Niccolò Machiavelli: Part III – Moses and the Art of Persuasion

(For a much more detailed and slightly different perspective on Machiavelli’s view of Moses, see John H. Geerken (1999) Journal of the History of Ideas 60:4, October, (579-595)

Reviewing the story of Moses is helpful because Machiavelli repeatedly refers to him while, at the same time, insisting that he need not be discussed, necessary advice if one wants to distract the God-believing anti-Judaizers. That in itself is a lesson in how to dodge the censorious while still communicating. However, it is quite clear in reading Machiavelli that he held Moses in the highest esteem and used the life of Moses and his experience in politics to distill many of the principles he believed were key to determining good governance.

Moses starts out as an absolutely politically naïve individual. Without Israelite and certainly not Pharaoh’s backing, he rebels against the autocratic system of the Pharaoh that adopted him. He kills a slave overlord who was beating an Israelite. The next day, he interferes in a fight between two Israelites who then turn on him, asking who is he to rebuke them. They then threaten to let Pharaoh know that he is a murderer. Moses flees.

Though Moses lacks the attributes yet of a good ruler, he has the advantage of being impetuous, though this is a disadvantage when not guided by prudence. Moses demonstrates, and Machiavelli concurs, (see the final paragraph of The Prince) that, in general, “it is better to be impetuous than cautious,” for victory belongs to the bold rather than the cold calculator.

Moses became a shepherd and it is difficult to know how that might teach him how to lead men who were never and would never be sheep. However, that was his escape. It is when he is drawn back towards the Israelites that he begins to learn the lessons of good governance. That lesson starts when God tries to kill Moses for not circumcising his son that he had with the Midianite, Zipporah. As is often the case in the Bible, women save the day. Zipporah performs the circumcision for Moses. Not a very auspicious start, perhaps for a leader. But Moses did learn a major lesson, the importance of women in helping a hero get out of a bind.

Moses, in spite of his initial flaws, and without any lessons from the patriarchs of the nation, becomes the founder of a unique political, legal and ethical system in which a people is governed by the rule of law. He starts off as a rash man prone to rely on his strength and superior fighting skills, having been trained in the royal court. But given his rash and impetuous character, the result is flight rather than fight. It will take years, even decades, for him to master the art of ruling. And the first lesson is that only God can command. Humans cannot build a secure and solid political system by simply commanding others. They have to use persuasion.

This means that Moses sets a new tone for prophets – not as masters of the universe, but as servants, inadequate and unworthy servants initially reluctant to don the mantle of leadership. However, Moses learns step by step. Like his God who announces to him that, “I shall be who I shall be,” Moses also is an open book whose character will be filled in by his experiences, his challenges and his responses.

One key challenge for leaders is the need to persuade others to follow. This is very difficult for Moses because the one Moses implores his people to follow is God, an impetuous, jealous, demanding and commanding authoritative figure who all too frequently changes His mind. Further, persuasion will be doubly difficult because Moses is NOT a man of the people, but an outsider raised in privilege in the royal court even though born a Hebrew. And he also lacks a command of rhetoric; he stutters.

However, his outsider status also taught him some important lessons. First and foremost, at the burning bush, Moses learned how to get others to believe as you do when they have neither the same experiences nor the same source of elite advice. Persuasion begins by initially convincing yourself. It also begins with modesty, with doubt about whether your own convictions are valid and, even if they are, whether you are worthy enough to transmit the ideas as they are revealed. Thirdly, the ability to persuade begins by defining oneself as a go-between, as a mediator much more than a strong leader. Such a leader is, in the end, an interpreter of God’s will, of what history intends for the Israelites.

Finally, magic helps. The burning bush is a symbol of magic. Magic is simply the use of a tool, any tool, that allows one to gain the confidence of others sufficiently so that they will listen to you. In my class, I offered the example of the use of a TV when I was the host and producer of a TV show. Holding that large TV camera gained us entry into the most difficult places in Israel without any trouble.

