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By Darren J. Beattie
President Bolsonaro’s defeat in a highly contested and questionable re-election bid for Brazil’s presidency was not just a tragedy for the Brazilian people, it was a major and relatively unappreciated setback for the cause of patriotic and nationalist governance globally. Brazil and the international patriotic cause suffered a still greater blow, however, with the passing of Olavo de Carvalho. Though inexcusably unknown in the United States, Carvalho was a towering figure in Brazilian cultural life, revered by the right and despised by the left for his colorful personality, cultural influence, and undeniable erudition. A best-selling author and radio host, Olavo famously held an online philosophy seminar that boasted thousands of followers — among them two students whom Olavo successfully recommended to senior positions within the Bolsanaro Administration. Such was Olavo’s influence that his was one of four books visible on the embattled Bolsanaro’s desk during his victory speech upon being elected President of Brazil (Olavo was in rarified company, the two other books being the Bible and Winston Churchill’s Memoirs of the Second World War).
Several years ago I had the good fortune of attending a small dinner with Olavo at the Washington D.C. home of legendary political strategist Steve Bannon. While the table conversation centered around the auspicious circumstances of Bolsanaro’s Presidency, and the opportunities this afforded for collaboration between Bolsanaro’s Brazil and Trump’s America, I had the pleasure of briefly discussing philosophy with Olavo. We touched upon the vexed relationship between Plato and Socrates, the merits of Karl Popper’s critique of Plato, and finally upon Martin Heidegger, the controversial German philosopher about whose theory of mathematics I wrote my doctoral dissertation (alas, Olavo was not a fan of the Swabian philosopher king). I remember being struck by the erudition of this man who was not simply a philosopher, but a cultural phenomenon in Brazil who had garnered the scorn of many on the left, and love and admiration of a new and energized Brazilian right, up to and including the President.
Though much of Olavo’s erudition and insight remains untranslated from its original Portugese, his published work on Machiavelli titled Machiavelli or the Demonic Confusion is a rare exception. I recently had the pleasure of reading this learned work on the controversial Florentine statesman and political theorist, and recommend it without reservation to anyone interested in Olavo’s thought, Machiavelli’s thought, and in the intractable philosophical problem that is Modernity more generally.
Machiavelli, as mentioned, is the 16th century Florentine statesman and political theorist whose name in the adjectival form “Machiavellian” has come to signify a kind of devious, cutthroat, manipulative and morally vacant mode of politics. The question of whether and to what extent this bad rap is warranted has been the subject of intense interpretive dispute throughout hundreds of years of commentary and scholarship on Machiavelli. Given that Machiavelli is certainly one of if not the first and most important modern philosophers, we see how the interpretive confusion surrounding Machiavelli’s
Olavo pointedly addresses this “startling phenomenon” that “one of the first philosophical icons of modernity is an author that modernity itself admits it does not understand.” He further suggests that this lack of ambiguity and self-understanding is a special feature of modernity, contrasting classical philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, whom moderns “understand well enough” with the seemingly infinite variety of interpretations of modern thinkers — “Christian Descartes and a masked anti-Christian; a Platonic, idealist Kant and a positivist materialist; a proto-Nazi Hegel and a Hegel as the herald of the State of Law; not to mention humanist and anti-humanist incarnations of Marx; Fascist and libertarian Nietzsches, and so on and so forth.”
The notion that moderns more or less understand classical philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle is certainly an exaggeration, to put it generously. While the famous cliché that all of Western philosophy is simply footnotes to Plato might be going too far, one of the reasons Plato, Aristotle and other great Greek thinkers and poets are rightly considered “classics” is the seemingly inexhaustible quality of riches they offer, which for millennia have kept the world’s finest minds coming back for more. If moderns keep returning to the classics for cultural vitality, the use of degraded versions of philosophy for political purposes — what we might call “ideology,” — is very much a modern (really post-Napoleonic) phenomenon. It is also true that moderns tend to enlist other moderns toward such ideological aims, though there are some exceptions (for instance Karl Popper’s aforementioned attack on Plato as progenitor of despotism). The phenomenon of interpreting philosophers for mass political consumption in the form of “ideology” no doubt accounts for the variety of interpretations of modern philosophers Olavo identifies; e.g, the proto-Nazi Hegel, fascist Nietzsche, and so-forth. Furthermore, while Olavo’s sardonic jab about modernity not being able to understand itself might overestimate moderns’ understanding of the ancients — and, for that matter, ancients’ understanding of themselves — it nonetheless captures an important and specific shortcoming of modernity. That is, self-understanding is very much a specifically modern goal, and modernity’s lack of self-understanding therefore points to a special type of self-deceptive failure — the era of putative enlightenment remains in the dark about its own origins.
