The Blog

Anti-Saint Nicholas’ Day

2:32 PM, Dec 9, 2013 • By MICHAEL ANTON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The distinction between science and philosophy—the former dealing with hard fact, the latter allegedly only with airy speculation—is new to modernity and rooted in Machiavelli’s thought.  “Science” appears in his writings twice—in a discussion that also has no parallel in any of his or his contemporaries’ works.  “All the sciences,” he tells us, “demand practice if one wishes to possess them perfectly”—a decisive break from the classical idea of knowledge as primarily observational and theoretical.  Plutarch tells us that Archimedes of Syracuse, the famous mathematician, slightly vexed his king, who “had eagerly desired and at last persuaded him to turn his art somewhat from abstract notions to material things, and by applying his philosophy somehow to the needs which make themselves felt, to render it more evident to the common mind.”  But Archimedes had only been following the injunction of Plato, who “inveighed against [mechanical applications] as corrupters and destroyers of the pure excellence of geometry, which thus turned her back upon the incorporeal things of abstract thought and descended to the things of sense.”

This taboo—in place since ancient times and only violated in the extreme necessity of survival in war—Machiavelli shatters.  “Firm science” is the method.  Through “firm science” men may come to know particulars and extrapolate to the general.  Through long practice of firm science, Publius Decius learned to understand individual sites, which enabled him to recognize and occupy a summit and save a Roman army.  Firm science is, then, not contemplation of the whole, which is mysterious and partly invisible, but the practical knowledge of knowable, visible parts, which help one understand one’s immediate environment and act on the basis of that understanding.  Here is the root of the scientific method, of the replicability of experiments.  Plato would insist that each part is a whole in and of itself, which must be thought through on its own terms.  Machiavelli retorts that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all—now go out there and use that knowledge to secure your earthly salvation.

Machiavelli had no principled objection to breaking taboos (to say the least), but perhaps he would deny having done so in this instance.  Archimedes, after all, designed spectacular contrivances to help Syracuse resist a Roman siege.  Machiavelli judged that in his time, philosophy was under siege in a spiritual war and that fire must be fought with fire—just as Archimedes opposed his engines to those of Marcellus.  Another paper presented by Paul Rahe, the great historian and theorist of republican government, expounded the theme.  Machiavelli directly compares the Sultans of the Turks and Mamelukes to the “Christian pontificate” (since both are elective monarchies), thereby inviting the reader to look for other, silent parallels.  Rahe finds one in “the soldiers,” who are analogous to the prelates of the Church—the pope’s divisions.  In Machiavelli’s time, this priestly army occupied the high places—indeed, the highest place, the mind of man.  Machiavelli’s writer-captains—the scientists who succeed and follow him—are intended to be a liberating army, freeing science and philosophy from religious supervision and not only allowing man to choose his own destiny but providing him with the tools to make it work.

“The soldiers are you,” Rahe concluded to his almost entirely academic audience.  The secular intelligentsia has replaced the priests but governs much as they governed, telling us what to think and punishing apostasy.  In the detailed writ of charges Machiavelli levels against Christianity, the criminalization of thought stands perhaps as the most grave in his judgment.  It’s ironic, then—and not in the Socratic sense—that as a consequence of his revolution, the mind of man may be less free than ever.

What’s needed is not another class of “soldiers” but genuine philosophers, to lead us out of the cave that Machiavelli unwittingly dug beneath Plato’s natural cave.  Mansfield and Rahe are two fine such guides.  We will need more of them.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 20 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers