Stark’s Metamorphosis (an Unbiased Review of Iron Man 3)

iron-man-3(NOTE: This post is a continuation of my earlier “unbiased” reviews of the Marvel Thor and Avengers movies, in which I presented a reading of the films positing that Loki’s apparent ‘defeats’ in both movies were intentional parts of an extremely long-term plan, and that in The Avengers, when Loki zapped Tony Stark with his mind-control rod and it seemed not to work, it actually did work, but he made Stark pretend it didn’t so that after Loki allowed himself to be ‘defeated’ and ‘captured’ no one would realize Stark was still his agent on the outside.  Do I sincerely believe this is how the films are meant to be read?  No.  Do I enjoy them a heck of a lot more by reading them this way?  Absolutely.   This review is full of spoilers for the ‘plot’ of Iron Man 3.)

Character over plot has been a signature of these Marvel films, as the main events grind on in the background and we focus instead on the small, human experiences of side characters like Tony Stark, which a less subtle writing team would leave undeveloped and unexplored.  While Iron Man 3 offers no direct glimpse of the massing invasion which Loki is masterminding, it offers instead a detailed case study of an issue too frequently glossed over in such stories: the psychological effects of long-term mind control. Instead of seeing only the use Loki makes of his new servant, we are presented with a sensitive examination of the process of surrender and conversion.

The first quarter of the film establishes that the long-term domination of an intellect like Stark’s is far from simple.  Loki’s control is not weakening, but the unwilling mind is in turmoil, and breaking down.  The directors use no ham handed cliches, like a sinister Loki voice-over in Stark’s head, but show the realistically imagined symptoms of such a mental battle: sleeplessness, hyperactivity, memory loss, breakdowns in social interaction, eventually panic attacks, which trigger especially when those around Stark bring up New York, the aliens and the Avengers, topics which require him to directly lie to conceal the control, putting the most pressure on his deception.  If this continues, Stark will break down.  If he is to be useful to his new master, the former self sleeping inside him must succumb, accepting his new identity as a servant of Loki.  It is this process we watch as the film unfolds, starting from Stark’s opening line about how we “make our own demons,” referring, of course, to his fear that he is becoming a demon as he gives in.

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On his knees, amid fire and icy water. Quite as it should be.

The initial flashback to 1999 shows how early Loki sowed the seeds we will see blossom.  We instantly recognize that the regenerating plant effect, which mad science botanist Dr. Hansen is researching, cannot be human technology, and must be based on the effects of the Well of Urd which the Aesir use to regenerate Yggdrasil every day, though the exploding side-effect is clearly an enhancement by our favorite Jotun.  This event is years before Loki’s mind control took hold, so the audience is left guessing from the start: who is Loki watching here?  Stark, the conspicuous genius?  Or this woman Hansen, to whom he gave this power?  Does she know?  The answers come only toward the end of the film, when we come to understand the real import of the name tag reading “You Know Who I Am” – a message for the audience more than the characters that the true, hidden protagonist of these films is with us.

The main plot sparks when Stark, and the greater intellect which watches through him, encounters the completed form of the Well-of-Urd-based regeneration formula.  Obviously-corrupt mad scientist Aldrich Killian (a colleague of Hansen) enters Stark’s headquarters and shows Pepper Potts a holographic demonstration of the work his group AIM has done inserting Well-of-Urd regeneration into humans, and thereby creating precisely the effect that the hosts of Valhalla are supposed to enjoy: fighting, hacking off limbs and rising to fight and feast again (hereafter I shall refer to this by its obvious true name, the “Valhalla Serum”).  Loki’s hand is clear in the beautiful irony of the “Valhalla Serum” offering the same bribe Odin gives his chosen (with a super bonus heat-generating power added).

But, we realize, this research has matured while Loki is imprisoned in Asgard, an inconvenient necessity serving his larger goals, which means he does not actually have access to the finished Valhalla Serum formula, nor access to AIM’s current plans.  He seeded the research, but could not guide it further–at least not until it crossed his new servant’s path.  This happens when Stark’s security chief and friend Happy Hogan shows Stark the scene of Killian showing his holographic data display to Pepper Potts.  The data display, which Loki-through-Stark glimpses through Hogan’s tablet camera, is enough to confirm that what Killian has must be the mature form of the Valhalla Serum.  In an elegant moment of planning for deniability, Loki has Stark pretend that Hogan fails in his attempts to re-orient the camera toward Killian’s display, convincing Hogan that Stark never even saw Killian’s data, so he can thereafter claim not to know about it.  This is one of a number of steps Loki has Stark take to alienate Hogan, who, of course, as an old friend is the most likely person to notice Stark’s changed behavior and suspect mind-control, so Hogan is systematically pushed away until he can be conveniently left in a coma.  The explosion which leaves Hogan incapacitated also gives Stark and Loki their first glimpse of the delicious power of the mature Valhalla Serum.  From this point, gaining AIM’s finished Valhalla Serum (and other research) becomes Loki’s secondary goal, the primary, of course, being breaking Stark to his control.

Home: an easy thing for a stubborn psyche to cling to.
Home: easy for a stubborn psyche to cling to.

Loki then has Stark publicly challenge this infamous terrorist “The Mandarin” and invite him to attack Stark at his home.  The viewer is left wondering: does Loki know at this point that the Mandarin was a puppet of Killian and AIM, or did he, like Stark and the viewer, discover it when Hansen revealed it?  After all, the Mandarin plan was Killian’s, presumably developed quite recently, while Loki was imprisoned in Asgard.  Is it a plan he seeded before he let himself be captured?  Can we believe that his command that Stark challenge the Mandarin was mere chance?  Or did he know?  The idea that he might not know, that he might be improvising, is an entertaining one, and the authors let us believe it for a while, since there are three direct benefits to challenging the Mandarin which Loki could easily have seen even if he did not realize the connection between the Mandarin and his Valhalla Serum:

First, the destruction of Stark’s house (the inevitable consequence of the challenge) provides a powerful psychological marker for the internal destruction of his past self, making it easier for Stark to think of his past free self as a lost self, and his new self as having no home to return to other than that provided by service to his new master.  This destruction of the past is completed at the film’s end when all the old suits are destroyed – a new beginning for a creature with a new purpose.

Good service merits a reward.
Good service merits a reward.

Second, by putting Pepper Potts in danger, the attack sets up for the first of the great carrots Loki offers Stark as a reward for his surrender.  Stark can easily see that a superhero’s girlfriend will constantly be in mortal peril, but if Loki can give him a complete and stabilized Valhalla Serum then Potts can be made indestructible and therefore safe, a fit reward for a loyal servant.  Loki dangles this danger, and his offer, before Stark through the whole latter two-thirds of the film, when he guides Stark’s actions toward ensuring that Potts is kidnapped by Killian.  Loki and, presumably, Stark as well already know that a regeneration serum is the heart of this scheme, and knowing how mad scientists always like to turn the “girl” into “their creature” it is obvious that Killian will give Potts the serum.  Of course, Killian’s version is unstable – only Loki can grant Stark the final steps necessary to make a perfected version, which he does at the end of the film.

Third, and most obvious, Stark’s challenge brings the focus of the Mandarin, the US government and the world upon Stark, setting up a fresh opportunity for “Iron Man” to save the world (and especially America) from a great threat.  This wins Stark greater trust and security clearances, which we saw Loki already make such great use of in the Avengers film, where he used Stark to gained access to S.H.I.E.L.D. and Stark Enterprises’ security systems.  Stark’s flashy digital review of data on the Mandarin reminds the viewer that he has already given his new master access to Police, CIA, FBI records etc., but more trust is always worth winning, and taking down this great terrorist threat is an easy and fun opportunity to gain further inroads into human governments.  When Stark convinces James Rhodes (the pilot of War Machine) to give him his access password, on the excuse of helping thwart AIM and the Mandarin, Loki gains full access to AIM’s plans and research, as well as to new levels of NSA clearance.  Thus, during the hilarious scene in the tech van where Stark meets his obsessive fanboy, Loki is obtaining all data on the Valhalla Serum, as well as many other secrets of AIM and the US government, while in the fanboy Stark faces a reminder of how ridiculous his narcissism is, another hint of how much he will benefit if he lets Loki help him mature into something new.

Baptism by ice: another playful stage in Stark's progress.
Baptism by ice: another playful stage in Stark’s progress.

The maturation of the AIM/Mandarin plan has several small but commendable boons for Loki’s side.  War Machine, the only Iron Man suit not under Stark’s direct control, is hijacked by the enemy and thereby discredited in the eyes of a trusting government, which is led thereby to rely even more on Stark’s personal reliability.  The US president is kidnapped and personally rescued by Stark, engendering gratitude which will lead to even blinder future trust, and the Vice President is removed and replaced, presumably, with a figure Loki prefers.  The final battle is also an excellent opportunity to test the full range of Stark’s autonomous armor, though the suits deployed there must all be destroyed afterwards, since presumably S.H.I.E.L.D. and other Earth forces were watching the battle closely, and will develop counters for any suit deployed there – best to scrap them and trust to the new, superior ones which the newly-reborn Stark, Servant of Loki, will create (we have already had hints of stealth gear in planning).  (We can only imagine what delightful distraction Loki cooked up to keep S.H.I.E.L.D. and the rest of the Avengers busy while he is playing with Stark and the Mandarin–perhaps we can hope to see that in another film.)

It is, incidentally, during the final rescue of the President that Stark makes his one slip and shows how much his mind is being taken over by the Norse worldview, when he realizes they intend to burn the President and instantly calls it “A Viking funeral.”  He tries to cover, overcompensating with the wildly out-of-character Christian blessing gesture and the line, “It’s Christmas.  Take ’em to church,” line.  Naturally War Machine is too thick to spot the slip, but it is a fun touch, and proof of how excited Stark is to get to see Potts after her Valhalla Serum transformation.

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The true battlefield: Stark’s mind.

The Mandarin is, of course, secondary.  The true conquest occurs within Stark himself.  I called this a game of carrot, stick and mirror.  We had the carrot in granting the Valhalla serum to Pepper.  A second carrot is revealed at the end when suddenly, out of nowhere, Stark figures out how to remove the shrapnel from his heart, an impossible medical feat which he himself is, as we know, incapable of, so it must be a boon from a superior intelligence.  We had the stick in the destruction of Stark’s house, and other points at which his master forced him to endure hardships, though, as the film matures, it becomes clear (to the viewer and to Stark) that most of Stark’s pain is being brought on, not by his master, but by his own resistance.

The mirror is a special touch, supplied by figures of Maya Hansen and Aldrich Killian, both genius scientists like Stark, who have themselves gone through a process of corruption and surrender.  In them Stark sees what he thinks he will become if he succumbs, the “demon” he fears.  Their example makes him more determined to resist.  Yet, as he confronts them (in the scene where they have captured him and tied him to a bedframe) he realizes they are not what his master would have him become.  They are weak and petty, fractious, self-absorbed, serving no greater plan.  Fools.  Fools who failed the test, and we see now there was a test, as we realize at last what really happened in 2009 when Loki seeded the Valhalla serum to Hansen.  Hansen shows Stark the old name tag he left with her in 2009, with “You Know Who I Am” on the front, and on the reverse the formula for the next stage of the Valhalla Serum.  Hansen thinks Stark wrote it, but Stark says he does not remember writing it.  The truth is obvious: Loki left the formula, as he must have left other seeds for Hansen before, testing to see if she was smart enough to realize these were not human achievements but products of an inhuman genius.  By leaving the formula on a paper connected to a famous genius, Loki tests Hansen: is she foolish enough to believe Stark wrote this, or will she realize there is something greater reaching out to her?  Hansen failed the test, so Loki abandons her.

Stark passes.  He says nothing, but he realizes when he sees that formula that it is no work of his.  It is this that shows him just how much smarter he is than these other “fallen geniuses” he had thought were mirrors of himself.  He realizes now that the transformation he is undergoing is entirely different from their weak corruption.  The determination to “not be like them” vanishes, replaced by fresh awe for the scope of intellect, both his own intellect, for passing the test, and his master’s, for weaving such wonders.  In that moment Stark realizes how much greater he can become, how much more he can accomplish, if he throws away the flash and brawn of Iron Man and allows his new master to guide him toward his true calling: the full exercise of his intellect.  This is one central step in his metamorphosis.

A very special visitor.
A very special visitor.

The other, of course, is contact.  Stranded by his suit’s malfunction, Stark just “happens” to come across the convenient little boy genius “Harley Keener”, who has been active in the area near the first successful Valhalla Serum blast.  “Harley” has a shed full of equipment, a conspicuous lack of interfering parents, in-depth knowledge of the blast zone where the Valhalla Serum activated, and an uncanny ability to poke at Stark’s weak spots (New York, aliens), egging on his transformation.  The boy tells a story about being abandoned by his father, a story which is a little too… familiar.  Even his potato gun is a very familiar shade of green.  It is this “Harley” who pushes the change, who urges Stark to stop thinking of himself as a fighter and think of himself as a smith (“mechanic”) again, who makes him realize his mind, not his suit, is his true weapon.    A second test unfolds here: will Stark recognize his master?    Will he realize the great honor he has been granted, being invited to work side-by-side with the Great Intellect in this dwarf-like improvised smithy?  The worthy outpouring of gifts and tribute which Stark sends to the “child” at the end of the film confirms that he passes this test too.

Our patient mastermind.
Our patient mastermind.

We do not yet get to know how Loki is able to manifest while still in prison.  Did he slip out and take this form?  Is this a boy priest he is possessing?  Is this an illusory projection?  The possibilities are thrilling, and Loki’s presence on the scene of the first Valhalla Serum blast confirms to us at last that he must indeed have known about the AIM Mandarin scheme from its inception, since it was conceived to cover up these blasts and make them seem like the work of a terrorist instead of scientific accidents.  If Loki was there from blast one, we can easily assume he was watching Hansen, Killian and AIM as the Well-of-Urd seeds he planted bore their sweet, explosive fruits.

“My armor was never a distraction or hobby it was a cocoon, and now I’m a changed man. You can take away my house, all my tricks and toys, but one thing you can’t take away.  I am Iron Man.”   This conclusion, from Stark’s own mouth, marks the end of his transformation, and confirms that this was always about his rebirth as Loki’s servant.  He receives his rewards–the perfected Valhalla Serum for Potts, the healing of his heart–but the greatest reward is self-discovery.  Genius is stronger than iron.  Brains over brawn, Loki’s subtlety over Thor’s force, smithcraft over hack and slash.  That is what Iron Man is, and always should have been.  Stark is ready now to become greater than he has ever been, and serve something greater than any human has ever served: his master’s Plan.

Where, then, does this sideline character sketch leave our central protagonist Loki?  We know he remains physically in his Asgardian prison, but this film reassures those of us who were worried that he might be suffering in the boredom of such confinement.  We had assumed he had plans for his months of imprisonment, but it is comforting to have this confirmation that his reach remains long, and his plans active.  And we have uncovered new facets of his character: generosity, and delight in intelligence in all its forms.  He watched Stark for years, long enough to recognize not only the potential utility of this human genius but also the flaws preventing him from achieving his full potential.  Given power over Stark, Loki could break him viciously, but instead he breaks him kindly, helping him to actualize his hitherto stunted potential.  Our prince of intellect, it seems, loves intellect in others, even in humans, enough to cultivate it when he can reach it.  Certainly Stark will make a more valuable servant this way than if he were simply broken, but the patience, the rewards, and the hands-on touch of a personal visit all establish this as more than mere utility.  We have been shown a rare glimpse of the kinder face of our mastermind.  Months of prison have not made him bitter; they have made him subtler.

Click here to read the next installment in the series.

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A Rose for Rodrigo Borgia (guest post)

Note: this is a guest post.  I am on another research jaunt, speaking in Rome and Oxford and visiting an intriguing book in Paris.  While I’m travel-swamped, a good friend, Rush-That-Speaks, has agreed to write a guest post, describing a little Roman adventure we shared.

Rush-That-Speaks writes:

The last time “Ex Urbe” and I were in Rome together, which was late in November of 2011, we were sitting in our hotel room one moderately tired evening, and, as one does, were discussing the Borgias. I believe that this was in the context initially of the Borgia arms, which are stamped on everything the family sponsored in Rome during Rodrigo’s papacy (1492-1503). The coat of arms of the reigning pope also gets put up at all the churches where the pope is a regular celebrant, and not taken down no matter how many centuries go by, and sometimes popes just put their arms up on things because they’re pope and they can and it’s a Statement. The Borgia bull, therefore, is pretty common throughout the City, along with various other Renaissance great houses who at some point took the papacy: Medici and della Rovere and so on. Honestly these tend to be in better taste than more recent stamps-of-arms; Benedict’s arms came out a rather nasty shade of fuchsia. So we were talking about places we’d spotted the bull that day, surprising and otherwise, and how annoying it is that Cesare Borgia is buried over in Spain where people who have been traveling through all the scenes of his life in Italy cannot easily go and look at him.  [Ex Urbe Note: Reminder regarding Cesare’s tomb, he was originally buried in the Church of Santa Maria in Viana but in 1537 the bishop had the tomb destroyed and his remains buried in unconsecrated ground, as (many thought at the time) such sinful monsters deserve. In 2007, on the 500th anniversary of his death, the Archbishop currently in charge of the site had Cesare dug up and moved back into a proper tomb again, partly on the theory that 500 years’ exile was enough even for such a monster, and because it was a publicity and tourism coup.  Lucrezia is in the castle in Ferrara with her last husband, Alfonso d’Este]

The Tomb of Alexander VI, nominee for Worst Pope. But where is it?

Which led to contemplation of the death of Cesare Borgia, purulent with syphilis and defeated but still fighting as he was, and then to the anecdote about the seven devils who came to Rodrigo Borgia’s deathbed to bear him off when his time for plaguing the world was finished (a fairly well-accepted bit of gossip); and then a question occurred which had never really crossed either of our minds before, namely, if Cesare is off in Spain, then where is Rodrigo Borgia buried?

If you want a papal tomb of course you traditionally look in St. Peter’s. He wouldn’t be in the upper level, the church itself, because you have to be a saint or at least beatified to be buried in that part at all. Many popes who have not yet achieved sainthood but hope for it are buried in hopeful little tombs in the basement crypts, and then whenever one of them is exalted in status he is moved upstairs and showered in triumphant statuary. But it’s not as though there’s a morals requirement for being buried in the basement. Boniface VIII is down there, the pope Dante spent several cantos calling the Antichrist, and Boniface is even buried with his nephew, the one whose appointment as Cardinal gives us the word ‘nepotism’, from nepos, nephew.

However, if Rodrigo were in the basement of St. Peter’s either “Ex Urbe” or myself would have heard about it at some point. St. Peter’s is a very heavily documented and famous place, discussed by artists and architects throughout history. There are explanatory books and pamphlets about it sold maybe every fifty feet in the City of Rome, there are guided tours, there are non-guided tours, and at some point in some way one of us would have come across the fact of him if he were in there, even if he were in a portion never open to the public.

Ex Urbe note: Popular historical figures in Rome receive frequent visits, flowers and letters. Here is what collected at the foot of a modern statue of Julius Caesar near the forum, while other flowers appear (the and throughout the year) at his tomb, and at the spot where he was killed. Cities, nations, clubs and organizations leave big wreathes, while many individuals just contribute a single blossom. I often do too when in town on the ides, and get a special thrill seeing how many others are so moved by history.

So we looked it up. Rodrigo Borgia is buried in Santa Maria in Monserrato degli Spagnoli, the Church of Holy Mary in Monserrat of the Spaniards, which is the official Spanish church in Rome. By this I mean it is the church in which Spanish dignitaries in Rome conduct their ceremonies, and the church which is specially charged to look after Spanish travelers in distress, and, most importantly, where famous Spaniards who die in Rome are buried. Many countries have such churches in Rome, and so do several professions– the official sailors’ church in Rome is very close to S. Maria in Monserrato, and so is the official Russian church (a more surprising object). It is not, however, a very prestigious place to be buried, not if you are a Pope. The reason why is tomb desecration: people kept trying it. They’d put Rodrigo in one place, and someone would desecrate the site, and then they’d move him, and it would happen again, and it just kept happening, so they moved Rodrigo and the previous Borgia Pope, Callixtus III, who was somewhat better liked, into the Spanish church. And didn’t mark the place. And buried them together. And hoped that would do it.  [Note from Ex Urbe: There are reports of Alexander’s immediate successors, especially Julius II, refusing to let him be in St. Peter’s, and Julius even ordered that all Borgia tombs be opened, but the vandalism seems to have been not only fast but also frequent and consistent over decades.]

It’s marked now, because in the middle nineteenth century a fairly popular King of Spain died in Rome, and when they buried Alonzo XIII next to the Borgias they figured they’d better put up a mausoleum so everybody knew who was where. The body of the King of Spain has since been repatriated, but apparently no one is angry enough to desecrate a Borgia tomb anymore, so the plaque for Rodrigo and Callixtus remains.

This meant we could go over and leave Rodrigo some flowers. I was curious to see whether anybody else would have.

We started by going over to the Campo de’ Fiori, which is the flower market of Rome. It’s also an open-air market for a lot of other things, the usual tourist souvenirs but also a very good produce and farmers’ market with a wide selection of seasonal fruits and vegetables in the early mornings, and in the center it has the monument to Giordano Bruno on the spot where he was burned at the stake for heresy. A thing it is pleasant to do, and which I had done earlier in the trip, is to buy fruit from the market, such as one of the kaki, the big sweet orange Italian persimmons, and sit on Bruno’s plinth and eat it looking at him. He is usually covered in pigeons, as are many statues in Rome, but he looks less indignant about it than most of them. But that day we had to figure out what kind of flower you take to the grave of Seriously The Most Evil Pope. The flower market is not seasonally restricted the way the rest of the market is, and is basically open-air florist’s shops, so you can really get just about anything. An orchid might be overdoing it a little? What seemed most appropriate was a single dark red rose, though in the end a small cluster of coral-colored roses was the best we could acquire.

Then to find the church. It is not easy to find a single church in Rome. Any given block will have between two and five of them. The internet told us that S. Maria in Monserrato was on a street called the Via Giulia, pretty much due west of the Campo de’ Fiori, south of the Corso Vittorio Emanuele and south-east of the Mazzini bridge. The Via Giulia is a fairly long street, running north-west to south-east, in a quiet little quarter between Everything Historic and the river. We found the street itself pretty easily, and it turns out to be a sheltered backwater of a neighborhood, somewhat residential but mostly centered on antique shops and obscure churches of precisely the sort we were looking for. We went into several antique shops, as “Ex Urbe” is on a years’-long quest for an affordable piece of porphyry, and the thing I will never quite forget about the Via Giulia was the way every single antique shop reeked desperately of a different flavor of incredibly penetrating cigarette smoke. It was astonishing. I would have been afraid to buy stone tablets from some of those places for fear of the smell having seeped into solid rock. But the owners were friendly and knowledgeable and good at their professions, which means of course that there was no affordable porphyry, because no one good at the profession of antiquing would permit such a thing to happen.  [Ex Urbe note: had I been 900 euros richer, I might have left one shop 900 euros poorer with the most beautiful marble tile inlaid with spiraling triangular chips porphyry and serpentine… I can still see it if I close my eyes… just like the Sistine Chapel floor.  Have I griped recently about how hard it is to find a photo of the Sistine Chapel floor?]

Part of Via Giulia was under construction that day, so Rome, in good spirit, covered the construction wall with images of Renaissance ladies’ costumes.

There were also signs up and down the Via Giulia talking about celebrating the neighborhood, and the artistic and antique beauty of the quarter and its long history, and these signs had on them a portrait of… could it be? Does irony work in such mysterious ways? Was Rodrigo Borgia, Alexander VI, The Most Evil Renaissance Pope, really buried on a street named for Pope Julius II, Giuliano della Rovere, Rodrigo’s successor to the papacy and rival, enemy and heir? Della Rovere who fled to France when Rodrigo was elected, for fear of poison, della Rovere who brought Charles VIII of France back with him to conquer Italy, so mad was he to see it taken from the Borgias? (It didn’t work. Rodrigo bought the right people in the King of France’s cabinet: Charles conquered, but did not depose the papacy.) Via Giulia. There was his picture on every signpost banner. How remarkable.

Except of course that we couldn’t find the church anywhere. As I mentioned, the street is a long one, and we went up and down it two or three times, from the Official Church Of The Florentines In Rome at one end of it to the bit where it peters vaguely out near the river at the other end. [Ex Urbe note: of course Florentines need their own Church in Rome: S.P.Q.F!] There are a lot of little churches, all with similar facades, white and severe with the same kinds of inset columns, the same triangular pediments, the names carved neatly into the marble somewhere or other, but no facade that matched the one we’d seen on the internet, and no remotely similar name. It was beginning to get late, on a November evening which was starting to aim for freezing, and the first few people we asked had no idea either.

It was an antique-shop owner who told us, finally, that of course Via Giulia as the address of the church didn’t mean it fronted on the Via Giulia; it has its unmarked back to that street. No, it fronts on the Via Monserrato, one street easterly, and we’d walked by the back at least four times. We located it, and there indeed it sat, the white facade, the inset columns, the neat blank triangle pediment, the carved correct name, and the sign on the door saying that it is open only for Masses at seven and nine a.m. Sundays.

The interior of the church where Alexander is buried. Given that it’s a Spanish-run church, readers should be able to Spot the Saint in the painting toward the left, even blurred and from this distance.

This is not actually that uncommon a situation with churches in Italy. They do not always enjoy being treated as art objects and goals for a tourist tramp. They are part of a living religion and tradition and would like that respected, and also they haven’t got the manpower to keep everything open all the time, because there are just too many churches for that to be possible. A small, obscure church might only be open for Mass on its saints’-day, or every other Sunday, or every third week, or whenever it is part of the rounds of the local bishop, maybe every few months. Open every Sunday actually indicates that S. Maria in Monserrato has a devoted and habitual congregation, quite possibly composed of the expatriate Spaniard community for whom it was originally built. We had had to give up all hope of seeing the grill of St. Lawrence earlier in the trip, because the church where that is kept opens once a year officially and we couldn’t figure out what door nearby it might lead to someone with the ability to let us in. There’s a church with a Michelangelo in it in Florence which is practically a landmark because of the crowds of tourists standing around it trying to figure out why it is inexplicably closed all the time; “Ex Urbe”’s lived in Florence for more than one year of her life and never gotten in there, and no helpful signs, either.  [Ex Urbe note: Someday I will be there on Good Friday, when ALL Churches are required to open their doors to everyone. Then I will go in and perniciously look at all the art!  Wahaha!  Wahahahaha!]

But fortunately, we had tramped out to find Rodrigo Borgia on a Saturday afternoon, and Sunday lay before us. So we hauled ourselves out of bed on Sunday morning, and were at the church doors just before nine a.m., and they were open.

Now, any Mass at a church of this sort is open to anybody, but it is rude to hang around for very long if you are not actually going to go to the service, and it is very rude to wander around a lot taking pictures and gawking and then leave visibly. We did not even go up to the front. There may well be some decent statuary or painting in there somewhere, but we did not see it, because we went straight to the Borgia tomb, which luckily is in the first niche on the right-hand side, and stayed there, out of the way of the entering crowd. There’s a railing keeping you out of the actual niche, and the tomb itself is well back in the niche, in the right-hand-side wall, so in order to see it you have to stand with your back to the front of the church (and the altar) and crane your neck over, which seems appropriate. It’s a chaste enough marble tomb, done up like a little Greek temple, with relief busts of Rodrigo and Callixtus and a model stone pope hat, the Borgia bull three times and no motto. The tomb of the Spanish king, which is under it, is very much more mourning-centered and has a motto about how much his people loved him; I am pretty sure the contrast was intentional.

A terrible pope, yes, but, with the luxury of distance, an historian can’t help but be fond of him for giving us such interesting times to study. He deserves the occasional visit, even if the old half-Spanish roman ladies who had turned up for mass stared at us suspiciously.  Can’t blame them – I’d stare suspiciously at someone who brought flowers to Borgias.

“Ex Urbe” is taller than I am and has better aim, so she leaned over the railing at an angle and then tossed the rose. It landed well, on the floor in front of the tomb. There weren’t any other flowers in sight. We slipped out of the church just as the doors were shutting and Mass was about to start, blinking into the bright morning. Speculating over whether, when they came to clean the niches, the staff would think the rose was for the King of Spain, and whether this happens often. I somehow think it doesn’t.

So Rodrigo is buried facing the Via Giulia, and the church he’s in is facing away from it, but also actually on it. This is very much the way the City of Rome turns out to work, sometimes. Like how Caesar was stabbed on the messiest junction of the overground tram tracks, a gentle and unmarked unintentional joke upon history. I am not entirely certain it is worth going out of your way for his tomb, as a tourist, unless you are the way we are about the Borgias and happen to have a free Sunday morning, but it was certainly worth it to us, and the option is there for those who may want it.

(Rush-That-Speaks writes book reviews of sci-fi and fantasy literature, and blogs about many things including reading an impressive range of books, a lot of genre topics.  She recently completed a project to read 365 books in 365 days, a fascinating and impressive undertaking.  You can find her own blog here, or hosted through LiveJournal.)

Related: Read about the Borgias in TV Drama.

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Spot the Saint: The Four Evangelists

We still have plenty of saints to cover, now that the Machiavelli series is done.

In the last edition of Spot the Saint I discussed John the Evangelist, common in crucifixion scenes and in paintings that want an excuse to show a comely young man.  But another common reason to depict him is when one, for aesthetic symmetry purposes, wants a set of four saints to depict, often for architectural purposes: decorating a row of four vaults or four arches, in the four corners of a frame, on the four sides of a dome or a cabinet, etc.  The four Evangelists serve perfectly, and in Florence at least one sees Matthew, Mark and Luke far more often in the set of four than one sees them individually; John is the exception.  I will thus briefly discuss each of the remaining three gospel-writers, and then treat how one spots them when they’re together.

Each of the four Evangelists has a special symbolic animal, making the set very easy to spot.  The animals come from Revelations 4.7, and their connection to the Evangelists is… vague but firmly rooted in iconograpic tradition.  Any given Evangelist is often sitting near or on his animal, or has the animal as a decorative motif in the frame.  Sometimes the animal alone is used to depict the saint.  These animals are always winged, and sometimes covered with eyes.  Spotting the four in a set makes the Evangelists easy to pick out.  The four are a Lion for Mark, a Bull for Luke, an Eagle for John, and a winged person i.e. an angel for Matthew.

Saint Mark (San Marco)

  • Common attributes: Winged Lion, book, long white beard
  • Occasional attributes: Inscription saying “Pax Tibi Marce Evangelista Meus”
  • Patron saint of: Lawyers (Barriesters), Venetian Sailors
  • Patron of places: Venice, Egypt, Alexandria
  • Feast day: April 25th
  • Most often depicted: Writing in a book while looking dower, being a winged lion, riding a winged lion.
  • Relics: Venice.  (Venice: “We have him!  You can’t have him!  Wa haha!  Wa hahahaha!”)

Setting aside the technical biblical details about who Mark started as (which never appear in art), St. Mark seems to have served as an interpreter and traveling companion for Peter for a while, transcribing his sermons (which turned into the Gospel of St. Mark), and thereafter founded the Church of Alexandria and eventually served as its bishop.  The Church of Alexandria later evolved into the Coptic Church (notable for leaving us many exciting manuscripts and for coming up with the brilliant idea that instead of writing in long scrolls you could bind pages of writing together into a rectangular structure called a “codex” which we recognize as the modern standard book) so Mark is extremely popular with the surviving Coptic Church, and there are late Coptic stories that he might have been martyred by having a rope tied around his neck and being dragged by it through the street until he was strangled, but this is quite apocryphal so there are fairly few Italian paintings of it.

The Doge of Venice kneeling before his patron.

Mark is particularly prominent in Italy because he is the patron saint of Venice.  In 828 AD, Venetian sailors stole Mark’s relics from Alexandria and took them to Venice, where they are now housed in the stunningly expensive Basilica of St. Marco.  Venice is excessively proud of this, so much so that the front of said Basilica boasts a mosaic featuring the theft.  This may seem strange, but stolen relics were particularly prestigious in the pre-modern world.  When a relic was stolen it was “The will of the saint,” whereas if it was bought then human greed and avarice made the acquisition less holy.  Mark wanted to be in Venice, is the logic, which is why he arranged to be stolen.  Theft also proves power and conquest, and the rest of the Basilica is built from expensive colored marbles looted from Constantinople when the Venetians conquered it, thus advertising Venice’s wealth and military prowess as well as their piety.

The winged lion of St. Mark is thus the symbol of Venice, and they put it on absolutely everything.  In fact, if lost in Italy you can usually tell how close to Venice you are by the steady increase in winged lions as one approaches the lagoon.  So enthusiastic is Venice about the winged lion that, when called upon to create a three-part symbol representing the city, its land empire and its sea empire, the government settled on a winged lion standing on land for the land empire, a winged lion standing on waves for the sea empire, and a third winged lion in a different pose in the middle for the city itself.  So powerfully was St. Mark associated with Venice in the Renaissance that, if you ever see him depicted outside the context of the set of four, smart money says there are Venetians about.  Even in Rome you can spot Venetian-built buildings by the winged lions all over them, and anywhere once ruled by Venice is saturated with them.

Hard to see in a photo, but here you can see the body being stolen on the right, and the ship on the far left. In the middle they’re smuggling it in a basket, past the cargo inspectors. Saints work in complex ways.

Saint Luke

  • Common attributes: Winged ox, book, beard.
  • Occasional attributes: Paintbrush, surgical tool, icon of the Virgin and Child.
  • Patron saint of: Artists, sometimes doctors, surgeons, notaries, historians, butchers.
  • Patron of places: Padua
  • Feast day: October 18th
  • Most often depicted: Painting the Virgin, sitting on a winged bull, being a winged bull.
  • Relics: Padua, with a piece in Thebes.

Luke came from Antioch, in Syria, and is credited as author of the Gospel of St. Luke and of the Acts.  He is described as having been a doctor, but is not particularly associated with doctors or generally invoked as their patron becuase, unlike Cosmus and Damian, he did no medical miracles.  He is often discussed as an historian, since the books credited to him seem to contain an unusual amount of historical and geographical detail in addition to describing events he did not himself witness and must have researched.  His status as an historian is thus a product of later scholars noting the difference in his tone from other bits of the New Testiment.  Debates over whether or not Luke counts as an historian have been fought a lot, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, and are something of a nexus for arguments over what an “historian” is, i.e. can someone whose work had a specific persuasive goal be called an historian?  An interesting debate.

Even more divorced from textual sources but far more important in visual depictions of Luke is the idea that he was a painter.  He is supposed, according to Medieval tradition, to have painted the first religious icon, a portrait of the Virgin Mary, painted either while she was alive or while she visited him in a vision.  The incredbly monotonous and identical icons of Mary which proliferated throughout the Middle Ages and, in the East, even later, were supposed to be copies of his, and their slavish dedication to being as identical as possible was motivated by the desire to preserve the authentic original.  Icons supposed to be the original painted by Luke pop up from time to time in the Renaissance, often brought home to places like England from Italy, or farther east.  When shown solo, saint Luke is most commonly depicted as an artist, and one of the most popular tricks is to paint St. Luke painting the Virgin, so one gets to paint her, him, accompanying angels, plus the canvas with his unfinished portrait.

Luke’s relics were in Ottoman hands for a long time, but were brought to Europe as part of the dowry of a Serbian princess and then sold to Venice sometime close to 1500.  Venice put the relics in Padua, the city closest to it on the mainland, its most constant and important subject city and the home of its university.  The relics were examined by scientists in the 1990s (when the Eastern Church asked for a piece back to put in his tomb in Thebes, a request which was, in fact, granted) and the bones seem to be of the right place and period.   His animal is the ox, for which reason he is occasionally a patron of butchers.

Saint Matthew

  • Common attributes: Book, beard, accompanied by a small angel
  • Occasional attributes: Money bag
  • Patron saint of: Tax collectors, accountants, other people who handle money, perfumers
  • Patron of places: Salerno, Trier (Germany), Washington DC
  • Feast day: Sept. 21, Nov 16
  • Most often depicted: Writing his gospel
  • Relics: Salerno

Matthew was a tax collector before converting to writing and preaching.  Tax collectors were not well-liked at the time, so he is taken as an example that Jesus wanted to call bad people as well as good.  In addition to the Gospel of St. Matthew, many  now-officially-apocryphal writings were attributed to him, and he is one of few Apostles whose existence is firmly accepted in the Muslim tradition as well.  Everyone agrees he evangelized in Ethiopia.  We don’t know that much about Matthew’s life and he has few extra adventures credited to him by the medieval tradition, so is rarely depicted at all except with the set of the other three.  A man in apostolic (i.e. vaguely Roman) robes with a beard, a book and an angel is often him, but might be any number of other people, so it’s best to see if his three companions are nearby before making a firm guess.  His relics are the pride of the city of Salerno, in a very early cathedral, constructed in the 1000s.

The fourth, of course, is John, who, when in the set with the others, usually has his eagle, and is usually depicted in his old man state to match the other three.

Evangelists are usually easy in Spot the Saint, particularly since they travel in a set, but occasionally you get one by himself just standing there with no animal or nothing: bearded man in apostle-looking robes with book.  Sometimes the first line of the relevant gospel is written on the book, so if you have memorized the Latin Vulgate translation of the first sentence of each you can tell who’s who, but few of us today have.  Failing Latin, in such circumstances the best way to figure out who it is is to think about where you are, or where the painting is from.  Are you, perhaps, standing in a monastery named “San Marco”?  Or looking at a painting made in Venice?  Or Padua?  If so, you can make a pretty confident guess.  Sometimes, though, the best you can do is: “There are two apostle-looking guys discussing a book.  They’re probably evangelists, most likely Mark and Luke since they’re the most popular.”

The Evangelists are also a good way to get yourself used to spotting what apostles dress like, which is to say they are always in Roman-ish robes, with a colored drape of one color over a floor-length tunic/robe of a second color.  This uniform is exclusive to saints of the Roman era and pretty exclusive to apostles, so is a good taxonomic way to narrow things down.   Is the mystery saint dressed like an Apostle?  If so you can rule out a huge portion of saints.

And now, Spot the Saint Quiz time.

First, since it’s been a while, a brief review of everyone we’ve seen so far, so you have the possibilities fresh in your mind.  See if you can remember one or two attributes for each:

  • Sometimes Evangelists’ animals don’t have wings!

    Saint John the Baptist

  • Saint Lawrence
  • Saint Sebastian
  • Saint Catherine of Alexandria
  • Saint Peter
  • Saunt Paul
  • Saint Zenobius
  • Saint Reparata
  • Saint Dominic
  • Saint Peter Martyr
  • Saint Thomas Aquinas
  • Saint Francis of Assisi
  • Saint Antony of Padua
  • Saint Bernardino of Sienna
  • Saint Nicholas of Cusa
  • Saint Agatha
  • Saint Lucy
  • Saint John the Evangelist
  • Saint Mary Magdalene
  • Saint Mark the Evangelist
  • Saint Luke the Evangelist
  • Saint Matthew the Evangelist

And now the quiz, a Fra Angelico fresco from one of the cells in the gorgeous monastery of San Marco in Florence, a political hotbed of a monastery, patronized and paid for by Cosimo do Medici but later the seat of Savonarola.  All but one of the figures in this image are figures we have discussed.  The last one is St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine monks, here depicted unhelpfully without his usual attribute, a bundle of canes to flog novices with.  You should still be able to tell which he is.  Throwing one’s hands up as the saints are doing is a gesture of surprise and awe.

 Skip to the next Spot the Saint entry.

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Machiavelli V: Why We Keep Asking “Was Machiavelli an Atheist?”

I can’t come up with any really appropriate illustrations for this entry, so am including random pictures of cool objects from Florence, since Machiavelli likes Florence. This is the Chimera, the most impressive Etruscan bronze ever excavated in Tuscany, now in the Florentine Archaeological Museum.  (The Etruscans were contemporaries and rivals of the early Romans).

Was Machiavelli an atheist?  We don’t know and never will, but we can learn much about our society’s attitudes toward atheism by examining the persistence of the question, and the different reasons we have asked it over and over for centuries even though we know we have no proof.

(This is the last entry in my Machaivelli series.  See also Machiavelli Part IPart I.5Part IIPart III and Part IV)

No historical discipline can be honestly called “neutral”, but the study of atheism (and of its cousins skepticism, deism, and more general freethought, heterodoxy and radical religion) has always been particularly charged because it is so impossible to be detached from the central question.  Setting aside the elaborate and bloody history of religious violence, oppression and entanglement in politics, whether you answer “No,” “Yes,” “Maybe,” or “Sort-of,” the question of whether or not there is a divine force and/or being(s) ordering or governing the cosmos, your answer has an enormous impact on your everyday actions, decision-making, ethics, attitudes toward law and government, and every other corner of the human condition.  Even if religion and government had never mixed in the history of the Earth, if tomorrow you encountered irrefutable proof that the answer to the question was the opposite of what you had hitherto believed, your life and actions thenceforth would be radically different.  The stakes are high, and personal.  This makes it hard for historians to be calm about it.

Historians did not try to be calm about it in the early, juicy days when atheism was first presented as having a history.  In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, pamphlets and books discussing famous atheists were a thriller genre, scandalous tales of tyrants and madmen which occupied largely the same niche as biographies of serial killers, or penny museums displaying the death masks of executed murderers.  Treatises on “Infamous Atheists” served a slightly more learned audience than wax heads and the numerous early versions of the Sweeny Todd legend, but only slightly, and as they proliferated in printing shops tales of the scandalous excesses of Tiberius and Caligula under the label “atheist” were part morality play, part voyeurism, and part slander as each particular collection targeted its audience’s enemies.  French collections accused Italians and Englishmen of atheism while Italian collections accused Frenchmen; Catholic collections accused Martin Luther and John Calvin of atheism, while Protestant collections accused popes and papists, and almost all European collections accused Muslims and Jews of atheism in a spirit of general racism and lack of accountability and lexical clarity.

An awesome Baroque tomb, in the Santa Croce cloister.

You may note that neither Martin Luther nor Caligula is on record as ever having philosophically attacked the existence of God, but the logic chain of these collections is, from our perspective, backwards: (1) Fear of Hell drives men to good behavior.  (2) These men were bad.  (3) These men did not fear Hell.  (4) These men were atheists.  In the Renaissance, sinful living in overt defiance of divine law was considered evidence of atheism, to the degree that we have records of many atheism trials from the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries in which the evidence brought by the prosecution involves no statement of unbelief on the part of the accused.  Rather the evidence will be sinful living, promiscuity, homosexuality, gluttony, irreverence of civic and religious authority, anything from a monk taking in a mistress to a drunkard running around in public with no pants on (See Nicholas Davidson, “Atheism in Italy 1500-1700,” in Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment, ed. Michael Hunter & David Wootton (Oxford, 1992), 55-86, esp. 56-7).

Serious attempts to write a history of atheism began in the later nineteenth century, when secularization had progressed enough that an atheist was no longer a thrilling exotic creature, but was instead a black sheep in a land with many, many sheep of which some were even more alarming colors than black.  It was also at this point that histories of atheism bifurcated.  Some presented pessimistic accounts (by theist authors) of the modern decay of morals as atheism proliferated, while others presented optimistic accounts (by guess who) of the progress of secularization.  Even in their more objective accounts, when dealing with earlier periods when atheism was rare and its traces elusive, these historians were, or rather we historians are, still prone to hyperenthusiasm when we think we have found what we are looking for, as whale watchers may mistake any dark shape for a humped back.

Everyone (whether theist or atheist) who studies pre-modern atheism is excited when we find evidence of it.  This is because secularization, this brave new world in which atheism is both commonplace and legal, is an essential characteristic of the modern Western world, one of its unique features, differentiating us, here, now, from all earlier times and all other places.  When I say the modern world is secularized I do not mean that atheism is a majority or even a plurality—it remains a small minority.  What I mean is that atheism is universally present in Western discourse as a coequal interlocutor in theological debate, and all contemporary Western theists have lived their whole lives in contact with atheism, debating with atheists or at least expecting they might have to do so, and generally knowing that atheism is a commonplace alternative to their own views.  This is radically different from the pre-modern situation, in which people saw atheists as elusive and invisible enemies (rather like vampires), and most books on the subject described atheism as a form of mental illness (often thought to be inborn), or as a moral perversion (compared in the period to homosexuality), while the genuine philosophical atheist was expected to be so extraordinarily rare that we might see only a couple in a century (such categories are employed by David Derodon in his treatise L’atheism Convaincu (1659), see Alan Kors, Atheism in France (1990), p. 28).

In Florence’s $1,000 Purse District, holiday decorations last year consisted of live olive trees inside huge gauze vases with floating neon halos above. Why not?

If the study of history is more than mere delight in exciting stories of past exploits, it is an attempt to understand our origins and ourselves.  When we comb the past and spot something characteristically modern—be it the scientific method, hygiene, feminism or atheism—we are excited because we have found an early trace of home.  Religious tolerance and the presence of atheism as a coequal participant in religious discourse in our own day is part of what makes us radically different from our predecessors.  The following claim may seem counter-intuitive, but if I were to send an average modern American theist back in time to the seventeenth century, I think that person would debate more comfortably with an early atheist than with a theist of the same era, because the atheist, while disagreeing with our time traveler, would be disagreeing with somewhat familiar vocabulary and justifications, while the seventeenth-century theist would be going on about Aristotle, and teleology, and angels pushing the Moon around, and other fruits of an alien religious conversation that has no experience of 90% of the theological issues which our modern time traveler is used to considering.  The seventeenth-century atheist probably knows what “natural selection” is (he read about it in Lucretius) but the corresponding theist probably hasn’t read such a rare and stigmatized text, so when our time traveler says “I want a proof of the existence of God that stands up against natural selection,” the atheist can have that conversation, while the theist is much less prepared.  For most Renaissance theists Thomas Aquinas’ Proof of the Existence of God from Design is unassailable; for us, it’s been assailed every minute of every day of our lives; for the early atheist, it has an assailant, and it’s a similar assailant to the one we moderns are used to, so we can talk about it with the atheist and feel more at home than if we tried to talk to a theist who had never experienced any such attack.  A pre-modern theist is, of course, well prepared for attacks from heresies we no longer worry much about: Arianism, Averroism, Antinomianism, but Darwin is a bolt from the blue.  Not so much so for the early atheist, who, whether right or wrong, is more prepared for modern conversations than the average theist of his day.  Thus, for atheists and believers alike, the history of atheism is the history of theology coming to be shaped more like what we’re used to in the modern era.  Hence why even a theist historian thinks it’s super special awesome when we spot a bona fide atheist before the Enlightenment.

The study of what was going on with atheism before the mid-seventeenth century is not, and cannot be, the study of actual atheists.  There are none for us to study.  There may have been some, there may not, but in a period when saying “I think there is no God” led pretty directly to arrest and execution, no one said it.  No one wrote it.  If anyone thought it, not even private letters can confirm.  Knowing that an atheist won’t fess up in documents, we historians naturally read between the lines, seeking hints of heterodoxy in the subtext of a treatise or the double meaning of a couplet.  This is the only place we can realistically expect to find evidence, but it is also prone to giving us false positives.  As Lucien Febvre put it in his enormously influential The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: the Religion of Rabelais, we moderns are bound to see that rare beast the atheist around every dark corner.  We see him because we want to.

Why have an enormous awesome globe when you can have an enormous awesome globe sitting on gold lions?

The first really real for sure definite actual atheists who, by golly, said they were atheists (OMG!) date to the mid-seventeenth century, the Libertine movement, when a push toward religious tolerance (largely in the name of stopping the Reformation wars of religion before they wiped out all homo sapiens on the European continent) meant that wealth and power were enough to armor figures like the Earl of Rochester and his circle (including the bone-chilling Charles Blount) sufficiently that they could be known to be atheists and survive so long as they denied it in public.  This trend strengthened in the Enlightenment.  I often compare late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century atheism to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century homosexuality: there were circles in which one could let it be an open secret that one was an [atheist/homosexual] and it would be okay so long as one didn’t ruffle too many feathers or say anything in public or in front of civic authorities.  One was always at risk of prosecution, and if one wanted to be safe and respected one kept it carefully hidden (as Diderot hid his atheist works), but there was enough sympathy within the apparatus of power that one could write of one’s [atheism/homosexuality] in private letters, and even hint at it in public works, and more often than not be safe.  The pre-seventeenth-century atheist enjoyed no such safety, so not even in Renaissance private correspondence (where talk of homosexuality is quite commonplace) do we see even the most timid hand raised when the historian calls back: “Is anybody there an atheist?  Anybody?  Machiavelli?”

Why is Machiavelli our favorite candidate?  Many reasons.  First, he is in other ways so very modern.  Having spotted someone who thinks about history as we do, and thinks about ethics as we do, and definitely, provably thinks in a very much more modern way than others of his century, he is a natural candidate for other modern twists including atheism.

Second, he was called an atheist by so many people for so long.  The mystique of vague, beard-stroking villainy invoked by the term “Machiavellian” (Note: Machiavelli did not have a beard) falls nicely into the pre-modern logic chain: (1) Fear of Hell drives men to good behavior.  (2) Machiavelli advocates sinful behavior including lies, betrayal, murder and reign by terror.  (3) Machiavelli does not fear Hell.  (4) Machiavelli was an atheist.

But there are more focused reasons than that.  If we return to Febvre’s warning that we are prone to spot atheists in every shadow, Febvre argues that, instead of seeking the rare beast of our desiring, we should instead confine ourselves to searching for a habitat capable of supporting him; only then can we safely say that we have found him, not his shadow.  By “habitat” Febvre means the apparatus of other ideas related to atheism which make atheism easier and more likely.

Imagine that you are a biologist studying a particular fungus.  This fungus is hard to find, but often grows around the roots of a particular tree species, with which it has an unexplained but well-documented symbiosis.  You thus survey mainly regions where this tree is common.  And if you hope to trace your fungus back to before material records survive, you might trace the history of that tree species, through fossils or early human artifacts made of its wood, and conclude that, while you can’t be sure the fungus was there too, the odds are certainly better than the odds of it having been in places where its tree friend was unknown.  You have not provably found your fungus, but what you have is certainly enough to talk about, and enough to get people excited if your fungus is a truffle and may yield millions in delicious profit if your information leads to improved cultivation.

Florence struggles to find a Christmas tree that can manage to look big against its architecture.

Now, for the truffle substitute the elusive pre-1650 atheist, and for the tree substitute the ancient Greek theory that matter is made of atoms.  The two are unrelated, and the atomic theory does not attack theism in any way, but it is certainly easier for atheism to flourish when “How was the world made if God didn’t do it?” can be answered with “Atoms interacting chaotically in the void clumped together to form substances… bla bla… planets… bla bla… natural selection… bla bla… people etc.” instead of “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know,” is the centerpiece here.  Medieval and Renaissance Europe had perfectly respectable answers to all scientific and sociological questions, they just all depended on God all the time.  Take gravity, for example.  Celestial bodies are moved by angels.  As for why some earthly objects fall and others rise, morally inferior objects fall down toward Satan and morally superior ones rise up toward God, sorting themselves out into natural layers like oil and water.  Stones sink in water because Water is superior to Earth, hot air rises because Fire is superior to Air, and virtuous men go to Heaven because good souls are light and wicked souls are heavy with sins which make them fall to the circle of Hell corresponding to the weight of their sins: nine circles separated out in layers, again like oil and water.  God established the first societies, handed down the first laws, created the first languages, and directed the rise and fall of empires to communicate His Will.  If one wanted to be an atheist in the Middle Ages one had to throw away 90% of all science and social theory, and when asked “Why do rocks sink?” or “How do planets move?” or “Where did the world come from?” one had to answer, “I have no idea.”  Turning one’s back on social answers in that way is very difficult, and is part of why the study of atheism is so closely tied to the study of philosophical skepticism—only very recently have atheists had the leisure of both denying God and still having a functional model of the universe.  Early atheists had to be, largely, skeptics.  They also had to embrace a not-particularly-functional partial worldview which made rest of the world (which had a much more complete one) think they were completely crazy.  I thus sometimes compare Medieval atheists with modern creationists, since both are individuals willing to say, “I believe this one thing so fiercely that I will throw away all the other things to keep it, even if it makes everyone think I’m nuts.”  Doing this is very hard.  Doing it when other ideas are around to satisfy the gaps left by removing God from science becomes much easier.

One of my favorite Florentine doors, featuring a saint crushing a devil (top left), a saint on fire (top right) and Medici balls (below).

How then do we seek the habitat capable of supporting the invisible pre-1650 atheist?  We look for radical scientific theories: atomism, vacuum, heliocentrism, anything which makes Nature more self-sufficient and less dependent on divine participation.  We look for related theological challenges: attacks on the immortality of the soul, on miraculous intervention, on Providence, on angelology, anything which diminishes how often God is part of the answer to some basic question.  We look for who is reading ancient texts which offer alternate explanations to Christian theological ones: Epicurus, Lucretius, Plato, Pythagorean cult writings, Cicero’s skeptical dialogs, Seneca.  Who is reading all this?  Machiavelli.

In the pre-modern world, a firestorm of accusations of atheism and wickedness awaited anyone who raised a powerful and persuasive alternate answer to some question whose traditional answer depended on God.  This firestorm fell even if the author in question never made any atheist arguments, which, generally, they didn’t.  It happened often, and fiercely.

Thomas Hobbes awoke one such firestorm when his Leviathan suggested that savage man, living in a state of terror and war in his caves and trees, might through reason and self-interest alone come together and develop society and government.  Until that time, Europe had no explanation for how government came to be other than that God instituted it; no explanation for kings other than that God raised them to glory; no explanation for what glue should hold men together, loyal to the law, other than fear of divine punishment.  Hobbes’ alternative does not say “There is no God,” but it says, “Government and society arose without God’s participation,” a political theory which an atheist and a theist might equally use.  It gives the atheist an answer, and thereby so terrified England that she passed law after law against “atheism” specifically and personally targeting Hobbes and banning him from publishing in genre after genre, until he spent his final years producing bad translations of Homer and filling them with not-so-subtle Hobbesian political notions one can spot between the lines.

Dante knows where the author of “The Prince,” goes – straight to circle 8 section 10, for those who advise others to do sinful things. Machiavelli knew his Dante well, so one must wonder if he found it comforting to be so sure that, “Well, if there is a Hell, there’s me.”

Machiavelli awoke such a firestorm by creating an ethics which works without God.  Utilitarianism depends entirely on evaluating the earthly consequences of an act, and can be used as a functional system for decision-making whether or not there exists any external divine force or absolute code of Truth.  He also painted a world of politics in which he recommends actions which are the same that one might take if there is no God watching.  In order for people to be virtuous they must first be alive—doesn’t that sound like the sentiment of someone who isn’t thinking about Heaven?  It is justified and necessary to kill and lie in order to protect the stability of the state and the lives of the people—doesn’t that sound like there isn’t a separate Judgment waiting?  The man who will do so much—even serve the Medici who tortured him—in order to guard and protect Earthly Florence seems to have an Earthly mistress, and not to be thinking of a Higher One.  He certainly talks like an atheist, and he certainly created the first system of politics and ethics which an atheist could coherently employ.

In addition to all this, there is what we can glean about religious attitudes from Machiavelli’s personal sentiments and behavior.  We know that he was a military commander, and fought, and killed people.  We know that he was what I think of as “averagely promiscuous” for a Renaissance man based on my experience of letters and autobiographies, which is to say that (while married) he had both male and female lovers, and wrote comfortably and playfully about friends doing the same.  We know friends wrote to him for advice about their love-affairs, which he freely gave, though warning against getting too caught up in them.  We know he helped his family in a push for a profitable priestly position for his brother, and was thus involved in minor acts of simony.  We know he owned many pagan classics and loved to read them, including a fascinating little volume in his own handwriting (now at the Vatican) which contains his complete transcriptions of two texts, first Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things, containing antiquity’s best account of god-free atomistic physics and denial of the soul, afterlife, Providence and prayer), and second Terrence’s Eunuch (containing one of the most uncomfortable scenes in all of ancient comedy which the young hero boasts triumphantly about having just committed rape).  Machiavelli himself wrote the infamous comedy The Mandrake, which does not contain rape, but in which the twist is that in the end all the deception and adultery goes just dandy and in the end no comeuppance is had and everyone carries on committing deception and adultery and lives happily ever after, including those being deceived.  We know he had a sense of humor, and we know he often directed it against the antics of priests and monks.  I will include one sample of this edge of him, taken from a letter from late in his life, when he was sent on behalf of the Florentine wool guild to recruit a preacher for Lent (an extremely high-profile public performance, rather like picking who will play at superbowl half-time), Machiavelli wrote to his high-ranking political friend Guicciardini, from Carpi, May 17th 1521 (Note the playful way he juxtaposes the mandatory obsequious Renaissance opening address with the base setting of the second sentence.)

The Florentine cathedral, paid for by the wool guild. It was a great honor to be called there to be the Lent preacher, and they worked hard to pick a real celebrity to come.

Magnificent one, my most respected superior.  I was sitting on the toilet when your messenger arrived, and just at that moment I was mulling over the absurdities of this world; I was completely absorbed in imagining my style of preacher for Florence: he should be just what would please me, because I am going to be as pigheaded about this idea as I am about my other ideas.  And because never did I disappoint that republic whenever I was able to help her out – if not with deeds, then with words; if not with words than with signs – I have no intention of disappointing her now.  In truth, I know that I am at variance with the ideas of her citizens, as I am in many other matters.  They would like a preacher who would teach them the way to paradise, and I should like to find one who would teach them the way to go to the Devil.  Furthermore, they would like their man to be prudent, honest and genuine, and I should like to find one who would be madder than Ponzo (who at first followed Savonarola, then switched), wilier than Fra Girolamo (Savonarola), and more hypocritical than Frater Alberto (either a Boccaccio character or someone whom Alexander VI sent to Florence and who recommended summoning Savonarola to Rome so they could seize him under false pretenses), because I think it would be a fine thing – something worthy of the goodness of these times – should everything we have experienced in many friars be experienced in one of them.  For I believe that the following would be the true way to go to Paradise: learn the way to Hell in order to steer clear of it.  Moreover, since I am aware how much belief there is in an evil man who hides under the cloak of religion, I can readily conjure up how much belief there would be in a good man who walks in truth, and not in pretense, tramping through the muddy footprints of Saint Francis.  So, since my imaginative creation strikes me as a good one, I intend to choose Rovaio (Riovanni Gualberto, “the north wind” or “the hangman”), and I think if he is like his brothers and sisters he will be just the right man.”  (Translation from Machiavelli and His Friends, Their Personal Correspondence, James B. Atkinsons and David Sices eds. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press) 1996, p, 336).

Later in the letter Machiavelli says that he is trying to come up with ways to actively stir up trouble among the monks he’s staying with just to entertain himself.  This sparks a hilarious sequence in which Guicciardini starts sending Machiavelli letters with increasing frequency, and stuffing them with random papers to make the packages fat, to get the monks to think that some important political thing is going on.  At one point a letter arrives saying that Guicciardini instructed the messenger to jog the last quarter mile so he would be sweaty and out-of-breath when he arrives, and Machaivelli describes with glee the increasing hubbub and attention he receives in the monastery as people become convinced that something of European import must be stirring.  Unfortunately a later letter hints that Machiavelli thinks they are on to the prank, and the correspondence ends there.

An ambulance parked by Giotto’s bell tower, ready to spring into action to protect Machiavelli’s dear Florentines.

You now have pretty-much as much evidence as anyone does about Machiavelli’s religious beliefs.  Smells like an atheist, doesn’t he?  His manifest unorthodoxy, the unique modernity of his ethics and political attitudes, and his playful anticlericalism, not to mention his charisma as an historical figure, inevitably tempt us into wondering whether we have found here a beautiful specimen of the rare beast we seek.  But until we develop a time-traveling telepathy ray to let us read the thoughts of the dead, we must remain very wary.  Is Machiavelli religiously unorthodox?  Absolutely.  Does he deny the existence of the divine?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  1520 is very early, and there are many genres of heterodoxy besides denial of God which we may be smelling here.  Thinking forward two hundred years, Enlightenment deism with its Clockmaker God denies divine intervention in Nature, removes the Hand of God from politics and lessens theology’s role in ethics without removing God.  If Machiavelli is an early deist, rather than an early atheist, that is certainly enough to fit comfortably his model of politics without God as a central factor, his ethics which segregates Earthly activities and consequences from broader divine concerns, and his interest in Lucretius and pagan scientific models for how Nature can function without constant divine maintenance.  If Machiavelli thinks these monks are corrupt and hypocritical, so would Voltaire, Rousseau, and even Martin Luther, without any of them being atheists.  Radicals yes, atheists no.  We may, in fact, ascribe any number of heterodoxies to Machiavelli, and as we review the history of writings about him we in a sense review the history of what radical religious veins we are most worried about, since whatever is most scary tends to be ascribed to him in any given decade.  These days it is often atheism, nihilism, skepticism, rarely deism, since we are at present as a society very comfortable with the Clockmaker model and associate it more with the bright and kind Enlightenment than with he-who-advocates-fear-over-love.

Is Machiavelli an atheist?  We have no idea, but by looking at why we want him to be, or don’t want him to be, or think he was, or think he wasn’t, and why new historians keep trying to answer this literally unanswerable question, we can watch the evolution of our own societal anxieties about the origins of unbelief, and how we understand how we got to this modern situation in which theism must stand constantly prepared to face its thousand enemies and is not (like Baldur) so secure in the presumption that no one will aim for the heart that it doesn’t realize it might have to dodge.  This is a slight exaggeration, as Medieval Christianity did prepare itself for onslaughts of atheism, and we have numerous practice debates written by theologians showing how they would argue with imaginary atheists since they had no real ones about to spar with.  (Alan Kors in his meticulous history Atheism in France has argued that these practice debates against pretend atheists were actually critical in introducing atheist arguments to broad audiences and thus themselves responsible for propagating atheism, even though they were written by theists for theists in a world populated probably only by theists.)  But it is not much of an exaggeration, since such preparation was much more an academic exercise than real sharpening of mental blades.  Since Machiavelli is the first of the great, famous possible-atheists—before Hobbes, before Spinoza, before Bayle, and before the real beast Rochester—Machiavelli is where we turn to test our anxieties about how our world came to be so secularized.

Machiavelli’s honorary tomb in Santa Croce, with the epitaph: “Tanto nomini nullum par elogium,” (For such a name no praise is enough.)

In the small talk phase of a party, I often answer “What do you do?” with “I study the history of atheism.”  The response usually takes the general form of, “Tell me more!” but as discussion unfolds I often feel one of two undercurrents shaping my new acquaintance’s replies: either “I’m an atheist and, since I presume you’ll agree with me, I now want to vent at you about how much I hate organized religion and my parents,” or “I’m a theist but pride myself on being rational about it, and I’m scared that if I tell you I’m a believer I’ll sound like the kind of religious nut that gives theism a bad name.”  I sympathize with the anxieties behind both these reactions, but both sadden me.  They are symptoms of the debate done badly: an atheist motivated more by rebellion than by Reason, a theist shamed into buying into rhetoric in the worst sense.  They are what happens when people grow up surrounded by others who care more about propagating their own beliefs than about helping young people meet and explore great questions for themselves (see comment thread).  I love this debate.  I love all of the people on all the sides.  I love the passion, and earnestness, and urgency of writings on atheism, by both sides.  It is the essence of the examined life and the exercise of Human Reason at its most intense.  I love everyone involved: Plato, Aquinas, Ockham, Ficino, Sade, Nietzsche.  I love when a student comes to my office hours and asks me directly, “I want you to be a Socratic gadfly for me and help me test my position,” whichever position it is.  I do it.  I love it.  When I wonder whether Machiavelli was an atheist, it’s not because I want to know, but because I want to talk to him about it, at length, and we would stay up all night, and eat all the cheese and olives, and drink all the wine, and Voltaire would come, and Hobbes, and Locke, and Rochester and Rousseau would get plastered and piss themselves, and Diderot would help me mop it up while we talked about Leibnitz and the imperfection of Creation, and Machiavelli would keep pace with us even though most of the ideas in question would be two hundred years younger than him.  They would be new to him, but he would understand them easily and join in comfortably to the debate.  He should be there.  There isn’t anybody else we know of from Machiavelli’s century who really should be there in the imaginary salon where we revisit the Enlightenment debates that made this modern era secular the way it is.  Just Machiavelli.  That’s why we can’t stop asking.

(Here ends my Machiavelli series.  I hope you have enjoyed it, and thank you for being patient.  Also, I have now added a substantial discussion of atheism in the classical world in the comment thread on this post, for those interested.  You can also read my entries on remembering the Borgias, and the Borgias in TV dramas.)

If you’re interested in reading more about the history of atheism, skepticism, heterodoxy, deism and freethought, I recommend these sources:

  • Allen, Don Cameron.  Doubt’s Boundless Sea; Skepticism and Faith in the Renaissance.  Baltimore, Johns Hopkins.  1964.
  • Hunter, Michael and David Wootton ed.  Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment.  Oxford: Clarendon.  1992.
  • Kors, Alan Charles.  Atheism in France, 1650-1729.  Vol. 1, Princeton: 1990.  (The long-awaited second volume is forthcoming.)
  • Popkin, R. H.  History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle.  Oxford: 2003.  (Earlier editions of the book have titles, “History of Scepticism from X-other-dude to Y-other-other-dude.  All editions are good, but the most recent is the most comprehensive.)

Also recommended:

  • Betts, C. J.  Early Deism in France, From the so-called ‘déistes’ of Lyon (1564) to Voltaire’s ‘Lettres philosophiques’ (1734).  The Hague: Martinus Nijhogg Publishers. 1984.
  • Buckley, Michael J.  At the Origins of Modern Atheism.  New Haven: Yale University Press.  1987.
  • Febvre, Lucien.  The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: the Religion of Rabelais.  Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.  1982.
  • Ginsburg, Carlo.  The Cheese and the Worms.  New York: Penguin Publishers. 1992.
  • Jacob, Margaret. The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans.  London, Boston: Allen & Unwin.  1981.
  • Kristeller, P. O. ‘The Myth of Renaissance Atheism and the French Tradition of Free Thought’. Journal of the History of Philosophy, 6 (1968), pp. 233-443.
  • Lemay, J. A. Leo ex.  Deism, Masonry and the Enlightenment.  Newark: University of Delaware Press.  1987.
  • Wagar, Warren W. ed.  The Secular Mind: Transformations of Faith in Modern Europe.  New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers inc.  1982.
  • Wilson, Catherine.  Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity.  Oxford: 2008
  • Wootton, David.  ‘Lucien Febvre and the Problem of Unbelief in the Early Modern Period’  The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 60, No. 4. (Dec., 1988), pp. 695-730.
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Machiavelli IV: Julius II, the Warrior Pope

Pope Julius II (Portrait by Raphael)

(See also Machiavelli Part I, Part I.5, Part II and Part III)

Long has he waited, the new prince who in 1503 joins Borgia and Medici in stage center of Machiavelli’s tumultuous Italy: Giuliano della Rovere (1443-1513), intelligent, experienced, educated, well-connected, versed in the new old arts of the resurrected ancients, fluent in the subtleties of theology, and politics, and war, crafty, persuasive, bellicose, power-hungry–more than power-hungry, power-starved–and patient.  His is not a willing patience but that silent, vindictive patience which sets in like a sickness when spirit and ambition have been trapped in the stables waiting for the starter’s gun too long.  He had been a Cardinal twenty-one years when the election of 1492 brought him within a few votes of St. Peter’s throne.  He had planned so hard, spent so much, twenty-one years mapping the subtle battlefields of Rome’s Church, only to have the papal tiara snatched away by the Spanish Bull, that filthy Borgia, with his blackmail, and his bribery, the same arts della Rovere tried to use but Borgia, by a hair’s breadth, used them better.  The tension of 1492 made Giuliano della Rovere and Rodrigo Borgia bitter enemies from the instant Borgia became Alexander VI, and della Rovere, scenting the monsters’ nature before most others did, wisely fled to Ostia, thence to France, beyond Alexander’s reach, to wait and plan how to ensure that the throne he had been within a few votes of grasping would, next time, be his.

Long too has the reader waited for this new installment in my Machiavelli series.  I was sick for nearly three full months from mid-October to mid-January of this year (it was a nasty flare-up of a known chronic condition, exhausting but not dangerous).  This blog was one of many activities which I had to postpone while I concentrated on recovery.  Happily I am now recovered, and looking forward to a productive spring, during which I hope to return to my former pattern of producing a fresh post every two-to-three weeks.  I am very grateful all of you for your patience, and for the many kind and encouraging comments and responses I’ve received in the meantime.

Pope Sixtus IV

The della Rovere family rose to papal prominence in much the same way the Borgias had, through a compromise candidate.  His uncle Sixtus IV (pope from 1471-1484) came from a middlingly important Italian family, and was pious and learned enough to be a well-respected cleric.  He became a Franciscan, an act of uncommonly sincere piety for his class, since it was not a promising political move, and eventually became head of the order.  He was probably elected largely due to his piety, since after a couple of bizarre popes, including the fiercely humanist and weirdly progressive Pius II, then the anti-humanist, anti-social, confusing (rouge-wearing!) Paul II, people wanted something safe.  Given worldly power, our Franciscan decided to exercise it, and became engaged in many worldly ends of politics, including fomenting aggression against Ferrara, and encouraging the infamous Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478, which attempted to expel the Medici from Florence by trying to assassinate Lorenzo de Medici and his brother Giovanni (who was killed) by attacking them in the cathedral during mass (the pope’s involvement in the details of the plan were slim but it was still a stain).  Sixtus IV also built a new chapel, called the Sistine Chapel after him, and engaged freely in nepotism, granting Cardinalships to numerous nephews from both sides of his family, including young Giuliano della Rovere, who then waited for his chance after his uncle’s death, precisely as young Rodrigo Borgia had waited after the death of his uncle Callixtus III.

After Alexander’s election, in 1492 della Rovere retreated from Borgia-controlled Rome, but did not sit quietly.  He had spent time at the French court before, and had many friends and the ear of the king.  In France he made himself useful to as many powerful men as possible, and used his knowledge and mastery of statecraft to secure support, and weaken Borgia attempts to court the French king.  In 1494 he was one of the voices who persuaded the king to take advantage of Alexander VI’s squabble with Naples to invade Italy, and Cardinal della Rovere personally rode with the invading forces as they crossed the Alps and carved their bloody path south through his homeland, seizing Milan, threatening Florence, and forever transforming the face of northern Italy.  As Cesare Borgia’s attempts to carve out a kingdom, and strife between Naples and France, turned Italy increasingly into a battlefield, della Rovere was clever enough to foment Italian hatred of the Spanish Borgias, drawing allies who saw him as the safely Italian alternative, despite his involvement in the far more direct French invasion.  But della Rovere was not powerful enough to counter so savvy and ruthless an adversary as Cesare.  The younger cardinal acquired ally after ally, including Florence and Ferrara, and in the end Borgia attempts to woo France were too powerful for even della Rovere to convince the French king that the enemy of his friend should be his enemy.  France allied with Cesare, offered him a half-Spanish French princess and a French ducal title, and assurances of support so long as he upheld French interests in Italy.

Young Julius with his uncle the pope, in the early years when the ambitious young Cardinal was not yet soured by so many years of forced patience.

On August 6th, 1503, pope Alexander and Cesare Borgia dined in their fortress at Castel san Angelo with Cardinal Adriano da Corneto.  Both became terribly sick.  Alexander died.  Cesare recovered, but slowly, after weeks of weakness and horrible suffering (one account describes his skin peeling off, though likely due to attempts to treat the illness rather than the illness itself).  Anyone who could possibly be accused of poisoning has been blamed, including both Cesare and Alexander, who had been uncomfortable partners since well before Giovanni’s death.  It may well just have been food poisoning in a pre-refrigeration world. Whatever the cause, Borgia fortunes were now at a critical moment, and the surviving Borgia prince had had little time to prepare, and was sick in bed, unable to lead troops or conduct negotiations.  He sent troops to loot the palace before the mob did, and it is unclear in the ensuing chaos what treasures were carried off by whom, but by the time it was done Alexander’s corpse is supposed to have been found alone, wrapped in a carpet, in a room from which every stick of furniture and scrap of clothing had been looted.  The body was displayed on the steps of the palace, a swollen, purple and black, stinking mass with its tongue sticking out that witnesses describe as the most vile corpse they had ever seen (and Renaissance people saw a lot of corpses).

Three armies threatened the Papal Election that followed: the armies of France and Naples, en route to fight each other, both camped just outside Rome to make the College and people aware that their kings and cannons were watching and would not tolerate a hostile victory in the vote.  Meanwhile Cesare’s armies were within Rome itself, and while he was too weak to take the field, he was far from too weak to command troops, and to command the eleven Spanish Cardinals who were far more Borgia pawns than anything else.  The conclave was delayed to allow extra time for French Cardinals, and della Rovere, to arrive and participate.

The Tomb of Alexander VI

Cesare had renounced his Cardinal’s hat in order to become a Duke and marry and pass on the Borgia bloodline.  There was no rule that the pope had to be a Cardinal, or even a cleric, and if Borgia forces had been at their peak it is possible Cesare might have pushed to be elected himself.   As it was he did not have the speed or power, so needed to compromise, and bide his time if he wanted to someday be pope.  But who to ally with?

France was determined to have a French pope, and worked hard to advance Georges d’Amboise as their candidate.  The French planned carefully.  Most Italians would never tolerate a French pope, remembering with dread the days of the Avignon Papacy, so Cesare’s contingent of Spanish cardinals was a perfect asset.  France promised to continue to support Cesare and recognize him as master of all his father had granted him if he would give his eleven votes to d’Amboise.  That added to the French cardinals would be nearly enough.  For the remainder, they could count on their good della Rovere and his cousins (whose votes he commanded), and on Ascanio Sforza, Cardinal of Milan, whom they had captured in the invasion, and released on condition that he vote for the French candidate and persuade as many allies as he could to do the same.  The plan had only one flaw: it relied on trusting the Italian Cardinals.

Della Rovere refused to vote for the French candidate.  If France wanted an ally on the throne, he insisted, they would need to elect him.  It would be easy: he was Italian, and an enemy of the Borgia, so all the Italian cardinals would flock to him, and none would support the French without his persuasion.  No amount of reminding della Rovere of the support and aid France had given him in the past made any headway.  France must give him the throne, or watch it fall into hostile hands.

Ascanio Sforza, now free, broke his word to woo his fellow Italians to the French cause.  He did, as a point of honor, vote for France himself, but let his capture and release make him a living argument to his fellow countrymen of the danger France posed.  With him as reminder, no Italian would ever vote for France.

Even the Spaniards turned.  With Cesare weak and sick and possibly about to die, Borgia stooges were looking to new powers to protect them.  For them, the King of Spain was the clear option, and he did not want a French pope, even if Cesare did.

The Della Rovere Arms

The French bloc, triply betrayed, refused to accept della Rovere’s proposal that they vote for him, and would forever after blame him for their defeat.  Since neither could win, and no Spaniard could win, all powers looked for a compromise candidate, someone old and sick and inert, likely to do little and die soon, and all hoped they could regroup and gain a majority by the time of the next election.  Thus  Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini became Pope Pius III.  Nephew of the earlier humanist firebrand Pius II, Piccolomini was from the comparatively neutral town of Sienna, enough of a cowardly Borgia stooge to be tolerable from Cesare’s perspective, and not long for this world.  He reconfirmed Cesare as commander of the papal armies, postponing war and temporarily granting Cesare continued power over his dominions.  His most memorable act as pope was to announce that Alexander VI would not be buried in the crypt of St. Peter’s where popes were (and are) usually laid to rest.  Alexander was too wicked to be in St. Peter’s, he decided, not then, not ever.

September 22nd, Pius III is crowned.  October 18th, Pius III dies.  New election.

Cesare has recovered, and is still commander of the papal armies, but his forces are weakened and his position precarious   He has regained command of the eleven Spanish Cardinals but has no other sure votes.  France has not forgiven della Rovere, but he has worked hard to convince them that, given the general hatred of France, he is the most France-loving man likely to get on the throne.  Now he courts Cesare, offering solemn promises that, if Cesare and the Spanish cardinals support him, he will maintain Cesare in his current position, leave him the papal armies, his titles, his funds, his lands, and make him a close and trusted ally.  The Borgia Kingdom in central Italy will be forever secure, and della Rovere might even help Cesare into a position such that, when he is a bit older, he might succeed della Rovere as the next pope, restoring and finally solidifying the Borgia dream of turning the papacy into a hereditary monarchy.  Cesare will henceforth practically be della Rovere’s adopted son, and they will rule Italy together, with the support of their mutual ally in France, and Cesare’s ties with Spain.  Cesare accepts, the bargain is solemnly sealed, and a few promises to Ascanio Sforza are all it takes to secure the unanimous election of Giuliano della Rovere as Pope Julius II.

Julius takes the throne.

He has Cesare arrested, thrown in prison, stripped of all his titles and property, deported to Spain, and, after some intervening chaos and a brief escape, Cesare is killed.

This is an absolute shock, much, much more shocking than it sounds.  The Roman Pontiff, highest prince in the world, has betrayed and destroyed a noble sovereign Duke to whom he had pledged himself as a bosom ally, and to whom he owed his throne.  Cesare was Julius’ supporter and benefactor, and vice versa.  This alliance was in many ways virtually adoption.  We have read about a lot of broken promises and murders in the course of our Borgia stories, but this is different, utterly and unimaginably different.  When enemies duel or battle each other, those violent acts are honorable.  When enemies poison enemies, or send assassins after each other, that is dishonorable but still reasonably acceptable and common.  When Cesare killed his own man Remirro de Orco, that was new, shocking, different.  Confusing.  This is the same thing but on an unimaginable scale.  The innermost circle of Dante’s Hell is for people who betray their feudal benefactors.  This is that again, only a pope, and also the reverse, a patron betraying a supporter he has promised to defend and treat as an ally.  There is no place for this in Dante’s Hell.

There is also no place for it in the Handbook of Princes genre.  The Prince has betrayed and murdered his closest supporter.  No one can trust him now.   Any pledge he makes is unreliable.  Anyone near him is in danger.  The sword he wields is arbitrary and cuts down friend and enemy.  The rational man and the moral man now both come to the same conclusion: do not serve such a master.  Leave him.  Run.  The vassals of such a lord should abandon him at once, declare the tyrant what he is, unite and take up arms and overthrow him.  That is what must happen.  Machiavelli, good student of politics, knows it, and all through the night when the deed is done everyone expects that in the morning Julius will rise to face an empty throne room, while the banners of his former allies mass against him.

Julius, pope at last

The next morning, everyone turns up and kisses the pope’s ring and feet and politics goes on, and no one even whispers the name ‘Borgia’.  It never happened.  Everyone serves the traitor-pope just as before.

This is the moment that cannot be, as Machiavelli explains in The Prince and more in his letters.  This is where the Handbook of Princes fails.  The virtuous Prince was supposed to be better ruler because he commands the respect and loyalty of his servants, unlike the wicked prince who loses them: untrue.  The virtuous Prince was supposed to enjoy the blessings of God who would make him strong, while the tyrant was unseated: untrue.  The virtuous Prince was supposed to be more effective because good, wise policies have good, beneficial consequences for his people and his nation: untrue.  Uncertain why the last is untrue? Look at what has just happened and what could have happened:

Outcome if Julius II had been virtuous:

Julius seals his pact with Cesare.  After his election, he continues to treat Cesare as a close ally, allows him to control the papal army, and use it to continue waging war in central and northern Italy.  Thousands if not tens of thousands die in combat and more from bandits and disease as the chaos continues.  Cesare secures Romagna and the papal states, then turns on Florence, probably Modena and Ferrara too, on the Venetian land empire, shoring himself up more and more at the cost of chaos.  In the end either the Emperor invades to check Cesare’s rise, or Cesare grows strong enough to make his bid to be Julius’ successor, and bloody civil war erupts whether Cesare wins or loses as he and the rest of Italy battle to see whether or not the papacy will indeed become a hereditary monarchy.  Death toll: tens if not hundreds of thousands.

Outcome if Julius II is a treacherous deceiver:

Cesare is instantly removed.  The wars in central Italy cease.  The suddenness of the change makes it easy for provincial forces, as well as papal forces and city forces, to bring about some degree of stability.  The shock of the suddenness of Julius’ betrayal makes everyone else wary of causing trouble.  Peace is instantly restored, the Borgia Kingdom eliminated, exiles restored, Florence protected.  Death toll: Cesare Borgia, plus, perhaps, a few of his guards and associates.

Conclusion: the Virtuous Prince is not more successful.

Plate decorated with the della Rovere oak

Julius instantly solved a problem no one else had been able to solve in a terrible decade.  The worst days of Italy are gone.  Julius’ vassals did not abandon him, nor did God smite him with skyfire.  The advantages that the Virtuous Prince was supposed to have are invisible.  Julius did it, not through love, but fear.  Perhaps it is more useful to be feared than loved?

More is undermined here than just the Handbook of Princes genre.  Ethics is a problem too.  The Virtuous Pope here, the one who was loyal to Cesare, would have doomed thousands to death and Italy to chaos and conquest.  Julius’ betrayal saved everyone.  Yet, the Christianity and ethics of Machiavelli’s day declare that Julius has done a wicked deed, and will go to Hell for it.  Going to Hell for saving thousands?  This does not sound right.  Is it really a morally wicked deed, Machiavelli asks, to betray and murder Cesare Borgia, and thereby prevent so much evil?  Is this really what ‘good’ and ‘evil’ mean?

