Tag Archives: machiavelli

Machiavelli and the Elizabethans

Stephen GardinerIn 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?

Continue reading

562 total views, 2 views today

Re-thinking Machiavelli’s dedication

Machiavelli’s dedication in The Prince has often been overlooked or dismissed as merely a job application to the ruling Medici, a self-aggrandizing piece appended to the work. But in his book, Machiavelli’s The Prince: A Reader’s Guide, Miguel Vatter argues differently, and offers new insight into the dedication.

Before we reconsider the dedication, we need to know what it says. like most works of translation, that can vary either grossly or subtly, depending on the translator.

Here is the entire dedication, translated into English in two versions. First from this site:

Those who desire to win the favour of princes generally endeavour to do so by offering them those things which they themselves prize most, or such as they observe the prince to delight in most. Thence it is that princes have very often presented to them horses, arms, cloth of gold, precious stones, and similar ornaments worthy of their greatness. Wishing now myself to offer to your Magnificence some proof of my devotion, I have found nothing amongst all I possess that I hold more dear or esteem more highly than the knowledge of the actions of great men, which I have acquired by long experience of modern affairs and a continued study of ancient history.

These I have meditated upon for a long time, and examined with great care and diligence; and having now written them out in a small volume, I send this to your Magnificence. And although I judge this work unworthy of you, yet I trust that your kindness of heart may induce you to accept it, considering that I cannot offer you anything better than the means of understanding in the briefest time all that which I have learnt by so many years of study, and with so much trouble and danger to myself.

I have not set off this little work with pompous phrases, nor filled it with high-sounding and magnificent words, nor with any other allurements or extrinsic embellishments with which many are wont to write and adorn their works; for I wished that mine should derive credit only from the truth of the matter, and that the importance of the subject should make it acceptable.

And I hope it may not be accounted presumption if a man of lowly and humble station ventures to discuss and direct the conduct of princes; for as those who wish to delineate countries place themselves low in the plain to observe the form and character of mountains and high places, and for the purpose of studying the nature of the low country place themselves high upon an eminence, so one must be a prince to know well the character of the people, and to understand well the nature of a prince one must be of the people.

May your Magnificence then accept this little gift in the same spirit in which I send it; and if you will read and consider it well, you will recognise in it my desire that you may attain that greatness which fortune and your great qualities promise. And if your Magnificence will turn your eyes from the summit of your greatness towards those low places, you will know how undeservedly I have to bear the great and continued malice of fortune.

Continue reading

660 total views, 3 views today

New Machiavelli book on the shelves

New Machiavelli bookA new book on The Prince arrived at my mailbox, last week: Miguel Vatter’s Reader’s Guide to Machiavelli’s The Prince. Vatter is professor in the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He has written about Machiavelli before.

I’ve been reading it since its arrival and am, so far, impressed by its scope and approach.

Bloomsbury.com describes the book as:

…a clear and thorough account of this key philosophical work. Setting Machiavelli’s text in its historical and philosophical context, the book offers a detailed review of the key themes (epistemological, social, ethical and theological-political) and a lucid commentary that will enable readers to rapidly navigate the text. Geared towards the specific requirements of students who need to reach a sound understanding of the text as a whole, the guide explores the complex and important ideas inherent in the text and provides a cogent survey of the reception and influence of Machiavelli’s work. This is the ideal companion to study this most influential of texts.

It’s a book about Machiavelli, his times, his sources, and his political ideas – much like those titles by Mansfield, Viroli and others. It is not a chapter-by-chapter guide to The Prince, which is what one might expect from a title that extolled a book as a “Reader’s Guide.” It’s a thematic approach: Vatter organizes Machiavelli’s chapters by broad theme (I had hoped for an annotated version (similar, for example, to Gardner’s annotated Alice in Wonderland, or the annotated Sherlock Holmes).

Nonetheless, it’s a welcome and important addition to the bookshelf and adds to the conversation about what relevance Machiavelli has to modern politics.

Continue reading

718 total views, 4 views today

How to Read the Municipal Machiavelli

This site is designed to provide two things: my rewrite of and comments on Machiavelli’s 1513 book, The Prince, and to provide space for recent posts and essays about topics related to Machiavelli and his position in politics, society and on the internet today.

My book was written in mid-2012, intended for publication. I have, however, not found a publisher yet, so I wanted to make the work available to readers who have an interest in Machiavelli and interpretations of his works.

The book is linked through the menus above, grouped by chapters that parallel the chapters in The Prince itself. Each chapter has its own page. Another menu includes the main appendices and addenda, including my bibliography. The “Misc” menu includes essays I wrote about Machiavelli, mostly after I wrote the book.

The posts below are shorter pieces written as I continue my research online and find issues I believe are relevant to understanding Machiavelli, renaissance politics, modern issues and the problems of translating from other languages.

This summer I expect to produce an e-book version for sale on iTunes and other online sites. For my biography and to read my other posts on issues not related to Machiavelli, please see my blog.

 

 

 

1,538 total views, 4 views today

More thoughts on translating Machiavelli

NY Times Review of BooksTim Parks, one of the most recent translators of Machiavelli’s The Prince (this is one of my personal favourites), has recently had an article published in the NY Times Review of Books. Parks’ piece is called “Reading it Wrong,” and it’s about the difficult nature of translating a foreign language in a way that both resonates with the reader and retains the sense of the original.

Parks is mostly discussing how Italian translations of English works have changed the way Italian readers see those works, in part because of small editorial decisions and the perceptions of the translators. But he also discusses what happens in the translations of Italian into English.

I quote his comment at length because it speaks to one of the chapters I wrote here about how translators have created an impression of Machiavelli based on how they handled certain key words and sentences.

Interestingly, exactly the opposite occurs with Machiavelli in English. Again expectation is everything and Machiavelli is celebrated of course for being Machiavellian. Received opinion must not shift. So when having considered the downfall of his hero and model, the ruthless Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli rather ruefully writes: “Raccolte io adunque tutte le azioni del duca, non saprei riprenderlo.” (Literally: “Having gathered then all the actions of the duke, I would not know how to reproach him.”) The translator George Bull gives, “So having summed up all that the duke did, I cannot possibly censure him.” Here the word “censure” has a strong moral connotation, made stronger still by the introduction of “cannot possibly,” which is not there in the Italian. In line with the author’s reputation for cynicism, Bull has Machiavelli insist that he has no moral objections to anything Cesare Borgia did. Actually, Machiavelli simply says Borgia didn’t make any big mistakes. The true scandal of Machiavelli is that he never considers moral criteria at all—he doesn’t feel they are applicable to a politician fighting for survival. But it is easier for us to think of an evil Machiavelli than a lucid thinker deciding that good and evil do not come into it.

In other words, the morality of the translators impresses itself on the translation and has coloured the way readers and audiences have perceived The Prince for generations. I suggest that more people are familiar with the moral “sense” of Machiavelli as portrayed by these translators than with his actual works.

Continue reading

1,395 total views, 5 views today

Machiavelli’s arrest warrant found

Machiavelli's arrest warrantIt’s not often that anyone finds something new in the archives that have been scanned, read and pawed over by academics, historians and interested lay researched for almost 500 years, but a story in the Telegraph, dated Feb. 15, 2013, tells of just that happening. The arrest warrant for Niccolo Machiavelli was found in the Florence archives recently by Prof Stephen Milner, from Manchester University. He had been researching town criers, “and the proclamations they read out.”

The article’s writer, Nick Squires, says,

The 1513 proclamation, which called for the arrest of Machiavelli, eventually led to his downfall and death.

Well, that’s not quite true. Machiavelli was arrested, and tortured, but released – there was no evidence against him as a member of the anti-Medici conspiracy. He lived on for another 14 years, until 1527. It was more likely he died of disappointment when the republic was restored and he was not included in its bureaucracy.

He also found documents relating to the payment of four horsemen who scoured the streets of the Tuscan city for Machiavelli.

Great discoveries. However, Mr. Squires adds another comment that is a little less than accurate:

Florence is this year celebrating the 500th anniversary of Machiavelli’s writing of The Prince, a political treatise which argues that the pursuit of power can justify the use of immoral means.

