Machiavelli's Demonic Closure

[. . . . In the year after the dedication of the Principe ,] the Reformation began. Christianity was not quite as dead as Machiavelli assumed. Nevertheless, one cannot speak without qualification of an error in judgment. Precisely when Machiavelli judged, he was very much aware of the possibilities of Christianity. He understood quite clearly that Christianity is living by reformation; and he knew about the historical function of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic in this respect. He also had seen Savonarola; and as long as he judged, he knew that another, and more effective, Savonarola might appear any time. As the psychological source of his mistake we have indicated the trauma of 1494 [the invasion of Italy by France, Spain, and the Germans] and the experience of the città corrotta that surrounded him. But, rather obviously, the misjudgment had its ultimate source in the spiritual life of Machiavelli.

His myth of nature, and his faith of virtù and the onore del mondo, was not simply a “theory”; it was the expression of his genuine pagan religiousness. But the varieties of religiousness, while fundamentally possible at all times, have also their historical time; . . . Once Christianity is in the world and has formed a civilization, one cannot simply turn around and be a pagan—and a pre-Platonic one at that. The call has gone to all; and Machiavelli cannot be excepted. In its historical place, the paganism of Machiavelli is not the “people’s myth” that Plato strove to overcome; it is a lack of faith in the Christian sense, a demonic closure of the soul against transcendental reality.

This closure must also guide our judgment with regard to his politics. The creed of the spirito italiano and the onore del mondo is not a Hellenic creed of the polis; it is a rejection of the transcendental meaning of history and a reversion to the tribalism of the particular community.

The ardor of the apocalypse that burns in the Principe diminishes in the later work of Machiavelli. . . . . The vehemence of passionate faith in the future is receding; the eye turns toward the past and the limits of the possible. And the life of Machiavelli ends in the flux of the Istorie Fiorentine.

Chapter 1, The Order of Power: Machiavelli
§8, Conclusion, pp 86-87.