Niccolo Machiavelli as Chancellor of Florence, by Santi di Tito.
Fra Girolamo Savonarola as Peter Martyr, by Fra Bartolomeo
For the past few months, I have been absorbed in Florentine history. I’m teaching an adult ed class in the Florentine Republic, its art and intellectual life. Florence, over the years, has become my hobby, though not my profession.
I’m thinking about doing some posts on Florentine history. One thing that astonishes me about history is not its strangeness, but its familiarity. There is so much in Florence’s history as an independent republic that resonates with our own experiences in the present, and with how we try to make sense of them and act upon them.
I’m reading a lot of Florentine history these days. I recently finished a book on Savonarola, and I just finished reading Machiavelli’s The Prince for the first time. I plan to continue reading selections from his Discourses.
I have very conflicted feelings about Savonarola. The biography I read largely admired him, but I find him to be a very unattractive character, a misanthropic puritan with prophetic pretensions, who was even more of a behind-the-scenes autocrat than his enemies, the Medici. To my mind, Savonarola was very fortunate in his enemies, the exiled Medici and the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. On the one hand, Savonarola could be ferociously bigoted, especially towards gays, women, and Jews; and on the other, well, he was right about church corruption and about the ambitions of princes and oligarchs. And everyone (including his enemies) knew he was right about those issues. He was a genuine Florentine patriot, deeply loyal to the Republic, which came to power after the overthrow of Medici rule in 1494. He was one of the very few political leaders of his day who sought to expand the political franchise. He relied on force and intimidation as much as he relied on public opinion. He could use public opinion to intimidate his opposition, a tactic that anticipated the participatory tyranny of the ideological dictatorships of the 20th century. In the end, it was public opinion that destroyed him. His end was ghastly and brutal.
Machiavelli’s wicked little book was very different from what I expected. Anyone who picks up The Prince expecting to find a guide to unscrupulous success in life will be very disappointed. It is a book about politics and history, not a life coach. Far from being about “looking out for number one,” it ends with a resounding clarion call to Italian patriotism, a summons to liberate Italy from foreign rule written at the very time when Italy lost its independence. As the title says, the book is addressed to princes, to autocratic rulers of independent states. Machiavelli may well be the only Renaissance figure who we could truly describe as “pagan,” but he was not quite the amoral cynic of popular imagination (at least in the English speaking world). The Prince is not amoral or nihilistic. The morality in The Prince is definitely not Christian morality in any way shape or form. It is Classical morality, the morality of ancient Greek and Roman culture that we read in the pages of Thucycidides, Aristotle, and Livy. It is the morality of success, glory, esteem, and reputation. Machiavelli’s exemplary princes are Moses, Cyrus, and Theseus, each of them liberators as well as rulers remembered for their success and their justice. Over and over again, Machiavelli stresses to the prince the importance of retaining the loyalty of his subjects. He says that the love of his people is a prince’s strongest fortress.
I can’t imagine that a ruthless executive striver in today’s corporations would find much that is useful in this book. A prince must succeed because whole populations depend on his success. To hold his state securely, he must depend upon the loyalty of his subjects. Failure would be fatal both to the prince and his subjects. In our age of golden parachutes and easily replaceable and expendable employees, loyalty counts for very little. A 16th century Italian prince could pay for failure with his head (and some did). Corporate executives are mostly shielded from the consequences of their decisions. It is their employees, with their families and communities, who must face the consequences of failure. Those consequences are unemployment and poverty while the CEO lands on his feet with a huge severance package plus bonuses and dividend checks. The CEO feels precious little responsibility to those under him, and likewise, his minions feel very little loyalty to him or to the corporation. The modern corporate organization is a far more atomized and nihilistic entity than anything described in the pages of Machiavelli.
If anything, I think Savonarola anticipates our politics far more than Machiavelli. Savonarola tried to transform Florence into a kind of New Jerusalem of the Saints that would lead Italy, Europe, and the Church to Christian renewal. In this, Savonarola anticipated the ideological politics of our own day, dominated by competing movements of left and right claiming to solve the riddle of history. Savonarola, like modern political ideologues, didn’t want to succeed in politics so much as end them. Politics and history were means to apolitical and ahistorical ends. Machiavelli accepted ambition, greed, and cowardice as driving forces of history. He states quite clearly that he is writing about the world as it is, not as it ought to be. Machiavelli did not celebrate those weaknesses or try to argue that they were positive virtues. He argued for finding opportunity and success in a world shaped by human wickedness and weakness. Machiavelli did not believe politics could save souls, nor should it try. Savonarola and his ideological successors would not accept human weakness. Savonarola believed that politics was a necessary evil in a larger campaign to save souls, to redeem human nature, and to end history. His ideological successors cherish the same ambition, with or without his apocalyptic Christianity.