Freethought Almanac

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May 3: Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469)


It was on this date, May 3, 1469, that Niccolò Machiavelli was born Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli in Florence, in what is now Italy. Florence had been ruled by the powerful Medici family since 1434, and was constantly at war with its neighboring city-states when not fending off outside aggressors. But in 1494 there was a brief flirtation with reform in Florence, the Medicis were thrown out of power, and Niccolò ingratiated himself with their successors — winning himself a diplomatic post.

But when the Medicis returned to power in 1512, Niccolò was looked on with suspicion. It took him 13 years to be rewarded with another government post. Although it was not published until after his death, what may have helped him was a little work Niccolò wrote in 1513: The Prince (Il Principe)

Based on his own experiences under two monarchies in Florence, Niccolò wrote The Prince as a survival guide for despots. It advised against virtues that could be harmful and in favor of vices that could helpful. Although it is not necessary to actually have all the virtues, argued Niccolò, it is most important to "appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright..." and that, "in order to maintain the state," it is necessary "to act contrary to faith, friendship, humanity, and religion."

Though no stranger to hypocrisy, the Catholic Encyclopedia pronounces The Prince an "immoral work," while standing by all of these immoral Popes. Let's see just how moral the Church was. It is clear that, of the nine popes under which Niccolò lived, all but four of them were decisively Machiavellian, when they were not downright immoral:

Sixtus IV (1471-84) gave fabulous gifts to his brother, three sisters, and 14 nephews and nieces out of the Papal treasury, elevated some notoriously unsuitable men to be cardinal, including relatives such as Pietro Riario, whose mistress, Tiresia, dressed opulently at his expense.

Innocent VIII (1484-1492), the unmarried father of two, enriched his relatives and tolerated their vices, added unsuitable men as cardinals (including his bother's bastard son), sold church positions to the highest bidder, spent lavishly on a reception for a relic — the spear with which Longinus pierced the side of Christ — that had duplicates in three other cities. Innocent was the Pope whose 1484 bull inspired the extermination of suspected witches, mostly women, throughout Europe.

Alexander VI (1492-1503), the most corrupt pope of the Renaissance, was a Borgia, attainted the Papacy at age 62 by bribery and murder, had a daughter by one of at least two mistresses, 15-year-old Giulia Farnese, while he was Pope (and Giulia remained his mistress), had five other children, and allowed orgies in the Vatican.

Julius II (1503-1513), who was mentored out of his monastery by Sixtus IV, became Pope at age 60 through promises to the cardinals that he never kept, was also sexually promiscuous, had three known daughters, sold church positions and indulgences, drank and gambled, and was addicted to sodomy. Like Innocent, he issued a bull (1504) against witches.

Leo X (1513-1521) was a Medici, a cleric at age seven and a cardinal at age 17, bought the Papacy at age 38, and was notably vicious and unscrupulous. He presided over indecent comedies at the Vatican, spent lavishly on jewels, banquets and — a notorious nepotist — on friends and relatives, raised money from the sale of church positions and indulgences (as Martin Luther protested!), while decreeing that taking interest on loans was contrary to Scripture. He was addicted to sodomy — a taste he acquired after he became pope.

This was a period in which we are to believe there was great religious faith. Making the nickname of the Devil "Old Nick," based on Niccolò Machiavelli's name, somehow brings to mind pots and kettles.

Originally published May 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

Daily Almanac

May 12: Florence Nightingale

"I am so glad that my God is not the God of the High Church or of the Low," said Nightingale. She despised the churches and was an advanced Rationalist.

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