A recent article in the Catholic Journal by William Borst suggests Machiavelli was “(m)ost likely an undeclared atheist…” but the author gives no reference from Machiavelli’s works for this statement. I would argue that, while he may have been critical of church politics at times, he carefully did not express any solid statements about faith that allow us to label him in any way as either believer or atheist.
He certainly wrote about secular topics, politics and war in particular; in The Prince he separates theology from politics, by not putting the Christian stamp on his advice and referring back to scripture for his authority. His prince does not manage by the grace of God but by the realities required by pragmatic politics. It could even be called situational ethics. But was that being an atheist? Not by the standards of his time.
First, it’s important to appreciate that atheism as we understand it today is a relatively modern perspective on religion. During the Renaissance and the later Reformation, the term atheist was applied to people who challenged church doctrine, dogmas or politics: that taking a stance against previously accepted wisdom or presenting natural law instead of divine law, was godless or denied God’s involvement. It did not mean a lack of belief in God; that sense comes later, in the late 18th century. Most of those accused of atheism in the 16th and 17th centuries were still believers in God, but not in all human interpretations of the divine or its will.
Calling Machiavelli an atheist today is an example of presentism: “…in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past.” As I read him, Machiavelli knew far too much about church politics and history – some of it from personal experience – to be anything but cynical towards the divinity of either.*
Machiavelli read Xenophon and was so impressed by him that Niccolo cited Xenophon’s works eight times in The Prince – more times than he cited Plato, Aristotle and Cicero combined.*
Xenophon was author of many works including histories and philosophical dialogues, However, it is his Cyropaedia – The Education of Cyrus – that was an important guide for Renaissance humanists in the art of princely rule. Along with Aristotle’s Politics and Plato’s Republic, it formed a trilogy of political guides. But whereas Aristotle and Plato focus on the ways to create the best state, the Cyropaedia focuses on how to establish personal rule. Civic community versus personal ambition.
The Cyropaedia is, I believe, the first comprehensive examination of personal rule. Xenophon’s shorter piece, Hiero, examined (and defended) tyranny, but was presented as a dialogue, not a lengthy history (with moral, political and philosophical components) as the Cyropaedia was.
Xenophon gently suggests that there is a conflict between the moral restrictions demanded by a state focused on the greater good and the personal needs of its citizens to grow, to acquire and to succeed. And in lowering its standards to allow personal growth and success, the state fails.
Machiavelli was ambivalent about the popular interpretation of “just empire” of Cyrus, as contemporary humanists moralized about it, and whether the generous and affable character of Cyrus really contributed as much to his achievements as his cunning, his treachery and his use of force (both direct and indirect).
He argued the point obliquely in Chapters 15-19 of The Prince. There, Machiavelli contrasts the methods of Hannibal and Scipio in managing their armies: the former with severity and force, the latter with kindness and generosity (Machiavelli says Scipio was too easily influenced by Xenophon’s Cyrus), noting that Hannibal was the more successful of the two.
He is suggesting that Cyrus’ successes were worth celebrating precisely because of the methods he used to rise to the top and manage his state effectively – and they should not be overlooked when reading Xenophon. And, as Paul Rasmussen wrote, for Machiavelli, morality was not iron: it was “malleable” in the service of the ruler, and a “‘just’ regime is one in which the citizens feel secure in their pursuit of their own selfish interests.”
Philip Freeman’s second book has been billed as a “sequel to How to Win an Election” reviewed here in an earlier post. Like the first book, this is a short (132 pages in a small format) book with a mix of English and Latin content derived from the writing of Marcus Cicero. I personally don’t feel it lives up to the first in either layout or content. But it has its strengths.
The first book juxtaposed the Latin and English texts on alternating pages, making it reasonable for anyone who might want to attempt to translate the former themselves or just for curiosity’s sake. However, the second book lumps the Latin at the end of the book, making readers all too aware that only slightly more than than half the little work is in English. And anyone wanting to attempt translation and compare their translation to Freeman’s, has to jump back and forth to do so.
Where the first book was one cohesive piece of writing (a single letter by Quintus Cicero, to his older brother, Marcus), this one is a mix of bits and pieces from the elder Cicero’s letters, speeches and texts.
The actual amount of Cicero is itself minimal. Freeman selects snippets – sometimes as little as a single paragraph – from Cicero’s volumes of writing. He cobbles his translations together under a dozen themed categories – natural law, leadership, persuasion, war, tyranny and so on – and introduces each category with a brief note on either Cicero’s life or Roman history and politics.
