The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 29 Keeping it Real: The Pragmatic Religious Skepticism of Niccolò Machiavelli

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Keeping it Real: The Pragmatic Religious Skepticism of Niccolò Machiavelli

Perhaps misrepresenting Machiavelli is a deep necessity of human civilization. We need a totem for intellect married to ruthlessness, and he has filled that role for so long that, even though we’ve long since discovered how unjust a portrayal it is, we’ve kept to it out of pure mental inertia. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) was an anti-Christian, bisexual, republican poet who wrote some of the best comedies of the Italian Renaissance. But all we ever hear is that The Prince was a very wicked book about how thumping good fun being a tyrant is, written by a very wicked man.

MachiavelliAs history lovers, perpetuating that stereotype is bad enough, but as humanists it’s unforgivable, because it was Machiavelli who first posed the question, in its starkest terms, “What good is religion?  Why do we keep it around?” In a time when people were still hotly debating the truth of Christianity’s fundamental principles, Machiavelli’s approach was a frank, “Listen, we all know that people make up the religion that suits them. So let’s stop pretending to truth and start talking about social utility.” As a religious analyst, he wasn’t quite a Marxist avant la lettre, but he was damn close.

He was also unemployed for over half of his life. His father came from a respectable and wealthy family, but disdained the commerce that was Florence’s lifeblood and so he lived off the meager income from his inheritance, his only extravagance a magnificent collection of the Latin classics. He was a bookish layabout who dabbled in law, and his son learned from his example. Niccolò didn’t have a real job until he was twenty-nine years old. In the meantime, he wrote poetry, studied the great works of the Tuscan vernacular tradition, and watched the great events of Florence’s history from the sidelines.

Politically, the late fifteenth century was a galloping mess. The years from 1490 to 1512 alone saw Florence ruled by the Medici family, then by a religious zealot, then by a middle class republican council, then by the Medici family again. Meanwhile, war loomed ever present as the warrior popes led armies to conquer new territories and the French and Habsburgs fought over which would invade northern Italy next.

Machiavelli watched the frothing chaos and drew some stark conclusions about how inadequate whimsical political theory was when thrown into the cauldron of harsh reality.  In 1498 he finally obtained a chancery post after the Florentines overthrew the grim religious oligarchy of Savonarola, and maintained that post until 1512, when his association with republicanism made him persona non grata with the returned Medici clan. He was ejected from his office, tortured, and released to what would be eight years of unemployment, poverty, and unparalleled creativity.

The first product of his exile was The Prince, a book as famous as it is misunderstood. It was written at a time when the Medici were trying to expand their influence into former papal territories, lands which had no experience with political equality or representative government. The Prince is ultimately a book of advice for what a ruler should do when attempting to govern a city possessing stark and time-worn social inequalities.

The advice is shocking, there is no doubt. As opposed to the idealist Ciceronian ethics of upright morality and absolute honesty, Machiavelli proposes a somber realist ethic benefiting from his observations of Italian political disorder and the meteoric career of Cesare Borgia. Eschewing high-flown theory, he describes how things happen in the real world. To succeed as the ruler of a broken land, you have to have the appearance of virtue while allowing yourself the luxury of timely deceit. You have to be ruthless without being hated, pious without being religious. You must be constantly preparing against disaster, because it will come. Sure, you can attempt to be a nice guy, to introduce popular legislation that expands governmental inclusivity, but as soon as you begin, you will be swallowed alive by the twisting social contradictions of the system you’re attempting to modernize, and other cities will seize the opportunity of profiting from the resultant turmoil.

Ultimately, Machiavelli’s advice in The Prince boils down to, “If you’re ruling a broken and corrupt land, and you want to keep ruling it, you need to be a bit broken and ruthless yourself.”  He was definitively not saying that every city everywhere needed to be ruled by a ruthless tyrant, and the proof of that lies in his next book, Discourses on the First Decade of Livy. This book was a republican manifesto, extolling the superior virtue and liveliness of a city governed by republican equality rather than monarchical whim. It praised civic strife, the rough and tumble of free, even acrimonious, debate, as a spur to growth and improvement. Contrasting the golden age of the Roman Republic, when the people were in charge of their own governance and formed militias to fight their own battles, with the modern Italian age, when the greed of the Catholic Church keeps Italy fragmented and dependent on foreign mercenaries for its defense, Machiavelli argues strenuously for a return to the civic vigor of a widely representative government.

Taken together, The Prince and the Discourses couldn’t be clearer: a representative, republican government is by far the best, but if you are in a position of having to rule a land that has spent centuries actively stomping out public discourse, forcing instant governmental equality by decree will rip the state apart.

The Discourses also contains some of the most frank passages about the role of religion in civilization that have ever been put to paper. Starting with ancient Rome, Machiavelli notes how Numa Pompilius improved on Romulus’s state by essentially pretending to be inspired by a nymph. He used religion as a vehicle for social control, and that is Machiavelli’s fundamental take on what religion is all about. Forget about truth, forget about the actual attributes of God, the real question is, what sort of religion is the most useful for creating the most vigorous populace? At a stroke, he wipes all the metaphysical superstructure that Christianity had been building for a millennium and a half off the board and shines a searing light on the craven power structure beneath.

Paganism, with its vigorous ethic of personal excellence, created people capable of astounding things. Not believing in an afterlife, they sought their grandeur in the world. Christianity, however, by focusing on the afterlife and on the cultivation of servility before God and humility before power, had created a continent that had given up on itself. Europe generally and Italy in particular were, Machiavelli felt, drifting aimlessly along the tides of their own indifferent decadence, stirring only when absolute disaster loomed, and the blame for that listlessness he placed at the feet of Christianity.

This baseline irreverence became out-and-out parody when Machiavelli turned his hand to the writing of dramatic comedy. His greatest work for the stage, Mandragola, is a cynical tour-de-force of lust and deceit, all aided and abetted by a magnificently corrupt man of the cloth. At one point, a character shrugs off damnation with the lines, “The worst that can happen to you is to die and go to hell, and many others have suffered the same fate—many gentleman, too!  Are you ashamed to be damned with such company as them?” (As Mark Twain put it, heaven for the weather, hell for the company.)

Meanwhile, Machiavelli’s personal correspondence was filled with references to his manifest lack of personal piety. When he was commissioned to find a preacher by the Lenten Wool Guild, his friend Francesco Guicciardini chortled that it was akin to somebody asking Gaspare Pacchierotti , Florence’s most renowned homosexual, to choose a beautiful bride for a friend. In the Victorian age, Machiavelli and a number of other Renaissance figures underwent a religious whitewashing.  Fictional accounts of deathbed conversions abounded, and pious documents were forged. It took a good century to uncover the real Florence from these encrusted holy lies, and now we see the Renaissance for what it was: an era of widespread religious skepticism, with Machiavelli’s pragmatic recasting of Christianity at its heart.

By 1520, Machiavelli had done his time as an outcast, and the Medici were ready to use his talents again. He was enlisted to write a comprehensive history of Florence, from antiquity down to the modern day. The resultant Florentine Histories were predictably pro-republic and as anti-Medici as Machiavelli felt he could get away with under the circumstances. Here, as in The Discourses, he showed how Florence was at its best when the people were allowed to thrash out their own path, and at its weakest when ruled by the contradictory whims of pseudo-monarchs like Cosimo or Lorenzo de Medici.  When he wasn’t writing, he was rushing around Italy as a military advisor to the forces attempting to stave off the latest threat of Habsburg invasion.

Respected for his political insight, honored for the products of his pen, and beloved for his raucous comedies, Machiavelli’s final years were the culmination of a long, hard-scrabble existence. He had written (but not published) the most notorious book of political philosophy of all time and shattered the comfortable illusions of political idealism and religious metaphysics. Exhausted with Italian turmoil, he reduced the governance of men to questions of fundamental utility and cultural context, a perspective shift that would have to wait until Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx three centuries later to realize its full potential.  He gave us practical rather than merely rhetorical reasons to believe in republican equality, and he asked questions of religion that cut past a thousand ponderous subtleties to place belief in the context of power and control. The least we can do in return is stop using the word “Machiavellian” as a pejorative. So, the next time a world leader does something ruthless and cunning, instead of describing him as Machiavellian, say, “Man, that dude is so Borgian.”

Because Cesare Borgia?  That guy was an ass.


Further Reading

Machiavelli is one of the most written about figures in world intellectual history, and the last ten years in particular have seen a flood of books about him and his work. The most recent, Machiavelli: A Portrait (2015) by Christopher Celenza somehow manages to be both very brief and highly padded. The book is just a smidge over 200 tiny pages and yet feels the need to fill space with long sidetracks into matters not particularly relevant to the life of Machiavelli and with maddening repetition.  You’ll do far better to go back another couple of years to Machiavelli (2013) by Robert Black. Black has spent three decades mired in Machiavelli scholarship, and it shines forth from every page of his definitive account. There are sections that you might not be particularly interested in (Black can spend two pages in virtuosic source-wrangling trying to pin down whether a book was begun in 1514 or 1515), but the portrayal of Machiavelli’s radical novelty and intellectual daring is intoxicating.


A Note on the Comic

Yes, Machiavelli wouldn’t have known about the contents of The Prince or the Discourses in 1498, as he hadn’t written them yet. But he’s obviously been visited by enough time-travelers that he’s picked up the details of what he will write, so it’s okay.