There are scholars and readers who have suggested Machiavelli wrote The Prince as a satire, along the lines of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. That he was pointing out how leaders should not behave, a sort of tongue-in-cheek work.
As early as 1958, Gerald Mattingly wrote an article suggesting this in The American Scholar, Autumn edition. More recently, Erica Benner has also raised this idea*. It makes a sort of sense, since in many ways the advice in The Prince contradicts pretty much everything else Machiavelli wrote. And in his plays and poetry, Machiavelli certainly wrote a lot of satire.
Some have suggested that he was using irony, identifying the worst methods and tactics in the hope that tyrants who should follow his advice would get into trouble in their kingdoms. That their rule would implode as the people rose up against their repression. Sic semper tyrannis, as Plutarch has Brutus saying as he stabbed Caesar.
Perhaps he hoped that the young and feckless Lorenzo de Medici, Florence’s ruler to whom Machiavelli dedicated his book, would take his advice and thus bring about the end of Medici rule in that city. the republic would return to Florence. After all, it was because of the re-appearance of this family that Machiavelli had lost his job after 14 years. And he was imprisoned and tortured following the Medici return. It would be fitting revenge, some suggest. And it might get Machiavelli a republican job again.
Or perhaps he was writing a cunning satire on the popular “mirror for princes” book, a burlesque that subtly made jest of the prim, sanctimonious Christian morality that filled those works. He knew from his close relation to the Church and the Borgia pope was corrupt. By mocking the lessons in Christian morality he was mocking the church’s hypocrisy.
I don’t think so.
Machiavelli was above all a realist. He was also a historian and a keen observer of human behaviour. He knew what trouble could arise from the overthrow of the current ruler. Better the devil you know, I imagine him thinking. Continue reading “Machiavelli’s Prince as satire”
I started reading Karl Marx’s Capital, vol 1. recently and that got me wondering about what similarities or differences there were with or between these two great political philosophers, Machiavelli and Marx.
Form my admittedly limited and autodidactic education in political theory, the first thing that strikes me is the scope. Machiavelli aims his works at the individual leader – the eponymous prince – as the engine of social and political change. Marx, on the other hand, looks at the masses – the proletariat – and sweeping tides of history. He is often speaking to the crowd – although ironically it was the intellectual elite who mostly read his work.
(Gramsci, as I understand, makes an argument in The Modern Prince that the revolutionary socialist party can stand in for Machiavelli’s prince as the sole actor thus take advantage of Machiavelli’s advice, but I don’t think so because it involves group dynamics… it’s an argument for another post, though…)
Many of Machiavelli’s concepts – like virtu, a term undefined but rooted in morality – are personal, not group attributes. He focuses at his widest on small groups to manage events and activities – a single leader and his advisors (whose role is to mitigate the ideology of the individual leader towards common and sustainable goals).
Marx, on the other hand looks at the larger picture, a scientific analysis of events and trends. He disdained the ‘great person’ theory of history. His concepts like revolution and even capitalism would have no place in Machiavelli’s vision, any more than Niccolo’s self-reliant city republican state would have in Marx’s.
Machiavelli doesn’t address class except in general terms – the need for the leader to have the people on his side. Class is taken more or less for granted, although he does distinguish between the strata within the upper class (the hereditary rulers versus those who take or assume power; most of whom are members of an upper crust of rich and powerful families like the Medici and the Borgia).
Marx is all about class and class struggle. Both saw the masses could overthrow a leader and do so easily given the right circumstances – Machiavelli had personal experience seeing the Medicis, Savaronola, then the republic overthrown – but the circumstances for both were different and the results of such revolution more so. Marx saw the proletariat rising to take control itself; Machiavelli saw one leader (or family) replace another.
Of course they are separated by more than 350 years. Machiavelli wrote at the dawn of the modern era, when printing was just getting its start and its impact was not yet fully felt. Marx wrote in the heyday of the industrial revolution when technology was rapidly changing societies and economies.
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.
In 1555, Bishop Stephen Gardiner wrote a treatise to King Phillip II of Spain, in which he borrowed (aka plagiarized) extensively from Machiavelli’s The Prince and The Discourses. Gardiner did not credit Machiavelli or attribute any of his quotes, but rather copied some of Machiavelli’s content verbatim or very closely.
This was less than two decades after Machiavelli’s works had been first printed, and before Pope Paul placed it on the Index librorum prohibitorum, effectively banning it in Catholic countries (but also making it more interesting, as any banned book inevitably becomes, thus guaranteeing its publication and translation).
Some two decades earlier, in 1536, Cardinal Reginald Pole wrote his Apologia ad Carolum Quintum. Pole claimed that The Prince was a satire, albeit an evil one (one that exposed the aracana imperii, or secrets of rule). He denounced Machiavelli as being “in league with the devil” and that Il principe was “written by the finger of Satan”:
In the Apologia ad Carolum Quintum (1539) Reginald Pole claimed to know, on the basis of a conversation with Thomas Cromwell some ten years earlier and subsequent inquiry into Cromwell’s views, that Machiavelli’s Il Principe had been the inspiration behind Henry VIII’s decision to break with Rome, declare himself head of the church, and seize the property of the English monasteries.*
That suggests The Prince was well known by Cromwell, and possibly even by Henry himself. Who supplied Cromwell with a copy of the work is unknown, but Pole had been in Italy in 1529. However, 1529 is too early for a printed copy: the first printed edition of The Prince was 1532. Perhaps he obtained a hand-copied edition.
Pole’s Apologia, however, was not published until 1744. It might have been shared among his peers and fellow theologians, but it did not have a wider reach for another two centuries (when it provided leverage for the popular notion of a Machiavellian Henry VIII).*
Nonetheless, this and other contemporary denunciations helped bring Machiavelli’s The Prince to the attention of the English court very soon after its first publication (q.v. The Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli, ed. John Najemy, 2010). Ideas spread rapidly during the Renaissance.
By the time of Gardiner’s writing, Machiavelli had been denounced many times, by many more critics (especially by church allies and defenders). He was even declared a “literate atheist” in 1557. That same year, the Inquisition demanded the “utter destruction” of all of Machiavelli’s works. Ironically, this helped spread them faster in an era of intellectual curiosity and questioning or authority (it was the Reformation, after all, so anything the church opposed was consumed with relish by advocates of reform).
Gardiner – Bishop of Winchester under Henry VIII, and later Lord Chancellor to Queen Mary – was a staunch Catholic, but obviously both curious and intellectually intrigued, even by a writer which his fellow theologians like Pole denounced. He died shortly after writing this final work, so his motives were never questioned. However, in Gardiner’s defence, he was writing before Machiavelli was placed on the Index, so there was no official proscription yet.
He wrote this piece in English – surprisingly not in Latin which was the lingua franca of governance and church then, and a language in which Gardiner was fluent. The treatise was translated into Italian posthumously, in 1556, for presentation Phillip II (Queen Mary‘s Spanish husband; Mary was herself to die shortly afterwards, in 1558), then in Brussels. Phillip II, however, could not speak either English or Italian, but was fluent in Spanish, Latin and French.
The translator was George Rainsford, a courtier in the late Henry VIII’s circle. The English version of Gardiner’s work hasn’t survived, but there are two copies of the Italian translation intact (q.v. A Machiavellian Treatise by Stephen Gardiner, by Peter Donaldson, Cambridge University Press, 1975). The treatise is titled “A Discourse on the Coming of the English and Normans to Britain,” and when sent to Phillip II, it was paired with a piece Rainsford himself wrote, called “Ritratto d’Inghilterra” or “Portrait of England.”
Gardiner’s part is structured as a dialogue between two men, in which “Stephano” teaches “Alphonso” about the English historical experience in Machiavellian terms. It is essentially a guide for Phillip II in how to rule England using the techniques Machiavelli described in his books as used by people such as Caesare Borgia.
Had it been exposed before his death, there is good reason to believe other members of the English court would have felt it treasonable. Many in the court feared that Phillip would become king of England when Mary died. Had Gardiner lived, he could have faced serious consequences – even execution – under Elizabeth.
Gardiner read Machiavelli. Who else in his circle also read him? How widespread was knowledge of Machiavelli in Tudor England?
Chanakya has been called the “Indian Machiavelli” because his writings have a political pragmatism similar to that seen in Machiavelli’s own work. He has also been called “Kingmaker” because, as one book description notes,
Striving to make Chandragupta`s position secure in an unstable and dangerous time, Chanakya championed a policy of realpolitik. He deployed a large network of spies, ensured testing for the king`s food and shelter; averted disasters through keen detection like that of ants carrying rice through cracks in flooring. He was not averse to spreading rumors to win over an opponent to the king`s side. Behind all this was the burning desire to stir the country`s ruler to sweep away the vestiges of Greek rule that remained behind Alexander`s invasion and return from India.
According to Wikipedia, Chanakya lived c. 370–283 BCE and was an Indian teacher, philosopher and royal advisor to the first Maurya emperor Chandragupta. He was also “a professor of economics and political science at the ancient Takshashila University.”
Chanakya played an important role in the rise of the Maurya Empire, which ruled most of the Indian subcontinent. Chanakya was chief advisor to both Chandragupta and his son Bindusara.
Chanakya is traditionally identified by two other names: Kautilya and Vishnu Gupta. In the 4th century BCE, he wrote the ancient Indian political treatise called Arthashastra. This has been variously translated as “science of politics… to help a king in “the acquisition and protection of the earth,” “treatise on polity,” “science of material gain,” “science of polity,” and “science of political economy.” You can read it in several places, including here (PDF version here).
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:
There is no evidence that Niccolo Machiavelli ever met the charismatic Dominican friar and fiery preacher, Girolamo Savonarola, but we know he attended at least one of the friar’s sermons. In a letter to Ricciardo Bechi, dated March 9, 1498, Machiavelli described his experience. He was not impressed. He wrote that, in his judgement, Savonarola was a hypocrite who,
…acts in accordance with the times and colors his lies accordingly.*
Savonarola played a seminal role in the development of Machiavelli’s political and moral thought; not only through what Machiavelli perceived of him, but in the way Savonarola organized the government of Florence during his leadership.
Savonarola had been well schooled in both biblical and classical studies. He spent his early years as an itinerant priest making fiery and contentious sermons calling for reform and repentance, with an apocalyptic theme, throughout the northern Italian city states. After several years, in 1490, he was assigned to the convent of San Marco, where Lorenzo de Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent) met him, and decided to make him spiritual counsel for his family.
In Florence, his sermons against what he saw as tyranny and corruption grew increasingly strident, and Savonarola peppered them with prophesies about apocalyptic disasters, and Florence rising to become the “new Jerusalem.” Wikipedia notes,
In 1492 Savonarola warned of “the Sword of the Lord over the earth quickly and soon” and envisioned terrible tribulations to Rome. Around 1493 (these sermons have not survived) he began to prophesy that a New Cyrus was coming over the mountains to begin the renewal of the Church.
When the French king, Charles VII rode his army into northern Italy, in 1494, many of Savonarola’s followers believed it was proof of this prophesy. As Charles’ army pushed through Italy, defeating one opponent after another, and sacking cities along the way in order to get to the Kingdom of Naples, more and more Florentines turned to Savonarola for help to prevent their city suffering a similar fate.
By this time, Lorenzo had died (1492). His son, Piero – called Piero the Unfortunate – took over as the city’s ruler and proved inadequate to the role. Piero dithered, attempted to get Charles to bypass Florence, and treat the city as neutral. Charles would have none of it, and threatened to capture and raze the city. Florentines, desperate to protect their city and their lives, defected to Charles’s side; many flocked to Savonarola to protect them.
Piero lost his nerve. He surrendered Florence to Charles, caving in to every demand and not even attempting to negotiate better terms. In response, the populace rose up and looted the Medici home. In December, 1494, Piero and his family fled (he would eventually ally with the French, and lose his life after a battle in which the French lost). The populace turned to the fanatical friar to help them negotiate with the French, and then establish a new government. He did so with gusto.
Savonarola played on the emotions and envy of the Florentines. He convinced them that they were being abused by the rich; their opulence was a clear sign of their tyranny.
Machiavelli was, at this time, 25. He would later write that people followed Savonarola indiscriminately, and believed his every word without any proof:
And though it be easier to impose new institutions or a new faith on rude and simple men, it is not therefore impossible to persuade their adoption by men who are civilized, and who do not think themselves rude. The people of Florence do not esteem themselves rude or ignorant, and yet were persuaded by the Friar Girolamo Savonarola that he spoke with God. Whether in this he said truth or no, I take not on me to pronounce, since of so great a man we must speak with reverence; but this I do say, that very many believed him without having witnessed anything extraordinary to warrant their belief; his life, his doctrines, the matter whereof he treated, being sufficient to enlist their faith. The Discourses, 1, XI.
As a cleric, Savonarola could not hold office. However, he formed a political party from his followers, the Frateschi, and together they set about to remake Florence in Savonarola’s pious, Christian, and somewhat egalitarian model. Not all of this was bad. They wrote a new constitution that gave the vote to the artisan class, not merely the nobles. They created an election process to appoint citizens to some civic offices not simply hand out offices like favours. They passed a “Law of Appeal” to limit rulers and their supporters from using exile and capital punishment as “factional weapons.”
But making laws that seemed to offer more liberty was not enough. They had to be kept, and not all were. This would cause Savonarola a loss of face and support. Machiavelli later wrote,
After the year 1494, the city of Florence reformed its government with the help of the Friar Girolamo Savonarola… Among other ordinances for the safety of the citizens, he caused a law to be passed, allowing an appeal to the people from the sentences pronounced by “the Eight” and by the “Signory” in trials for State offences; a law he had long contended for, and carried at last with great difficulty. It so happened that a very short time after it was passed, five citizens were condemned to death by the “Signory” for State offences, and that when they sought to appeal to the people they were not permitted to do so, and the law was violated. This, more than any other mischance, helped to lessen the credit of the Friar; since if his law of appeal was salutary, he should have caused it to be observed; if useless, he ought not to have promoted it. And his inconsistency was the more remarked, because in all the sermons which he preached after the law was broken, he never either blamed or excused the person who had broken it, as though unwilling to condemn, while unable to justify what suited his purposes. This, as betraying the ambitious and partial turn of his mind, took from his reputation and exposed him to much obloquy. The Discourses, Book 1, LVI
Savonarola continued preaching, and making more of his alleged ability of prophesy. With 20-20 hindsight, he publicly claimed he had predicted the deaths of Lorenzo de’ Medici and Pope Innocent VIII, and the invasion of King Charles of France, . He spoke about his visits to heaven where the Virgin Mary revealed the future to him. He told his audience that “God had chosen Florence,” and promised that, if the people of Florence followed his teachings, “it would have riches, glory and power.”
He also called on Florentines to live pure lives and rid their city of “vice”. His party passed new laws against ‘sodomy’ (which included male and female same sex relations), adultery, public drunkenness, and other “moral transgressions.” Gangs of fundamentalist-minded boys and young men – pious thugs – patrolled the streets, attacking anyone whose dress or behaviour they considered “immodest.” The people followed his “puritanical” lifestyle eagerly – at first. Savonarola’s constraints to show signs of wear fairly soon. By 1497, the bars were selling wine and spirits again.
The peak of Savonarola’s civic madness came in February, 1497, when he organized the Bonfire of the Vanities where he built a large bonfire in the main square and exhorted Florentines to cast into it any “objects that are deemed to be occasions of sin.” His roving gangs helped round up material from the residents, often forcibly. Thousands of cosmetics, pieces of priceless art, books, sculpture, painting and furniture were destroyed.
Pope Alexander VI initially tolerated fra Girolamo’s somewhat erratic actions, and even ignored the friar’s increasingly strident and accusatory attacks on the church and the papacy. Florence refused to join the pope’s Holy League alliance to drive out the French, because Savonarola and his party already had an alliance with the French to protect them from both the papal ambitions and the threatened return of the Medici. Although the French never provided the promised help, Savonarola clung stubbornly to their side.
The pope had had enough. He started an exchange of angry letters with Savonarola. The friar in turn sent the pope his “Compendium of Revelations,” a self-serving account of his “prophetic career.”
The exasperated pope demanded Savonarola appear in Rome. The friar pleaded ill health, so the pope banned him from preaching. Savonarola obeyed for a short while, but couldn’t keep his mouth shut for very long. He resumed his sermons, in an even more challenging and castigating manner. So the pope used his last weapon: excommunication, in May, 1497. he also threatened the Florentines with “interdiction” if they continued to offer him sanctuary in their city.
For the next ten months, Savonarola ignored the order, and continued to preach. He became increasingly convinced of his divine mission and spoke of performing miracles to prove himself. In March, 1498, Machiavelli heard one of his sermons at San Marco. In his letter, he wrote that the friar’s words had an effect on those in the crowd who didn’t examine them closely or apply critical thinking to them, but that they were meant mostly to bolster the faith of the followers while denigrating any perceived opponents:
Now that our friar was in his own house, if you had heard with what boldness he began preaching and with how much he continued, it would be an object of no little admiration. Because, fearing greatly for himself and believing that the new Signoria would not be reluctant to injure him – and having decided that quite a few citizens should be brought down with him – he started in with great scenes of horror; with explanations that were quite effective to those not examining them closely, he pointed out that his adherents were excellent people while his opponents were most villainous, and he drew on every expression that might weaken his opponents’ party and fortify his own.
“Savonarola… was ruined with his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.” The Prince, VI
The government of Florence, under increasing political, economic, and religious pressure, tried to convince Savonarola to shut up. Many followers left his side, others faltered as pressures mounted and the city’s economic status wilted. In a final, desperate attempt to regain his lost authority, Savonarola accepted a challenge by a Franciscan preacher, who proposed he and Savonarola walk through fire to prove who had the most favour with God.
The date for the ordeal was April 7, 1498, in the central square. When the day arrived, a huge crowd attended. The two priests and their followers milled about nervously as the flames grew. They each, separately, found one excuse after another to delay the test. Hours later, a heavy spring rain drenched the fires, and in frustration, government officials cancelled the contest.
The crowd was not pleased. The people had put their faith in Savonarola, and believed his words. He lacked the faith he demanded they themselves show. When he failed to follow through, they blamed him for the fiasco, and for the low esteem in which Florence had fallen with other rulers and states, since his arrival. A mob assaulted the convent of San Marco where he was headquartered.
Savonarola and two of his fellow monks, Fra Domenico and Fra Silvestro Maruffi, were arrested and imprisoned. They were tortured; Savonarola confessed to “having invented his prophecies and visions.” He then retracted his confession, was tortured more, and confessed again. On May 23, 1498, the three were publicly condemned as heretics and schismatics. They were hung in the public square, and their bodies burned.
Savonarola’s fall from grace, and his death had several aftereffects. His words would not be forgotten, and would later influence many others who felt that the papacy had grown too corrupt and concerned with temporal power – Martin Luther, the architect of the Reformation a few years later, would read them and praise the friar. The Huguenots in France would take some of their reforming inspiration from him. Even as late as the mid-20th century, Savonarola would be held up as an early model for social justice and reform, so much so that – despite his intolerance and authoritarianism – he has been considered for sainthood.
For Florence, the major shift was the creation of the republic after the friar, that would soon hire young Niccolo Machiavelli as an official – a republic that was founded on many of the principles and bureaucratic systems Savonarola initiated.
For Machiavelli, Savonarola would be a complex lesson. He appears as the “unarmed prophet” who failed because he lacked the force necessary to secure his authority:
“If Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus had been unarmed they could not have enforced their constitutions for long — as happened in our time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was ruined with his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.” The Prince, VI
Machiavelli would also contrast Savonarola’s rule with that of Piero Soderini’s, later, arguing that Savonarola was unable to deal with adversaries effectively, and did not have the followers to carry out the necessary tasks for him:
But when fortune is not thus propitious to him, he must contrive other means to rid himself of rivals, and must do so successfully before he can accomplish anything. Any one who reads with intelligence the lessons of Holy Writ, will remember how Moses, to give effect to his laws and ordinances, was constrained to put to death an endless number of those who out of mere envy withstood his designs. The necessity of this course was well understood by the Friar Girolamo Savonarola, and by the Gonfalonier Piero Soderini. But the former could not comply with it, because, as a friar, he himself lacked the needful authority; while those of his followers who might have exercised that authority, did not rightly comprehend his teaching. This, however, was no fault of his; for his sermons are full of invectives and attacks against “the wise of this world ,”that being the name he gave to envious rivals and to all who opposed his reforms. The Discourses, Book 3, XXX
On the other hand, Machiavelli argued for Florence to retain some of the institutions – such as the election for public office – that Savonarola and his Frateschi had initiated. A republican at heart, Machiavelli valued the change from the hereditary state under the Medicis to a more inclusive government that allowed him a chance to prove his worth.
Savonarola’s rise and fall was also a lesson in the potentially disastrous intersection of religion and politics, as well as the practical need to have more than faith to support your goals. Machiavelli’s own views on the role of the papacy and its involvement in temporal and political matters would be shaped in part of Savonarola’s ideals. As Wikisource.org notes, Machiavelli shared some of Savonarola’s sentiments:
When it comes to religion Machiavelli is not the cold time-server that some would have people believe. Echoing Savonarola, he complains how the Christian religion had decayed from “its principles,” coming close, “without any doubt, to ruin or punishment.” The common belief that Machiavelli considers Christianity to be inferior to the classical religions is not founded. With great care, he makes a distinction between original Christianity and the corrupted one of his times. He says: “If from the beginning of the Christian republics the Christian religion would have maintained itself according to its giver’s order, the Christian state and republic would have been more united and happy that they are presently.”
(Quotes from The Discourses, Book 1, XII)
A few months before Savonarola was overthrown and executed in the main square, in 1498, Machiavelli stood in the election for a position in public office. He lost, possibly because he was known to be critical of Savonarola. But in April, the Frateschi’s political leader, Francesco Valori, was murdered, and the government started to unravel. Many of Savonarola’s supporters, including chancery staff, were removed from office by the anti-Savonarola newcomers.
Machiavelli ran again for office after Savonarola had been executed. This time he won. At age 29 he became secretary of the Second Chancery; an executive position in the department that kept the ruling council informed on military and political affairs. Without the new rules Savonarola had put in place, he would not likely have been given such a position. Who knows if he would have ever penned his famous works, if not. ~~~~~ * A somewhat different translation can be found in The Letters of Machiavelli, translated by Allan Gilbert, University of Chicago Press, USA, 1961. Gilbert translates: “Thus, according to my judgment, he keeps on working with the times and making his lies plausible.”