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Tempora et Mores

Tempora Et Mores

Augustine and the Problem of Power: The Essays and lectures of Charles Norris Cochrane. David Beer, ed. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017.


If the modern barbarians currently laying siege to the foundations of Western civilization ever succeed in destroying them, what would fill the void as the ground of order?  Despite the comparatively small size of the European continent, the civilization that began and matured there has had more influence on the world than any other in promoting the freedom, rights, and dignity of the human person, and all of the nations and ideologies that are its current rivals—Islam, China, versions of Progressivism and Socialism, and perhaps Russia—promise only a somewhat tyrannical if not outright totalitarian global order.  So if someday the ramparts of the West come crashing down around us how will freedom-loving people be able to explain such a catastrophe?

Something comparable to this was the bleak situation that Romans faced in the early fifth century as the Roman Empire, including Rome itself, was overrun by hordes of uncivilized (but often more or less Christianized) barbarians.  In the fourth century St. Jerome expressed the state of mind of everyone who had grown to adulthood in the Empire in terms that would sound all too familiar to people who lived through the horrors of the twentieth century: “The mind shudders to contemplate the havoc of our time.  For the last twenty years, the blood of Romans has drenched the lands between Constantinople and the Julian Alps, where countless numbers of ferocious barbarians spread devastation and death . . . Everywhere sorrow, everywhere lamentation, everywhere the shadow of death.”

To its inhabitants the Empire had seemed to be the entire civilized world for so many centuries that non-Christian Romans had no frame of reference for understanding its collapse except the wrath of the Roman gods whose altars had been forsaken for those of the Christian God.  Since Christianity was a faith focused on the transcendent and was distinct from any particular political order it did not appear to be a possible replacement for Roman power or the traditional civil theology, despite several attempts by emperors in the fourth century to re-found the laws on Christian beliefs.  Hence the “problem” of power referred to in the title of this book might more aptly be termed the “crisis of power” because of what the author, Charles Norris Cochrane, calls the historically unparalleled “urgency and insistence” of the question of the nature and source of true power in the late fourth and early fifth centuries when “the Empire, which for so many centuries had guarded the frontiers of organized society, was tottering to its fall.  Everywhere there were signs of disintegration and decay, and the world appeared to be headed for one of those periodic cataclysms such as had been envisaged by Plato in the Laws…”  How could such a catastrophe happen?

Just as thinkers in the twentieth century considered it their obligation to understand how major ideological disorders and disastrous wars could have erupted in a seemingly sophisticated civilization, so Augustine, whom Cochrane characterizes in one of his essays as “the last of all the Romans and the first citizen of the world,” set out to understand and explain how Rome, synonymous with power and civilized order, had fallen to barbarians, and, in what was probably his last work, Charles Norris Cochrane undertook to explain Augustine to people living through World War II.

Cochrane (1889-1945) was a superb historian and classicist who taught ancient history at the University of Toronto for almost thirty years.  Early writings on his native Canada’s history and civics were followed in 1929 by his first significant academic book, Thucydides and the Science of History, in which he answered F. M. Cornford’s claim that Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War was closer to myth than to a scientific account with his argument that Thucydides relied on the Hippocratic scientific method for an understanding of causality.  He is, however, best known for his 1940 magnum opus Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine (hereafter referred to as Christianity)The title of Augustine and the Problem of Power: The Essays and Lectures of Charles Norris Cochrane (hereafter referred to as Augustine) comes from the four Nathaniel William Taylor Lectures that Cochrane delivered at Yale Divinity School between April 3 and April 5, 1945.  His expected move to Princeton after the war was prevented by the heart attack shortly after the Yale lectures that resulted in his death a few months later, thereby, in David Wright’s words, “robb[ing] the academic world of an important thinker at the height of his career.”  To gain some idea of the importance of Cochrane’s scholarship and clarity of mind, one needs to read Augustine.

Some readers might find the title a little misleading because the Augustine lectures take up only about thirty percent of the book and a significant part of the lectures discusses Augustine’s most important literary and philosophical predecessors.  As the subtitle indicates, the book contains several essays, three of which, “The Classical Idea of the Commonwealth,” “Pax Romana,” and “Revolution: Caesarism,” were chapters cut from Christianity.  “The Latin Spirit in Literature” was published in The University of Toronto Quarterly in the early 1930s.  The final two essays, “Niccolò Machiavelli” and “The Mind of Edward Gibbon,” which discuss Cochrane’s assessment of the understanding of the Classical world in the thinking of these two modern men, combine with the Augustine lectures to make the influence of the Zeitgeist on a thinker’s interpretation of past and current events a central theme of the book.

As an indication of the depth of Cochrane’s insight into Augustine and the relevance of his experience and thought for the modern world, in his introduction to Augustine Beer quotes both Jaroslav Pelikan’s assessment of Christianity as “the most profound book I know on Augustine,” and W. H. Auden’s statement that he had read it many times and each rereading had increased his conviction of its importance to the understanding of Augustine’s time as well as the twentieth century.  Beer also provides some excellent advice when he says that readers who are intimidated by the “sheer magnificence in scope and weight of scholarship” in Christianity might find in Augustine “an accessible introduction to Cochrane’s thought” that “can either stand alone or serve as an inducement to make the leap into his monumental work.”