Granting Benedetto Croce’s assertion that Machiavelli is an “enigma we shall never unravel,” Olavo settles on an apparently modest objective — not to explain Machiavelli, but merely to “explain his inexplicability.” Given Machiavelli’s special role as a foundational thinker of modernity as such, Olavo’s project turns out to be much more ambitious than advertised. Indeed, it is impossible to account for the confusion of Machiavelli without also providing an account of the broader confusion of modernity. We will return to the question of Olavo’s critique of Machiavelli as a critique of modernity later on in this review.
Olavo demonstrates an impressive command of the reception history of Machiavelli, and provides an excellent account of the major schools of interpretation when it comes to Machiavelli’s thought. The first and immediate reception of Machiavelli more or less corresponds to the familiar notion of Machiavelli as an amoralist, a scandalous teacher of evil. Some early proponents of this position include his Florentine contempoary Francesco Vittori, Shakespeare, Frederick II of Prussia, and Voltaire. The Council of Trent in 1564 even saw Machiavelli’s Prince added to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of books prohibited by the church and deemed heretical. To this first interpretation one must add the view, somewhat surprising to those unfamiliar with Machiavelli or his reception history, that Machiavelli is variously a critic of tyrants and a stalwart defender of a specific type of liberty inspired by or modeled after that of the Roman republic. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the famous Genevan patriot and republican with his own vexed reception history, famously said of Machiavelli the Florentine republican, “while appearing to instruct kings, Machiavelli did much to educate the people. His Prince is a book for republicans.” A third interpretation emphasizes Machiavelli’s teaching as amoral rather than immoral, a proto-realism that takes as its point of analysis the way things are rather than the way things should be. This interpretation takes Machiavelli’s famous call in Chapter 15 of the Prince to reject “imagined republics and principalities” and instead to look to the “effectual truth” that political actors must learn how “not to be good” as a precursor to a method of studying politics “scientifically,” that is, an amoral political science which accepts the distinction between facts and values as the basis for its analysis.
If Chapter 15 of the Prince is representative of Machiavelli as the cool, detached political scientist, the concluding 26th chapter of the Prince could be said to be representative of the next interpretation of Machiavelli as the Italian patriot. The culminating chapter in question is titled “Exhortation to Seize Italy and Free Her From the Barbarians,” urging the Florentine ruler Lorenzo de Medici in uncharacteristically florid language to capitalize on the opportunity of Italy’s dispossession and achieve love, admiration, and glory in uniting the Italian states. This view of Machiavelli as an Italian patriot is championed by the notable contemporary Italian philosopher Maurizio Viroli, but also, Olavo is quick to note, by the late fascist Italian political leader Benito Mussolini. Olavo even seems to tease the idea of a proto-fascist-authoritarian in Machiavelli, asserting that Mussolini turned Machiavelli’s thought into “one of the pillars of fascist doctrine.” This would be a puzzling suggestion in light of Olavo’s assertion elsewhere in the book that not the fascist Il Duce, but the communist Joseph Stalin embodied Machiavelli’s teaching most perfectly. Perhaps these comparisons can be reconciled if we take into account Olavo’s point that Mussolini embodied Machiavelli’s teaching most especially in embracing a conception of authoritarianism that equates the Prince with the State. In this formulation one can see where Mussolini and Stalin overlap, though the question of whether this specific type of 20th century authoritarianism truly captures Machiavelli’s spirit and intention is a question we’ll return to later.
So far we have Machiavelli the teacher of evil, the defender of republican liberty, the proto-political scientist, and the Italian patriot. To this catalogue Olavo adds Machiavelli the detached artist, and, following the Italian Marxist philosopher Gramsci, the interpretation of Machiavelli as a certain kind of prophet. According to this view, Machiavelli is not a prophet in the “vulgar sense of a seer, but in the etymological sense of the Greek verb prophero, to order, to have something done, to make something happen.” Machiavelli may seem to be encouraging the rulers of Florence to take inspiration from founder-prophets such has Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and so forth, it is in fact Machiavelli who is in the ultimate sense the founder, laying the groundwork for the development of an entirely new political modes and orders. Although this view of Machiavelli as prophet-founder of a new political order is not unique to any one interpreter, Olavo has a specific view of the so-called “Third Rome” that in his view Machiavelli intends to usher forth by means of his prophetic conjuring. Before further discussing and critiquing the new order Machiavelli hopes to inaugurate, at least according to Olavo’s understanding, we must dive into the heart of Olavo’s account of Machiavelli and his “demonic confusion.”
The core of Olavo’s conception of Machiavelli might be described as a combination of the view of Machiavelli as a founder of an entirely new order and a hyperradicalized, perhaps even polemicized, version of Machiavelli as a teacher of evil. The following passage provides a taste of the intensity and character of Olavo’s critique:
The evidence leaves little doubt that to give Machiavellian counsel to princes is to sin against all morality, but to invest oneself with prophetic authority in order to thwart providence and attempt to reverse the divine course of history goes way beyond “immorality.” It’s not even political perversion. It is metaphysical rebellion, a sin against the Holy Spirit.
