Past and Present

Jewish World Review June 7 , 1999 / 23 Sivan, 5759

What Machiavelli (A Secret Jew?) Learned From Moses

By Michael Ledeen

WAS MACHIAVELLI Jewish? Well, it all depends on what the word "Jewish" means. Certainly, he was not openly Jewish. But then, there was every reason to conceal one's Jewishness, or even sympathy for the Jews, in Renaissance Florence, especially during the years when the Medicis were driven into exile by the Florentine state for which Machiavelli worked as Secretary of the Republic.

In those years, the Jews of Florence were living under an expulsion order, which was, however, suspended thanks to a massive loan from the Jewish community. Perennially strapped for cash, the Republic was slow in repaying the money, and by the time they had paid it off the Medicis -- who welcomed Jewish partnership in their banking activities -- were at the gates, soon to resume their control over the city.

So we might not know the whole story about Machiavelli's religious convictions.

If Machiavelli was a believing Catholic, he was certainly a very unorthodox one. His tirades against the corruption of the Church of Rome were every bit as virulent as those of his northern contemporary, Martin Luther, and he went much further than Luther in condemning what he saw as the potentially fatal consequences of Christian doctrine for good government and the preservation of virtue.

EconophoneMachiavelli tirelessly denounced the soft, forgiving, turn-the-other-cheek themes of Christianity, and called instead for a return to older, pre-Christian values of manly virtue, courage and a willingness to do the hard, sometimes even evil things that are required of great leaders, a theme that is found explicitly in several Mishnaic lessons, as well as implicitly in the Torah.

You will search in vain throughout Machiavelli's writings for a kind word about Jesus, Mary or the Apostles. Instead you will find praise for ancient Roman and Spartan kings, generals and Caesars. Occasionally there are bows in the direction of contemporary figures, most famously Cesare Borgia, hardly a model of Christian virtue.

But above all, you will find praise for the greatest of all Jewish leaders, Machiavelli's greatest hero, Moses.

He reveres Moses because Moses was the leader of both a new religion and a new state, and spoke directly to G-d, thereby placing him atop the list of history's greatest leaders.

Machiavelli tells us that Moses was "a sheer executor of the things ordained by G-d," which might appear to diminish his greatness as a leader. But no, others knew what G-d wanted of them, but fell short, while Moses must be revered for "that grace that made him worthy of speaking with G-d."

Many are called, but few are able to respond.

Moreover, Moses is the highest example of the most successful kind of leader: a visionary who is willing and able to use force to accomplish his mission. Machiavelli has little time for martyrs; he wants winners, and he knows, in the words of one of his most famous phrases, that "all the armed prophets won, the disarmed went to their ruin."

Moses was the greatest of the armed prophets.

At G-d's behest, Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and across the desert toward the Promised Land. He left them briefly to climb Mount Sinai, where he received G-d's sacred commandments. Descending the mountain, he saw with horror the idolatrous orgy around the golden calf. He smashed the tablets, and asked Aaron for an explanation, to which Aaron replied, "Let not thy anger wax hot; thou knowest the people, that they are set on evil."

"Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said: 'Whoso is on the L-rd's side, let him come unto me.' And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. And he said unto them: 'Thus saith the L-rd, the G-d of Israel: Put ye every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.' And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about 3,000 men."

"Whoever reads the Bible sensibly," Machiavelli tells us, "will see that Moses was forced, were his laws and institutions to go forward, to kill numberless men." Machiavelli doesn't pretend that the means used by Moses were good. He knows that somewhere in the shards of the shattered tablets it says, "Thou shalt not murder." He readily admits that the means are evil, but he insists that they are the only ones that work in such dire circumstances. If Moses had said to the idolators, "Let us reason together," he would have failed. In these circumstances, to do good -- to adhere to the Sermon on the Mount -- is to guarantee the triumph of evil.

Just as the quest for peace at any price invites war, and, worse than war, defeat and domination by your enemies, so good acts sometimes advance the triumph of evil. There are circumstances when only doing evil ensures the victory of a good cause.

Machiavelli is commonly taken to be saying that the ends always justify the means, but he does not believe that. Quite the contrary. Machiavelli is not telling you to be evil, he is simply stating the facts: If you lead, there will be occasions when you will have to do unpleasant, even evil things, or be destroyed. If you are lucky, these occasions will be few and far between (a leader who never had to do such things would be fortunate indeed).

For the rest, he wants you to be and do good, convinced as he is that the proper mission of great leaders is to achieve the common good, to fashion good laws and enforce them with good arms and good religion. He wants you to achieve glory and goodness for all your people, and thus for yourself. Only such an accomplishment is worth the energies and passions of great men and women.

But it isn't easy.

"States are not held with paternosters in hand," as Cosimo Medici once remarked. Moses' revolution could not have succeeded if, as he himself preferred, he had led by example alone. Moses led the Israelites out of bondage, guided them through the wilderness by divine light and nourished them with manna falling from heaven. To no avail! No sooner had he left them to their own devices, they demanded new G-ds to worship (there's that nasty impulse again). The execution of the sinners was necessary to confirm Moses' -- and G-d's --- authority.

After receiving the Commandments and crushing the heretics of the golden calf, he continued on to the borders of the Promised Land. There, at G-d's instructions, Moses organized an espionage mission headed by Joshua and Caleb, in preparation for the invasion and occupation of the country. After 40 days the spies returned. The good news was that the land was beautiful and bountiful; the bad news was that the inhabitants were big and strong, impressively armed and well fortified. All the spies, save Joshua and Caleb, argued it was suicidal to attack, and the vast majority of the people agreed. Fearing they were about to be destroyed in battle, they turned against Moses. "And they said one to another: 'Let us appoint a captain, and let us return into Egypt.'" Recently freed from Egyptian slavery, the Israelites nonetheless demanded a return to bondage rather than fight for freedom.

This was the beginning of a vast revolt against Moses, a revolt that spread to every tribe and involved the most powerful and distinguished leaders as well as members of the priestly hierarchy, even Aaron himself. Ingratitude, Machiavelli ruefully observes in a poem, is the daughter of Greed and Suspicion, nursed in the arms of Envy, and it has been an essential part of human nature ever since Adam and Eve ungratefully ate the apple and departed Eden. Moses' followers were suitably ungrateful. Some accused Moses of abuse of power, while others denounced him for incompetence. As at Sinai, the participants were ruthlessly punished. Ringleaders were killed, and G-d sentenced the remainder of the adults to die wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, a year for each of the days of the espionage mission. Of the adults, only Joshua and Caleb were permitted to enter the Promised Land and live there in freedom.

The revolt against Moses in the name of slavery is one of the most powerful of the "infinite examples" to which Machiavelli refers in order to show the difficulties in leading to freedom a people that has become accustomed to living in slavery, a fundamental Jewish theme that is as important to us today as it was in the Italian Renaissance. As Machiavelli puts it, "It is as difficult to make a people free that is resolved to live in servitude, as it is to subject a people to servitude that is determined to be free."

How, then, do we achieve the mentality of free men and women, and not of slaves?

The Jews, even under Moses' leadership, could not overcome the slave mentality of those who grew up under Egyptian tyranny. To create a free nation, the entire generation had to be obliterated in the wilderness. A new generation, raised in freedom, fulfilled the mission.

Machiavelli's Passover sermon bears repeating, especially nowadays when our educational establishment stresses the similarities of all human beings above the fundamentally important differences that derive from drastically different histories. Machiavelli reminds us that the capacity of people for freedom is intimately linked to their history. Just what you would expect from somebody meditating on the fate of the Jews, expelled from Spain in 1492, the same year Lorenzo the Magnificent died in Florence, just 21 years before the writing of "The Prince." Europe was awash in migrating Jews, some headed over land towards Central Europe, where the shtetl would be founded, others by sea across the northern Mediterranean to such centers of Jewish culture as Livorno and Venice. Machiavelli was surely in contact with these wandering Jews.

Listen to his political philosophy, and you will hear the Jewish music.

Unlike the great thinkers of antiquity who inspired so much of Renaissance thought, Machiavelli denied that we have some kind of built-in political instinct. Aristotle insisted that man is a political animal; Machiavelli scoffs at this naivete. The good society, even a glorious one, can certainly be created, but it will not be the outcome of man's instincts.

Left to our own devices, we will forge the golden calf. At the first sign of trouble, we will demand to be taken back to Egypt.

Thus, one of Machiavelli's many paradoxes: It may well be that only a tyrant can lead us to freedom, and to the creation of a good and just society. Obviously, this imperative does not come from human instinct; our instincts are not nearly so noble. The goal of achieving the common good comes from the highest authority: G-d Himself. The act "most gratifying to G-d" is one that benefits one's country, and Machiavelli is quite outspoken about the best form of government.

Despite his infamy as the tutor of dictators, he favors republics, and he does so because he knows that a single ruler is more likely to be corrupted by wealth and power than the people, who will generally have less of each, and the single ruler will be more likely to advance his own interests than those of the whole state.

There have been great single leaders, and there are times and places when only a single leader can lead the people to glory, but it is a risky enterprise, because tyranny is the worst government.

These are not ideas that abound in the Christian liturgy. The notion that G-d wants us, above all, to devote our lives to the creation of the good society is, however, a very Jewish idea. Medieval and early modern Christianity relegated the accomplishment of justice to the hereafter. In this life, the important thing was fulfilling the sacraments. Insofar as politics was a religious concern, it was dominated by the notion that man should "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's," and give G-d his due in other activities.

Machiavelli will have none of this, insisting that achieving glory for one's country is the single act most pleasing to G-d.

So: Was Machiavelli Jewish? Well, maybe not entirely, but certainly quite Jewish, maybe even very Jewish. If his great contemporary, Christopher Columbus, was most likely a secret Jew, if many crew members of the Niņa, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were baptized on the gangplank, if, a century later, a majority of the founders of the Jesuit order were recent, probably opportunistic converts from Judaism, the notion that Machiavelli might have embraced much of Judaism is not so far-fetched.

Was he Jewish? Well, let's say he was at least kinda Jewish, and maybe even very Jewish.

JWR contributor Michael Ledeen holds the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute. He is author of "Machiavelli on Modern Leadership", just published by St. Martin's Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here. This article was reprinted with permission of the Forward, where it originally appeared.


©1999, Michael Ledeen