Moses as a leader is successful, not primarily because he is given formal authority, not because he is vested with coercive power, but because he relies on influence, on an ability to persuade. And that reliance does not depend on his being a great orator who can arouse the masses. Moses has to learn to adopt different stances and different voices depending on his audience. Sometimes the audience is both his enemy and his adopted grandfather – the Pharaoh. There he learns that he cannot persuade the Pharaoh who regards him as a foreign upstart.

Moses cannot succeed by words alone but, at times, has to fall back on using coercive force. He has to persuade coercively while suffering a severe handicap with respect to military forces at his command. That in itself takes a great leader, one who can start with virtually nothing to lead an insurrection. But sometimes he also has to use coercive force to suppress an insurrection. The it is very helpful if it is an Other, a higher and more authoritative figure, who orders the use of force.

However, he has to lead a variety of others with different skill sets, material benefits and dispositions. Some seek glory. Others seek riches. Still others are circumspect while their opposites are impetuous. Some rely on intimidation, others on cunning. And Moses will encounter each of these types. Most of all, Moses is adaptable, even with all his shortcomings. He responds to what the time and circumstances allow instead of adopting a fixed and rigid posture. Moses’ leadership is not only constantly in question, but he constantly questions himself about whether he is up to the task at hand.

Given the option of between being impetuous and cautious, Moses begins his political career by amply demonstrating he is impetuous and spontaneous and fits the profile Machiavelli lays out for a leader. But that is clearly insufficient. The populist, Girolamo Savonarola, who briefly rhetorically lead the rebellion against the aristocrats of Florence and also claimed that he had a direct line to God, in the end failed, not because Savonarola lacked sufficient militia strength, but because, in the end, he was a narcissist whom his followers saw through and from whom they withdrew their support. Savonarola depended on his popularity with his base, but lost their support when he failed to inspire them with confidence in spite of his overwhelming confidence in himself.

The incident of the golden calf, a tale told in Exodus 32, is very instructive about leadership. But to understand that tale we have to go back to Exodus 20. God in 20:20 commands that, “you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.” In contrast, the Israelite God required an altar made just from earth, one not raised on a dais nor made of hewn stones. ‘I am your God who lives among his people and not above you.’ Later, God will instruct His people on how to build an ornate portable mishkan, but it is to hold the commandments, and, eventually, the Torah, out of which God will speak.

But Moses had to travel to the top of a mountain to obtain the basic covenantal laws for his nation-in-the-making. When Moses was away for a while, the people became restless and discontented, not unusual for them. Aaron, the brother of Moses, initiated an unusual response. He requested the gold jewelry of everyone. He melted it all down to make a golden calf to worship and credit with having brought them out of the land of Egypt.

In my assessment, the golden calf was a preference for a “native” state rather than a nation in the making. The Israelites and the Golden Calf did not share any memories; no covenant bound them together. The Golden Calf was inert and did not react to or relate with other substances. It was stable, constant and balanced, and symbolized an emphasis on the natural, the earth-bound as the driving force. In contrast, relations with God stress hope and promise, ethical principles and laws, but a relationship that is very tumultuous. There is no relating to a Golden Calf. God, on the other hand, is defined by His relationships.

Where God is made sensible through voice, the Golden Calf is made sensible only through vision. As stated above, the calf is earth-bound and spends most of its time with his head down. In the mishkan still to be built, cherubim have wings and can fly. “Their wings are spread like a protective bower, not to obscure a vision of the Divine Presence, but to frame the empty space where God’s presence is made sensible as voice.God speaks from a space (tokh) between the two-winged figurines.

Whereas the Golden Calf stands front and centre before the Israelites, God lives in the midst of the Israelites. Temples in the ancient Near East were furnished with the statue of a god at its centre…to satisfy the need to have a golden image of the deity at the Temple’s centre. In contrast, for the Israelites, God is in between. God is among. God is a connector not an occupier. “The cherubim frame an elusive presence that cannot be fixed and are themselves rarely if ever seen.”