Most annoying is that the translations lack citations to identify the source – you need to hunt through the Latin original to find out what original document Freeman is drawing from. For someone like me, who wants to see the entire work (or learn if it is in one of my existing translations), it means paging around to get all the information.
There is a lot to learn from reading the classical authors, but care has to be taken not to turn them into some sort of Nostradamus, making every quotable line into a prediction. Hindsight does that to us. We want to have the past mirror the present to justify our acts, our decisions and our perspectives (this is why tacking words like “ancient” and “traditional” onto quack medical products gives them an air of legitimacy).
While some of their words are timeless, the writing of people like Cicero was mostly about contemporary times, events and politics, and has a specific context. It’s far too easy to lift quotes from that context and drop them into current events as if the original context and the new were the same. Cicero’s Rome and the modern world have things in common, but many more differences.
As an aficionado of The Great Courses, it’s always a delight for me to receive a new set of lectures I can listen to in the car or when walking my dog. The wide range of topics and ideas in their catalogue provides a wealth of learning and intellectual exercise for any interest. It’s a huge pleasure to be able to listen to these courses and learn from them.
Among the six or eight courses I purchased last year, is Machiavelli in Context, a 24-part series that covers a wide range of topics related to Machiavelli, the Italian Renaissance and popular views of Machiavelli’s collected work – and what it means to be “Machiavellian.” The course description notes:
In the 24 lectures that make up Machiavelli in Context, Professor Cook offers the opportunity to meet an extraordinarily thoughtful and sincere student of history and its lessons, and to learn that there is far more to him than can be gleaned from any reading of The Prince, no matter how thorough. Although The Prince is the work by which most of us think we know Machiavelli, and although some have indeed called it the first and most important book of political science ever written, it was not, according to Professor Cook, either Machiavelli’s most important work or the one most representative of his beliefs. Those distinctions belong, instead, to his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, a longer work started at about the same time and which would, like The Prince, not be published until well after his death…Once we recover the context of the writing of The Prince, and analyze it along with the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, it will be clear how The Prince can be read as a book designed to guide leaders in the creation—for Machiavelli, restoration—of republican government in Italy.
I usually get these courses as digital downloads of the audio only and transfer them to my MP3 player – but some of the courses are on DVD because they are visual not audio, so the bandwidth demand is high. These I buy as DVDs so I can watch them while on the elliptical at home.
The 24 lectures in this series on Machiavelli are:
Who Is Machiavelli? Why Does He Matter?
Classical Thought in Renaissance Florence
The Life of Niccolò Machiavelli
Why Did Machiavelli Write The Prince?
The Prince, 1–5—Republics Old and New
The Prince, 6–7—Virtù and Fortuna
The Prince, 8–12—The Prince and Power
The Prince, 13–16—The Art of Being a Prince
The Prince, 17–21—The Lion and the Fox
The Prince, 21–26—Fortune and Foreigners
Livy, the Roman Republic, and Machiavelli
Discourses—Why Machiavelli Is a Republican
Discourses—The Workings of a Good Republic
Discourses—Lessons from Rome
Discourses—A Principality or a Republic?
Discourses—The Qualities of a Good Republic
Discourses—A Republic at War
Discourses—Can Republics Last?
Discourses—Conspiracies and Other Dangers
Florentine Histories—The Growth of Florence
Florentine Histories—The Age of the Medici
The Fate of Machiavelli’s Works
Was Machiavelli a Machiavellian?
The course is presented by Dr. William Cook, a professor of history at the State University of New York. He teaches courses in ancient and medieval history, the Renaissance and Reformation periods, and the Bible and Christian thought. I found him quite sympathetic towards Machiavelli, and very expressive in his lectures, going to great lengths to express Machiavelli’s republican sentiments as expressed in The Discourses. The final lecture is one of the highlights of the series:
The final lecture addresses the most important questions we need to ask about Machiavelli, including the fairness of the judgment brought on him by history, and why he remains such a vital model, even after five centuries.
The course description also says:
According to Professor William R. Cook, a reading of Machiavelli that considers only those qualities that we today call “Machiavellian” is incomplete, and Machiavelli himself “certainly would not recognize” such sinister interpretations or caricatures of his writings and beliefs. Indeed, The Prince—on the pages of which so much of this image was built—was not even published in his lifetime.
One review of the course says it provides “a much more nuanced view of Machiavelli.” I agree that’s true if your view has been constrained by The Prince alone, or (as I have too often found), based on popular misconception and not actually from reading anything Machiavelli wrote. If you are already a student of Machiavelli, it’s more of a confirmation and reassurance of the conclusions drawn from his whole body of work.
