systematic scholar and author. In his analysis he lists all logical categories and then he compares those categories.

A last preliminary remark, there are two fundamental concepts which at the foundation of Machiavelli’s philosophy: virtù and Fortuna. The latter refers to events outside the control of man, whereas the former refers to those personal qualities which enable man to do great things.

On the origin of cities

Paragraph I-1 is perhaps the most relevant section of the entire Discourses for future space settlements. In this section Machiavelli discusses the origin of cities and how the type of origin affect the constitutional arrangement of the city.

Machiavelli distinguishes two fundamental  types of cities in respect to origin. Cities are founded either by local inhabitants or by people from somewhere else. The latter group is then subdivided in two more categories: cities founded by free men and cities founded by dependent men.

Dependent men are those who are sent by either a republic or a monarch. Machiavelli gives two possible reason why a government might send its citizens to somewhere: population relieve and to defend newly acquired territory.

Though Machiavelli does not formally define free men, but it can be understood in contrast to the other group. Free men are those who are not dependent on a government who has ordered them to found some city.

Machiavelli makes an important observation here. cities founded by dependent men are not free cities, as they are under the rule of some authority. However, this does not imply that such cities can never become free, though Machiavelli believes they rarely do.

In regard to free men, Machiavelli identifies three reasons why they abandon their place of birth: pestilence, famine or war.  Whatever reason, people can either settle in existing cities or establish new ones.

Space settlements will quite obviously not be founded by locals but by (terrestrial) emigrants. We need little imagination to see that space settlers will consist of two classes: free settlers and settlers send by governments or private enterprises.

According to Machiavelli a city, or for our concern a space settlement, can only be free if its citizens has sufficient virtue. As pointed out above, virtue in Machiavelli’s philosophy has little to do with morality but more what we could call character.

The founder of a new city has two choices at his disposal to promote virtue of the citizens: the choice of the site and the design of its laws. The question Machiavelli then asks is whether site or laws are the better method of cultivating virtue.

In the subsequent discussion the argument for choosing a barren site for a new city is presented. The idea is that in such a place civic virtue is stimulated, because people has to be industrious and cooperative in order to survive and hence idleness is not an option.

Though Machiavelli shows some sympathy to this line of reasoning, he rejects this argument. For reasons of security, he argues to located cities in fertile areas. Nevertheless, he sees such places might breed idleness and hence founders of cities should design laws such that civic virtue is promoted.

Unfortunately space settlers have no chose but to choose barren places, whether orbital or surface-based settlements. Space settlers will have to be industrious in order to thrive. But if space settlers can succeed, we might hope they will develop sufficient virtue to remain free.


4 thoughts on “Machiavelli’s Discourses and Space Settlements – part 1”

  1. Very interesting dissertation. One of the historical problems resulting from societal focuses on individual productivity (i.e. industriousness) is the natural tendency to resort to authoritarian control as a means to facilitate and maximize it. We all know how this authoritarianism manifests itself – corruption, abuses of power, social inequalities, etc.

    In my sci-fi novel about the colonization of Mars, authoritarianism and ethical misconduct were minimized because the harshness of life on barren Mars and the frailty of its human colony instilled a strong sense of unity and purpose within the populace. However, I also noted that this was partly due to the relatively small size of the population as well as to the generally high character of the original colonists.

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