Voegelin: Machiavelli in His Context

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Like Strauss, Eric Voegelin also went into exile after the rise of National Socialism. Voegelin came to the United States after the occupation of Austria in 1938, not because he was accused of being a Communist, Catholic, or Jew, but because – as he remembered years later – he was inspired by one of the virtues that Max Weber demanded of a scholar, namely, “intellectual honesty [intellektuelle Rechtschaffenheit].”[1] Although in exile by different personal circumstances, both Strauss and Voegelin did shared the experience of ruthless authoritarian violence in their native land, but their approach to Machiavelli, the author that Strauss blames to be the teacher of tyrants, differs in many ways.

The first thing that Voegelin brings into attention is that the elongated shadow of condemnation covering Machiavelli can only be a sign that “something extraordinary had occurred, a severe break with the tradition for treating political questions.”[2] The extraordinary situation came to a pinnacle during what he considered to be the “trauma of 1494.” Machiavelli and his generation witness the reduction and impotence of the Italian principalities and the success of the French, Spanish and Swiss invaders in taking over a prosperous land in an event without sense beyond the display of naked power. The invasions were not intended to be an expression of better and more refined reasons or ideas: they were just stronger powers conquering a weaker and divided territory.

There are certain parallels between the events in 1494 and the ones that followed 1933 in the heartland of Europe. Both were instances in which the reality of power and its capacity for destruction became crude facts of life. In that sense, one could say that both Strauss and Voegelin were witness to a similar display of raw and limitless power during the first half of the twentieth century. So, one might be tempted to perceive, as Gadamer does, a “bond between the two scholars, which consisted not least in their similar distance from their native origins that had fallen victim to National Socialism.”[3] Still, the kind of condemnation that Strauss displays against Machiavelli is completely absent in Voegelin.

Such condemnation would not bring, for Voegelin, any light into the understanding of, not just the Renaissance, but any historical experience. Even worst, such an approach, namely, the one of the “moralist,” might end up covering the reality of power underneath a pre-defined moral order. This is the center of the diverse positions of Strauss and Voegelin on Machiavelli. The “trauma of 1494” did not only make the Florentine philosopher aware of the renewed problem of power politics, but also of the severe break with tradition, which in turn meant that the disintegration of institutional Christianity affected all spheres of reality and, hence a “sense of an obligation to compromise in the spirit of the whole, was seeping out.”[4] As a result, what Machiavelli observed on a daily basis was “the inflexible insistence on rights and the pursuit of personal and institutional interest without regard to the destruction of the total order.”[5]

The difference between Strauss and Voegelin’s interpretation of Machiavelli consists in comprehending that Machiavelli’s ideas were consciously embedded in the changing historical, religious and philosophical circumstances of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. These changing circumstances were meant to overcome the previous ages dominated by elements that disregarded the possibility of achieving happiness in this world. Thus, given those circumstances, Machiavelli does not simply set aside the classical tradition in order to take sides with Thrasymachus and Callicles in favor of absolute force. “A good deal of what conventionally is considered enigmatic, or unusual, or idiosyncratic, or immoral in his work” Voegelin clarifies, “loses this character as soon as we are not compelled to attribute these elements to Machiavelli himself but can understand them as part of the intellectual climate in which his ideas were formed.”[6]

Machiavelli thought that one of the main causes of the misery of Italy was the decay of Christianity, which in itself was invigorated by the degeneration of the institution of the papacy.[7] In his own eyes, this situation made the people of his time, therefore, weaker than those in antiquity. Christianity’s emphasis on Augustine had shown the way in the past, but as a consequence it lowered the esteem of the world or, in the words of Machiavelli, of l’onore del mondo. Christianity supported values focusing on suffering, which made people subservient and, consequently, made the world weak. On the other hand, for the pagans, l’onore del mondo was the true location of the highest good. While Augustinian Christianity values humility, renunciation and a general contempt for the human affairs, the ancient Romans loved everything that made a person strong in society.

Machiavelli felt, according to Voegelin, that because God was missing, the world would fall into ruin unless the fear of a prince substituted the fear generated by religion. Order will follow the virtù of the single person: the political hero. “The virtù of the conquering prince,” Voegelin writes, “became the source of order; and since the Christian, transcendental order of existence had become a dead letter for the Italian thinkers of the fifteenth century, the virtù ordinata of the prince, as the principle of the only order that is experience as real, acquires human-divine, heroic proportions.”[8]

Against the values supported and cultivated by Christianity, Machiavelli hopes to awaken his readers so that they stop accepting the world with passivity. That seemed to be the only path to put an end to the misery of Italy. For Machiavelli, historical necessity (necessità) gives the opportunity for a person with semi-divine and heroic qualities to overcome fortuna and restore a political order through his virtù. So, in a very strong sense, for Voegelin, Machiavelli created a myth: “this fact must be the basis of interpretation if we wish to avoid misunderstanding his theory of politics as the insight that foul means are frequently more helpful in acquiring political power than fair ones.”[9]

The myth of order through intramundane power thus serves as the ideological background to Machiavelli’s writings. For Voegelin, the founding and restoring of ancient orders is a manifestation of a cosmic force, which in its own terms is based on the Stoic notion of “nature,” understood as a sole continuum with society, and, therefore, present in all humans. This human force by itself constitutes the substance of order, since there is no fear of God, and when it is located in the course of actual political action by the virtù of an extraordinary individual, it means that there is a rational relation between means and ends. If Machiavelli is analyzed without an awareness of the “myth of the hero” and his conception of virtù, for Voegelin, “the ethics of Machiavelli make no sense.”[10]

Machiavelli considers an “uncosmic” criminal force when an individual mistakes his own selfish ambition for virtù. When virtù operates appropriately, then these rare individuals share the place of the “founders” and not of the “exploiters” of cities. Hence, for Voegelin, Machiavelli’s ethics does not degenerate into a philosophy characterized by the “power politics” of Thrasymachus or Callicles because “he can distinguish between the virtù that tends toward the establishment of an objectively good order and the vital individual force that establishes nothing but personal dominion.”[11]

In addition, Machiavelli would not associate justice with the establishment of order as a result of the mere exercise of power. Plato makes Callicles and Thrasymachus claim that the idea of justice is on the side of the stronger party. But for Machiavelli, virtù used under the appropriate conditions given by fortuna would allow the establishment of order (mantenere lo stato) and for l’onore del mondo or, for what Strauss describes as, the pursue of glory. But those actions, Voegelin clarifies, “need justification through the values they serve to realize. If they are used for the realization of power without value then nothing is left but their immorality.”[12]

There is an underlying notion, created by Machiavelli’s historical circumstances, which is that a person guided by virtù only makes sense under the condition that the world itself is accepted as the summun bonum. In contrast, the summun bonum for Christianity is placed on the transcendental realm and the world sinks to the lowest priority in life. The latter is the same kind of principle that Strauss defends when he asserts that Machiavelli does not hope for higher values and only concentrates on extremes forms of behavior and not on how people actually live.[13] Strauss characterizes “the pursuit of glory” as an unworthy goal for a great individual. He shares this precept with Aquinas, in his Regime of the Princes (De Regime Principium), in which a good ruler must avoid at all cost mundane glory in order to be sure of gaining celestial rewards.[14] Hence, it seems that Strauss follows the same Augustinian contempt for the world and applies it to the pagan vision of Machiavelli. This sort of conclusion is characterized by Voegelin as a “gross misunderstanding” that “can be dismissed as manifestations of philosophical ignorance.”[15]

Machiavelli does not renounce, nor is he the reverse side of the classical tradition, as Strauss supports.[16] But neither he is in favor of defending an ancient myth of obsolete nonsense. The Hellenistic world is long gone and his pagan philosophy is in direct opposition, and hence, is a response via negativa to the decadent state of a Christianity in need of reform. In fact, such reform began almost immediately after the finalization of The Prince. For Voegelin, “[Machiavelli] 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.”[17] So, his expression of a pagan worldview might have arisen out of his lack of faith in the Christianity of his time and not out of an inherent incapacity of Christianity to reform itself. That is why the role of religion is by all means not missing in Machiavelli, nor is an appreciation for the higher achievements of the human race. Rather, the strangeness of Machiavelli for a scholar like Strauss is rooted in his reversion to pagan values. Hence, Voegelin is emphatic in stating that “Machiavelli is not a Christian but his faith is a revival of the Myth of nature, in the special variant of Polybian Stoicism. The spirituality is not missing, but it is not differentiated into its transcendental fulfillment; it remains intramundane and finds fulfillment in the flowering of virtù.”[18] The uneasiness of Strauss might lie in his unwillingness to sanctify the mundane world of human action and the unpromising material that Machiavelli embraced with his civic religion.

By qualifying Machiavelli as an immoralist and, hence, denying the human condition itself the capacity of rationally coordinating means and ends, Strauss’ interpretation might be dwelling in what Voegelin describes as the “gnostic dream world.”[19] The problem with this condition is that it does not recognize reality as the first principle and, for that matter, the types of actions considered moral in the “dream world” would be disapproved and condemned in the real world. When an attempt to judge reality from the “dream world” occurs, then “the critical exploration of cause and effect in history is prohibited.”[20] In contrast, only those who would be able properly to comprehend Machiavelli’s time and intellectual context would be able to grasp the true, radical meaning of his thought.

Dante Germino summarizes Strauss’ position in the following way: “Strauss gives the appearance of forcing Machiavelli to conform to a pattern imposed by him from without… Strauss’s Machiavelli resembles a reclusive philosopher or perhaps a gnostic sage who pores over ancient texts – especially Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, and the Bible – and who with truly diabolical cleverness hides a subversive message between the lines, a message that by the nineteenth century had succeeded in turning two thousand years of western philosophy and religion up-side down, almost single-handedly.”[21] Perhaps, this is why Strauss, did not perceive how all political orders throughout history share the “criminality” of using might to establish themselves.[22] Machiavelli stimulates discomfort by bringing awareness of this “guilt” and, for that matter, Voegelin reminds us, he “will become unpopular with the intellectual retainers of an established order.”[23]



[1] Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), pp. 44-45.

[2] Eric Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, Volume IV: Renaissance and Reformation, ed. David L. Morse and William M. Thompson (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998), p. 31.

[3] Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Philosophizing in opposition: Strauss and Voegelin on communication and science” in Peter Emberley and Barry Cooper, ed. Faith and Political Philosophy: the correspondence between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-1964 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), p. 249.

[4] Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, p. 35.

[5] Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, p. 35.

[6] Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, p. 55.

[7] Discorsi, I.11-12.

[8] Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, p. 56.

[9] Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, p. 56.

[10] Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, p. 64.

[11] Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, p. 70. Machiavelli explicitly condemns such deviated behavior in his example of Agathocles of Syracuse, “who always had a perverse life (tenne sempre… [una] vita scellerata).” Therefore, “it cannot be called virtù to assassinate his own citizens, to betray his friends and to be without faith, piety or religion; such modes could help acquire an empire, but not glory (Non si può ancora chiamare virtù ammazzare li sua cittadini, tradire li amici, essere sanza fede, sanza pietà, sanza relligione; li quali modi possono fare acquistare imperio, ma non gloria).” See, Il Principe, VIII.

[12] Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, p. 83.

[13] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), p. 179.

[14] See, Quentin Skinner, Machiavelli: a Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 34.

[15] Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, p. 83.

[16] Emberley and Cooper, Faith and Political Philosophy, p. 56.

[17] Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, p. 86.

[18] Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, p. 84.

[19] Eric Voegelin, Modernity Without Restrain, ed. Manfred Henningsen (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000), p. 226.

[20] Voegelin, Modernity Without Restrain, p. 226.

[21] Dante Germino, “Blasphemy and Leo Strauss’s Machiavelli,” The Review of Politics 53.1 (1991): 153. See also Robert J. McShea, “Leo Strauss on Machiavelli,” The Western Political Quarterly 16.4 (1963): 782-797. For a response to the criticism see, Harvey C. Mansfield, Machiavelli’s Virtue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), chapter 9.

[22] See Claude Lefort, Le Travail de l’oeuvre Machiavel (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), p. 271.

[23] Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, p. 83.


This excerpt from Machiavelli’s Art of Politics (Boston: Brill, 2015).

Alejandro Barcenas

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Alejandro Barcenas is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Texas State University, San Marcos. He is author of several books, including Machiavelli's Art of Politics (Brill, 2015).