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Machiavelli and the Republican Conception of Providence

  • Miguel Vatter


Machiavelli often seems to advocate a conception of religion as an instrument of political rule. But in the concluding chapter of The Prince Machiavelli adopts a messianic rhetoric in which politics becomes an instrument of divine providence. Since the political project at stake in The Prince, especially in this last chapter runs against both the interests and the ideology of the Catholic Church in Italy, some commentators have argued that Machiavelli appeals to providence merely in order to fool the Church and the Medici. This article argues that it is not necessary to appeal to such exoteric readings of the 26th chapter of The Prince if one envisages the possibility that Machiavelli may have drawn upon an alternative, non-Christian conception of divine providence coming from medieval Arabic and Jewish sources that is more compatible with his desire to return to Roman republican principles than is the Christian conception of divine providence.



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1 An earlier version of this paper was read at the international conference “Machiavelli: tempo e conflitto” held at the Università di Bologna, Italy, in November 2009. I wish to thank Stefano Visentin and Vittorio Morfino for their generous invitation as well as the participants for their helpful discussions. A special thanks to Vasileios Syros and Marco Geuna for reading and commenting on the drafts of this text. A shorter version of this paper is forthcoming in Italian under the title “Politica plebea e provvidenza in Machiavelli,” in Machiavelli: Tempo e conflitto, ed. Riccardo Caporali, Vittorio Morfino, and Stefano Visentin.

2 For Machiavelli's relation to Christianity and his personal religious beliefs, see Grazia, Sebastian de, Machiavelli in Hell (New York: Vintage Books, 1994) and Viroli, Maurizio, Il sorriso di Machiavelli: Storia di Machiavelli (Bari: Laterza, 1998).

3 For overviews of the current debate on Machiavelli and religion, see Cutinelli-Rendina, Emanuele, Chiesa e religione in Machiavelli (Pisa: Istituti editoriali e poligrafici, 1998); Colish, Marcia, “Republicanism, Religion and Machiavelli's Savonarolan Moment,” Journal of the History of Ideas 60, no. 4 (1999): 597616.

4 For discussions of civil religion in Machiavelli, see Preus, Samuel J., “Machiavelli's Functional Analysis of Religion: Context and Object,” Journal of the History of Ideas 40, no. 2 (1979): 171–90; Sullivan, Vickie B., Machiavelli's Three Romes: Religion, Human Liberty and Politics Reformed (De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996); Rahe, Paul, Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory Under the English Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); and Brown, Alison, “Philosophy and Religion in Machiavelli,” in The Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli, ed. Najemy, John (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). As Brown observes in The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), “Machiavelli's attitude to religion presents two quite different faces, one valuing it as a form of political control, the other following Lucretius in describing religion anthropologically as the expression of deeply rooted beliefs and fears of ordinary people” (79).

5 For the distinction between civil religion and political theology, see my introduction to Crediting God: Sovereignty and Religion in the Age of Global Capitalism, ed. Vatter, M. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010).

6 Viroli, Maurizio, Machiavelli's God (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 61.

7 Ibid., 2.

8 These aspects are treated at length by Machiavelli in Discourses 1.11–15 as well as throughout book 3; see also the advice given in chapter 18 of The Prince.

9 Quotations from Machiavelli, Niccolò, Discourses on Livy, trans. Mansfield, Harvey and Tarcov, Nathan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), unless otherwise noted.

10 In what follows I shall employ the following translation: Machiavelli, Niccolò, The Prince, trans. Connell, William J. (Boston: Bedford/St.Martin's, 2005), giving chapter and page number. For the original, I employ the edition of Giorgio Inglese, Machiavelli, Niccolò, Il Principe (Turin: Einaudi, 1995).

11 Figgis, J. Neville, “Respublica Christiana,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 3rd ser., no. 5 (1911): 6388.

12 The crucial study of this theme is found in Abraham Melamed, The Philosopher-King in Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003).

13 See Gilbert, Felix, Machiavelli and Guicciardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth-Century Florence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), and Sasso, Gennaro, Machiavelli: Il pensiero politico, vol. 1 (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1993), among many others.