I recommend this series unreservedly. It’s probably the best overall introduction to Machiavelli I’ve found, and is easy to consume in small pieces (each lecture is about 30 minutes long). It also comes with a good course guide (book or PDF, depending on how you purchase the course). The (current) average rating from consumers is 4.7 stars out of five.
A final note: all of these courses go on sale frequently. The current sale price for this series is $29.95. I recommend you check their site frequently to see if a course you wants is on sale and get it then. They also offer combination sets with some savings when you buy the set.
One of the main players behind the conspiracy was the avaricious Pope Sixtus IV*. He felt great hostility towards the Medici.
The pope wanted to add Florence and its territories to his Papal States, thus considerably increasing the size of his holdings and his income, while upsetting the delicate balance of power in central Italy. He also needed money to finance several major construction projects in Rome, including the creation of the Vatican Library. From Florence he would have leverage to pressure cities in the nearby Romagna, and by taking them create a kingdom for his nephew, Girolamo Riario. All of this would add to the pope’s expanding power base. But Lorenzo resisted.
When the pope asked Lorenzo to lend him money to finance his military campaigns in the Romagna, Lorenzo refused to commit any support. Instead, to strengthen their bonds with Rome, the Pazzi,a rival Florentine banking family, loaned 30,000 ducats to the pope. This angered Lorenzo, who encouraged the other Florentine bankers to hold onto their money.
The pope then changed bankers: he shifted the administration of the papal finances from the Medici to the Pazzi. This created a deep rift between Rome and the Medici. Managing the papal finances paid large commissions, creating enormous wealth for the managers: the Medici lost a major source of income.
The pope also ordered an audit on the accounts of the alum mine trade, also managed by the Medici. Alum was central the the dyeing trade in Florence, so a major source of revenue. The Pope granted the Pazzi the monopoly on the alum.
Then, Lorenzo passed a law retroactively prohibiting family inheritance by female offspring. The death of the wealthy Pazzi elder, Giovanni Borromei, without male heirs, meant that the Pazzi assets passed to the cousins, not to his wife, Beatrice. This dealt a blow to the Pazzi fortunes and exacerbated tensions between the families.
The pope was well aware of the plot and supported it, although he did not commit any of his troops to it.
Francesco Salviati was a member of a less distinguished, but still powerful Florentine family, who acted as Papal bankers in the city. Francesco had taken holy orders and was a bishop in the 1470s. He wanted to become archbishop of Florence, his home city, and the pope agreed. But the Medici made sure the position went to Rinaldo Orsini, the brother of Lorenzo’s new wife (the Orsini were another powerful family in Italy).
Francesco turned to Pope Sixtus for help. The pope didn’t have control over the appointment, but instead named Salviati archbishop of Pisa, a client city-state of Florence. This was an insult to both the Medici and the city of Florence because in the past, popes had always consulted with the city when selection an archbishop for Pisa. This infuriated Lorenzo so much that he ordered the gates of Pisa closed, preventing Salviati from entering to take office. Francesco was forced to bide his time in Rome, fretting and plotting, until Lorenzo relented in 1475.
Federigo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino (right), was a mercenary – a conditierre – who was playing for personal gain and an easy profit by renting out his troops to the pope. His daughter was married to Giovanni Della Rovere, the pope’s favourite nephew, and his title had been granted by the pope in 1474. He secretly committed to put 600 of his troops outside Florence to support the conspirators. **
King Ferrante of Naples was a silent partner in the conspiracy, but with long-range goals to gain from the events. He had ambitions to extend his kingdom north, outflanking the papal states and Florence was a serious obstacle. He needed to unseat the Medici and replace them with a family or ruler more supportive of his cause. He agreed to supply his army to aid the pope. Later, he made peace with Lorenzo, which angered the pope.
Girolamo Riario was a favourite nephew of Sixtus IV. The pope purchased the stronghold of Imola, from Milan, but the Medici had wanted it for Florence. The pope gave it to his nephew as a dowry when he married Caterina Sforza (daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan) in 1473. Although Girolamo survived the aftermath for many years, he continued to plot against the Medici, but all his efforts failed. In 1488 he was assassinated – the last of the main Pazzi conspirators alive – by members of the Orsi.
Continued in Part 3
* Wikipedia notes:
One of his first acts was to declare a renewed crusade against the Ottoman Turks in Smyrna. Fund-raising for the crusade was more successful than the half-hearted attempts to storm Smyrna, with little to show in return.
