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

The Reception of Machiavelli in 16th Century Spain

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The Reception of Machiavelli in 16th Century Spain

Machiavelli’s impact on the political, cultural and religious milieu of Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries was, to put it mildly, remarkable. Few post-medieval thinkers, if any, can rival the Florentine’s pervasive influence throughout this period – an influence that, as we shall see, went well beyond the confines of political theory, extending to practically every field, from theology to theatre. Yet the reception of Machiavelli’s works, especially in the century or so after the publication of the The Prince in 1532, is a complex phenomenon whose interpretation has yet to produce a broad scholarly consensus.19

What is clear, despite this lack of consensus, is that there are two discernible phases, each exhibiting a markedly different position towards what was understood to be Machiavelli’s doctrine. The first of these, which could be described as ‘receptive,’ was characterized by a generally positive attitude towards the Florentine – or at the very least by the absence of a negative one. It began soon after the publication of his political treatises in Italian in the 1530s and 1540s, and ended with the prohibition of Machiavelli in Spain following the inclusion of his works in General Inquisitor Gaspar Quiroga’s Index in 1583-84. As a prominent example of this first phase, we could mention that in 1550 Charles V openly claimed to have read Machiavelli's Discourses “in the Tuscan language,”20 or that in 1552 a Spanish translation of the Discourses was published with the approval of Charles V and dedicated to his son, the future Phillip II. We also have evidence that powerful political figures in Spain, such as Francisco de Mendoza Bobadilla, cardinal of Burgos, Juan de la Cerda, duke of Medinaceli or Francisco de Zúñiga Guzmán y Sotomayor, duke of Béjar, owned at least one copy of Machiavelli's works. The influence of the Florentine was also felt in the intellectual sphere. Tomás Cerdán de Tallada, the famed humanist and poet, cited the Discourses.21 Faderique Furió Ceriol and Sebastian Fox Morcillo, were doubtlessly familiar with The Prince, and Balthazar Ayala’s De jure et officiis bellicis et disciplina militari (1585) borrows extensively from the Discourses, even though the work is not cited directly.22 This last example, along with Furió Ceriol’s El concejo y consejeros de príncipes (1559), shows how Machiavelli’s ideas could be applied to the great geopolitical issue of the time, namely, Philip II’s imperial project. And even though Machiavelli’s contribution was not always acknowledged, this was not necessarily because of an attempt on the part of the writers to distance themselves from the Florentine – a prevalent feature of the second, ‘hostile’ phase. Throughout this first phase, moreover, the Florentine was not attacked in Spain – surprisingly, despite the fact that his works were prohibited in Rome as early as 1559. Interestingly, but as I will argue, not incidentally, this ‘receptive,’ pre-anti-Machiavellian phase is devoid of any anti-Judaic references. All mention of Jews are limited to analyses of political events in the Old Testament,23 with the exception of two curious passages in Furió Ceriol’s El concejo y consejeros de príncipes, in which we are told that there are but two lands in all the world: a land of good people, and a land of bad people, and that good people – whether they be Jews, Moors, Gentiles, Christians or members of any sect – all belong to the same land, house and blood.24

The Origins of the Spanish anti-Machiavellian Tradition

In order to properly understand the evolution of this second, hostile phase of Machiavelli’s reception in Spain – which led to the association of Machiavellism with Judaism – we must turn our attention, however briefly, across the Pyrenees to France during the Wars of Religion. It is there that, to paraphrase Edmond Beame, the polemical weapon of anti-Machiavellism was forged amidst the fires of the religious and political conflict.25 Specifically, it was the Huguenot indignation following the Massacre of St. Bartholomew in 1572, allegedly inspired by The Prince, which set in motion a process that would forever change the way in which Machiavelli was perceived. Anti-Valois Huguenots began claiming that Henry III always carried his ‘Machiavelli’ in his pocket,26 and that The Prince was nothing less than Catherine de Medici’s “Bible.”27 Echoes of this anti-Catholic anti-Machiavellism can be found in Christopher Marlowe’s famous (and anti-Judaic?) play, The Jew of Malta (c. 1589), where, at the beginning of the play, “Machiavel” declares that

Albeit the world think Machiavel is dead,

Yet was his soul but flown beyond the Alps;

And, now the Guise is dead, is come from France28
Marlowe is referring to the death of Henry I, Duke of Guise, a leading French Catholic noble and one of the perpetrators of the massacre. The same Duke would be subsequently portrayed by Marlowe as the arch-villain in The Massacre at Paris, a play about the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre.29

Returning to the historical events of the massacre, it is important to note that the first anti-Machiavellian works were not produced by any renowned scholars but rather by eloquent pamphleteers who effectively harvested a profound Protestant indignation. Innocent Gentillet, a Huguenot lawyer, built upon this sense of indignation in his Contre-Machiavel, a work that has been described by one leading scholar as a banal, distorted and unsophisticated straw-man construct of Machiavelli’s thought.30 Notwithstanding this distortion – or perhaps because of it – Contre-Machiavel became one of the most influential sources of anti-Machiavellism in Western thought.31

This nascent, Huguenot anti-Machiavellism turned out to be far too appealing to be confined to one single region or confession, and so, by the 1580s, as the Wars of Religion were drawing to an end, Catholics joined their Protestant rivals in turning Machiavelli and Machiavellism into the representation of everything that was politically anathema to them. By this time, Machiavelli became associated not only with tyranny in the classical, Aristotelian and Scholastic sense, but also with the politiques, the (bad) politicians “who prefer the peace of the kingdom… to the salvation of their souls,” as Gaspard de Saulx, a Catholic noble and one of the organizers of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, wrote in his Memoirs.32 Soon enough, Anti-Machiavellism spread beyond the Alps, where authoritative Catholic writes such as Antonio Possevino, an Italian Jesuit missionary and papal diplomat, began attacking the Florentine. In his Judicium (1592), a collection of attacks on dangerous authors, Possevino condemns Machiavelli (along with Jean Bodin, Phillipe Du Pleiss Monray, and François de la Noue) as a perilous political theorist who sought to turn away people from the Gospel. The book turned out to be one of the most influential pieces of anti-Machiavellism: Ribadeneyra, the most prominent of the Spanish anti-Machiavellians, would appropriate it without acknowledgment, and so would Ribadeneyra’s imitators. Notwithstanding Possevino’s eloquence, we now know that he had never actually read anything written by Machiavelli. Instead, as Sydney Anglo has decisively demonstrated, Possevino’s criticism was in fact appropriated from the aforementioned Contre-Machiavel by Innocent Gentillet (the anti-Catholic Huguenot lawyer).33 By this point, it is becoming apparent that these anti-Machiavellian texts can tell us much more about the worldview of their writers and readers than about the Florentine’s “real” doctrines and intentions. Thus, the question of whether or not Machiavelli was properly understood by his detractors is, at least historically, of secondary importance.34

Nevertheless, despite the ferment caused by the French Wars of Religion and despite the fact that the Florentine’s works were included as early as 1559 in the Roman Index, it was not until 1583-4, when the General Inquisitor of Spain, Gaspar Quiroga published his Index, that Spain joined the pan-European anti-Machiavellian frenzy. By and large, any subsequent mention of Machiavelli – whether political, theological or literary – was almost inevitably accompanied by an attitude of open and unequivocal hostility that owned much to the aforementioned anti-Machiavellism that arose from the French Wars of Religion.35

It was precisely in this second and hostile phase that we begin to find a recurrent and conspicuous association of Machiavelli and his alleged theory on the supremacy of reason of state with Jews and Judaism. Whether or not anti-Machiavellism was (to paraphrase Nietzsche) a “great thing” is debatable; what is certain, is that it wore the “terrifying and monstrous” mask of Judaism in order to inscribe itself on the hearts of humanity.

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