Thursday, May 23, 2013

Machiavelli (1469-1527): Olympian Theologian

Niccoló Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469, in Florence. His father was a lawyer. As a youth he learned Latin and especially appreciated The History of Rome written by Livy (58 BC-AD 17).

On May 3, 1498, Niccoló turned 29. On May 23, Girolamo Savonarola was executed. Amidst the changes in the Florentine government which followed, Niccoló was elected secretary of the council responsible for the diplomacy and defense of the Republic of Florence.

From 1498 to 1512, he participated as secretary in negotiations with Louis 12th, king of France; Maximilian, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire; Ferdinand 2nd, king of Castile, Aragon, and Naples; and Alexander 6th, pope, and the pope’s son Cesare Borgia.

During talks with Cesare, Niccoló met Leonardo da Vinci who, at that time, was working for Cesare as his chief military engineer. Niccoló discussed with Leonardo ways in which the Arno River might be diverted from Pisa to deprive its rebellious inhabitants of fresh water. In June 1509 Niccoló led Florentine soldiers to victory in a battle against the Pisans.

In 1512 a new pope, Julius 2nd, restored the Medicis to power in Florence. In 1513, they had Niccoló arrested for conspiracy and tortured. After his release, he retired to his estate in a small village about 12 k (7.5 mi) south of Florence.

The important Florentine poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) only wrote his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy (c. 1320), after being forced out of politics in Florence. Similarly, Niccoló only wrote his masterpiece, The Prince, after his exile from Florence. Different people read a handwritten copy of The Prince as early as 1513. The book was only published in 1532, five years after Niccoló’s death.

In his Summa Theologica (1273), Thomas Aquinas advised rulers to be prudent, just, and merciful. In contrast, Niccoló told readers of The Prince to focus solely on gaining and maintaining power. He justified systematic lying and well-timed murder to protect one’s control and expand it.

Modern tradition calls Thomas an idealist and Niccoló a realist. It calls Thomas a theologian; that is, someone ignorant of reality. It praises Niccoló for being a political scientist; that is, someone whose advice is based on the close observation of facts. It calls Thomas religious; that is, someone whose thinking is biased. It calls Niccoló secular or even an atheist; that is, someone whose thinking is clear and bold.

In truth, Thomas and Niccoló were both theologians and equally religious. Thomas was trying to explain how a Christian might also be a ruler. Even Thomas’ theology was a mixture of Christianity and Olympianity, of desired devotion to Jesus and necessary devotion to Jupiter god of politics. Niccoló differs from Thomas in that his theology is wholly Olympian. Thomas attempted to balance the freedom of Jesus with the control of Jupiter while keeping freedom primary. Niccoló separated the two and devoted himself wholly to Jupiter. That is why the adjective, Machiavellian, is applied even today to coercive political actions that are nakedly self-centered.

Oddly enough, when Niccoló died in 1527, he was buried in the Church of Santa Croce (Holy Cross).

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
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