Readers of The Prince might argue that Machiavelli considered politics an amoral, but necessary practice, and outside the traditional constraints of morality. But power was not an end itself, but rather a tool used in the service of the greater good.

It can also be argued that, with a corrupt Pope wielding secular power, princes and nobles acting with brutal intent, with torture being an allowable practice even by the church, with violence, cunning, conspiracy and murder all around him, that Machiavelli might have had a somewhat jaundiced concept of what “traditional morality” meant.

The celebrations include, on February 19, a reconstruction of the events surrounding his arrest and imprisonment.

Here’s a story and video about that re-enactment. I would have loved to have been there for that. It’s my dream to visit Florence. Ah well, perhaps one day…

2,504 total views, 4 views today

Machiavelli in Context: an Audio Course

The Great CoursesAs 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:

  1. Who Is Machiavelli? Why Does He Matter?
  2. Machiavelli’s Florence
  3. Classical Thought in Renaissance Florence
  4. The Life of Niccolò Machiavelli
  5. Why Did Machiavelli Write The Prince?
  6. The Prince, 1–5—Republics Old and New
  7. The Prince, 6–7—Virtù and Fortuna
  8. The Prince, 8–12—The Prince and Power
  9. The Prince, 13–16—The Art of Being a Prince
  10. The Prince, 17–21—The Lion and the Fox
  11. The Prince, 21–26—Fortune and Foreigners
  12. Livy, the Roman Republic, and Machiavelli
  13. Discourses—Why Machiavelli Is a Republican
  14. Discourses—The Workings of a Good Republic
  15. Discourses—Lessons from Rome
  16. Discourses—A Principality or a Republic?
  17. Discourses—The Qualities of a Good Republic
  18. Discourses—A Republic at War
  19. Discourses—Can Republics Last?
  20. Discourses—Conspiracies and Other Dangers
  21. Florentine Histories—The Growth of Florence
  22. Florentine Histories—The Age of the Medici
  23. The Fate of Machiavelli’s Works
  24. 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.

10,478 total views, 5 views today

Updates and changes 1.25.2013

I recently updated several pages, including the bibliography, after receiving several relevant books from online booksellers. I’m still looking for alternate translations of Machiavelli, and would appreciate any recommendations not already noted in the biblio. PDFs of older (non-copyright) works would be appreciated.

I made Demonizing Machiavelli a separate page after I updated it with information about early English translations. Still more to add when I have time to flesh out the research, but I felt it deserved its own page. It used to be a subsection under Machiavellian Misquotes.

I have several books by Balthasar Gracian and works by Queen Elizabeth I with quotes to add, which will be a near-future project. Right now I’m working on a post about how the Pazzi conspiracy affected Machiavelli’s political thought and development.

It never seems to end…

1,626 total views, 3 views today

Machiavelli and Savonarola

Wikipedia picThere 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.”

10,931 total views, 3 views today

Enhancing my interpretation of Machiavelli

Since I first wrote my book reinterpreting Machiavelli’s The Prince for municipal politicians, I have been reading the works of other writers, and adding quotations from them to my chapters to further buttress my interpretation of Machiavelli’s words. These recently have included William Shakespeare and Francis Bacon, among others.

I recently turned to reading Balthasar Gracian for his words from The Art of Worldly Wisdom. Gracian’s 1647 book of 300 aphorisms is not specifically meant for leaders, but rather is advice and observations for the middle-to-upper classes and professionals of his day. He writes on behaviour, attitude, leadership, friendship, gossip, wisdom and more. There are some elements of faith in it, but it is not a religious or moralizing book, and not specifically political.

Some of it, however, complements Machiavelli’s words quite well, and I am assembling a selection of aphorisms to add to this book. Gracian’s book has had many appreciative fans since it was first published, and a recent translation by Christopher Maurer was a bestseller a few years back.

Despite its age, much of what Gracian says is common sense and still applicable today. I recently posted a blog piece, listing several of his aphorisms that I felt were worth weighing when pondering local issues and social media threads. With 300 of these aphorisms, it is, of course, possible to pick something that would be applicable in almost any situation.

Gracian, however, was not a fan of Machiavelli.He was an ordained Jesuit priest and would probably have found Machiavelli’s comments about separating the church from the state offensive. Machiavelli’s distinction between morality and politics would also have run counter to Gracian’s Catholic education.

