Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy (3/5): Libido Dominandi, Individualism, and Greatness

One of the peculiar twists of Machiavelli is how he inverts the Augustinian worldview. Saint Augustine of Hippo famously said that man, in his fallenness, lusted for domination. Man, in his estrangement and depravity, lusted to control others. Fallen man lives in conflict. Machiavelli inherits this anthropological truth but turns it on its head. It is not that the lust for greatness and praise needs to be curbed, as Augustine thought, but that it needs to be unleashed. Machiavelli was a firm believer that since the world was struggle, because man was wicked, the polity that best managed to allow the libido without turning on itself would be the most successful polity. Again, he looked to Rome’s founding for evidence of this just as he did with regard for the genus of liberty and how that was the motivating impulse over the course of history for Rome’s republican development and eventual greatness.

It is also a somewhat common misreading of Machiavelli, as promoted by the likes of Quentin Skinner, that Machiavelli was a revivalist of the classical civic virtue tradition. This is true and untrue; for Machiavelli does write and reflect upon the need of the common good, but Machiavelli does not have a communitarian or conventionalist attitude toward this question as the classical writers (like Aristotle and Cicero) did. Instead, Machiavelli is prophet of modernity in his individualism. It is the individual drive for domination and greatness, and his heroic struggling for others, that testifies to individual greatness.

Augustine saw the founding episode of Rome: Romulus murdering Remus, as evidence for Rome’s depravity. Machiavelli turns Augustine on his need in reading the episode of Romulus murdering Remus as that which showed Rome’s greatness and laid the genus of individual greatness in the germ of the Roman people. States, as Machiavelli notes, are usually founded by individuals and not collectives. While this usually takes the form of king or emperor, looking back across history will show this: Romulus founds Rome (or in Virgilian retelling, Aeneas); Gilgamesh founds Uruk; Menes founded the Egyptian Empire; Sargon founded Akkad, and so on. Regarding Romulus though:

I must say that many are likely to judge it a bad example for the founder of a body politic, as Romulus was, to have first murdered his brother and later to have consented to the execution of Titus Tatius, the Sabine, elected by him as to his companion in the kingdom, concluding that citizens, out of ambition and desire to rule, could, after the example of their leader, attack those opposed to their authority. This opinion would be true, if were not to consider the goal which led Romulus to commit such a homicide.

Also, this must be taken as a general rule: that never or rarely does it happen that a republic or a kingdom is organized well from the beginning or is completely reformed apart from its old institutions, unless it is organized by one man alone; or rather, it is necessary for a single man to be the one who gives it shape, and from whose mind such organization derives. Thus, the prudent founder of a republic, one who has this courageous desire to serve not his own interests but the common good, and not his own heirs but rather everyone in their native land, must strive to assume sole authority.

Machiavelli recasts Romulus as an individual who had the common good in mind. His ambition and sole seizure of power, reflecting a lust to dominate for sure, was not aimed at self-gratification and ambition (as Augustine or other moralists argue) but for the “common good.” Machiavelli, here, recognizes how it is often problematic to have the “common good” come into being through multiplicity; so in the conflict that breeds greater representation, order, and liberty, Remus had to be killed by Romulus for the sake of the many.  “That Romulus was among those who deserve to be excused for the death of his brother and his companion, and that what he did was for the common good and not for private ambition, is shown by the fact he immediately established a senate with which he consulted and according to whose opinions made decisions.”

Throughout the Discourses, Machiavelli gives many examples of how individual acts of heroism and sacrifice, even inspirational suicide (when Decius killed himself and Torquates his son) for the survival of the common good and the republic that was Rome. Why Romulus factors so importantly in this is that the genus of the Roman state and people is not merely in act of sacrifice for the common good, but risk-taking behavior. Romulus took the risk to murder Remus and consent to the execution of Titus Tatius which inflected into the genus of the Romans an exceptional risk-taking spirit. The release of the libido, through risk-taking behavior, is that which is needed in any republic for it to survive. That the origins of Rome, in Machiavelli’s eyes, was founded upon risk-taking individualism with the common good in mind, it was bound to happen—as happened—that Rome would become a risk-taking republic with liberty being the great value that tied the Romans together and led to many moments of individual risk-taking behavior (even at the cost of the risk-taker’s life).

For Machiavelli, the greatness of the Romans (collectively), and of individual Romans (individualistically), is tied to their desire to take initiative, embark and undertake risky action, and keep the greater good in mind. Students of economics know that risk-taking behavior is uncommon. Most people are risk-averse. If Romulus was risk-averse, he would have never killed his brother or consented to Titus Tatius’ death. If this was the genus of Rome then the Romans would have never thrown off the tyranny of Tarquin and his sons and Cincinnatus, and many of the great Roman heroes, would have never left the comfort of their villas and farms to serve the public in times of crisis.

Crisis, as Machiavelli also describes, brings out the greatness—risk-taking behavior—of individuals. It takes individuals to inspire the many. Rather than curb the lust for greatness, rather than limit the lust for ambition, rather than build barriers to stymy risk-taking behavior, the episode of Romulus murdering Remus unleashed risk-taking behavior, heroic individualism, and consideration for the common good wherein one man (Romulus) bore the weight of future generations in his actions. What is needed for greatness, according to Machiavelli, is nothing short of allowing for individual initiative, ambition, and risk. A people who are risk-averse, despise individual initiative and ambition as “greedy” and “selfish” are a weak people who will, in time, be destroyed by a more vigorous, ambitious, and risk-taking people.

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