This putatively demonic character of Machiavelli’s thought emerges in part from Olavo’s sustained critique of Machiavelli’s alleged “realism.” In a passage no less arresting than that quoted above, Olavo points to the political shortcomings and failures of Machiavelli’s own life as a performative refutation of Machiavelli’s “realism.”
The man who judged himself apt to teach the most humble citizen how to rise to the uppermost echelons of power never showed the slightest sign of having learned his own lessons. The most he achieved in life was to hold down the same subordinate post for fourteen years, only to then lose said post due to a lack of political foresight. When he finally did manage to earn it back, and only partially, it was by obsequiously currying favor with the new rulers.
Ouch! Olavo continues this passage noting other political miscalculations and performative contradictions, from Machiavelli’s support for the unsuccessful Cesare Borgia to the suggestion that if Lorenzo Medici had taken Machiavelli’s advice, he would have put Machiavelli to the sword, presumably because at times Machiavelli encourages rulers to betray allies who helped them into power, and Machiavelli was such an ally at least insofar as the Prince is dedicated to Lorenzo. Leaving aside the question of to what extent Olavo’s critique of Machiavelli’s “realism” is valid, it is critical to note that this critique only extends to a critique of Machiavelli himself insofar as Machiavelli was actually a realist. Olavo himself absolves Machiavelli of that criticism only to prepare the way for a still more radical criticism of the confused Florentine: Machiavelli was a dissimulator and liar who never intended to be judged according to the immediate practical utility of his advice, either to others or to himself. To support the characterization of Machiavelli as a liar, Olavo repeatedly references Machiavelli’s letter to his friend Vitorri in which he states, “I never say what I believe and never believe what I say; and if I sometimes say the truth, I conceal it among so many lies that it is hard to find out.”
According to Olavo, it turns out the concealed truth about Machiavelli is far darker than a political theorist failing to heed his own political advice. Olavo thus presents three “witnesses,” or three testimonials from Machiavelli himself that unravel the far more ambitious “demonic” character of his thought. The first such testimony refers to Machiavelli’s little known novella Belfagor Arcidiavolo, in which a demon, responding to complaints of male souls in hell bemoaning their wives, ascends to earth to test out married life, only to end up voluntarily returning to hell after denouncing the institution of marriage.
The subject of this novella prefigures the second testimony Olavo provides of an account Machiavelli gave on his death bed (though the account is hearsay and has not been confirmed). In this account, Machiavelli recounted a dream to friends in which he encountered “Plato, Plutarch, Tacitus” and many other celebrated authors from classical antiquity. Machiavelli inquired as to who they were, he learned that they were the damned in hell, to which he replied that “he would rather discuss politics in hell with the noble of spirit than be sent to heaven with the tramps that had first filed past.” To this (again, possibly apocryphal) account Olavo juxtaposes another, and in so doing offers a radically new (and much darker) interpretation of what is often considered as one of the most beautiful and moving passages Machiavelli ever produced! The writing in question, which we quote below in full, is from a famous letter Machiavelli wrote describing his daily routine in his lamentable condition as an exile from the courts of Florentine power:
In the course of these things comes the hour for dinner, where with my family I eat such food as this poor farm of mine and my tiny property allow. Having eaten, I go back to the inn; there is the host, usually a butcher, a miller, two furnace tenders. With these I sink into vulgarity for the whole day, playing at cricca and at trich-trach, and then these games bring on a thousand disputes and countless insults with offensive words, and usually we are fighting over a penny, and nevertheless we are heard shouting as far as San Casciano. So, involved in these trifles, I keep my brain from growing moldy, and satisfy the malice of this fate of mine, being glad to have her drive me along this road, to see if she will be ashamed of it.
On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.
Referring to this passage, Olavo proceeds to ask how a “man so vocationally devoted to the study of classics and antiquity could disgrace himself gambling and squabbling with the uncouth and unlearned” just because he lost a job. A prosaic answer to this question might draw upon the scandalous biographies of other accomplished men such as Pushkin or Mozart. Even the affable Scottish philosopher David Hume is known to have enjoyed backgammon without a care in the world after a long day of philosophizing on such disturbing topics as the illusion of causality. Olavo’s resolution of the matter is far more provocative and interesting. According to Olavo, Machiavelli’s daily transition from the company of vulgar street gamblers to the courtly robes of the ancients does not represent an elevation from the base to lofty realm of Platonic forms (or Plato’s “imaginary republic” which Machiavelli implicitly repudiates in the Prince), but rather an enhancement and intensification of Machiavelli’s lower self to the demonic. Drawing the parallel to Machiavelli’s alleged deathbed dream, Olavo asserts that “the inner sanctum to which Machiavelli withdraws from the profanity around him already is, as the evidence suggests, the hell he claimed he would choose over the heaven of the meek.”
In this sense Machiavelli’s consorting with ancient thinkers is not an exercise in faithful interpretation or a marshalling of facts, but rather a selective enlistment of various thinkers and historians to fit within the new immoral and sacreligious political order of Machiavelli’s making. Machiavelli’s true source of vision, according to Olavo, was not scientific detachment but rather “a curious arrangement that allows him to fit cold observations of historical/political details into a wider vision based on the idealized contemplation of demonic malice.”
It should come as no surprise that Olavo’s critique of Machiavelli reaches its culmination point in Olavo’s analysis of Machiavelli’s thoughts on religion. The first pillar of Olavo’s critique emerges from his characterization of the role of fortune and virtue in Machiavelli’s thought. Olavo notes Machiavelli’s contrast between the paradigmatic example of the armed prophet founder in Moses and the unarmed contemporary of Machiavelli’s called Savonarola, an ultimately failed Dominican friar and religious leader who once wielded tremendous power over religious cultural and political life in 15th century Florence. Olavo takes issue with Machiavelli’s famous explanation that Moses was able to succeed because he was an “armed prophet,” and that Savonarola failed because he was an unarmed prophet, dependent merely on the beliefs of his followers. Olavo suggests that Savonarola failed not because he was an unarmed prophet, but because he wasn’t a genuine prophet to begin with. He further notes that simply having “force of arms” cannot have been the sole factor behind Moses’ success, if only because Moses’ orders succeeded well beyond the armed-prophet’s death — ” as the dead, after all, have no legions.” If the deceased Moses had no further access to arms, and therefore no further access to virtue, Olavo reasons, the remaining explanations for the success of Moses’ orders remains divine providence or chance, both of which fall under the rubric of “fortune” for Machiavelli. But if Machiavellian virtue is the ability to work around and overcome fortune (fortuna), how can we account for the paradigmatic virtuoso of Moses’ seeming dependence on fortune after death?
Olavo crystallizes his discussion of virtue and fortune into a larger critique of Machiavelli.
If Virtu is the essence of politics, and the mission of Virtu is to subjugate Fortuna, identified with the will of God, what realism could there possibly be in separating politics from religion, from knowledge of the enemy, as it were?
Fortuna is at once the wider backdrop against which politics unfolds and the main obstacle politics must overcome. Who would possibly describe as realist a general who draws up a battle plan that willfully ignores the lay of the enemy’s territory? Machiavelli seems to believe that all he needs to do to abolish or neutralize Fortuna is turn his back on it… any political science worthy of the name would require, first and foremost, a thorough investigation of Fortuna and the limits it places on human action.
Olavo concludes from this that Machiavelli is no “realist” in the sense of aiming to describe the political world as it is, but a kind of twisted, inverted, demonic idealist who relishes in the contemplation of evil not for the practical utility of understanding harsh truths of political life, but out of sheer aesthetic enjoyment of evil for its own sake. This particular line of critique is perhaps an area in which Olavo’s polemicism gets the better of a faithful rendering of Machiavelli. Of all the possible criticisms of Machiavelli, the notion that he pays insufficient attention to “fortune (fortuna) and the limits it places on human action” is simply untenable. Indeed, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that man’s difficulty in dealing with the vicissitudes of fortune is the central political problem for Machiavelli, such that he develops a specific conception of virtue (virtu) to refer not to ethical virtues in a traditional Aristotelian sense, but rather to virtue as a ruler’s skilled capacity to strategically calibrate his behavior and actions according to the flexibility of the times.
In the famous 25th chapter of the Prince, Machiavelli notes that any prince who relies entirely on fortune comes to ruin as fortune varies. This is a special problem in Machiavelli’s own time, as potential rulers are seemingly intimidated by the variability of the times and inclined to leave more and more matters to chance. Rulers with cautious and patient dispositions tend to succeed in quiet times; rulers with “impetuous, violent” dispositions, on the other hand, succeed in tumultuous times.
In one of the most famous lines from the Prince, Machiavelli notes that if one had to choose, it is better to err on the impetuous side, because “fortune is a woman, and it is necessary, if one wants to hold her down, to beat her and strike her down… and one sees that she lets herself be won more by the impetuous than those who proceed coldly.” Of course, the ideal situation for a ruler is to have the discernment and capacity to vary his behavior and approach according to the times. A naturally impetuous ruler must learn to alter his behavior and become more cautious should the times change and call for a different approach; a naturally cautious ruler must learn to act more boldly to accommodate the requirements of changed circumstances. Similarly, a ruler who is overly motivated by religious piety or classical conceptions of virtue, right and wrong must at times learn to employ deception, treachery, and violence when the situation calls for it. To invoke a famous passage from another chapter in the Prince, the “good” ruler must especially learn how not to be “good.” Machiavelli’s infamous council to princes to deploy deception, treachery, and other “immoral” behavior when the occasion calls for it can therefore be understood as a subset of the broader imperative of Machiavellian virtue (virtu), which consists in the ruler’s ability to anticipate, accommodate, and adapt according to fluctuations in circumstances, that is, fluctuations in fortune.