14 For Machiavelli's “populist turn” see Rahe, Against Throne and Altar, chap. 1, and now McCormick, John, Machiavellian Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

15 Martelli, Mario, “La logica provvidenzialistica e il capitolo 26 del Principe,” Interpres 4 (1982): 262384.

16 Martelli, Mario, “Machiavelli e Savonarola: valutazione politica e valutazione religiosa,” in Tra Filologia e Storia: Otto Studi Machiavelliani, ed. Bausi, Francesco (Roma: Salerno Editori, 2009), 241–46, 277. For the opposite view, see Colish, “Machiavelli's Savonarolan Moment.”

17 In this article I cannot deal with the question of the possible “sources” that Machiavelli could have used in order to develop his interpretation of Jewish conceptions of divine providence. The reception of Jewish and Arabic political thought in Medicean and Savonarolan Florence remains an area of study that could receive more attention from Machiavelli scholars and specialists of Florentine political thought. For interesting indications I refer to the work of Moshe Idel, Fabrizio Lelli, and Brian Copenhaver among others.

18 On Maimonides and the doctrine of imitatio Dei, see the sober treatment in Melamed, Philosopher-King, 26–48. On the reception of Maimonides and Arabic medieval thought in the late medieval period and early Renaissance, see now Syros, Vasileios, Marsilius of Padua at the Intersection of Ancient and Medieval Traditions of Political Thought (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012).

19 See the excellent discussion found in Stroumsa, Sarah, “Prophecy versus Civil Religion in Medieval Jewish Philosophy: The Cases of Judah Halevi and Maimonides,” in Tribute to Michael: Studies in Jewish and Muslim Thought Presented to Professor Michael Schwartz, ed. Abrahamov, Binyamin, Klein-Braslavy, Sara, and Sadan, Joseph (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 2009), 79102.

20 Agamben, Giorgio, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).

21 Löwith, Karl, Meaning in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957).

22 This metanarrative is the object of Voegelin, Eric, The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952).

23 Savonarola, Prediche italiane (27 December 1494), cited in Brown, “Savonarola,” 266.

24 Savonarola, Trattato sul governo di Firenze, ed. Schisto, Elisabetta (Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1999), 1:1–2.

25 Savonarola, Trattato, 1:2.

26 On these motifs, and in particular on the reasons why Ficino thought Savonarola was the Antichrist, see now Romandini, Fabián J. Ludueña, Homo economicus: Marsilio Ficino, la teología y los misterios paganos (Buenos Aires: Miño y Dávila, 2006).

27 As Nederman, C. J., “Amazing Grace: Fortune, God and Free Will in Machiavelli's Thought,” Journal of the History of Ideas 60, no. 4 (1999): 621, observes: “Machiavelli's writings—most especially that supposedly irreligious tract, the Prince—embrace the medieval theological doctrine that the human will is able to defeat external circumstance and to triumph over adversity when it accepts and cooperates with God's grace.”

28 This also makes problematic the interpretation of Machiavelli offered within the grand narratives found in Milbank, John, Theology and Social Theory, 2nd ed. (London: Blackwell, 2006) and Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

29 On Machiavelli and Lucretius see the opposing interpretations found in Rahe, Paul, “In the Shadow of Lucretius: The Epicurean Foundations of Machiavelli's Political Thought,” History of Political Thought 28, no. 1 (2007): 3055, and Lucchese, Filippo del, Conflict, Power, and Multitude in Machiavelli and Spinoza (London: Continuum, 2011); on Machiavelli and eternity of the world, see Sasso, Gennaro, Machiavelli e gli antichi e altri saggi, 3 vols. (Milan: R. Ricciardi, 1987). On Epicureanism as source of critique of Jewish religion, see Strauss, Leo, Spinoza's Critique of Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

30 On Jewish providence see the fundamental work by Buber, Martin, “Koenigtum Gottes,” in Werke, vol. 2, Schriften zur Bibel (Munich: Koesel verlag, 1964), 489649. One needs to consider with particular care the interpretation of God in Moses and Joshua as melekh, commander of the army: “JHWH is … He who accompanies His people (Ex. 33,16; Deut. 20,4; 31,6), He who leads His people (Ex. 13,21; Num. 14,14; Deut. 1,30–33), the commander, the melekh” (618). Joshua was a figure often invoked by Savonarola. The key to Buber's interpretation is the distinction he draws between melekh (“commander”) and “king”: this allows him to explain why the Mosaic constitution is a theocracy, and not a monarchy. This distinction may also shed light on the crucial tension between the halakhic obligation for God's Chosen People to have a “commander” and their later wish to have a “king” (like other nations): the two are clearly distinct, for the role of the commander can be taken up by more than one person, depending upon circumstances (as taught by the doctrine of the Three Crowns).

