Some recent travel experiences reminded me of a passage from Machiavelli’s Discourses, an intermittent companion of mine these past few weeks. The quote appears in I.17 and contains several related ideas which we will comment on.
It is possible, then, to arrive at this conclusion: when the [human] material is not corrupt, tumults and other troubles do no harm, but when it is corrupt, good legislation is of no avail unless it be initiated by someone in so extremely strong a position that he can enforce obedience until such time as the material has become good. Whether this has ever happened or whether it is possible for it to happen I do not know.
For as I have just said, it is clear that, if in a state which is on the decline owing to the corruption of its material a renaissance is ever to be brought about, it will be by the virtue of some one person who is then living, not by the virtue of the public as a whole, that good institutions are kept up, and, as soon as such a person is dead, they will relapse into their former habits. [Trans. by L.J. Walker, S.J.]
There are several ideas contained in this passage. Machiavelli is here talking about states and societies: and when he says “corrupt” he is talking about social and civil institutions. The first point he makes is that laws will do a country little good if the people themselves have reached an advanced state of decline. Conversely, nations that have a civic-minded population (i.e., a people that is not corrupt) can withstand “tumults” and hardships well.
The second idea contained in the passage is that even corrupt societies can be somewhat “turned around” by the vigorous actions of a strongman. This is certainly not easy, and Machiavelli hedges his bets by letting us know that he cannot recall any specific examples of it happening. Neither can I. Dictatorships have a sorry record of corruption reform. They usually leave the society more corrupt than when they found it.
The emperor Augustus tried to reform what he saw as Rome’s declining morals by a number of puritanical measures. The people ignored them and continued on as before. Oliver Cromwell and his puritanical followers attempted similar political measures in post-revolutionary England, with similarly lame results. The excesses of Elizabethan England produced a backlash; it was strong for a while, and found expression in the Puritan movement, but it eventually petered out. The same pattern was seen in Savonarola’s attempts to reform the morals of Italy. The people of Florence tolerated him and his excesses for a while; but when he crossed swords with those more powerful than him, he was executed.
This is not to say that all laws in this regard are useless; but it suggests that reform of corrupt societies must come from within, and not be imposed from without. This is why it is so difficult to reform corrupt or degraded societies. Real change seems to come from social or cultural movements, perhaps initiated by the kind of man Machiavelli speaks of. But it must be done the right way; half-hearted measures will cause the old problems to come back as soon as the strongman leaves the scene.
Social decay and corruption are diseases that only some sort of social consensus can change; like a drug addict who is sick and tired of being sick and tired, the population as a whole must actually want to change for the better. Until that time, some societies will remain mired in corruption or social decay, and others will not. National cultures and habits take time to change. Without some external shock that makes it clear change is necessary, it will never come. If the social and political culture of the United States today is corrupt, it will only be reformed when it becomes clear to all that continuing on the same path will bring everyone to ruin. That point has not yet been reached.