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New York Times Book ReviewA welcome antidote to the clichéd image of self-interested knavery for which [Machiavelli] has become known. . . . Viroli succeeds . . . in offering a fascinating portrait.
— Alexander Stille
To many readers of The Prince, Machiavelli appears to be deeply un-Christian or even anti-Christian, a cynic who thinks rulers should use religion only to keep their subjects in check. But in Machiavelli's God, Maurizio Viroli, one of the world's leading authorities on Machiavelli, argues that Machiavelli, far from opposing Christianity, thought it was crucial to republican social and political renewal--but that first it needed to be renewed itself. And without understanding this, Viroli contends, it is ...
To many readers of The Prince, Machiavelli appears to be deeply un-Christian or even anti-Christian, a cynic who thinks rulers should use religion only to keep their subjects in check. But in Machiavelli's God, Maurizio Viroli, one of the world's leading authorities on Machiavelli, argues that Machiavelli, far from opposing Christianity, thought it was crucial to republican social and political renewal--but that first it needed to be renewed itself. And without understanding this, Viroli contends, it is impossible to comprehend Machiavelli's thought.
Viroli places Machiavelli in the context of Florence's republican Christianity, which was founded on the idea that the true Christian is a citizen who serves the common good. In this tradition, God participates in human affairs, supports and rewards those who govern justly, and desires men to make the earthly city similar to the divine one. Building on this tradition, Machiavelli advocated a religion of virtue, and he believed that, without this faith, free republics could not be established, defend themselves against corruption, or survive. Viroli makes a powerful case that Machiavelli, far from being a pagan or atheist, was a prophet of a true religion of liberty, a way of moral and political living that would rediscover and pursue charity and justice.
The translation of this work has been funded by SEPS - Segretariato Europeo per le Pubblicazioni Scientifiche.
1. The Soul and the Fatherland
Not a single word written by Niccolò Machiavelli has survived to show he had the slightest concern for the salvation of his immortal soul. He scoff ed at the idea of hell: "But then on the other hand, the worst that can happen to you is to die and go off to Hell! How many others have died! And how many excellent men have gone to Hell! Why should you be ashamed to go there, too?" he has Ligurio say in The Mandrake (La Mandragola). On his deathbed, apparently, he even said that he would prefer to go to hell, to spend eternity with the great men of antiquity, rather than to heaven, where he would share the boring company of saints and the blessed. He made fun of those who believed in purgatory, in church-issued indulgences, and in masses performed on behalf of the souls of the dead. Th is exchange between a woman and the corrupt Fra Timoteo in The Mandrake is far more eloquent than any treatise.
WOMAN: Take this florin, then, and you're to say the requiem mass every Monday for two months, for the soul of my late husband. Even though he was a terrible man, still, flesh is flesh; I can't help feeling that whenever I remember him. But do you think he is really in Purgatory? TIMOTEO: Absolutely!
The chosen targets of his scorn were the pious souls who spent hours in prayer and were constantly bustling off to mass or to church service. The virtuous Lucrezia in The Mandrake, who "insists on stringing out prayers for hours on end, down on her knees, before she'll get into bed" is "a real horse when it comes to standing the cold." Nicomaco in the Clizia mocks his wife Sofronia who goes to mass during Carnival: "Imagine what you will do during Lent!"? Even worse than a woman is an old man, Nicia states, who "sticks his head into every church he passes, and he goes and mumbles an 'Our Father' at every altar."
He was even harder on confession and other religious practices. In his Rules for an Elegant Social Circle (Capitoli per una compagnia di piacere) he prescribes that "No gentleman or lady of the circle may go to confession except during Holy Week," and that "a blind confessor ought to be chosen, and if he is hard of hearing, too, even better." In the same work, he orders, as a punishment for anyone breaking the rules of the company: "Every lady and gentleman must attend every single feast, church fête, and pardoning in the city."
His vision of history is cyclical; he does not expect the final triumph of good over evil. He believes that human affairs are linked to the movement of the heavens: "Observe the stars above, the moon, and those / Companion planets wandering high or low, / With no rest ever, without any pause." Nations and people are subject to cycles marked by the alternating influence of virtue and vice:
Valor it is that quiets regions down: And then from quiet, laziness derives, And laziness soon burns both land and town. Then, once a nation has long had its share Of disorder and war, valor again Is born and back it goes to dwell right there. This is the way Order is told to run By Him who governs us, so that no thing May ever find a pause beneath the sun. And it is, and always will be, and was Always so: evil follows good; good, evil; And each is of the other the sole cause.
God gave man free will; otherwise he would have stripped him of the possibility of achieving glory. Still, his actions are affected by the influence of the heavens: "Hence peace and war down here are born, with all / The hatred that divides and tears apart / Those who in one home live, within one wall." In the First Decennale (Decennale primo), the verse account of events in Italy from 1494 to 1504, he writes: "The struggle I shall sing of Italy, / Which happened in the last five years and five, / Beneath the stars that schemed her tragedy." In the dedicatory letter to Alamanno Salviati, he reiterates that Italy's disasters were necessarily caused by fate, whose power cannot be resisted. The heavens exert either benign or malignant influence over individuals as well. In The Golden Ass (L'Asino) Circe's good handmaiden explains to the unfortunate protagonist of the story, who is none other than Machiavelli, that:
Heaven has not yet changed-it never will- Its hostile mind against you, till the Fates Will not abandon their desire to kill. And those old humors which have been against You all this time and have waged war on you- Ah, they are not yet, they are not yet cleansed. But as soon as their roots dry up and die, And heaven shows its mercy once again, Your happy hour will come, I prophesy.
Machiavelli believed in the existence of occult and intelligent presences that inhabit the air and help men to foresee events to come in the future. Everyone was well aware, he wrote, that Savonarola foretold "the coming of King Charles VIII of France into Italy." He was keenly interested in astrological and celestial signs. In June 1509, before allowing the Florentine commissioners to enter Pisa to take possession of the city, he consulted an astrologer and obtained a detailed reading of the stars. In November 1526, when he sensed looming tragedy for Italy, in Modena he consulted a soothsayer. If it was a matter of special assistance, he wasn't picky about the difference between the Christian God and the pagan gods: "And if God does not help us out in the south, as He has already done in the north, then there are few remedies left to us. For, just as He interfered with the reinforcements from the Germans for the northerners [the lansquenets who were marching south upon Rome] with the destruction of Hungary, so He will have to interfere with the reinforcements from Spain with the destruction of the fleet; hence we shall be in need of Juno to go and pray Aeolus on our behalf and promise him the countess and every lady Florence has, so that he might set loose the winds in our behalf."
Machiavelli's cosmos was densely populated. Th ere were the heavens, Fortuna, and God. Each and every power played a role of its own, though not a narrowly defined one. The heavens (cieli) governed the regular movements of the cosmos: the cycles of decay and progress, death and rebirth, corruption and regeneration. "Heaven" ordered in a general manner the progress of everything on earth, especially the "mixed bodies," that is, republics and religious sects; heaven also caused periodic purifications of the nations by means of plagues, famines, and floods:
For as in simple bodies, when very much superfluous matter has gathered together there, nature many times moves by itself and produces a purge that is the health of that body, so it happens in this mixed body of the human race that when all provinces are filled with inhabitants (so that they can neither live there nor go elsewhere since all places are occupied and filled) and human astuteness and malignity have gone as far as they can go, the world must of necessity be purged by one of the three modes, so that men, through having become few and beaten, may live more advantageously and become better.
While the heavens governed orderly and necessary movements, Fortuna was the mistress of happenstance, chance, and contingent events. Fortuna exerted her immense power over terrestrial affairs in an arbitrary manner, "mercilessly, with neither law nor reason." And "beneath her feet she often keeps the just, / And raises the unjust; and if she makes / a promise, she forgets it, as she must." And she was happy especially when striking down great-hearted men, as in the case of Antonio Giacomini Tebalducci, one of the few valorous military commanders serving the Florentine Republic:
For the sake of his land he bravely fought, And with great justice a long time he kept Th e prestige of your army very high. Eager of honors, lavish with his gold, He lived so noble and so good a life As to deserve much more than this my praise. Yet now, neglected and despised, he lies In his own home, a poor and blind old man: So much does Fortune fight one who does good!
Fortuna was as ferocious as she was discerning. She clearly distinguished between the good-whom she punished with servitude, infamy, and sickness-and the wicked, whom she rewarded with power, honor, and wealth. Not even the strong and daring could escape from her yoke. To triumph against her, men had to learn to shape their actions to fit the times and the order of events. "And truly, anyone wise enough to adapt to and understand the times and the pattern of events would always have good fortune or would always keep himself from bad fortune; and it would come to be true that the wise man could control the stars and the Fates." He adds, however, "But such wise men do not exist: in the first place, men are shortsighted; in the second place, they are unable to master their own natures; thus it follows that Fortune is fickle, controlling men and keeping them under her yoke." When Fortuna wishes to come to the aid of great undertakings, she selects a man capable of seizing the chance that she proffers; but when she wishes to send a nation or a republic into ruin, she supports ambitious men. If there is someone who might be able to hinder her plans, either she kills him or she deprives him of all faculties of being able to work anything well." Machiavelli concludes, "Men can second fortune but not oppose her, that they can weave her warp but not break her. They should indeed never give up for, since they do not know her end and she proceeds by oblique and unknown ways, they have always to hope and, since they hope, not to give up in whatever fortune and in whatever travail they may find themselves."
Machiavelli acknowledges God as the creator of the universe; but he does not rule out entirely the pagan idea of the eternity of the world. He also hints at an occult power concealed in the heavens:
Hardly had God created stars and light, Heaven and elements and man (the one He made lord over all such beauties bright); And hardly had He thrown out of His home Proud Angels, out of Eden impious Adam Who with his mate had dared to taste the pome; Th an ah (it was the time Abel and Cain Lived with their father from their daily work, Happy indeed in their poor home's domain), A hidden power which up above is nurtured, Among the stars rotating in the sky, And is not friendly to the human nature, To give us war and strip us of sweet peace, To take all happiness and calm away, Unleashed two furies down to dwell with us.
A God that allows the presence of an occult force in heaven with such great power over the events on earth, and who allows a capricious and furious Fortuna to torment mortals, is a very different God from the Christian God that governs nature and the human world through divine providence; that God is just as different from the heterodox God of Giovanni Pontano, Lucio Bellanti, and to a certain degree, Pietro Pomponazzi. Their God governs nature and the human world by means of the heavens and by Fortuna. Machiavelli's God seems to compete with the heavens and with Fortuna for the honor of influencing the events of the worlds, rather than making use of the heavens and Fortuna. In the Florentine Histories, for instance, God intervenes on behalf of Florence: "But God, who in such extremities has always had a particular care for it, made an un-hoped-for accident arise that gave the king, the pope, and the Venetians something greater to think about than Tuscany." In the same book, Machiavelli attributes a similar intervention in human affairs to the heavens: "Since the heavens willed that things prepare for future evil, he [the Duke of Athens] arrived in Florence precisely at the time when the campaign at Lucca had been lost completely." In yet another passage, he chooses to cite Fortuna: "And although the nobility had been destroyed, nonetheless fortune did not lack for ways to revive new trials through new divisions."
And if all this were not enough, we have letters that reveal in an unequivocal manner that Machiavelli was indifferent to the salvation of his eternal soul, not at all concerned as any respectful child of the church ought to be. The first of these letters, written by Francesco Guicciardini, governor of Modena on behalf of the pope, dates from the spring of 1521. Machiavelli, who was older than fifty, was working with the Minorite Friars of Carpi, carrying out the difficult mission of finding a preacher and resolving a thorny issue of jurisdiction over monasteries.
"My very dear Machiavelli," wrote Guicciardini. "It was certainly good judgment on the part of our reverend consuls of the Wool Guild to have entrusted you with the duty of selecting a preacher, not otherwise than if the task had been given to Pacchierotto, while he was still alive, or to Ser Sano to find a beautiful and graceful wife for a friend. I believe you will serve them according to the expectations they have of you and as is required by your honor, which would be stained if at this age you started to think about your soul, because, since you have always lived in a contrary belief, it would be attributed rather to senility than to goodness." According to Guicciardini, who knew him well, then, Machiavelli always lived in a manner "contrary" to the manner of living of those who "think about their souls."
In view of the manifest absurdity of the very idea, Machiavelli does not ever respond to the insinuation that he might be in the process of turning into a devout and practicing Christian, surrounded as he is by so many friars. What he responds to, on the other hand, is his friend's reference to the fact that he was still in the service of the Florentine Republic, however small the mission, however minor the matter at hand: "And because never did I disappoint that republic whenever I was able to help her out-if not with deeds, then with words; if not with words, then with signs-I have no intention of disappointing her now." Two different weights, two different measurements: he wastes not even a word concerning the reference to his soul; as for the allusion to his fatherland, he responds with grave, almost resentful words.
The second exchange of letters that shows us clearly and directly how little Machiavelli was concerned with his soul and the religious practices required for its salvation culminates with the renowned letter Machiavelli wrote on 10 December 1513. In a letter dated 23 November 1513, Francesco Vettori had written: "On holidays I hear mass; I do not do as you, who sometimes do not bother." Once again, Machiavelli failed even to respond to the thinly veiled criticism that he was insufficiently devout, and that he thought too little of eternal life and the salvation of his soul. Th e letter from 1513 and the letter from 1521 belong to two different and distant moments from Machiavelli's life. And yet, in response to two friends who make reference to his soul, he answers in exactly the same manner: he is glad to let others worry about their souls and the ceremonies that are designed to ensure the eternal salvation of the soul.
He was concerned, on the other hand, and deeply so, about his fatherland. He wrote, a few months before dying, in a letter from Forlì dated 16 April 1527: "I love my patria [fatherland] more than my own soul." Or perhaps we should say, he may have written those words, since in the text copied by Giuliano de' Ricci, after the phrase, "I love my native city more," there is an emphatic erasure. It is a reasonable conjecture that the words that were blotted out were "than my own soul." All of the editors of Machiavelli's letters have accepted that conjecture. "To love one's native city, or fatherland, more than one's soul"-Amare la patria più dell'anima-was a very common manner of speech in Florence. Machiavelli himself had quoted the expression in the Florentine Histories, when he described the war between Florence and Pope Gregory XI. If Giuliano de' Ricci really did read "I love my native city more than my own soul," that is, a common and innocuous expression that Machiavelli had already written in the Florentine Histories, which were published with the authorization of Pope Clement VII in 1525, why on earth would he have furiously canceled out the words "than my own soul"?
Giuliano worked hard to produce a new "expurgated" edition of the works of his great forebear, who had been placed on the Papal Index of Prohibited Books in 1559. Since he was keenly aware that times had changed since the reign of Pope Clement VII, it is entirely understandable that he had censored a phrase that would have caused no scandal just a few decades earlier. And yet it is possible that the word that was eliminated was of a nature to make the phrase far more heterodox or scandalous. Giorgio Inglese, who has closely examined the transcript, wrote that "with a great deal of effort, one can just make out the letters 'st.' On the basis of this piece of flimsy evidence, in the spirit of conjecture, we might venture to guess that the canceled word was 'Christ,' and that Machiavelli had therefore written, 'I love my native city more than Christ.'"
Excerpted from MACHIAVELLI'S GOD by MAURIZIO VIROLI Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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