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


Tradado de la Religion by Pedro de Ribadeneira



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Tradado de la Religion by Pedro de Ribadeneira

The first anti-Machiavellian work to appear in Spanish was a translation from Italian by Antonio de Herrera of a treatise by Giovanni Botero entitled Della ragion di stato (1589). This is also the first work to introduce Spanish readers to a term of utmost importance in the Spanish anti-Machiavellian tradition: razón de estado, reason of state.36 But it was not until 1595, when Pedro de Ribadeneyra (1527-1611), a Jesuit hagiographer and historian, wrote his influential Tratado de la Religion y Virtudes que deve tener el Principe Christiano (Treatise on the Religion and Virtues Which a Christian Prince Ought to Have)37 that we can start talking about a Spanish anti-Machiavellian “reason of state” tradition. The Tratado de la Religion had a huge impact on Spanish though in the first half of the 17th century: it is the first and most paradigmatic example of the Spanish anti-Machiavellian “reason of state,” and was translated into Italian, Latin, French and even English.38 Crucially for our purposes, it was also the very first work in Spanish to associate Machiavelli with negative portrayals of Jews and Judaism.

The concept of “reason of state” – falsely attributed to Machiavelli – essentially came to signify much of what was anathema to the political ideals of Counter-Reformation Spain. According to Ribadeneyra and his followers, by demoting religion from its rightful place as the ultimate telos of humanity to a mere means with which to achieve political ends, Machiavelli was literally turning the world upside down. To use the jargon of Catholic normative jurisprudence, the placement of God’s will (i.e. religion) under a this-worldly and secular “reason of state” constituted an outrage to both natural and divine laws.39

Ribadeneyra depicted Machiavelli as an erudite but utterly godless man who taught the murky and poisonous doctrine that the conservation of the state is the only goal a prince should strive for. A prince should use any and all means available to him, whether just or unjust, good or bad, to secure his political goals. And since religion is nothing but a tool of politics, inner faith ends up being supplanted by the hypocritical appearance of piety. Even worse, true religion – by which Ribadeneyra meant Roman Catholicism – runs the risk of being overthrown by heresies whenever these are deemed to be politically convenient. Machiavellians, Ribadeneyra explains, are therefore worse than the Protestant heretics: while the former are deceitful and “have no religion whatsoever,” the latter at least believe in something and openly profess their beliefs. Unlike the identifiable Protestants, the “Judas-like” Machiavellians kill with a “false kiss of peace.”40 Ribadeneyra places much emphasis on the claim that Machiavellians deny the existence of God and, concomitantly, the work of divine providence in human affairs. This accusation would be echoed by subsequent anti-Machiavellians (e.g. Jerónimo Gracián de la Madre de Dios, on which more below), when he characterizes Machiavellians as “political atheists.”41

So far we have seen how the Tradado de la Religion elaborates on the basic opposition, contained in Botero’s Della ragione di stato, between a godless Machiavellism on the one side and a divine and natural law on the other.42 Ribadeneyra, however, puts forth the claim (implicit in Botero’s Della ragione di stato) that the crucial contrast is not between religion and politics, but within politics, a distinction that as we shall see became prevalent in the Spanish anti-Machiavellian tradition. The Tradado de la Religion presents us with two reasons of state: one evil, false, apparent, deceiving and diabolical; and another good, true, real, genuine, sincere and divine. Crucially, “one makes a religion of the state, the other makes a state out of religion.”43 It is important to note that for Ribadeneyra and the Spanish anti-Machiavellian tradition, a “false reason of state” would not only result in eternal damnation for the evil sovereign in the afterlife, but would also inevitably lead to destruction of the state in the political sense – in this world. The reason for this is that any false reason of state fails to take into account God’s active and providential intervention in human affairs [discuss political theology].44 In other words, Ribadeneyra’s causal arguments concerning this-worldly political phenomena render his critique of Machiavellism as not only theological and normative, but also political in the most earthly way conceivable.