God belongs in this world. But the world is not God’s place. That is the paradox. שהוא מקומו של עולם ואין עולמו מקומו. God is an in-dweller. But God is the ultimate outsider and dwells among the Israelites as a stranger, as a refugee from somewhere else. And this is the most profound part.

The puzzle of the whole incident is not its meaning, but that Aaron, the High Priest, never admits his error. There is no atonement, no confession, no accountability by Aaron that he did anything wrong in making the Golden Calf. Except indirectly. His two sons die for making a very slight error in managing the holy fire. Aaron is a foil for Moses. More importantly, Aaron is a foil for God who differs from both Aaron and Moses.

Unlike Moses, God does not persuade. He orders. He commands. He even terrorizes them into compliance. If Moses is intemperate, he is no competitor to God. The latter forgets His Covenants with the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, forgets His historical objectives with this “Chosen People.” When the Israelites turn to worshipping the Golden Calf, God, in an apparent fury, proposed to exterminate His people. Moses had to rescue God from a catastrophic error of judgment. If we accept the story as written, God seems to need both complete submission from His human chattels, but also the advice from Moses, as one author put it, his “consigliore,” who possesses a clearer head in a crisis. That is what it takes to be a leader.

After all, “the Israelites are corrupt, petty, mean-spirited, fickle, cowardly, disloyal, thoughtless, dishonorable, and stubborn. How can it be that Jews, notable for venerating the past, would fill their Scriptures with such a demeaning portrait of their forebears? Why would God choose such a rabble?” After all God means for them to become a holy nation and a witness for all other nations. 

God is not jealous in the sense of feeling resentment and rivalry because of the success of the other, but is jealous in fear of the disloyalty of one’s betrothed. God is not governed by the politics of resentment, but by an absolute intolerance of unfaithfulness, not of a rival, but of a partner. And God has good cause given the propensity of the Israelites to desert the cause of change for a quest for stability that finds security in the reification of things, in idolatry. God is jealous in guarding the freedom that He has bestowed upon humanity when those in whom he has entrusted that gift so often betray it and opt for the security of dogma, of givens, of a fixed order.

However, Machiavelli is much more concerned with the portrait of Moses, one of the greatest political leaders of all time. God is just a terrifying backdrop, akin to a Medici. What does Machiavelli make of Moses initiating a civil war and massacring 3,000 Israelites? Why does Moses believe that he has to employ his virtù to use violence and lies to achieve presumably lawful goals?

Recall that God wanted to wipe out all the Israelites, but he is persuaded to leave the problem with Moses. However, Moses lies to his people and insists that God commanded him to execute his disloyal kinsmen. Presumably, both lying and murder are sometimes necessary to assert leadership as much as such incidents turn my stomach. However, that is more proof that I could never be a political leader. For, according to Machiavelli, to be a true leader, one must sometimes rise to the challenge of using both deceit and putting down an insurrection by executing your fellow nationals.

And Aaron, who did not simply permit the rebels to take over, but initiated the move and then blamed the people for asking him to make gods who shall go before us? Absolutely nothing happens, at least nothing directly linked to this behaviour. But leadership is also a matter of indirection and public relations. Moses needed Aaron’s voice, needed Aaron’s role as a mediator. For a morally sensitive soul, that is the most scandalous.

But Machiavelli makes very clear that bleeding hearts have no place in the executive offices of a nation. For Machiavelli, moral posturing and empathetic identification are serious weaknesses. That does not mean that you fail to recognize suffering. Rather, it is precisely by recognizing suffering and its sources that you learn how important good governance is. “If any reading is useful to citizens who govern republics, it is that which shows the causes of hatreds and factional struggles within the city, in order that such citizens, having grown wise through the suffering of others, can keep themselves united.”


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