31 G. Savonarola, Salmi 11 October 1495, in Scelta di Prediche e Scritti di Fra Girolamo Savonarola: Con nuovi documenti intorno alla sua vita, ed. Villari, P. and Casanova, E. (Florence: Sansoni Editore, 1898). Translation mine.

32 On Eusebius and the end of Christian “political theology” see Peterson, Erik, “Monotheism as a Political Problem,” in Theological Tractates, ed. Hollerich, M. J. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).

33 The passage that begins: “If your illustrious house wishes to follow these excellent men who redeemed their provinces, it is necessary, before all other things, as the true foundation of every undertaking, that you provide yourself with your own arms” (Prince 26, 122).

34 Augustine, On Order, 2.18.48. I owe this citation to the excellent article by Heyking, John von, “A Headless Body Politic? Augustine's Understanding of a Populus and Its Representation,” History of Political Thought 20, no. 4 (1999): 562–64, with whose interpretation I agree for the most part.

35 Augustine, City of God, trans. Bettenson, Henry (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003), 19.24.

36 I have discussed the significance of this distinction between Augustine and Cicero with respect to contemporary republicanism and populism in The Quarrel between Populism and Republicanism: Machiavelli and the Antinomies of Plebeian Politics,” Contemporary Political Theory 11, no. 3 (2012): 242–63. I have since become aware of the brilliant reading of De re publica 1.39 in medieval thought in Kempshall, M. S., “De re publica 1.39 in Medieval and Renaissance Political Thought,” in Cicero's Republic, ed. North, J. A. and Powell, J. G. F. (London: Institute of Classical Studies, University of London, 2001), 99135, whose results, I believe, do not invalidate my own reading.

37 On the idea of ordo amoris in Augustine see Gregory, Eric, Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). Savonarola picks up this idea several times, for instance in Predica sopra Aggeo (in Prediche sopra Aggeo con il Trattato circa il reggimento e governo della città di Firenze, ed. Luigi Firpo [Rome: Belardetti, 1965]): “l'amore di Dio sempre tende alle cose superiori e l'amor propio alle inferiori” (III, 127); and in Predica sopra Aggeo XIII: “E chi ha l'amore suo retto e non distorto, amerà sempre più el ben commune ch'el proprio, come fa l'amore delle creature, insito da Dio in quelle, d'amare più la sua cause e l'universale che sè proprio. E se tun non fai questo, credi che l'amore tuo non è retto nè ordinato amore” (XIII, 233, emphasis mine). Savonarola has a clear notion of the ordo amoris: first the love for God, and only secondarily love for country: “rettificate, dico, l'amor vostro in Dio, che è sommo bene, e non distorcete l'amor vostro in cose vane. Fatelo, prima, per onore di Dio; secondo, per non guastare l'ordine, che vuole che amiate più Dio che voi e piu el ben commune ch'el proprio. … L'ordine bono della città ancora darà a voi questo: che sarete amati da ciascuno” (223).

38 Letter of 16 April 1527. See now the extensive discussion of this saying in Viroli's Machiavelli's God.

39 See the examples given in Viroli, Machiavelli's God, chap.1 passim.

40 For an overview of the debate on Machiavelli's theory of social conflict, see Geuna, Marco, “Machiavelli ed il ruolo dei conflitti nella vita politica,” in Conflitti, ed. Caruso, D. and Arienzo, A. (Naples: Libreria Dante e Descartes), 1957, and Lucchese, Conflict.

41 Savonarola, Ruth e Micae, 18 May 1496, 106–8.

42 On the importance of this transitional moment for early modern political thought, see now Nelson, Eric, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

43 The “return to beginnings” is a formula that one finds in both Savonarola and Machiavelli and reflects the need to reform both religion and politics. For a detailed analysis of the “return to beginnings” see my Between Form and Event (Dordecht: Kluwer, 2000); on the use of the term in Savonarola, see Viroli, Machiavelli's God, 73–88. But Viroli claims that the “idea of renovatio that Machiavelli defends and sets forth as a religious and political ideal is the same as that found in the Christian tradition: it means return to the true form” (87). As I show in the previously cited book, this is not entirely correct.

