Monday, April 5, 2010

Two Florentines

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.


rick allen said...

Thanks for this. I know almost nothing of Savanarola, but I think your reading of Macchiavelli is spot on.

The great question for me is whether there is a third way beyond the futile effort to eradicate evil and the unprincipled course of harnessing evil to achieve what may be an admirable end.

Neither of these men appears to be the devil he is often made out to be. But I would be concerned should either be taken as a guide.

Unknown said...

I have never read either, but from your post here and it's view of Savonarola I should to be prepared for today and it's prejudices that hearken too much back to a time just after the Civil War, and of course the early sixties. The object of that bigoted times may have been to another group, but it most certainly is exact in it's ferocity and lack of love for others that is so necessary for children of our God.

June Butler said...

The Prince was Karl Rove's bible. He kept a copy on his desk. In Chapter 18, especially, it's rather plain to me that Rove drew inspiration for governing from Machiavelli.

Counterlight said...


Hannah Arendt, who I can't imagine would endorse any ambition of Karl Rove, was also a great admirer of Machiavelli. She writes glowingly about him.

In Italy, Machiavelli is considered a hero, a pioneer of Italian nationalism.

I can't imagine Machiavelli, who knew his Thucydides, would endorse so foolish an imperial adventure as the Iraq invasion (which has so greatly rewarded and strengthened our adversaries in Iran, weakened our influence in the rest of the Mideast, while fattening the wallets of our post-modern condottieri). To him, it would smack of a rerun of the Athenian adventure in Sicily.
Of course, we know what Machiavelli would think of our use of "government contractors," the condottieri of our day. Machiavelli blamed the loss of Italian independence on states' reliance on such "government contractors." I wonder how carefully Rove read Machiavelli, and if he ever read anything beyond The Prince.

Counterlight said...

I would say that neither of these men is a devil or an angel. They were men, and only men, trying to learn and to make the best use of a moment of history. Neither of them could see how it would all turn out any more than we can see how our projects and crises will turn out.

Savonarola died on the scaffold. Machiavelli died in poverty and obscurity. Both suffered imprisonment and torture during the course of their careers. Both considered themselves to be loyal Florentine patriots.

All the crystal balls are frauds. The future is always a big blank "not yet" in which anything can happen.

June Butler said...

I reread Chapter 18, and I stand by what I said about the link between Machiavelli's writing and Rove's governance. I can't admire the character of a person who advises deception and breaking one's word.

I'm not saying that Machiavelli would endorse Rove's policies were he alive today, most of all, because he's much more intelligent. And, of course, Machiavelli is not a devil.

Counterlight said...

I don't endorse Machiavelli any more than I endorse Savonarola (or Åristotle's or Marx's political thought for that matter), but I think that the common image of him is a caricature that doesn't reflect what his thought is really all about. The common image of Machiavelli the wicked cynic is as much a caricature as is the common image of Saint Augustine as an obsessively guilt-ridden puritan formed by people who can't get beyond the apple-stealing episode in his Confessions.

That caricature also doesn't reflect the reality of the course of Machiavelli's life. He was a dedicated and effective public servant at a very difficult and violent time in Italian history. He was much less of a schemer and deceiver than Karl Rove, and a much more successful and capable political administrator in a much weaker and more profoundly threatened state than the USA.

I wonder if Rove ever reads any further than chapter 18, for example to chapters 23 and 24. He certainly didn't read all those many sections where Machiavelli condemns the use of mercenary soldiers. Otherwise, Haliburton and Iran would not have been the big winners in the Iraq invasion.

Should we lay the blame for Rove at Machiavelli's feet? A lot of other people read and admired his realism, like the Founding Fathers of the United States.
There must be something valuable in The Prince for it to have lasted so long in the literature, and for it to attract the notice and admiration of people like Hannah Arendt, who was not exactly "Machiavellian."

June Butler said...

Should we lay the blame for Rove at Machiavelli's feet?

No. Rove would very likely have been the Rove we all know and love (or very like him) without Machiavelli. And it's true that Rove did not follow all of Machiavelli's prescriptions.

During the time of Savanarola and Machiavelli, life in Florence and Rome was cruel and violent, full of political intrigue with the church smack in the middle of it all. Yet, at the same time, holy Fra Angelico painted away at his Madonnas and angels. The two Dominicans, Savanarola and Fra Angelico, both lived in the Convento di San Marco.

Off topic, but I found a website, Paradoxplace, with gorgeous illustrations from San Marco.

Counterlight said...

I love San Marco.
If you haven't been, you should go. You can see so much of Angelico's work there, and Savonarola's cell too.
The cloister yards are beautiful.

Thanks for the link. I've used illustrations from that site before, and they really are wonderful.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Methinks you have done it again, dear Counterlight!

Rick said...

To really understand Old Nick Machiavelli you have to read the Discourses. If The Prince is, roughly, a manual for dictators and strongmen, the Discourses is a (longer, and much less read!) manual for republican governance. Read it along with the Federalist and the US Constitution - they are part of the same tradition of political thought.

There's some food for thought in the Discourses about Anglican governance, as well.

Counterlight said...

Rick, I believe that you are right. I have an edited edition of the "Discourses" and I plan to read it.