Thus Utilitarian Ethics was born.  It is a familiar thought pattern for us, but for Machiavelli (and Europe at that point)  it was a completely new idea, never thought before.  What if this is good?  This act that, by destroying a terrible, wicked, monster of a man, saved a hundred thousand lives?  How can I call it evil?  What if I want to judge the act, not by what it was (betrayal, murder), but by what it did, save Italy (and Florence!) and the world from the Borgia menace.  And if Julius had done the “good” thing, and kept Cesare going, and let all that evil happen when he had the power to stop it with one dark command, could we really call that “good”?  And what of virtue ethics?  Why do I care whether Julius betrayed Cesare for selfish or selfless reasons–he still saved Italy, and so many, many lives.  Doesn’t that matter?  Doesn’t the consequence of an act, its utility, factor into the moral equation?  I think, he says, it does.
This is the advice Machiavelli writes for the Medici when the forced retirement of exile gives him time to write a new Handbook of Princes for a new kind of prince: the princes of Florence, whose duty is to protect Florence–beautiful, unique, burgeoning, irreplaceable Florence–and her citizens–artists, philosophers, poets, statesmen, craftsmen–from the perils of conquest and extermination which constantly threaten her fragile walls.  With France so close, one more civil war could be the end.  This is not a question of selfishness or power for power’s sake, but of the very survival of the nation in their care.   “In order to be virtuous, the people must still be alive,” (paraphrase).  In this situation, he writes, we should study and emulate Julius Caesar, but we should also study and emulate Cesare and Julius II.  If fear will discourage conspiracy, use fear.  If the betrayal and exile of one dangerous faction or family will stabilize the republic, use betrayal.  If breaking a treaty will give Florence the ally she needs to survive, rip up that scrap of paper.  It is the prince’s duty.

This is not a good consequence erasing an evil act, it is the argument that the act itself is not evil because of its good consequence.  Saving a hundred thousand lives, or Florence, is good–the means, therefore, are good, even if the means are a murder.  “The end justifies the means” thus does sort-of ring true, but rather he is saying that we judge the means by its end: what Julius II willed in his heart, Machiavelli would say, wasn’t the betrayal and murder of Cesare, but was the salvation of Italy.  If Julius had defended Cesare, as he promised, and let all those people die, that would have been the evil act.  At times he puts it almost as if the prince here is taking on sin for the people, as if in order to guard those in their protection the sovereign volunteers to damn himself to commit the sins necessary to create an era of peace in which citizens will have the leisure to live virtuously (instead of being dragged into violence, hatred, rape and death).  At other times it feels as if he is saying there is no other real scale beyond the Earthly consequence (no Hell?  Do we smell atheism?).  He never explicitly discusses the religious import of utilitarianism, but the mind of the reader cannot help but jump there instantly.

We now have consequentialism   The can of worms is open, and in my next post I shall explore it, and its religious implications.  But we have also opened another can of worms: the papacy of Julius II.

Julius II brought peace to Italy and saved thousands of lives.  Then he started a new war.  This is Giuliano della Rovere, referred to in his own lifetime and after as the Warrior Pope, and as “Il Papa Terribile”.  This is an infinitely ambitious man made tired and bitter by thirty years of waiting, ten of them wrestling with terrible Borgia enemies.  This is a pope who likes to ride in armor.  His is not an ambition which ends with wealth and power.  He is “Julius” and will remind the world that the pope is Emperor, successor to the Caesars.  Those territories Cesare left behind, that are now vulnerable and rebuilding, he demands them, and sends armies to seize them, and when Venice or other powers try to reclaim their own, he makes war.  France is still stirred up from earlier wars, and still bitter at him.  Naples is stirred up, the Emperor is stirred up, England is eager for conquests, Spain is defensive about its Mediterranean holdings, the Ottomans are expanding, the Swiss are ready with their mercenaries, and Florence is still delicious.  Julius stirs all these powers toward war, demanding in the name of his imperial power that Europe’s princes come in on his side to defend his right to rule Italy.  It is in this phase that the powers meet at Cambrai, a despairing Machiavelli watches the balance of power so carefully, exchanges so many letters with his friends trying desperately to predict who will be at war with whom when the council ends: France & Emperor against England?  France & England against Spain?  Which of the nearby armies, Julius, France, Naples and Emperor, will move first against Florence?  He studies, he worries, he plans, and in the end the council emerges and Julius II has persuaded every crowned head of Europe to join into a Holy League and help him attack Venice and take all the former Borgia territories and turn them into his new papal Roman Empire.  This is a pope determined to wipe away the Borgia stain with blood, and make the pope a true Emperor again.  This is a pope who will be remembered.  He also brings more humanism to the Vatican, stocks its libraries, has his beloved Michelangelo (a complicated dynamic if ever there was one) decorate the new Sistine Chapel with neoclassical art and figures of pagan sibyls mixed among the Hebrew prophets to reinforce the fact that the ancient philosophies revived by the humanists are part of his Christianity as much as anything.  But the humanism he brings is all in service of power: empire, law, Rome, Constantine, reminders of the sovereignty of Rome and Italy and the higher sovereignty of Julius.  He is a pope for whom means seems to mean nothing, and ends everything.  And he is incredibly effective, and remakes the papacy as no one had imagined it could be remade.

Five hundred years ago today, the 19th of February 1513, the order was given for the arrest of Niccolo Machiavelli on suspicion of participating in a conspiracy against the newly-reestablished Medici regime.   The Medici had been in exile in Venice for eighteen years, consolidating their wealth and allies and gathering resources so they could retake the city Piero had abandoned during the French (Borgia-caused) invasion of 1494.  In the intervening years, the Borgias had carved out their Italian kingdom, Giovanni had been murdered, Cesare had turned from a fearsome Cardinal to a more fearsome Duke and conqueror, and then the Borgia years had ended, and the family’s fall left a weak and disorganized Italy ripe for new ambitious families to carve out kingdoms; one of those best positioned to do so were the Medici.  Florence herself had experienced the theocratic rule of the monk Savonarola, then the restored Republic of Soderini, of which Machiavelli was one of the central figures.  When the Medici army of allies and mercenaries recaptured the city, they did not arrest Machiavelli right away.  They ended the Republic and moved into the Palazzo Vecchio, but Machiavelli remained in the city, a cautious but free citizen, until a small nest of anti-Medici conspirators was uncovered.  Among their documents were found a page listing the names of others they had intended to recruit but had not yet approached, including Machiavelli.  It was too much.  Machiavelli was arrested, interrogated, tortured (using a device a similar to the rack), and exiled.  It was in that exile that his forced retirement gave him the time to write the texts which would so transform how we understand politics, ethics and history: the Discourses on Livy treating Republican government, The Prince, and the personal letters which show even more clearly than his polished books how his new political and historical theories were the direct results of his experiences of the Borgias, their rise, their fall, and the new Emperor Julius II who rose to occupy the (bloodied and stained) papal throne.

Thus, today, while Google commemorates the birth of Copernicus 40 years earlier, Florence is marking February 19th 1512 with a procession through the city, in which the crier will call for Machiavelli’s arrest in each quarter o f the city.  It may seem a strangely dark day to celebrate, the imprisonment and torture of our beloved historical figure, but it is in many ways the birthday of political science, the one day which, if disrupted by some time traveler, could deprive us of the produce of that vital exile.  Machiavelli could have been forgiven and hired by the Medici he wanted so desperately to work for.  He could have been executed, or died in the prison, or been tortured enough to die of some infection or hemorrhage.  Instead we have utilitarian ethics, a vein of thought which is so universal in the modern world that we find it almost impossible to think about what “decision-making” meant without it.

Here at last we see both central facets of why Machiavelli is important.  When historians argue about “Who was the first modern philosopher,” those who argue for Machiavelli argue this: he was the first person to use consequentialist ethics, i.e. to believe that an act might be good or bad because of its consequences rather than the act itself, and the first person to practice political science, that is to use history as a set of examples to be studied and compared to rather than as a source of moral tales to be read and absorbed through virtuous osmosis.  We as modern people use both these things every day, so constantly that we struggle to think without them.  When deciding, what is the consequence?  Even if in the end you go with a decision based on Virtue Ethics or Deontology you still think about the consequence.  When looking at events, what historical ones are similar?  We study history to learn from it, and not repeat mistakes, right?  And when we do, we look at economics, oppression, class struggles, technological change, environment, patterns, not just the moral character of king and commander.  These are indispensable elements of modern thought, which define the modern era more clearly and more universally than, for example, any technology.  What is a modern person?  One reasonable answer is “someone who uses consequentialism and political science.”  There may be (and are) other differences, but this certainly is one, and Machiavelli is its father.  Julius and the Borgias were the spark, but he was the one who was there to see and analyze, and describe.

Next Time: “Was Machiavelli an atheist?” and why it is still valuable for historians and philosophers to write book after book about that question even though the only possible answer is, “We don’t know.”   Read the conclusion.

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You Can Shoot a Laser THROUGH a Clear Blimp! (Skyfall movie review)

(No very specific spoilers for Skyfall appear in this post, just comments on the overall structure & mood).

“Why did no one mention this before!”  My shriek ricocheted among the fluorescent wooden parrots of the Tex Mex restaurant.  “You can shoot a laser through a clear blimp!  Now–Yes!–now all the clear blimps that are anchored on top of the villian’s giant high-tech white & chrome treehouse complex can have goons shooting lasers from them!  And they can shoot at the little helicopter that has James Bond in it!  Oh!  And the two little helicopters can weave all around the blimps trying to shoot at each other with the machine guns, but they don’t dare shoot through the blimps in case they explode!  But the blimps are clear so Bond and the bad guy can see each other through the blimps, and they can zoom up and around trying to get a clear shot, and all the time all the minions are shooting at Bond with lasers through the blimps!”

“But before or after the helicopter bit there has to be a fight on top of the interconnecting corridors of the treehouse base,” my Dad contributed, “in some kind of vehicle.”

Roommate: “Like a Smart Car!”

Dad: “Or a Segway!”

This climactic battle (and the subsequent debate over the relative merits of a man in bullet-proof armor riding a Segway vs. a Segway with a bullet-proof armored chariot casing built in) was the peak of our post-movie cathartic deconstruction of why Skyfall had been an unsatisfying Bond movie while undeniably being a perfectly respectable movie in the broader sense.

“What should our villain be after?  How about a continent?”  “Yeah!”  “Australia.”  “What does he want it for?”  “To experiment.  Remember, he’s a geneticist, so he wants to create his own biosphere.  With mammoths.”  “And condors.  Shouldn’t he put condors?”  “And he’ll use the global electromagnetic field manipulator to increase the temperature so rainfall increases in Australia and it becomes a fertile rain forest.”  “Yes, by accelerating global warming.”  “No, no, too much eco-villainy lately.  We want something more classic.  He just wants Australia so he can experiment freely.  He’s already rich but it’s not enough.  Now he wants to be free to pursue his science and genetic engineering faster.  To do that he needs a private world.”  My fist slammed the table triumphantly enough to make the guacamole jiggle.  “He means to terraform Australia!”

Now we could cross out #7 “Outlandish villainous ultimate goal” on our James Bond Movie checklist, as well as #9 “climactic battle” #5 “awesome villain tech” and #6 “evil lair”.  We had gotten this far through #4 “Grand evil scheme” which involved creating genetically modified super-aggressive swarming creatures which could be directed to attack target areas around the world using a machine which manipulated the Earth’s electromagnetic field.  The first attack would be bees, some target city, millions and millions of bees would all swarm in and devastate everything.  The world is held hostage.  But oh, the people think, we can hide inside our airtight houses.  So they all hide and the bees swarm black outside and people think they’re safe, but then the termites!  The electromagnetically-commanded termites burrow through the walls and let in the swarm!  And now the villain can demand they hand over Australia to become his brave new mammothy world!

There are certain questions that you always want your James Bond movie to be a potential answer to:  “Which was the one where there was a henchman with a special jaw that was super strong, and then they wound up in space?”  “Which was the one where he was driving through the ice palace while it was being melted by the solar space laser reflector beam?  Was that the invisible car?”  “And he was driving it from the back seat, while they were shooting at him–or was that a different one?”   All sorts of variants on “Wasn’t that the one where…?”  And Skyfall will never be the correct answer to these questions.  Skyfall didn’t… it just didn’t…

…James Bond Movie checklist item #1, the “Opening mission”…

Here! Here is where Bond should be fighting a guy!

“Can we have the swarms cause an opening pre-credits disaster on an oil rig?”   “Hm… what swarm… squid?  Squid that swarm up the poles!”  “Squid?  Wouldn’t that have to be octopus?” “Octopodes are too intelligent.  But can squid climb an oil rig?” “Squid can go pretty fast in the water, they just tend to do it horizontally, this could just be vertical.  Pwoo!”  (Sound-effect combined by gesture of arm shooting up in the air with finger-tentacles wriggling.)  “I don’t know…”  A few moments absently rearranging Jalapenos with my fork.  “Ooh, wait!  What if it works because there’s a submarine nearby, and millions of squid all whoosh up and drag the submarine along–” “–and smash it into the oil rig!  Of course!”  “Wait, I thought the beginning was when we were going to have him steal the prototype electromagnetic railgun.  How does the oil rig help?”

…James Bond Movie checklist item #3, the “Early stage of the scheme”…

“No, the railgun isn’t before the credits, it’s the second stage thing, after the credits.”  “And I thought it wasn’t going to be the main villain who stole it, we were going to have it be the woman who was working with him.”  “Did she want to steal it to use as a weapon?” “No, they thought she was going to steal it to be a weapon, but instead she brought the railgun to the geneticist to use for the magnetic field effect to control the killer bees, but then in the end she betrays him and helps Bond stop him, and then she betrays both Bond and the villain and sneaks in separately at the end and takes the railgun to use as a weapon.”  “Like Catwoman!”  “Only Bond stops her.  Because she isn’t Catwoman.”  “Right.”  “So she’s a villain, and then not a villain, and then a villain again, in addition to the main bioengineer villain.”  “Yes.  Oh, is she also the business scheming villain?  Or is there some other one doing the sinister businessy politicsy part.”  “Oh yes, someone has to do be a big business schemer, because someone has to invite him to a party, because…

…James Bond Movie checklist item #10: “Bond must order a martini at a swanky party”…

Bond did order a martini in Skyfall (oops, and I promised no spoilers!).  And he does so at an expensive party in a ridiculously glamorous exotic place, and drinks it with a beautiful and mysterious bond girl, and there are piles of cash and expensive evening gowns and goons in dark suits.  And these are all the right ingredients to set things up for the plan to unfold its first petal, and then… there are supposed to be more petals, right?  The twists are supposed to keep unfolding and unfolding, with one more layer of deception right when you think it’s all over.  And the stakes are supposed to be high.  Like a continent, or a coup, or ten billion dollars, or at the very least killing a head of state.

Our true triumph arrived with the dessert: “Ooh!  Ooh!  Can Bond have to go into Australia but to avoid the swarms and the magnets he has to do a super-high-altitude parachute jump like the Red Bull guy did?  Only, Bond has to do it while fighting a guy!”  (Whatever stunt other people can do, Bond can do “while fighting a guy.”  That’s Bond’s superpower.)

In all seriousness, we were aware that hordes of squid and stampeding mammoths are too sci-fi outlandish for Bond, but you can’t blame us for overcompensating after a flick where the most advanced technology displayed was… was… the internet?  I mean, there was a touch screen… those are… well, one came standard with my new laptop, so…  yeah, I’m going with the internet.

After our post-movie decompression we watched the recent Casino Royale movie again.  No clear blimps here either, and it  started the recent pattern of the films being more interested in (of all things) giving James Bond character progression than it was in the grandness of the scheme.  In fact, during Bond’s climactic battle over the suitcase full of $120 million I turned to my friends and pointed at the 16th century Venetian palazzo, which Bond had just destroyed, and said “You know what’s worth more than 120 million dollars?”  But it was still more satisfying than Skyfall because it had the requisite twist, followed by another twist, followed by a false ending, followed by yet another twist.  That was enough.

Instead of twists and grand schemes, Skyfall tried to do something which was undeniably bolder and more original, and considerably more worthy of respect.  It focused on the characterization of M.  Brilliant idea!  A great and veteran part of the Bond universe as-of-yet underexplored.  And stepping out of the Bond universe for a moment, this was an action flick which focused on an intelligent, dignified, 100% non-sexualized, retirement-age woman!  Maybe one or two movies a year give meaningful attention to an older woman, and certainly not ones full of car chases!  It didn’t do a particularly good job of it, and still degenerated into male-dominated action, and rescues, and characterizing her as Mom, but she was still an actual centerpiece of the movie in a way no gray haired woman has been in any action flick I’ve ever sat through.  It even passed the Bechdel test (something we usually know better than to apply to Bond films) in a scene in which M was questioned about her career by a female government official.  Such a move in a Bond movie was as startlingly deserving of respect as if someone had delivered a brilliant proposal for how to solve the Economic Crisis in the middle of Antiques Roadshow.  They also flirted with homosexual elements that no Bond had dared before, in a way which was a little awkward but also overdue and therefore somewhat healing in one of the most fiercely hetero-normative franchises in pop culture history.  On both counts it may not have really succeeded, but I respect the fact that it tried, and getting any kind of movement on sexual politics out of a Bond movie is rather like wringing tears from a stone.   I respect trying, but there is a difference between a movie I respect and a movie I enjoy, and it remains empirically true that I left the theater dissatisfied.

“I sure hope they make a normal James Bond movie soon,” I muttered later that evening, as we played fridge Tetris with the leftover fajitas.

Roommate: “What do you mean?”

I: “You know, one that isn’t about something.  One where they shoot lasers through clear blimps, with an evil villain, and James Bond defeats him, and there are quips, and no characterization.”

And that’s the story of how I found myself wishing the movie I had just seen had been less ambitious.  But thinking back on it, that isn’t really what I wanted.  I went to that Bond movie instead of any number of other movies that were actually supposed to be objectively good because I wanted the comfort of a familiar formula and the thrill of action-escapism.  Instead I got character depth.  Why couldn’t I have both?  Why couldn’t they have deepened the characters and still had more than three petals on their rose?  Why wasn’t there room in the movie for M and clear blimps?  Why did the first action movie I’d ever seen focus on a mature woman have to make me wish it wasn’t?

The weirdest thing is that it felt like the writers had the same idea.  The film ended with an “And now the whole team is assembled again!” moment, implying a vein of self-awareness: “Yeah, the last three Bond Movies have been weirdly character-ful, but now that we’re done dealing with Bond’s origin story and the retirement crisis, the next one will be a [….] Bond Movie, we promise.”  How did they intend their audience to fill [….]?  “Normal”?  “Traditional”?  “Action-centered”?  “Satisfying”?

Skyfall gets marks, though, for the most important test of every Bond film: the opening credits.  Also points for the new Q; someone (probably who was following the success of Sherlock and the new Dr. Who and Avengers) noticed that smart geeks, especially scrawny ones with glasses, draw a slice of the female demographic that Bond’s brawn misses.  Nerd is the new fan service – enough so that even a franchise as trope-encrusted as Bond has found one new “sexy” to tap.  Let’s just hope they never try to put Bond himself in glasses and a labcoat; I fear for the audience whiplash.

Addendum: many thanks to all my readers for being patient these few months with my slow posting speed and the infinite delay of the Machiavelli series.  I have been wrestling with the old illness/over-commitment combo.  I do intend to return to the Machiavelli series as soon as I am sufficiently rested and caught up on my 10,000 tasks.

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Holiday Gift Suggestions from Ex Urbe

I was racing from my office to the gym yesterday, struggling not to spill orange goo on my 18th century reenactment overcoat while wolfing down instant microwave mac & cheese with my reusable pocket eco-spork, when I finally faced up to the reality that the November demands of academia & inevitable autumn illness were not going to give me a chance to finish the next chapter of my Machiavelli series this week, or even next.  But since the holidays are coming, I thought I might share some quick gift suggestions which I’ve accumulated this year.  These are all items I either own, or have gotten for friends, or both, with, I hope, enough variety to make for a fun read, and possibly to fill some corners under your trees.

  1. The photography I have enjoyed sharing on this blog requires a practical, small, portable camera, not easily damaged but quick to use and that takes very good pictures.  After trying many models and doing a lot of research, I can enthusiastically recommend my current camera, a Nikon COOLPIX S9300, which is the top of the COOLPIX camera line, with very high resolution and an astounding zoom.  The 16x zoom is much too powerful to actually be usable unless you set the camera down or use a tripod, but even at half-way-zoomed I could get amazing detail on faraway bits of cathedrals and fortresses.  It eats up its batteries, so you need two, but is a great pocket camera.