At this stage we can already begin to sense that Ribadeneyra did not ignore the massive shift in political thinking effected by Machiavelli, a shift that, as seen, was already part of the political discourse of Counter-Reformation Spain. His Tratado attempts to reinstitute the essential medieval scholastic-Aristotelian dichotomy between king and tyrant, erased by Machiavelli, by adapting this dichotomy to the “Machiavellian” discourse of his own times.45 Machiavelli could not be expunged and defeated – his doctrines had already become an integral part of the political discourse – but he could be silently appropriated and Christianized. Thus, the Tradado is intended as a mirror of princes for ethical and pious rulers that, in contrast to the Machiavellian prince, will return the (true) “reason of state” to its proper, natural and divinely sanctioned place as a means to further religion – the true telos of humanity. Yet, the distinction between true and false reasons of state was not always a simple one, and it is precisely as part of this crucial differentiation that Ribadeneyra resorts to one of the most powerful pedagogical and rhetorical tools available to him: anti-Judaism.


Ribadeneyra’s understanding of the role played by Judaism in his providential narrative of politics presents us with a fascinating anti-Machiavellian interpretation of contemporary Christian sacred history. This narrative is chronologically and theologically separated into two periods divided by the greatest Machiavellian act in the history of humanity: the Crucifixion. The first of these periods, epitomized by the sacred history of the “Old Testament,” provides the Tratado with invaluable material for some of its most important discussions. Indeed, few sources, if any, could be better suited to unequivocally prove the decisive intervention of God’s hand in human politics as the Old Testament. For instance, in chapter 16 (“That princes which are governed by God’s Law rather than by the false reason of state are favored by God”) David, Hezekiah and Jehoshaphat are mentioned at the top of a long and illustrious list of rulers – including Constantine the Great, the Catholic Kings and Charles V, among many others – whose divine piety was rewarded by earthly political gains. The Old Testament, of course, is also a great source of negative examples consisting of princes whose sinful ways brought ruin to their kingdoms, e.g. Jeroboam and Asa.46 In addition to being an excellent source of providential political history, the laws of the “Old Testament” – especially those found in Deuteronomy – provide Ribadeneyra with a model for righteous regimes in which religion takes its proper role as a guiding light for the rulers.47

Yet as mentioned the Jews also provide Ribadeneyra with what is without a doubt the most salient example of a “false reason of state” in the history of politics: the “Jewish” plot to kill Jesus in John 11:45-57, a passage already mentioned in our discussion of anti-Judaism. The portrayal of this as the ultimate Machiavellian act in human history is first discussed in chapter 16 of the Tratado, entitled “Wherein it is proven, with a few examples, that the Princes who follow the false reason of State destroy their States and Dominions.”

After the Pharisees and Princes of the Jews beheld the miracle that Jesus-Christ, our Redeemer, performed in the raising of Lazarus, and that because of it and other admirable works performed by Him daily the people followed Him, they took council, saying: “What shall we do? Why do we sleep? Do you not see that this man performs many miracles? If we leave him be and not tie his hands, then surely all the world will believe in him, and the Romans will come against us and our city, easily taking and destroying it because there will be no one to defend it given that this man and his followers are such enemies and contraries of [our City] and our Holy Temple. So, what remedies can we find for such evil? Let one man die so that not all perish, and by the death of one we shall secure our lives, and those of our wives and children: and thus, by resorting to false reason of state, they decided to take away the life of the Author of life.”

What did they profit from this? What gain came from this advice? Christ died in the Cross, and through his most blessed Passion all the world believed in him, and as vengeance for his death God ordered that the Romans should come and lay siege, crush and enter the city, razing it so that not one stone would be left on another, and that upon the Jews should befall one of the greatest and most horrible punishments ever carried out in the world, as is testified by the histories that deal with this matter. So that, by following the path through which they sought to preserve their city, they lost it; and the advice that they took following reason of state against God, became their destruction and a dagger to them. And if they had looked at the Lord and considered that that man was Saintly and innocent, and that he shone with great and singular miracles, and that through Him God was converting the peoples, bringing them to his knowledge, and that this was God’s doing, when all would believe and follow him, the very same God, under whose shelter and protection they lived, would have defended them; had they believed in Christ and accepted him as their Messiah, they would have saved themselves and their City.48


What is truly remarkable about this interpretation – which could very well be thought of as Spanish anti-Machiavellian theory in a nutshell and would be echoed by the likes of Calderón de la Barca and Francisco de Quevedo – is that the Jewish failure to comprehend Jesus’ Divinity and accept His messiahship is presented not so much as a theological error but as a political one. By “following reason of state against God” and taking away the “life of the Author of life,” the “Princes of the Jews” were not only committing the most atrocious Machiavellian act imaginable, but also the greatest political blunder in history. And soon enough, God intervened by ordering the Romans to perpetrate one of the “greatest and most horrible punishment[s] ever carried out in the world.” Nowhere in the Tratado can we find an example of comparable pedagogical magnitude or theoretical significance. It comes as no wonder that this political interpretation to the events surrounding the Crucifixion became one of the recurring motifs in the Spanish anti-Machiavellian tradition. [Relate to Carl Schmitt!]

While the importance played by the Jews in Ribadeneyra’s political theory does not come to an end with the Crucifixion and the subsequent destruction of the Jewish polity, their new role is drastically altered. The Jews have ceased to be pedagogically valuable as sovereigns whose actions are at times good and at others bad. Instead, they have metamorphosed into Augustinian eternal subjects, “despondent and timid,”49 whose pedagogical significance now lies, as we will see, in determining the godliness or ungodliness of the sovereigns who rule over them.

This much can be seen in Ribadeneyra’s analysis of St. Ambrose famous letter to Emperor Theodosius I (number 40). The background for this long letter is roughly this: In 388 C.E., the bishop of Callinicum on the Euphrates50 incited a Christian mob to pillage and burn a synagogue.51 Given that this was an illegal act, Emperor Theodosius commanded the governor of the East to duly punish the culprits and have the accused bishop rebuilt the synagogue at his own expense. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, responded by vehemently chastising the emperor. Interestingly, this fiery chastisement is analyzed through the lenses of late 16th century Spanish Counter-Reformation, as part of a series of chapters dealing with how “secular princes ought to favor things pertaining to religion, not judging over them.”52 Specifically, Ribadeneyra is keen to prove through Scripture and providential history that all faith-related matters are to be placed unequivocally under the sole jurisdiction of the Catholic Church and its Supreme Pontiff, and that no secular ruler has the authority to decide on these matters:
And speaking to the Emperor Theodosius, who had ordered to rebuild a synagogue of Jews that the Christians had burned, Saint Ambrose said: “If you think I am not worthy of being believed, order then the gathering of any Bishops you choose so that they may address [the question of] what can the Emperor do without harming the Faith. If in financial matters you heed the advice of your accountants, how much more fitting is it that in matters of religion you consult the priests?” And the very same Saint Ambrose told Theodosius: That the purple makes Emperors and not Priests, distinguishing and differentiating between one and the other.53
Of Ambrose’s various arguments as to why the perpetrators should not be punished, Ribadeneyra mentions only one: that the Emperor has no authority over religious matters, even when they (erroneously) appear to infringe on decisively secular ones – such as the divinely ordained destruction of Jewish property. It would be difficult to think of another argument as effective as this one to drive home Ribadeneyra’s point. The split model of sovereignty presented by Ambrose, in which the sovereign’s attitude towards his Jewish subjects is presented as a decisive criterion of whether a proper hierarchy of sovereignty is in place, became a basic and constituent part of Christian political theory.54 Indeed, Ribadeneyra’s anti-Machiavellian theory of the “true reason of state” is in many ways nothing but an early-modern adaptation and elaboration of this split model of sovereignty. And given the anti-Judaic foundations of this model, it comes as no wonder that anti-Judaism plays such a prominent role in the Tratado.

Chronologically speaking, the next mention of Jews in the Tratado tells of yet another confrontation between a Roman emperor (Theodosius II) and a Christian saint (Simon Stylites) over some synagogues (in Antioch) in 423 A.C. The historical background – quite reminiscent of the incident at Callinicum – is roughly as follows: in 423 C.E., the Jews of Antioch were dispossessed of a number of synagogues; Theodosius II, the Roman Emperor, ordered that the synagogues be restored to the Jewish community; upon hearing this, Simeon Stylites, the famous and influential ascetic, gravely rebuked Theodosius, which lead to the emperor retracting his order.55 Ribadeneyra retells the events as follows:


In the days of Emperor Theodosius, son of Arcadius, some Christians took certain synagogues from the Jews, and the Emperor, following the advice of some of his ministers and favorites, ordered these synagogues returned to the Jews. That great Simeon Stylites, who at the time was respected as a miracle of saintliness, took notice of this and wrote a letter to the Emperor in which he gravely reprehended him, telling him that if he ordered those synagogues to be returned to the Jews, the Lord would punish him severely; and the words of the Saint had such power that Theodosius revoked what he had previously ordered, and he deprived those who had given him such bad council from their ranks and offices. The same Theodosius, writing to the Ephesian Council, said thus: “Although we take great care in all matters concerning the Republic, we are even more careful with those things that we judge to be unprofitable in preserving piety and Religion: because it is from this fountain men derive all other goods.”56
Tellingly, Ribadeneyra is not resorting to the events in Antioch in order to discuss the political status of any contemporary Jews, but as part of a discussion on the important issue of how a “Christian prince must take great care of the religion professed by his subjects,” in which Ribadeneyra sharply criticizes those evil princes who through “false reason of state… impious, diabolical and contrary to divine and natural law” promote religious toleration in the name of peace, justice and the rule of law:
[These ministers of Satan] teach that kings and temporary princes ought not to pay attention to the faith and beliefs of their people, but rather to conserving justice and peace, and governing their republic in such a manner that each subject follows the religion of his choosing, so long as they are obedient to the civil laws and do not disturb the peace of said republic.57
These sorts of republics, according to Ribadeneyra, existed among “the heretic Lutherans of Germany” and the “rebels against God and their natural lord in the states of Flanders.”58 It is thus that the anti-Judaic heritage of late Antiquity is adapted to the Counter-Reformation discourse in order to expose the political futility of (an allegedly) Protestant religious tolerance which prefers justice, peace and obedience over God, religion and piety. Once again, we are confronted with an episode in which a sovereign is forced to decide between bad politicians and saintly ascetics, republic and religion, divine faith and civil law – and, of course, between Jews and Christians. As we saw with the incident at Callinicum and the plot to kill Jesus before that, Jews can be very helpful in elucidating this hierarchy of sovereignty.
The Tratado mentions post-Crucifixion Jews in two historical events of utmost importance for Ribadeneyra: the defeat of Christian Rome by Visigoth heretics, and the Alhambra decree. Although brief, both mentions are quite revealing. They appear in a group of chapters dealing with “the first thing that a Christian prince ought to do in order to achieve fortitude,” in which Ribadeneyra criticizes Machiavelli's famous claim that Christianity has “enfeebled and weakened the world, turning it over as prey to wicked men, so that without opposition and in security they may do with it as they wish.”59 Ribadeneyra argues that far from enfeebling men, Christianity, on account of the eternal bliss enjoyed by those who die in just wars, increases the fortitude of the believer.60 This much is attested by the numerous and incomparable examples of famous knights, valiant soldiers, brave captains, invincible kings and emperors.61

But how can Ribadeneyra account for the many perplexing cases in which the godless and unjust have triumphed over the righteous and devout, especially if we take into account his providential view of politics and history, which espouses a robust version of the claim that right makes might? One way in which the Tratado attempts to explain this problem away is through anti-Judaism, as the following section, dealing with the defeat of the Christian Romans under Stilicho by the Vandals under Alaric, shows:


Who fought the second time against Alaric but the Lord himself, by whose virtue and that of his Holy Cross… was this victory achieved? And as proof of this, Paulus Orosius says that after the [Christian] captain was replaced [by Stilicho], and the command of the war was bestowed on Saul, a Jew, affairs changed so drastically that the favor of the Lord turned to in punishment, so that those who while fighting in His name were hitherto victors, were thereafter vanquished.62
In other words, this potentially troubling instance of right not making might (Christian Rome would be sacked by Visigoth heretics eight years later) occurred due to God’s punishment of Christian Rome for placing a Jew in command of their army. There is, nevertheless, a rather curious problem with Ribadeneyra’s interpretation of these events: according to Paulus Orosius, whom Ribadeneyra duly quotes as his source, Saul was not a Jew, but rather a “barbarian and pagan.”63 Was this mistranslation deliberate or accidental? The answer to this question is, unfortunately, well beyond the scope of the present work and perhaps unanswerable. Be that as it may, the fact that Ribadeneyra chose to write about a purportedly historical event in which a single Jew functions as the sole explanatory cause behind the perplexing defeat of a Christian army at the hands of Arian heretics is in itself quite revealing.

Yet Jews could also help elucidate stories of astounding political success. In what is chronologically speaking the last mention of Jews in the Tratado, Ribadeneyra discusses what he holds to be the causal link between the expulsion of the Jews and the Moors under the Catholic Kings and the astonishing expansion of the Spanish Empire under these devout rulers:64


Well, what can I say of the Kings Don Fernando, his grandson, and Dona Isabel, daughter of his nephew the King Don Juan, truly Catholic Kings of enlightened memory, when they ordered the expulsion of the Moors and the Jews from the Kingdoms of Spain? They cared more about preserving and increasing in [the Kingdoms of Spain] the purity of our holy religion, than about the false reason of state or the royal rents that originated from [the Moors and the Jews], which would necessarily lessen and diminish. But this pious and selfless service rendered to God by these glorious kings was profitably repaid by God, who cleansed from these kingdoms all the hideousness and filth of false sects, keeping [these kingdoms] to this day in the purity and wholeness of the Catholic faith, and in justice and peace, giving them other kingdoms and discovering by His hand a New World, with such great treasures and riches, that it is one of the greatest miracles ever done by Him. And the same Catholic King Don Fernando recognized and confessed that all his victories and prosperity were born out of the zeal bestowed upon him by God to preserve and increase His holy religion, by throwing out the infidels from Spain and instituting the Holy Office of the Inquisition.65
We recall that the greatest political blunder in history – the Crucifixion – happened because of a “false reason of state” that led to a terrible political miscalculation on part of the Jews. Now, Ribadeneyra shows us just how politically profitable the true reason of state can be. The Catholic Kings did not have to be publicly chastised by the likes of Ambrose or Simeon Stylites in order for them to learn that it does not pay to be Machiavellian. They already know how to prioritize between “the purity of our holy religion” and such worldly matters as royal rents produced by Jews and Moors. Indeed, as the “great treasures and riches” of the “New World” confirm, Ferdinand and Isabela were expert political analysts who understood the causal laws governing political phenomena – and the crucial role that Jews (and Moors) play in them.
The different but related rhetorical and pedagogical roles played by the (post-Incarnation) Jews in Ribadeneyra’s Tratado – Machiavellian deicides, eternal subjects, ruinous commanders, indicators of a political piety – would be echoed time and again in the writings of most Spanish anti-Machiavellian political theorists of the “reason of state” tradition, as well as some of the most prominent fiction writers of the Spanish Golden Age. For all of these authors, Jews would become invaluable tools in their efforts to make sense of politics, religion, morality and history. And as the eternal indicators of Machiavellism, Jews would also be decisive in the way that anti-Machiavellism understood and defined itself.


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