Augustine is anchored by the seventy-five-page span of Cochrane’s lectures that expand considerably upon the approximately one hundred fifty-page discussion of Augustine in Christianity.  In the earlier book Cochrane is at pains to place Augustine’s thought in its theological, philosophical, historical, political, and cultural contexts in a discussion covering his life and thought as a whole, but the Yale lectures are centered on Augustine’s grappling in The City of God with the problem of the ultimate grounding of power in the midst of the disintegration of the Roman Empire.  Civilized people in our own time who have experienced the unrelenting attempts of ideological barbarians to undermine and destroy all the accomplishments of Western civilization, can understand the fear in the late fourth and early fifth centuries that an abyss was opening beneath the once thought eternal order of Rome, an order that had “claimed to provide a complete and final solution to the problem of power in human life.”

If the centuries-old Roman Empire could be destroyed it was necessary to locate and correct the fatal flaw in the Roman (and Greek) worldview in order to find a more secure and lasting basis of order.  The Empire had been officially Christian for nearly a century when Augustine began to write The City of God and in Christianity Cochrane discusses the legislative efforts to incorporate Christianity into the Roman order.  Augustine, having come to the conclusion that more radical measures were necessary because Christianity, particularly as understood through the Pauline doctrine regarding human nature and destiny, was so alien to the classical or secular worldview, saw it as his task to explain precisely wherein lay the fundamental difference.

At the beginning of The City of God Augustine makes it clear the he regards Christianity as in many ways the antithesis of the secular Roman Empire because Christianity is concerned with transcendent rather than immanent life and power, with eternity rather than with time, so that, in his succinct expression, the Christian “inter impios peregrinatur ex fide vivens.”  Despite having lived his entire life in and as a citizen of the Roman Empire Augustine had come to think of himself post-conversion as primarily a pilgrim sojourning in a foreign country inhabited by the “ungodly,” those who were undutiful and disloyal and did not recognize the most serious obligations, an accusation that would certainly have surprised the Romans.  Yet, as Cochrane systematically develops his thesis it becomes clear that these six words of Augustine encapsulate his answer to the problem of power.

Cochrane was nothing if not thorough.  The four lectures cover not only Augustine’s philosophy but also many of the classical Greek philosophers and poets in a discussion intended to clarify how the Christian illumination of the mind revealed to Augustine the stark contours of the classical error and the reason why the failure of Roman power was inevitable.  As outlined by Cochrane Augustine’s critique focuses on several basic points concerning chance, nature, fortune, fate, the striving for human perfection, the will, and the origin of evil.  Augustine believed that the secular, that is, pre-Christian, worldview, as well as Gnostic faiths such as Manichaeism, and Christian heresies such as Pelagianism were all grounded in serious errors regarding human nature, virtue and vice, and political order that the true understanding of Christianity corrected.

What was necessary was a kind of “paradigm change” from a secular belief that nature is a blind, impersonal force that controls human life by Fortune and Fate to the Christian beliefs that nature and history are governed by Divine Providence, human beings possess free will, and divine grace supports and guides the will.  Against the classical philosophical belief that, guided by the power of their own rational ruling faculty, human beings, or at least some human beings, could strive for and attain by their own efforts something close to perfection in this life Augustine argued that human nature was clearly incapable of that because its rebellious and disorderly tendencies indicated that it was fallen and corrupted and totally dependent on divine grace to accomplish anything good.  History consists of the actions freely chosen by human wills but it has an overarching plot of creation, fall, redemption, and final judgment in Augustine’s view, that is, it manifests transcendent divine presence in every moment.  Evil was caused by the human will but could be overcome only by divine power.  To Augustine this was the conflict between the “Two Cities,” that is, between pride, or ungodliness, and humility.

Although Cochrane changed the title of the third lecture to “The State and Human Perfectibility” its original title “The Imperfections of Politics” seems more apt because it deals with the fundamental error in the classical reliance on politics as the arena of human self-perfecting.  Cochrane coined the term “creative politics” for the assumption that human beings can fulfill their own nature, an assumption for which Augustine had nothing but scorn, believing as he did that the Christian community in which all members are bound together by the love of God and humble mutual love and service is entirely a repudiation of the belief that man is the zöon politikon, meaning that human perfection is conditioned upon the rational engagements with power, justice, and law.  Augustine regarded human nature as social but not political, politics being a consequence of Original Sin.

In his discussion of Augustine Cochrane endeavors to get inside the mind of a great thinker at the end of the Classical era in order to see the world as Augustine saw it and to understand the assumptions through which he interpreted it.  The basic theme of Cochrane’s analysis is in Augustine’s Introduction to The City of God, where he says “I know how great is the effort needed to convince the proud of the power and excellence of humility, an excellence which makes it soar above all the summits of this world, which sway in their temporal instability, overtopping them all with an eminence not arrogated by human pride, but granted by divine grace.”  Pride, the source of “secular perversity,” plays only a minor role in Christianity, but in the Yale lectures, particularly the third and fourth, it dominates Cochrane’s analysis of Augustine.  It is humility in the sense of the recognition of our total dependence on God that is, for Augustine, the only source of genuine power.  But is stubborn secular pride the explanation for the Greeks’ and Romans’ reliance on politics as the realm in which human nature could attain perfection?

Readers familiar with Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics might recall the passage in Chapter Three, “The Struggle for Representation in the Roman Empire,” where, in discussing the late fourth-century conflict in which Christians sought to suppress the worship of false pagan gods throughout the empire,  Voegelin says that Augustine did not understand “the existential problem of paganism,” specifically “the compactness of Roman experience, the inseparable community of gods and men in the historically concrete civitas, the simultaneousness of human and divine institutions of a social order.  For him the order of human existence had already separated into the civitas terrena of profane history and the civitas coelestis of divine institution.”[1]  For him the only conceivable alternative to the Christian life of humble love of God and neighbor in the City of God was the pride of the demons and the damned who rejected God.[2]  Just as for many Romans of the late fourth and early fifth centuries the only possible explanation for the fall of Rome was the wrath of the gods, so for Augustine the only plausible account was the failure to humbly submit to the true God.  The idea that Christianity had brought with it a greatly increased differentiation of consciousness and that his philosophical predecessors had done the best they could within the limits of their own consciousness was far beyond the horizon of his own thought.

Cochrane has much to say about Augustine’s critique of secular pride in the endeavors of classical philosophers to discover the path to human excellence through the perfecting of political order and the human character by the efforts of human beings.  Augustine, of course, considered pride (superbia) the root of all evil.  In his third lecture Cochrane explains Augustine’s diagnosis of the error of pride:

“The characteristic of pride is that it ignores or rejects the divine promise of fulfillment through historical experience, and therewith the way of life proposed by the Master to his followers for their pilgrimage through this troublous world.  Repudiating the hope of Christianity and in defiance of its warning, secular pride presumes, out of the plenitude of its own resources, . . .  to create ‘of and from itself a system of right living.’”

Augustine concluded that despite their indisputable profundity and insights into human nature, classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle were persuaded that the right sort of political order was conducive to human perfection in this world.  This was the fundamental error of φιλαυτία or self-love that enabled human beings to believe that any flaw that inhibited human potential had to be in “nature” as the realm of incompletion rather than in the way in which the human mind constructed nature as the realm to be perfected by human efforts.  “In other words,” Cochrane says, “it is idolatry in its most subtle and seductive manifestation, the worship by man of himself.”

Augustine believed that a peregrinus has no reason to be greatly concerned about the specific order or use of power in the alien realm in which he is sojourning.  Politics was both a consequence of and a remedy for Original Sin, and therefore injustice and tyranny were inevitable evils that the Christian should patiently endure.  Christianity alone was the source of real power because it is the belief that the only way to fulfill human nature is by humble submission to the true God and His grace and Providence.

The fourth and final lecture, “Personality and History,” continues the analysis of Augustine’s polemic against secular pride as the antithesis of Christian humility.  The Christian belief rejects any necessity other than the necessary existence of God and acknowledges that nature is “a consequence of the free and deliberate creative activity of God.”  Since man is created in the image of the Trinity he is, in Cochrane’s words:

“predestined to freedom but in a somewhat peculiar sense, a sense analogous to that whereby freedom and power are ascribed to God Himself as the creative and moving principle.  For the freedom and power to which mankind is thus predestined are the freedom and power of voluntary motion, i.e. of self-determination through a principle of inner control; and in this fact is to be discovered all that is peculiar to and distinctive of human experience and human history.”

Cochrane interprets Augustine’s concept of the will as equivalent to “personality,” and it is precisely in the human capability of fulfilling his nature through free will or personality that humanity is alone capable of history.  True power is in human “voluntary motion, i.e., …self-determination through a principle of inner control” that is entirely dependent upon divine grace.  The “creative politics” of the secular world, “perhaps the most subtle and seductive form of self-idolatry,” is based on the presumption of amor sui¸ or self-righteousness, the presumption that the source of evil is outside the self in nature or opinion and it seeks to eliminate evil by creating laws.  Secular pride believes that human nature can perfect itself, at least in some individuals.  However, the only true power is in the City of God.

But in strictly political terms Augustine had little to offer to the world.  The closest he comes is in the last three “Mirror of Princes” chapters at the end of Book V of The City of God.  Since he regarded all kingdoms as “great robberies” he could only hope for a wise, virtuous, and humble Christian ruler to mitigate the sufferings and injustices caused by political orders in the secular realm.

Cochrane’s detailed discussion of Augustine’s moral condemnation of the classical world does not provide his own critical analysis of a position that he almost certainly did not entirely agree with.  However, it is no criticism of Cochrane to say that he had not reached Voegelin’s insights into the consciousness of classical thinkers and their less differentiated understanding of the structure of reality.  His goal was to explain clearly Augustine’s thought in its own terms, and in this he succeeded admirably.

The Augustine lectures are followed by an essay published several years before Christianity, “The Latin Spirit in Literature,” which anticipates the later work in its seamless summary of the history, culture, literature, and Latin language of the Roman Empire from its beginnings up to the culmination of Latin Christianity in Augustine. Cochrane was in his early forties when he published this essay, so he had had the time to immerse himself in and attain his evident mastery of the Roman world.  The other three essays in the central part of the book “The Classical Idea of the Commonwealth,” “Pax Romana,” and “Revolution: Caesarism,” were cut from Christianity before its publication in order to reduce the size of the book.  While these chapters were not essential to Christianity they would have worked better in their intended context than they do here.  Nonetheless, it is good that they have finally been published because they provide further evidence of the breadth of Cochrane’s familiarity with the classical world and the gracefulness of his prose.  Reading Cochrane on the classical world seems like reading the discourse of an expatriate from that time.

The fifth essay, Cochrane’s contribution to what is by now the five-century debate about how Machiavelli’s work should be interpreted and evaluated, shows his usual impeccable scholarship,  for he bases his forty-three-page analysis of Machiavelli on not only a close reading of The Prince and The Discourses, but also on less often read works such as Machiavelli’s History of Florence, The Art of War¸ The Life of Castruccio Castracani, the play Mandragora, and even the “amusing” satirical novelette called The Marriage of Belphegor.  The discussion is detailed and includes numerous and sometimes lengthy quotations from these works, particularly The Discourses and The History of Florence.

Cochrane begins his essay with a brief survey of some of the colorful seventeenth and eighteenth century assessments of Machiavelli’s reputation as “the personification of evil,” commenting that the condemnation and general notoriety of Machiavelli “are based on little more than a travesty” and represent a serious misapprehension of his thought because they are “dominated by prejudice and blinded by passions.”  Instead Machiavelli should be understood as an original thinker, even a “pioneer,” and “one of the most significant figures in the history of European literature” because he was among the first to break out of the “ideas and molds of thought which had dominated speculation for a thousand years, that is, medieval dogma.  Machiavelli was a humanist, devoid of interest in dogma and metaphysical speculation, who introduced into political discussion a new method based on careful reflection on history and experience as “the real teacher of mankind.”  This, of course, was in the realm of politics, not theology, and medieval political thought, Cochrane says, “still lived in the afterglow of the Roman world” in which “thought still writhe[d] in the trammels of mediaeval rationalism—a vicious circle of absolutes from which it was well-nigh impossible to escape.”

But was the rejection of medieval rationalism really the kind of positive achievement that would make Machiavelli a true “pioneer”?  During the four centuries between the publication of The Prince and Cochrane’s essay Machiavelli’s name became, of course, synonymous with the dichotomy between morality and politics that has often been considered simply evil, even by astute twentieth-century commentators.  Leo Strauss, for example, who also read all of Machiavelli’s works, does not mince words in the Introduction to his classic study Thoughts on Machiavelli, where, after listing the morally reprehensible passages of advice to a Prince, he ends the paragraph with the blunt statement, “If it is true that only an evil man will stoop to teach maxims of public and private gangsterism, we are forced to say that Machiavelli was an evil man.”

He notes that “the learned of our age” argue that Machiavelli was a passionate patriot or a scientific student of society or both” rather than “an evil teacher of evil.”  Strauss, in fact, does not see this as a disjunction.  “In referring to Machiavelli’s patriotism one does not dispose of a mere semblance of evil; one merely obscures something truly evil,” the “collective selfishness” which was Machiavelli’s understanding of patriotism.  Understanding Machiavelli correctly requires, Strauss says, escaping from his influence by recovering the classical and Biblical heritage that Machiavelli rejected.  Strauss acknowledges some admirable qualities in Machiavelli’s work, “the intrepidity of his thought, the grandeur of his vision, and the graceful subtlety of his speech,” but his final verdict is that “contemporary tyranny has its roots in Machiavelli’s’ thought, in the Machiavellian principle that the good end justifies every means.”[3]

Gerhart Niemeyer’s review essay of Strauss’s book, “Humanism, Positivism, Immorality,” is an even more incisive philosophical evaluation of Machiavelli as “a Promethean, a man who defies God and all authority in order to play the demi-god among ordinary mortals.”[4]   Instead of exhorting rulers to strive for the best and most virtuous actions Machiavelli advises them to be cunning and ruthless in evil and depravity, like “the psychologist who treats only of psychopathology and claims that this is all there is to the human psyche.”[5]  Machiavelli’s abandonment of any concern with “life as it ought to be” for a concern only with “life as it is” is what Niemeyer considers “the core of his message.”  Indeed, Niemeyer’s critique of Strauss is that his reliance on moral judgment rather than philosophical analysis does not go far enough in comprehending Machiavelli’s radical revolt against the tradition’s belief in the necessity of “openness to being, the divine ground of being, and transcendent goodness.”  In this respect Machiavelli’s message that evil should be done whenever the expedience of power requires it is anti-philosophical.  Although Niemeyer disagrees with Strauss’s view that Nazism, Communism, and Fascism were contemporary versions of Machiavellism, since he saw them as rooted in ancient Gnosticism and medieval millenarianism, he does agree with Strauss that “in an age of widespread perversion of political rationality, [Machiavelli’s] teaching of ‘bestial’ political practices cannot help being linked up with what is gushing forth from deeper wells of demonism.”[6]

In The Structure of Political Thought: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, after quoting Maritain’s comment that when Machiavelli, “the father of modern politics, ‘writes that the prince must learn how not to be good, he is perfectly aware that not to be good is to be bad,” Charles N. R. McCoy observes that Machiavelli “nonetheless thinks that goodness, as traditionally understood, has been the cause of political debility.”[7]  The new and modern political thought will be derived from a new sense of nature “freed from all past metaphysical and theological conceptions,” a break from the tradition of which Machiavelli was well aware.  It is also a break between morality and politics and the result, according to Ernst Cassirer, as quoted by McCoy, is that while the state has attained autonomy and independence, it has paid for it with complete isolation.  “The sharp knife of Machiavelli’s thought has cut off all the threads by which in former generations the state was fastened to the organic whole of human existence.  The political world has lost its connection not only with religion or metaphysics but also with all the other forms of man’s ethical and cultural life.  It stands alone—in an empty space.”[8]  McCoy’s point is that Machiavelli essentially destroyed the understanding of the structure of reality.

Eric Voegelin wrote at length about Machiavelli only in his History of Political Ideas where his complex analysis of Machiavelli is as a creator of myth and advocate of a return to a pagan myth of nature with its own spiritual principles, as a soul closed against Christianity, and as an advocate of Realpolitik because, philosophically speaking, conflicts of values are inescapable in human existence.  “Spiritual morality is a problem in human existence, precisely because there is a good deal more to human existence than spirit.  All attacks on Machiavelli as the inventor or advocate of a ‘double morality’ for private and public conduct, etc., can be dismissed as manifestations of philosophical ignorance.”[9]   Voegelin points out that Machiavelli never pretends that the immoral is moral, but he does argue that “might makes for the establishment of order” and sometimes order can be created only “by actions that in themselves are dishonorable and immoral,” actions that can be justified only by their ends.

Every political order is in some part an accident of existence.  The mystery of existential cruelty and guilt is at the bottom of the best order; while the dictum that ‘power is evil’ cannot be maintained without qualification, it is true if it is qualified as characterizing the component of the existential accident in order.  By social convention this mystery of guilt is not admitted to public consciousness.  A political thinker who through his work stimulates an uncomfortable awareness of this mystery will become unpopular with the intellectual retainers of an established order.[10]

Unlike Strauss and Niemeyer Voegelin believes that Machiavelli was very much concerned about the spiritual implications of his cold-blooded advice.  Machiavelli’s spirituality “is not differentiated into its transcendental fulfillment; it remains intramundane and finds its fulfillment in the flowering of virtù into the order of the commonwealth.”[11]  This Myth of Nature is definitive only in that it does not sufficiently differentiate the problem of the spirit, but “the Christian religiousness of the spirit” has also, Voegelin argues, “produced an interpretation of history (through Saint Augustine and Orosius) that is seriously defective because of the narrowness of its horizon as well as because it neglects the problem of the natural course of civilization that had already been developed most promisingly by Plato.”[12]  Machiavelli’s new paganism does have a negative aspect because once Christianity appeared a return to paganism was no longer possible, so Machiavelli’s “paganism…is a lack of faith in the Christian sense, a demonic closure of the soul against transcendental reality.”[13]  In The New Science of Politics Voegelin comments that “practically every great political thinker who recognized the structure of reality, from Machiavelli to the present, has been branded as an immoralist by Gnostic intellectuals,”[14] which seems to mean that in politics it is often necessary to rely on what is rather than on what ought to be.  In his conclusion that Machiavelli’s paganism was a demonic closure of the soul Voegelin’s interpretation is close to that of Niemeyer, but in his assessment that Machiavelli was a realist explicating the structure of the immanent world of politics his interpretation is closer to Cochrane’s (and the opposite of McCoy’s).

I have gone into some detail on the interpretations of Machiavelli by these four eminent political thinkers in order to provide some comparison of Cochrane’s view with other twentieth-century interpretations that were almost certainly written after his (but they could not have read his unpublished essay).  Relying more on The Discourses and The History of Florence and less on The Prince Cochrane reads Machiavelli as a humanist who believed that the guide to action and the promotion of freedom was the concrete events and circumstances in history rather than the abstractions of metaphysics.  Consider Machiavelli’s “two important considerations” in Book III chapter viii of The Discourses (“Whoever Wishes to Change the Government of a Republic Should First Consider Well Its Existing Condition”):

“The first [is] that the means of attaining glory are different in a republic that is corrupt from what they are in a republic that still preserves its institutions pure; and the second, (which is in a measure comprised in the first,) that men in their conduct, and especially in their most prominent actions, should well consider and conform to the times in which they live.  And those who, from an evil choice or from natural inclination, do not conform to the times in which they live, will in most instances live unhappily, and their undertakings will come to a bad end; whilst, on the contrary, success attends those who conform to the times.”

“To usurp supreme and absolute authority, then, in a free state, and subject it to tyranny, the people must have already become corrupt by gradual steps from generation to generation.  And all states necessarily come to this, unless . . . they are frequently reinvigorated by good examples, and brought back by good laws to their first principles . . And therefore all such as desire to make a change in the government of a republic, whether in favor of liberty or in favor of tyranny, must well examine the condition of things, and from that judge of the difficulties of their undertaking.  For 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.”[15]

This statement by Machiavelli is an example of what Cochrane, following the Greek example (probably including Thucydides), classifies as physical, real, and studied through the method of science, in contrast to what is metaphysical, ideal, and studied through the method of philosophy that seeks to view things sub specie aeternitatis.  The latter, Cochrane says, is not “the characteristic attitude of the West,” which is, instead, found in the Pythagorean dictum “Man is the measure of all things.”  It is the rejection of abstract universal principles and the preference for the “human society organizing itself apart from God,” in the words of a certain Bishop Creighton.[16]  Such science relies on experience and history rather than philosophy and from human history it extracts “conceptions of the ‘economic’ or the ‘political’ man.”  Machiavelli’s scientific humanism, a revolt against the church and the metaphysics that dominated thinking for a millennium, derives the rules of human behavior from history, that is, from what men have done rather than from what they ought to have done, on the assumption that the events of history do repeat themselves, as Machiavelli suggests in his Discourses:

“The wise are wont to say, and not without reason, or at random, that he who would forecast what is about to happen should look to what has been; since all human events, whether present or to come, have their exact counterpart in the past.  And this, because these events are brought about by men, whose passions and dispositions remaining in all ages the same naturally give rise to the same effects: although doubtless, the operation of these causes takes a higher form, now in one province and now in another, according to the character of the training wherein the inhabitants of these provinces acquire their way of life.”[17]

The repetition is not, of course, literally exact but is really, as Cochrane puts it, the “regular recurrence or succession of similar facts” that means there is a stable natural order that makes “the generalizations of political science” possible.

Hence from the standpoint of science the two most important factors in human existence are human nature, or what Machiavelli calls virtù and the environment, which is how Cochrane has the “temerity” to translate fortuna.  Although in the more than seventy-five years since Cochrane wrote this essay the word “environment” has acquired considerable political weight, if that is stripped away it does not seem inapt to use it as the translation of fortuna, assuming as Cochrane does that for Machiavelli “the word connotes circumstances—the given—the environmental condition which largely make [sic] men, and with which virtù is everywhere required to cope.”[18]       Machiavelli clearly preferred moral good to moral evil but as a student of history he found the latter to be the primary characteristic of corrupt human nature, as he observes in his Discourses:

“The legislator must assume that all men are bad, and will always, when they have free rein, give vent to their evil inclinations . . . Men never behave well unless compelled, and whenever they are free to act as they please, and are under no restraint, everything falls at once into confusion and disorder.  Wherefore it has been said that, as poverty and hunger are needed to make men industrious, so laws are needed to make them good.”

In short, Machiavelli’s view of human nature is not at all remote from the views of Augustine, Hobbes, and even Publius, but unlike Augustine and Publius (and like Hobbes) he sees no divine grace or providence at work in the secular world.  Instead order is created and imposed by whatever human actions are efficacious in “laying the foundations of freedom.”  As Cochrane puts it, “a free government cannot exist where the people is either servile, or dependent, or corrupt, or where there exist any considerable body of citizens who are above the law and feared by the magistrates.”  Machiavelli regarded the commonwealth or republic as superior to other forms of government because of its order, liberty, and stability.  In Cochrane’s words, “freedom releases human energies, and hence generates that superior vitality of republics which enables the commonwealth to endure longer and with more sustained good fortune than the principality, and makes it harder to overthrow.”

Part of Cochrane’s point is that Machiavelli by no means deserves his reputation as a demonic preacher of evil and the advice given to the Prince is not representative of the whole of his thought but is “in reality merely prescriptions for the abnormal conditions which call the autocrat into being,” the autocrat whose true function it presumably is to lay the foundations of freedom, something few autocrats actually do.  A better way to characterize Machiavelli’s thought is that he preferred freedom to servitude but attaining and preserving freedom, just like attaining and preserving the power of the Prince, required careful attention to the ‘environment” as well as a thoughtful study of similar past “environments” and actions successful in reaching the desired goal.

So was Machiavelli a demonic soul closed off against transcendence or a political realist who understood that in a world closed off against transcendence politics cannot be confined within the rules of ethics?  No less than Lord Acton, in his Introduction to Il Principe, characterized Machiavelli as a prophet of politics in the modern world.

