Calvin and Niccolo

…or, more accurately, the Calvinists against the Machiavellians. The pseudonymously-authored and famous Huguenot treatise Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos has been a subject of fascination for me for many years, but upon reading the recently published edition (1999) I learned something new about it. That is, while it certainly had Catholic-Protestant conflict in its background, in fact it explicitly aims not at refuting Catholicism, but rather Machiavellianism. George Garnett, the editor of the new edition, writes:

It has been argued that the preface’s promise of an anti-Machievellian treatise is not fulfilled in the book which follows. … But… this misses the point of the preface. Cono Superantius argued that an effective response could be mounted against ‘the Machiavellians and their books’ only by referring the ‘rule of princes and the right of peoples … to their legitimate and certain first principles’. Brutus had later sent him ‘a book of these investigations, which comprises these principles, and proves and expounds them’ … . Gentillet recognised that there was little point in trying to engage with Machiavelli’s arguments on their own terms: Machiavelli and the Machiavellians could only be answered effectively by pinning down the moral descriptions which they had made so slippery. And this could only be done by grounding the moral order, and therefore the governmental order, in the order of nature, created by God. This is precisely what the author of the Vindiciae attempts to do… . (xxi-xxii)

Garnett also notes that there may be some truth to the then common insinuation that the French royal government of the time really was inspired by Machiavelli:

The author of Le Tocsain, published in the year to which the preface is dated, claimed that Catherine de Medici had used Il principe as a text book for her children, and that ‘it might be described as her Bible’. If Boucher is to be believed, Henri III had learned his lessons well at his mother’s knee: he kept a copy always in his pocket, for ready reference, when he needed guidance on how to be most effectively evil. A defamatory slur this may be, but the king’s letters sometimes seem to echo the precepts and even the phrasing of Il principe. (xxi)

And to the degree Machievellianism is alive and well in the minds of the powerful today, Vindiciae may continue to have some relevance.