Machiavelli; Letter on Savonarola
Niccolò Machiavelli to Ricciardo Becchi
Florence, 9 March 1498
In order to give you, in accordance with your wishes, a full account of matters here concerning the friar, you should know that once the two sermons (of which you have already received copies) were given, he preached on the Sunday of Carnival; after speaking at length, he invited his entire audience to take communion on the Carnival day in San Marco, and he said he would pray to God that if what he had predicted did not come from Him, He might display a very clear sign of it. He did this, some say, in order to unite his partisans and to strengthen their defense of him, fearing lest the new Signoria, already chosen but not yet made public, might be against him. Once the membership of the Signoria was made public last Monday, about whom you must have been completely apprised, because he believed it was more than two-thirds hostile to him, and the pope had sent a brief that summoned him, under pain of interdiction, and he feared that the Signoria would not actually obey him, he decided – either because of his own choice or because of a warning from others – to leave off preaching in Santa Reparata and go to San Marco. Therefore, on the Thursday morning that the Signoria took office, he said – still in Santa Reparata – that, in order to avoid strife and to preserve the honor of God, he would withdraw and that the men should come and hear him at San Marco and the women should go to Fra Domenico at San Lorenzo. Now that our friar was in his own house, if you had heard with what boldness he began preaching and with how much he continued, it would be an object of no little admiration. Because, fearing greatly for himself and believing that the new Signoria would not be reluctant to injure him – and having decided that quite a few citizens should be brought down with him – he started in with great scenes of horror; with explanations that were quite effective to those not examining them closely, he pointed out that his adherents were excellent people while his opponents were most villainous, and he drew on every expression that might weaken his opponents’ party and fortify his own. Because I was there, I shall briefly relate some of these matters.
The text of his first sermon at San Marco was this passage from Exodus: “But the more they oppressed them, the more they were multiplied, and increased.” Before he began explicating this passage, he showed why he had withdrawn and said, “When it comes to action, prudence is right-reason.” Then he said that all mankind had had and continues to have an end, but that it differs: for Christians, this end is Christ; for others, past and present, their end has been and continues to be something else, depending upon their religious sects. Since we who are Christians tend toward this end which is Christ, we ought to preserve His honor with the utmost prudence and regard for the times; and whenever the times call upon us to imperil our lives for Him, to do so; and whenever it is time for a man to go into hiding, to do so, as we read about Christ and about St. Paul. And so he added we ought to do, and so we have done; therefore, when it came time to rise up against violence, we have done so, as we did on Ascension Day, because the honor of God and the times required it. Now when the honor of God demands that we give in to wrath, we have given in. After he had given this short address, he delineated two ranks: one which soldiered under God, that is, himself and his adherents; the other, under the Devil, that is, his adversaries. After he had spoken about this subject at length, he started in on an explanation of the passage from Exodus mentioned above and said that through suffering good people grow in two ways: in spirit and in number: in spirit, because people are more united when faced with adversity and become stronger by being near their activating power, in the same way that water heats up the closer it is to fire because it is closer to its activating power. They also grow in number because there are three types of human beings: namely, the good – they are those who follow me; the wicked and the obstinate – they are the adversaries; and there is another type of person, the intemperate – given to pleasure – neither obstinate about doing evil nor inclined toward doing good, because they cannot distinguish one from the other.
But whenever some actual disagreement arises between the good and the wicked, people recognize the malice of the evil and the integrity of the good, because opposites are more evident when placed near one another; people frequent the former and shun the latter because everyone naturally shuns evil and willingly follows good. Therefore, during adversity the evil diminish and the good multiply; and so the greater, . . . etc. I am telling you about this briefly because the brevity of a letter does not call for a lengthy account. After he had digressed as is his wont, in order to weaken his adversaries further and to provide a bridge to his next sermon, he continued by pointing out that our dissension might cause a tyrant to rise up who would bring down our houses and lay waste to our land. This did not contradict what he had already said, that Florence should prosper and be dominant in Italy because it would soon come about that [the tyrant] would be driven out of Italy. And with this he finished his sermon.
The next morning, still expounding Exodus and coming to that passage where it says that Moses slew an Egyptian, he said that the Egyptian represented evil-doers and Moses the preacher who slew them by exposing their vices. Then he said, “O Egyptian, I want to stab you.” And it was your books, O priests, whose pages he leafed through, treating you in such a way that not even dogs would have eaten any of it. Then he added – and this is what he was driving at – that he wanted to give the Egyptian another stab wound, a big one.
He said that God had told him that there was someone in Florence who sought to make himself a tyrant, and he was engaged in dealings and schemes in order to succeed, and that the desire to drive out the friar, to excommunicate the friar, and to persecute the friar meant nothing else than to seek to create a tyrant, and that the laws ought to be obeyed. And he made so much of this that later that day people speculated publicly about someone who is about as close to being a tyrant as you are to Heaven. Afterward, since the Signoria had written to the pope in his behalf and he realized that he no longer needed to be afraid of his adversaries in Florence, instead of trying, as he once had, solely to unite his party through hatred of his adversaries and through frightening them with the word “tyrant,” he has changed coats – now that he understands that he no longer needs to act in this way. So, he urges them to the union that was initiated, and he no longer mentions either the tyrant or the wickedness of the people; he seeks to set all of them at odds with the Supreme Pontiff and, turning toward him and his attacks, says of the pope what could be said of the wickedest person you might imagine. Thus, in my judgment, he acts in accordance with the times and colors his lies accordingly.
Now, as for what the common people are saying and what men hope or fear, I shall leave that up to you who are a judicious man to deterimine; you can determine these matters better than I can inasmuch as you are fully aware of our temperament, the nature of the times, and, because you are there [in Rome], the pontiff’s state of mind. Only this I ask of you: if reading my letter has not been too much trouble for you, then do not consider it too much trouble to tell me in your reply what judgment you make about the condition of the times and the people’s minds concerning our affairs. Farewell.
Dated Florence, 9 March 1497.
Niccolò di M. Bernardo Machiavelli