Machiavelli is the earliest conscious and articulate exponent of certain living forces in the present world.  Religion, progressive enlightenment, the perpetual vigilance of public opinion, have not reduced his empire, or disproved the justice of his conception of mankind.  He obtains a new lease of authority from causes that are still prevailing, and from doctrines that are apparent in politics, philosophy and science.  Without sparing censure, or employing for comparison the grosser symptoms of the age, we find him near our level, and perceive that he is not a vanishing type, but a constant and contemporary influence.[19]

It seems that Machiavelli was evil only to the extent to which the human pursuit of power in a Godless world is evil.  This is, after all, why Socrates refused to heed Callicles’ advice to be less concerned with the therapeia of his soul and more with “Machiavellian” politics and why there were so many dissidents in the Soviet Union who preferred the Gulag to conformity with the times.  In the final analysis who had the greater power?

On the other hand evil is real and is sometimes so demonically powerful that it is impossible to contend with it while remaining morally pure.[20]  This is part of the reality of life in a fallen and corrupted world.  One can read Machiavelli as recognizing the reality that a world dominated by the unscrupulous libido for power is a world that has already separated itself from spirit and morality.  The Prince, after all, does seem to prescribe a degree of ruthlessness that could become necessary only in conditions bordering on a totally spiritless Hobbesian state of nature.  What is the point of counselling virtue for a flawed ruler if that will only enable the triumph of aspirants to power who are far more evil?  But it is certainly arguable that there are times when completely conforming to rather than bearing witness against the disorders of the age serves only to reinforce the closure against transcendence.  As a man of his own time, however, Machiavelli concluded that a certain degree of conformity to contemporary disorders was the best way to mitigate evil, which is why this essay might be better titled “Machiavelli and the Problem of Godless Power.”

The last essay, “The Mind of Edward Gibbon,” is an analysis of the worldview of Cochrane’s eighteenth-century fellow classicist that was published in two parts in the University of Toronto Quarterly in 1942-43.  It is appropriate to put this essay at the end as a kind of antithesis of Augustine’s explanation for the decline and fall of Rome as due to secular pride.  Not surprisingly, Gibbon, a historian in the century of the Enlightenment, has a very different explanation for the fall of Rome in which Christianity is a significant part of the cause.

Cochrane says that his object in this essay is “to consider the principles in terms of which Gibbon envisages human nature and human history,” the preconceptions that determined the way he thought about the more than a millennium decline of Roman civilization that he recounts in over a thousand pages (plus hundreds of pages of notes) in his classic work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  The most important of these preconceptions is the authoritativeness of the “experimental [i.e. empirical] science” rooted in the work of the seventeenth-century philosophers Descartes and Bacon but developed primarily by the Modern Empiricists Locke and Hume.  In the thought of Hume the experimental science revealed its true nature as skepticism, but the science itself is part of a “progressive secularization of thought” that replaced Christian anthropology with the sort of “universal and invariable truths” of human nature that were accessible to an empirical science blind to mystery.

The first part of the essay traces the ideas of Gibbon’s predecessors and contemporaries such as Montesquieu and their influence on his thinking.  The tendency was to interpret events in terms of “the strictly human qualities of virtue and vice,” or reason and superstition.  Gibbon’s attitude of philosophical skepticism naturally led him to conclude that Christianity was a formidable type of superstition, with superstition meaning to Gibbon “a resurgence of the infantile and bestial in human nature against the domination of the mind….the monstrous offspring of ignorance, credulity, fanaticism, and obstinacy,” a reversion to barbarism which to Gibbon is something close to animality.  Gibbon shared Hume’s opinion that religion, which meant Christianity, is a socially useless and delusional superstition.   A stronger contrast to Augustine can scarcely be imagined.

One of the strengths of Cochrane’s essay is his analysis in the last few pages of the philosophical consequences of viewing history according to the logic of the experimental science and skepticism.  The first consequence he mentions is the understanding of human nature in which “the individual as such possesses meaning only in relation to a hypothetical type” that becomes prescriptive, rather like the stock characters in comedy that have only a limited range of action and motivation.  The question for an understanding of Gibbon is whether an individual conforms to or departs from a static type.  The individual is not a unique person but only a more or less complete instantiation of a universal.

Because Gibbon assigns to reason (in the Enlightenment sense) a role of absolute importance he errs, like the Stoics, in failing to do justice to the affections and passions as integral to human nature.  Furthermore, skepticism’s judgments of value are presumed to be based on “reason” and “taste” and therefore universal.  But Cochrane regards Gibbon’s “inadequacies” as attributable to his failure to give sufficient consideration to human uniqueness and unpredictability.  An “experimental method” does not work very well with human beings because despite what we can know of a man’s temperament and habits it is risky “to assert that his action can be calculated in advance with any degree of precision or accuracy” or to impute motives to account for his actions.  The problem Cochrane sees with the psychology of experimental science is that it does not allow for the growth and development of individuals in particular or the human race in general.

