Before he published the Prince, Machiavelli published the seducer. Before he published a masterpiece of political philosophy, he published a comedy.
The Mandragola (The Mandrake) tells the story of Callimaco, a handsome young man and seducer of women. He hears about the Florentine beauty Lucrezia and begins a conspiracy to seduce her. The problem is, she’s married. She’s married to a wealthy old man who can’t get her pregnant and they need a son to maintain their political position.
Callimaco shows up, disguised as a doctor, and convinces her husband to give her a mandrake potion to increase her fertility. The problem is, Callimaco tells the old man, the first man who sleeps with her after she takes the potion will die. They decide to find an unwitting dupe to have sex with her. Callimaco, in different disguise, becomes the dupe, much to his delight. And Lucrezia’s. She at first was hesitant, but she relented and, convinced it was divine providence, takes Callimaco as her lover indefinitely.
Everything turns out well. The old man gets his male heir and Callimaco gets Lucrezia.
Machiavelli: Logic Trumps Morality
That’s good, right? It all makes sense. The old man gets his heir. Lucrezia gets her son and stable marriage and a young lover. Callimaco gets laid.
The problem is, it’s adultery. It’s prohibited by the Sixth Commandment.
But there were earthly ambitions at stake: Callimaco’s lust and the old man’s societal position. If a rational plan—a design to accomplish an earthly goal—is impeded by an old legend from Mt. Sinai, the old legend must be ignored.
The Mandragola was practically a bizarro medieval morality play.
The Prince: Politics Trumps Morality
Shift to the Prince.
The same mental dynamic is in play.
There is a clear earthly ideal: aggrandizement of one’s country and its rulers. All efforts must be rationalized from that ideal. Even the concept of “virtue” shifts and turns in Machiavelli’s hands, depending on how a supposed vice or virtue must be used to accomplish the ideal. It sometimes means traditional notions. It sometimes means whatever advances the ruler and his country, no matter how devious.
All those other things from Mt. Sinai, like prohibitions against murder, stealing, and lying?
They get sloughed off by the good prince, just as long as the prince is furthering his and his country’s interest in the process.
Machiavelli: The First Product of The Great Fatigue
Machiavelli (1469-1527) lived just before Descartes and Bacon (the builders of modernity’s two-lane freeway). He lived as Christendom was nearing its final stage before crumbling; he lived to see the first years of the Reformation.
He was born just after the Roman Empire completely fell (1453) and shortly before Columbus showed everyone that elementary geography lessons had always been wrong.
He lived in that final stage I’ve written about here, here, and here. After 200 years of upheaval and catastrophes, both physical and mental, European was strung out. It was The Great Fatigue.
The Great Fatigue first manifested itself in literature through this proto-modernist.
He latched onto an ideal—here, the ideal of the perfect ruler who advances his country—and explained how to reach that ideal. For the good prince, all other considerations and rules are ignored if they don’t fit into the logic that flows from the ideal. Murder and dishonesty? Those are fine, as long as they’re logically fitted into the ideals of promoting the ruler and his country.
Adultery? That would be fine, too, as long as it furthers a rational ideal, like it did in the Mandragola.
Modernity Rejects Irrationalism and Things That Seem Irrational: Traditional Norms
If you dig to Machiavelli’s roots, you get to the real problem with rationalism: It rejects irrationalism.
More precisely, it rejects as irrational anything that conflicts with a Rationalist Ideal. If an old man needs a son and the traditional prohibition against adultery thwarts it, then the traditional prohibition against adultery needs to be eliminated. It’s stupid to uphold the archaic prohibition when there’s a greater good (Rationalist Ideal) at stake.
By eliminating the prohibition of adultery, which was simply irrational in this situation, the old man was freed to attain the ideal of a male heir.
The loosening of a myriad of irrational norms (customs) that had developed over the centuries became the drumbeat of freedom in the early stages of modernity, greatly celebrated by the rationalizing likes of Voltaire and the Enlightenment, who never missed an opportunity to attack a norm whose roots were so deep and intricate they could neither see nor understand it.
In the modern world, that means everything that doesn’t fit into the logical scheme that flows from Rationalist Ideals is rejected, often vehemently by people who aren’t aware that they’re rationalizing from Ideals that have little more substance than what their minds have told them.
We Act Like Machiavelli
I kind of like Machiavelli. He was, as I said, a proto-modern. He came early enough in the game that he knew what he was doing. He knew he was promoting ideals that weren’t consistent with traditional rules, hence his use of the word “virtue” in different ways, almost as if he were playing with—taunting?—traditional authorities.
The real problem is, as modernity marched on, Machiavelli’s approach became implicit. After Descartes explained why ideals should be celebrated and revered, everyone become Machiavellian, but they increasingly didn’t even know it.
They increasingly discarded norms and customs in pursuit of their Rationalist Ideals, but completely ignorant that they had even embraced Rationalist Ideals.
Rationalist Ideals Tend to Grow into Gods
And what are some of these Rationalist Ideals?
They can be many things. They might be stilted worldviews, like those that ensnare G.K. Chesterton’s maniac. They might be privileged poles in a new system of binaries that emanate from a new logocentrism, in the terminology of Jacques Derrida.[i]Such things restrict our thinking and our existence. They limit our development.
And sometimes, they morph into a type of rationalist or secular religion. They become “ersatz religions,” in the terminology of Eric Voegelin. In light of the Cartesian tendency to elevate Rationalist Ideals to lofty status, they tend to attain deity status in our rationalist pods.
And when they do, there’s serious trouble.
“For when Gods fight among themselves, men have to die.” Etienne Gilson, God and Philosophy (Yale), 138.
[i]Derrida helpfully decried the logocentric thinking that was modernity, which he deemed hypocritical. Moderns scoffed at the Tao, then proceeded to continue to embrace Tao substitutes. Derrida hated all “logocentrism” and the system of binaries that emanate from it. More on Derrida later.