This ill-considered crusade would later come back to haunt Sixtus during the aftermath of the Pazzi conspiracy. In the middle of their march on Florence, Naples had to shift its attention away from the conflict to southern Italy to deal with a Turkish invasion. In 1480, an army from the the Ottoman Empire landed at Otranto, under orders to march on Rome and capture the city. After a two-week battle they captured Otranto, then massacred the inhabitants. The pope panicked, and demanded King Ferdinand of Naples gather together a new crusade to defeat the Turks. The Turkish ruler, Mehmet the Conqueror, sailed to Italy to lead the army on to conquer the rest of the peninsula, but died en route. His successor ordered the army’s general to be hung, and the Turks retreated at the end of September, 1481. Ferdinand’s son Alphonso, duke of Calabria, retook the city after 13 months of Turkish rule.
One of the historical events that had an influence on the young Niccolo Machiavelli‘s political and social development was the attempted assassination of the heads of the ruling Medici family, in April 1478. That Easter Sunday evening, April 26, while Lorenzo Medici (“The Magnificent”) and his brother Giuliano, were attending a packed service in the cathedral, they were attacked by several would-be assassins.
Lorenzo would survive the attempt, wounded, and in response wreaked tremendous revenge on everyone involved in the conspiracy. His brother, Giuliano, was murdered.
The eight-year-old Machiavelli (a week shy of his ninth birthday) would have seen the men running through the streets, swords drawn; the bodies bleeding on the cobblestones; heard the screams, seen the dead hanging from the bridges. He would have learned about the story from family and neighbours. He would have seen for himself how the attempt changed the face of Florentine politics and brought down one its its great families – and how it soon pitted the city against the temporal and spiritual power of the pope and his allies.
What would a young child have made of it? Clearly the conspiracy had a great effect on contemporary Florentine politics. Biographers of Machiavelli seldom do more than mention the event, many merely in passing, and none explore in depth its potential effect on his later work. Yet it must have made a significant impression.
Machiavelli would, as he matured, ponder the events of that year, trying to make sense of them, both as a local event,and what they meant in general to his theory of conspiracies. He wrote about the conspiracy in depth in his Florentine Histories, Book VIII, and briefly in The Discourses, but it is not mentioned in The Prince, nor in The Art of War. He says, briefly:
Chief among the causes which led the Pazzi to conspire against the Medici, was the law passed by the latter depriving them of the inheritance of Giovanni Bonromei. The Discourses 3, VI
He would carefully watch the actions of the troops and mercenary armies in the wars that followed, weighing their performance and behaviour under fire. It would help him define his attitudes towards mercenaries, alliances, militia and warfare in general. Not only would he write about these in his books, but he would put some of his ideas into practice when he was allowed to create and manage a Florentine militia.
The Pazzi conspiracy is a complex, confusing event that sprung from ancient enmities between the Medici and Pazzi families, a power struggle between the Medici and the pope over the papal finances and the office of cardinal of Florence, plus the efforts of a handful of opportunistic characters such as Francesco Salviati Riario (archbishop of Pisa), a professional assassin (Giovan Battista Montesecco), a mercenary with his own troops (Girolamo Riario, the pope’s nephew), city-state allies of the conspirators (the Republic of Siena, the Kingdom of Naples), an ambitious condottiere and soldier of fortune (the Duke of Urbino: Federico da Montefeltro), members of the Della Rovere family, and a few others.
Although the conspiracy began in 1477, the rivalries are much older; some of them can be traced back to Dante’s time.
The assassination attempt was made in 1478, but the civil strife and political machinations that resulted were to continue long after the botched assassination. Florence would find itself embroiled in war with the pope and his allies, then with other Italian city states for more than a decade (the War of the Barons). Tensions both within Florence and in the city’s relations stormy with other states continued until Lorenzo’s death in 1492, then resumed when the French invaded in 1494, and another generation of war broke out.
The Medicis’ place as the city’s rulers was firmly cemented after the assassination attempt; the opposite of what the conspirators had been attempting to bring about. The Medici wielded that power openly and absolutely until Lorenzo’s death. Yet the ruthless Lorenzo was also widely recognized as patron of the arts and culture, as a poet, playwright and a statesman.
When his son, Piero, took the municipal leadership after his father’s death, the city population was chafing under what many by then considered Medici despotism; they overthrew the family shortly after (replacing it with the theocratic republic under the friar Savonarola). That same mob had, only 14 years ago, swept through the streets to support the Medici and punish the Pazzi.
It’s difficult to define the conspiracy in simple terms for modern readers. It’s like trying to define a spider’s web by describing each separate, sticky strand, and hoping the reader can assemble the various descriptions into a web. There are much better writers than I who have written about the conspiracy, including: