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

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

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

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

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

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

An awesome Baroque tomb, in the Santa Croce cloister.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also recommended:

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

  1. Jo Walton said:

    And I can’t even wish for an afterlife where you could have that debate because then it would be a different debate.

    • Christopher Turnbow said:

      Only if the debaters realized they were in an afterlife 😀

  2. Time travel plus personality uploads?

    Thanks for writing this, and the whole series. Lots of food for thought.

    When you say no pre-modern atheists, do you mean in Christian Europe & related cultures? Or more generally? I seem to recall a fair amount of discussion of these concepts in pre-Christian Rome, but this is so far outside my area that I doubt my memory.

  3. Ex Urbe said:

    The question of atheism in classical antiquity (i.e. Greece and Rome) depends on how narrowly you define atheism. The default belief systems of the period are either the usual classical henotheistic polytheism (belief in some set of gods, like the Olympians, while simultaneously believing that all other gods one might run across are also real, leading to the Roman collect-them-all Pokemon attitude of trying to bring as many gods home to Rome as possible because each one blesses the empire more) or the various variants on philosophical religion, which, as Platonism, Aristotelianism and Stoicism mixed, tended to blend and mix toward a pretty standard concept of a unified inhuman divine Good force whence creation and intellect originate, comparable to the more inhuman conceptions of God that Christianity will play with. As for ancient atheism, you can’t find atheism in the strict modern sense of people sitting down to specifically argue “There is no divine.” You do, however, get many important related discussions (most of which were lost in the Middle Ages but returned in the Renaissance where they made great waves.)

    Listing these briefly:

    Platonism (in most forms) posits an inhuman divine force unlikely to heed personal prayer, combined with reincarnation. This model is easily adopted by early Christianity (through its neo-Platonic variants) and has a huge influence on, among others, Thomas Aquinas and Ficino. It is, fundamentally, theist, but its God is not a person, more a big ball of light, while the pagan gods occupy the position of angels.

    Stoicism presents the entire universe as one divine thing, denying individual gods and an individual afterlife, since it has all people at death merge with the infinite again – this Monist view, as revived by Spinoza, will often be associated with atheism because people often heard “God is everything–there is no separate God” and thought “Doesn’t that mean God is nothing?” The Stoics also invented deterministic Providence, a concept which would be absorbed so thoroughly by Christianity that by the 16th century some treatises on atheism will call Denial of Providence a form of atheism, but in the modern sense it is not, strictly, atheism.

    The philosophical skeptics argue that nothing can be known with certainty, not even whether nothing can be known with certainty, and certainly that nothing about the divine or the afterlife can be known with certainty. Their beautifully worked out apparatus of doubt supplies weapons which will be used against theism and every other philosophical and theological position forever, but they are the enemies of ALL positive claims, including the positive claim “I am sure there is no God.” Thus, while the skeptics supply tools used by atheists, they also supply tools used against atheists, and fundamentally a true skeptic must end with the position, “I do not know whether or not there is a divine force in the universe. Also I do not know whether there is a universe. Or an I.” In Plato’s account of the death of Socrates we see a final debate over whether or not there is an afterlife in which Socrates comes down on the side of “Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t, but either way it’s okay, because if there is it will be reasonable and if there isn’t it won’t hurt.” This is probably a good sample of the average skeptical position. Socrates does seem to have firmly believed in Apollo, though, at least as far as our accounts suggest.

    The Epicureans (whose poet Lucretius I discussed in the main entry) are very important to the question of atheism, but, as I said above, while they provide a huge portion of the habitat needed by that rare beast the atheist, they do not advocate actual atheism. Epicureanism claims: (1) The soul is entirely material and perishes when the body perishes, (2) Therefore there is no reincarnation, afterlife, or punishment after death, (3) Everything in Nature is made of atoms which operate on their own without divine governance or participation, (4) Human social institutions, such as government and language, were developed gradually over time, (5) Long ago Earth produced a wide variety of strange animals but only those suited to their environments survived until the present, (6) Given that gods are, by defenition, happy, eternal and unchanging, they cannot listen to human prayer or worry about running the world because the constant complaints, requests and duties would make them sad and overburdened, therefore (7) The gods do exist but they are one-atom-wide and exist in the void of space where they do not perceive or interact with any object, (8) Prayer does nothing, (9) The gods did not design and create the universe, they merely dwell in it, (10) The universe was created out of chaos, when atoms moving randomly in vacuum clumped together by chance to form blobs of matter, then planets, (11) Earth is one of many planets in an infinite universe of vacuum filled with objects made of atoms, (12) Given the absence of an afterlife and divine judgment, the most important thing is to lead a happy and worthwhile life, and to avoid fear and misery caused by superstitious false religion, (13) Cognition works by shells of thought-sized atoms flying off of all objects at all times colliding with the sense organ of the mind to create impressions in its wax-like surface, therefore it is impossible to think about non-existent things because thought is a passive receiving process, and all things you think about either must exist or must be made of two thought-shells colliding (horn + horse = unicorn). Since that is how thought works, the gods must be real, since no conjunction of shells could add the attributes “eternal” and “perfect” to something which did not have them. I add this last point to demonstrate that, while it is possible to summarize classical Epicuranism in a way which makes the modern post-Darwin materialistic pro-science atheist very comfortable (I specify because there are, of course, numerous types of atheism as there are numerous types of theism) Epicureanism is not that–it supplies much habitat but also many things a modern atheist will inevitably say are false, and in the most basic sense it is not atheism because it says the gods exist, it just says they don’t do anything. Thus it has a universe which operates as if there were no gods, despite still having gods–much as Machiavelli’s consequentialist moral universe operates as if there were no divine judgment, without saying there isn’t. It is pretty certain that the Epicureans and Skeptics are the two ancient sects who contributed the most arguments to the atheist arsenal, but it is definitely false to call either “atheists” per se.

