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Why We Keep Asking “Was Machiavelli an Atheist?”

I love the way this woman writes. She writes these posts so very infrequently--three times a year maybe--that it's a treat to see one pop up.

She has been doing an incredible work of history for us by looking at Machiavelli. His life. His milieu. His world. His politics. Piece by piece, brick by brick, she is building something absolutely incredible to read.

Here she tries to answer the question of whether Machiavelli was an atheist, with many asides about what a difficult question that is to answer, the history of public atheism, and so on.

Why We Keep Asking “Was Machiavelli an Atheist?” -- Ex Urbe

The first really real for sure definite actual atheists who, by golly, said they were atheists (OMG!) date to the mid-seventeenth century, the Libertine movement, when a push toward religious tolerance (largely in the name of stopping the Reformation wars of religion before they wiped out all homo sapiens on the European continent) meant that wealth and power were enough to armor figures like the Earl of Rochester and his circle (including the bone-chilling Charles Blount) sufficiently that they could be known to be atheists and survive so long as they denied it in public. This trend strengthened in the Enlightenment. I often compare late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century atheism to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century homosexuality: there were circles in which one could let it be an open secret that one was an [atheist/homosexual] and it would be okay so long as one didn’t ruffle too many feathers or say anything in public or in front of civic authorities. One was always at risk of prosecution, and if one wanted to be safe and respected one kept it carefully hidden (as Diderot hid his atheist works), but there was enough sympathy within the apparatus of power that one could write of one’s [atheism/homosexuality] in private letters, and even hint at it in public works, and more often than not be safe. The pre-seventeenth-century atheist enjoyed no such safety, so not even in Renaissance private correspondence (where talk of homosexuality is quite commonplace) do we see even the most timid hand raised when the historian calls back: “Is anybody there an atheist? Anybody? Machiavelli?”

Why is Machiavelli our favorite candidate? Many reasons. First, he is in other ways so very modern. Having spotted someone who thinks about history as we do, and thinks about ethics as we do, and definitely, provably thinks in a very much more modern way than others of his century, he is a natural candidate for other modern twists including atheism.

Second, he was called an atheist by so many people for so long. The mystique of vague, beard-stroking villainy invoked by the term “Machiavellian” (Note: Machiavelli did not have a beard) falls nicely into the pre-modern logic chain: (1) Fear of Hell drives men to good behavior. (2) Machiavelli advocates sinful behavior including lies, betrayal, murder and reign by terror. (3) Machiavelli does not fear Hell. (4) Machiavelli was an atheist.

But there are more focused reasons than that. If we return to Febvre’s warning that we are prone to spot atheists in every shadow, Febvre argues that, instead of seeking the rare beast of our desiring, we should instead confine ourselves to searching for a habitat capable of supporting him; only then can we safely say that we have found him, not his shadow. By “habitat” Febvre means the apparatus of other ideas related to atheism which make atheism easier and more likely.
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Medieval and Renaissance Europe had perfectly respectable answers to all scientific and sociological questions, they just all depended on God all the time. Take gravity, for example. Celestial bodies are moved by angels. As for why some earthly objects fall and others rise, morally inferior objects fall down toward Satan and morally superior ones rise up toward God, sorting themselves out into natural layers like oil and water. Stones sink in water because Water is superior to Earth, hot air rises because Fire is superior to Air, and virtuous men go to Heaven because good souls are light and wicked souls are heavy with sins which make them fall to the circle of Hell corresponding to the weight of their sins: nine circles separated out in layers, again like oil and water. God established the first societies, handed down the first laws, created the first languages, and directed the rise and fall of empires to communicate His Will. If one wanted to be an atheist in the Middle Ages one had to throw away 90% of all science and social theory, and when asked “Why do rocks sink?” or “How do planets move?” or “Where did the world come from?” one had to answer, “I have no idea.” Turning one’s back on social answers in that way is very difficult, and is part of why the study of atheism is so closely tied to the study of philosophical skepticism—only very recently have atheists had the leisure of both denying God and still having a functional model of the universe. Early atheists had to be, largely, skeptics. They also had to embrace a not-particularly-functional partial worldview which made rest of the world (which had a much more complete one) think they were completely crazy. I thus sometimes compare Medieval atheists with modern creationists, since both are individuals willing to say, “I believe this one thing so fiercely that I will throw away all the other things to keep it, even if it makes everyone think I’m nuts.” Doing this is very hard. Doing it when other ideas are around to satisfy the gaps left by removing God from science becomes much easier.
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