I’m reading Machiavelli for a project and came across a concept that I think deserves more attention – ozio. Ozio is the term Machiavelli uses to describe idleness, luxury, and physical comfort. So far so common. However, the interesting thing is that Machiavelli doesn’t characterize ozio as leading to corruption, he characterizes it as being corruption.
Put another way, for Machiavelli there is no difference between being idle, comfortable and luxurious and being corrupt. Louis Vuitton furniture is not a sign of potential decadence, it is the symptom of decadence already present. Gold chains and bling are not a potential warning sign that money is going to somebody’s head, it is a sign money has already gone to their head. This is not because Louis Vuitton and gold chains are expensive, but because they are useful only for physical comfort and/or empty displays of status.
Because people are naturally evil, in Machiavelli’s view, comfort, luxury and idleness provide the ability to indulge natural cruelty, rapaciousness, short-sightedness and pettiness that very few people can resist. A little aside at this point: If you think Machiavelli is being unrealistically pessimistic, you might be right, but remember he lived in 15th century Italy. There were a lot of decadent, unqualified nobility types commanding a lot of simpering, cowardly citizens at the time.
In contrast to ozio, Machiavelli proposes necessitas. This is the state of facing danger, difficulty, being uncomfortable. Back against the wall, Machiavelli sees people rising to magnificent heights and becoming noble. He bases this, it is implied, by observing the French, Germans and Swiss invaders who fought in Italy during his life. These people, far less luxurious than the Italians, less cultured and all around harder, far surpassed the natives in courage, esprit de corps and honor.
To illustrate this principle in a more modern sense, imagine two scenarios where three people are locked in a small space for an extended period. Example one is a comfortable minivan transporting a small family on a long trip to shop at a Neiman Marcus. Example two is Apollo 13, suddenly without CO2 scrubbers, partially exploded, and hurtling along at several thousand mph halfway between the moon and earth.
In the comfort and safety of the minivan, with the luxury that awaits the occupants when they arrive, with the softness and decadence of the environment, Machiavelli thinks the passengers will have no reason to resist their natural selfishness, pettiness, cruelty and short-sightedness. Someone will annoy the driver by asking “are we there yet” 900 times, another will stew in resentment imagining the fancier brand his friend will purchase at a different Neiman Marcus. Because the minivan trip has no stakes, no real problems, no necessitas, the passengers are free to indulge all their worst qualities.
In the example of Apollo 13, we actually did see three people rise to incredible heights of courage, inventiveness and teamwork. The astronauts, faced with probable death, put aside their petty rivalries and jealousies. The ground crew, faced with the life-and-death stakes of a damaged lunar craft, endured massive pressure and pressing time constraints to provide the astronauts with some frankly brilliant uses for duct tape. According to Machiavelli, these people rose to incredible heights because they had to. There was no Neiman Marcus, there was the vacuum of space. There were no cushioned mini-van seats, there was a leaking lunar probe. There was heroism because the astronauts and control center scientists had the capability for heroism, yes, but even more than that, there was heroism because the consequences of ozio were so incredibly high.
This seems to lead to an unhappy circle, then. If we are in necessitas we either die or become noble. If we die, end of the story. If we become noble, we are likely to succeed in our projects. If we succeed in our projects, we are likely to achieve ozio. If we become oziosos, we are corrupt and can no longer succeed in our projects and either die or get victimized by some new group that has not yet become corrupted. If we die, end of the story. If we survive, we’re back to necessitas. In short, nobility seems to be self-defeating.
According to Machiavelli, while this is indeed the normal course of events, it is not the inevitable course of events. He suggests that we, as individuals and as communities, can be prosperous without being oziosos if we reject luxury and instead put our wealth towards creating artificial necessitas, emergencies and hardships of our own choosing. He uses the example of Scipio Africanus to illustrate the point.