It is worth adding that the vicissitudes of fortuna for Machiavelli do not just refer to the general sense of the times. The vicissitudes of fortune also encompass the vicissitudes in the behavior of other human beings. Just as Machiavellian virtu requires the insight and adaptability to minimize dependence on chance more generally, Machiavellian virtu specifically requires one to minimize dependence on other human beings. In the political realm, one could say, minimizing dependence on chance specifically involves minimizing dependence on others. This accounts for the well-known Machiavellian prescriptions that the virtuous ruler should not depend on the favors of others to come into power, should not depend on mercenary armies but rather arm his own people, and should always strive to be feared and loved, but that being feared is more important, “for love is held by a chain of obligation, which is broken at every opportunity … whereas fear is held by the dread of punishment that never foresakes you.” Machiavellian virtu entails independence from others and from external circumstances. At the limit, Machiavellian “good fortune” for a potential ruler requires that circumstances be so challenging that the ruler has no choice but to succeed entirely on his own. That is, the greatest fortune that a truly virtuous prince could have is to face circumstances so bleak and challenging that he has to overcome them on his own, without the help of others or of chance, thereby allowing him to achieve the most secure form of independent power and the highest measure of glory. This is the type of counter-intuitive “fortune” that Machiavelli’s most celebrated founder-prophets enjoyed (Moses, Romulus, Cyrus), and similarly Italy’s misfortune, it’s state of turmoil, is most fortunate for the virtuous prince capable of recognizing the opportunity that such challenging circumstances afford.
Turning back to Olavo’s analysis above, we see that Machiavelli wants to minimize dependence on fortune, he hardly ignores the role that fortune plays in political life. Machiavelli originally includes divine providence, or the will of God, as a component of fortune but quickly drops this divine consideration from his analysis, and retains only chance and the “nature of the times” as constitutive of fortune. This seems to reflect Machivelli’s view that Divine Providence is not real, or at least not a relevant factor consider in his political analysis. We see a similar display in Machiavelli’s discussion of his most revered and successful founder-prophets, Theseus, Romulus, Cyrus, and Moses. At first Machiavelli demures, with feigned piety, that one should not reason about Moses, for he was a mere “executor of things ordered by God.” In the next sentence, however, Machiavelli asserts that the actions of the other founders were “no different from those of Moses,” implicitly negating the political relevance (if not the existence) of Moses’ Providential advantage. Just because Machiavelli implicitly negates the existence of the Divine, or at least the relevance of the Divine to political considerations, does not mean, as Olavo suggests, that Machiavelli ignores religion. Quite the contrary: religion, just like the interplay between fortune and virtue, is of paramount thematic importance throughout Machiavelli’s work. Though a ruler ought to act as though God doesn’t exist, it is critical that a ruler appear religious. Machiavelli combines his prescriptions on appearing religious with his above-discussed prescriptions regarding virtuous accommodation of the vicissitudes of chance in his rather amusing discussion of the Roman “chicken men.”
Machiavelli explains in his Discourses on Livy that in the Roman republican army there were certain orders of “augurs” called “chicken-men.” In a slightly modified martial version of “Groundhog Day,” the chicken-men would relate whether their chickens ate or abstained from eating on the eve of an important battle. If the chickens ate, this was considered an auspicious omen, and the army would go ahead with the imminent battle; if the chickens abstained from eating, the army would abstain from the fight. Crucially, Machiavelli notes that when the imperatives of strategic advantage favored a battle, the army would go ahead and fight, notwithstanding an inauspicious omen from the chickens. Though the decision makers were not “true believers” inasmuch as they would subordinate the chicken augur to the strategic necessities of battle, whenever they had to deviate from the counsel of the chicken-men, they always did so in a manner that avoided the appearance of disdain for religion. Machiavelli offers examples that demonstrate the right way and the wrong way to reject the counsel of the chicken-men.
The positive example is that of Papirius, who was absolutely confident in his army’s ability to defeat the Samnites. Papirius quickly summoned the chicken-men, only to learn that the chicken refused to eat. The prince of the chicken-men, noting the confidence of the soldiers and their eagerness for battle, together with Papirius’ confidence in victory, falsely reported to the consul that the chickens had indeed eaten. Some of the chicken-men started to spread rumors of this lie to soldiers, and these rumors reached a nephew of Papirius, who related them to the consul. The consul responded that the auspices were still good to fight, and that if the prince of the chicken men had lied, the gods would surely punish him. Sure enough, Papirius had the chicken man prince sent to the front lines of battle whereupon he was quickly struck dead by a javelin thrown by a Roman soldier (“friendly” fire). The soldiers fought with renewed confidence after this accident, satisfied that the gods had exacted their punishment and now looked upon their fight with favor. In contrast to this example, Machiavelli notes the case of a certain Appius Pulcher’s behavior on the eve of a battle with the Carthaginians in the First Punic War. When the chicken-men related that the chickens had not yet eaten, a frustrated Appius exclaimed “let’s see if they wish to drink!” and had the chickens thrown into the ocean, after which Appius ended up losing his battle. Machiavelli concludes that Papirius was celebrated in Rome and Appius punished not simply or primarily because the former won and the latter lost, but because the former had acted against the chicken-men prudently and the latter acted against them rashly.
It is interesting to note that in both examples Machiavelli provides, the rulers in question disobey and implicitly disbelieve in the relevant religious prescription. The relevant contrast here is between the ruler who understands the need to accommodate and utilize the beliefs of the soldiers/subjects and the ruler who openly flouts religious practices. In short, a ruler shouldn’t be a “believer” in the sense of acting according to the omen of the chickens, rather than strategic necessity; but the ruler must also appear religious so as to encourage and not demoralize his subjects. If fortune presents a ruler with a dilemma, such as the religious augur not corresponding to the appropriate course of action, the ruler must exercise virtu and creatively work around the obstacle presented by fortune, as Papirius did in such a fantastically cynical and, well, “Machiavellian” fashion.
Olavo is right then in the sense that Machiavelli fairly clearly dismisses religious claims to truth as a factual matter, or as a basis upon which to make political decisions. This by no means implies that Machiavelli ignores the importance of religion as a psychological matter and as a necessary instrument to rule. Machiavelli’s celebration of Numa Pompilius in Book I of the Discourses provides an important representative example of Machiavelli’s estimation of religion. In this chapter, Machiavelli’s estimation of Numa seems to exceed that of Romulus, even though Machiavelli includes Romulus as the Roman example alongside other founder-prophets such as Cyrus, Moses, and Theseus. Numa introduced and implemented religious orders in Rome to such a successful degree that “the citizens feared to break an oath much more than the laws, like those who esteemed the power of God more than that of men.” Machiavelli continues to assert that “the religion introduced by Numa was among the first causes of the happiness of Rome,” and furthermore that Numa, rather than Romulus ought to enjoy more obligation from citizens because “where there is religion, arms can easily be introduced, and where there are arms and not religion, the latter can be introduced only with difficulty.”
Machiavelli’s discussion of Numa indirectly answers Olavo’s questions regarding Moses and Savonarola. Olavo suggests correctly that “force of arms” could not have been the sole factor behind Moses’ success, as the “dead have no legions.” Machiavelli’s treatment of Numa indicates that arms alone were always sufficient to secure power in the long term, and that while “good arms” may ensure good laws and good orders, a well-established religion goes a long way to ensuring the effective use of arms for rulers who succeed a founder, for, as mentioned, “where there is religion, arms can easily be introduced.” While, for Olavo, Machiavelli neglects the possibility that Savonarola failed because he was a false prophet, this couldn’t be less relevant from Machiavelli’s point of view. While Savonarola went a long way toward establishing religious orders, he was unable to translate this religious power into political power, as he lacked arms (arms for Machiavelli refer not only to weapons in the literal sense but signify more broadly capacity to execute political power). While underscoring the importance of instrumentalizing religious belief, Machiavelli even makes reference to Savonarola in the Discourses, encouraging would-be rulers that if Savonarola could dupe people into religious belief so could they — and that they would presumably combine this belief more effectively with arms and political order so as to avoid Savonarola’s fate.
As it turns out, Olavo was well aware of Machiavelli’s treatment of Numa, as he obliquely references this treatment to launch his final and most blistering criticism of Machiavelli. Olavo correctly notes that Machiavelli regarded treating religion as a handy fraud not only acceptable, but “praiseworthy.” On the basis of this observation Olavo revisits a passage from the Discourses in which Machiavelli offers seemingly uncharacteristic praise for Christianity. Specifically, Machiavelli contrasts the corrupt state of the Roman Church during his day with the very earliest days of Christianity, for which Machiavelli displays a fondness. What could account for this surprising Machiavellian piety that longs for the earliest days of Christianity? This couldn’t possibly indicate Machiavelli’s preference for the evangelical virtues that Machiavelli clearly despised. Olavo suggests an incredibly cynical though likely correct explanation:
The quality par excellence of Christianity in its primordial form can only have been its capacity to work miracles, albeit in the Roman rather than the Christian sense of the term. In other words, not authentic divine interventions in the course of worldly events, but appearances which the credulous faithful have a propensity to interpret as such, much like the Roman soldiers did in Juno’s temple. The problem with latter stage “decadent” Christianity [from Machiavelli’s perspective] is not the loss of the evangelical virtues but its loss of the capacity to hoodwink the masses. No matter how deftly the blasphemy conceals itself beneath a mountain of disguises, it cannot have escaped Machiavelli, who adds insult to injury by attributing mastery of the dark arts of deceit to Christ himself, while lamenting its later loss by incapable disciples. And it is to this Christ, transformed into a Machiavellian politician, that the Florentine directs his devotion, despite pretending all the while to praise the Christ of the Gospels.
And so Olavo provocatively accuses Machiavelli of implicitly casting Christ in his own deceptive image. Olavo completes the accusation with reference to another famous Machiavellian passage, indeed the only biblical passage invoked in all of Machiavelli’s works. Opining on what a newly installed prince should do to secure his power, Machiavelli suggests that the prince should employ new men, and “like David when he became King, exalt the humble and depress the great, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.” Olavo joins many astute Machiavelli commentators in remarking that this biblical allusion appears to be a manifest blunder on Machiavelli’s part. It is not David, but God who “filled the poor with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53). Just as Olavo suggests Machiavelli casts Christ as a deceitful Machiavellian politician manipulating the people with miracles, here we see Machiavelli implicitly describing God in the model of the new prince who is advised to reward the poor and send the rich away empty. We might add that insofar as Machiavelli is in a sense a new ruler, inaugurating new modes and orders and a new political science, Machiavelli understands himself to be in the role of God — at least insofar as he is creating an entirely new political universe with its own special laws and precepts, and peculiar conception of virtue. Indeed, if the reader will permit an observation that may be too Straussian even for Strauss, it is interesting to note the structural similarities between the opening chapter of Machiavelli’s prince and the biblical creation story in Genesis.
Machiavelli begins The Prince with a series of plain assertions, which we repeat for convenience. All dominions are either republics or principalities; all principalities are either hereditary (by bloodline) or new; new principalities are either altogether new or mixed; mixed principalities consist of conquered citizens who are either used to living under a prince or those who are used to being free and they are “acquired either with the arms of others or with one’s own, either by fortune or virtue.” By promulgating these six basic political distinctions each of which sub-divides a class determined by the prior distinction, Machiavelli invites comparison to the opening passage in Genesis. Indeed, we see that the Genesis account, like Machiavelli’s, consists of six basic distinctions set in relation to one another by means of an ordered process of successive sub-division (separating light from darkness, water from land, etc.). If the creation process of Genesis culminates in a living being created in God’s image (man), Machiavelli’s culminates correspondingly in the new principality acquired virtuously with one’s own arms. Such a principality and the prince who establishes it appear to occupy the highest level within Machiavelli’s political universe (or politology).
Whereas the biblical creation story begins with distinctions based on metaphysics and cosmology, Machiavelli’s begins with a distinction between republics and principalities — that is, it begins with a political distinction. Machiavelli’s creation story begins with politics, and thus man’s place in Machiavelli’s universe is not limited by considerations above politics, including Biblical morality. This is not to say that Machiavelli’s universe has no place for morality (even biblical morality), but rather that morality is here subordinate to political necessity. If political necessity requires that one “learn how not to be good,” as it inevitably sometimes does, the virtuous man will accept this and act upon it. Because Machiavelli’s universe is entirely political, virtue and morality in this universe are determined by political correctness, rather than vice versa.
While Olavo is certainly correct that Machiavelli places himself and his ideal founders in the place of God, and subordinates (if not entirely ignores) Christian and classical morality, Olavo perhaps again veers to far in the realm of polemicism in his ultimate determination that Machiavelli therefore represents “diabolicism in its purest state … and in an incomparably more perverse sense than the material immoralism than the ‘Raison D’Etat (reason of the state) already identified by the critics.” Olavo is of course entitled to be scandalized by Machiavelli, and even cast him as diabolical. But as we have noted above, the suggestion that there is no method to the madness, that Machiavelli somehow relishes in evil for its own sake, or for his own aesthetic enjoyment, is impossible to reconcile with the totality of Machiavelli’s work. Machiavelli may have condoned, even embraced “immoral” actions, but never without regard to the ends to which those actions would be oriented. At the very least, the ruler who practices immoral means must at least succeed in his ends in order to be truly virtuous in Machiavelli’s sense. Furthermore, the ends in question cannot be petty but in Machiavelli’s examples are exclusively reserved for the loftiest ends of the state — nothing short of founding entirely new societies and, in the Prince, unifying Italy and freeing her from foreign rule. Even so, Machiavelli seems to contraindicate unnecessary or excessive immorality. For instance, Machiavelli counsels that it’s preferable to be feared than loved, but always warns rulers against the worst abuses that would make them hated. If Olavo finds Machiavelli’s so-called Raison D’Etat scandalous, that is fair enough, but at least he should give the devil his due, so to speak, and acknowledge that Machiavelli does not recommend immoralism to any random slouch for its own sake — rather, when immoralism is condoned it is always within the special context of the necessities of the state.
My principal objection to Olavo’s blanket condemnation of Machiavelli as a diabolical sorcerer of sorts, who delights in pure evil for its own sake, is that such a verdict dissolves so much of the granularity and critical distinctions and questions within Machiavelli’s thought. Take Machiavelli’s (likely intentionally) mistaken biblical example in which he encourages new princes to reward the poor and turn away the rich. Olavo is correct that there’s a suggestion in here that the Prince takes the place of God and, as discussed above, Machiavelli himself takes the role of creator of the new political order presented in his works. In another sense, however, the advice corresponds to a rather consistent theme throughout Machiavelli’s work which is to encourage rulers to arm and empower the people in contradistinction to the nobility. In this sense Machiavelli seems to celebrate the model of ancient Greek “populist” tyrants in the mold of Dionysus of Syracuse and Clearchus of Heraclea, who treacherously murdered the entire nobility after they made him prince. It is not immaterial in this context that when the Medici family were brought back into power by an aristocratic coup, overtaking the free Florence that Machiavelli served, the first thing Machiavelli did was to pen a memorandum imploring that the people rather than nobles be foundation of regime. The Medici responded by arresting and torturing Machiavelli.
At the same time that Machiavelli seemed to favor empowering the people at the expense of the nobility, and certainly at the expense of foreign assistance and mercenaries, Machiavelli displayed a clear preference for the Roman republic over the Roman empire. Whereas Machiavelli’s great Florentine predecessor Dante consigned Brutus to the worst circle of hell reserved for traitors, Machiavelli (who had a rather more flexible assessment of treachery) thought of Brutus as a hero for murdering Caesar. Machiavelli repeatedly lamented that Rome was never free since the rise of Caesar. In this sense Machiavelli seems to exhibit a certain civic republican streak (albeit a highly eccentric and qualified variety) that seems to inform his complicated relationship with, and role inaugurating, modernity.
The questions of Machiavelli’s relationship with modernity, or of whether Machiavelli ultimately favored a particular type of political order over another, are too complicated to address adequately here. It is unfortunate that Olavo does not extensively explore any of these questions, though perhaps for him these questions are irrelevant or petty when considered against the putatively demonic nature of Machiavelli’s thought as a whole. Interestingly, Olavo does acknowledge Machiavelli’s special role as a modern thinker in his introductory chapters that frame our inability to understand Machiavelli against the backdrop of modernity’s lack of self-understanding. In this sense we might wonder to what extent we can extrapolate Olavo’s diabolical diagnosis of Machiavelli to Modernity as a whole. Furthermore, we might wonder whether Machiavelli deserves special opprobrium relative to other thinkers generally accepted to have shaped modernity, for instance, Descartes, Hobbes, or Bacon. If Machiavelli suggests immoralism, at least his thought is still fundamentally human insofar as human psychology enjoys pride of place in Machiavelli’s political analysis. Machiavelli even goes so far as to appeal to a ruler or potential ruler’s desire for glory. Such appeals to the human element, and especially a ruler’s ambitious desire for glory, seem positively quaint in contrast to the coward’s motivation of fear of violent death which is the basis of Hobbesian political modernity, not to mention the soulless, mechanistic, scientific realm inaugurated by modern science. Where then does Machiavelli’s thought lie in relation to thinkers such as Descartes or Hobbes, and in relation to modern science, for Olavo? It would seem that the abscense of the modern scientific view in Machiavelli would have to create some distance between the Florentine and such mechanistic monstrosities such as Stalin’s Russia, or for that matter a vast, modern commercial regime such as the United States.
In this vein it is interesting to note that Olavo characterizes Stalin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy and the United States as perfected examples of the Machiavellian state. Leaving aside the question of whether this is a valid interpretation of Machiavelli, it surely opens fascinating questions about Olavo’s own conception not only of modernity, but of the United States in particular. While the implicit conflation of Stalin’s Russia and the modern, bureaucratic United States might strike us as heavy-handed, manifestly untenable, and even sloppy, we should note another thinker, Heidegger, who notoriously suggested that the United States and the Soviet Union were metaphysically the same. In the case of Heidegger, this seemingly outrageous conflation was actually grounded in a very sophisticated and elaborate philosophy and metaphysics. While Olavo is no advocate of Heidegger, as I learned in our dinner together, one is left wanting to learn more about Olavo’s philosophical outlook, and where fundamentally the United States (or Brazil for that matter) fits in the larger picture. Olavo’s book on Machiavelli’s Demonic Confusion proved to be a rich, rewarding and provocative tour of the Florentine’s thought, but it leaves us wanting to learn more of Olavo’s thought. Here’s hoping that the folks at Ashman press treat us to more translations of the work of this fascinating Brazilian sage.
Darren Beattie served as a speechwriter and policy advisor to President Donald J. Trump. Prior to his work in the White House, Dr. Beattie taught political theory at Duke University and at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, in Germany. Darren Beattie holds a B.S. in mathematics and economics from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in political theory from Duke University. He is founder and editor of the popular, renegade news outlet Revolver.news and remains active in politics on both a practical and philosophical level.