    And finally the Hedonists. We know they believed pleasure is the highest good. We know that they disagreed with the Epicureans on what kind of pleasure, since both sects said “Pleasure is the highest good” but for Epicureans this meant safe, sustainable pleasure focused on long-term freedom from pain rather than short-term sense experience, so the pleasures recommended by Epicurus involve a healthy diet, tranquil living, low-stress employment, lots of oatmeal, no banqueting, no stressful romantic love, enough casual sex to satisfy one’s appetites, and says the happiest state is having a light lunch with your friends in a beautiful garden while debating philosophy. Avoiding pain is more important to Epicurus than achieving pleasure, so good health, financial stability and avoiding stress are the highest pleasures. The Hedonists, as we understand it, were more interested in positive pleasures, i.e. probably banqueting, probably orgies. Unfortunately we don’t know more than that because the Hedonists were hated by everyone else, so their writings do not survive, and all we have are nasty accounts of them written by their enemies. Were they philosophically sophisticated? Maybe. Were they drunken frat boys? Maybe. Were they atheists in the real modern sense? Maybe. If they were, we did not inherit their arguments, at least not in any form attributable to them.

    That is what antiquity gives us. Relevant to the history of atheism? Absolutely. Real atheists in the strict post-1650 denial-of-the-divine sense? Not as far as we can tell. Remember, though, that what survives from antiquity is, for the most part, what 3rd to 6th-century Christians liked enough that they thought it was worth copying it, painstakingly and at great expense, off of rotting papyrus onto fresh pages. That filtration process radically filtered what we have received from antiquity. Works like Lucretius and Cicero’s skeptical dialogues survived because people loved the language and wanted them for that alone. Many other works did not survive the process, which is why, for example, we have more works by St. Augustine than we have of the entire classical pagan Latin corpus put together. If there were more overtly atheist works in antiquity it would not be surprising if we lost them. It would, however, in my view, be surprising if we also lost all mention of them in works by their enemies, which leads me to conclude (following the academic skeptic practice of discussing what is probable when we cannot discuss what is certain) that it is unlikely that a formal atheist philosophical sect did exist and left no trace, because if one had we would at least have records of theist adversaries trashing it. Thus if there was one it was the Hedonists, but it is very probable that there was not. Antiquity had the apparatus–the habitat–but the broad culture of quasi-animist henotheistic paganism was one that filled the world with divine things. What’s more, it filled it with divine things which were not vulnerable to many of later atheism’s most potent arguments against the divine, because pointing out that the world is imperfect and contains pain and suffering may be a good sling against an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent monotheistic Creator, but doesn’t do much against Zeus and Apollo. Full denial of the divine as we recognize it now is traceable first in those medieval practice dialogues against mock atheists, and thereafter rears its head in Rochester. That the writings of all these ancient sects, with new weird suggestions, returned in full force in the Renaissance, between those two stages, is not coincidence, but the ancient sects had to mix with a lot of other things to produce what moderns would call a strict atheist.

    Hope that helps?

    • Damien said:

      That comment reminds me of the idea that monotheism paved the way for atheism. First it sweeps away the gods and spirits, leaving one God, who can then be killed.

      A friend is reminded of the idea that some of those scholastics may have themselves been closet atheists, spreading atheist ideas in the disguise of arguing against them, poorly. I’m failing to remember if that’s something you mentioned in your Lucretius book.

      I think Jennifer Michael Hecht wrote a lot about Jewish doubt and skepticism in _Doubt_.

      I think many if not most modern atheists would say those philosophical skeptics are exactly what they mean by atheist. Not that many say “I know or can prove there is no God”, it’s more “I see no proof/evidence of God and find it implausible”. Most atheists are philosophically agnostic but practically atheist… much like many agnostics, who for various reasons prefer the label ‘agnostic’ without actually differing on anything substantial.

  4. Thanks–I was in fact thinking about some stoic and epicurean quotes. Good to have a fuller picture.

  5. Tony V said:

    Huzzah to a fitting end.

  6. Wait, does ‘forthcoming’ on the Kors book mean, like, with a date and evidence of eventual existence, or is it still the usual ‘forthcoming’? I had basically given up hope.

  7. Hey, no fair, I wasn’t expecting that to be moving! Beautiful.

  8. Florian said:

    Thank you for this fascinating series! It’s been a pleasure and an education to read along.

  9. Jo Walton said:

    Were there Jewish atheists in the classical period?

    I know nothing about this, it just occurred to me from a starting point of “You don’t *need* atheism unless you have a three omni God”. Which of course Judaism does not have… but there are Jewish atheists now.

  10. Ex Urbe said:

    My own researches have not turned up evidence of Jewish atheism in the classical world, but my focus is more on the Greek schools and their Roman counterparts so it is an area I don’t know well. I have not run across it in any other history of atheism, however.

    As for more volumes of Kors’ book, I believe there is real hope, but don’t know more.

  11. A bit of a terminology nitpick that occurs to me: the concept of “homosexuality” has relatively recent origins. The word wasn’t even coined until the 1890s; before the Victorian period, people having sex with members of the same gender were thought of as sinners or criminals, committing acts that anyone might potentially be tempted to. The idea of homosexuality as an identity and an aspect of self, whether as mental illness or matter of pride, isn’t one that would have made sense to Machiavelli or his contemporaries. Obviously you are aware of the history of homosexuality, or you wouldn’t have specified a time period when you compared Enlightenment atheism to it. Still, you did refer to “homosexuality” when listing sins that might get a Renaissance person suspected of atheism, and said that premodern writings compared atheism to homosexuality in order to highlight it as a moral perversion. I know you would feel real frustration at hearing someone blithely say something like “Machiavelli, who was an atheist” in the middle of a sentence; hearing the equivalent of “Machiavelli, a homosexual” gives me much the same feeling.

  12. Ex Urbe said:

    Oh, interesting and excellent. I actually chose to include the term “homosexuality” there in that list of other assorted sins intentionally having changed it from an earlier draft which used “sodomy”. The disconnect was intentional, and I’m glad you picked up on it. I like the presence of homosexuality there precisely because it stands out among the others as something which shouldn’t be in such a catalog, i.e. that the modern eye sees it as something very different from all the other things which are actions instead of states of identity. I intended that non-conformity to be a little jarring and make the reader more aware of how poorly-thought-through these categories of evidence are, when some of them are acts (getting drunk, cursing) and some much more complex (participating in certain sex acts, feeling certain sexual desires, having certain attitudes, and the ill-defined “sinful living”) yet they’re being treated as the same thing by the accusers in these legal cases. I was going for the “one of these things is not like the others” effect. It was, perhaps, unfortunate that the structure of the essay didn’t give me time to follow through on that and discuss the issues of homosexuality, sodomy, homo-eroticism etc. in a Renaissance context, but my goal was to make people think precisely the way you did: this isn’t quite right, particularly in a Renaissance context. (For anyone interested in questions of sodomy and homosexuality and homo-eroticism etc. in the Renaissance, I can recommend the book “Forbidden Friendships” by Michael Roche.)

  13. I’m sad to see this series end but I look forward to reading whatever you write next. You have an incredible voice full of authority and humor and structure your arguments brilliantly.

    Have you written any books? Or, phrased a different way, could you recommend history books written in a tone like yours that are modern and smart and funny and playful?

    Please keep writing,

  14. Helping out – or trying to – with a typo report. Feel free to delete/edit this comment if you fix it (or choose not to and don’t want your comments section clogged with nitpicking nitpickers like me : ) ).
    The typo is ‘buy’ (vs. ‘by’) in: “optimistic accounts (buy guess who)”

    Also, I fully agree with all points by Morgan Johnson, above.

  15. I just have a minor quibble with the association of Machiavelli with utilitarianism. I don’t think his form of consequentialism really matches up to utlitarianism because what he advocates as the Good (in the Prince) could be stability or the glory of the prince or state. A utilitarian like Bentham would have placed far more value on how much pleasure everyone is feeling rather that whether the prince is maintaining his state. Most utilitarians are also usually against the state acting in a way Machiavelli might think it is necessary because they believe that overall it will produce less of the Good (pleasure) if the state, for example, tortures (in the tradition of Mill). Thus although they both think in terms of good consequences, they have a very different idea of what the good is. Also the classical tradition of utility as an ethical idea is usually seen to start with David Hume (also accused of atheism) and then continuing on to Bentham, Mill and Sidgwick. Although Epicurus is a possible antecedent.

  16. Ex Urbe said:

    Morgan Johnson, much thanks for the kind praise. I very much enjoy writing in the blog medium here, because the casual format gives me leeway to mix humor and casual style in, and also to move efficiently without having to footnote everything. I have had a few articles and chapters published so far, and have my first book coming out in 2014, but since I’m an early career academic I’m afraid this first book is on the dry and formal side, though exciting material, with new discoveries about Machiavelli and other things. I plan to write books with a broader, less academic tone (like this blog) later on, once I have jumped the mandatory starting hoops. But I will let people know when the 2014 book comes out. As for others to recommend with a tone like this, I will brainstorm over the next weeks and see what I can think of.

    Wilson, thanks for the typo correction – I have fixed it. I like to leave comments about spelling mistakes intact and in public view, though, because I find that, especially when a student (or anyone) is feeling intimidated and frustrated with writing, they find it reassuring that professionals also make that type of mistake sometimes. It’s true! We do! Spelling is still hard! Also, you’re noticing here symptoms of the fact that my research assistant Athan just got a really great full-time position in his dream career, and consequently doesn’t have time to help me anymore (he used to catch my spelling mistakes & typos), but given his brilliant career launch it’s a situation I couldn’t be happier about. Hooray, Athan!

    John, while you’re completely right that the modern ethical school of Utilitarianism is dominated by Bentham and Hume and Mill, so much so that they are certainly what people are talking about when it comes up in 90% of conversations, what I credit Machiavelli with is not the mature system but the first instance of its type of reasoning, i.e. evaluating something based on its consequences instead of its intent or the laws of [insert source]. It is extremely common in the history of philosophy for one thinker to develop a somewhat raw and unformed version of something that is then matured (and more associated with) another. A few examples: Machiavelli/Hume for Utilitarian Ethics, Heloise/Ockham for Voluntarism, Bacon/Newton for application of the Scientific Method, Beccaria/Voltaire for the abolition of judicial torture. Machaivelli’s Utilitarianism is very certainly not the dominant modern form which focuses on human happiness and quality of life, his focuses on stability and bare survival, which, given the darkness of his day, makes sense. While Hume’s is the most powerful now, there have been many and will be many more types of Utilitarianism, but Machiavelli pioneered the fundamental apparatus, in a raw and unformed but still groundbreaking form.

    As for Epicurus, he is absolutely the first figure we know of to give us a mature philosophical system based on experiential pleasure as the highest good, but in fact all classical philosophical sects were Eudaimonist, i.e. arguing that the purpose of philosophical study was personal happiness. Thus the happiness end of Mill and Hume is definitely there, but Epicureanism had no trace of formally evaluating actions as good or bad based on their consequences, as Machiavelli does. Rather Epicurean works are packed with discussions of internal goodness/wickedness (virtue Ethics) and do recommend actions that will make the actor happy, but with a conviction indebted to Plato that being a virtuous person will make you happy and being a bad person will make you unhappy (Virtue ethics again, as presented in the first half of Plato’s Republic). Epicureanism lacks (very importantly) any suggestion of caring about the consequences of one’s actions for others. The Epicurean wants to live in his garden in peace apart from the world and take no part in politics no matter how many slaves’ backs are bent in his service or how close Rome is to ruin. The consequences of the Epicurean’s actions on anything but the state of his own happiness are completely unexamined and presumed irrelevant. Machiavelli, thus, is the first to calculate good/bad based on the effects of one’s actions on other people, how much Earthly good and harm is done to others and the world, and he also for the first time completely casts aside conventional assumptions (maintained by Epicurus) that being a murderer or tyrant is always bad, and being peaceful and modest is always good, to look at questions of when force, homicide, deceit etc. might do more good than harm. Epicurus would, like Plato, say they always do harm, if only because of the strain they put on the doer’s conscience and tranquility. That is not consequentialism, even if it is pleasure calculus; one needs both consequentialism AND pleasure calculus to yield Mill and Hume. I hope that makes sense? I know I’m covering a lot quickly. I’m sure I will discuss these themes more in future entries at some point.

    Next time, though, I plan to return at last to Spot the Saint!

    • Rather late to be finding and commenting on this, I know – I hope your comment policy doesn’t look too harshly on necromancy.

      John, while you’re completely right that the modern ethical school of Utilitarianism is dominated by Bentham and Hume and Mill, so much so that they are certainly what people are talking about when it comes up in 90% of conversations, what I credit Machiavelli with is not the mature system but the first instance of its type of reasoning, i.e. evaluating something based on its consequences instead of its intent or the laws of [insert source].

      It seems like John’s complaint stems mainly from the use of the terms “consequentialism” and “utilitarianism” more or less interchangeably. It’s very common to use them so, but as I understand it, “consequentialism” is a broader term (at least in its technical usage) than “utilitarianism”, with the latter being one example of the former; that is, a consequentialist is anyone who says that actions should be judged by their consequences, while utilitarians make a further claim about the specific consequences or properties of consequences by which we should judge (i.e., you should choose the action that maximizes “utility”, however we define that term). I’ve generally tried to be careful about the distinction between the two since I became aware of it (I think from Singer’s “Practical Ethics”, though I don’t have it on hand to check), but I’ve also always been hard pressed to think of examples of non-utilitarian consequentialism; I suspect that that’s a common difficulty, which probably at least partly explains the common conflation of the terms. But reading this piece and discussion, and thinking about it a bit more, I’m wondering if a useful distinction, along the lines of what John was saying in the comment above, is that utilitarianism, in its varied forms, generally focusses on the utility for individuals specifically, whereas Machiavelli might be an example of a consequentialist who really doesn’t care about consequences to individuals per se, but only about the consequences for a state/community/society. I say “Machiavelli might be…” because I’d have to do some more research to decide whether that’s a reasonable interpretation of either, say, Bentham’s principle of utility, or of Machiavelli as you’ve described him. And of course, the consequences for individuals will be tied up in the consequences for the group, but the difference in focus, if correct, seems to be a potentially useful distinction.

      • exurbe said:

        I think that it would indeed be useful to have a clear distinction to talk about what one might call early stage and late-stage or consciously intentional utilitarianism. Unfortunately I have never encountered a body of literature in which people are consistent about that distinction, so trying to use it in broader discourse would just introduce confusion, but if one wanted to define the terms in such a way for use within a single work I do think it might be useful. Certainly there is a substantial difference between Machiavelli’s use of this idea and later ones, a difference that deserves a name.

  17. Jo Walton said:

    In re Jewish atheists in the classical period, I asked Alter who says there was Elisha ben Abuyah who may not have been an atheist but was definitely interestingly weird.

    And he says the word for atheists is Apikores, which comes from Epicurus.

  18. Ex Urbe said:

    It would be interesting to know the date at which Apikores entered as a term for that. In the Inferno, Dante uses “Epicureans” as a generic term for those who believe there is no afterlife (in circle VI), closely related to denial of God but not directly denial of God. It is possible Apikores had the same sense – a question for investigation.

  19. Jo Walton said:

    Alter says Hellenistic probably and definitely by the first century CE. He further says Mishnaic Jewish atheism is contentious because the records tend to be kept by their enemies, which sounds awfully familiar.

  20. I adore what you have done in your Machiavelli series; showing us who has argued about how to portray his beliefs, demonstrating why we should care, and — I know it’s trite — really making history come alive. In your actions and in your explanations and descriptions, I can sense your verve and compassion and generosity of spirit. Thank you.

    I also spotted your subtle bookending. Early in the series, you introduced Great Men’s Virtue anecdata and biographies — which don’t work, possibly not to inscribe those virtues, and certainly not as an analytics framework. Virtuous men might deserve lovely things but Providence sure takes its sweet time serving dessert.

    But then that last fannish fantasy, that Machiavelli ought to get to hang out in the discourse of modernity, because he freaking DESERVES it, brings us back to the wish that Providence would reward those we admire. “the happiest state is having a light lunch with your friends in a beautiful garden while debating philosophy” — and Machiavelli could get all dressed up in his court finery, again, for that conversation.

    Thank you.

  21. I’ve loved reading your Machiavelli series. Seriously, you know your stuff, not just history, but the history of philosophy, everything.

    I read this article, and it felt not quite right in ending. I think I know now why.
    This: 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.
    You seem to be ignoring another reason, religion, today, condemns millions to early deaths and suffering. I’m thinking of Bishops telling all believers that condoms are plots against their beliefs and spread disease, all this whilst in the middle of an aids epidemic. Or mullahs ordering women to be shadows lest they be killed. Some theists should be ashamed and atheists and secularist are right to protest. Rebellion is the only answer.

    It seems all a bit ‘ivory tower’ to say a debate that is active and has such high stakes, is being done wrong because some people you talk to are rebelling against their parents and nothing more. If your posts had a take away message, it was that consequences matter, it’s not just an academic game in which you can swap sides at will or that we should just follow rules and have a good heart. Perhaps you ought be a bit more Machiavellian.

  22. Ex Urbe said:

    Sumana, thank you for your warm and very thoughtful praise – I found it moving, and am delighted that you noticed my intentional bookending.

    Brian, your point is well taken, and let me clarify. The kinds of actively destructive social applications of religion which you are discussing are absolutely a terrible problem (today as much as in Voltaire’s day), and one which poisons the debate for everyone. In my experience, those atheists who have an unthinking rebellion attitude generally do so because they have been attacked by this vein of theists, i.e. people (parents, others) who tried to force a whole palette of secondary rules and beliefs on them which have nothing to do with philosophical questions. Like the Latitudinarian movement in the 17th century (See John Locke “On the Reasonableness of Christianity) and like Lucretius (who condemns organized religion fiercely with his discussions of human sacrifice) I agree that religion when mixed with politics and coercive social power has done terrible things, in the past and now. The modern world offers the reverse too, since now atheism has been been twisted in socially destructive directions by state power, notably in elements of the USSR, and communist China. The wrongs done, in terms of lives, oppression and suffering, are immense and broadly recognized today, but my goal in the remarks you commented on was to highlight a different victim, one less often talked about, and, while less viscerally horrible, just as real: discourse. I am a student of the Great Project. I have dedicated my life to furthering human inquiry and the Socratic dialectic. I believe the unexamined life is not worth living, or at least falls far short of what it should mean to be human. So for me there is, and always will be, a special noxiousness to anything which makes a mind less able to think, and self-examine. When I hear about needless death it makes me sick. When I hear about the suppression and silencing of freedom of religion or speech I feel sick. But I feel sick too when I meet someone whose life is full of support, advantages and plenty, someone intelligent who has grown up in an affluent society with full access to its immense opportunities, someone who lives in America where religion and speech are free, but who is nonetheless so intellectually crippled by the bad effects of debate-gone-wrong that that person is literally intellectually incapable of thinking about the question, and is instead trapped in a ball of rage where there can be no examination, only grudge. I personally know more atheists than theists who have been forced into this unhappy state, but it happens to both. Attempts to force a side on someone (theist or atheist), especially ones which entangle that side with a host of secondary beliefs, can cripple an intellect and close the doors of thought, at least until many years of slow recovery let anger fade. That makes me sad, as it would sadden Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas, and Diderot, and everyone who sees thought and reason as paths to truth and human excellence, whatever side they take.

  23. Kevin C. said:

    Years ago, perhaps in the nineties, I saw a documentary on British television which is a bit vague in my mind now. But I seem to remember it being about an Italian peasant who was executed by the Church for espousing some weird trippy stuff about men coming from worms. I think he lived in a remote hill village in Friulia in the Middle Ages, maybe a bit later. Supposedly, he had an epiphany about men coming from worms while staring into a barrel of water. The Church tried to stop him spreading his theory, accused him of heresy I think. They tried him and gave him several chances to recant but he wouldn’t be cowed so they executed him. I remember watching this and thinking the guy was talking about some kind of evolution, albeit in a rough and half-formed way. But I wonder if my mind is playing tricks on me and have remembered it poorly. I’ve tried to google it in the past with no luck. Have you heard of this? You seem like the sort of person who might know.

    I can’t think of much intelligent to say about your Machiavelli series other than ‘It’s magnificent’. I wish I could find more like it. The storytelling was gripping; like reading a paperback thriller with added erudition and cheekiness. I don’t know what to call that which you wrote…but it should be a genre. Suffice to say that you’ve been RSSed.

    P.S. The message box is awfully cramped. I wrote elsewhere and pasted it in of course, but so little text is visible at once. Minor gripe I suppose.

  24. Ex Urbe said:


    I suspect the documentary you saw was probably based on the book by Carlo Ginzburg, “The Cheese and the Worms.” It is an excellent book, and looks at the low culture sources of unbelief, arguing against the intellectual history model which ascribes new ideas to great minds and Great Books, and demonstrating that doubt and heresy can also arise from the less educated classes.

    One fact about the Inquisition that should be discussed more often, though, is how rarely trials ended in such a violent way. (I am not trying to defend the inquisition here, merely correct a common misconception.) The inquisition received many hundreds of denunciations, usually anonymous, ranging from “I think my neighbor is sleeping with his stable boy,” to “The lady down the street bakes weird bread–she’s a witch!” to the extremely rare “My son’s tutor says there’s no God.” The vast majority of denunciations were tossed out as bunk (“This lady’s bread is weird because she’s Hungarian and her recipee is different”), and even in cases of conviction, the sentence was usually to force someone to go to a tedious series of Catholic reeducation seminars (I’m not kidding!) and/or pay a fine. Especially because the Inquisition depended upon the State (usually) to provide executioners etc., it did not undertake the violent end of things unless it had a specific reason, i.e. it wanted to make an example of someone, and unless it was confident the State wouldn’t be inconvenienced. Violent ends thus came about most either when the Inquisition felt it needed to demonstrate its power, or when the accused was in some way high-profile such that an execution would be a conspicuous event and teach people a lesson. But in general it would not tend to violently target people of wealth or power, like the nobility, or anyone that it would be inconvenient to the State to execute. Executions were thus most common in periods when the Inquisition and Church felt their power might be being challenged and wanted to look strong, and rare when the Inquisition was secure, or when it was failing completely and didn’t want to make enemies. Targeting a peasant was in many ways easiest, or someone without a patron/protector. You will note that when Giordano Bruno was executed he had no patron (or rather was denounced by his employer) making him a target that angered almost no one, unlike when Pico was accused but it was clear that messing with them would anger the Medici, so they were acquitted. All this is to say that the Inquisition was certainly a source of violence, censorship, cruelty and control, but when we see a trial go as far as execution we know we are in an exceptional moment, and the historian’s first question should be “Why did this particular trial, out of many hundreds, go this far?” There is always a fascinating network of social/ political/ practical/ financial reasons beyond the pure theology.

    If anyone is interested in learning more real facts about the inquisition, I can recommend the work of Nicholas Davidson:

    (I agree the comment box is cramped, but, alas, this blog is brought to you by the art of relying on others to make your prefab web framework, so I have no power to improve that corner of things. Thanks for putting up with it.)

  25. Kevin C. said:

    Yes that’s the one, Menocchio. Ginzburg’s book sounds very good. Your answer prompted me to read a little and I was very surprised to discover: ‘The Friuli was unique in Europe in having a representative body for the peasantry alongside the Parlamento of their betters.’

    On another note, I’d love to see your Machiavelli articles made into a TV series. 🙂

    Thanks for the answer.

    • Ex Urbe said:

      It’s not quite the same, but the closest TV equivalent is definitely the Lionsgate series “Borgia: Faith and Fear,” which focuses on the Borgias and does an excellent job with presenting the politics and also period-like ethics. Season 1 is out on DVD, while Season 2 just started streaming online.

      Whatever you do, don’t mix it up with Showtime’s “The Borgias” which was made the same year and is also fun but infinitely less successful at making the characters and their actions feel genuinely period, so anyone tuning in for a taste of the ethics and politics will be sadly disappointed. Great costumes and good acting, though.

      One of my planned upcoming posts will be a comparative review of the two series, using them to examine different ways history is used in popular media.

  26. Thanks for sharing such a pleasant opinion, piece of writing is nice, thats why i have read it completely

  27. exurbe said:

    CHRIS ASKS: In the article on atheism and Machiavelli, I noticed the caption on the photo from Machiavelli’s tomb
    “Tanto nomini nullum par elogium,”
    (For such a name no praise is enough.)

    I don’t know Latin at all, so I can’t tell whether the double entendre is in the original. (“There isn’t sufficient praise” vs. “It is sufficient to not praise him.”) Do you know whether it is?


    In my opinion, the Latin doesn’t support the double reading. There is no verb “to praise” in the sentence, just the noun “praise” which is tied with the adjective none, i.e. “no praise”. So “No praise” is a non-separable phrase, “par” then is the preposition with an implied “est” i.e. “is” and “tanto nomini”. You could potentially read it ambiguously if not for the “tanto” because “tanto” is not just a neutral word for “such” but an explicitly positive word, better rendered as “so great” “so big” “so excellent” than just “so” though it is usually just translated as “such” or “so” becuase it’s a generic positive descriptor usable in many contexts. So I would say that a better translation is “No praise is equal to such a great name” and that the inherent positivity of “tanto” makes it unambiguous.

    Remember also that the tomb wasn’t built in the Renaissance, but in 1787, when he had transitioned from a stigmatized figure to one of the most famous Florentines so the ceremonial creation of the new tomb was a way of Florence self-advertising its excellence through the excellence of a citizen. I don’t think they were in the right phase to intend something subtly self-critical.

  28. Nathanael said:

    “They are what happens when people grow up surrounded by others who care more about propagating their own beliefs ”
    This is never going to stop, unfortunately.

    Memeplexes (collections of memes which reinforce each other and therefore travel together) which include the self-propagation memes tend to propagate better. This is the principle of natural selection applied to memes.

    (The self-propagation memes include “indoctrinate your children”, “if you stop believing horrible things will happen to you”, “evangelize the unbeliever”, “attack the unbeliever”, and “have lots of children”.)

    This is why the most common forms of Christianity feature all these memes. The versions which didn’t… didn’t spread as much.

    You could look at memeplexes as being analagous to infectious bacteria. Some of them harm the host (people) a lot, some harm the host a little, some are neutral, and some are beneficial….

    “So for me there is, and always will be, a special noxiousness to anything which makes a mind less able to think, and self-examine. ”
    A common meme in a successfully self-reproducing memeplex is “don’t think for yourself” — because thinking for yourself often causes you to realize that the memeplex is full of self-contradiction, cruft unrelated to the core principles, dishonest reasoning such as equivocation, etc. etc. Most forms of Christianity have this one.

    ” Attempts to force a side on someone (theist or atheist), especially ones which entangle that side with a host of secondary beliefs, can cripple an intellect and close the doors of thought,”
    But it’s very effective at causing that memeplex of beliefs to reproduce.

    The angry people are actually the ones where the reproduction of the memeplex *did not succeed*. The anger is like the immune response: it’s a successful defense mechanism against mental infection. The anger makes you sad, but the anger is incredibly useful; nobody, to my knowledge, breaks out of the grip of one of these infectious memeplexes without anger. Only when you are secure in the knowledge that you cannot be reinfected and nobody will try to reinfect you can you stop being angry.

    Another way to put it is that the anger is a sign of resistance to brainwashing. The brainwashing is the actual problem, but it naturally arises for evolutionary reasons. There are Catholic church books about the “best ways” to spread the faith which amount to brainwashing manuals; the people who wrote these books, of course, think they are acting with the best of intentions; these are simply, by trial and error, the ways which were most effective at spreading the Roman Catholic memeplex.

    • I think you’re exactly and precisely right that the anger is like an immune response, and that it has been a valuable thing for helping people escape. But like an arthritic immune response that has started to consume the joints, or the kind of fever flare that kills bacteria but also kills the host, the response can outlive its usefulness and come to be a problem, not a benefit. Maybe a better example is that the leftover anger is like PTSD, the reflexes that have kept somebody safe in battle, but a problem when they are home after the combat is over.

      When people literally can’t read what’s being said and see how it’s different from the brainwashing they escaped, but instead respond to a nuanced “consider this historical worldview” with reflexive anger, it’s possible to be sympathetic to the pain they have gone through, but still find it immensely frustrating that it isn’t possible to have a conversation while they’re emitting that anger loudly all over everything. And as Ada said above, discourse is the loser in that situation. The person who can’t put their anger down and responds to every mention of religion by yelling “Pink Unicorns!” is just as limited in their ability to examine as the one who responds to every mention with “If God wills it so”.

      • I think it’s important to make the distinction between being atheistic and a-religious. It’s entirely possible to lack belief in god, or believe in no god, and still think religion is a positive and desirable element of human culture. The ‘atheists’ you’re describing seem to both associate the concepts of religion and god, and have that association attributed to them by the culture around them.

  29. IJWTS that I wanted to get your SF book, and my memory is bad today. I searched DuckDuckGo for “machiavelli gelato novelist” because I couldn’t remember anything else, and got this post.

  30. Pete Stephenson said:

    Thank you so much for the Machiavelli series. I love how you put him in context of Florentine/Italian history, more so than anything else I have read. In past I spent time trying to imagine/understand Descartes in context of his lifetime, and it is fun to read you doing it so well for NM.

  31. Thomas Meister said:

    First, thank you for this series. Machiavelli is one of my favorite historical figures, but I haven’t had time to dig as deeply into his works as I would like, and it’s nice to see a well-written and friendly summary of his importance and his milieu.

    Second, that excerpt from the letter was not only an excellent demonstration of Machiavelli’s sense of humor, but also of his modernism. That letter could have been penned by H.L. Mencken! I’m half-convinced that if one added a smattering of large words and changed the context to a 20th century American one Mencken scholars could be tricked into thinking it was a lost letter of Mencken’s. The prank he and Guicciardini pulled also has “Mencken” written all over it.

  32. Damien said:

    “that person would debate more comfortably with an early atheist than with a theist of the same era”

    Reminds me of a reverse observation, that a modern strident atheist and a fundamentalist may have more shared ideas than either with a liberal Christian. They disagree about whether God exists but are arguing about the same kind of God; likewise they think scriptural descriptions are the sort of thing that should be true/inspired/taken at face value (but the atheist thinks the scriptures are in fact false.) Rather than “God is love” and cafeteria theology — which, while more politically amenable to a liberal atheist, may seem intellectually shoddy and inconsistent.

  33. What a joy this series was. Wootton’s Power, Pleasure, and Profit (Machievelli is the subject of “Power”) cites a couple of your other piece but not this one. Might be worth sending readers to.

  34. […] more on this see “Why We Keep Asking ‘Was Machiavelli an Atheist”, or for the footnoteful version my chapter “The Persecution of Renaissance Lucretius Readers […]

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