Think Piece

Machiavelli in the Spanish-speaking Atlantic world (1880-1940)

By Leandro Losada

By Leandro Losada

How was Niccolò Machiavelli read in the Spanish-speaking Atlantic world, meaning the vast region encompassing Spain and the nations that had made up its former American empire? This is an issue that, despite the signal importance of the reception of one of the foremost writers in the history of Western political thought, has not been tackled in a systematic fashion, neither in proper depth.

This impression becomes apparent when compared to the attention paid to the subject in the English-speaking Atlantic world, in such studies as John G.A. Pocock’s, which had a profound and lasting impact not only on the field of studies dedicated to the author of The Prince¸ but also on the history of political thought. Strictly speaking, the existing research devoted to the reception of Machiavelli in Spanish Baroque thought (for instance, studies by José Antonio Maravall or Keith David Howard), helps us to come up with hypotheses and arguments that shed more light on the reasons why this topic has not received more attention in recent times. The overall picture that that corpus gives is that Machiavelli was received with scorn or explicit disapproval, and that this was so for two main reasons. The first, because he was seen as a writer who separated politics from Christian morality, thereby legitimizing all aberrations imaginable (from lying to murder) as well as the arbitrary exercise of power. The second aspect is that this interpretation was indicative of a more general tendency shaping Hispanic political thought: the influence wielded by Catholicism. In these intellectual latitudes, a writer chiefly known for his criticism of Christianity and the Church could only be condemned. The Spanish-speaking Atlantic world, in short, was a case in point of the so-called “anti-Machiavellian movement” that favored criticism of Machiavelli based on an interpretation of his work as inherently “evil” (in the words of Pierre Manent).

It is a known fact that Protestant Reformation and Humanism espoused their own versions of this type of reading. Likewise, the study of Spanish Catholic “anti-Machiavellianism”, and its relationship with the revival of Thomism in the 17th century, does not ignore that there were Catholic versions of concepts condemned in the Florentine’s writings (such as “good Reason of State” or the “Christian prince”). Beyond this seminal nuance (meaning that the Spanish Catholic anti-Machiavellianism movement possessed certain Machiavellian ingredients), the overall view indicates that any other possible readings of the work by the author of the Discourses, such as one linking it to freedom and the republic (highlighted by research devoted to the English-speaking Atlantic space), would have had neither weight nor relevance.

Faced with this situation, the exploration of a specific period —between 1880 and 1940, whose singularity lies in the fact that it marked the apogee and crisis of liberalism in Spanish-speaking political thought (and also beyond it, of course)— indicates that the aforementioned characterization does not match this historical moment. Throughout the period, interpretations of Machiavelli that were widespread in other intellectual geographies made their appearance also in this specific context. The singularity of the Spanish-speaking Atlantic world, as far as receptions of Machiavelli are concerned, did not lie in any exceptional or unique readings, but in its peculiar development of the topics and arguments related to the study of his work since the publication of his principal texts in sixteenth-century Europe. What were, then, the most important axes of the reception of Machiavelli in the Spanish-speaking Atlantic world between 1880 and 1940?

In the first place, one could say that as long as anti-Machiavellianism of Catholic origin is visible, there was a similar sentiment of a liberal hue. The rejection of Machiavelli as tantamount to tyranny or the exercise of immoral politics was not exclusive to Catholic intellectuals or apologists. Liberals authors, such as the Argentine Juan Bautista Alberdi, who described Machiavelli as an enemy of modern freedoms in his book El crimen de la guerra (1870), would come up with criticism in a similar vein.

Anti-Machiavellianism (understood as a conception of the Florentine as a defender of arbitrariness and even evil) was not only reflected in his connection with the concept of unlimited personal power. Negative readings of Machiavelli shifted in line with political events: the Florentine was thus seen as the intellectual father of militaristic nationalism and imperialism at the end of the 19th century, and as the referent of fascism during the first post-war period (largely enabled thanks to Mussolini’s fulsome appeals to Machiavelli).

Secondly, then, as a result of these shifts in interpretation, which cannot be attributed exclusively to textual or scholarly analysis – as pointed out above – but rather to the influence of political circumstances, the Florentine was associated with different political phenomena. Despite the persistence of his portrayal in negative terms (an enemy of freedom), this version would change. Thus, over time, Machiavelli simply ceased to be linked to tyranny, and came to be seen as a theoretician of the State (of a form of State at odds with liberalism for its aggressive and militaristic nature, according to the Spaniard Adolfo Posada in La idea del Estado y la guerra europea -1915), or even as the harbinger of totalitarianism. These were the reasons why several texts written during the 1920s warned about the “return” of Machiavelli.

The third point of note is that, as this period progressed, there was a major change in the conception of Machiavelli and his work. One of the most popular views espoused by his 19th century critics was that he was an “ancient” author. Therein lay (especially for those of liberal ideas) the threat to freedom, for he represented passions and principles that were contradictory with modernity. And these, it is worth clarifying, were to be found not only in the apologies for the concentration of power in the hands of the prince, but also in the republicanism (of a militaristic and patriotic tone) underlying the Discourses on the first decade of Tito Livio, as stated by the aforementioned Alberdi.

However, at the beginning of the 20th century, the perception of the Florentine began to be the one of a seminal modern author. The reason for this was a well-known aspect of his work, the separation between politics and morality. With this split, Machiavelli had founded a conception of politics as a “thing in itself”, something immanent and independent of any higher authority: an exclusively human activity. His political ontology, rather than his doctrinal arguments, was the truly revolutionary aspect, since it defined the way in which, from then on, philosophers and political scientists experienced and conceived politics. Consequently, Machiavelli went from being read as an “ancient” writer and an enemy of freedom, to being understood as a “modern” one, whose work had brought about political modernity, and with it, liberalism.

The fourth point, related to the previous one, is that this new perception was espoused neither exclusively, nor even mostly, by liberal authors, among whom such readings heralded a celebration of the Florentine. This was the case with the Argentine writer Mariano de Vedia y Mitre, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires, who, moreover, saw in Machiavelli a bastion of a version of republicanism. Unlike the conception held by 19th century liberal authors such as Alberdi, for de Vedia y Mitre, there were points of contact with liberalism rather than opposed to it, because of the central role afforded to the rule of law. And also because of a notion of freedom that did not offset but reconciled political freedom with individual freedoms.

Without leaving aside these versions, it is worth noting that it was primarily Catholic intellectuals, or, at all events, those closest to neo-Thomism and classical natural law (Tomás Casares in Argentina, Luis Legaz y Lacambra in Spain), who spearheaded the portrayal of Machiavelli as a modern and liberal. In other words, the Catholic anti-Machiavellianism of this period did not base the view of him as anti-Christian on the perception that he wrote in favor of tyranny. In fact, Catholic anti-Machiavellianism during the first half of the 20th century took quite a different doctrinal approach, concluding that Machiavelli was anti-Christian for having made modernity and liberalism possible.

A fifth point to be raised is that, as indicated in the preceding paragraph, anti-liberalism did not turn to Machiavelli as an intellectual figure of note. This, despite the fact that liberalism, as previously noted, had repudiated him, and that furthermore, during the first half of the 20th century, fascism had crowned Machiavelli as one of its intellectual fathers (the recovery at the hands of Antonio Gramsci exalted the Italian dispute over Machiavelli). This reveals two things. Firstly, that despite its ideological renewal in the interwar period, anti-liberalism in the Spanish-speaking world continued to bear the enduring stamp of Catholicism. And, secondly, that this rejection or disdain for Machiavelli can be seen as an expression of the persistence of an anti-Machiavellianism with Catholic roots, notwithstanding the fact that the reason for the Florentine’s rejection during this period was that his work was synonymous with freedom rather than tyranny.

A sixth and final point is that Machiavelli’s republican facet was well known to Spanish and Latin American intellectuals and publicists. The republican interpretation of the Florentine’s work, so important for its reception in the English-speaking Atlantic world, was also a feature in the Spanish-speaking countries. One could even say that the controversies surrounding this point originated in issues that were less visible in the United States or England. These included the view that Machiavelli’s republicanism, instead of converging with liberalism (a reading that, as has been pointed out, did exist), was based rather on anti-liberal principles. This was stated by Alberdi, as well as the Argentine historian José Luis Romero or the Spanish philosopher Francisco Javier Conde (all three writers, incidentally, adhered to political and ideological positions that not only differed but were opposed to each other – classical liberalism, liberal socialism and anti-liberalism close to Francisco Franco’s regime, respectively-). 

However, one may as well argue that perhaps the most unique feature of the Spanish-speaking reception of Machiavelli’s work, at least when compared to what has been written for the English-speaking Atlantic world, was the importance given to his views as a theoretician of the modern state. Such an interpretation also calls for many understandings at odds with each other: there were those who considered him a benchmark of the rule of law, seeing in the prince the figure of a “great legislator” and perceiving in Machiavellian republicanism the centrality of law, while others associated him with an aggressive and militaristic form of state power. In any case, this reading is but an example of the type of intellectual figure most prominent in the reception of Machiavelli in the Spanish-speaking Atlantic world at the time.

Leandro Losada is a researcher at the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET) and Associate Professor at the Universidad Nacional de San Martín (UNSAM), where he serves as Director of the Institute for Political Research (CONICET-UNSAM), in Argentina. He is a specialist in Atlantic history, history of elites, and history of political thought. He has been a visiting researcher in Italy (Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Università degli Studi di Milano, Università per Stranieri di Siena), France (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales), Spain (Universidad Complutense, Casa de Velázquez- Madrid Institute for Advanced Study, Universitat de Girona), and Germany (Freie Universität Berlin). His works have granted him awards from the Academia Nacional de la Historia (Argentina), the Ministry of Culture of the City of Buenos Aires, and Argentina’s Presidency. He has published La alta sociedad en la Buenos Aires de la Belle Époque. Sociabilidad, estilos de vida e identidades (2008; second edition, 2021), Historia de las elites en la Argentina. Desde la conquista hasta el surgimiento del peronismo (2009), and Maquiavelo en la Argentina. Usos y lecturas, 1830-1940 (2019), among other books, and many academic articles. Machiavelli in the Spanish-Speaking Atlantic World, 1880-1940. Liberal and Anti-Liberal Political Thought is forthcoming at Edinburgh University Press.

Edited by Pablo Martínez Gramuglia

Featured Image: Statue of Machiavelli by Lorenzo Bartolini outside the Uffizi, Florence. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.