44 Melamed, Abraham, “The Myth of Venice in Italian Renaissance Jewish Thought,” in Italia Judaica (Rome: Ministero per i Beni Culturali e Ambientali, 1983), 401–13, argues for a later conjunction of Machiavellism with messianism in Renaissance Jewish political thought: “Luzzatto interprets Jewish history according to Machiavellian lines. According to the organic theory of the state, the Jews, like any other people, follow an unavoidable historical cycle of birth, rise and decline. However, the decline could be the starting point for their renewal. So, Luzzatto gives the Messianic idea a Machiavellian meaning” (410). By the same token, for this Jewish messianic application of Machiavelli to work, it must have been clear to the Jewish readers of Machiavelli that his political thought was compatible with, and possibly contained, messianic strains.

45 On the opposition between Moses and the Messiah, see the studies on Jewish messianism in Scholem, Gershom, The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York: Schocken Books, 1971).

46 On this point, I refer to Strauss, Leo, “How to Begin to Study The Guide of the Perplexed,” in The Guide of the Perplexed, ed. Pines, Shlomo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963). On the sense in which Jewish messianism thinks about the “end of history” see also Agamben, Giorgio, The Time That Remains (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

47 The nexus between divine grace, popular matter, and form of regime is central to Savonarola's Predica sopra Aggeo: “L'esemplo tu lo hai nel Salvatore [messia] nostro, el quale ha fondato el regno suo nella grazia; vedi quanto ei fu potente da principio … vinsono la potenzia del mondo colla debolezza, la ricchezza con la povertà, la sapienzia del mondo colla stultizia della croce. Or vedi che vale più la forza dello spirito e dell'esser spirituale che nessuna altra cosa. Vedi ancora e leggi tutte le istorie antiche, che gli uomini, quanti più erano in grazia, tanto più ottenevano e vincevano. Guardo Moisè, guarda Iosuè” (XIII, 217). Here Savonarola appeals to a decidedly messianic reading of Pauline motifs.

48 On the materialism and vitalism of Italian philosophical and political thought since Machiavelli, see now Esposito, Roberto, Living Thought: The Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012).

49 Savonarola also gave his idea of messianic renovation an antimonarchical formulation. See Savonarola, Prediche sopra Aggeo: “Se tu vuoi renovarti, o città nuova, se tu vuoi esser nuova e se tu hai mutato nuovo stato, bisogna che tu muti nuovi modi e nuovo vivere, se tu vuoi durare, e se tu vuoi reggere e ti bisogna fare uno nuovo cantico e ricercarsi che tu abbi nuova forma. La prima cosa che tu debbia fare intra l'altre è questa: che tu facci legge, che nessuno più per l'avvenire possa farsi capo, altrimenti tu sarai fondata in su la rena” (VIII, 132, emphasis mine).

50 It is crucial to see that Savonarola also connected Moses to Brutus; see Brown, “Savonarola,” 273, 278, and Lynch, Christopher, “Machiavelli on Reading the Bible,” in Political Hebraism: Judaic Sources in Early Modern Political Thought, ed. Oz-Salzberger, Fanic, Schochet, Gordon, and Jones, Meirav (Jerusalem: Shalom, 2008), 2954.

51 What follows is based on parts of my article “The Quarrel between Populism and Republicanism.”

52 On these passages, see Najemy, John, “Papirius and the Chickens, or Machiavelli on the Necessity of Interpreting Religion,” Journal of the History of Ideas 60, no. 4 (1999): 659–81.

53 Momigliano, Arnoldo, “Prolegomena ad ogni futura metafisica sulla plebe reomana,” in Sui fondamenti della storia antica (Turin: Einaudi, 1984), 368–77, and Osservazioni sulla distinzione fra patrizi e plebei,” in Roma Arcaica (Florence: Sansoni, 1989), 209–39.

54 See particularly Predica sopra Aggeo XIII, 215–19.

Machiavelli and the Republican Conception of Providence

  • Miguel Vatter


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