Scipio, after defeating Hannibal and taking the Carthaginian capital, had every opportunity to burn the city, enslave the citizens and make Rome safe from the Carthaginians forever. Considering the havoc Hannibal and the Carthaginians had wrecked across Italy for 15 years, considering the centuries of rivalry between the two empires and considering the millions of Romans who’d died fighting against the North African empire, such safety must have seemed very tempting. However, Scipio reasoned that should he destroy Carthage his fellow citizens would abandon the selflessness, courage and resilience they had of necessity developed in the wars against Carthage. Wishing more to preserve Roman virtue than Roman safety, Scipio left Carthage standing as a reminder of just how dangerous and hard the world could be. By Machiavelli’s estimate (I agree, incidentally), this measure preserved Roman virtue for the better part of a century.
This got me thinking, wondering if Machiavelli was correct to dismiss comfort and luxury as corruption incarnate and not just a path leading to corruption. Let’s see how that would work in practice.
Imagine for a moment that aliens visited Florida and replaced every personal luxury coupe, sports car and two seat city car with a 3 cylinder Caterham 7. They replaced every family sedan and crossover SUV with a base model Toyota Wigo and every truck with a Kia Bongo.
I chose these cars not because they are bad, they aren’t, but because they are the least luxurious, least “decadent” and least cosseting vehicles I could think of that still serve their intended functions. A Caterham 7 base model will get nearly 50 mpg, it’s cheap and easy to service and it will invigorate you ever single time you get in. I just won’t massage your butt or wrap you in an adaptive climate control system. A Toyota Wigo is reliable, fun, safe and practical. It’s cheap and easy to maintain, it has a hatch and fold down seats. It just doesn’t have spotted seal leather or talking-on-the-phone-while-you-should-be-paying-attention-to-the-raod-assist. Likewise, a Kia Bongo is an incredibly useful thing. Because of the cabover design, it has full-sized truck levels of utility in mini-truck size. You can get an extended cab version if you need to transport 6 people and a van version if you need to transport 12. It’s cheap and easy to maintain, it is rated as a 1.2 ton truck and it gets double the fuel economy of your average bro-dozer. It’s just not a very good penis-compensation vehicle.
So let’s look at at the pros and cons of our alien intervention:
Pros: The average fuel economy of Florida would double. The lack of road isolation has been shown to cut down on reckless driving (BMW owner’s syndrome). The costs of ownership and maintenance would plummet, perhaps providing some assistance to the debt saddled average Floridian. Resource consumption in all phases of ownership would plummet. The average drive would get a lot more stimulating, fun and memorable.
Cons: Less penis compensation. Harder to drink a coffee, host a conference call and check your emails while driving. Fewer automated butt massages. Harder to impress those honeys – which actually is legitimate. Studies show women consistently prefer men who conspicuously consume.
You might say safety, but this isn’t really true. Firstly, Wigo on 7 crashes tend to be pretty low consequence. The biggest danger in driving a small car is primarily getting hit by somebody in a bro-dozer. Secondly, the traffic death rates are about the same now as they were in the 1980s, before airbags, lane-departure tech and high tech crash structures. Thirdly, high riding SUVs and road isolating luxury cars are huge factors in reckless driving.
You might say that this would hurt the elderly, but is it really harder to get in and out of a hatchback than a Mercedes E Class? You might say that you just don’t feel ready for the workday unless you’ve been refreshed in a heated and cooled leather seat, but might this not be an indication you’re a massive pansy?
It doesn’t seem like the removal of luxury really hurts much. But now let’s imagine we take all the money Floridians put into chrome butt tickling automated tailgating assists and put them towards something intentionally difficult, painful and challenging. Imagine if they put that money towards a gym membership, training to climb Mt. McKinley, starting a business or building a tree house.
The sweat and muscle pain of the gym might cut down on the stiff necks we supposedly need our 24 way power adjustable seats to fix. The training for Mt. McKinley might develop the courage and resolution needed to overcome the irrational fears that drove us to buy that 4 ton “family SUV” in the first place. The business, with all the pain and sacrifice it entails, might impress the honeys enough you don’t need a Hummer limo, it might give you a sense of purpose, it might be useful to your fellow humans. The tree house, with the sunburns and effort that implies, might give you a nice place to watch the stars that would otherwise be blocked out by the auto-tinting moon roof of your Lexus SUV.
Makes me wonder if, perhaps, some of us might not be better off cutting down on the comforts and putting our resources into hardships. Makes me wonder if Niccolo M. wasn’t on to something.