Balthasar wrote an earlier book, The Hero, which was a response to The Prince, and offers a more moralistic guide to behaviour for leaders, with less emphasis on governing a state and acquiring power.During this period, there were other Spanish authors who wrote counterpoints to Machiavelli and similar guides, as this essay notes. The author, Angelo J. Di Salvo, writes,

The Spanish guides are most probably a product of the conflict between Medieval and Renaissance political, economic and religious conditions, and, in particular, they were mostly produced as a reaction to Machiavelli’s ragion di stato. The writers of these works also offered their solutions to the abuses as well as the corruption of the modern European states. These works were written by humanists, royal counselors, former soldiers, writers of religious literature, and authors of secular literature such as Gracián and Quevedo. First and foremost, they promote the concept of the prince as the representative and upholder of Roman Catholicism. Several treatises combine the concept of the ideal Christian prince with the practical advice garnered through the writer’s own experiences in court and in the battlefield. As a rule, these guides support the ideal of a prince who will embody and reflect the Christian virtues, and, thus, enable him to be a model for his subjects. In this capacity, he/she may direct the reform of Christian society.

The difficulty to collating other writers with Machiavelli is that political and social conditions in their countries were, for the most part, greatly different from Machiavelli’s Italy.Often there are no direct parallels between situations.

In England and Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, strong monarchs governed a cohesive and relatively stable state, and were not under attack by external forces. In both, as well, the relationship with the church and religion were quite different than among the city states of Italy (where the Pope fielded armies). Finally, Spain was one of the military contenders in Italy for ownership of some of these states, and Spanish writers and leaders had a vested interest in contradicting Machiavelli’s call for an Italy united against the “barbarian” invaders.

Political conditions in Spain, however, were very different from those in Italy. First, the nation had been united by what Spaniards and Machiavelli himself considered to be model princes, Ferdinand and Isabell; second, the monarchy and the Church consolidated their power and influence with the introduction of the Inquisition; third, there was no internal strife in Spain except for that represented by the Moriscos; fourth, foreign powers did not vie for control of Spain as was the case in Italy. Another model prince, Charles V, increased the power of the monarchy and expanded its empire. In addition, Machiavelli’s political theories threatened Spain’s hegemony in Italy.

Despite the differences and the antagonism, there are often remarkably similar words of advice in these authors, although sometimes cloaked in moralizing. My task is to select which fit, rather than trying to force them. I hope to post some of Gracian’s most relevant aphorisms within this work, in the next a week.

In Christopher Maurer’s book, A Pocket Mirror for Heroes (which includes content from The Hero and other works by Gracian), Balthasar is quoted as saying The Prince was better suited for governing “a stable than a state.” I’d like to read more about Gracian’s thoughts on Machiavelli. He seems to have been part of a general anti-Machiavellian movement among Catholic writers of the time, but it is also part of the dialectics where arguments were presented in classical rhetorical form.

Renaissance political ideas penetrated to a large extent the political thought of the Catholic Reform and this Antimachiavellism resulted from the widespread triumph of Machiavelli’s ideas in Western Europe.

It’s an interesting comment that Machiavelli’s ideas triumphed in Western political thought despite what seems to have been a concerted and aggressive assault on them by writes in numerous nations. I will have to pursue that line of thought some time.

Gracian would also write El político Don Fernando el Católico in 1646, a book specifically about governing, dedicated to his ruler, King Ferdinand. It was a more direct counterpoint to Machiavelli. However, I have not found an English translation, and while I have found Spanish editions, my own my Spanish is not competent to tackle something that complex and that old. If anyone has an English translation or can point me to one online, please contact me.

I continue to read books about Machiavelli, about reactions to his works, and about that historical period in general. I will no doubt find more to add to this work (and will list major sources in the bibliography). I recently added one of Machiavelli’s most important letters to a page here, and am working on another page about Machiavelli’s use of rhetoric in making his arguments. This might take a while to complete, because there is much to read, and I was not schooled in rhetoric or oratory, so I have to educate myself further in these fields.

10,881 total views, 5 views today