    The Roman answer to the iPad. Infinite battery life!
  2. The most exciting, and unusual, of the numerous tablets on the gift market this year has to be an authentic reconstruction of a Roman period wax writing tablet.  A standard technology used throughout the ancient and medieval worlds, this affordable alternative to papyrus or vellum worked by scratching text into a wax surface with a stylus, which could then be wiped smooth and re-used.  Standard for letter-writing and short-term note-taking.  Through this cutting-edge ancient technology, your friends and loved ones can enjoy the miraculous gift of writing, then erasing it, then writing again on the same surface!  Wonders will never cease!
  3. In order to avoid the life-threatening condition known as “gelato withdrawal” I rely upon my dear and trusty DeLonghi GM6000 Home Gelato Maker.  I have been making gelato with it not quite every day for many months now.  It is a little loud but whips up a batch in 3o to 45 minutes and many of the best recipes (yogurt gelato, lemon sorbet, chocolate) require practically no preparation.  It came with a very good basic recipe book, and for some reason is currently $250 instead of $400+ on Amazon.  Also, Amazon allows you to subscribe to chocolate, I repeat, subscribe to chocolate, so fresh chocolate powder is delivered to your house for free on a periodic basis to restock your gelato-making needs.  There is now  no excuse for not having gelato.
  4. Books are often hit-or-miss holiday gifts, since we all love them, but we all have a to-read list a mile long (I must state here the maxim: “Never give a book to a grad student if they didn’t request it.”)  But just the right book can be just the right thing.  This year my three book recommendations are the Unnecessarily Interesting Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, an astonishingly exciting and even more astonishingly true account of the life and adventures of the Renaissance goldsmith/sculptor/arms-master/duelist/murderer who should’ve been the protagonist of Assassins’ Creed III, and by far the most exciting account of an historical figure’s life I’ve ever read; my manga pick of the year which has to be the long-awaited release of Shigeru Mizuki’s classic Gegege no Kitaro, a post-WWII collection of classic Japanese oral tradition ghost stories framed around an adorably morbid little zombie boy, packed with folklore and second really only to Astro Boy in its seminal position in mid-20th-century manga (English release finally available for pre-order!); or, the meta-book gift ideal for any bibliophile already weighed down by too many books, Petrarch’s Four Dialogues for Scholars, featuring excerpts from his “Remedies against fortune” which advise the reader on how to avoid pride and hubris over owning a lot of books.  That’s right, it’s a book about having too many books.  Witty, delightful and bilingual, it is a quick and entertaining read, a rich and rewarding reread, and also features dialogues to prevent hubris if you have a graduate degree, multiple graduate degrees, or are a published author.
  5. In DVD recommendations I prefer to focus on things you have likely not heard recommended elsewhere.  Thus this year’s three pics are: The Secret of Kells, a gorgeous animated film based on the manuscript illuminations of the Book of Kells; the stunning and sadly under-publicized anime film Summer Wars, which is as beautiful, wholesome and delight-filled as a Miyazaki movie but with an action plot; and Borgia: Faith and Fear, by far the superior (and sadly the more obscure) of the two Borgia TV series that were produced last year.  Like all recent over-dramatic historical TV series it makes sex and violence a centerpiece, but they’re the Borgias so it should be nasty, and it does a good job making the sex and violence feel authentically period, while also having the right combination of historical accuracy and storytelling to make it entertaining.  We hope someday there will be a season 2.
  6. Truffle butter.  Truffle butter.  Truffle butter.  Eat the Truffle Butter.  There are many kinds and I cannot say which is best since I haven’t tried them all, but it is out-of-this-world stuff.  Have it on bread, or melt it over fresh pasta, or a white meat, like chicken.  But pasta is always best.
  7. Italian cold cuts are another treat which I mourn on returning to the New World.  While many grocery stores in the US now carry prosciutto, pancetta and even bresaola, the delicacy I miss most intensely is the cured spiced lard which melts across your tongue like butter.  Lardo Toscano or Lardo di Colonnata I have yet to reliably find, but a good Spanish Lardo can be ordered from Boccalone, and other good salumi from Murray’s cheese.
  8. One of the most enthusiastically-received gifts I’ve ever given was “Professor Doctor Sweetie-Pie’s European Adventures”, a glossy photo book of my research travels which made my Mom bounce and cheer and which she has read over and over for many a moon.  Many companies allow one to create these things, but I did mine through Shutterfly, and while they’re a little pricey they really can be a big hit.
  9. Pants are an essential but oft-neglected clothing item, allowed to languish in boringness while shirts and jackets receive all the stylish decoration and superhero logos.  I derive constant joy and frequent compliments from my habit of sewing decorative trim down the side seams of my jeans and other pants, making them with an hour’s effort into something distinctive and fun.  The trims I use come from CelticTrims.com, and can also be added to all sorts of other simple things to make them excellent.
  10. As a frequent flier, I was always frustrated by the fact that I could no longer carry a pocket cutting tool to open plastic packaging etc. without risk of confiscation.  For others with the same problem, small round-tipped metal scissors like these are pretty-universally allowed on planes.
  11. In the kitchen I continue to swear by my Leifheit Garlic Slicer and use it pretty-much every day to turn cloves of garlic into luscious quick-cooking petals of deliciousness.
  12. For travel, I can also recommend a folding travel backpack like this one, which folds almost as small as a reusable compact shopping bag but is much more practical since it’s a backpack.  I usually travel with one and stick it in my pocket when heading out to wander a town, so I can easily carry any shopping.  It’s also useful for when one leaves with one bag but inevitably can’t fit new acquisitions into it for the return.
  13. Spoon and fork that fit in your wallet

    We are all drowning in eco-products, making it hard to tell which ones are actually useful.  I have had several happy years now with my credit card cutlery, little flat plastic silverware that fits inside a credit card slot in your wallet, providing a fork and spoon/knife.  I would estimate that in three years or so they have prevented me from using about thirty plastic forks, but more valuably, they have often provided me with a fork when one would otherwise not be available, and the spoon is firm enough to act as a slicing tool for cheese or fruit.

  14. A trick I learned from my father when thinking of stocking stuffers is that one can often achieve smiles by returning to those items which were exciting when we were ten, and are still exciting even though grown-ups aren’t supposed to be excited by them anymore.  For example, yes you can have little colorful umbrellas in your drinks every day, that’s what being a grown-up means!  Also, remember those little capsules that you put in water and then there’s a colorful sponge that expands out of it shaped like a whale or a dinosaur?  Well they’re still just as fun now as they were in the science museum gift shop when you were barely tall enough to peer over the display case.
  15. Life without olive oil is not worth considering.  Now that I no longer have access to Italy directly, I have been doing a survey of the best olive oils stocked in the US.  For a basic one, even carried by some grocery stores, I have been very impressed by California Olive Ranch, which is now my new default oil.  For something more extraordinary, The Olive Tap produces incredible infused oils and vinegars, and I can particuarly recommend their out-of-this-world Tangerine Balsamic (I am not a tangerine fan but this is the best thing to put on a salad I have ever, ever, ever tasted!), and their Blood Orange Olive Oil.  For imported Italian oils I have enjoyed Ottavio Private Reserve, but can’t find a good online source.
  16. And when in doubt, there are 10,000 things you want on ThinkGeek.com.  Just don’t buy them all.

 

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Machiavelli III: Rise of the Borgias

Cesare Borgia.  With him and Lucrezia we have several different paintings which have been identified as possible portraits, but fewer certain ones.

Once upon a time (circa 1475) the whimsical Will that scripts the Great Scroll of the Cosmos woke up in the morning and decided: Some day centuries from now, when mankind has outgrown the dastardly moustaches of melodrama and moved on to a phase of complex antiheroes, sympathetic villains and moral ambiguity, I want history teachers to be able to stand at the front of the classroom and say, “Yes, he really did go around dressed all in black wearing a mask and killing people for fun.”  Thus Cesare Borgia was conceived.

Note: I have discovered that I have a lot to say about the Borgias, so this will be the first of two posts about their impact on Machiavelli.  I will try my best to get the second one out promptly. Thank you, kind readers, for being patient with the long delay between the last post and this.  It was a chaotic September.

See also the earlier chapers of this series: Machiavelli Part I: S.P.Q.F.Part I addendum, and Part II: The Three Branches of Ethics.

The Handbook of Princes:

In the middle phase of the Harry Potter saga, my father phoned me one day to exclaim that if he were Harry he would walk up to Crabbe and Goyle and appeal to them in the name of rational self-preservation.  Voldemort is a terrible, terrible person who randomly kills people who work for him.  Joining his side, or becoming involved with him in any way, is absurdly dangerous.  If you’re a Malfoy or something, and you know he’d come after you if you tried to quit, then joining him is certainly the safest option. But willingly getting involved is rather like plunging enthusiastically into a game of Russian roulette.  I cite this example because its simple appeal to human Reason (Evil is bad! You don’t want to be around it!  Think about it!) is exactly the sort of argument which lay at the heart of the Handbook of Princes genre before Machiavelli got his ink-blackened hands on it. The Princewas far from the first Handbook of Princes.  To the contrary, it argued against a long tradition of manuals of etiquette and collections of heroic maxims which were a common literary form, especially in an age when authors made money from their books only by dedicating them to patrons, who were often more inclined to reward books which seemed directly useful to themselves and their heirs.

Augustus was a great prince. If we read his biography 50 times, we will be too!

A typical Handbook of Princes consisted of a mixture of anecdotes and advice.  The anecdotes were great tales of heroic exploits, focusing on brilliant and successful historical figures (Augustus Caesar, Henry V, take your pick) or on more obscure stories wherein a single figure (usually from Roman history) is remembered for a single noble act.  The presentation focuses on the hero, his character and the virtues (courage, wisdom, patience, generosity, self-sacrifice, industry) which enabled his successes.  These works are histories/biographies in a sense, but unlike the modern versions of those genres, were largely devoid of cultural and historical context, and would never discuss how men were products of their times, or how their successes were affected by class movements or economics.  The men were successes because they were great men, and by reading about their actions and the virtuous decisions which underlay them, the young prince could absorb these virtues and learn to do the same. Moral advice accompanied these moral examples, advice predicated on a combination of logic and the Renaissance universe in which we must remember God is presumed to take a very active part.   The virtuous prince will be more successful than the corrupt or wicked one.  Why?  First, because people will love and respect him, and therefore obey him.  If he acts like Voldemort, reason and self-preservation will drive his followers to realize that it is dangerous to be around him, and he will be abandoned and overthrown.  Tyrants fall to tyrranicides.  Beneficent monarchs, on the other hand, attract loyal followers who want them to stay in power.  People living under a good king will be willing to go to effort to keep him in power.

Castiglione, author of the Book of the Courtier, another high Renaissance descendant of the Handbook of Princes genre, which teaches one how to be an ideal courtier and help to advise and support an ideal prince.

As for dealing with rivals and enemies, i.e. foreign affairs, here too virtue is advised.  The virtuous prince will be more successful.  Why?  Because people will respect and listen to him.  Because chivalrous conduct makes a man outstanding and brave.  Because a virtuous man will have fewer enemies, at home and abroad, and thus be able to sleep at night with a clear conscience and less fear of assassins.  And because God is part of politics in this age.  This culture still believes in trial by combat, that the champion of a virtuous and true cause will always defeat the champion of an unjust one.  The saints will like and bless the good king, and drive plague from his kingdom.  “But bad things happen to good people too!” objects the devil’s advocate.  “What about Job?  What about the fall of the Roman Empire?  What about nuns who get the Black Death tending to people who have the Black Death?”  True, the culture answers, sometimes God sends tests to virtuous men, but by persevering through them with virtue one earns even greater rewards.  There is Providence.  If there is Providence, it is logically never, ever a good idea to do evil.  While the ultimate balance lies in Heaven, even on Earth, in a world with a deep belief in saints and direct divine intervention to answer prayer and protect the chosen, virtue is 100% the right call.  And religion aside, won’t a prince who is loved be showered with support and help?  Certainly Petrarch and his followers, who were so desperate for peace and stability, would eagerly shower any virtuous prince with support and help, and very sincere loyalty. So stands the genre when a young Machiavelli works with Soderini in the Palazzo Vecchio, attempting to run the government of Florence and to achieve stability and peace in a world of chaos and conquest.  This government is the product of Florence’s rebellion against Medici corruption, and everyone knows it exists for the sole purpose of protecting and serving the Florentine citizens and protecting the city and all her works and precious people.  No one in Florence has any incentive to do anything but love and support this government.  Right?

Unmatched in Infamy:

I was in the palace section of the Vatican Museum recently, showing some friends the dark neoclassical frescoes and blue and gilded Borgia bulls which so oppressively dominate Alexander VI’s apartments that no pope has been willing to inhabit that part of the palace since, when a guide came by with her tour group.  She was speaking English as  a compromise language, since she was a native Italian and her group was Korean, but since they were all 75% fluent in English it sufficed for basic communication.  Basic, but not subtle, so when they entered the room she began, “These are the rooms of Pope Alexander VI, he…” and then I saw a look of exasperated despair wash over her face.  How with broken English could she communicate the significance of the Borgia papacy to this group to whom Renaissance Italian politics were so foreign that if she’d told them Michelangelo was a pope, or Duke of Florence, or both, they would probably have believed her.  “He was a very very, very very, very, very bad pope,” she concluded, and shooed her flock on. I applauded her concision at the time, but when she had moved on my friends immediately turned on me and (with the full pressure of a common language demanding thoroughness) asked, “Why was he so bad?  I mean, this is the high Renaissance right before the Reformation – weren’t all the popes incredibly corrupt and terrible?  You’ve been telling us stories about catamites and elephants and brothels all day; what made Alexander VI so exceptional?”

The Borgia Bull. Learn to look for it. (I accidentally terrified my Sicilian tour guide once by spotting it over a cathedral doorway and, being rather startled, pointing at it and shouting “Borgia! Borgia Borgia Borgia!”)

It is a fair question.  The papal throne was indeed at its most politicized at this point, a prize tossed back and forth among various powerful Italian families and the odd foreign king, and Italy remains littered with the opulent palaces built with funds embezzled by families who scored themselves a pope.  My best short answer is this:

  1. They were Spaniards, and the Italians hated that, so all possible tensions were hyper-inflamed.
  2. Instead of the usual graft and simony, they tried to permanently carve out a personal Borgia duchy in the middle of Italy, and when that was going well, they tried to turn the papacy into a hereditary monarchy.
  3. They very nearly succeeded.

The Borgia family came from Valencia in eastern Spain (then Aragon), and were powerful enough there to frequently secure Church offices for younger sons, including the bishop’s miter.  Trivium of the day:  Valencia’s Cathedral is known for possessing one of the best accredited Holy Grails (i.e. more confirmed miracles than any leading rival grail candidate), which means both Rodrigo and Cesare Borgia were briefly custodians of the Holy Grail. The first Borgia pope, Callixtus III(originally Alfonso de Borja, b. 1378, d. 1458), was from Valencia in eastern Spain. During the middle years of his career he was instrumental in getting the royal house of Aragon to accept the compromises which ended the schism, in those years when Europe was going through its antipope-a-month phase.  He was made a Cardinal as a reward, came to Rome, and was elected pope in 1455 as a compromise candidate.  A compromise pope is elected when two or more powerful rivals have a deadlock in which neither can secure the majority necessary to become pope, and neither will let the other win, so they pick someone neutral and extremely old who is guaranteed to die within a couple years, giving the rivals time to level up their bribery skills and try again.  The most notable achievements of his three year reign include a brief crusade, excommunicating Halley’s Comet when its bad luck interfered with his crusade (“Take that!  No communion or last rights for you, comet!”), and securing Cardinal’s hats for two of his nephews, including young Rodrigo.

Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI

Rodrigo Lanzol Borgia, later Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503) was only matrilineally a Borgia, the son of Callixtus III’s sister.  He took a law degree at the university of Bologna, and was twenty-five when his uncle became a compromise pope.  Making good use of their manifestly narrow window, Callixtus had the city of Valencia promoted from having Bishops to having Archbishops. He thus made Rodrigo an Archbishop, then a Cardinal, and finally gave him the position of Vice-Chancellor of the Church, an important (and lucrative!) position managing the papal purse, particularly its taxes and military expenditures.  There is no better office from which to be plugged directly into the detailed workings of the Church, and to secure a precarious but powerful position as one of the foremost non-Romans in Rome.  After his uncle’s death, Rodrigo stayed in this position through four more papacies, setting up a permanent household in Rome and there  raising his most famous bastard children.  When his fifth papal election rolled around in 1492, he was nicely on track to be another mildly-entertaining, thoroughly-corrupt Renaissance pope. The papal election of 1492 was one of the great power games of world history.  Anyone seeking to create a board game or one-shot role-playing simulation of an exciting political moment need look no farther.  Twenty-three men are locked in the not-yet-Michelangelized Sistine Chapel.  They can’t leave until someone receives twelve votes and becomes pope.  Everyone has a different goal.  A few want to be pope.  Others want to sell their votes to the papabile (pope-able candidates) for the best price going.  Some want wealth; some have plenty and want to turn it into power.  Some want titles; some have titles but have lost the fortunes that should go with them and are hoping to earn that back.  Some are young and want to make friends and be owed favors; some are old and want young relatives to become cardinals to preserve the family’s toehold in the College.  The Medici Cardinal is sixteen and hoping to cement the family’s hold on Florence.  The Patriarch of Venice is ninety-six, dying, and wants to go back to his impregnable hometown and eat candy.  Ten of the cardinals present are nephews of previous popes, eager to keep nursing from the coffers and to keep their family fortunes safe from rivals.  Eight are pawns of kings and want to secure the clout necessary to get the new pope to grant their masters’ requests should a king want to, for example, divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boelyn (that’s a few decades off but it’s the kind of thing one has to be prepared for).  The previous pope glutted the College with his own relatives but all are too young for anyone to be willing to vote for them, so they have thrown their collective clout behind the cunning veteran Giuliano della Rovere: learned, aggressive, interested in art, interested in the classics, and interested above all in how both can be used as tools of power.  As for Rodrigo Borgia, he has waited a long time.  This may well be his last shot at his uncle’s throne.  Resources: all the wealth, contacts, secrets, tax-returns and dirt he has accumulated in decades managing the papal purse.

The Sistine Chapel is not actually that large a place for thirty-odd men to be trapped for several days.

It was a very complex election, about which we have lots of information, but little that is reliable.  We know there were four rounds of voting, and that Borgia was not one of the front runners in the three leading to his unanimous or near-unanimous victory in the last.  We have records of enormous bribes, offices and territories representing tens of thousands of florins in annual income changing hands.  Some allege that the king of France contributed hundreds of thousands to efforts to get Giuliano della Rovere on the papal throne.  It seems pretty clear that the Borgias smuggled letters offering fat bribes into the chapel inside the food which was delivered for the cardinal’s meals.  One delightful anecdote from the period claims that the 96-year-old Patriarch of Venice was the last critical swing vote, who, having a wealthy family, secure lines of power, a literally impregnable homeland, and not long to live to enjoy the fruits of bribery, sold out for a couple hundred florins and some marzipan, since, when one is locked in the Sistine Chapel with a bunch of clerics for day after day, sweets are precious hard to come by.  In the end even Giuliano della Rovere himself seems to have accepted that, if he could not win, it was better to profit and wait than to remain stubborn and gain nothing.  He was still fit, favored by the King of France, and likely to survive to see another election.   (For more nitty-gritty details on what we think we might maybe know could have happened potentially, see the wiki.)

The Papal Arms of Alexander VI

Thus Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI. One point of friction which came up in the course of the election was a proposal to contractually limit the number of new cardinals the new pope could appoint.  All popes strove to load the College of Cardinals with their kin and allies to ensure that their factions had a leg up in the next election, and over the course of the five popes Rodrigo had lived under the portion of stooges and nephews in the college had ballooned like the bubo of a plague victim.  Rodrigo Borgia agreed to a high but reasonable limit (I believe the limit was six, although I could be a little off).   Then, still within the blushing springtime of his papacy, he trashed that limit and appointed twelve!  One of those twelve Cardinal’s hats went to the Archbishop of Valencia, one of his own bastard sons, Cesare Borgia. It was a strange and strained life growing up a Borgia bastard, with a Spanish father but an Italian mother, raised in Rome.  The kids learned Catalan as well as Italian and French, not to mention Latin and Greek, since by 1480 humanism was sufficiently victorious that even a twelve-year-old bastard daughter of nobility received a healthy dose of  Homer.  The Italians considered the Borgias Spanish, but in Spanish eyes they seemed Italian, making them literally at home nowhere.  Even within the walls of their own house, as bastard children of a Cardinal they could not be properly acknowledged, at least not in the earlier parts of Rodrigo’s career. This left them wealthy and well-set-up, but also rootless in a world of enemies.  Our protagonists here will be Rodrigo’s children by the primary mistress of his Roman pre-papal years, Vannozza dei Cattanei.  He had other bastards both before and after, but none that will interest us as much as Giovanni Borgia (1476/7?-1497), Cesare Borgia (1475/6?-1507), Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) and Gioffredo Borgia(1482-1518).

A Pope Like No Other:

Rodrigo now had one goal: permanently establish the Borgia as one of the great families of Europe.  He was an old man, and had to move fast.  He bought a ducal title for his intended heir, Pier Luigi.  When Pier Luigi died, he bought one for the next son, Giovanni, and made Giovanni commander of the papal armies.  He married his younger son (Gioffredo, aged 12) to a princess of Naples (aged 16).  He filled the College of Cardinals with stooges who owed their positions and fortunes to the Borgia family, and ensured they had no other allies and many enemies, so they had nowhere to turn if they broke from the Borgia fold.  And he positioned his “nephew” Cesare in the College as a cardinal, just as his uncle had positioned him.

The ceiling of Alexander’s apartment.

All this is expected of a Renaissance pope. He spent lavish sums on redecorating the papal apartments within the Vatican palace, with the Borgia bull all over them.  He took a new mistress, the young and enchanting Giulia Farnese, and soon the papal palace rang with the cries of a newborn papal princess.  He gave vast sums from the Church’s coffers directly to his children, to spend on amassing land and personal troops.  He made corrupt appointments of clerics that fed vast sums into the pockets of allies who never went near the abbeys or peoples whose spiritual well-being they were supposed to oversee.  He used papal military forces to pursue personal family vendettas, particularly against the Orsini and Delle Rovere. All this was also pretty standard for a Renaissance pope.  Here is where it gets exceptional. Cardinals and other powerful figures who opposed the Borgias kept dying–sometimes of symptoms suggesting poison, sometimes of bloody assassinations, sometimes of obviously trumped up court sentences, or of unexplained issues while they were incarcerated in the private papal prison in Castel san Angelo.  The estates of the condemned kept getting confiscated by the holy see, and winding up, not in the papal treasury, but privately in the hands of the popes sons and cousins.  Giovanni was a Duke, and begins demanding to be treated as the equal of the many Italian nobles who had looked down their noses all those years at the half-Spanish mutts.  Cesare, meanwhile, positioned in the papal conclave and with fourteen-or-so other Cardinals appointed by his father and sure to vote his way, was in a good position to succeed his father in the next election.  Now the papacy was ready to become a permanent hereditary Borgia monarchy.

More Borgia Bulls, on Alexander’s ceiling.  The next pope refused to live in those rooms, and made new ones.  Now they keep confusing modern art there.

In 1494 big problems began, somewhat hard to summarize, but largely revolving around the primary rival Borgia had defeated in that hard-fought 1492 election: Giuliano della Rovere.

  • Giuliano della Rovere: “Hey, King of France!  This Borgia pope is evil!”
  • France: “What’s wrong with him?”
  • Giuliano della Rovere: “He’s better at bribing people than I am, and bought the election I was trying to buy! I hate him! I hate him!! I hate him!!!”
  • France: “Is that so?   What a strange and marvelous age we live in.”
  • Giuliano della Rovere: “He’s also Spanish.”
  • France: “What?  We hate those guys!”
  • Giuliano della Rovere: “Please invade Italy!”
  • France: “Srsly?”
  • Giuliano della Rovere: “To oust the evil Borgia pope and free Rome from corruption that isn’t mine!  And if you make me pope, I’ll be your buddy and do whatever you want.”
  • France: “Tempting… say, Naples is in Italy, right?  I seem to remember my distant cousin being King of Naples…”
  • Ludovico Sforza: “Your Highness should totally invade Italy.  On the way in, might I recommend attacking Milan?”
  • France: “Sforza?  Aren’t you the Duke of Milan?”
  • Ludovico Sforza: “No, my nephew is Duke of Milan.  Please invade Italy, attack my home city, and murder my closest relative!”
  • Della Rovere: “Makes sense to me.”
  • France: “You Italians have very strange priorities.  OK.  I suddenly care deeply about this evil Spanish pope. I will oust him!”
  • Sforza & della Rovere: “Hooray!  France is invading Italy!”
  • Italy: “Waaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”
  • France: “CRUSH THINGS!”
  • Della Rovere: “Hey, don’t crush too much!  I want to tyrannize this stuff later.”
  • France: “CRUSH MILAN!”
  • Sforza: “Thank you!”
  • Other Sforza: “You jerk!!”
  • France: “CRUSH FLORENCE!”
  • Savonarola: “Have you considered not crushing Florence?”
  • France: “Oh, I thought you Italians liked being crushed; my mistake.”  *gentle condescending head pat*
  • Machiavelli: “What the… that worked?!  How did that work?!?!”
  • France: “CRUSH ROME!”
  • Della Rovere: “Excellent!  Now, get that evil Borgia pope!”
  • France: “Right.  Where is this evil Borgia pope?”
  • Alexander VI: “Hello, Your Majesty.  Would you like me to make you King of Naples?”
  • Ludovico Sforza: “Great idea!  Go crush Naples!”
  • France: “Did you two read my character sheet or something?  Yes!  Naples!  That is indeed what I want.”
  • Alexander VI: “I hereby crown you King of Naples.  Now you can crush and tyrannize the entire southern half of Italy without consequence.  I shall tyrannize the middle, and you and Sforza can share the top.”
  • Ludovico Sforza: “Here’s a big bat.  Have fun!”
  • France: “I AM THE KING OF NAPLES!  CRUSH THINGS!!!!”
  • Della Rovere: “But, the evil Borgia pope…”
  • France: BANG!  CRASH!!  SMASH!!!  “Sorry, can’t hear you, della Rovere, busy conquering Naples.”
  • Della Rovere: “Borgia bad!  You said you’d oust Borgia!”
  • France: “Yeah, I can see why Borgia out-bribed you at the election.  He’s way better at this evil pope stuff!”  SMASH!!!!
  • Alexander VI: “In the name of Saint Peter, CRUSH THINGS!!!!”
  • Italy: “Wait, did the papal runner-up just invite the French to invade, and then the pope encouraged them to invade more, and then the pope started a new war of his own to seize the ravaged territories?  That’s a new one for the ‘worst popes’ book!”
  • Alexander VI: “Della Rovere did it.”
  • Della Rovere: “Borgia did it.”
  • Savonarola: “THIS POPE IS THE ANTICHRIST!  THESE ARE THE END TIMES!  APOCALYPSE! JUDGMENT!”
  • Everyone: “You know, that explains a lot…”

But he remained the pope,  however destructive his exploits.  He had armies, money, his own prison-fortress, his own courts of law, political instincts honed by decades, detailed knowledge of everyone’s secrets, the authority to grant noble titles (like King of Naples), and the power to damn you to Hell forever and ever.  His every move made him more powerful at the cost of his enemies, so the worse things got, the bleaker the prospect of taking down the Borgia monster.

Lucrezia Borgia

If you can’t take down the monster, one traditional option is to marry it.  Yet in this case, even allying with the pope by marriage, effectively agreeing to permanently condone and support whatever antics he got up to, was not necessarily a permanent fix.  The infamous and enchanting Lucrezia Borgia deserves an entry of her own someday, but I will treat her briefly here.  She was supposed to be one of the most beautiful ladies in the world, with blonde hair which fell past her knees, and a keen and well-trained intellect.  I can testify personally to the latter, since I have read some of the letters she wrote to her father from Milan at the age of fourteen, and the depth of her understanding of the European situation as she warns her father of political turmoil along Italy’s northern border certainly adds plausibility to the impossible competence of a lot of teen-aged young adult and anime protagonists.  In marriage terms, she was the best catch in the world.  Unfortunately, she was too valuable.  Alexander engaged her to one noble, then broke it off in favor of a better one, then a better one (“What’re ya gonna do about it?  Her dad’s the pope!”).  Eventually he married her to a bastard of the Sforza, the ruling family of Milan, then when the Sforza weren’t valuable enough wrangled an annulment (the Sforza objected fiercely: “You can’t do that!  We’re Catholic!  Ending a marriage requires a special dispensation from the pop… oh, right. #%$&!”)  Next Alfonso of Aragon, from the Naples-Spanish royal family.  That one ended in a juicy (and unsolved) murder. All the rumors of corruption that follow corrupt rulers naturally followed the Borgias, and I mean all of them.  Every important person who died was poisoned by the Borgias.  Every body found floating in the Tiber was their fault.  Lucrezia was sleeping with her brothers.  Lucrezia was sleeping with her father.  Giovanni was sleeping with Gioffredo’s wife.  Giovanni murdered his own wife.  Cesare murdered Lucrezia’s second husband out of jealousy because he was in love with her.  Alexander was sleeping, not just with Julia Farnese, but with Julia Farnese’s brother Alessandro.  Alexander was sleeping with the Ottoman Sultan’s brother Cem.  Most of these rumors must be untrue, and experts have spent many years making baby steps toward sorting true from false, but the majority is pretty much impossible to verify.  It does seem to be true that there was a patch in there when so many Cardinals were being murdered that there were active betting pools in Rome where you could lay money on which Cardinal would be offed next.  I myself am half convinced by the numerous accounts that claim that Cesare used to go out in the streets at night and murder people for fun.  I mean, why not?  His dad’s the pope!  Many of the claims may be outlandish, but neither historical facts nor the rule of plausibility can really help us quash them when the facts we do have are so exactly what we would expect if everything was true.  For example, in 1498, two of Lucrezia’s household servants were found dead in the Tiber without explanation, and shortly thereafter she definitely gave birth to a bastard, which was officially declared to be Cesare’s son, then to be Alexander’s son, then to be her half-brother with no claim about who the father was.  What was history supposed to think?  And all this time, the Ottoman Sultan’s brother Cem, who was living in Rome as a political hostage, did spend a suspiciously large amount of time hangin’ with the Borgias.

Shock! Dismay! Much later romanticized image of Cesare, Lucrezia and Rodrigo as the body is brought in.

But these were small things.  In 1497, one of the bodies floating in the Tiber was their own.  Giovanni Borgia, Duke of Gandia, Alexander’s heir.  An untouched purse containing gold worth more than a year’s income to many Romans proved it was not a random murder.  Alexander launched an intense investigation, then suddenly halted it after less than two weeks without any announcement of the result.  No one was convicted.  Rumors blamed the Orsini.  Darker rumors blamed his fellow Borgias.  Young Gioffredo Borgia was accused, on the grounds that Giovanni was supposed to have been sleeping with his wife.  Cesare Borgia was accused on the grounds of… of… frankly, it just seems that everyone who knew Cesare and knew Giovanni and knew the situation just agreed, as if by instinct, that it was Cesare.  Nothing else made sense.  Fratricide–the narrative demands it.

The Dark Prince Rises:

Why kill Giovanni?  [Disclaimer: there is no proof Cesare did kill Giovanni.  I freely confess that my tendency to believe those who claim he did is based solely on (A) its consistency with his later actions, and (B) the fact that it feels narratively right.  There is no proof!]  Cesare was supposed to succeed his father as pope.  But Giovanni, he was the one who got to be a Duke, to marry a princess, to enjoy the lands and castles, and to carry on the Borgia name.  He had been the heir.  The logical next heir should have been Gioffredo.  Instead Cesare took center stage.  He renounced the Cardinalship, becoming the only man in history ever to do so.  His father pressured the French into giving him a princess for a wife, and a Ducal title.  So little did the actual people ruled by nobles matter to the aristocrats who owned them at the time that they decided to make him Duke of a region called Valentinois for the sole reason that, as Archbishop of Valencia, he was already nicknamed “Valentino”, and this way they wouldn’t have to change his nickname.  He took command of the papal armies, and control of the Borgia estates.  But Alexander continued to sort-of treat him as a Cardinal and he continued to sort-of act like one, making everyone worry that they might still intend Cesare to succeed his father as pope even though he was now also intending to succeed as worldly heir.  What did it mean?

This drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci is pretty-much unknown, but an expert whom I have reason to trust told me with confidence that he believes it is a portrait sketch of Cesare.

Titular power was not enough now.  During Giovanni’s years, Alexander had already started signing papal lands over to his son-and-heir, not as temporary leases but as permanent gifts, carving off pieces of the Papal States and creating a private Borgia kingdom out of what had been Rome’s.  You see, titular ducal titles like Gandia and Valentinoi,s to Italian eyes, just meant some faraway nowhereville which gives people money and makes us have to call them “Your Grace”.  Such territories didn’t matter, not like a territory in Italy would matter.  What Alexander and Cesare made now was different.  Alexander gave a big hunk of the papal states to Cesare, as a permanent gift.  The cities within the Papal States were governed by papal “Vicars,” i.e. nobility granted rule over sub-territories within the papal lands much as Dukes and Counts are granted sub-territories in a kingdom by a king or emperor.  These vicars were in theory appointed by the pope and could be replaced by him, though in practice the position was by custom passed along noble lines from father to son.  To depose them all and give their lands to his son as the new vicar was thus technically legal but practically unthinkable, and an as great a shock to the political scene as if a king of France had suddenly deposed half his top nobles.  It also implied Alexander’s intention to leave these territories in Borgia hands permanently.  Next Cesare raised armies and started, on small pretexts, attacking neighboring city-states and territories, ejecting the current rulers and adding them to his private Borgia kingdom.  (“What’re ya gonna do about it?  My dad’s the pope!”)   A new blotch appeared on the European map.  Let me repeat: a new blotch appeared on the European map, a kingdom out of nowhere, carved out in the heart of Italy, a kingdom which no longer belonged to the pope, or any Italian house, but to the Borgias.   Whether Cesare became pope next or not, he would be Duke—perhaps soon King—of an ever-growing chunk of the world.  No pope had done this.  No pope had done anything close to this.

Maps help, even if this is not the best.  The blue section in the middle is the Papal States.  The northern arm is what Alexander carved off for the Borgia kingdom.  Ferrara to the north (Yellow) and Modena (also yellow, west of it) are what became Borgia allies when Lucrezia married Alfonso D’Este.  Notice how Florence’s orange territory is now an inconvenient bite-shaped hole in the side of Cesare’s kingdom.

The new and growing Borgia Kingdom was an especially terrifying force in the eyes of those on its ever-changing borders.  The pattern rapidly became clear: ally with the pope–by marriage or treaty–or you are next on Cesare’s chopping block.  These were not subtle takeovers but outright sieges, with the full brutality of Renaissance warfare.  Even Ferrara—the untouchable no man’s land between Venice and Rome which no man dared disturb lest strife on the Venetian border weaken the power whose fleet was the only barrier between the Turk and Christendom—even here Cesare threatened war.  The threat of war with the Turk meant nothing to him.  He was ready to ravage Ferrara, and would have if the Duke hadn’t speedily married Lucrezia and agreed to condone and acknowledge all his new brother-in-law’s conquests.  So even the untouchable noble house of Este fell into Borgia hands.  And do you know what plump, gold-fatted city-state lay directly west of the patch where Cesare was playing king-unmaker?  Good guess.

Good morning, Mr. Machiavelli.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to prevent Cesare Borgia from conquering Florence.  You will serve as our official ambassador to his court.  You will shadow the Duke-Cardinal as closely as possible, report to us about his character and tactics, and develop a strategy to keep him from adding Tuscany to his expanding kingdom.  While at his court, you will need to maintain yourself and your team with grandeur sufficient to make him take us seriously as a political force, but we can’t send you any funds to pay for this, since Borgia has so completely destroyed peace and order in the region that bandits are rampaging through the countryside robbing and murdering all our couriers.  As always, should you or any member of your team be caught or killed, the Signoria will disavow all knowledge of your actions.  This message will self-destruct in a few weeks when your office is inevitably looted and burned, but if you throw it in the fire that will speed things up.

Thus began Machiavelli’s very special education in the conduct of a different kind of prince.

Cesare’s ducal coat of arms, adding the French fleur de lis after he successfully wins the King of France to his side.

Cesare Borgia was both feared and loved.  The “loved” part may seem out of place given Borgia infamy, but it was true.  The papal vicars Cesare replaced had been widely disliked by the peoples they ruled, since most of them were corrupt and more interested in family advancement than their people’s well-being.  Cesare offered something different, and in many cases better.  Better how?  Because the fundamental purpose of government, from the perspective of a butcher or a weaver, is to keep the peace and prevent killing and looting.  Cesare did that.  Cesare did that very, very well.  How?  If someone was caught causing strife in the streets, that person would be executed in the most horrifically graphic possible way and his corpse strung up in public.  Consequence: peace. Two examples of Cesare’s activities in this period crop up particularly vividly in the history books, and in Machiavelli’s “little book on princes.” The first is the case of Remirro de Orco.  Cesare conquered the territory of Romagna (East/middle hunk of Italy), including the city of Cesena.  Such was the chaos resulting from the violent upheaval and expulsion of the old rulers, that the region of Romagna had largely degenerated into chaos, banditry, killing and looting.  Cesare needed to bring order.  He appointed a mercenary captain named Remirro de Orco, one of his more loyal men, and commanded that he bring peace to the area as efficiently as possible by using maximum brutality.  Following Cesare’s order, Remirro carried out numerous executions, using methods gruesome even for the Renaissance, and speedily crushed the region under the iron heel of peace.  No one looted.  No one dared.  After peace was achieved, Cesare inspected the region and confirmed that it was indeed stable, arguably even more prosperous than it had been before his conquests, but that the people were fired with bitterness and rage.  The next morning, Cesare had departed, and Remirro de Orco was found in the town square of Cesena, having been sliced in half, with his gore-spewing entrails strewn across the decorative pavement.  No one doubted it was Cesare’s doing, but to Machaivelli’s astonishment, the effect of this unthinkable betrayal was instant and lasting peace.  The people were satisfied, even grateful, that Cesare had taken revenge upon the brutal oppressor, and the new, gentler vassal he left in place to rule the region was readily obeyed.  They did not blame Cesare for the atrocities loyal Remirro had carried out at his express order – instead they thanked him for avenging them.  Cesare was loved.

Coins minted by you-know-which-pope.

He was also feared, by other loyal vassals who noticed (as my father urged Crabbe and Goyle to) that the villain had a tendency to brutally murder people near him, even loyal servants.  This was unheard of.  The Handbook of Princes says the success of the prince depends on his ability to inspire loyalty and love from his vassals.  The vassal betraying the benefactor is the worst thing in Dante’s Inferno; Dante didn’t even have a section for benefactors who betray their vassals because it simply didn’t occur to the Renaissance political mind that one would ever want to.  But it did occur to Cesare. By this phase, by the way, Cesare’s face had been disfigured by syphilis, and he had taken to wearing a mask.  And dressing all in black.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, he genuinely did go around dressed all in black wearing a mask, betraying and murdering people.  Sadly, we have no documentary evidence that he went “Wa ha ha!  Wa ha ha ha ha!” The nervousness that swept through Cesare’s vassals leads us to the second amazing incident, the massacre at Senigallia.  In very late 1502, several of the vassals who had supported Cesare in return for receiving power under him and having his help crushing their enemies became increasingly afraid, both for their lives and for Italy and Europe, and plotted against him.   This was really quite rational.  But they were disorganized and uncertain, and did not follow through well.  They heard rumors that Cesare had heard about the plot.  They didn’t quite trust each other not to sell each other out to him.  One problem led to another, and in the end they decided to abandon the plot, confess to him that they had considered treason but renew their vows to follow him to the end, and beg his forgiveness.  They confessed.  He forgave.  They rejoiced.  He invited them to join him for a feast.  They heartily accepted.  He massacred them all.  High on Olympus Hestia sighed, and the vengeful Furies in the depths gnashed their teeth as the Laws of Hospitality lay wounded.  Cesare’s vassals never plotted against him again.

Our most reliable portrait of Machiavelli, made from his death mask.

