Hello, patient friends. The delight of brilliant and eager students, the siren call of a new university library, the massing threat of conjoining deadlines, and the thousand micro-tasks of moving across the country have caused a very long gap between posts. But I have several pieces of good news to share today, as well as new thoughts on Machiavelli:
The next installment of my Sketches of a History of Skepticism series is 2/3 finished, and I hope to have it up in a week or three, deadlines permitting.
I have an excellent new assistant named Mack Muldofsky, who is helping me with Ex Urbe, music, research and many other projects. So we have him to thank in a big way if the speed of my posting picks up this summer.
Because I have a lot of deadlines this summer, I have asked some friends to contribute guest entries here, and we have a few planned treating science, literature and history, so that’s something we can look forward to together.
For those following my music, the Sundown Kickstarter is complete, and it is now possible to order online the CD and DVD of my Norse Myth song cycle Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok. In addition to the discs, you can also order two posters, one of my space exploration anthem “Somebody Will” and one which is a detailed map of the Norse mythological cosmos. CD sales go to supporting the costs of traveling to concerts.
I have several concerts and public events lined up for the summer:
At Mythcon (July 31-Aug 2), Lauren Schiller and myself, performing as the duo “Sassafrass: Trickster and King” will join Guest of Honor Jo Walton for “Norse Hour,” in which she will read Norse myth-themed poetry in alternation with our Norse-themed songs.
Sunday August 9th, I have been invited do a reading of the freshly-polished opening chapters of my novel Too Like the Lightning (due out in Summer 2016) at the Tiptree Award Ceremony event honoring Jo Walton, who couldn’t make it to the initial ceremony but received the Tiptree this year for her novel My Real Children. The event is being held at Borderlands in San Francisco at 3 PM, and will feature readings by local authors, and music performed by myself and Lauren.
Monday August 17th, at 7 PM, I am joining Jo and Lauren again at Powell’s, where Jo will read from her books, Lauren and I will sing, and I will interview Jo and talk about my writing as well as hers.
Finally at Sasquan (Worldcon, Aug 19-23) Lauren and I will have a full concert, I will do another reading from Dogs of Peace, and I will be on several exciting panels.
Meanwhile, I have a little something to share here. I continue to receive frequent responses to my Machiavelli series, and recently one of them sparked such an interesting conversation in e-mail that I wanted to post it here, for others to enjoy and respond to. These are very raw thoughts, and I hope the discussion will gain more participants here in the comment thread (I have trimmed out parts not relevant to the discussion):
In this discussion, I use a term I often use when trying to introduce intellectual history as a concept, and which I have been meaning to write about here for some time, “Intellectual Technology.”
A little conversation about Machiavelli:
I have been reading your blog posts on Machiavelli. You write with tremendous learning, clarity and colour, and really bring past events alive in a brilliant way. But…….. I think you’re far too soft on Machiavelli!!!
I’m working on a PhD about him and it’s fascinating to see that nearly all present-day academics, and indeed academics during much of the second half of the 20th century, have a largely if not completely uncritical admiration for him and his works. He is lauded, for example as a forerunner of pluralism, and supporter of republicanism/democracy, yet his clear inspiration of Italian fascism is almost completely overlooked. The fact that Gramsci revered Machiavelli is dealt with by many scholars, but Mussolini’s admiration for him is hurriedly passed over.
Your post on Machiavelli and atheism is really interesting – in that context the 2013 book Machiavelliby Robert Black would be of interest to you…
Best regards, Michael Sanfey, IEP/UCP Lisbon.
Reply from Ada:
Michael,Thank you for writing in to express your enjoyment of my blog posts. I think your criticisms of Machiavelli are interesting and largely fair, and my own opinions overlap with yours in many ways, though not in others. I agree with you completely that there are inappropriate tendencies in a lot of scholars to praise Machiavelli inappropriately as a proto-modern champion of Democracy, republicanism, pluralism, modern national pride etc., all of which are characterizations are deeply inappropriate and also deeply presentist, reading anachronistic values back into him. But there is also a tendency, dominant earlier in the 20th century, to villify Machiavelli too much in precisely the same anachronistic and presentist way, characterizing him as a fascist or a Nazi and reading back into his work the things that were done in the 20th century by people who used some of his ideas but mixed them with many others. My way of approaching Machiavelli focuses above all on trying to distance him from the present and place him in his context, to show that he is neither a modern hero nor a modern villain since he isn’t modern at all. The question is separate, which you bring up, of how much to blame him or criticize him for opening up the direction of reasoning which led to later consequentialism, and also to fascism which certainly used him as one of its foundational texts. Here I find myself uncomfortable with the idea of historical blame at all, particularly when it’s blame over such a long span of time.
I tend to think of thinkers as toolmakers, or inventors of “intellectual technology”, innovators who have created a new thing which can then be used by many people. New inventions can be used in many ways, and in anticipatable and unanticipatable ways. Just as, for example, carbon steel can be used to raise great towers and send train lines across continents, it can be used to build weapons and take lives, so it is a complex question how much to blame the inventor of carbon steel for its many uses. In this sense, I do believe we can see Machiavelli as a weapon-maker, since the ideas he was generating were directly intended to be used in war and politics. We can compare him very directly to the inventor of gunpowder in this sense. I also see him–and this is much of the heart of my critique–as a defensive weapon maker, i.e. someone working in a period of danger and siege trying to create something with which to defend his homeland. So, imagine now the inventor of gunpowder creating it to defend his homeland from an invasion. Is he responsible for all later uses of gunpowder as well? Is he guilty of criminal negligence for not thinking through the fact that long-term many more people will be killed by his invention than live in his home town? Do the lives saved by gunpowder throughout its history balance out against the lives saved in some kind of (Machiavellian/consequentialist) moral calculus? I don’t think “yes” or “no” are fair answers to such a complex question, but I do think it is important, when we think about Machiavelli and what to hold him responsible for, to remember the circumstances in which he created gunpowder (i.e. consequentialist ethics), and that he invented other great things too, like political science and critical historical reasoning. The debts are complicated, as is the culpability for how inventions are used after the inventor’s death. So while I join you wholeheartedly in wanting to fight back against the distortion of Machiavelli the Mythical proto-modern Republican, I also think it’s valuable to battle against the myth of Machiavelli the proto-Fascist, and try to create a portrait of the real man as I see him, Machiavelli the frightened Florentine.
I do know Bob Black’s Machiavelli book, but disagree with some of his fundamental ideas about humanism itself – another fun topic, and one I enjoy discussing with him at conferences. He’s a challenging interlocutor. There is a very good recent paper by James Hankins on Academia.edu now about the “Virtue Politics” of humanists, which I recommend that you look at if you’re interested in responses to Black.
Best, Ada Palmer, University of Chicago
More from Michael:
First, I want to thank you for this fantastically detailed and brilliant response… I’d like to “come back at you” on consequentialism and some other points:
* Regarding your point about Machiavelli not being modern at all, I see what you mean, albeit you do say of Machiavelli in the post on atheism that “he is in other ways so very modern”. Leo Strauss certainly thought he had a lot to do with the introduction of what we know as “modernity”.
* When you seek to balance the need to fight against the Proto-republican myth and against the Proto-fascist myth, the first of those “myths” enjoys immeasurably wider currency than the second, and I ask myself, why is this?
* On the “intellectual technology” point below, and its being essentially neutral, in this case I wouldn’t agree with you, because we are not talking here about an object like gunpowder, it’s actually concerning something much more important. In ethical terms, Machiavelli took transcendent values out of the equation. As you put it, Machiavelli created “an ethics which works without God” – except that it doesn’t work!!!
* Machiavelli has had a questionable impact in regard to “realism” in International relations. You mention in one of the posts that he backed an alliance with Borgia so as to protect Florence, agreeing to offer money and resources to help Borgia conquer more – a very good example of Machiavelli‘s undoubted sympathy for imperialism.
PPS On the question of Machiavelli being an atheist or not, I really was fascinated by that part of your Ex Urbe writings. I’ve concluded that, whatever about him being an atheist or not, one could certainly describe him as “ungodly” would you agree?
Quick response from Ada:
I think “ungodly” does work for Machiavelli depending on how you define it; it has a connotation of being immoral–which does not fit–but if instead you mean it literally as someone who makes his calculations without thinking much about the divine then it fits.
A supplementary comment on “Intellectual Technology”:
I find “intellectual technology” a very useful concept when I try to describe what I study. Broadly my work is “intellectual history” or “the history of ideas” but what I actually study is a bit more specific: how particular kinds of ideas come into existence, disseminate, and come to be regulated at different points in time. The types of ideas I investigate–atomism, determinism, utilitarianism–move through human culture very much the same way technological innovations do. They come into being in a specific place and time, as a result of a single inventor or collaboration. They spread from that point, but their spread is neither inevitable nor simple. Sometimes they are invented separately by independent people in independent places, and sometimes they exist for centuries before having a substantial impact. When a new idea enters a place and comes into common use, it completely changes the situation and makes actions or institutions which worked before no longer viable. I compare Machiavelli’s utilitarianism to gunpowder above, but here are some other examples of famous cases of technological inventions, and ideas which disseminated in similar patterns:
The Bicycle and Atomism
Leonardo da Vinci sketched a design for a bicycle in the Renaissance, and may have seriously tried to construct one, but afterward no one did so for a very long time. Then many other factors changed: the availability of rubber and light-weight strong metals, the growth of large, centralized cities and a working population in need of inexpensive transit, and suddenly the bicycle was able to combine with these other factors to revolutionize life and society in a huge rush, first across Europe and then well beyond. We have moved on from it to develop more complex technologies that achieve the same function, but still use it and develop it more, and even where we don’t, and cities would not have the shapes they do now without it, and it is still transforming parts of the world it has touched more slowly. Similarly atomism was developed and used for a little while, then languished in notebooks for a long time, before combining with the right factors to spread and rapidly transform society and culture.
The Unity of All Life and Calculus
Newton and Leibnitz developed Calculus independently at the same time. Similarly, both classical Stoicism in Greece and Buddhism in India roughly simultaneously and independently, as far as we can tell, developed the idea that all living things–humans, insects, ancients, people not yet born–are, in fact, parts of one contiguous, interconnected, sacred living thing. This enormously rich and complex concept had a huge number of applications in each society, but seems to have been independently developed to meet the demands for metaphysical and emotional answers of societies at remarkably similar developmental stages. The circumstances were right, and the ideas then went on to be applied in vastly different but still similar ways.
Feminism and the Aztec Wheel
For a long time we thought the Aztecs didn’t have the wheel. More recently we discovered that they had children’s toys which used the wheel, but never developed it beyond that. Which means someone thought of it, and it disseminated a bit and was used in a very narrow way, but not developed further because what we think of as more “advanced” or “industrial” applications (wagon, wheelbarrow) just weren’t compatible with the Aztec world (largely because it was incredibly hilly and didn’t have the elaborate road system Europe developed, relying instead on human legs, stairs, and raw terrain, which were sufficient to let it develop a robust and complex economy and empire of its own. The wheel became more useful in the Americas when European-style city plans and roads were built). Similarly Plato voiced feminism in his Republic, arguing that women and men were fundamentally interchangeable if educated the same way, and people who read the Republic discussed it as a theory among many other elements of the book, but didn’t develop it further (again, I would argue, this was at least in part because the economic and social structures of the classical world depended on the gendered division of labor, particularly for the production of thread in the absence of advanced spinning technology, which is why literally all women in Rome spent tons of time spinning–spinning quotas were even sometimes required by law of prostitutes since if there was a substantial sliver of the female population employed without spinning Rome would run out of cloth. Feminism was better able to become revolutionary in Europe when (among other changes) industrialization reduced the number of hours required for the maintenance of a household and the production of cloth, making it more practical to redirect female labor, and question why it had been locked into that in the first place).
In sum, there is a concreteness to the ideas whose movements I study, a distinct and recognizable traceability. Interpretive analyses, comparative, subjective analyses, analyses of technique, aesthetics, authorial intent, authenticity, such analyses are excellent, but they aren’t intellectual history as I practice and teach it. I trace intellectual technology. Just as the gun, or carbon steel, or the moldboard plow came in at a particular time and had an impact, I study particular ideas whose dissemination changed what it was possible for human beings to do, and what shapes human society can be. It is meaningful to talk about being at an “intellectual tech level” or at least about being pre- or post- a particular piece of intellectual technology (progress, utilitarianism, the scientific method) just as much as we can talk about being pre- or post-computer, gunpowder, or bronze. Such things cannot be un-invented once they disseminate through a society, though some societies regulate or restrict them, and they can be lost, or spend a long time hidden, or undeveloped. Elites often have a legal or practical monopoly on some (intellectual) technologies, but nothing can stop things from sometimes getting into the hands or minds of the poor or the oppressed. Sometimes historians are sure a piece of (intellectual) technology was present because we have direct records of it: a surviving example, a reference, a drawing, something which was obviously made with it. Other times we have only secondary evidence (they were farming X crop which, as far as we know, probably requires the moldboard plow; they described a strange kind of unknown weapon which we think means gun; they were discussing heretics of a particular sort which seems to have involved denial of Providence).
I realize that it would be easy to read my use of “intellectual technology” as an attempt to climb on the pro-science-and-engineering bandwagon, presenting intellectual history as quasi-hard-science, much as we joke that if poets started calling themselves “syllabic engineers” they would suddenly be paid more. But it isn’t a term I’m advocating as a label, necessarily. It’s a term I use for thinking, a semantic tool for describing the specific type of idea history I practice, and linking together my different interests into a coherent whole. When I spell out what I’m working on right now as an historian, it’s actually a rather incoherent list: “the history of atheism, atomic science, skepticism, Platonic and Stoic theology, soul theory, homosexuality, theodicy, witchcraft, gender construction, saints and heavenly politics, Viking metaphysics, the Inquisition, utilitarianism, humanist self-fashioning, and what Renaissance people imagined ancient Rome was like. And if you give me an hour, I can sort-of explain what those things have to do with each other.” Or I can say, “I study how particularly controversial pieces of new intellectual technology come into being and spread over time.”
In that light, then, we can think of Machiavelli as the inventor of a piece of intellectual technology, or rather of several pieces of intellectual technology, since consequential ethics is one, but his new method of historical analysis (political science) is another. We might compare him to someone who invented both the gun and the calculator. How do we feel about that contribution? Positive? Negative? Critical? Celebratory? I think the only universal answer is: we feel strongly.
Friends traveling with me are often perplexed to see me stick my head in a gelateria’s door and instantly proclaim it good or bad, despite not having approached close enough to smell, let alone taste, the contents of the brilliant, alluring bins of swirling color. It can be done. There are visible signs of good and bad gelato, so today I am sharing my gelato-assessment method, applicable in Italy and around the world, and hopefully of service to you (especially to several specific friends who are going to Italy soon).
First I want to clarify that pretty much all gelato is delicious, even what I term “bad gelato.” The very humblest kind of gelato is made from pre-packaged powdered mix, consisting of sugar and (usually artificial) flavors and colors, which can be mixed with milk and popped straight into the gelato machine. The sweet, cold, creamy dessert this produces is still quite yummy, the way cheap candies or grocery store cookies are yummy despite their mundane provenance. One is certainly happier eating this gelato than no gelato, but in an area saturated with Great Cuisine, like Florence, or Rome, or Montreal, it is seldom worthwhile to settle for the adequate when the sublime lurks around the next corner.
I also stand by my conviction that the quality of gelato is far more variable than that of ice cream, and far harder to predict from flavor options alone. Ice cream depends on the fat of the cream to help it coagulate, and also on salt as well as sugar, giving it an inherent mix of flavors which are capable of sustaining very complex mixes of flavors (triple fudge marshmallow peanut butter banana chocolate chunk blackberry swirl) and also of concealing it if the ingredients (especially the cream itself) are of middling quality. Gelato is fundamentally just sugar and milk, or sugar and fruit in the case of a sorbeto, and the flavors are usually simple (hazelnut) or extremely simple (fior di late, pure milk). Thus, you can taste it very easily if gelato contains poor milk, poor fruit, or artificial chemicals (many respectable places still use chemicals to help the gelato coagulate and remain the correct degree of softness in the frezer), far more easily than you can taste the same chemicals supplementing the more full-bodied base flavors of ice cream.
“But I can’t have gelato, I’m vegan and/or lactose intolerant.”
I want to briefly combat this assumption. At its heart gelato is indeed milk-based, but good gelato places also make fruit-based sorbetti, which at their best are pure fruit with sugar, and no dairy at all, while some lower quality ones are mixes of water and fruit extracts, like frozen limeade. These are perfectly safe for vegan and lactose intolerant people, and many dairy-lovers also love, or even prefer, sorbetti to dairy flavors. Occasionally the fruit flavors contain egg whites to help them stay solid, but this is uncommon in my experience. If this is a concern it is usually easy to find out by asking. In addition, more and more serious gelato places have started offering a few flavors based on soy milk or almond milk, to open up gelato more to people who can’t have dairy, and to make use of new exciting flavor possibilities offered by new bases. When I attended the 2012 International Gelato Festival in Florence, I think about a quarter of the competing flavors were dairy-free, possibly more, including both exotic fruits and creamy flavors based on non-dairy milks. And all were delicious.
Now, the test:
#1) Look at the color of the fruit flavors. Banana, apple/pear, or berry flavors (frutti di bosco) are the easiest tell. If the fruit gelati are made of pure, real fruit then they will be the color that fruit would be if you crushed it: berry flavors a deep dark off-black purple/red, apple white or brownish or yellowish sometimes with flecks of peel, and banana a rather unappealing shade of gray. If, on the other hand, banana is a cheery yellow, apple a perky spring green and berry flavors are the light-ish color of blueberry yogurt, then the gelato before you is a mix of milk with food coloring plus fruit extracts or artificial fruit flavor. Pistachio similarly should be the color of crushed nuts, not bright green. The artificial fruit gelati can still be delicious, but only pure fruit sorbetti will give you the overwhelming flavor of top quality fruit gelato which tastes more like fruit than the fruit does, hyperconcentrating the fruit’s flavors and bringing them out with sugar. This matters even if fruit isn’t your thing: making the gelato out of pure fruit is more laborious and expensive than using flavor extracts, so a gelateria with a brilliant dark frutti di bosco is one that is definitely trying to produce the best, and thus also likely to produce a superior chocolate, crema, etc. Now, sometimes mixes of fruit with dairy can be good, so a blueberry-yogurt-colored frutti di bosco isn’t always a bad thing, but the pure fruit ones are more difficult and more expensive, so they are always a good sign, even if the opposite is not necessarily a bad sign. Looking for fruit colors is generally my first test, and if a place passes that’s often enough to say “Yes!” without worrying about other elements of the test. But if still in doubt:
#2) Is the gelato mounded up in huge tall piles? Gelato is soft and fluid, and over time it will naturally flow down, like pudding. The only way to get it to stably stay in a big tall mound is either to freeze it solid (no longer yummy), or to add chemicals that help it remain solid (which can usually be tasted since there is no salt and little fat to conceal them). Thus big, tall, enticing mounds of gelato can be a warning sign. The best gelato will usually not stick above the rim of the bin, unless it has just been brought out. Many very good gelato places don’t even have an open bin, but keep the gelato in round metal containers with lids deep inside the counter. This means you can’t see the color of the gelato, but is generally a good sign, since anywhere that doesn’t show off the visuals of its gelato is usually good enough that it knows it doesn’t have to, and cares more about protecting the gelato than about showing it off. You do need to watch out, though, since some places that serve cheap gelato delivered by vans from warehouses receive it in flat bins with plastic wrap over the top, which is then unwrapped and served. So while tall mounts of gelato are a bad sign, flat bins aren’t a guarantee of quality. Metal lids pretty much always mean good quality.
#3) Look at the flavors of fruit offered: are there seasonal fruits? Once again this is a sign relevant to both fruit lovers and those indifferent to fruit. All gelato places will produce lemon, strawberry, and other popular flavors year round, but a gelato place which pays careful attention to the seasons, producing watermelon, apricot, and peach in summer, fig, apple, and pear in autumn, citrus in winter, and diverse berries in spring is another sign that the people in charge care about quality, and are therefore willing to put in extra effort to master a fleeting seasonal fruit which will only be profitable for about a month a year. This too bodes well for the quality of all the flavors. Similarly if you see a bright orange apricot flavor offered in December, safe money says that is a 100% artificial flavor, and many of the others probably are as well.
#4) Look at the translucency of the lemon. A small gelato place may not have any of the more telltale fruits, but lemon is pretty much always in stock. Is the lemon an opaque, creamy white that looks rather like the white cream-based flavors? If so, it is milk mixed with lemon extract. If, on the other hand, the lemon is translucent white or subtly yellowish off-white, so the edges of it are almost transparent like the transparent outer edge of an ice cube that’s in the process of melting, then it is just water and fruit extract. This again is a bit more difficult and expensive, because it requires better lemon juice to taste good, and is harder to make stay firm, so again it means the gelato makers have put in more effort.
#5) Do they offer fior di latte, or fior di panna? These flavors, made from pure milk and pure cream respectively, are the basic form of gelato. It means they are the flavors that most clearly expose the quality of the milk, and most clearly betray the presence of artificial additives. In Italy, virtually all gelato places will offer fior di latte, and any one that doesn’t is conspicuous. Abroad, especially in the US, it is much more rare, because it exposes inferior ingredients, and few non-Italians know what this flavor is (Americans, for example, always ask for vanilla instead, because we’re not used to the idea that the pure white version of a frozen desert could be so good as to require no flavor, not even vanilla). If a non-Italian gelato place offers fior di latte, it’s often a good sign. If an Italian one offers fior di panna, that is a sign that they have put in extra serious effort into maximizing the flavor of their dairy (and cream is more expensive than milk) so also good. But if they only offer fior di latte with chocolate chips, or with flavored syrup drizzled all over it, they could be showing off their syrups, or they could be covering inferior milk.
#6) Do they offer hazelnut (nocciola)? This flavor is, gram for gram, usually the most expensive to produce, and to make genuinely powerful. For that reason, many gelato places save funds by offering chocolate-hazelnut flavors, bacio or Nutella, but not pure hazelnut. Others compensate with artificial or weak hazelnut.
#7) Still in doubt? Now you’re ready to ask to taste something to see if the place is good, but what? Usually you’re going to order two or more flavors, so asking to taste them all in advance is often a bit much. Traditionally people recommend tasting the hazelnut, since if it has a powerful, good flavor it means they are sparing no expense. Tasting fior di latte can also work well, since it is the core of all the other cream-based flavors, so if it is strong and pure the rest will be. Another good choice can be to taste a fruit to see if it’s good quality, or anything unusual or subtle, like basil.
What do I do if the gelato place is “bad” but it’s the only one around and I want a gelato?
Despair not! You can still have a delicious experience at a mediocre gelato place, you just need to choose your flavors appropriately. Usually if a gelato place is mediocre, it is working with inferior milk, and may have to put additives in the gelato to make it stay soft overnight because they can’t afford to make a new batch every day. These problems can be tasted easily in pure, simple flavors like fior di latte or the fruit sorbets, but you can choose flavors that conceal them, and thus still have a good experience. Chocolate is a reliable fallback in almost all circumstances. Another thing to look out for in mediocre gelato places is a complicated flavor mixing two or more flavors, like tiramisu. A place local to me here has very disappointing sorbets, but respectable chocolate, tiramisu, and pistachio, and remarkably good creative original flavors like root beer or “Elvis” (chocolate, banana, peanut butter) which are well balanced and conceal the mediocre undertones nicely. Lemon is also a good fallback. Whenever I have a rough travel day in Italy, I go to the train station gelato place and get a nice cold lemon, and even the terrible gelato they have in a train station is still miraculously curative after a rough day.
For more on gelato, see also my earlier post: Relax. Have a gelato.
My next gelato-related project is to assemble an International Gelato Atlas listing gelato places around the world, to help everyone who has worked up an appetite find good gelato wherever you travel. So far it has lots of listings for the USA and Italy but a few for a whole lot of other countries too. If you know of a good gelato place, please post about it in the comments here, and I will add it to the list. Please specify (A) location, (B) how much of the above test it passes, (C) if its gelato is all natural, (D) recommended flavors, (C) other attributes you consider worth mentioning, and (D) website if there is one. Hopefully together we can make a world wide gelato map capable of combatting the symptoms of dreaded gelato withdrawal no matter where we roam!
There was a Borgia boom in 2011 when, aiming to capitalize on the commercial success of The Tudors, the television world realized there was one obvious way to up the ante. Not one but two completely unrelated Borgia TV series were made in 2011. Many have run across the American Showtime series The Borgias, but fewer people know about Borgia, also called Borgia: Faith and Fear, a French-German-Czech production released (in English) in the Anglophone world via Netflix. I am watching both and enjoying both. This unique phenomenon, two TV series made in the same year, modeled on the same earlier series and treating the same historical characters and events, is an amazing chance to look at different ways history can be used in fiction.
I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy. I have been fortunate in that becoming an historian hasn’t stopped me from enjoying historical television. It’s a professional risk, and I know plenty of people whose ability to enjoy a scene is completely shattered if Emperor Augustus is eating a New World species of melon, or Anne Boleyn walks on screen wearing the wrong shade of green. I sympathize with the inability to ignore niggling errors, and I know any expert suffers from it, whether a physicist watching attempting-to-be-hard SF, or a doctor watching a medical show, or any sane person watching the Timeline movie. But over the years as my historical knowledge has increased so has my recognition of just how hard it is to make a historically accurate show, and how often historical accuracy comes into conflict with entertainment. More on that later...
As for the Borgias and the other Borgias:
The Borgias (Showtime) Borgia: Faith and Fear (International & Netflix)
Bigger budget (gorgeous!) Smaller budget
Shorter series/seasons Longer seasons, enabling slower pacing, more detail
Bigger name actors Extremely international cast (accents sometimes strong)
More glossing over details More historical details (can be more confusing as a result)
Makes Cesare older than Giovanni/Juan Makes Giovanni/Juan older than Cesare (<= historians debate)
Focus on Cesare as mature and grim Focus on Cesare as young and seeking his path
Lots of typical TV sex and violence More period-feeling sex and violence
Generally less historicity Generally more historicity
What do I mean by “more historicity”? While I enjoy both shows–both will pass the basic TV test of making you enjoy yourself for the 50 minutes you spend in a chair watching them–the international series consistently succeeded in making the people and their behavior feel more period. Here are two sample scenes that demonstrate what I mean:
Borgia: Faith and Fear, episode 1. One of the heads of the Orsini family bursts into his bedroom and catches Juan (Giovanni) Borgia in flagrante with his wife. Juan grabs his pants and flees out the window as quickly as he can. Now here is Orsini alone with his wife. [The audience knows what to expect. He will shout, she will try to explain, he will hit her, there will be tears and begging, and, depending on how bad a character the writers are setting up, he might beat her really badly and we’ll see her in the rest of this episode all puffy and bruised, or if they want him to be really bad he’ll slam her against something hard enough to break her neck, and he’ll stare at her corpse with that brutish ambiguity where we’re not sure if he regrets it.] Orsini grabs the iron fire poker and hits his wife over the head, full force, wham, wham, dead. He drops the fire poker on her corpse and walks briskly out of the room, leaving it for the servants to clean up. Yes. That is the right thing, because this is the Renaissance, and these people are terrible. When word gets out there is concern over a possible feud, but no one ever comments that Orsini killing his wife was anything but the appropriate course. That is historicity, and the modern audience is left in genuine shock.
The Borgias, episode 1. We are facing the papal election of 1492. Another Cardinal confronts Rodrigo Borgia in a hallway. It has just come out that Borgia has been committing simony, i.e. taking bribes. Our modern audience is shocked! Shocked, I say! That a candidate for the papacy would be corrupt and take bribes! Our daring Cardinal confronts Borgia, saying he too is shocked! Shocked! This is no longer a matter of politics but principle! He will oppose Borgia with all his power, because Borgia is a bad person and should not sit on the Throne of St. Peter! See, audience! Now is the time to be shocked! No. This is not the Renaissance, this is modern sensibilities about what we think should’ve been shocking in the Renaissance. After the election this same Cardinal will be equally shocked that the Holy Father has a mistress, and bastards. Ooooh. Because that would be shocking in 2001, but in 1492 this had been true of every pope for the past century. In fact, Cardinal Shocked-all-the-time, according to the writers you are supposed to be none other than Giuliano della Rovere. Giuliano “Battle-Pope” della Rovere! You have a mistress! And a daughter! And a brothel! And an elephant! And take your elephant to your brothel! And you’re stalking Michelangelo! And foreign powers lent you 300,000 ducats to spend bribing other people to vote for you in this election! And we’re supposed to believe you are shocked by simony? That is not historicity. It is applying some historical names to some made-up dudes and having them lecture us on why be should be shocked.
These are just two examples, but typify the two series. The Borgias toned it down: consistently throughout the series, everyone is simply less violent and corrupt than they actually historically, documentably were. Why would sex-&-violence Showtime tone things down? I think because they were afraid of alienating their audience with the sheer implausibility of what the Renaissance was actually like. Rome in 1492 was so corrupt, and so violent, that I think they don’t believe the audience will believe them if they go full-on. Almost all the Cardinals are taking bribes? Lots, possibly the majority of influential clerics in Rome overtly live with mistresses? Every single one of these people has committed homicide, or had goons do it? Wait, they all have goons? Even the monks have goons? It feels exaggerated. Showtime toned it down to a level that matches what the typical modern imagination might expect.
Borgia: Faith and Fear did not tone it down. A bar brawl doesn’t go from insult to heated words to slamming chairs to eventually drawing steel, it goes straight from insult to hacking off a body part. Rodrigo and Cesare don’t feel guilty about killing people, they feel guilty the first time they kill someone dishonorably. Rodrigo is not being seduced by Julia Farnese and trying to hide his shocking affair; Rodrigo and Julia live in the papal palace like a married couple, and she’s the head of his household and the partner of his political labors, and if the audience is squigged out that she’s 18 and he’s 61 then that’s a fact, not something to try to SHOCK the audience with because it’s so SHOCKING shock shock. Even in other details, Showtime kept letting modern sensibilities leak in. Showtime’s 14-year-old Lucrezia is shocked (as a modern girl would be) that her father wants her to have an arranged marriage, while B:F&F‘s 14-year-old Lucrezia is constantly demanding marriage and convinced she’s going to be an old maid if she doesn’t marry soon, but is simultaneously obviously totally not ready for adult decisions and utterly ignorant of what marriage will really mean for her. It communicates what was terrible about the Renaissance but doesn’t have anyone on-camera objecting to it, whereas Showtime seemed to feel that the modern audience needed someone to relate to who agreed with us. And, for a broad part of the modern TV-watching audience, they may well be correct. I wouldn’t be surprised if many viewers find The Borgias a lot more approachable and comfortable than its more period-feeling rival.
Borgia: Faith and Fear also didn’t tone down the complexity, or rather toned it down much less than The Borgias. This means that it is much harder to follow. There are many more characters, more members of every family, the complex family structures are there, the side-switching. I had to pause two or three times an episode to explain to those watching with me who Giodobaldo da Montefeltro was, or whatever. There’s so much going on that the Previously On recap gives up and just says: “The College of Cardinals is controlled by the sons of Rome’s powerful Italian families. They all hate each other. The most feared is the Borgias.” They wisely realized you couldn’t possibly follow everything that’s going on in Florence as well as Rome, so they just periodically have someone receive a letter summarizing wacky Florentine hijinx, as we watch adorable little Giovanni “Leo” de Medici (played by the actor who is Samwell Tarly in Game of Thrones) get more and more overwhelmed and tired. Showtime’s series oversimplifies more, but that is both good and bad, in its way. The audience needs to follow the politics, after all, and we can only take so much summary. The Tudors got away with a lot by having lectures on what it means to be Holy Roman Emperor delivered by shirtless John Rhys Meyers as he stalked back and forth screaming in front of beautiful upholstery, and he’s a good enough actor that he could scream recipes for shepherd’s pie and we’d still sit through about a minute of it. The Borgia shows have even more complicated politics for us to choke down.
Now, historians aren’t certain of Cesare’s birth date. He may be the eldest of his full siblings, or second.
The difference between Cesare as elder brother and Cesare as younger brother in the shows is fascinating. Showtime’s Big Brother Cesare is grim, disillusioned, making hard decisions to further the family’s interests even if the rest of the family isn’t yet ready to embrace such means. B:F&F‘s Little Brother Cesare is starved for affection, uncertain about his path, torn about his religion, and slowly growing up in a baby-snake-that-hasn’t-yet-found-its-venom kind of way.
Both are fascinating, utterly unrelated characters, and all the subsequent character dynamics are completely different too. Giovanni/Juan is utterly different in each, since Big Brother Cesare requires a playful and endearing younger brother, whose death is already being foreshadowed in episode 1 with lines like “It’s the elder brother’s duty to protect the younger,” while Little Brother Cesare requires a conceited, bullying Giovanni/Juan undeserving of the affection which Rodrigo ought to be giving to smarter, better Cesare. Elder Brother Cesare also requires different close friends, giving him natural close relationships with figures like the Borgias’ famous family assassin Michelotto Corella, who can empathize with him about using dark means in a world that isn’t quite OK with it.
There are other age-heirarchy-related differences as well.
Younger Brother Cesare gets chummy classmate buddies Alessandro Farnese and Giovanni “Leo” de Medici, who must balance their own precarious political careers with the terrifying privilege of being the best friends of young Cesare as he grows into his powers and toward the season 1 finale “The Serpent Rises.” All this makes the two series taken together a fascinating example of how squeezing historical events into the requirements of narrative tropes makes one simple change–older brother trope vs. younger brother trope–lead logically to two completely different stories. I think both versions are very powerful, and the person they made out of the historical Cesare is different and original in each, and worth exploring.
The great writing test is how to do Giovanni/Juan’s murder. Since some people do and some don’t know their gory Borgia history, part of the audience knows it’s coming, and part doesn’t. Historians still aren’t sure who did it, whether it was Cesare or someone else, and what the motive was. Thus the writers get to decide how heavily to foreshadow the death, how to do the reveal, what character(s) to make the perpetrator(s), and what motives to stress. I will not spoil what either series chose, but I will say that it is very challenging writing a murder when you know some audience members have radically different knowledge from others, and that I think Borgia: Faith and Fear used that fact brilliantly, and tapped the tropes of murder mystery very cleverly, when scripting the critical episode. The Borgias was less creative in its presentation.
But what about historical accuracy?
I said before that I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy. Shows ignoring history or changing it around does bother me sometimes, especially if a show is very good and ought to know better. The superb HBO series Rome, which does an absolutely unparalleled job presenting Roman social class, slavery, and religion, nonetheless left me baffled as to why a studio making a series about the Julio-Claudians would feel driven to ignore the famous historical allegations of orgies and bizarre sex preserved in classical sources and substitute different orgies and bizarre sex. The original orgies and bizarre sex were perfectly sufficient! But in general I tend to be extremely patient with historically inacurate elements within my history shows, moreso than many non-historians I know, who are bothered by our acute modern anachronism-radar (on the history of the senes of anachronism and its absence in pre-modern psychology, see Michael Wood: Forgery, Replica, Fiction). For me, though, I have learned to relax and let it go.
I remember the turning point moment. I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my roommates, and it went into a backstory flashback set in high medieval Germany. “Why are you sighing?” one asked, noticing that I’d laid back and deflated rather gloomily. I answered: “She’s not of sufficiently high social status to have domesticated rabbits in Northern Europe in that century. But I guess it’s not fair to press a point since the research on that hasn’t been published yet.” It made me laugh, also made me think about how much I don’t know, since I hadn’t known that a week before. For all the visible mistakes in these shows, there are even more invisible mistakes that I make myself because of infinite details historians haven’t figured out yet, and possibly never will. There are thousands of artifacts in museums whose purposes we don’t know. There are bits of period clothing whose functions are utter mysteries. There are entire professions that used to exist that we now barely understand. No history is accurate, not even the very best we have.
Envision a scene in which two Renaissance men are hanging out in a bar in Bologna with a prostitute. Watching this scene, I, with my professional knowledge of the place and period, notice that there are implausibly too many candles burning, way more than this pub could afford, plus what they paid for that meal is about what the landlord probably earns in a month, and the prostitute isn’t wearing the mandatory blue veil required for prostitutes by Bologna’s sumptuary laws. But if I showed it to twenty other historians they would notice other things: that style of candlestick wasn’t possible with Italian metalwork of the day, that fabric pattern was Flemish, that window wouldn’t have had curtains, that dish they’re eating is a period dish but from Genoa, not Bologna, and no Genoese cook would be in Bologna because feud bla bla bla. So much we know. But a person from the period would notice a thousand other things: that nobody made candles in that exact diameter, or they butchered animals differently so that cut of steak is the wrong shape, or no bar of the era would have been without the indispensable who-knows-what: a hat-cleaning lady, a box of kittens, a special shape of bread. All historical scenes are wrong, as wrong as a scene set now would be which had a classy couple go to a formal steakhouse with paper menus and an all-you-can-eat steak buffet. All the details are right, but the mix is wrong.
In a real historical piece, if they tried to make everything slavishly right any show would be unwatchable, because there would be too much that the audience couldn’t understand. The audience would be constantly distracted by details like un-filmably dark building interiors, ugly missing teeth, infants being given broken-winged songbirds as disposable toys to play with, crush, and throw away, and Marie Antoinette relieving herself on the floor at Versailles. Despite its hundreds of bathrooms, one of Versailles’ marks of luxury was that the staff removed human feces from the hallways regularly, sometimes as often as twice a day, and always more than once a week.We cannot make an accurate movie of this – it will please no one. The makers of the TV series Mad Men recognized how much an accurate depiction of the past freaks viewers out – the sexual politics, the lack of seat belts and eco-consciousness, the way grown-ups treat kids. They focused just enough on this discomfort to make it the heart of a powerful and successful show, but there even an accurate depiction of attitudes from a few decades ago makes all the characters feel like scary aliens. Go back further and you will have complete incomprehensibility.
Even costuming accuracy can be a communications problem, since modern viewers have certain associations that are hard to unlearn. Want to costume a princess to feel sweet and feminine? The modern eye demands pink or light blue, though the historian knows pale colors coded poverty. Want to costume a woman to communicate the fact that she’s a sexy seductress? The audience needs the bodice and sleeves to expose the bits of her modern audiences associate with sexy, regardless of which bits would plausibly have been exposed at the time. I recently had to costume some Vikings, and was lent a pair of extremely nice period Viking pants which had bold white and orange stripes about two inches wide. I know enough to realize how perfect they were, and that both the expense of the dye and the purity of the white would mark them as the pants of an important man, but that if someone walked on stage in them the whole audience would think: “Why is that Viking wearing clown pants?” Which do you want, to communicate with the audience, or to be accurate? I choose A.
Thus, rather than by accuracy, I judge this type of show by how successfully the creators of an historical piece have chosen wisely from what history offered them in order to make a good story. The product needs to communicate to the audience, use the material in a lively way, change what has to be changed, and keep what’s awesome. If some events are changed or simplified to help the audience follow it, that’s the right choice. If some characters are twisted a bit, made into heroes or villains to make the melodrama work, that too can be the right choice. If you want to make King Arthur a woman, or have Mary Shelley sleep with time-traveling John Hurt, even that can work if it serves a good story. Or it can fail spectacularly, but in order to see what people are trying to do I will give the show the benefit of the doubt, and be patient even if poor Merlin is in the stocks being pelted with tomatoes. (By the way, if you’re trying to watchthe BBC’s Merlin and decide it’s not set in the past but on a terraformed asteroid populated by vat-cultured artificial people who have been given a 20th century moral education and then a book on medieval society and told to follow its advice, everything suddenly makes perfect sense!)
I am not meaning to pick a fight here with people who care deeply about accuracy in historical fiction. I respect that it bothers some people, and also that there is great merit in getting things right. Research and thoroughness are admirable, and, just as it requires impressive virtuosity to cook a great meal within strict diet constraints, like gluten free or vegan, so it takes great virtuosity to tell a great story without cheating on the history. I am simply saying that, while accuracy is a merit, it is not more important to me than other merits, especially entertainment value in something which is intended as entertainment.
This is also why I praise Borgia: Faith and Fear for what I call its “historicity” rather than its “accuracy”. It takes its fair share of liberties, as well it should if it wants a modern person to sit through it. But it also succeeds in making the characters feel un-modern in a way many period pieces don’t try to do. It is a bit alienating but much more powerful. It is more accurate, yes, but it isn’t the accuracy alone that makes it good, it’s the way that accuracy serves the narrative and makes it exceptional, as truffle raises a common cream sauce to perfection. Richer characters, more powerful situations, newer, stranger ideas that challenge the viewers, these are the produce of B:F&F‘s historicity, and bring a lot more power to it than details like accurately-colored dresses or perfectly period utensils, which are admirable, but not enriching.
In the end, both these shows are successfully entertaining, and were popular enough to get second and third seasons in which we can enjoy such treats as Machiavelli and Savonarola (Showtime’s planned 4th season has been cancelled, though there are motions to fight that). Showtime’s series is more approachable and easier to understand, but Borgia: Faith and Fear much more interesting, in my opinion, and also more valuable. The Borgias thrills and entertains, but Borgia: Faith and Fear also succeeds in showing the audience how terrible things were in the Renaissance, and how much progress we’ve made. It de-romanticizes. It feels period. It has guts. It has things the audience is not comfortable with. It has people being nasty to animals. It has disfigurement. It has male rape. When it’s time for a public execution, the mandatory cheap thrill of this genre, it goes straight for just about the nastiest Renaissance method I know of, sawing a man in half lengthwise starting at the crotch and moving along the spine. The scene leaves the audience less titillated than appalled, and glad that we don’t do that anymore.
Are they historically accurate? Somewhat. They’re both quite thorough in their research, but both change things. The difference is what they change, and why. If Borgia: Faith and Fear wants do goofy things with having the Laocoon sculpture be rediscovered early, I sympathize with the authors’ inability to resist the too-perfect metaphor of Rodrigo Borgia looking at this sculpture of a father and his two sons being dragged down by snakes. It adds to the show, even if it’s a bit distracting. But if The Borgias wants to make Giuliano della Rovere into a righteous defender of virtue, they throw away a great and original historical character in exchange for a generic one. It makes the whole set of events more generic, and that is the kind of change I object to, not as an historian, but as someone who loves good fiction, and wants to see it be the best it can be.
(I do get one nitpick. When Michelangelo had a cameo in The Borgias, why did he speak Italian when everyone else was speaking English? What was that supposed to communicate? Is everyone else supposed to be speaking Latin all the time? Is the audience supposed to know he is Italian but not think about it with everyone else? I am confused!)
Common attributes: Book, lion, skull, cardinal’s hat, withered old man
Occasional attributes: Cardinal’s robes, crucifix, rock
Patron saint of: Translators, archivists, librarians, libraries, students and school children
Patron of places: Saint-Jérôme (Quebec)
Feast day: Sept 30 (June 15)
Most often depicted: In the wilderness contemplating death or Christ, writing in a book, hitting himself in the chest with a rock, having an angel blow a trumpet in his face, receiving his last communion before death
Relics: Santa Maria Maggiore, in Rome
For scholars, few historical figures are as central as St. Jerome (c. 347 – 420 AD), the great translator of the early Christian world. Jerome was responsible for first translating large sections of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin, producing what would become the Vulgate, the standard Latin Bible which filtered Christian Europe’s understanding of scripture for over a thousand years. Whenever you hear standard Church Latin chanted or quoted, it’s Jerome’s Latin, and he was responsible for such quirky translation moments as translating the “rays of light” which are supposed to radiate from Moses’ brow as “horns”, leading to horns or horns made of light becoming Moses’ perennial Spot-the-Saint-like-dude attribute. He also wrote and translated other major works, including the Chronicon of Eusebius (a multi-calendar record of assorted events from Abraham to the late 300s which tells us a lot about early attempts at history and record keeping) and many commentaries, saints’ lives and other treasures of the not-otherwise-well-recorded past. (A faithful facing page English-Latin translation of Jerome’s Vulgate bible was recently printed by the gorgeous new Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, for those interested in getting directly at the Latin form which shaped Catholicism so much.)
Jerome’s parents were Christian, but he himself started out pagan and had a truly top-notch classical education which left him quoting Cicero and Virgil all his life. He enjoyed the traditional wanton youth that wealthy Romans so often enjoyed, then converted, and plunged himself into repentance and guilt. Thereafter his primary activities were visiting catacombs to contemplate death, spending time alone in the wilderness contemplating death, and writing. His life was dominated by a conflict between his profound love of the Greek and Latin classics, and deep shame that he still loved something he now considered wrong, corrupt and sinful. He supposedly vowed at one point to never again read a non-Christian author, and there are anecdotes of him being repeatedly distracted mid-devotion by an overwhelming desire to read Cicero, particularly as he slogged through the rough and clumsy Latin of early Christian authors. Jerome attempted to conquer this desire through mortification of the flesh (hence the paintings of him beating himself in the chest with a rock), but eventually determined to help others and himself by translating Christian texts into elegant Latin, so those who, like him, craved gorgeous prose could sate themselves, and not be tempted, as he so constantly was, to sneak some classics between sermons. This made Jerome not only a founder of the Medieval literary canon, but a model for later authors, especially in the Renaissance, who wanted to figure out how to balance enthusiasm for Ovid and Homer with their Christian faith. He was also a model for monks and hermits, since he was so dedicated to the hermetic life that even when he was made a bishop it was only on condition that he could continue to live in the wilderness contemplating death and writing alone. While he is not patron of any particular monastic order, he appears frequently in monastic art as a general role model and core author of scholastic education.
In addition to translating and collecting texts, Jerome took part in heresy fights, and wrote powerful and far-reaching pamphlets against the heresies of his day, like Origenism and Pelagianism. Sometimes his activities were so effective that he got in trouble. In Rome, for example, he convinced a few too many eligible young aristocratic ladies to become nuns, and was eventually driven out by families angry at losing the chance for politically advantageous marriages. He left Rome for Antioch, but even here occasionally stirred up the odd angry mob when he wrote too fiercely against a rival sub-sect.
As I write it out here, his story is not particularly remarkable for a saint’s life, and he doesn’t have an exciting martyrdom or particularly flashy miracles. What he does have is something far more unusual: a meaningful scholarly presence that is still discussed today by theologians and, more broadly, by historians.
In my daily work it’s common enough for me to be reading about Saint Luke, or Saint Bartholomew, or Saint Francis, to be studying their iconography, their followers, their influence, but with Jerome it’s different. Jerome I look at as a source, and an interpreter: what he says about the date of a certain figure’s death, what he thought about the causes of a particular intellectual or political rift, comparing his reading and interpretation with those of other historians of his and later eras including our own. Even with someone like St. Augustine I’m usually studying his ideas, not consulting his guidance in studying someone else. Jerome is a secondary source, in essence, a predecessor and colleague of current historians, while the others are all primary sources, or, for those who left no writing, topics rather than sources at all. It makes Jerome feel strangely more human, and I admit that I almost always forget to put the “Saint” in front of his name.
In art, Jerome is invariably depicted as a scrawny old man, almost always bearded. He usually has his flat red Cardinal’s hat discarded on the ground somewhere nearby, but is wearing only a loincloth, or his red robes pulled down so as to work like a loincloth, leaving his care-weathered torso bare. Occasionally, though, he is depicted in his full red robes, particularly when he is standing around among other saints, instead of off in the wilderness.
There is a legend that Jerome removed a thorn from the paw of a rampaging lion, and so tamed it. He is often accompanied by his lion, making it easy to mix him up with Saint Mark, especially since both of them usually have beards and books. Rule of thumb: look for the cardinal’s hat. If there is a cardinal’s hat and the lion has no wings then it’s Jerome. If there is no hat, and the figure is wearing apostolic robes (i.e. a colorful toga-like drape), or if the lion has wings, then it’s Mark. Sometimes St. Jerome is depicted at work being visited by angels, or hearing an angel blow the trumpet of the Last Judgment, which is often awkwardly framed so it looks like an angel blowing a horn in Jerome’s face.
Jerome is one of the original “Four Doctors of the Church,” and is often depicted with his three comrades, Saints Augustine, Ambrose and Gregory the Great. I will discuss the set of four in another entry, but it means that if you ever see a set of four saints of which two have bishop hats, one has a papal tiara, and the fourth has a cardinal’s hat, you’re probably looking at the four doctors, and the cardinal is probably Jerome. Especially if he looks like he might be thinking about Cicero.
Saints Cosmas & Damian (Cosimo & Damiano)
Common attributes: Distinctive red hats, twins
Occasional attributes: Medical equipment
Patron saint of: Doctors, surgeons, barbers, taking care of kids, and of the Medici family
Patron of places: Mostly places the Medici used to own
Feast day: September 26 (or 27)
Most often depicted: Performing a miraculous leg transplant, being beheaded
Relics: Cyrrus (in Syria), skulls at the Convent of the Poor Clares in Madrid
Cosmas and Damian are precisely the sort of saints that are not secondary or primary sources. They are supposed to have died around 287 AD in Roman Syria, and effectively count as one saint despite there being two of them, since they are twin brothers who did everything together, including being martyred. They were doctors, specifically surgeons, and are supposed to have worked for free for the poor. Their most celebrated miracle was a miraculous leg transplant, from an Ethiopian (dead) donor onto a (presumably) Syrian or Roman patient, depicted in art with a very dark leg being transplanted onto a pale patient.
The historical pattern of Christian persecutions in the Eastern Roman Empire involved periods without much persecution followed by acute bouts of it, usually brought on by political pressures or the need to vent public dissent on a scapegoat. The persecution of Diocletian fit this pattern exactly, and it was from this particularly massive and nasty one that Cosmas and Damian’s martyrdom story arises. The full account says they were tortured but refused to give up their faith. They were first hung from crosses for a while, then shot with arrows, and finally beheaded. Some accounts have them beheaded along with a number of younger siblings, or possibly orphans they were caring for.
Cosmas and Damian were patron saints of the Medici family (Medici = doctor, Cosmas = Cosimo), so, despite their obscurity, they are extremely prominent cast members in any game of Spot the Saint involving Florentine artists. In fact, spotting the pair of them in a painting, particularly if Lorenzo is with them, is a pretty powerful indicator that a Medici paid for whatever this is. That makes them useful to art historians who are trying to identify the source and history of an otherwise unknown piece of art. In fact, Cosmas and Damian are so closely tied to the Medici that they not only gave the name “Cosimo” to so many Medici named Cosimo, but the Medici sometimes had themselves painted in portraits as their patron saints. In the pair below, the right half is a copy (by our good ol’ Medici stooge Vasari) of a classic portrait of Cosimo the Elder in his traditional Florentine merchant red hat and robes, but the addition of a halo has turned him into St. Cosimo, accompanied on the left by a portrait of Vasari’s patron Duke Cosimo I as Damiano, completing the pair. Definitely the kind of hubris the Medici only displayed after they were in power. The age difference between the “twins” is a little awkward, more so when you remember we are looking at men separated by several generations:
When painted, Cosmas and Damian usually seem to be in their thirties or forties. Their most reliable attribute is that they have matching hats, usually distinctive round red hats. These are presumably doctors’ hats, and they generally wear red robes with them. This is only a semi-reliable tell, however, since those hats and robes are actually just how Florentine doctors dressed, so it only holds true in Florentine paintings of them. I remember going to Venice and seeing them in green and going “What the?!” But since they aren’t depicted very often except by artists on Medici payroll, they usually look Florentine. Other attributes–pill boxes, medical tools, medical spoons–are less reliable. The easiest tell, of course, is that there are always two of them. I found that after a few months in Florence I picked up the inexplicable capacity to recognize Cosmas and Damian in paintings even when they had no attributes at all. I would say it’s proof that I’ve been in Florence too long, but you can never be in Florence too long.
And now, Spot the Saint quiz time!
There are ten figures in this one. You can identify eight with certainty, and the final two you should be able to identify categorically as being a specific type of saint, and you can be sure of one of them from the fact that this was painted in a monastery called “San Marco”. If you could read the text on the book you’d also get the last one. You should also be able to tell who forked over the cash, and what order of monks it was made for.
I am going to spend the next 5,000 words complaining about library architecture. Let’s see if I can keep you excited.
(NOTE: This post contains many images, so you may want to read it on a large screen. It also includes Renaissance paintings with nudity, so be prepared. Also, I am happy to report that my Kickstarter was a great success and raised a over 200% of its goal. This will let me organize more performances and other expansions of the project. Many thanks to the readers who chipped in.)
Michelangelo was a profoundly angry person. Manifold grievances accumulated over his unreasonably long life: against picky, stingy, and fickle patrons, against incompetent suppliers and cracked marble, against rival artists and their partisans, against ungrateful and ambitious students, against frustrated love and the Renaissance criminalization of homosexuality, against manipulative popes and his Florentine homeland which never did enough to protect him from them, against lawsuits over fees and contracts whose endlessness swallowed years of productivity, against painting, which he kept getting sucked into even though he hated it (Michelangelo’s bumper sticker: “I’d Rather Be Sculpting”), not to mention against plague, famine, war, debt, Borgias, Frenchmen, Pisa, and all the usual butts of Renaissance Florentine hatred.
We see Michelangelo’s accumulated wrath in late works, like the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. The much earlier Sistine ceiling (1508-12) is a coherent progression of Old Testament scenes framed by luxurious painted fake architectural elements covered with naked men lounging around in pleasant poses that would be easy to carve out of marble (“See what I’d rather be sculpting!”). It has strange elements, among them the fact that each biblical scene is held up by four naked men (“Look what I could sculpt!”) sitting on pillars painted to look like carved marble held up by two more naked men (“I could use marble!”) flanked by other naked men made to look like gilt bronze (“Bronze is great too!”), for a ratio of sixteen gratuitous naked men to each Bible scene (“Please let me sculpt something!”).
Strange and novel as it was, the Sistine ceiling was a brilliant and comprehensible expansion of the artistic ingredients of its era, one which all comers could understand and enjoy. It was instantly hailed as a masterpiece and much admired and praised, and it instantly made complex painted fake architecture the standard vogue for fresco ceilings, displacing the popularity of the old blue-and-stars. In contrast, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment on the altar-side wall of the chapel, painted more than twenty years later (1536-41), is a chaotic ocean of exaggeratedly muscular bodies massed without order or structure, and even the most beloved Spot the Saint stars are barely identifiable.
Here, for reference, are a couple examples of more standard Last Judgments. Note the traditional layout: Christ the judge in the center, with Mary at his right and John the Baptist at his left. On either sides, ranks of the blessed watch in prayer and reverence, usually with Peter and Paul prominent among them. Below, tombs are opening and the dead emerging, and on Christ’s right (our left) the blessed are being raised to Heaven, while on the left the damned are led off to Hell.
Michelangelo’s is radically different. Calm, ordered structure has been replaced by a sea of chaotic, disorganized clusters of figures, and masses of muscular flesh.
Easy-to-recognize figures fade into the muddle. Here, for example, are some Spot the Saint friends in familiar forms, and in his:
We now recognize that Michelangelo’s Last Judgment is a masterwork, and while individual modern people may like it or not depending on taste, we do not, like its original patron, find it so terrifyingly challenging that we want to paint it over, but we can certainly see why it shocked people as it did, and sometimes still does.
The Sistine Chapel is not a library, but I present this sketch of Michelangelo’s rage to help you understand the vestibule into which we are about to stray.
The Laurentian Library (Biblioteca Laurenziana), where I often work, was commissioned by the Medici in 1523. With their second pope (Clement VII) solidly enthroned and Florence subdued, they wanted to add the world’s most sophisticated library to the already stunningly sophisticated architectural masterpiece which was the neoclassical Medici church of San Lorenzo. The library had many goals—to entice scholars, safeguard the collection, glorify the city—but above all the project aimed to ensure that the Medici’s famous collection of rare books and scholars was suitably displayed, an advertisement to all visitors that they were Europe’s most learned noble house (“We’re nobles now! We bribed the right dudes!”). Petrarch’s successors had spent over a century filling Florence with rare classics and commentaries from the far corners of the accessible Earth, and time and wealth funneled these into Medici hands. Thus, the Laurenziana at its birth was staggeringly close to being what humanists had dreamed of: a new Alexandria, collecting ancients and moderns, pagans and Church Fathers, poets and clerics, Greeks and Latins, even Hebrew sources and many translated out of Arabic, assembled and organized for the use of a newly-learned world. Such a gem deserved a worthy jewel box.
When Michelangelo was commissioned to take on the San Lorenzo library, his patrons wisely instructed that he leave intact the mathematically-perfect neoclassical external structure of the church, and its elegant cloister. All Michelangelo’s additions are internal, the layout of windows and benches, panels and decoration.
Reached by an unassuming door to the left of the church façade, the cloister remains to this day a welcoming and peaceful haven, whose cool, citrus-scented air washes away the city’s outside bustle. This architectural vocabulary was familiar to any Renaissance visitor, with the rows of pillars and the single central tree which formed the heart of any monastery, though with slightly more perfect ratios, giving it a neoclassical edge.
Thus it is with an air of awe, comfort and anticipation that our Renaissance visitor ascends the steps to the upper floor to enter the famous library.
“IT’S GONNA EAT ME!” I have no better summary of the whiplash moment as one steps into Michelangelo’s vestibule. What is this sprawling black staircase oozing down at me like a lava flow? What is this vast dark space, crowded and empty at the same time? Why is the light so far away? How is this airy and gloomy at once? Things! Things all over, columns, niches, railings, frames, all crammed in too tight, so they seem about to burst out and spill all over you, like an overstuffed suitcase.
Photography cannot do it justice since so much of the effect is being suddenly surrounded by this on all sides. The more familiar you are with how architecture of the era is supposed to work, the more powerful the shock. Nor is the shock negative: the room is amazing, beautiful, harmonious, just also tense, overwhelming, alien. Right and wrong at once. At first one’s reaction is a mass instinctive “What the?!” but as you stay and start to think about it you realize how each individual feature is made of familiar architecture and yet makes no sense. These dense, paired columns are stuck inside the wall where they do nothing—the point of a column is to not have a wall. These aren’t columns, they’re column-like things trapped in a wall. These blank dents, they’re niches, with stands for sculptures that aren’t there and clearly are never supposed to be there. These blind windows, window frames around solid wall, there’s open air outside them, there is no reason to have rows of window frames without windows except that he wanted that, blind darkness where the shapes of the frames teach your eye to expect light. Why are these pediments fractured and jagged? Why do these frame struts remind me of an Egyptian tomb? What are these huge curving swirly things stuck into the wall? They don’t do anything? They just loom! Why do these three staircases merge into one? It doesn’t do anything useful!
In fact, this whole enormous room is completely unnecessary. There is nothing in here except a set of stairs whose only purpose is to get you to up to where the main library is, yet the ceiling of this room is above the ceiling of the library, because he actually added an extra half story to it just so more architecture could be there looking menacing. This room is three times as tall as it needs to be, just so Michelangelo can fill it with terrifying stuff! Shock turns to awe. The fake architectural elements painted on the Sistine ceiling are now real, but purely as objects of imagination. The architect has broken free of utility entirely, and wields architecture as pure communication, aimed toward the single purpose of overwhelming all. Columns, windows and other forms are free to be anywhere, like poetry written in a language that doesn’t have required word order, so a poet can put anything anywhere for maximum impact.
The Laurenziana is not the library architecture I intend to complain about today. Rather I cite it as an example of successful architecture, which stuns and amazes, and achieves what it set out to. Michelangelo’s scaaary scaaaary staircase is gorgeous, shocking but gorgeous, like when an unsuspecting public first met Kafka, or Nietzsche, or Dangerous Visions, and came away staggering: “I didn’t know you could do that!” You can, and if you make Michelangelo angry enough, he will. One too many Medici commissions had fallen through, and he himself had to leave most of the library to assistants, arming them with models and sketches as he was dragged off yet again to Rome for yet more papal commissions which would inevitably go sour.
He also left us the reading room beyond the vestibule, a restorative paradise of symmetry and order, with warm stained glass and row on row of welcoming wood benches with the books on their chains ready for scholars’ hands. On the tiled floor and inlaid wooden ceiling, decoration with organic themes—garlands and scrolls with Medici slogans—counterbalances and soothes away the heartless, grim geometry of the vestibule outside.
The books are no longer kept in the reading room, but in more protected quarters downstairs, so visitors can come into this part freely, and experience the three successive plunges into quiet cloister, looming vestibule, and heavenly reading room, and stroll along the seats where our humanist predecessors pored over the Virgil and the Lucretius and so many other wonders. A friend I went with once called it a secular pilgrimage site, and rightly so. The clumps of people who speak a dozen languages in awed whispers tiptoe along the tile with the same reverence and thrill of connection that I see fill people in St. Peter’s or San Clemente. Often someone stops to squat beside the lists posted on each bench, calling a friend’s attention to some especially beloved author: Lactantius, Porphyry, Averroes’ commentaries, Catullus, Theophrastus, Ficino. It is the opposite of a graveyard—inscriptions row-by-row of who survived.
Beyond the reading room, a little museum area displays a rotating selection of the books themselves: Byzantine medical books, our oldest Virgil, illuminated Homer; and a little gift shop offers temptations including what may be the single best-thought-through piece of merchandising I have ever seen: a lens cleaning cloth featuring the illuminated frontispiece of Ficino’s translation of Plato, dedicated to Cosimo de Medici, so Neoplatonism can literally help you see more clearly.
Some fun treasures displayed at the Laurenziana museum (which is only open before noon):
I have worked at many libraries similar to the Laurenziana: the Ambrosiana in Milan, the Marciana in Venice, the Estense in Modena, Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the Vatican of course; all grand historic buildings advertising their learned patrons with luxurious halls and stunning facades. The gorgeous old reading rooms of the American Library of Congress and Harvard’s Widener and Houghton Libraries achieve much the same effect. Others are housed in more modern buildings, the Villa I Tatti outside Florence which houses the Berenson Library, or the library of the Danish Academy in Rome which showcases modern Danish design. Some of the modern buildings are, I will admit, not particularly attractive, but places like the Cambridge University Library and the Roman Biblioteca Nazionale are at least comfortable and reasonably practical.
The prince of modern library buildings in my own experience is the British Library in London. A quick examination of it will provide a perfect, last point of contrast before we move on to the true subject of today’s post, a library so dreadful I have felt it necessary to show you others first, in order to help you understand the shock and dismay of we who have grown accustomed to spending our research hours basking in beauty only to be cast into dystopia.
The British Library is, to start with, conveniently located on the same block as the King’s Cross hub of London’s underground, in the heart of a city, a comfortable stroll down lively shopping streets and past seductive bookstores to the British Museum and the theater district beyond. It is surrounded by London’s signature layered architecture, samples of many centuries commixing amicably, like so many dog breeds rough-housing in a park. Its designers chose brick for the structure, in order to blend with the stunning historic St. Pancras Hotel next to it, augmented by a grand welcoming gate, and a pleasant courtyard with outdoor café and sculptures.
Within, the library is bright and airy, with several different dining options and well-labeled levels. Chairs of a wide variety of different shapes and types wait for the convenience of patrons of different body types who find different things comfortable. Card services are downstairs, but no card or ID of any kind is necessary to walk straight up the steps into the “Treasure Room” on the left, which displays a rotating selection of true prizes of the collection: original copies of the Magna Carta, the first draft of Alice in Wonderland, the Beowulf manuscript with the page proofs from Seamus Heaney’s modern translation displayed beside it, the first score for the Pirates of Penzance, Wilfred Owen’s poetry journal with Siegfried Sassoon’s hand-written corrections, Robert F. Scott’s diary, and dozens of other relics which make this free and open display room another worthy pilgrimage spot.
Closed stacks are a necessity at such a library, but a selection of several thousand of the most attractive volumes are displayed in a glass-walled interior tower within the structure, so you can see the giddy acres of gilded leather spines, while the rest of the comfortable space is decorated with informational posters about temporary exhibits on topics from sci-fi to propaganda, and whimsical bibliophile art, like the Book Bench and “That thing at the B.L. where you move your head back and forth and it does that thing.” “Eeh?” you say? Confusion is natural. Many a time I have tried to describe this thing to people who have never been to the B.L. and failed utterly, while with people who have been, without fail all I have to say is “You know, that thing, when you’re going down the stairs, where you go like this,” (bob head left and right) for the person to say, “Oh, yeah! That thing!” and bob their heads slowly back and forth the same way. Even photographs fail, but since amateur video technology has taken a leap forward in the last year, I can at long last coherently present to you what may be the most fun piece of bibliophile art in the world. Its actual title is “Paradoximoron,” (created by Patrick Hughes) but all are agreed it should forever be known as “That thing at the B.L. where you move your head back and forth.” (Below are two photos from different angles, then a video.)
Long could I sing the praises of the convenience and practicality of the British Library, but today is not a day for library anecdotes. Today is for architecture, and it is time now to face up to its dark underbelly.
Those who, like me, work on rare books often discuss libraries. When I tell a fellow specialist I am going to a particular city to do research, the instant question is, “Which library?” since Florence, Rome, Venice, London, and other great capitals house several major collections, generally including a main city library, a separate state archive of government documents, libraries of key noble families or monasteries, and one or more institutes which offer modern secondary sources, academic journals, and critical editions. Just as one can bond with a friend over shared experience of a favorite shop or restaurant, specialists bond over memories of the libraries where careers, discoveries, and even marriages are made.
When I tell someone, “I’m going to Paris for research,” I get the same question, but with a wholly different tone: protective, timid, scared, “Which library?” The veiled grief is the same which, in troubled times, might follow “Big news at the office today” with the tremulous question: “Good big news or bad big news?” Research in Paris can be great news: the Louvre, the bakeries, the Pantheon, and if one is fortunate enough to be working on books at the old Bibliothèque Nationale one can enjoy the same elegant gilt wood and stonework one expects, both of great European libraries, and of Paris, whose general city-wide style is elegant bordering on opulent, with occasional pockets of modern avant-garde and gothic grace.
But there is a fearsome alternative.
The new Paris Bibliothèque Nationale is one of the infamous failures of modern architecture. Located inconveniently far down a subway line near nothing in particular, it achieves the impossible: wasteland isolation in the midst of Paris itself. This is not the kind of avant-garde that is hated at first but then becomes an icon of its era, like the Eiffel Tower or the Centre Pompidou or Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. First I will show you. Then I will talk you through the depths.
What are we looking at? We are right now, believe it or not, on top of the library. This sprawling, nearly football-field-sized sea of unpainted colorless wood planking is both the roof of the library, and its entrance, since the layout requires you to climb on top, so you experience a feeling of abandoned wilderness as the beauties of Paris vanish away below you, leaving you exposed to wind and sky. The complete absence of color enhances the feeling of post-apocalyptic desolation.
Four identical L-shaped towers of featureless glass rise from the corners. Their completely transparent faces reveal row upon row of identical interior spaces half-shielded by slanted barrier walls of unpainted wood, with occasional glimpses of mass-produced furniture providing the only hint of life. I have never seen a living person in these towers, and cannot start to fathom their purpose.
Bars of reflective silver-gray metal fence off the precipices around the outside of the raised wooden walk, and in the extreme periphery cubes of bush isolated within metal cages represent a vague homage to garden. In the center, emptiness, a cast rectangular pit opens down, and one can just barely lean far enough over a fence of silvery steel bars to glimpse the scraggly, dark tops of trees growing in the depths. It is down into this pit that we must descend to gain access.
The whole is so aggressively lifeless that the occasional passing pigeon becomes an exciting reminder of nature. Apart from the sky (which, on a merciful day, is blue) the only color are the enormous signs in brilliant yellow block writing labeling the two entrances OUEST (West) and EST (East), since otherwise the featureless symmetry of the structure makes it impossible to tell which way is which—the internal labyrinth enhances this confusion, and it is easy to emerge completely uncertain which way lies exit and which way nothing.
We descend via a long conveyor belt along a slanted entry ramp of colorless metal, which provides a better view of the spindly trees in the courtyard. This is no garden, but an attempt at something “natural”, with woodsy trees and unkempt brush growing underneath. But walled as they are on all sides by towering walls, the trees cannot get as much light or wind or water as nature intends, so they are all thin and wiry, and most require metal struts to keep them standing, creating a sickly parody, neither forest nor garden, artificial without artistry. It is easy to imagine a dystopian future in which this struggling false ecosystem is the last surviving preserve of “forest” maintained by gardeners who barely understand how trees are supposed to work on an Earth swallowed by the urban waste above.
We enter through glass doors and are examined by guards and instructed to deposit all our worldly goods in lockers, transferring the necessities to clear plastic boxes. This step is not uncommon—even the British library requires lockers and clear bags—but here one cannot lock things up personally. Instead we must hand our possessions over to brisk attendants who spirit them out of sight, giving us a numbered paper tag in either blue or yellow (or green, remember the green option). Stripped and de-bagged, and with our card in hand (if we brought the esoteric materials necessary to secure one) we are prepared to enter.
A cold steel turnstile brings us to mirrored metal doors, then into what feels like an airlock, a completely featureless claustrophobic metal cube with doors on both sides, so we must let the first set close before we can open the second. It is clear that they can lock them down in an emergency, but how or why, or what one would do if trapped within the airlock, is utterly unclear:
The area beyond is like nothing I have ever seen: a vast space, looming above and dropping deep below, through which an escalator descends, too tiny, like a single stalactite in the vastness of a cave. The only windows are so high above and so deeply set that they are no more than taps through which light emerges, and I could not honestly swear that it is sunlight and not some substitute.
Beyond the first escalator lies another, just as dizzying, though here at last the floor is in sight:
The walls of this dizzying area, which extends around a corner and down another two stories in one long chasm, are covered with (I kid you not) woven steel wire. These raw, unpainted metal walls, punctuated only by large metal bolts to hold them in place, reflect off the mirror-polished steel escalator framework to create an architecture not unlike the way I would imagine the interior of a robot. There are no familiar shapes or substances: no window frames, doors, moldings, not even walls or paint, so the rubber banister of the escalator becomes the only curved or friendly substance in the space, unless one counts the vastness of the industrial orange carpet on the distant chasm floor. In an interview, the architect said the woven wire walls were supposed to evoke the feeling of chainmail. Because nothing says “comfortable space to read and study” like a material designed to repel savage medieval combat.
On the chasm floor we face turnstiles, and must present our reader cards to be scanned and approved, or beeped at by irate machines which instruct us to go to a computerized kiosk and argue with a computer who has some grudge against our library card. Presuming we pass inspection, another silver airlock gives us admittance to the library itself. The interior space is one enormous rectangle of unbroken corridors, carpeted in brilliant red, while the rest is still glass and unpainted wood looming many stories above us, and stretching on and on and on. The computer has assigned us a random desk, hopefully in a subsection relevant to our research interests, and we wander the lengths of the box looking for the right letter.
The pit, or “courtyard”, with its “forest”, is directly beside us on the other side of the glass wall as we seek our spot, bowed trunks and breeze-tossed weeds a far cry from the Laurenziana’s citrus garden, but at least better than more steel. But we can’t reach it. There is no access from the reading room area to the courtyard—we can stare through the slightly dirty glass at life, but can’t actually emerge to stroll among the trunks or smell the leaves.
The reading rooms themselves are also huge connected spaces, reaching the length of the library, so a cough from one desk reaches half the library, though the incomprehensibly high ceilings help absorb sound. Periodically the rows of numbered seats are broken up by help desks where sympathetic librarians wait ready to help you wrestle with the automated system. The work desks themselves are fine, and once Friend Computer consents to deliver your materials it is perfectly straightforward to do a day’s work, once one recovers from the entry process.
Leaving is its own Kafkaesque process. One returns one’s library materials and heads out the lower airlock to the chainmail chasm, where the turnstile again scans your card and permits exit, or squeals its electric fury and demands that you return to fix some unspecified check-in error. If the computer decides to set us free, we emerge through another airlock, there to beg for the return of our worldly goods, and must wait in one of two lines depending on whether we received a blue or yellow ticket. We, in fact, received a green ticket, and mill around in some confusion until we collect twelve other people with green tickets and start clogging things until they consent to send a grudging drudge to take us to an area not usually used for this (or anything) where the green ticket bags have (who knows why?!) been transferred. We get our bag if we are lucky. If we are unlucky we receive confused instructions to descend again and try a different exit. The library is, as I mentioned, symmetrical, so there are, in fact, four chainmail escalator chasms, and one can easily choose the wrong end, emerging to an identical-looking check-out desk where you have to go all the way through the line to discover you are in a completely different place. But, if Fortune can peer through the wire walls enough to smile on us, we find the right exit and obtain our stuff (Beloved stuff! Look how not-made-of-metal it is! Look how it has colors! Like brown, and beige, and blue!). Now we exit past the guards, the glass doors, the steel rails that guard the tops of spindly trees, and ascend the (usually not actually switched on) conveyor belt to find ourselves deposited again in the colorless vastness of the wooden decking above. The overwhelming feeling, especially as everyone is fleeing at day’s end, is that this is not a space designed for humans to be in it. Or for life to be in it. Whatever unfamiliar intelligence this place was built for, I have not met it. The wise know when to flee.
Only upon returning to ground level, when the Parisian skyline and nearby fun façades and bustling streets return to view, does one grow calm enough to analyze this experience. On purpose, someone built this. This is not an urban wasteland generated by cost-cutting, or a sudden recession. This was a very expensive, high-profile public works project designed to display the pride of Francophone scholarship. And Paris did this! Paris! Paris, whose average street corner department store has woven ironwork and imperial grandeur. People who study architecture and urban planning know the details of the commission, the who and when and why of its construction, but the first-hand experience is just so dehumanizing that I cannot understand how any intentional act of human civilization—of Paris’s civilization—took some wood and glass and metal and created Orwell. And I am far from alone in my confusion. In fact, the whole neighborhood around the library is a little nexus of consolation for those doomed to approach it: a movie theater offers instant escapism, food carts bring Paris’s culinary richness, and human civilization shows itself most pointedly hilarious when, on the first corner one reaches after evacuating the wastes above, one finds a pub named “The Frog and British Library.” In other words, “Don’t you wish you were at the British Library?” Yes. Yes, I do.
But for all this, there is one metric by which the French Bib Nat is a bizarre success. I have long kept a joke ranking of libraries I use, rating them by how successful they are at preventing people from getting at books. This facetious metric helps me remain cheerful in the face of particularly impenetrable libraries, like the Capitolare in Padua, which is only open from 9 AM to noon on weekdays not sacred to saints the librarians particularly like (they like a lot of saints), and which so excels at protecting its books from people that it took me three visits to Padua before I managed to get in for a precious two hours and see two books. By this metric the Vatican is one of the world’s most successful libraries, and the British Library the absolute worst.
But there is a less joking side to this. In a perverse sense, people are the enemy of books: we touch them, rip them, bend their covers, get our oily finger pads all over them, etc. The safest book in the world is one sealed away in frigid, nitrogen-rich darkness, far from human touch. The two duties of the librarian, to protect the books and serve the patrons, are directly antithetical. I believe this is a big part of why some librarians are so hyperbolically gung-ho about digitization, since touching can’t hurt a digital book. The majority of librarians, of course, love readers and want books to be used, even though all are aware that use damages them. Especially in the case of rare books that can’t be easily replaced, libraries must seek a balance in which people use books a moderate amount, so the books can last while the work gets done. The Paris library achieves this balance to a near perfect degree, since it is so intimidating and inhospitable that no one ever, ever goes to work there unless it is absolute necessity. Only researchers who have to go will go, and if there is any way to avoid using those books everyone takes it. Result: productivity with minimal book use, ensuring maximum book survival. The balance might even be praiseworthy if it had been intentional. In fact, Michelangelo’s sinister Laurenziana vestibule achieves something of the same effect, since anyone who steps into it immediately flinches back, which certainly drives away some portion of visitors who have no acute need to brave the oozing stairs to reach the reading room above. Thus we have identified a powerful tool for protecting library collections: scaring off readers with terrifying architecture. Let’s hope it never catches on. If it does, I trust you’ll all help me track down the perpetrators and feed them to Michelangelo’s staircase.
Periodically readers ask me if there is a “tip jar” or other way to support Ex Urbe and say thank you for my work. Normally the answer is no, I do it out of pure enjoyment and the desire to share the places and periods I study. But short-term there is a way.
I compose music (polyphonic a cappella and mythology-themed folk music), and have just launched a kickstarter to raise money for my next project. I have been working on this set of songs for ten years, and have given my mythological subject the same care I have given the Renaissance in my posts, so it has come together to be quite something (though I do say so myself). I can’t post a direct link here because I still want to preserve the public anonymity of this blog, but if any readers would like to support me, or check out the project, please e-mail me (JEDDMason at gmail dot com) and I will send you the link. Thank you.
Meanwhile, for your enjoyment…
I want to introduce you to my favorite artifact at the “Museo Galileo,” the Florentine museum of the History of Science. It is a unique artifact, a “Military Compass.” Designed in the seventeenth century, it is the epitome of a gentleman’s weapon: a dagger which splits apart to become a geometric compass, so the educated wielder can use it to measure ground, calculate the sizes of fortresses, distances, and aim artillery:
A hinge in the hilt allows the blade to snap apart. The two halves are marked as rulers, and a weight drops out of the handle into the center to form a central measure, making it possible to use it as a compass, a level and for many other types of calculations. The pommel flips open to reveal a small magnetic compass, and pieces fold out from inside the hollow blade to provide additional tools for calculation. But if it is folded up, it is as deadly as a dagger should be. Such weapons were far from commonplace, more curiosities, status symbols and showpieces, but they were certainly designed to be usable. We have records of them as early as the 16th century, when one was designed for a Medici commander.
Instructions for the use of such a weapon are preserved in an anonymous 16th century Italian manuscript, also on display:
The museum also preserves other gentlemen’s instruments, such as walking sticks with concealed barometers, telescopes and other paraphernalia far more impressive than a cane-sword, but this one has always caught my imagination as something which encapsulates the ideal of the warrior-scholar-adventurer-noble which is so much at the heart of romantic notions of the “Renaissance man”, both our notions and the ideals they had in the period. I want to read a book where the protagonist carries this. I want to read ten books where the protagonist carries this. Also, as a reminder that the past never fails to sex-segregate no matter how unnecessary it is, they also have items intended for ladies of the period at the museum, including a “lady’s microscope” which is petite, delicate and carved out of ivory.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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:
They were Spaniards, and the Italians hated that, so all possible tensions were hyper-inflamed.
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.
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 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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!”
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!”
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: “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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.