Niccolò Machiavelli: Part I – Background

The Gutenberg Press was invented in 1450. The Renaissance, which began in Florence in the fifteenth century and spread throughout Europe by the seventeenth century, divided the medieval and the modern periods. Realism and humanism, using proto-modernist methods, opposed the Aristotelian scholasticism of the previous centuries. This blog initiates a long, and intermittent, series on non-Jewish views of Jews among a few of the intellectual greats of Europe beginning with Niccolò Machiavelli of Florence, the initiator of modern realist political theory.

In the classical world, Jewish thought (embodied in its practices) differentiated itself from Greek mystery cults, Stoicism, Epicureanism and Christianity. Among the Christians, there were different groups who connected with Jews in different ways. There were the early Christian Ebionites who had been baptized and who followed Mosaic Law; they were almost entirely ethnically Jewish. Second, there were gentile God-fearers who were Judaizers, gentiles with no ethnic connection to Jews; they were generally considered by the larger Christian community to be too Jewish in their practices. Third, there were God-fearers who were not attracted to Judaism per se but included those with a fascination and respect for traditional Judaism. Fourth, the pro-Judaizers included neo-Platonists rooted in Kabbalah and the Zohar, who were attracted to what became Hasidism which had the same roots. Fifth, and most commonly, the leading edge of Christianity, as heirs of Aristotelian scholasticism, was most commonly made up of those critical of Jews and Judaism. Finally, there were non-God-fearing gentiles, like Machiavelli (and Grotius) who admired Jews for their contribution to modernity.

Christians had to ask why did Jews maintained their religious beliefs and practices despite Christianity’s existence? The answer could not be found in the Bible since Christianity was tied to Judaism. Jesus had been Jewish and so were his disciples. Christianity continued to share a key sacred text, most of what Christians call the Old Testament. Therefore, the post-biblical rabbinical Talmud was offered as the reason; it was put on trial. Attacks (physical as well as intellectual) focused on the veracity and morality of the Talmud and centers of Jewish Talmudic thought. Yet the central difference between Judaism and Christianity was elsewhere. In the post-Temple period, the new Temple for Jews was the Torah; for Christians it was accepting Christ as one’s saviour.
As Christianity emerged as the dominant ideological system in late antiquity, so did the standard anti-Judaism of patristic thinkers, like Augustine, or what Ed Simon in Tablet called “the vociferous, teeth-gnashing bigotry of a writer like Marcion.”  However, there were also defenders of the Talmud who belonged to the third group (and the fourth as we shall see) mentioned above, God-fearers who respected traditional Judaism. The German scholar Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), a faithful German Catholic, defended the Talmud against scurrilous accusations leveled by a converted Jew (and convicted criminal – see the denunciations of Erasmus) named Johannes Pfefferkorn who, in his populist appeals as a Christian theologian, insisted that the Talmud be burned. “The causes which hinder the Jews from becoming Christians are… because they honor the Talmud.” And, of course, because they practice usury.
The Dominicans of Cologne agreed and confiscated Jewish books to be burned. The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, however, was dubious. He appointed Reuchlin to examine the matter and ascertain the validity of the claims of Pfefferkorn. Maximilian was convinced by Reuchlin that Judaism was worthy of respect and study and made it obligatory for universities to have two professors of Hebrew. Reuchlin would go on to learn much from and contribute a great deal as a result of his studies of Jewish jurisprudence. Paradoxically, in his later career, he fell in love with Kabalah.

Machiavelli went in another direction and took from Jewish lore and practices his distilled political theory rather than jurisprudence. There is no evidence that I know of that Reuchlin and Machiavelli ever met (in contrast to Erasmus who did meet Reuchlin). However, Reuchlin had traveled to Italy with Count Eberhard of Wűrttemberg in 1482 which brought him into contact with academics at the Medicean Academy in Florence. It was on his second visit to Italy in 1490 when he met Pico della Mirandola and imbibed his enthusiasm for the Kabbalah. In his third visit to Rome in 1498, at the time of the revival of the Florentine Republic and the rise of Machiavelli, there is no evidence that Reuchlin came into contact with the latter. Rather, Reuchlin’s influence came from the Hebrew heritage which Reuchlin left in the Medicean Academy.
There were, of course, others who made use of Judaism and its practices, but for non-scholarly purposes. Henry VIII of Britain imported Daniel Bomberg’s printing of the Talmud for his personal library. However, he did so to find rabbinical justification to aid in his annulment from Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. In contrast, Machiavelli reflected on the embedded political theory in Judaism. His was not a political theory of opportunism, of self-interest, of power seeking for its own sake. Instead, Machiavelli began with reality, with nature and politics as he found it in man as well as the world, rather than a purported universal legal tradition that for other Renaissance thinkers would lead to the development of international law.
In Jewish thought, a distinction is made between happenstance, chance and fate versus the effort to control chance and to manage challenges in life. As Rabbi Sachs has put it, Jews are a constitutional or covenantal nation rather than a community of fate. Machiavelli also claimed that humans have the capacity to control chance by developing a theoretical understanding of how to manage chance and improve human life, to prevent floods by building dikes and dams as he depicted it.

However, theory on its own was insufficient. One needed judgment. One needed prudence. Later, theorists would argue that one needed a simpler theoretical formula, such as human nature being driven by pain or pleasure. But the covenant was unlike a Jewish one, between a community and its God. Nor was it akin to a Christian one, the city of God governed by the prince of peace. Rather, it is an agreement among individuals. In contrast, the object in Judaism was not simply to help one another, but to build a nation that would be a moral nation that would be a light to all nations. Contrast that with a dedication to enjoying life and ensuring security and predictability, to fostering progress and mobility as the goals of Machiavelli and many contemporary secular societies. The distinctive character of modernity was the effort to dispel the prejudices of the passions of pre-modern life and only then would individuals be able to enjoy security.