This is because it assumes fixed and unalterable moral and psychological factors as classified under the headings indicated by Hume, “as though human nature contained no unsuspected potentialities and the future were to repeat in every detail the patterns of the past; a point of view from which experience loses much of its significance.”  “Anatomizing” human nature, as Hume put it, treats human nature as something dead, like an entirely predictable corpse.  The truth, as Cochrane points out, is that “just as each and every actor in history is himself and no other so also the historical situation with which he is confronted is, properly speaking, unique,” and that human life is not static but involves enough movement to make it incalculable in terms of classical science.  Cochrane cites romanticism, Hegel, and Marx as examples, however flawed, of the realization of the importance of Becoming, and also Rousseau’s remark that Gibbon was not his man.

Gibbon’s “despairing conclusion” is that human beings are confined to being variations on unchanging themes that render any substantial increase in wisdom and understanding unlikely. In contrast Cochrane explains what is, in fact, his own approach to history, which begins from a starting point less inadequate than experimental science:

“From this standpoint historical investigation will (on the factual level) take the fullest possible advantage of available techniques for discovering and assembling its data . . . On the level of presentation, it will seek with Gibbon to measure up to the most exacting standards of logic and artistry.  But finally, on the ultimate level of interpretation, it will abandon conventional illusions of scientific objectivity and will seek with the aid of sympathetic imagination, disciplined and controlled by the comparative study of peoples and cultures, to enter into and recover what it can of past experience, so far as this is possible within the narrow limits of human understanding; and this experience it will seek to ‘represent’ in such a way as to convey something, at least, of its meaning to contemporaries.  In this formidable undertaking the historian can ill afford to neglect any possible assistance; he will ignore at his peril the rich resources of language and literature.”

Nonetheless Cochrane considers The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire an “immense achievement” and “a significant contribution to the living body of historical thinking,” and as “timeless because of its very timeliness,” meaning that it “lucidly and vividly” reveals how the eighteenth century saw its past, just as Machiavelli and Augustine revealed how men of the fifteenth and fifth centuries interpreted the past.  Therefore it is both history and literature because every interpretation of the past has something to tell us about ourselves.

A review essay cannot do more than suggest the riches in this book and we owe a great debt of gratitude to Cochrane for his scholarly and insightful work and also to David Beer for making these lectures and essays available along with his excellent introduction.  I imagine that many of those who attended the Yale lectures in 1945 would have hoped that they would soon be published so they could study them carefully.  Seventy-two years was a long time to wait.



[1] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1952), 87-88.

[2] Voegelin points out this dichotomy earlier in the third chapter: “Christianity has concentrated demonism into the permanent danger of a fall from the spirit—that is man’s only by the grace of God—into the autonomy of his own self, from the amor Dei into the amor sui.  The insight that man in his mere humanity, without the fide caritate formata, is demonic nothingness has been brought by Christianity to the ultimate border of clarity which by tradition is called revelation.” 78-79.

[3] Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 9-14 passim.

[4] Gerhart Niemeyer, “Humanism, Positivism, Immorality,” in The Loss and Recovery of Truth: Selected Writings, edited and introduced by Michael Henry (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2013), 379.

[5] Ibid., 379.

[6] Ibid., 368.

[7] Charles N. R. McCoy, The Structure of Political Thought: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2017), 113.

[8] Ibid., 118

[9] Eric Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, Vol. IV, Renaissance and Reformation, ed. with an introduction by David L. Morse and William M. Thompson, in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 22 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998), 82-83.

[10] Ibid., 83.

[11] Ibid., 84.

[12] Ibid., 85.

[13] Ibid., 86

[14] The New Science of Politics, 170.

[15] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince and the Discourses (New York: The Modern Library, 1950), 439-440.

[16] Presumably the Anglican Bishop Mandell Creighton (1843-1901).

[17] The italics in this and other quotations are in the original in Cochrane’s book.

[18] Moreover, he believes that the distinction between virtù and fortuna is exactly the same as Aristotle’s distinction between arête and tyche.  However, this is debatable because for Aristotle tyche clearly requires the unintended coincidence of at least two intentional pursuits of goals, but this does not seem to be a requirement for either fortuna or “environment.”

[19] Cochrane quotes Lord Acton at the beginning of the Machiavelli essay.

[20] This problem of moral purity in combating evil is stated very succinctly by the novelist Dean Koontz in describing the thinking of the heroine who is fighting a totalitarian conspiracy that is pure evil: “There were degrees of evil…and in these dark times, which seemed to darkle deeper every day, absolute purity of action ensured defeat.  The armies of virtue were either too few in number or too cowed by the volume of political hatred to be counted upon.”  The Forbidden Door (New York: Bantam Books, 2018), 64.  For decades Koontz has been writing novels in which heroic individuals are called upon to engage in combat with the worst evils without the support of any armies of virtue.


An excerpt of the book is available here.

Michael HenryMichael Henry

Michael Henry

Michael Henry is a Board Member of VoegelinView, Professor of Philosophy at St. John's University in New York, and was editor of The Library of Conservative Thought series at Transaction Publishers (1998-2016). His latest book is The Loss and Recovery of Truth: Selected Writings of Gerhart Niemeyer (St. Augustine's, 2013).

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