Hugh Trevor-Roper
Renaissance Essays

Platonists like Pole were shocked by Machiavelli's realism, his 'reason of state.' But this was not the real difference between them. Thomas Cromwell had a concept of a good society which was not disreputable; it drew on some of the ideas of Erasmus. And were the methods by which Utopian society was preserved entirely un-machiavellian, in the vulgar sense of that word? Machiavelli at least apologized for the methods which he thought necessary in politics. He regretted the necessity of force and fraud and did not call them by any other name. Plato and More sanctified them, provided that they were used to sustain their own Utopian republics. Their successors, whom Machiavelli had made conscious of the problem, sought to escape from it, but only involved themselves in intolerable casuistry.

Their dilemma is illustrated most obviously by another, later seeker after Utopia. Tommaso Gampanella was, like Savonarola, a Dominican friar. He was also, like More, a Christian Platonist, though a Piatonist of a different kind, whose Platonism was shot through with magic and astrology. He too believed in a perfect system of government, with community of all property (including wives), common meals (with larger helpings and more delicate dishes for the elite), no money, no private trade, no cosmetics, the death-penalty for rouge or high heels, ideological brain-washing, universal espionage, slaves to do the dirty work, and authoritarian rule by a philosopher-king. His City of the Sun was in some ways grimmer even than Utopia: it allowed no room for innocent fools or organized Jollity. On the other hand, there was less emphasis on hard work. It was also less hypocritical: its inhabitants were not pacifists, like the Utopians, but, like the Spartans, highly trained fighters. They even sent their children into battle, to accustom them to the sight of blood; for they were a conquering race, systematically and eugenically bred (all sexual relations controlled by the state), and were convinced that their institutioins would one day prevail throughout the world. Like the Utopians they professed a religion of Nature which could easily be adjusted to Christianity (of a kind), for it included the essential Platonic doctrines of divine Providence, the immortality of the soul, and posthumous rewards and punishments.

Unlike More, Campanella actually sought to realize his political ideals by direct action. His attempt to create a Utopian republic in Calabria failed; he would be seized and tortured, and would spend twenty-seven years in a scries of prisons in Naples and Rome. But he never ceased to recommend his Platonic political philosophy, or the 'machiavellian' methods by which it was to be achieved and perpetuated. While ritually denouncing Machiavelli as an impious 'Achitophel' who misled and corrupted princes by his infamous 'Reason of State,' he protested that the same reason of state would be perfectly acceptable if it were re-named 'reason of good government' and applied to support not secular power but his own millenarian theocracy. And so he too, like More, recommends Machiavelli's methods, the methods which have given Machiavelli a bad name, in order to create and preserve for ever—aeternare—his Utopia.

Between Platonists and Machiavellians there is no difference of method. Both are machiavellians in the vulgar sense of the word. Both are prepared to use 'reason of state' and to justify its use for the purposes which they approve. Where they differ—and they differ fundamentally—is in those purposes, and in their attitude to history. The crucial question is, shall 'reason of stale' be used to deny history or to profit by its lessons, to arrest it or to control it? Having put it thus, perhaps we may venture to answer it. Perhaps, in the end, Plato and Plethon, Savonarola and More and Campanella, the idealists who sought to freeze history, are not the best guides in the real world. Perhaps Machiavelli, who responded to the challenge of history, who broke with the Platonic tradition of Florence, who repudiated his fellow-Florentine Savonarola, who stepped boldly forward and sought not to end history but to use it, to tame it, to make it work for him. Is a better guide for our time, for all time.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.