But one needed theory, a theory of human nature and not just a history of practical experience.

 Why, if Machiavelli was a modernist, did he take as his exemplar Republican Rome (Discourses) and certainly not Jerusalem? Because Rome was about virtŭ and not virtue, about ingenuity and the astute manipulation of formal authority and coercive power informed and influenced by analysis. Together, they enable a polity to be governed with prudence to establish and perpetuate a republic that is worldly rather than other-worldly. One seeks the common good based on strong arms and good laws, the qualities of a lion with the calculation of a fox.

It should be clear that I do not read Machiavelli simply as an astute cynic out to advance his career by providing a political guidebook on the exercise of power for the Medicis. Nor do I read the book as a textual handbook for an autocrat to retain power by his readiness to abuse it. (See the antisemitic German scholar, Friedrich Meinecke, who gave Machiavellianism its modern sensibility as twisted cleverness, as behaving like Iago in Othello, but, in Meinecke, for reasons of state – raison d’Ėtat). In ordinary language Machiavellianism is indeed associated with using any means whatsoever to retain political power and even a character type that is duplicitous, lacks any moral compass, has no empathy for the other whatsoever and has only a singular focus on personal gain. That, however, is not the Machiavelli that I read even though Machiavelli was not an advocate of empathy as a positive character trait for a ruler.

Machiavelli was born in 1469. Lorenzo the Magnificent died in 1492, the same year as that of the declaration of the full Spanish Inquisition. Machiavelli was 23, but it took a very short rule of Medici’s son followed by a not much longer rule of populist fundamentalism (under Girolamo Savonarola) until Florence was re-established as a republic in 1498 and Machiavelli was named Secretary or Chancellor to the Second Chancery responsible to the “ten” for liberty and peace. He was at once Secretary of the Interior and Secretary of State. He remained a top civil servant for 14 years, until 1512 when he was 43 years of age. Medici rule was restored until the republic was re-established in 1527.

By 1512, Florence had become a weak city-state. Pope Julius had formed the Holy League with Venice and Spain. The Spanish army under Ramón of Cardona, Viceroy of Naples, invaded Tuscany and imposed the Medici restoration on Florence which abolished the Great Council, dismissed the indigenous militia and instituted a system of governance once again under the thumb of the Medicis, though for a short period, Cardinal Giovanni, the Papal ambassador, gave the orders.

What were Machiavelli’s clear accomplishments? First and foremost, establishing a citizen army in place of mercenaries whom he found to be unreliable without a deep dedication to the republic. He favoured republicanism over autocracy (the rule by the Medicis). Machiavelli lost all of his positions with the Medici restoration. After a paper of two conspirators was found in February 1513 with his name on it, he was tortured, put in jail and then put under house arrest. In 1513 he wrote a treatise that became part of The Prince that was not published until 1532 long after Lorenzo de’ Medici, to whom the book is dedicated, died in 1519. At the end of 1513 he wrote in his famous 10 December letter to his friend, Ambassador Vettori, that, “because Fortune wants to do everything, she wants us to allow her to do it, to remain quiet and not give trouble, and to await the time when she allows men something to do; and then it will be right for you to give more effort, to watch things more, and for me to leave my villa and say, ‘Here I am.’”

I had just claimed that Machiavelli was a believer in controlling chance and not surrendering to it, yet here he appears to be endorsing chance along with opportunism as the determinant of his fate. Most odd is the final phrase, hinani, ‘Here I am’ in Hebrew which each of the patriarchs and Moses offer as a response when God calls. Is Machiavelli cracking his heels together and saying, “Yes sir, when sir, I am at your service sir”? Or is he making fun of obsequious opportunists?

In his letter he continues by contrasting the triviality of his daily life with the noble life when in discourse with the wisdom of the ages. He also discloses that he is writing a book on how polities are acquired, the different forms they take, how they are governed. He also reveals his intent to win the Medicis over, at the very least so that he will not remain in poverty.

What’s up? This is particularly hard to discern since Machiavelli, in order to forestall fate, arrest and imprisonment, says that he hides his truth among lies and is a master of opaque misdirection. The above is one of his lies. It seems clear that he means the reverse, that he writes as an exercise in taking control over fortune and not surrendering to it.

What about, “I am here.” The biblical echo is unmistakable and is a clear indication that he is not an endorser of accepting one’s fate. The phrase suggests that Machiavelli is here, not as a blind obedient servant, but as one prepared to argue with and even teach God as the prophets did. I suggest that his model for writing was indeed the Torah that has different levels of meanings and requires interpretation to extract those meanings. As he says, his book will only be useful to “whomever understands it” and can translate its precepts into practice – that is, for those for whom it is useful.

Like Socrates, like Plato, there is such a thing as a noble lie. Jews often forget that a book like Jonah has to be recognized as a satire of blind obedience not as a call to fall into step. Machiavelli’s endorsement of autocratic rule is lip service. His project is to defend a republican form of government within an authoritarian state that beats and locks up its thinkers. Furthermore, Moses is his greatest politician from antiquity because only Moses relied on persuasion, on influence, at least primarily, to convince the new nation over and over again of their legitimacy, not his. It is they who have to learn to take responsibility into their own hands.


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