I will never forget the letter written to Machiavelli by his friend Biagio Buonaccorsi on January 9th 1503, expressing absolute delight and abject gratitude and relief upon hearing that Machiavelli had survived the massacre at which so many of Cesare’s court had been killed.  Throughout this period, dear Niccolo’s friends and family were prepared to read any day that he had been killed, either with Cesare or by Cesare.  And they didn’t manage to send him his salary.  Once they tried giving it to Michelangelo to carry to him when he was en route to Rome, but even Michelangelo turned back in Cesare-ful times of banditry and chaos.  But something else unsettling was happening too.  What of our Handbooks of Princes?  Shouldn’t a betrayal like that make the rest of Cesare’s vassals turn and flee?  Shouldn’t these people rebel hearing rumors of his brutality?  Doesn’t the Handbook of Princes genre teach us that every move Cesare is making should fail?  Then why does every step he takes seem to be a step up?  They’re trying to turn the papacy into a hereditary monarchy, and they’re succeeding. It should be noted that Cesare’s rise does not necessarily completely undermine the advice in the traditional Handbook of Princes.  Providence has exalted tyrants before, and fools have followed them, many out of of fear.  The apparent (psychological) effects of the incidents with Remirro and at Senigallia are hard to explain, but this can still fit traditional narratives, especially if the Borgias fall in some appropriately cataclysmic way, demonstrating the wages of sin and the grisly fate that waits for bad princes and bad popes.  Then Cesare’s story can join our collections of moral anecdotes as an example of hubris and cruelty, while one of his enemies (Guidobaldo da Montefeltro perhaps?) becomes the hero.  But for now, hubris and cruelty seem to be winning the day.

A sample of Cesare’s surviving handwriting, with his signature at the bottom.

Machiavelli’s letters from the period include some of his reflections on these larger philosophical and historical questions, but he does not have the leisure to invent political science just now.  That must wait for the leisurely days of his exile.  On this mission, every second is reserved for Florence.  Seeing all who opposed the rising prince fall one by one, Machiavelli too chose to follow fear’s advice and suggested an alliance.  Florence accepted his plan and, after many careful approaches by their wily ambassador, so did Cesare.  Florence became an official Borgia ally, agreeing to recognize Cesare’s legitimate claim to his newly-carved kingdom and to offer money and resources to help him conquer more.  Florence was safe for now—at least, as safe as Remirro de Orco had been. And it is in this precarious state that we must leave Florence, and Machiavelli, and the triumphant Cesare for a little while, as the spring of 1503 promises Great Change.

Continued in Machavelli IV: Julius II, the Warrior Pope

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Machiavelli II: The Three Branches of Ethics

Scheme, scheme, scheme… the adorably romantic and villainous 19th century statue of Machiavelli at the Uffizi.  Some men are not remembered as they would have expected.

Machiavelli, Part the Second: in which terms are defined, moral codes collided, teachers betrayed, a hypothetical man executed, Batman and Sherlock Holmes placed before the reader’s judgment, and Machiavelli never actually appears.

See also Part I: S.P.Q.F., and Part I addendum.

Ethics, or moral philosophy, is the branch of philosophy which deals with decision-making, how we separate correct from incorrect action.  A moral philosophy, or ethical system, is the set of criteria by which an individual judges whether an action should or should not be taken.  All ethical systems can, believe it or not, be separated into three categories, whose names are, to the eternal detriment of students, misleading and confusing.  The three are Virtue Ethics (note, does not necessarily involve any concept of “virtue”), Deontology (no relation whatsoever to “ontology”), and the younger sibling, Utilitarianism, aka. Consequentialism.  I will give away my ending here by saying that Machiavelli is the founder of Utilitarianism, and that few changes in the history of thought have so radically transformed the human world.  But for the moment we shall live in a world without Consequentialism, for it is in such a world that Petrarch, and Savonarola, and the young Machiavelli find themselves.

Virtue Ethics is any ethical system which judges an action based on the interior motives and feelings of the actor.  Did that person will a good deed when the person took that action?  If so, it was a morally good action.  Did the person will a wicked deed?  If so, it was a morally wicked action.  The primary question is of the character of the doer: is this a good person or a bad person while performing this action?  Virtue Ethics is thus what leads to such legal terms as self-defense, heat of passion and premeditation.  Yes this person killed another human being, but it was an act of self-defense: this person does not have the character of a murderer.  Yes this person killed another, but (s)he was temporarily out of control due to shock and truma: this person does not have the character of a murderer.  Yes this person killed another, but it was a rash, improvised action, not the result of days and weeks of maliciously plotting how to take human life: this person does have the character of a murderer but the flaw is not so deep, not so perverse, not so terrible.

Even when Plato’s works were lost, the Middle Ages remembered his importance.

The father of Virtue Ethics is Plato, whose argument in The Republic attempts to define Justice.  Is Justice, as one interlocutor proposes, “The will of the stronger?”  Is it “the law?”  Plato concludes, defines Justice and other virtues as “a harmony of the soul,” i.e. an interior quality independent from any action.  In such a system a man is equally virtuous, whether Fortune sends him to rescue a drowning child, to plunge into bloody battle, or to sit in solitary meditation, if his inner state remains the same.  Plato also concludes that it is virtue—the inner harmony of the soul—which makes people happy, rather than wealth or fame or power, which bring with them stresses, risk, and, often, the very opposite of happiness.

Deontology is any ethical system which judges action based on a presumed-universal set of laws or rules external to the doer.  The rules, and their source, may vary enormously.  A patriot who judges actions good or bad based on whether they are lawful or unlawful exercises deontology.  A religious person who judges actions good or bad based on a code of conduct taken from a holy book exercises deontology.  A philosopher practicing rational deism who judges actions good or bad based on a set of “natural laws” (s)he has logically derived from observations of Nature and human behavior exercises deontology.  The uniting characteristic is the focus on rules.  Examples: Killing another human being is wrong.  Killing another human being over whom you do not hold paternal right of life or death is wrong.  Eating an animal is wrong.  Eating a certain type of animal is wrong.  Eating an animal in a certain month is wrong.  Burning a book is wrong.  Permitting the circulation of a book whose dangerous content might lure people into eternal damnation is wrong.  If there is a father of Deontology it is also Plato, since Plato is the first author to discuss such ideas and to contrast them with Virtue Ethics, but Plato is the first Western philosopher to discuss ethics at all.  When his dialogs contrast different views voiced by different interlocutors, are we to credit Plato as the creator of all?  Or shall we argue that deontology was already in the air as the “obvious” approach to what was not yet an “-ology.”  For simplicity’s sake we can credit Plato as the father of ethics.

Having treated the father, Plato, I will take a split second to present the son, Aristotle (who broke violently [by philosophical standards] with his master and strode off either boldly into the truths of the Earth or foolishly back into the Cave, depending on whether you believe the apprentice or the master).  Aristotle presents virtues as a mean between two vices, i.e. bravery is the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness; generosity between miserliness and prodigality.  These are, as in Plato, internal qualities, and a brave man can be brave even if he never has the opportunity to show it.  Yet Aristotle discusses what he calls habits of virtue.  The idea is that someone who does not have the correct virtuous internal disposition might attain it gradually through practice.  He who is not naturally generous can nonetheless practice giving to the poor and eventually, through practice, acquire a habit or instinct to give, and thus become generous.  A coward who practices charging into danger might gradually become brave.  A rebellious child who is forced, through the schoolmaster’s rod, to behave might eventually settle down and learn his grammar.  This approach lies, distantly, behind the medieval Christian practices which say, if you’ve sinned, you can improve yourself by rote reciting prayers and giving alms.  It lies even more distantly behind our modern practice of assigning public service hours as punishments for minor crimes.

Here is a real, period portrait of Machiavelli, with the period label of why he was important: Writer of histories. Not what we remember.

Now, some practical examples of Virtue Ethics vs. Deontology:

EXAMPLE:  Guido kills Paolo.

A virtue ethicist is not a position to answer at this point whether Guido has done good or bad.  Most deontologists would also be unable to answer.  If a deontologist follows a code like some strict forms of Buddhism which say that taking a life is always wrong regardless of the circumstances, such a deontologist could at this point say with certainty: Guido has done wrong.  But for all others we need detail:

EXAMPLE 2: Guido is a professional executioner.  He kills Paolo, executing a sentence ordered by the lawful government, for a capital crime which Paolo did indeed commit.

Now a broader range of deontologists can answer whether or not Guido has done wrong.  In a deontological system in which the lawful government has a right to lethal force and is largely the source of the rules by which we judge (think Hobbes) then Guido has committed no evil.  A deontologist who believes it is absolutely wrong to execute anyone can judge that Guido has done evil.  Others may want to know what Paolo’s crime was (Murder? Rape? Adultery? Atheism?  Public urination?  Homosexuality? Freedom of speech?) to determine whether or not it indeed merits death.

Yet, in any or all of these situations, our unfortunate virtue ethicist still has no way to judge Guido because we need to know what is going on in Guido’s mind.  Did Guido become an executioner because Guido looooooves killing people and jumped at a state-sanctioned way to do it?  If so we would probably not call his action virtuous.  Did Guido become an executioner because he saw a botched execution as a child, and thereafter determined to do it himself in order to strive to be as humane and respectful as possible to those about to face the undiscovered country?  If so we might call this very virtuous.  Was Guido drafted into Hitler’s army where he is following orders?  Does he question them?  Does he not?  Was he brainwashed?  Does he hate this task or does he do it unblinkingly?  All these details the virtue ethicist must have before answering whether Guido is performing a morally good deed.  (For anyone sitting here thinking: No!  The Holocaust was unconscionable!  No matter what the motives, if Guido was a Nazi it’s evil!  Congratulations: you have identified a point in your personal ethics which is firmly deontological.)  Note too that in all these executioner scenarios, it does not matter whether or not Paolo is guilty or innocent, deserving or undeserving of death.  What matters is whether Guido thinks Paolo is guilty or innocent, etc.

“What about me?” objects voluntarism in a high, squeaky voice.  Yes, I was just getting to you.  Voluntarism is an ethical system which says that an act is only moral if it is good by both virtue ethics and deontology.  That is, an act must be good and permissible by absolute external rules, and the doer must also have good motives while doing it.  The quintessential example, for which we may thank William of Ockham (1288-1348), is a man who goes to church.  “You may think this is a good act,” Ockham warns his presumed-Catholic High Medieval reader, “but what if the man goes to Church not for God’s sake or out of love and piety, but in order to show off his Sunday finery to his fellow man, and make political and economic connections to further his own earthly greed?  Only if a man takes good actions for good reasons is true moral virtue present!”  In a less formalized but also more emotionally powerful formulation, which has the distinction of being the first real manifestation of voluntarism in the history of philosophy, Heloise (1101-1164) spends her days in the nunnery praying, and fasting, and looking after the sick, and mortifying her flesh, and everyone tells her she is a very good nun and leading a virtuous life, but, she writes, “Even while I’m praying I spend all day thinking about how much I want to be having sex with Peter Abelard (1079-1142)” (slight paraphrase).  “How is this morally good?  How is this rote repetition of pious words and actions without feelings behind them supposed to help me become a better person?”

Thus we have deontology, virtue ethics and their child voluntarism.  (Deontology: “A child conceived within the strictures of formally permissible union.” Virtue ethics: “And in love!”)

Care to spend a fun evening with your friends?  Sit around picking interesting characters from various pieces of fiction and discussing whether they based their decisions on deontology or virtue ethics.  This game brings endless delight, especially if you’re the sort who enjoys slotting various characters into the old Dungeons & Dragons Alignment Grid, since this categorization system is actually universally applicable, and leads to many fascinating distinctions and telling disagreements.  You will also notice a pair of general patterns, at least in popular fiction of the last few decades, (1) that good guys tend to be more dominated by Virtue Ethics, and bad guys by other motives, and (2) the author or scriptwriter (very common in movies) tends to assume the viewer will judge the characters based primarily on Virtue Ethics.

“Luke, search your feelings: you know you’re guided primarily by virtue ethics.”

Test cases:

Batman.  Absolute commitment to never using lethal force: deontology.  (Unless we think he refrains from killing out of fear of what killing would do to his moral character.)

Spiderman.  Uncle Ben was killed because of Peter Parker’s selfish and vengeful impulse in that moment he let the thug go instead of using his powers for good.  Why, then, does Peter dedicate himself to fighting crime?  If it is because he has come to an absolute conclusion that with great power comes great responsibility, i.e. he is morally required to, that is deontology.  If it is because he hopes to redeem the flaw in his character which led to his selfish decision, it is Virtue Ethics at its most habit-of-virtue Aristotelian.

Average Disney Hero.  Battles villain to save princess, then villain conveniently falls off a cliff.  The virtue ethicist remains content that no shadow is cast on the hero’s character.  Hooray, we have neatly dodged any and all possible moral complexity!

Calaban.  Prospero enslaves him and seizes control of his native island as punishment for Calaban’s attempted rape of Miranda.  Virtue Ethics says Calaban is a horrible and malicious being, and that this punishment is just (unless you have a super-charming actor playing Calaban).  Deontology’s answer depends on which of several different rights/laws the individual deontologist considers primary.  Right of Conquest?  If so, Prospero can do whatever he likes to Calaban.  Right of sovereignty?   If so Prospero is a wicked invader.  Right of benefactor, to punish the ungrateful Calaban to whom Prospero taught and gave so much?  Then Prospero is in the right.  Right of host, to punish the ungrateful Prospero whom Calaban welcomed to his island?  Then Calaban is in the right.  Right to punish the terrible crime of rape?  Only if the deontologist in question believes in some specific absolute code by which rape is criminal in this specific circumstance.

Sherlock Holmes. Tendency to bend the rules and let criminals escape when he thinks they are good people or generally should not suffer the vengeance of the law: Virtue Ethics.  Or is it?  In the case of the Blue Carbuncle, Holmes states “I am aiding a criminal, but I may be saving a soul.”  Is this an application of religious deontology against law-code-based deontology?  In the self-defense killing of The Abbey Grange, Holmes goes through the formula of an impromptu trial before releasing the homicide who he fears would be wrongly convicted in a real trial.  Even when he burgles the master blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton, he invokes the (deontological) duty of a gentleman to aid a lady in distress as his moral justification.  Our perfect analytical reasoner walks a fine and subtle line on the edge of what feels like comfortable, emotional Virtue Ethics, but it is hard to catch him actually outstepping the bounds of what he would surely call universal rules of right and wrong.  Holmes has, of course, enjoyed many versions, and I encourage everyone (especially fans of the Sherlock TV series) to examine how his ethics vary variant by variant.

Personal favorite for this exercise: Darth Vader.  [Do I really need a spoiler warning for this?]  He betrays his master the Emperor to save his son.  The film presents this as redemptive, and his spirit moves on to the vague glowy-person positive Manichean afterlife of the Star Wars special effects universe.  Hooray.  Virtue Ethics supports this absolutely, since the morally good side of his character has won out, even after so many evil deeds, proving him good inside.  What about the deontologist?  If we believe that an apprentice owes true fealty to his master, then this betrayal is a wicked act.  If we believe that the father’s drive to protect his child is a natural and universal bond deeper than law, then this killing-in-defense is a good act.  If we believe the Emperor was the legitimate ruler of the Empire and that its laws are binding, then this treason is a wicked act.  If we believe the Emperor is a tyrant who has unjustly displaced the rightful Republic, then this tyrranicide is, potentially, a good act.  What if the general Sith lifestyle says the apprentice is supposed to kill his master to take his place?  Then Darth Vader is a lazy bum, and should’ve done this a long time ago.  This is but one of many occasions in which Hollywood presents a narrative which is simple and easy to judge using virtue ethics—which is presumed to be the default in today’s audience—but much more complex if deontology rears its head.

Or worse, the dreaded utilitarianism.

Murky waters lie before us as ethics’ third branch stirs from the depths.

Utilitarianism, or Consequentialism, is any form of ethics which judges an action based on the consequences of the action, rather than the action itself or the motive of the doer.

Guido killed Paolo before Paolo could push the nuclear destructor button and end all life on Earth.  Guido killed Paolo before Paolo could exterminate a bus full of nuns and orphans.  Guido killed Paolo before Paolo could kill ten nuns and ten orphans.  Two nuns?  One nun?

We moderns, saturated with utilitarianism, feel that these situations are different from one another, though feel discomfort with “the end justifies the means” and all feel that the scale gets slipperier and more uncomfortable as the numbers get smaller.  Throughout these scenarios the deontologist’s view is unchanged, unless the set of rules the deontologist is applying has specific caveats for killing to defend life.  The virtue ethicist is, of course, not in a position to judge, because the exploding nuns do not tell us Guido’s motive.  If Guido killed Paolo in order to prevent the nuclear destruction of thousands of innocents, Guido is probably, by virtue ethics, not actively willing evil.  But what if Guido didn’t know or care about the nuclear destructor button, and shot Paolo just because Guido loves shooting people?  Or in order to steal Paolo’s avocado club sandwich?  What if Guido is a government assassin who was hired to kill Paolo in order to save innocent lives, but who originally became a government assassin in order to have license to kill because Guido just loves, loves, loves killing?  In all these cases Guido’s character is different, so the virtue ethicist must judge him differently, while most deontological systems would still pay attention mainly to the act itself.  As for Utilitarianism, we have now entered the frightening realm where we must admit that even if Guido committed murder and did it out of love of snuffing out the human candle, it might have saved a hundred billion lives and it is hard to say flat out: that was a bad act.

No greater can of worms has been opened in philosophy’s long march.  Several equal perhaps, none greater.

Questions multiply:

  • How many lives must Guido save before killing Paolo is justified?
  • What if Paolo is a drowning baby and Guido saves him, but then Paolo grows up to become an evil overlord and slaughters millions?  Does the rescue become retroactively evil?
  • If, with our finite perspectives, we cannot ever know the infinite consequences of any particular butterfly wing-beat, let alone moral choice, can we ever in fact say with certainty that any act is good or bad?  Have we, in fact, surrendered the capacity to judge at all?!
  • And, stepping back one level, the historical question: If deontology and virtue ethics were both created at the very spark-birth of philosophy, why did it take 1,800 years for the third (to us equally obvious) branch to come into being?

Ah, friends: before we can have utilitarianism, we must have Borgias!  Before we can understand why this this third mode of human thought was born, nearly two millennia into the unassailed riegn of the original two, I must narrate the papacy’s darkest and, in my view, most exciting hour.  And before I can devote myself to the events around 1503, I must reserve a few days for my own affairs in 2012.

Continued in Machiavelli III: Rise of the Borgias

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Modern Pentathlon: Quick plug for an obscure but awesome sport.

Since our chance to watch it is this weekend, I can’t resist a quick plug for what I consider easily the most exciting Summer Olympic sport, despite being generally regarded as the most obscure: the Modern Pentathlon.  I know most mixed events are obscure and, at first glance, somewhat arbitrary, but when you learn the idea behind the Pentathlon, even the most hardcore non-sports-fan has to get somewhat excited.

 

The ancient Pentathlon was a set of events intended to showcase the skills of the ideal soldier.  It featured five competitions, each relevant in battle: a foot race, wrestling, long jump, javelin and discus throw.  (If you doubt the relevance of discus throwing in war, check how many people in the Iliad die from having rocks thrown at them.)  Early on in the modern revival Olympics they tried the same thing, but Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin got the idea to create a new pentathlon to showcase the skills of the ideal modern soldier at the dawn of the 20th century.

The competition is a test of the skills required when escaping from behind enemy lines after being captured.  The competitors must fence (staving off the guards), shoot with a pistol (stolen from the enemy), swim (crossing a river), ride jumping over barriers on an unfamiliar horse (again stolen from the enemy), and run to a finish line (representing the safe border of friendly territory).  The riding event on a horse the competitor has never met before is a particularly tricky variant on show jumping.  The swim, fencing and riding are held earlier in the day, and successes or failures there are translated into points which turn translate to head starts or handicaps in the foot race, at which the first to the finish line is victor.  In recent versions, the shooting has been done during the run itself, so the athlete (i.e. escapee) must stop mid-run at maximum exertion and then shoot a target (i.e. enemy assailant).  The faster a competitor can land the required shots accurately on the target, the sooner he or she can return to the all-important run.  Like in the biathlon (whose combo of skiing and shooting represents northern European military exercises), it takes a special kind of physical mastery to keep the racing heart, shaking and quick breathing from the run from unsteadying the hand.

The Men’s Pentathlon is this Saturday (August 11) and the Women’s Sunday (August 12), and it will be shown (like everything else) in part on NBC. There will also be a full, live webcast on www.pentathlon.org   I have struggled in vain to get tickets, but intend to enjoy the live stream myself, and watch our brave and dashing officers race for that border.  (You can learn more on the surprisingly helpful webpage of one of USA’s promising young Pentathletes, Suzanne Stettitinus.)

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