Judaizing Machiavelli: anti-Judaism in the Spanish anti-Machiavellian tradition of the 16th and 17th centuries


Anti-Judaism in Early Modern Europe



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Anti-Judaism in Early Modern Europe

In order to try and address the question of how it came to be that Jews and Judaism became such a crucial element in the Spanish anti-Machiavellian tradition, it behooves that we first discus – briefly and in very broad strokes – the constitutive role that anti-Judaism played in Christian European thought from the days of early Christianity and up to the early modern period. The longue durée phenomenon that is anti-Judaism, as well as the multiple ways in which it was manifested, are discussed at length in David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition.6 Here, however, we will confine our discussion to the aspects that were most relevant to the intellectual milieu of the writers of the Spanish anti-Machiavellian tradition.

The negative attitude towards Jews and Judaism prevalent in early modern Spain was not a novel phenomenon. Some of its deepest roots lie in certain interpretations of the most influential text for Christianity and one of the intellectual foundations of European civilization: the New Testament. Pharisees, Judaism, Israel, Jews, synagogues, Judaizing etc. are, as we all know, central concepts in this varied array of documents that comprise the New Testament. The portrayal of these concepts throughout these different documents (and often within them) is far from uniform, and can range from the extremely positive to the extremely negative. Moreover, all of the different texts that make up the New Testament open themselves to endless interpretations, not all of which are necessarily anti-Judaic. In other words, while the New Testament certainly contains a potential for anti-Judaic interpretations, it certainly does not mean that it can be characterized as anti-Judaic.7 And yet, the most prevalent reading of the New Testament, from the earliest Christian exegetes and up to the times of Ribadeneyra and Quevedo, tended to be decidedly and unequivocally anti-Judaic, and often anti-Semitic as well.

Consider, for example, how the following section from the “Gospel of John” was used by authors such as Ribadeneyra and Quevedo to equate Machiavellism with Jewish politics:


Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” … So from that day on they plotted to take his life.
Of course, the text does not state anywhere that Caiaphas was a Machiavellian or that the Pharisees were following a false reason of state. Furthermore, the leaders of the Pharisees are not ontologically equivalent to “Jews” or to a “Jewish people.” Nevertheless, as we will see, none of this stopped Ribadeneyra or Quevedo from interpreting the aforementioned section as the quintessence of Jewish Machiavellism.
In addition to claims of deicide, the negative conception of Judaism that emerged during Early Christianity can also be attributed to the complex problem of defining the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. The supersessionist arguments (already found in the New Testament and in Christian interpretations of the “Old”) that arose as a result of this convoluted relationship conceived of Judaism as being superseded by Christianity.8 This supersessionism contrasted Jews and Judaism with Christians and Christianity in a set of binary oppositions in which the former occupied the negative side and the latter the positive one. Thus, (Jewish) law was contrasted with (Christian) love, and so were the letter with the spirit, slavery with freedom, death with life, flesh with spirit (again), literal with the metaphorical, error with truth, stasis with salvation, outward observance with inner faith etc. This resulted not only in an unfavorable way of seeing Judaism, but – perhaps more importantly – of defining Christianity as constituted by an overcoming of Judaism, a theme that would come to be crucial to the way in which Christians made sense of the world.

Conceptions of Jews and Judaism as the anti-thesis of Christians and Christianity were not confined to interpretations of the Scripture (mainly the New Testament but also the “Old” one). Terms like “Jew” and “Judaizing” began to be applied to people and actions that, literally speaking, were neither. Jews therefore continued to be protagonists of Christian thought even after losing all worldly power following the Roman with the destruction of the Temple and the diaspora, and despite the fact that the Christians were persecuted not from Jerusalem but from Rome. Furthermore, their role did not decrease when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, but, on the contrary, only grew larger. Jews, Judaism, Judaizing etc. were increasingly used to identify, understand and do battle against people, ideas and actions. Their figurative, metaphoric, symbolic – and imaginary – use was not only employed by Christians to chastise their coreligionist,9 but also, and quite astonishingly, to scold and discipline Emperors,10 showing that in addition to its theological uses, anti-Judaism could be effectively applied to political matters.11 Hence, politics and political players, which were often seen as fundamentally carnal and earthly, could also be potentially thought of as “Jewish.” For example, whenever a sovereign treated his Jewish subjects in a way that could be interpreted by his enemies as too favorable, he could be accused of Judaizing, of prioritizing this world instead of the next, of preferring the earthly law to the divine love, etc. Given the set of binary oppositions embedded into the Christian worldview, this is not to be wondered at. This much can be seen in Ambrose’s 40th letter, addressed to Emperor Theodosius, on which more below.12

Although politics were prone to be thought of as Jewish, real Jews were thought of as people who ought not to take part in politics owing, among other things, to their epistemological and pedagogical function as eternal subjects proclaiming Christianity’s supersession of Judaism, as Augustine taught.13 But Jews were also identified as deicides whose punishment for Crucifying God was, in the best of cases, rendered the Jews as a tolerated and protected yet eternally abject and subjugated nation – much in line with Augustine’s view – or, in the worst of cases, as a people worthy of divine rage for their transgressions. Often, these two mutually exclusive views had to coexist paradoxically; but whatever the case, Jews became a challenging and critical component in the political philosophy of medieval and early modern Europe.14

Jews, however, did not have to be physically present – neither as rulers nor as subjects – in order to be part of the political discourse (or for that matter any discourse).15 This much will become apparent when we deal with the Spanish anti-Machiavellian tradition that flourished from the end of the 16th century to the middle of the 17th, during which, at least officially, there were no Jews present in the Iberian Peninsula. Yet this was certainly not the first time that Jews were present in a given political discourse despite being physically absent from the time and place that produced it.16


By virtue of its superb explanatory capabilities, anti-Judaism became a powerful tool with which Christian Europeans made sense of a flawed and perplexing world. And by virtue of its compelling rhetorical potential, anti-Judaism came to be employed as a tool with which to criticize the ideas, powers, institutions and persons that made the world so flawed and perplexing in the first place. To be sure, these ideas and powers that be changed over time, but the recourse to imaginary and figurative Jews for rhetorical and cognitive purposes remained a common and almost banal feature of Christian European thinking.17 To (re)quote from Nietzsche’s preface to Beyond Good and Evil (as quoted in the introduction to Anti-Judaism), “All great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity.”18 As I hope we will be able to see in the following chapters, the Spanish anti-Machiavellian tradition, despite reacting to what was certainly a very novel set of ideas in an unprecedented set of circumstances, made use of the very terrifying, monstrous but nevertheless familiar Jewish mask.


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