Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Moses as leader

Waller R. Newell’s (I know him by the name that begins with R) reflections on this subject are very much worth reading.   

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I do not agree with Newell’s reading of Machiavelli on Moses. Machiavelli, in the Prince, clearly distinguishes between Moses and the other princes/"leaders" that Newell mentions in saying that Moses was "a mere executor of the things God commanded." Moses’s own virtue did not show itself with regard to his aims, which were, Machiavelli tells us, set by God, not himself, but rather in taking advantage of the despair of his people at being enslaved in Egypt (and implicitly the corresponding hope of being liberated from slavery) in order to obtain their loyalty and obedience. Moses was obliged to use force, because he had based his legitimacy on a popular hope for liberation from slavery that was an easy hope to exploit at the beginning but a hard one to depend on because it would necessarily demand short term sacrifice for a long term dream--freedom from foreign oppression. Machiavelli puts it this way: "people in general are fickle, and it is easy to persuade them of a thing but difficult to lock them into that persuasion." Without the use of force, Machiavelli suggests, such leaders will not be able to avoid those "envious" of their abilities playing on the people’s disillusionment, their lack of sticking power with a long term dream.

But Moses did not found the Jewish religion, he received it from God, as Machiavelli says; he was a human ruler doing God’s duty and thus he had to deal with the challenges of human politics using ordinary political methods. Machiavelli contrasts Moses with Savonarola, the unarmed prophet. Savonarola’s mistake was to presume that because he was doing God’s work or serving God’s aims he was not, as a human leader, required to follow the rules of human political life. In other words, he misunderstood the human political meaning of leadership based on prophecy or instructions from God. Moses correctly understood the human political meaning of prophecy, i.e. that receiving commands from God does not mean that one can avoid human means in human political life. But this is not to deny the authenticity of the prophecy or its divine, as opposed to human political meaning, right? Thus, while perhaps Machiavelli has an attack in his thought on the perspective of revelation, his account of Moses is not inconsistent with the perspective of revelation; at this point in the Prince, Machiavelli is still operating within that horizon.

It is only in understanding Jesus, who like Savonarola, was unarmed but unlike Savonarola was successful, indeed arguably successful beyond Moses’ success, that we can appreciate Machiavelli’s troubled relation to the perspective of revelation. Unlike Moses, Jesus did not merely receive commands from God; Jesus was himself divine, or at least part God if part man. This allowed Jesus means of leadership and a greater aim, than those available to Moses. To put the matter simply, Jesus founded a religion while Moses founded only (and indeed partially or incompletely) a state based on a religion. Jesus was thereby able to transform or influence the ways of men far beyond what could be the reasonable hope of any mere state-founder, whose creation is almost bound to at some point disintegrate, whether from internal decadence or external threat, due to the laws of human politics, even regardless of whether its INSPIRATION is the commands of god. The founder of a state’s legacy disappears with the disintegration of that state; the founder of a religion’s legacy can withstand the rise and fall of any particular state based on that religion, and thus--like the legacy of a philosopher, or a Dante or a Michelangelo--be capable, in principle, of eternal reality. Only once we grasp Machiavelli’s view of the superiority of Jesus to Moses, and indeed of the greatness of Jesus and the founders of the Church of Rome, can we come to appreciate the level on which and the ambition with which Machiavelli confronts "revelation."

I myself was blind to all this, until reading Leo Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli opened my eyes.

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