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Athens and Jerusalem in Dialogue II: The Reformation and Its Wake

It’s an interesting discussion, I think.  I’ll touch first a bit on the King issue, and then on your last parallels there about the odd synchonicity of Machiavelli and the Reformation.

First, about King.

I think King’s substance was never really his issue — I do think that the more informed and balanced people agree that internet posts only get you so far in terms of really affecting change in the world at large.  For many participants, it rather has the opposite impact — namely, it provides a kind of steam release valve, or an outlet for venting, which in the grander scheme dissipates their ire, and channels their desire for change into internet posting rather than towards the things that must be changed in the world outside the window.  Doubtless this is true, and he was quite right to point that out.

I think the main problem he ran into was his means of articulating himself.  I understand his intent was to challenge, but in the context of anonymous people on the internet, that approach likely won’t yield too much success.  Perhaps it works if you are a football coach or a drill sergeant or something like that, but when you are dealing with strangers on the internet, it’s doubtful that this kind of harangue is actually effective.

Hopefully he can find a better way to do what he would like to do, and be more effective in targeting for his audience.  He has some of the tools of a good writer, but he would do well, in my view, to go for simple and elegant rather than adopting a style which too often seems to be quite obviously striving to be clever and seem intelligent.  He obviously *is* intelligent and fairly well-read, but a better writer would find ways of expressing that erudition in more pithy, down to earth, and elegant way.  More Hemingway, and less Proust.  Also, more focused on the kind of style you need for the audience you are trying to reach.

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It’s an interesting point on the odd temporal symmetry between the very beginning of the Reformation in Germany and the publication of Machiavelli’s most influential works.  1517 and its aftermath was truly one of the inflection points of history, and the impact of the event and its wake, in quite real terms, on the contemporary cultural situation in the West is widely underestimated, if not outright misunderstood.  In part  I think this is because the historical memory, when it comes to the Reformation, is itself mixed among various countries and cultures of the West, precisely because it was, and is, a source of division in the culture.  However, this often has resulted in making it a kind of “off limits”  or taboo topic — something which can serve to obscure the fundamental role it has played in forming the foundation for many of the contemporary attitudes that so many find so troubling.

From my own perspective, the impact of the Reformation on subsequent Western history was both collosal and wide-ranging.  It impacts directly almost all of the issues people on this side of the orientational fence, as it were, are troubled about, on a foundational level.  At the same time it appears to create hard limits on the ability of many actually to see down to the root of the problems, and what underlies them, because doing so would challenge an aspect of their own identity which is foundational, and which they perceive as running counter to the problems that trouble them, and instead render this problematic at the very least.  In other words, one of the main problems involved with coming to grips with the issue of the underlying impact of the Reformation on contemporary culture, particularly in the United States but also elsewhere in the West, is that most Christians in the United States are children of the Reformation who revere the Reformation, or at least see it as a fundamental good, and as something that is a part of both their spiritual and historical identity.  So, if one starts to describe the problems that the Reformation injected into Christianity in the West, and into Western spiritual thought and practice, and the various strands of influence this has had on cultural development in the West for the last 500 years, one can very quickly get a rather knee-jerk and negative response — because these are Reformation Christians, or at the very least people who see the Reformation as being fundamentally positive and good.  Hence the problem with this kind of discussion.

Of course it’s quite true that, as you have written, the Reformation’s pragmatic impact of dividing the West religiously was damaging to the ability of Chirstianity’s contemporaneous representatives of either camp to resist more effectively the growing attacks of the anti-theistic philosophers.  As a practical matter, division leads to weakness.  In this, however, the Reformation is part of a longer problematic history within Christianity of division leading to weakness with grave consequences as a result.  From my perspective, for example, it is quite appropriate to argue that, had the great schism between the eastern and western parts of the Catholic Church never happened, or had it been repaired relatively quickly, the events and developments within the medieval West which eventually led to the pressures that gave rise to the Reformation, as well as the disastrous demise of Constantinople in the East a few decaded earlier, may never have come to pass.  But that’s a topic for another post, if and when I have the time to write it.  Suffice to say that, yes, division in and of itself leads to rather disastrous outcomes in the temporal world, some of which go well beyond any kind of capacity to predict at the time the division occurs.

Yet the specific kinds of impacts of the Reformation which I see as being more influential over the past five centuries of history in the West, while stemming ultimately from the fruitless division created by the Reformation, lie in other areas — areas which have tended to facilitate the rise of anti-theistic rationalism to the state of its current hyper-dominance in Western culture.  While these areas are far-flung and encompass virtually all aspects of our contemporary culture, for the purposes of this note I’d like to focus on one key aspect — the attitude of the Reformation toward authority, and the impact this has had on the relationship between Christianity and the temporal world in the West (including anti-theistic secularist thought).

In this aspect, and in very broad brush, the Reformation was an assault on the existing system of religious authority — specifically the religious authority of the Catholic Church — and the replacement of that personal, hierarchical authority with the authority of a text.  This critical element — that is, the undermining of a unified religious authority — cascades down the trail of the subsequent history of the West.  Of course, nothing in history is fore-ordained, but the groundwork and the subsequent trends, and the connections between them, are unmistakeable. 

Even within the framework of the religion itself, when you make a text your highest authority, with no dispositive-for-everyone interpreter of said text, you end up with both (1) an endless (and in fact, impossible to end) tendency towards division due to the inevitable proliferation of textual interpretations and (2) a religious experience which is very heavily bent towards the cerebral without any inherent corrective.  Point (1) is why we have a different “flavor” of church on every streetcorner, all with their own versions of the truth, all with disagreements with each other about things which seem trivial to non-Christians (and also to many Christians as well!).  Point (2) is why American Protestantism in particular has constantly had waves of the opposite — emotion-based versions of Christianity, either Pentecostalism, or some kind of revivalism, to counterbalance the comparatively cold textualism of established Protestant Christianity. ( This also informs much of the contours of the “lower” less liturgical forms of Protestant worship services.)   So you end up with a situaton where the religion itself is inherently weakened by division, and which is institutionally utterly incapable of ending the process of division — like some kind of cancerous mitosis it simply keeps spreading its divisiveness.  And the resulting myriad of churches which are spawned by this process tend to careen between a kind of textual fundamentalism (after all, there is no authority beyond the text itself, no living body of authoritativeness beyond the text beyond the power of any individual interpreter to persuade, so if the text is not adhered to strictly, authority itself is undermined with no replacement), on the one hand, and a kind of apocalyptic emotionalism (as a corrective to the relatively cold and cerebral text-based religion), on the other.

The impact of this on the broader Western world and culture beyond religious belief and practice itself has been enormous and in many respects profoundly negative.  With respect to the specific issues you’ve addressed (the victory of anti-theistic philosophers over religion, and the tendency for religion to remove itself from the concerns of the world), these are traceable to the legacy of the Reformation.  As you’ve noted, in part the problem with philosophy and religion in the modern era is that philosophy (anti-theistic philosophy at least) kicked religion’s ass, in a way, because religion came poorly equipped to the fight.  One large reason for this is that the textual authority mindset is, in itself, uninterested in philosophy or philosophical reasoning as a baseline for discourse on these issues.  Instead, all arguments must proceed from, and be validated by, the overaching authority of a text.  This stands in sharp contrast to the prior practice and mode of discourse of Christianity vis-a-vis philosophical argument — whether in the period of the early Church, or later during the scholastic period in the West.  While Nazianzen and Aquinas may not have been personally equipped to address the kinds of arguments that would be raised by Descartes, Voltaire and others, had the mindset of engaging with philosophy been maintained, both in substance and in language, in a more full sense, religion would have had a much better chance in this fight.  A more holistic approach to religion — a more catholic approach — was, and is, needed to deal with this kind of challenge.  A textual authority based approach is simply not equipped to do this, precisely because its own mode of discourse is estranged from that used by the philosophers and their related empiricists in the scientific world. 

A few objections may be raised at this point.  What of the liberal mainline protestants who are all about social justice?  What about people like Francis Collins — doesn’t he engage in dialogue using the contemporary intellectual vernacular? 

Well, the liberal protestants are really an example of very much the same phenomenon mentioned above — namely, reliance on a text-based authority, with simply a different interpretation driving it.  The liberal protestants don’t spend a tremendous amount of time re-ariculating their faith in the language of contemporary intellectual discourse, but have instead simply embarked upon their own text-based interpretation of the religion which is just as removed from the language of Aquinas and Nazianzen, not to say of Robert George and David Hart as well, as are any other forms of contemporary protestantism.  It is simply another manifestation of interpretative pluralism which plagues Protestantism as a whole and weakens it, and the rest of Christianity along with it.  This is evidenced by the singular failure of such churches not only to grow and thrive, but even to maintain their ranks.  Far from articulating their faith in a way that is both intelligible and convincing to a contemporary intellectual mind, they seem to have rather spectacularly succeeded in convincing such minds of the irrelevance of their religion in general.  They are a symptom, therefore, of the same problem manifesting itself in a different way, rather than an exception to it. 

As for Francis Collins, the discovery institute and so on, these are generally people who are critical of  the conclusions of science within its own framework.  In other words, they raise interesting and important questions about whether the scientific conclusions about matters such as species evolution and the like are really justified based on the epistomological rules and conventions of the scientific method, the evidence that is available and the like.  While these are important conversations to have (and the fact that the scientific community, which is supposed to be based on peer critiques to begin with, is so hostile to them is in itself quite telling), nevertheless they are not the kind of conversation we’re talking about here.  Rather, they are pointed conversations that are taking place within the framework of empiricism itself.  In order for religion to regain its place in the world and not continue to be sidelined by the anti-theistic moderns and empiricist fundamentalists, the actual questions concerning the questions religion and philosophy are struggling with must be addressed directly — and not indirectly by means of critiques within the framework of empiricism itself and its epistemology.  So, while this kind of critique can be helpful if it is properly formed and based, nevertheless it is not the kind of direct engagement on the basis of the larger questions, articulated in the framework that the contemporary intellectual mind can appropriate, that is needed to undermine the tyrannical regime of modernism that we labor under today.

What does this look like?  What does it mean?  It simply means that rather than basing the entirety of its legitimacy on fidelity to a text, Christianity must articulate itself in a more robust, holistic way — in a way that the world understands, in its contemporary idiom intellectually, in a way that embraces the goodness of what is already in the world, and in us.  The early church embraced this in its dialogues with the philosophically-minded Greeks (**) and in its use of philosophical terms and discourse to articulate Christian truth in ways that were intelligible and intellectually sensible to the mind of that world.  The medieval church did so as well, and not in a completely unproblematic way, either, but nevertheless refused to see philosophy, mental reasoning and work, and intelletctually sophisticated articulations as being inappropriate because they did not all proceed from a text.  To be sure, none of these Christians saw their philosophizing or discourse as being inconsistent with scripture — far from it.  Yet it was always recognized that there is much that is not addressed in scripture in a way that is clear enough to avoid division and dispute, and that therefore some articulation is not only beneficial, but necessary in order to maintain unity, and preach the faith truly to achieve the goal of the great commission itself.

Of course, in order to work, this must be based on the idea that there is an authority, or an authoritativeness, that exists beyond the mere text of scripture.  That relies on the idea that not only is scriptural text, as revealed truth, true, but also that there is a human, worldly element of authority which is also authoritative precisely because of the action of God in the world through the Church.  The authority is that of God, not only speaking through the text of scripture, but speaking through the Church itself, and the humans, flawed though they may be, who inhabit that Church.  This is very difficult for Protestants to accept, because it goes against the very thing that the Reformation was aimed against, at least in part.  But it remains the case that this is the link that is missing, the block that comes between the strong faith of many Protestant Christians, on the one hand, and the kinds of failures you’ve articulated in your earlier note.

And that link is this — when Protestantism ditched the personal, living authority of the Catholic Church and its Tradition, and tried to replace this with a text in an effort to avoid the corruption inevitable with human involvement in that authority, it created (unwittingly for sure) a rather narrow, rigid type of Christianity which, eventually, would become disconnected with the world.  Why is this?  Because Protestantism, in ditching the Catholic Tradition, also ditched sacramentalism (***), the aspect of Catholic Christianity (by which I mean not just the current Catholic Church, but also the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox churches) which makes the world transcendent, holy and sanctified — which transforms the world, the physical, the temporal into an encounter with the transcendent and the infinite, and which confirms the ultimate goodness of the world, and its status as gift from the creator to man.  The sacramental approach to Christianity constantly affirms to the believer that the world is good, that the world is gift, that the world is holy and sanctified by God’s grace, and is a tangible means of encountering God in the here and now, and not just in some future place.  This is why these churches have ALWAYS been very concerned with the world at large, with the cultures in which they exist, with the state of morality and the like — because the world is gift, the world is being saved, the world is being transformed, and the Church is the main means by which this is supposed to occur.  Catholic Christianity is holistic, it embraces the world in this way, and transcends it.

It follows directly from this that the kind of authority which would be embraced by a church which retains sacramentality would itself be sacramental — that is, would itself be in the world, be a part of the world which is being transformed by and through the power of God.  It would be an authority which is not of the world (God’s authority comes from God himself, who is not of the world), but which is very much in the world, very much a part of the world, very much reflecting the world in all of its variation, in all of its articulation — and not merely a scriptural text, as central as that text is to the Tradition which is articulated over time by this authority in the world, in a way that the world can understand, and in a way that can reach the world in its own idiom.  This authority inheres in the episcopate, in the papacy which is its center, in the tradition articulated by the church through these, and through councils, and through theologians accepted by the church and so on.  It is ulimately more holistic, and more engaged on most levels with the world, than the most seeker-friendly hipster-worship-band Protestant church can ever be with its text0-based-authority system.  Ultimately, it is also much more open to the world, because the world is the locus of sacramentality — including things like mental articulation and philosophical discourse, two avenues of “the world” that the Church has historically embraced as a part of its mission to be “in the world”.

From the perspective of this kind of authority, and this kind of Christianity, it isn’t really an option to stand aloof from the world, or from a particular culture in the world — precisely because all is cherished, all is shot through with grace, all is in the process of being transformed and renewed by God through the Church.  The Church is central in this process, but it presupposes an embracing of the world as fundamentally fallen but being in the process of being transformed and redeemed.  It cannot countenance a stand-offish aproach to the world as irretrievably fallen, or as being of limited relevance to a faith that is solely based on fidelity to textual revelation.  By contrast, if you are a text-based believer without a sacramentally-based faith whose approach is based on a text and a mostly cerebral understanding of it, coupled with the occasional emotional reaction, rather than an actual physical encounter with God on a regular basis (“oh taste and see, that the Lord is good”), well, you’re going to be tempted at the very least to reject entanglements with a fallen world, or a particular civilization, or what have you, because it ultimately “doesn’t matter”.  What matters is fidelity to the textual authority for a small remnant. 

This is why protestantism has been an unmitigated disaster for Western Christianity in particular, and for Christianity as a whole.  That is not to say that the Western Catholic Church of the early 16th century was not in desperate need of reform — it was! — or that many of the reforms that came about as a part of the counter-reformation were not very useful — they were!  But it does mean that the trajectory that Protestantism set much of Western Christianity on was a deeply tragic one, and quite apart from all of the blood that was spilled in its wake.  It is simply the case that by creating a kind of Christianity which was non-sacramental and mostly careening between hyper-rationalism and hyper-emotionalism in a roller-coaster type fashion over the course of time, a gradual withdrawal from the actual world took place — a kind of vacating of the space, which allowed other ideations to move into, and eventually take over, that space.  The Catholics have never really stopped their engagement with the world, both in practical and in intellectual terms.  But the trends unleashed by the Reformation were very powerful, and had huge and negative impacts on Catholic countries and cultures as well, precisely because the countries which were Protestant came to dominate the world, and spread their own culture together with that domination (a process which continues today).  The tide has been a global one, and the voice of the Catholics (and the smaller voices of the Orthodox in their own contexts) has been all but drowned out.

I do think that engagement with philosophy is critical.  One author you may want to look into is David Bentley Hart.  He’s a philosopher and theologian — he’s Eastern Orthodox, but he isn’t a partisan.  He takes a view similar to yours in that the battle needs to be fought on both fronts, and that Christian philosophers are needed to do so.  He has written a few good books, although they can be difficult reading at times in part due to his own style of writing (which he has admitted himself can be difficult).

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(**)  I realize that many Protestant Christians, perhaps most of them, view this as having been a terrible mistake.  They could not be more wrong, actually, and in my view it is precisely this kind of knee-jerk reaction against any kind of philosophically based articulation of religion that lies at the heart of the problem we’re discussing here. 

(***) By sacramentalism I mean not merely embracing baptism, or perhaps baptism and communion as “sacraments”, but rather an entire worldview which sees the world itself as a living sacrament, shot through with the presence of God, and something which, in very specific and concentrated moments, becomes what the Church refers to formally as “sacraments”.

54 Responses

  1. Escoffier

    One clarification: Machiavelli did not publish his great works in 1517. Rather, the correspondence we have suggests that he finished at least a first draft of The Prince in 1513 and the Discourses on Livy in 1517. Though, for all we know, he tinkered with both for the rest of his life.

    Machiavelli died in 1527. The Discourses was published in 1531 and The Prince in 1532, by people whom I suppose we may call his “literary executors.” He arranged all this in advance.

    Now, I suppose there are two fundamental reasons why he declined to publish either book during his lifetime. First, because he didn’t want to get in trouble. Despite the fact that his real views are everywhere hedged and couched and so on, the books are quite radical and more or less openly recommend the doing of evil deeds. And, indeed, the books were very quickly placed on the Index (a list of books banned by the Church).

    Second, he wanted to be able to revise and polish them until the end of his life and then leave them to posterity exactly as he wanted. They are both amazingly intricate works that must have taken him many, many years to polish.

    This said, he circulated manuscripts of both to philosophically like-minded friends as soon as the first drafts were finished. They were thus floating around the upper reaches of the Italian intellectual class for nearly 20 years before formal publication. And there is evidence that they even got beyond Italy. There is evidence, though not proof, that a manuscript of The Prince somehow got into the hands of Cardinal Wolsey. From there, it is a tale (supposing it is true, which is definitely not established) of unintended consequences. Wolsey used the book to solidify his own position but was of course eventually brought down anyway. The book got into the hands of Thomas Cromwell and later Richard Rich, both of whom were the architects of the English Reformation. This is mentioned in the play Man for All Seasons as a fact, though it is not quite that established. However, some of the objections are not persuasive. There is contemporaneous reference in letters to Cromwell having and quoting the book, but some say, “Oh, but that reference is from before it was published, so it must be something else, or else the letters are fakes.” Yeah, well, we KNOW the manuscripts were out there. Whether or how one could have gotten to England is another question, though it is certainly plausible that Wolsey–a cardinal–could have gotten one on one of his trips to Rome.

  2. Escoffier

    I have much to say which I will probably break out over several comments.

    First, Nova has articulated a point that I don’t think I got across very well. This to me stands out as his key sentence of his is this: “The early church embraced this in its dialogues with the philosophically-minded Greeks and in its use of philosophical terms and discourse to articulate Christian truth in ways that were intelligible and intellectually sensible to the mind of that world.”

    My earlier point was that religion lost in the temporal not because it is false but because it allowed modern philosophy to set the frame, to determine the rules of the match, what weapons would be used, etc., all on modernity’s terms to modernity’s advantage. Nova explains how this happened.

    If I may add my own twist here. Let’s go back to Christ’s earthly ministry. A key element to His worldly success was undoubtedly the miracles He performed. It is reasonable to say that His word alone would not have achieved that success. He was making claims that go well beyond (to say the least) the ordinary observations and experiences of ordinary people in everyday life. Something other than “take my word for it” was needed to convince people.

    The miracles—witnessed by many and then reported throughout the land—gave credence to His word. They made believers of skeptics. The ordinary man says “show me” and he is shown. Doubting Thomas, etc.

    Then over time, more and more distance between these experiences intervenes and men get used to the ordinary again the miracles seem increasingly remote, not to say unbelievable, though they do become unbelievable to some.

    Modernity spots this weakness immediately. It essentially makes fun of religion as a fairy tale. And, 1,500 years after Christ, the nominal believer with no direct experience of miracles is very prone to doubt. He can be bludgeoned into thinking faith is mere superstition. Poetic fables.

    Without recourse, therefore, to a rationalistic account of the reasonableness of Christianity, he comes to see reason and faith as fundamentally opposed. (Which, really, they are in the final analysis, and I will get to that at some point, but the final analysis is in this case REALLY final, so let’s try not to make too much of it for now.) Not merely the specific content of this or that faith, but faith itself, come to be seen as fundamentally irrational.

    The more science progresses, the more this problem deepens. So, in the early modern period, you not only have the atheistic attack on all religious authority, you not only have the total redefinition of philosophy exemplified by Descartes, but you also have the practical success of this new conception of “science.” Science keeps “proving” stuff over and over and also providing stuff that makes life in the here and now easier, and this just compounds the problem. In addition to luring men’s loyalties away from God, it also has the effect of convincing lots of people that science is the only real knowledge, theology is simply myth or at best a personal matter of faith with no real intellectual content or merit. Believe what you want, it’s your life, etc.

    So, without a rationalistic way to counter that, religion just loses in the temporal.

    Which brings me to where we find ourselves today. In this hyper-rationalist, techno-drenched world, any movement or teaching that cannot take recourse to reason will not be given a hearing. It has no chance to gain any wider currency that it has. So, faith just continues to deteriorate, not because it is false, but because it comes to the fight unarmed, or partially armed.

    It absolutely needs the tools of philosophy and reason to convince skeptics and waverers and simply to make the case that religion is not laughable superstition or myth. As a practical matter, by saying or implying “We need nothing but this text, however implausible it may seem to science or to ordinary experience,” it needlessly concedes too much ground to its enemies. The core teachings of faith are NOT irrational and religion needs to relearn that and relearn to defend itself partially (though not totally) on rationalist grounds.

  3. Escoffier

    OK, point 2.

    What Nova said about the inherent goodness of the world may be THE most important fundamental area of agreement between the Bible and ancient philosophy, and it also points to a massive disagreement between both of these and modern philosophy.

    There is a huge underlying difference, of course, in that classical philosophy holds that the world is eternal and uncreated. There is no getting around that. However, the classics’ interpretation of how life is lived and experienced in the here and now proves to be quite compatible with the Bible, and it all starts from this basic agreement on the inherent goodness of the natural world, or of the “beneficence of nature.”

    I keep beating this drum because it is so important: it is of course perfectly rational, to be expected really, that the world created by God should be intelligible to man in its goodness and also that the requirements imposed upon man by nature should be compatible with God’s commands. Classical philosophy examined man and his place in the natural world and found that nature places on man much the same limits and obligations as does religion. In other words, classical philosophy was “normative.” There was no “fact-value” distinction, that is, the assertion that we can only know “facts” defined very narrowly, and questions of good and bad are never facts but always mere “values.” The classics show that good and bad are not merely knowable, they are in a metaphysical sense the most important “facts” of all.

    In both conceptions of nature, nature is both a guide for man and a benefit to man. Modernity upends this. Modernity conceives of nature as man’s enemy. Why? Because nature is a skin-flint. Nature is cheap. It offers man little. Everything man has, he must scratch or beat out of recalcitrant nature.

    Now, why and how does modernity come to make this assertion? It’s very complicated so what I will say now is very simplified, but I hope not misleading. But it boils down to, because modernity’s core purpose (or one of them) is to make life for man materially better in the here and now. Modernity looks back across human history and concludes that both philosophy and religion have failed man. Modernity sees mostly penury, misery, tyranny and superstition. It recognizes that philosophy hitherto has developed many powerful and true insights—I would go so far as to say that modernity accepts nearly all of the classical conclusions about the way the world works—but modernity indicts classical philosophy for proceeding from what modernity now asserts to be false premises. And, proceeding from these false premises, modernity says, you classics failed to engage with the world sufficiently or to put your knowledge to good use. You could have used your knowledge to help man better himself materially in the here and now, and you didn’t—based on a foundational mistake which we moderns have now corrected.

    Part of that foundational mistake is the conception of the beneficence of nature, which leads the classics to a mistrust of technology and innovation. Modernity upends this as well.

    But really we may say that the whole “ancient v. modern” debate/quarrel boils down to a tactical question. Which is that, the moderns say, the true failure of classical philosophy was its inability to wall itself off from a takeover by religion. It’s precisely BECAUSE classical philosophy and the Bible have so many core similarities that the ended up as partners—something which the moderns abhor as, they suppose, bad for philosophy and for man. This complaint is in the end more important than any (initial) substantive disagreements between ancients and moderns and really gives rise to those disagreements. In other words, the moderns don’t like the outcome, so they reason backward, saying “Since the outcome is bad, there must have been something wrong with the premise” and they “find” those errors to be classical philosophy’s various conceptions of the transcendent. Those have to be done away with, modernity insists, because they tempt man in a religious direction and from now on, man is to stand alone, on his own two feet.

  4. Escoffier

    Third and final point (I think) for now.

    The whole question of “authority” is not merely amazingly apt but another thing that makes one believe that certain things just could not be coincidences, it’s so fantastical.

    As noted, Machiavelli finished his Discourses in 1517. This is a far less famous book than The Prince, but also much longer and more comprehensive. Really, only in the Discourses is the full case for modernity laid out in detail, with the entire logic chain present (if presented obscurely). The book is long and difficult, seems to lack coherence and order, and even to lack any point or purpose whatsoever. Had Nick only written the Discourses, it would have sunk like a rock, unread. The Prince, while a philosophic book in its own right, is in part an advertisement for the Discourses, a short tract meant to establish Nick’s reputation and to find readers for the Discourses.

    THE central question explored in the Discourses is the “problem of authority.” In stating this, I will have to stress some of the ways in which philosophy and religion are in tension or conflict; I hope that in doing so I do not reopen the rift that seems to be at least temporarily healed. I also hope that it will remain evident (and I will certainly make every effort to be as clear as possible) why, even though this tension remains irreducible at the highest level of thought, the fundamental compatibility of concepts that I have been insisting actually exists, is not in any way denied or threatened by that ultimate irresolvable tension.

    Philosophy as such, at its essence, is characterized by the “gentle but firm” refusal to submit to any authority. Philosophy arose in ancient Greece when the first man said to himself “I will not necessarily accept this authoritative account of that phenomenon but I must investigate it for myself.” In principle this could have happened anywhere, at any time.

    Authority always varies because authority is essentially meaningless unless it is manifest as this or that authority. E.g., the authority of the Greek poets, or of the Bible. But to philosophers, there is a principle of authority which transcends all individual or distinct authorities, and that principle is the equation of the good with the ancestral or the old or the beginning. We see this very clearly in Genesis, in the account of creation and the goodness of the world and of pre-lapsarian man. There is a perfect beginning and evil or regress is the result of a fall, a moving away from that beginning. The principles and the articulation of that perfection are the core “content” or teaching of authority.

    Philosophy as such cannot submit to any authority because it considers it “hearsay.” It must investigate for itself. This is completely distinct from atheism and in fact a dogmatic atheism is anathema to philosophy, which rules out nothing until it can dispositively disprove it. So, as philosophy investigates the content of a particular authority, it comes to one of, basically, four conclusions: this is true, it is false, it is plausible, it is implausible.

    Philosophy rather quickly realizes that it can neither prove nor disprove the content of most authority. It can, however, make judgments on plausibility. As noted in an earlier post, I believe that for Socrates, Plato et al, their judgment of the pagan gods was “extremely implausible.” Certainly they lacked what may be termed “affirmative and active belief.” What these Greeks might have made of the Bible is anyone’s guess but, as noted many times, philosophy and Christianity rather quickly found each other and formed a partnership that lasted some 1,200 years.

    Anyway, you can see how this “firm but gentle refusal” leads to what I termed philosophy’s temptation toward atheism. If authority says Zeus is the cause of thunder, and you begin to examine that rationally, at a minimum you will come up empty and more likely, you will tend to find the explanation incredible. This naturally leads the same mind to doubt all the other tenets of that particular authority and then to doubt or even reject authority itself.

    But a philosophy which remains true to itself must remain open to the possibility of authority, which it cannot disprove. This is NOT atheism, because (for one thing) as philosophy further investigates man and nature, it eventually formulates ideas of the transcendent that are, if not identical to the idea of God, then certainly in keeping with the idea of God. And it is NOT agnosticism, because agnosticism is not “zetetic”, that is, longing or searching. Philosophy always regards the question of the existence of God and the nature of God to be THE most important question, even if this or that philosopher cannot affirmatively accept, on faith alone, this or that authoritative account of God.

    All right. Machiavelli is the first philosopher to try to foreclose this debate or tension forever. All the subsequent moderns follow him on this point. He tries to transform philosophic skepticism into certainty. Philosophy will no longer remain open to the challenge from religion. It will assert that it “knows” religion is false, and more than that, that the very principle of authority is false.

    In effect modernity flips the “standard of evidence” from “preponderance of evidence” to “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If you can’t replicate through the scientific method, right here right now, changing water into wine, then we say you’re making it up. It never happened. We don’t just refuse to submit to authority a priori, we reject all authority as made up.

    Note that modernity has not PROVED this. Rather, it has flipped the question of proof around: YOU prove it ME, or I call BS. An earlier philosophy would not have done that, and didn’t. The earlier philosophy was in a sense more humble about the limits of its own ability to discover, prove, and explain. Modernity is characterized by hubris.

    Getting back, then, to the Discourses, what Machiavelli does is take an ancient text (Livy), pretend as though he is treating it as a sacrosanct authority, and then proceed to subject it to a wholly destructive analysis which leaves the text in tatters by the end. The point is both to demolish the principle of authority but also to invite readers to apply the same method to the ultimate authority, the Bible.

    Hence, here we have, in the same year (1517) Luther saying “It’s all in the text, trust nothing but the authority of the text” and Nick saying “The text is a complete lie, trust not this text nor any other text or person claiming to be an authority.”

    It’s rather like matter and anti-matter colliding and creating a huge explosion that rends the philosophic-theological fabric of the space-time continuum. Coincidence?

  5. Matamoros

    The Reformation is indeed a defining point within Christianity. It marks the point at which a deviation, a heresy if you will, managed to infect and poison the heartland of Christendom. Previous heresies were either unsuccessful or were on the periphery and were cast out by vigilant Church authorities.

    It is easy to argue the whys and wherefores, and completely miss the elephant in the room because he is unnameable – he who must not be mentioned. Votaire put it succinctly when he said: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

    To this end, John Friend has written his article: “The 20th Century: Talmudic
    Triumph Over Western Civilization” (www.john-friend.net/ 2013/ 04/ the-20th-century-talmudic-triumph-over.html), daring to name the unnameable. It is an excellent article, if not fully understanding the Church, or her role in society and salvation.

    This conquest over the hearts and minds, and souls, of Western Man, is detailed in “Jewish Influence In Christian Reform Movements” by Rabbi Louis Newman, 1925. This is available at amazon.com and also at scribd.com. and therefore need not be denied by any rational person.

    The long history of subversion of the Faith and society is documented in “The Plot Against the Church”, available for download from http://www.catholicvoice.co.uk/pinay/

    Father Denis Fahey wrote of the effects of this struggle against the Church in the early 1900s in a series of books, two of which are: “The Kingship of Christ and the Conversion of the Jewish Nation.”, and “The Kingship of Christ and Organized Naturalism”.

    Brother Nathanael Kapner, a jewish convert to Orthodoxy (realjewnews.com), is a voice crying in the wind, working to warn and wake up Americans as we enter the last stages of this conquest – the destruction of Christians and the New World Order of Lucifer.

    Protestantism has been a cleverly designed straight-jacket for the Western mind to “free” him from the transcendental while chaining him to the physical. Blinding him to true realities as to the “powers” that are enemies, and keeping him from the strength of God to maintain and further Western culture.

    Western culture has not been supplanted by something better, it has been poisoned and supplanted by unmitigated evil; which must be fought in the here and now – philosophically, religiously, and materially.

    These two articles give a rational understanding and reason for this re-engagement with the physical, material reality; and a very good brief summary of the Catholic Church’s importance and permanence in the world.

  6. Joseph of Jackson

    ” It marks the point at which a deviation, a heresy if you will, managed to infect and poison the heartland of Christendom.”

    Uh huh, and it came because the pope began selling indulgences for sins. Luther never would have taken up the charge is the Catholic Churches highest authority had not tried to usurp the authority of Christ by not only claiming to be able to forgive sins, but by selling said authority to the highest bidder. If I had to choose between that and Reformation? I’d pick reformation every time.

    1. Learner

      Joseph,

      “Uh huh, and it came because the pope began selling indulgences for sins. Luther never would have taken up the charge is the Catholic Churches highest authority had not tried to usurp the authority of Christ by not only claiming to be able to forgive sins, but by selling said authority to the highest bidder. If I had to choose between that and Reformation? I’d pick reformation every time.”

      Did you catch where Nova said that reform was needed in the Catholic Church and the the Counter Reformation did Indeed bring needed change? No one thinks the selling of indulgences was a good thing. The reformation had an incredible effect on the world, beyond the condemnation of indulgences, as described in the post in part by Novaseeker….what of that?

  7. Sis

    Philosophy originated to find ways other than God to explain mankind and the universe. Why should Christians lower themselves to something that is designed to reject the existence of a God. Any time I get in a philosophical argument with someone who is more Machiavellian oriented, their viewpoint logically makes the most sense. It is only when you accept there is a God willing to protect us and give us hope that kindness and helping others makes sense.

    I agree that the division makes us weaker, it is frustrating. But the division isn’t because of our (Protestants) aversion to authority figures. The division is because of disagreements about the gospel, which is essential. We need to accept we are nothing without Christ, we are dead to life, we are not good until He makes us good. We are not good on our own, we are not beautiful on our own, our works are worth nothing until He transforms them. My husband has serious doubts that Catholics are even to be considered Christians if they don’t accept the gospel. But then we keep meeting Catholics that are obviously Christians, obviously humble servants of God, devoted wholly to Him. So I’m think there’s something there that speaks to their salvation, but we can’t compromise on the gospel.

    I disagree with your use of the sacramental greatness of nature to evangelize to Modernists. People who don’t know God, can’t see God in creation like Christians can. It is only when God opens their eyes to Himself that they are able to see Him. Art and poetry from modernists has shown their view of nature to be scary, chaotic, and uncontrollable. It is something to be avoided and only with a God-like perspective can the horror become beautiful.

    Referring to the bible, the living word of God, as cold is offensive.
    “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12

  8. vascularity777

    Interesting post. I’m not knowledgeable about Catholicism and appreciate the read. I’ve got to agree with JofJ above that the Catholic Church was so corrupt at that time that the reformation was pretty much the only way to go. But I also have extreme disagreements with Martin Luther as well. For me, I have learned to not trust any church or pastor implicitly. I’ve observed too much self-righteousness and B.S. in Protestant churches. I haven’t found a viable alternative to non-denominational churches, but I keep searching.

  9. Cail Corishev

    Modernity looks back across human history and concludes that both philosophy and religion have failed man. Modernity sees mostly penury, misery, tyranny and superstition.

    Evan Sayet explained this very well in his talk “Hating What’s Right” (perhaps surprising, as he’s a political neo-con). Modern Liberals (his term) believe that life can be made perfect here on earth. They look back at history at a long line of attempts to do that, all of which have failed, so all of them — all religions, traditions, and methods of ordering things which went before — are suspect. All must be discarded and replaced with new systems created by Modern Liberals themselves.

  10. A Serious Diversion | Donal Graeme

    […] Part 2 is here. […]

  11. Learner

    Sis,

    Philosophy originated as a search for wisdom that was not nessecarily opposed to the existence of God….it may have become that but it was not in origin that.

    You say division in Protestantism isn’t due to aversion to authority figures but rather to disagreements about the gospel. But, these disagreements exist because Protestants reject the authority of the Church to guard the revealed truth of God (as they did in the Eccumenical councils). These disagreements about the gospel to a great extent do not exist in Catholicism (both the western Carholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church) because of Church authority.

    Where was the bible referred to as cold?

  12. vascularity777

    The adherents of modernity see the failures of various churches and conclude that a progressive, liberal cure is the answer. These folks most probably are not Christians.

    Us Christians argue with one another as we see the faults of our differing Christian denominations. For the sake of unity we outta admit to the faults of our own denominations and realize that Jesus Christ is the answer; not any church or denomination. Once too much faith is placed in a church or denomination there arises the risk of that body taking on the characteristic of a cult.

  13. Escoffier

    A number of points raised here.

    First, it is absolutely true that corruption or rot in the institutional church of the late 15th and early 16th centuries was a great boon to the temporal success of Machiavelli and his subsequent followers and to Luther and his. An incorrupt or less corrupt institution would have A) been much less likely to be subject to such assaults in the first place and B) those assaults would have been much less likely to succeed.

    There is no question about it, the church desperately needed reform—Nova’s post makes this very clear, I think. I will leave to him the discussion of Luther.

    Machiavelli scores several direct hits on corrupt church practice, zooming in with precision on the weakest teeth: the Borgias and the sale of indulgences. But he is a “concern troll.” He’s not writing with church’s—or the faith’s—best interests in mind. He’s exploiting those genuine weaknesses to bring the whole thing down.

    This had a number of beneficial effects (for him), not least that it gave him and his defenders plausibly deniability to say “Oh, we’re not against the faith per se—oh no!—we’re just against the awful corruption of the institution, and who wouldn’t be? And it needs to be reformed along the following lines …” All of course modern and antithetical to the letter and spirit of the Bible. Much the way modern liberals today “Oh, the church just need to update itself, get with the times, be relevant, that will bring back the flocks.” Some of this may actually be said out of a genuine desire to help (if the speaker is sufficiently ignorant) but mostly it’s not.

    We need to learn to see past this stuff.

    The more fundamental point is, could the genuine abuses in the church have been reformed without going all-in on a complete break? Nova’s answer is “yes” and I agree.

  14. Sis

    @Learner

    The first philosophers: Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, …( from 500 BC to 150 AC) questioned where life originated from, where energy originated, whether souls existed. The answers they came up with were life came from water, life came from earth, wind, fire; life came from atoms. They were searching for something other than “life came from God”. God created life. They wanted a logical answer and God was considered mythology.

    I have no problem with authority, as long as scripture is the top authority and any authority figure confesses to sinfulness and is held accountable to scripture.

    ” so if the text is not adhered to strictly, authority itself is undermined with no replacement), on the one hand, and a kind of apocalyptic emotionalism (as a corrective to the relatively cold and cerebral text-based religion), on the other.
    I’m assuming he’s talking about scripture here, please correct me if I’m wrong.

    1. Learner

      Sis,

      I shall leave the argument about the nature of philosophy to those better able to address it than I.

      I have no problem with authority, as long as scripture is the top authority and any authority figure confesses to sinfulness and is held accountable to scripture.

      That’s the problem though….all the thousands of different positions which Protestants appeal to the authority of the same scripture to defend. Obviously scripture as the sole authority produces division after division, that much is obviously clear.

      so if the text is not adhered to strictly, authority itself is undermined with no replacement), on the one hand, and a kind of apocalyptic emotionalism (as a corrective to the relatively cold and cerebral text-based religion), on the other.
      I’m assuming he’s talking about scripture here, please correct me if I’m wrong.

      He answered you himself, but I believe he said a solely text-based religion was cold, not the Bible itself.

  15. Escoffier

    OK, let’s skip past the pre-Socratics, they don’t matter here. The Socratic tradition is what matters. Socrates refuted the pre-Socratics and Heidegger’s attempt to resurrect them failed.

  16. Dalrock

    @Escoffier

    First, it is absolutely true that corruption or rot in the institutional church of the late 15th and early 16th centuries was a great boon to the temporal success of Machiavelli and his subsequent followers and to Luther and his. An incorrupt or less corrupt institution would have A) been much less likely to be subject to such assaults in the first place and B) those assaults would have been much less likely to succeed.

    From this point of view, isn’t it possible, or even likely that Luther and Machiavelli were merely reactions to the fundamental issue, which was a culture where the official institution of morality was seen as openly corrupt? From what little I know (and it is admittedly little), it strikes me that had neither men ever existed, the ideas both put forward would have been eventually put forward by someone else. In fact, it strikes me as quite likely that these same ideas already had been put forward, but what was lacking until then was the printing press. Interestingly according to wiki (but lacking citation) one of the first uses for the Gutenberg press was the mass printing of indulgences. The other better known early use was the printing of the Bible. So it strikes me that Gutenberg’s invention may have allowed the corruption of the church to greatly expand while simultaneously encouraging individual study of the Bible. After a hundred years of these two opposing forces building up, eventually the dam burst, and there was Gutenberg’s press to allow the new ideas to spread in ways they never could have spread before.

  17. Escoffier

    Philosophy begins as the attempt to explain the universe and man’s place in it without reference to God, that is true, but must be immediately corrected to “without INITIAL reference to God.” Philosophy is not closed to God, it in fact (until modernity) always as a matter of both practice and principle, remains open to God. Socratic philosophic investigation of nature leads back toward something like God, not that they recognize the Biblical God as such, but the transcendent concepts they discover are consistent with God and perhaps coeval with God.

    For subsequent philosophy that does come in contact with the Bible, it knows that to reject God absent definitive proof would be un- or even anti-philosophic. A philosophy that is incorrupt and honest with itself will never do that.

    And, philosophy figures out very early that it cannot definitively disprove God or the Bible. Even the moderns, who try to establish atheism as the ruling idea of man, know that they have not DISPROVED God. They just change around the intellectual terms to force the burden of proof onto religion and then say that religion has failed it. The moderns consider the untruth of religion so overwhelmingly plausible that they deem proof unnecessary. They have a project and religion is in the way so religion must go.

    Philosophy is not “designed to reject the existence of God.” It is designed to find the truth, a truth which includes God. Pre-Christian philosophy did not, in fact, find God—revelation was required for that—but it did find transcendent concepts, and also a natural morality, in keeping with God.

  18. vascularity777

    Escoffier wrote:

    “There is no question about it, the church desperately needed reform—Nova’s post makes this very clear, I think. I will leave to him the discussion of Luther.”

    I am very curious about Martin Luther. I read about his beliefs briefly. What I am trying to learn about is why he, and others, were so anti-Jewish. To me it seems that all Spirit filled Christians, then and now, outta try to teach Jews about our common Messiah. Jews should not be tortured, burned, or even verbally abused.

    I have queried this to a few Protestants previously, but could not get a decent answer as to why Martin Luther was so anti-Jewish. I have never had the opportunity to discuss this matter with practicing Catholics.

  19. Escoffier

    D,

    I think it was inevitable that someone would attack the abuses of the institutional church. The church was crying out for reform. It was really, really bad. Rotten. More rotten, probably, than the worst institution in the modern West.

    What was not inevitable was the philosophic attack that occurred at EXACTLY the same time and that nominally shared the same concerns but that in reality was about something fundamentally different.

    The closest you come to something like Machiavelli’s argument is Marsilius of Padua about 150 years prior. Marsilius was definitely a major inspiration for the Reformation—he attacked the institutional church of his time in the context of the struggle between the Guelfs (partisans of the pope) and Ghibellines (partisans of the Holy Roman Emperor), Marsilius taking the side of the Ghibellines. In fact, he was attacked by church-loyal theologians at the time who foresaw that his arguments could be used to justify another schism, or worse. Prophetic …

    Marsilius does not reject Aristotle nor any of the core metaphysical-theological teachings of the church, rather his concerns are almost entirely temporal. He is not an atheist by any means and not a harbinger of modernity, except insofar as his desire to liberate temporal practice from papal and church tutelage.

    Machiavelli was a sui generis man/event. It’s impossible to say whether, had he not lived, it was inevitable that someone else would have made the same argument. Whatever the case, the inevitability of attacks on the corruption of the institutional church was a lot stronger. Machiavelli’s argument goes so far beyond this, is so “ingenious” and original, that I am inclined to believe he was one of a kind.

  20. Escoffier

    Cail, it’s a very odd, ironic thing.

    I agree with the fundamental point, that the moderns believe life here is perfectible. But the funny thing, is in the original conception, modernity thinks of ITSELF as the true realists and of the philosophic and religious tradition as the dippy utopians.

    One will come across this today in the various scholarly excuses for Machiavelli. You know, he was not evil (despite advocating lying, theft, murder, etc.). He was just a realist, describing the world as it is, etc.

    Well, to sum this up as briefly as I can: what the classical philosophers and the Bible do is hold up a very high standard—say, Plato’s Republic or the City of God—but then take a genuinely realistic view of man’s prospect in the here and now of attaining that perfection. In fact, both traditions conclude, man on earth cannot perfect himself. He should look to these transcendent standards for guidance, as ideal to strive toward, but he should also be honest with himself that perfect achievement is impossible on earth.

    Not to look to and strive toward the standard is to accept a kind of base materialism in the here and now, to succumb to cynicism or hedonism and like. To insist on meeting the standard leads to inhuman cruelty and then crushing disappointment as the standard is not met. What’s needed then is a mean: try, but try with realistic expectations.

    Machiavelli and the moderns say: the standards themselves are tyrants, intellectual tyrants. This is the meaning of Prince 15. “Imagined principates” are utopias that make man miserable: either because he can’t achieve them and so he despairs, or he tries to achieve them and ends up causing a bloodbath.

    Modernity lowers the goal to make actualization possible. If we are not striving for this high ideal, if instead we are merely striving for security and prosperity (what most men want most of the time), THAT surely is achievable in the here and now. So, contra classical philosophy, modernity says, we CAN rationalize the world of political practice, provided we don’t strive for perfection or for the classical “best regime.”

    Modernity thus ditches classical philosophy’s moderation, which the root of how we get modern utopianism and the various brands of uniquely modern tyranny.

  21. Escoffier

    Nova

    Machiavelli was trying to destroy Christianity, no doubt about that, but I don’t think he was acting out of any self-interested motive. He gained nothing and risked much to launch his revolution. He did so out of a misplaced “humanity.”

    Once you accept Machiavelli’s premises that the Bible is false and that all classical concepts of the transcendent are false, then the world does indeed look almost exactly like Machiavelli says it does. His account of how life is actually lived is overwhelmingly plausible. He delivers, more or less, what he promises he will: security and plenty.

  22. Cail Corishev

    The reason for this, of course, is that a text cannot be an authority — it simply cannot serve that function, in and of itself, because by its nature a text is always subject to interpretation.

    That really is an odd concept when you think about it. And not just any text, but a text that was written centuries ago in other languages, of which we have none of the original copies. Even if you assume, as Catholics do, that it is the divinely inspired Word of God, we have no such guarantee about every translation and interpretation, which is clear from every argument that boils down to, “My bible says A which means B,” and, “My bible says C which means D.” Any text, whether it’s the service manual for your car or a Wikipedia page on the Civil War, is only as authoritative as the authority that stands behind it and says, “We wrote this, we vouch for its correctness, and if there are any questions about it, we can answer them.”

    Jesus founded a Church to carry on his work in this world after the end of his visible ministry here. A couple decades later, when the guys he appointed started getting old and realizing he might not return quite as quickly as they had thought, they started writing down some of the major events on his life and what followed. Over the next few centuries, popes and bishops of the Church worked out which books were considered canon, and they and their successors maintained it and worked on developing correct interpretations and theology from it. Scripture exists in the form it has today because men who could trace their appointments back to the Apostles — even corrupt ones who had illegitimate children and sold indulgences — said, over and over, “This is the Word and that isn’t.” If they had no authority, how do you trust the text they gave you?

  23. Dalrock

    @Escoffier

    I think it was inevitable that someone would attack the abuses of the institutional church. The church was crying out for reform. It was really, really bad. Rotten. More rotten, probably, than the worst institution in the modern West.

    What was not inevitable was the philosophic attack that occurred at EXACTLY the same time and that nominally shared the same concerns but that in reality was about something fundamentally different.

    It has been some time since I read Machiavelli, and you clearly know more about his writings than I, but it strikes me that he was as much a product of his age as he was an intellectual leader. The moral authority of all of Europe had taken a profoundly cynical attitude. Luther responded by trying to return to a moral view (however flawed he was in practice), and Machiavelli responded by saying out loud what the church was already demonstrating. Did Machiavelli really advance a new way of thinking, or articulate what the church had been teaching by example all of his life?

  24. Escoffier

    The question of writers/thinkers who are products of their time versus those who create their times, or who change the direction of subsequent thinking, is an important one. Certainly the former outnumber the latter, but there are more of the latter than modern intellectual discourse likes to admit. There are a lot of reasons for that, I think the two most important are the “historical sense,” the idea that all thought is essentially time-bound, and also the late modern liberal dislike of “great man” theories of history, which is itself the process of the historical sense. Events sort of unfold according to a process, they are not specifically moved by the specific actions of specific men.

    Machiavelli is definitely in the category of those who made his times rather than were shaped by them or was a product of them. He makes a few claims to novelty. In the very beginning of the Discourses, he says he is charting a new way, never tried by anyone. He will introduce “new modes and orders.” He compares himself to the great maritime explorers of his day. Near the middle of The Prince (Ch. 15) he says that he departs from the orders of others—he rejects all prior authority. This is the beginning of a section on morality and the indications are subtle but numerous that he is taking on both the Bible and Aristotle. He also a few times attacks “the writers” and even (once) “all writers.”

    Now, certainly it would be possible for someone like Nick to claim great novelty for himself out of a kind of vainglory and not really deliver—that is, he THOUGHT he could transcend his time but really he didn’t, that was just ego or delusion on his part. But, having spent many years checking this out, I believe his claims are wholly credible. He really did do something completely new.

    On your specific point, yes, attacking the institutional church was an obvious thing to do in his time. But he does not stop there. He goes beyond that to attack the faith. And, he does not recommend reform, as does Luther, but he says (somewhat obliquely, but it’s there) “the faith itself is the problem, the corruption in the institutions is just an effect, but a useful effect, because it provides an opening through which to attack the faith itself.” He takes for granted that the Bible is false, then he makes a political-rationalistic case for why the very tenets of the faith are bad for mankind (as he sees it).

    And, beyond this, he also attacks classical morality and metaphysics. Here his judgment is more complicated. It’s not so easy to say whether he thinks these concepts are simply false. He doesn’t quite say that they are. Several things are clear, though. He thinks classical morality (and Biblical for that matter) gets in the way of worldly success. “A man who makes a profession of good in all things must come to ruin among so many who are not good. So a prince needs to learn to be able not to be good, and use this or not use it according to necessity.” Second, he thinks the points of strength in classical morality and its conception of virtue has been weakened by its alliance with Christianity. The Augustinian critique of “resplendent vice” has had amazing staying power, so that now (in Nick’s time) the strength and virtue of someone like a Scipio is impossible and the greatest men of the age are men like St. Dominic and St. Francis. Third, he thinks that all classical concepts of transcendence—whether true or not—give aid and comfort to the enemy (Christianity). So even if teleology, formal and final causes, the primacy of the good, etc. are true in the final analysis of thought, even if they “worked” well in the ancient world, they proved to be “security holes” that allowed Christianity to take over the world. Hence they have to go. And they have to PRECISELY because they have so much in common with Christianity.

    So, every point in his argument past the critique of the institutional church was not the inevitable follow up to that critique. Luther, as should be obvious, shared the critique of the institutional church and then went in a completely different direction. Machiavelli’s “solution” to the same problem was wholly original. And, as noted, he saw the problem as being far deeper than just the corruption of the institutional church.

  25. Dalrock

    @Escoffier

    Events sort of unfold according to a process, they are not specifically moved by the specific actions of specific men.

    Just to clarify, this isn’t my argument. I very much do see the decisions and actions by individual men as being what drove history, but I’m arguing that both Luther and Machiavelli were reacting, and reacting I think we agree to something very real. Luther reacted by trying to return to a God centered view (however flawed his implementation), and Machiavelli reacted by suggesting we drop what he saw as the pretense of God. While the men themselves were likely remarkable, these two ideas in response to an all powerful church which had been selling indulgences and using a reign of terror to suppress dissent for hundreds of years aren’t at all surprising. The disconnect between the church’s words (claimed mission and purpose) and actions was astounding. Torturing dissenters could keep things under control for a while, but not forever. This couldn’t stand, and from this perspective Luther wanted to reclaim the mission and purpose, while Machiavelli proposed dropping the pretense of God while keeping the church’s end justifies the means philosophy. What can Machiavelli have possibly taught Christian Europe about ruthlessness that the RCC hadn’t taught by example (at that point) for hundreds of years?

  26. Dalrock

    Note: My original submission had formatting which doesn’t work here. I’ve resubmitted it with the correct tags for italics (em instead of i). Please delete the duplicate above.

    @Escoffier

    Events sort of unfold according to a process, they are not specifically moved by the specific actions of specific men.

    Just to clarify, this isn’t my argument. I very much do see the decisions and actions by individual men as being what drove history, but I’m arguing that both Luther and Machiavelli were reacting, and reacting I think we agree to something very real.

    Luther reacted by trying to return to a God centered view (however flawed his implementation), and Machiavelli reacted by suggesting we drop what he saw as the pretense of God. While the men themselves were likely remarkable, these two ideas in response to an all powerful church which had been selling indulgences and using a reign of terror to suppress dissent for hundreds of years aren’t at all surprising. The disconnect between the church’s words (claimed mission and purpose) and actions (selling indulgences while torturing and killing dissenters) was astounding. Torturing dissenters could keep things under control for a while, but not forever. This couldn’t stand, and from this perspective Luther wanted to reclaim the mission and purpose, while Machiavelli proposed dropping the pretense of God while keeping the church’s end justifies the means philosophy. What can Machiavelli have possibly taught Christian Europe about ruthlessness that the RCC hadn’t taught by example (at that point) for hundreds of years?

  27. Dalrock

    @Novaseeker

    The reason for this, of course, is that a text cannot be an authority — it simply cannot serve that function, in and of itself, because by its nature a text is always subject to interpretation. And because of that, there will be differences of interpretation. And because of those differences, human sin will creep in and breed corruption as one or the other interpretation tries to lord itself over the others on whatever basis it can manage — ranging from the mere power of persuasion to, much more commonly during this period, the use of the full arms of the state to repress dissenters from whatever textual interpretation was locally “approved”.

    While we are always subject to sin, a written text has an anchoring effect. Without it human authority over generations will create something wholly different via a sinful game of generational doctrinal telephone. This is why God gave the Israelites the written Law. After enough generations of the priests disregarding that Book of Law, the priests had become so used to disregarding it that eventually it was lost, and not just lost, but no one remembered that it had existed to be lost. Thus there is the incredible rediscovery of the Book of Law by a priest in the temple in 2 Kings 22. The temple was still there, and so were the priests, but the rest had been forgotten.

  28. Escoffier

    Yes, I didn’t mean to impute to you the idea that History is a process with a capital “H”, only to make the point that this remains one of the dominant ideas of our time, especially among intellectuals and those whom they educate, and that it (in part) explains the prevalent distrust/dismissal of any “great man” renderings of history.

    Now, most people will, out of sheer common sense if nothing else, affirm that of course a single man can have enormous influence on history. You don’t even need to read the past very carefully to see that. In fact, it takes a rather (pseudo-)“sophisticated” education to conclude the opposite, that apparently highly impactful figures such as Lenin or Hitler were mere cogs in the machinery of “History.”

    However, most people will pause when the claim to great influence, even era-defining influence, is made on behalf of a thinker/writer as opposed to a statesman, or general, or tyrant, or whatnot. It just sounds incredible to modern ears. When you take it further to claim that a handful of writers basically created the horizon within which subsequent centuries were lived, it sounds like insanity.

    Machiavelli himself recognizes the difficulty. He writes in a famous passage that “all the armed prophets conquered [or “won”] and all the unarmed ones were ruined.” Sounds reasonable until you think, but what of Christ, who was nothing if not an unarmed prophet? He sees himself as an unarmed prophet who will conquer through writing.

    That this is possible should be obvious through the example of Marx. Marx is derivative of Hegel, who was derivative of Kant, Rousseau and Spinoza, but Marx nonetheless laid out a wholly new teaching with a specific project in mind. Ironically, Marx is one of the most influential teachers of the idea that History is an inexorable process—yet his own teaching stands in gigantic refutation of that. Marx MADE communism. No Marx, no USSR and all the rest. That’s not to say there would not have been a Russian Revolution, but the inevitability of Communism, which Marx predicts, turned out to be false. Marx, not History, is the father of Communism.

    Machiavelli is a greater figure than Marx. Marx is ultimately derivative of Machiavelli. I hope to flesh this out in subsequent posts that Nova has asked me to write.

    But the basic point remains: Machiavelli’s thought and intentions and recommendations go way beyond any mere response to institutional corruption. It’s fair to call him “reactive’ in the sense that, had the world of his time not been so messed up, he might very well have not launched his project. Who can say? But he was not reactive in the sense that his project was solely or primarily a product of his times. It was highly original, which, again, I hope to show later.

    On the other specific points that you raise here, Machiavelli was not terribly original, to be sure. Atheism is as old as human thought and he made no theoretical contributions or “advances” there. The “evil teaching” of blood-iron-poison is also as old as human thought. Machiavelli’s contribution here was to be the first to ADVOCATE it, but as you note, there was no “news” in the substance he taught.

    I would say, however, that his response to the Inquisition etc. was somewhat original in that, unlike Luther (or anyone else at that time), Machiavelli is the first to trace what he called “pious cruelty” not to a deviation from the letter and spirit of the faith but to the faith itself, to the very principle of revelation.

  29. Dalrock

    @Escoffier

    Yes, I didn’t mean to impute to you the idea that History is a process with a capital “H”…

    Understood. I merely wanted to add that for clarity. I believe I understand your intent there.

    But the basic point remains: Machiavelli’s thought and intentions and recommendations go way beyond any mere response to institutional corruption. It’s fair to call him “reactive’ in the sense that, had the world of his time not been so messed up, he might very well have not launched his project. Who can say? But he was not reactive in the sense that his project was solely or primarily a product of his times. It was highly original, which, again, I hope to show later.

    I’ll defer to your greater knowledge of the man and his writings and look forward to your follow up posts.

  30. Joseph of Jackson

    “The reformation had an incredible effect on the world, beyond the condemnation of indulgences, as described in the post in part by Novaseeker….what of that?”

    I quoted Matamoros, not Novaseeker.

  31. imnobody00

    Well, I’m late to the party and about to sleep. I have enjoyed hugely the posts and comments by Nova and Escoffier. Thank you for sharing. I don’t think there is no room in the sphere for this kind of intellectual discussion. After all, the sphere has lots of blogs so anybody can write or read what is of interest to him.

    I guess Nova draws from “The unintended reformation”. I would like to ask Scoffier what book recommends to know about his thesis.

    Having read myself two books about the topic “the theological origins of modernity” and “god and reason in the middle ages”, it seems to me that Nova and Scoffier are talking about two sides of the same phenomenon. Out of the condemnation of 1277 of some scholastic theses, a new philosophy arose. It was the nominalism which rejected the concept of universals (such as “the good”) because it saw universals as limitation to the power of God (so you have the rejection of classic philosophy Escoffier talks about). Nominalism (whose founder was William de Ockam) won the intellectual debate in the Late Middle Ages, destroying the synthesis of reason and faith that scholasticism had produced. Before it, Christianity was rational. After it, God’s power was beyond reason and the Scripture trumped philosophy.

    Nominalism divided philosophy and Christianity. So a new non-Christian philosophy arose (Petrarch and Machiavelly). And a new non-philosophical and nominalist Christianity appeared In fact, most Luther’s teachers were Ockham’s disciples so the Reformation was nominalism for the masses.

  32. Escoffier

    The key books to contrast are Aristotle and Machiavelli. Especially Aristotle’s Ethics, politics and Metaphysics on the one hand, and Machiavelli’s Prince and Discourses on the other.

    Leave aside the Politics for now, though it’s very important. In the Ethics, Aristotle develops a moral teaching purely through reasoned investigation. It turns out to be very, very similar to the Biblical teaching (with some glaring exceptions, the chief being magnanimity). Aristotle’s morality in turn depends on his Metaphysics, because his morality is derived from the nature of man, which Aristotle sees very differently than the modern mechanistic idea of nature. In particular, the concepts of formal and final causes are decisive for rational morality. Without them, I don’t see how there can be a rational morality. But since I believe they are true, it all works out.

    Now, these books are very hard, especially the Metaphysics. The Ethics is much easier though not easy. Thankfully we have Aquinas’ commentaries on both that greatly help us to understand. Both have been translated into English and are in print.

  33. imnobody00

    Thank you, Escoffier. I guess I will start with Machiavelli and then Aquinas’ commentaries.

  34. Desiderius

    The common thread between Machiavelli and Luther was the recent invention of the printing press.

    Similar times now with the internet. Similar feel. This too shall pass.

    As usual, I agree with pretty much everything you say, but yet see some possibilities you may have missed.

    It is entirely possible that the secular is the flowering of the sacred, and thus those in the midst of great worldly achievement are the least in tune/in need of the spiritual. Franklin comes to mind, as does of course Churchill – the buttress of the church, supporting it from outside.

    In a time of cultural ascendence and achievement, the function of the sacred is naturally forgotten, even if its forms are followed out of habit. If we are indeed headed toward decline, as we may well be, the sacred too will then find its footing.

    Jesus is a tough bastard to kill.

  35. Desiderius

    Escoffier,

    Did you ever get around to reading Isaiah Berlin on Machiavelli? Are you familiar with Machiavelli in Hell by DeGrazia?

    You’re dead on about the problem of Probity within the sphere/society, but of course Churchianity suffers from the opposite problem. Not sure how to blame Old Nick for that one. I did hear the word “sin” in the pulpit for the first time in memory a couple weeks ago, so that’s a step.

  36. Escoffier

    I have read Berlin more than once, the first time nearly 20 years ago, that is assuming you are talking about his article “The Originality of Machiavelli,” which is the only Berlin piece on Nick that I know of. His central contention is correct: Machiavelli does not openly challenge the ontological/metaphysical distinction between good and bad, good and evil, etc. He accepts the distinction and then tells princes (and men in general) that they must be willing and able to enter into evil when “necessary.” This is the surface meaning of Prince 15 and of the “effectual truth.”

    However, Berlin misses the deeper strata in which Machiavelli does indeed challenge pre-modern metaphysics and, in effect, deny that “evil” is truly evil or bad or even that it exists. All he recognizes is necessity, which is the ground of judging the difference between “cruelty well used” and (e.g.) “pious cruelty.” This comes out most clearly by comparing the discussions in Prince 8, 17, 19 and 21.

    I would blame Nick for the lack of discussion of “sin,” for, because of his teaching that satisfying needs and wants is the only legitimate bases for action, and perhaps even for thought and, second, for his teaching that society (if not man) is perfectible.

    De Grazia is well written and entertaining but wrong in every conclusion.

  37. Desiderius

    “I would blame Nick for the lack of discussion of “sin,” for, because of his teaching that satisfying needs and wants is the only legitimate bases for action, and perhaps even for thought and, second, for his teaching that society (if not man) is perfectible.”

    As a fan of Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, the latter strikes me as perhaps the principle root of the problem. The idea of perfectibility is bad enough, but the idea that it can only be achieved by yielding one’s identity to the mass is where things get truly cancerous.

    One way to get back to the concept of sin, and thus combating it, could be through the increasing neurological understanding of the hindbrain/forebrain distinction. “The cure of souls” provides an answer for the “what was church for again?” question that has left the pews empty.

    “De Grazia is well written and entertaining but wrong in every conclusion.”

    My sense as well, although as with my namesake the modern/postmodern mind I believe has conveniently forgotten his piety – something De Grazia recovers. Piety is an underrated option for serious thinkers, especially would-be iconoclasts.

    I’ll reread the Berlin, as I recall there being more there than that.

  38. Escoffier

    Machiavelli’s piety is phony from beginning to end. Whenever you spot an instance of surface piety, there is always a blasphemy underneath. The most famous being the use of the Magnificat to imply that “God is a tyrant” in Discourses I 26, but that is hardly the worst. The worst is probably II 12 where Nick suggests that Jesus committed incest with Mary.

    I am conflicted about neuroscience. On the one hand, I appreciate how it often confirms many ancient truths and teachings that modernity has caused us to forget or to deny. E.g., feminism is increasingly under assault from science, which is a good thing. On the other hand, I fear the reductionist tendency of neuroscience to try to explain everything human in materialistic/deterministic terms. There is no free will, only brain particles aligning a certain way causing you to do X or not X. Choice is an illusion also produce by brain particles. Tom Wolfe, whom in every other respect I admire a great deal, appears to have bought into this completely. I highly recommend the following “counteractive”:

    http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/science-and-non-science-in-liberal-education

    And, finally, because we’re here, here’s one of NYC’s leading hipsters taking on feminism. Highly entertaining. The phrase “elephant graveyard of ovaries” is the finest I have come across in the last seven days at least.

    http://dailycaller.com/2013/10/23/godfather-of-hipsterdom-feminism-makes-women-miserable/

  39. Desiderius

    PrincipAL, of course.

    And piety as a decent enough cure for excessive probity. For the pious, despair is arrogance. cf. Denethor vs Gandalf the White (pious) in Tolkien (Fool’s Hope).

    “All he recognizes is necessity, which is the ground of judging the difference between ‘cruelty well used’ and (e.g.) ‘pious cruelty.’ This comes out most clearly by comparing the discussions in Prince 8, 17, 19 and 21.”

    And I think Berlin would say that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence (of criteria other than necessity), and I would agree since there is much of use to use in what Berlin claims Machiavelli is actually saying.

    Here’s the passage from Berlin that I had in mind:

    Let me try to make this clearer. It is commonly said, especially by those who follow Croce, that Machiavelli divided politics from morals – that he recommended as politically necessary courses which common opinion morally condemns: e.g. treading over corpses for the benefit of the state. Leaving aside the question of what was his conception of the state, and whether he in fact possessed one, it seems to me that this is a false antithesis.

    For Machiavelli the ends which he advocates are those to which he thinks wise human beings, who understand reality, will dedicate their lives. Ultimate ends in this sense, whether or not they are those of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, are what is usually meant by moral values. What Machiavelli distinguishes is not specifically moral from specifically political values; what he achieves is not the emancipation of politics from ethics or religion, which Croce and many other commentators regard as his crowning achievement; what he institutes is something that cuts deeper still – a differentiation between two incompatible ideals of life, and therefore two moralities.

    One is the morality of the pagan world: its values are courage, vigour, fortitude in adversity,
    public achievement, order, discipline, happiness, strength, justice, above all assertion of one’s proper claims and the knowledge and power needed to secure their satisfaction; that which for a Renaissance reader Pericles had seen embodied in his ideal Athens, Livy had found in the old Roman Republic, that of which Tacitus and Juvenal lamented the decay and death in their own time.

    These seem to Machiavelli the best hours of mankind and, Renaissance humanist that he is, he wishes to restore them. Against this moral universe (moral or ethical no less in Croce’s than in the traditional sense, that is, embodying ultimate human ends however these are conceived) stands in the first and foremost place, Christian morality. The ideals of Christianity are charity, mercy, sacrifice, love of God, forgiveness of enemies, contempt for the goods of this world, faith in the life hereafter, belief in the salvation of the
    individual soul as being of incomparable value – higher than, indeed wholly incommensurable with, any social or political or other terrestrial goal, any economic or military or aesthetic consideration. Machiavelli lays it down that out of men who believe in such ideals, and practise them, no satisfactory human community, in his Roman sense, can in principle be constructed.

    It is not simply a question of the unattainability of an ideal because of human imperfection, original sin, or bad luck, or ignorance, or insufficiency of material means. It is not, in other words, the inability in practice on the part of ordinary human beings to rise to a sufficiently high level of Christian virtue (which may, indeed, be the inescapable lot of sinful men on earth) that makes it, for him, impracticable to establish, even to seek after, the good Christian state.

    It is the very opposite: Machiavelli is convinced that what are commonly thought of as the central Christian virtues, whatever their intrinsic value, are insuperable obstacles to the building of the kind of society that he wishes to see; a society which, moreover, he assumes that it is natural for all normal men to want – the kind of community that, in
    his view, satisfies men’s permanent desires and interests. If human beings were different from what they are, perhaps they could create an ideal Christian society.

    But he is clear that human beings would in that event have to differ too greatly from men as
    they have always been; and it is surely idle to build for, or discuss the prospects of, beings who can never be on earth; such talk is beside the point, and only breeds dreams and fatal
    delusions. [i.e. pretty lies].

    What ought to be done must be defined in terms of what is practicable, not imaginary;
    statecraft is concerned with action within the limits of human possibility, however wide;
    men can be changed, but not to a fantastic degree. To advocate ideal measures, suitable only for angels, as previous political writers seem to him too often to have done, is visionary
    and irresponsible and leads to ruin.”

  40. Desiderius

    And I would say that if there indeed must be a bright-line antithesis between the two value systems, then Machiavelli is exactly correct. It is not scripture, however, or the entirety of the Christian hermeneutical tradition that has determined that such an antithesis must be so. It was the churchmen (sic) in Machievelli’s day, and our own, who have decided to define their beliefs in direct opposition to the “pagan” values outlined by Berlin, which, not coincidentally might be better termed “masculine” values.

    This is almost exactly Moldbug’s Quakerization of Christian values, so prominent not only within the post-Christian Cathedral but just as much within Churchianity, mainline or evangelical branch, as Dalrock has amply demonstrated. It is little more than idolatry (again, Moldbug’s nails it in noticing the sacralization of Hitler-opposition). We are to follow Christ, not merely flee his opposite. Having done so, we’ve made a mess of even that, fleeing manliness itself.

    I’m not sure Old Nick is the droid you’re looking for.

  41. Escoffier

    My comments are, for the first time, being caught in moderation.

    Anyway, Berlin does not see the extent of Nick’s radicalism. E.g., he takes too seriously Nick’s surface praise of Rome and antiquity, which pervades the Discourses, but misses all the ways in which Nick takes it all back as the book progresses. He begins to criticize Livy openly in I 58 and then gets even harsher at II 1, where he throws Plutarch into the mix. By the end of the book he has cast aside every conceviable ancient authority (including Tacitus) on the alleged superiority of the ancients to the moderns.

    Of course he does himself consider the ancients superior to the moderns (his “moderns” benig our “medieval Christians”). But he consideres the ancients fundamentally flawed because, after all, they lost to the Christians. So, as the book progresses, we see him increasingly criticizing Rome, sometimes explicitly, someitmes implicitly, e.g., by retelling Livian stories and changing details to make the Romans seem wiser and more prudent than they actually were.

    Machiavelli is recommending something wholly new, not a return. It’s couched in terms of a return at the beginning for rhetorical purposes, but the newness is fundamental.

    In the end Berlin is better than most Machiavelli scholars who are most prominent today (Viroli, Skinner, Pocock) but still does not arrive at the true Nick. He ends by excusing Nick’s immorality and radicalism (not to say nihilism, but it’s close) and so sides with those who see Nick merely as a scientist or disinterested observer. Ironically, that’s what Nick accused the classics of being. He saw himself as an activist-philosopher, the first in history.

  42. Desiderius

    “Berlin does not see the extent of Nick’s radicalism.”

    No, he just sees it in (slightly, actually, you overstate the degree of difference) different terms than you do. The whole point of the essay is the radical nature of Machiavelli’s contribution.

    “He ends by excusing Nick’s immorality and radicalism (not to say nihilism, but it’s close) and so sides with those who see Nick merely as a scientist or disinterested observer.”

    This is explicitly contradicted in the essay (the pdf is available online and is well worth the quick reread), indeed in the passage quoted above. There is nothing to “excuse” in Berlin’s mind, as Nick is not immoral, he is just committed to a different set of morals than the churchmen of his day, and ours’ (as are you, I might point out, and a good thing too).

    Keep in mind that neither Berlin nor either of us is in any way a moral relativist. There are better and worse moral systems, and the system Berlin describes Machiavelli advocating, the “Pagan” values, strikes me as more consonant with Natural Law than the banal Quakerization of Christian morality advocated by today’s Churchian/Post-Churchian Cathedral. Suicide is the most unnatural act and not coincidentally the gravest sin.

    Likewise, Berlin explicitly refutes the “Nick as merely scientist school.” That he was, and a good one – willing to cut through the bullshit in which his age was drowning (again, like ours’), but he did so with anything but disinterest. The whole point of the essay is making the exact nature of that interest clear.

    Perhaps not being a conservative, I’m not as offended by Nick’s temerity in venturing something new under the sun, but whatever one’s temperament, striking at Nick seems likely to be as fruitful as going after Roissy.

  43. Escoffier

    First, if advocating theft, murder, public execution of innocents, conquest for private gain, lying, cheating, etc. does not constitute immorality, then there is no immorality. And no morality. Machiavelli does not offer “a different set of morals.” He attacks morality itself as too weak to deal with the world as it is. So it is indeed an excuse to say “Nick is not immoral.” Worse than an excuse, it’s false and untrue to Nick’s thought. He knew what he was doing. He would snicker at those in our time who make excuses for his evil. He would snicker in part because he would see that as a sign of his complete and total victory. Only after the revolution in thought that he set in motion was completed could men read his books and no longer be shocked, no longer

    In his time, and I would say still in ours, there were only two tenable, non-contradictory sources of morality: the revealed word of God, and the natural right teaching of classical philosophy. Or, to simplify, the Bible and Aristotle’s Ethics. Machiavelli takes dead aim at both. He does not replace them with a new morality but with the “effectual truth” (P 15) which seeks to teach men how to deal with necessity and conquer fortune or chance in ways that answer to human necessities, or to be more precise, to human wants and needs.

    Or to put it another way: classical philosophy is normative. It teaches that there is an “is” and an “ought” and that the “is” most truly is because of its “ought.” That is, first, a thing is defined as what it is at the highest level by reference to its ought. So is the true man just any man, the man on the street, “Joe Sixpack”, or is the true man the best man, the man with the most highly developed of those faculties that are peculiar to man? Or, to use another example, if you have a basket of tomatoes, which are most truly tomatoes, the misshapen and rotten ones, or the perfectly formed and ripe ones?

    In the “class” sense, they are all tomatoes and all men; that is, they all equally belong to the class. In the “standard” sense, only those that truly live up to the standard are truly the thing they claim to be or aspire to be. This distinction was at the heart of ancient medieval philosophy. Machiavelli discards it. To him, there is only class, not standard. What most men want most of the time, society and politics should be rearranged to deliver. To the extent that traditional morality is conducive to the goal, use it. To the extent that it is not, violate or ignore it. Human things being in motion and given the ineluctable power of chance, morality and immorality will have to be used or not used depending on circumstances in perpetuity. There is no new morality, just a recognition of the failures of the old morality, and a new willingness to violate it when necessary according to the new ends set for man.

    “Keep in mind that neither Berlin nor either of us is in any way a moral relativist.” Berlin may not think of himself as such, but that is where his though inexorably leads. It is where Nick’s thought inexorably leads. Nearly every great philosopher post-Machiavelli, starting with Hobbes, has tried to restore some form of justice, to find a new ground for morality, but without repudiating Machiavelli’s initial repudiation of the Bible and the classics, and they all failed. And here we are.

    Nick does not, except superficially, recommend “Pagan values,” the latter of course being a word he never uses. He does recommend certain pagan virtues, but not all of them, as Prince 15 shows. First, he gives us a list of 11 pairs of “qualities” that he pointedly declines to call “virtues” (despite the fact he uses the word virtù or a variant 70 times in the book). 11 is the number of moral virtues in Aristotle’s Ethics. Then he elides the first two pairs in a parenthetical, making ten pairs. Ten Commandments, get it? In Ch 15 he uses virtù once, to say that sometimes something APPEARS to be virtue when in fact it leads to ruin.

    One of the keys to understanding Machiavelli is to trace the way the definition of virtue evolves as the book progresses. This is seen mostly clearly in the discussion of Agathocles in P 8 and of Hannibal in 17. Part of the new definition of virtù is indeed certain pagan virtues, but certainly not Aristotle’s list of MORAL virtues, of which only one even appears on Machiavelli’s list (liberality) and in the chapter which explicitly discusses that topic, NM demolishes the traditional understanding of liberality and, as it were, transforms stinginess into a virtue.

    The point is not to be offended by Nick. But one who does not start from there will never understand Nick because his own thinking will have been unknowingly corrupted by Nick. The point is to trace back the errors of our time to their source. There are two sources, both of which originate with Nick. The first is the propaganda war that early modern philosophy launched on religion and won in a rout. The second is the more subtle attack on classical morality and metaphysics which undercut all appeals to nature as a moral standard or any rational appeal to something higher than the material world and man’s material wants in the here and now.

    Only by understanding the initial argument which made the initial case for the break, can we think our way out of the narrow confines of late modernity.

  44. Desiderius

    Looks like I’ll need to go back to the original sources then.

    At first blush, your take strikes me as perfect being the enemy of the good, or at least less bad.

    “There are two sources, both of which originate with Nick. The first is the propaganda war that early modern philosophy launched on religion and won in a rout. The second is the more subtle attack on classical morality and metaphysics which undercut all appeals to nature as a moral standard or any rational appeal to something higher than the material world and man’s material wants in the here and now.”

    (1) If this were in fact so, then why is religion still with us at all? God has been proclaimed dead many times before, and yet our current Progressive Plague was given birth to endless choruses of Onward Christian Soldiers.It seems more accurate to say that the secular and sacred ebb and flow in prominence. Strauss and Howe’s generational cycles have displayed remarkable predictive power.

    Stiff-necked, Ruin, Wilderness, Faith, Triumph, Plenty, Stiff-Necked.

    Rinse. Repeat.

    (2) Which is it? Nature or something higher than nature? As for this blithe dismissal of “material” “wants”: do you disagree with Berlin than Machiavelli’s primary concern was with creating a viable polity among his own people that could stand against the domination of the Cathedral of his day? You know, the Pope that sent assassins to murder his own leaders in Church on Easter Sunday all the while joining you in condemning as “immoral” anyone who took meaningful measures against him?

    Not coincidentally, we get to enjoy similar flights of brazen hypocrisy from those who dominate us today. In aiming to reverse that, I’m more likely to set my sights on Sixtus’s apologists than on one who sought to resist him and his.

  45. Escoffier

    1) Religion is, and is not, still with us. I mean this in several senses.

    First, at the more superficial level, faith was dealt a devastating blow by Machiavelli and his successors (Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, the Philosophes, and so on). They made it increasingly untenable, or better to say, simply embarrassing for an “intelligent” educated person to be a believer. So, by the time you get to the second half of the 18th century, basically the entire intellectual elite of the west is atheistic (with America being the great exception, and not a total exception, either). They did not REFUTE revelation. They simply A) laughed it out of court and B) kept on making advancements / producing stuff that seemed to contradict it.

    The result was an ongoing decline in faith virtually everywhere so that today, in Europe, the very heart of Christendom, you have about the least religious people who have ever lived. Here in the US, we are unquestionably less religious and more materialistic and hedonistic than we as a people (to the extent that we still are a people) have ever been. So, while the goal was to kill off religiosity, and especially Christianity, entirely—they didn’t accomplish that. I agree. But they certainly wounded it deeply and bled it white!

    Second, they did completely destroy the Christian metaphysics that ruled the world from (say) the 1,200 years from Augustine to Renaissance. The “worldview” that built the cathedrals and maintained order and community and family and the “market square” and all that was just swept away. They were completely successful there. If you want to be cynical about it, you would say that they vacuum cleaned out the interior content of Christianity and left the “rules” standing which certain men choose to adhere to as morality, but without the true top-to-bottom inner conviction that drove the Christians of the Middle Ages.

    The morality is not nothing, the more people who adhere to it the better, and in these corrupt times I will take what I can get.

    Third, the practical effect of 1+2 is that religion has been in retreat, on the defensive, in the West for 500 years. Religion must now always justify itself before the tribunal of “science,” and even when it can science often simply does not accept what it has to say. It has been driven completely from the public square. In the modern West, the Christian is not exactly persecuted (though a case can be made for a certain level of harassment, especially in rich blue areas). But he is an outlier, analogous to how out of step with the times was his ancient forebear in early imperial Rome.

    2) The true nature is a nature in which the high and the low, the ordinary and the extraordinary, each have a place. The true nature encompasses both the high and the low (and everything in between).

    “Science” and the “fact value” distinction”—both traceable to Machiavelli—effectively deny the existence of the high, or else reduce it to a “value” by which is meant merely a preference. There is no longer, in the thought of our time, any recognition of a rationally valid “ought” derived from understanding the nature of the thing (say, man).

    Actually, modernity is incoherent on this point. Nearly everyone will recognize some libertarian baseline of “thou shalt not.” That is, if it draws blood or picks a pocket, it’s verboten. (Unless government does it …) Even this rock bottom standard for morality fails on its own terms. Because it cannot answer the question “Why are these limits good?” Or, “What is the rational principle on which you base these limits?” The best people can do is come up with something like “freedom” and assert that it’s wrong to impinge on others’ freedom. Question still begged: why is freedom good, much less the highest good?

    Classical philosophy ultimately always leads back to the question of the good and the primacy of the good, which indeed it never truly “answers” in a way that would satisfy modern science (to say the least), but it does answer it, at least provisionally, and in part through the answer that the investigation is itself the highest possible answer. Machiavelli is better than the later moderns because he is still normative: he teaches an “ought,” but a new ought, a lower ought, an instrumentalist ought. It’s lower than the classical teaching but higher than nearly all of what follows.

    I do disagree with Berlin that Machiavelli’s primary concern was a response to his own time. Machiavelli’s primary concern was to speak to all time, to set a new standard or basis for thought and action for all time. The crisis of his time, he thought, was merely an epiphenomenon of the failures of ancient philosophy, which were revealed by its takeover by Christianity. In other words, the institutional corruption of the Church of his day was a second or third order problem in his view.

  46. Escoffier

    Oh, yes, the Strauss-Howe “Generations” thesis is a restatement of the Classcial teaching on the Cycle of Regimes.

  47. Escoffier

    Or, to make this (hopefully) clearer, you wrote “There are better and worse moral systems”.

    I agree with that. But it implies a standard that transcends each individual moral system and moral systems simply, except in the case of the best or true moral system. This standard, if it is to be coherent and not succumb to contradiction, must be independent of men’s will. It must exist in itself, of itself, or “itself by itself” (to use Socrates’ phrase to describe the “ideas”). We didn’t create it and we can’t change it, we can only find it, or have it explained to us.

    Whether you attribute this standard to God or nature or to both does not change its essential character, at least not with respect to the points described above.

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