Machiavelli’s Civil Religion

This review by Professor Cary Nederman of Professor Maurizio Viroli’s Redeeming the Prince: The Meaning of Machiavelli’s Masterpiece is very interesting (h/t Matt Lister). I have not read Viroli’s book yet (saving it for the summer!), but his reading of Machiavelli–and in particular his interpretation of the famously perplexing Chapter 26 (“Exhortatio ad capessendam Italiam in liberatemque a barbaris vindicandam”)–makes a fine textualist case for a kind of civil religion in his work. Here, Machiavelli pleads for an Italian redeemer who–“favorita da Dio e dalla Chiesa” (“favored by God and the Church”)–will deliver Italy from its present troubles. The troubles are pretty bad: “sanza capo, sanza ordine, battuta, spogliata, lacera, corsa, e avessi sopportato d’ogni sorte ruina” (“without a head, without order, beaten, denuded, wounded, run down, and having sustained all manner of ruin”). Here’s a bit from the review concerning what Machiavelli had in mind concerning the divine agent who would unify Italy and redeem its national promise:

In contrast to most scholars, for whom Chapter 26 cannot be reconciled with the previous body of the text, Viroli insists that Machiavelli’s “Exhortation” represents the very crescendo of The Prince. How does Viroli arrive at such an unconventional reading?….His overarching insight, I take it, is that we ought to take Machiavelli at his word when he speaks of religious matters and, in particular, mentions the workings of God. The prevailing tendency, of course, has been to dismiss such references as reflective of either his impiety or his wicked sense of humor. On this important point, I believe Viroli to be largely correct. Scholars have all-too-often filtered their readings of Machiavelli through a set of preconceived notions or impressions of what they assume he was saying, according to his longstanding reputation, rather than what the text actually states. This does not mean that Machiavelli’s political thought lacks an underlying agenda, but rather that we must always commence our investigations by taking the words he wrote seriously and at face value….

In particular, Machiavelli’s invocation of prophetic wording in Chapter 26, according to Viroli, reflects the overarching purpose of The Prince: the call for a redeemer, presumably Lorenzo de’ Medici, to unify Italy in order to remove the foreign elements that have dominated its politics. Machiavelli says that such a redeemer is sanctioned by God, who has rendered the moment propitious for such action. Viroli insists that we must take Machiavelli at his word in this regard, rather than dismissing it as incompatible with the general message of The Prince.

That supposed “general message” helps us to grasp the sense in which Machiavelli may be characterized as a realist for Viroli. Specifically, Viroli asserts that Machiavelli adopts the stance of a “realist with imagination.” By this he means that Machiavelli perfectly well understood the situation of Italy as it existed in his own day; this is his “realist” dimension. Yet he posits that Machiavelli was also engaged in an imaginative way to change such reality by promoting a savior, a redeemer, capable of instituting the reforms necessary to transform the realities of his day. On Viroli’s account, Machiavelli pursued this agenda by mythologizing the great men of bygone times as well as some of his contemporaries. Thus, he mythologizes the redeemers whom he lauds in Chapters 6 and 26 — such as Moses, Cyrus and Theseus — as well as recent political figures such as Caterina Sforza and (especially) Cesare Borgia, both of whom he had encountered during his days in the Florentine civil service. Their deeds are transformed by him without regard to their actual behavior, for which Machiavelli has no use. Machiavelli’s realism, then, is not confined to an effort to analyze and explain political events and personalities, past and present, in the manner of a political scientist. Rather, he renders his favored subjects larger than life, with the purpose of exhorting the redeemer to aim at their example, even if he falls short.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: