Some coincidences are so striking—Adams and Jefferson both dying on July 4, 1826—they make fate seem plausible. Others are merely felicitous but perhaps more revealing. Exactly 500 years ago, a Florentine and a Spaniard set out on voyages of exploration, the former in search of "new modes and orders," the latter of "unknown waters and lands." They were connected by nothing but fortune, yet in hindsight, their momentous discoveries seem destined to collide and combine on what would become the American shore of the Pacific.
On September 1, 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa set out from Santa María la Antigua del Darién, the first European settlement on the American continent—which Balboa himself had founded only three years before—in search of "the other sea" spoken of with reverence by the natives. It had to be—he just knew—the gateway to the many fabled lands shot through with gold that—he just knew—peppered the New World.
The fabulistic literature of Spain's nascent imperial age fired the conquistadors' lust for lucre. "Know ye that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California, very near the Terrestrial Paradise," wrote Garci Rodríguez Ordóñez de Montalvo in an adventure tale published in 1510—an island on which, we learn as the story unfolds, every flake, every nugget, every vein of metal is gold.
Twenty-five days later, Balboa and the remnant of his party reached the summit of the mountains that divide the Isthmus of Panama and there it was, sparkling and blue, before their eyes. Moved by the sight, chaplain Andrés de Vera sang the Ambrosian Hymn. Other men erected stone pyramids and, with their swords, engraved crosses on the barks of trees to mark the spot of the second greatest discovery of the age.
Because the western coast of the Isthmus faces south, Balboa called the waters "the South Sea." Magellan would provide the enduring name, inspired by the preternatural calm he encountered six years later on his passage from Tierra del Fuego to the Marianas. When Cortés discovered the mouth of the gulf that as late as 1940 John Steinbeck still called by that explorer's name, either taking Montalvo literally or merely inspired by his myth, he assumed he had found an island and called it California. His lieutenants Ulloa and Alarcón proved that Baja was a peninsula but the misperception would persist on maps for another two centuries, until Europeans finally started coming to stay, to build the last outpost of a rising West.
Back across the first sea, on the old continent, Niccolò Machiavelli was living under house arrest in his family villa in Sant'Andrea in Percussina, a small village about five miles south of Florence, then as now the heart of the Tuscan wine country. The Florentine republic he had ably served for 14 years had been overthrown the year before. The returning Medici summarily fired Florence's most brilliant public servant, accused him of sedition, conspiracy, and treason, then hung him from the ceiling of his prison cell and dislocated his shoulders. Satisfied that he posed no danger to their rule, they allowed him to live, but in a kind of half-exile, forbidden to pass the city walls.
Niccolò's subsequent life combined low rapscallionism and high seriousness in the most improbable way. By day he drank, whored, and gambled. By night he read the Greek and Latin classics, pondered the wisdom of the ancients, and wrote. He produced a number of lasting works, including several poems, two plays, a history of his native city, a dialogue on war, and the two great philosophic treatises into which he packed everything he knew.
In 1513 Machiavelli finished The Prince, the shorter and by far more famous of the two. Though not published until 1532, five years after his death, the manuscript was privately circulated among his friends and fellow travelers. The other volume, the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy (published in 1531), was probably finished later, though the bulk of the writing occurred during the fertile year of 1513. Machiavelli chose not to publish these books during his lifetime partly to avoid the persecution that would surely have followed, but also so that he could polish them until his last breath to ensure that he transmitted his ideas to the ages exactly as he wanted. He expected great things from these books.
And Nicholas Machiavel so loved the world, that he sought to rid it once and for all of the influence of God's son, so that men—no longer believing in Him—might enjoy this life, the only one they are going to get.
Machiavelli's ambition was nothing less than to destroy Christianity and replace it with the rule of reason, in the service of men's needs and wants in the here and now. If he didn't quite pull it off, the sight of empty pews across the highway from jam-packed strip malls is enough to inspire a grudging respect for his audacity and abilities.
Machiavelli's "anti-theological ire," as Leo Strauss called it, had both a practical and a theoretical basis. He saw the institutional Church of his time as corrupt and meddlesome, keeping Italy divided and weak, interfering everywhere it had influence, and looking out for its earthly interests above all else. Worse, he believed, it promoted and exploited the inherent disconnect between men's yearning for salvation and their patriotism by stoking the former and tamping the latter. Niccolò half expected invasion and conquest by Slavic or Islamic hoards, whom he considered far more formidable than the Christian masses. In the Muslim case, his prediction almost came to pass.
Doctrinally, the faith's emphasis on men's private beliefs as opposed to outward behavior gave the prelates a particularly insidious weapon, which they used with alacrity. It terrified the people with the possibility of eternal torment not merely for what they did or did not do but for what they thought. And it sapped men's initiative by setting their highest aspirations beyond this world and encouraging strength in suffering but not in doing, so that men, "to go to paradise, think more of enduring their beatings than of avenging them."
In Machiavelli's indictment, Christianity induces an even deeper, more insidious complacency than this. Through natural brilliance, rare inclination, and intense effort, the ancient philosophers were able to achieve serenity and independence of mind that set them above—not to say indifferent to, but unperturbed by—the ordinary and even the extraordinary fears and anxieties of mankind. Christianity offered a dumbed-down version of this quality, stripped of its inherent strength, complexity, and difficulty of achievement, reduced as it were to the lowest common denominator. This produced a toxic mixture of complacency, self-satisfaction, and resignation. To the extent that men could rouse themselves to do anything at all, it was to pray. The most brilliant became not philosophers or princes but monks. Christendom was afflicted with "ambitious leisure." Machiavelli scooped Nietzsche's quip that Christianity is Platonism for the masses by 400 years.
How did Christianity triumph? In a nutshell, the Romans were so virtuous (and lucky) that they managed to conquer the entire ancient world, in the process sapping the strength of every civilization in the Mediterranean and—eventually—their own. Lacking threats to hone their virtue, and with all the world's wealth pouring into the capital, the Roman people became corrupt, insouciant about the virtues necessary to maintain their superpower status, and susceptible to fads. Structurally, the conquests—coupled with Rome's liberal admission of outsiders to citizenship and incorporation of foreign gods into the Roman pantheon—knocked down the firewalls that would, in all earlier times, have prevented the viral spread of an innovative, universalist religion.
But the crucial factor was the nature of Christianity's appeal. Poverty and abjectness were endemic throughout the ancient world; one might say they appeared to be the natural condition of mankind. The Roman conquests supplied an admixture of political humiliation to that already depressing combination. Those living under the Roman yoke had no means of retaliation—except the invention of a religion that makes a virtue of weakness by turning weakness into a virtue. Christianity, Machiavelli insinuates, was founded by the weak to weaken the strong.
And, in his judgment, it worked. Spectacularly. Many axes felled the mighty Roman Empire but in Machiavelli's account, the enfeebling doctrines of Christianity earn pride of place. A millennium of stagnation and ignorance followed, which Machiavelli set himself the task of overcoming.
Back at the Rancho
It is one of history's ironies that a society which would eventually become one of the world's most hypermodern was born from an attempt to spread the very faith that Old Nick himself labored so hard to kill.
In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo—in search of gold, native civilizations, and the "Strait of Anián" which supposedly linked the Pacific Ocean to the St. Lawrence River—became the first European to reach California proper. He didn't find what he was looking for but only relentless southbound winds and currents that made—and still make—beating northward an endless misery. He reached as far as the mouth of the Russian River, 60 miles past San Francisco Bay—the entrance to which, like every other mariner who passed it for two centuries, Cabrillo missed behind the fog—before turning back in despair. His little armada put in for repairs on San Miguel Island where Cabrillo slipped on some rocks, broke his leg, contracted gangrene, and died.
That island still looks today as all of California did then: harsh, remote, forbidding, beautiful but barren, unpopulated, hostile to human habitation. Spanish colonial officials declined to waste more resources on missions to nowhere. For 200 years they maintained a brisk trade between their New World possessions and the Far East, using California as a backstop. Favorable winds carried the Manila Galleons eastbound across the Pacific to Cape Mendocino, and then down, down, down to Mexico along the gentle California Current, never touching the shore. There was no point because there were no ports.
When Spaniards finally tried to make something of their discovery, they dispatched a party of Franciscan friars who walked the 1,500 miles from Mexico City to what is now San Diego where, over the next half century, they built a religious colony so medieval it would have seemed hopelessly backward even in Machiavelli's time. Progress—the aim of Machiavelli's intellectual revolution and by the mid-18th century a seemingly unstoppable wave throughout the rest of the West—was not their purpose.
Saving souls was. Prehistoric until the arrival of the friars, California haltingly entered the Middle Ages while the American East basked in the Age of Reason.
Independence from Spain ended formal theocracy in California in 1821, but changed little else. The Californios did, however, learn that the conquistadors' initial impression of the land was not quite correct. California, as the long experience of its small Indian population proved, is more than capable of supporting a relative few in luxurious indolence. Though admittedly an outlier on a hostile globe, physical California stands in implicit contradiction to Machiavelli's teaching that nature is almost always and everywhere man's enemy, to be opposed, defeated, and exploited. The Californios—with familiar yet forgotten names like Castro, Figueroa, Pico, and Sepulveda—enjoyed the ease and abundance of life on their ranchos and accomplished next to nothing in the Zorro era: leisure without ambition.
The Birth of the Modern
Machiavelli had in mind a fully formed replacement for Christianity. Since few (if any) of his specific proposals were ever implemented exactly as prescribed, their precise outlines are no longer so important. But Machiavelli's principles—the principles that made modernity—remain all around us.
Machiavelli formulated those principles in response to what he judged the classics' three fundamental errors, each flowing inexorably into the next.
First, the classics assumed the goodness of the world and of man. This led them to fabricate "imagined republics and principalities" that set lofty goals which even the classics admitted were unrealizable. Machiavelli counters that man is bad, not good, and the world is stingy or, at most, indifferent. Yet man can be made good through the judicious application of necessary force, just as chance—the earth's governing principle (to the extent that it has one)—can be forced to be more cooperative if man doesn't set his sights too high.
But first man must overcome the classics' second error of placing a taboo against philosophy getting too mixed up with politics because they feared unintended consequences, especially that practice would corrupt theory. That fear, Machiavelli replies, was tantamount not merely to cowardice but to unilateral disarmament.
For the classics—their third error—had chosen to ally with "the great" over against "the people." The former, imbued with spirit andusually with money, were after all more naturally sympathetic to high-minded, smooth-talking wastrels. But the neglectedpeople were left open to an appeal from the ultimate tribune of the plebs.
Machiavelli's remedy was to break the taboo, to give philosophy a practical project. The success of Christianity proved that man is malleable. The people can be won over with tangible benefits. Philosophy can rule.
In 1849, modernity abruptly smashed into California, hauled by the Yanquis over the Rockies and around Cape Horn. But it made a tragicomic debut three years earlier.
Machiavelli enjoyed insinuating that all societies are founded in some great crime. Josiah Royce, a Grass Valley-born philosophy professor and keen student of California's character, lamented that the events of 1846 constituted the "original sin" of American California.
The Americanos wanted California—very badly. Boston Brahmin, Harvard drop-out (to be fair, he eventually finished), and ordinary seaman Richard Henry Dana—of Dana Point fame—in 1840 called San Francisco Bay the finest spot for human habitation on the planet. Two years later, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico described the whole region as "the richest, the most beautiful and the healthiest country in the world...with the acquisition of Upper California we should have the same ascendency on the Pacific" that America then enjoyed on the Atlantic.
John C. Frémont, America's answer to Bonaparte, agreed. Frémont's army duties had taken him on two exploratory expeditions to the West, his reports on which had made him a star of a magnitude only slightly behind Lewis and Clark. The popular press nicknamed him "the Pathfinder." Frémont was unusually well connected. Not only was he the son-in-law of Senator Thomas Hart "Manifest Destiny" Benton of Missouri, before leaving on his third expedition, as war loomed between the United States and Mexico, he managed to score an audience with President James Polk. Not bad for a captain in the Corps of Topographical Engineers.
The trip was ostensibly to find the source of the Arkansas River. But Frémont had other plans. Leading only 60 men, he quickly abandoned any interest in the river and entered California. Opportunities for immortal glory were slim: in 1846, Californios numbered fewer than 10,000—at most a fifth of those able-bodied men—scattered over more than 100,000 square miles with only two cities of any significance.
Frémont made the most of the matter at hand. As he traversed what would shortly become the 31st state—ignoring his orders and defying the wishes of several Mexican officials who demanded that he leave—he did everything he could to agitate Anglo settlers to revolt against Mexico.
Some of them listened. In June, 33 armed cowboys, ranchers, farmers, and assorted drunks and criminals seized the small Mexican garrison at Sonoma, raised a hand-painted flag and declared the "California Republic." Hearing the news, Frémont raced south to take charge. But not before his troops massacred every man, woman, and child in a Klamath Indian fishing village whose inhabitants may—or may not—have participated in a prior attack on the company. Frémont also ordered the shooting of three unarmed, distinguished Californios on the ground that "I have got no room for prisoners." Perhaps Royce had a point.
Frémont began the conquest of California before the outbreak of the Mexican-American War and completed it—with a little help from the Navy—before news of hostilities reached him or any other American official in the West. Though comparisons to Machiavelli's ur-founders—Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, and Theseus—would be risible, Frémont's adventures do underscore Machiavelli's teachings that glory-seeking unscrupulousness is the prime mover of history and that "it is necessary to be alone if one wishes to order a republic anew."
Frémont was eventually court-martialed and convicted of mutiny, disobedience, and misconduct. Not that his employer showed any inclination to give California back. Machiavelli is often credited—incorrectly—for having coined the line "the end justifies the means." He did, however, say that where the deed accuses, the effect excuses, which is a better line. President Polk evidently agreed and commuted Frémont's sentence.
Two years later, James Marshall found a gold nugget in the American River near Coloma, a small settlement in the Sierra Foothills. The race to build a modern society began, almost literally, the next day.
Modernity Comes to California
In a famous passage in the Discourses, Machiavelli pretends that the world's choicest spots will always be available to founders looking to build anew. California seems almost to have been created to prove him right. It was, in 1849, the ultimate "matter" on which modern man could impose any modes and orders of his devising. Vast, empty, resource rich, boasting the world's finest climate, two of its best harbors, and teeming with opportunity, here was a new Eden, the perfect home for a perfectible being. With one difference: Eden had not wanted improvement. California arguably didn't need much either but got it anyway, good and hard.
There is perhaps no better symbol of form forced on matter than the fabled streets of San Francisco. Jasper O'Farrell—incidentally, an eyewitness to and chronicler of Frémont's execution (murder?) of José de los Reyes Berreyesa and Francisco and Ramon De Haro—was the surveyor hired to lay out the city. Gazing at the "Seven Hills" of the San Francisco Peninsula, he dismissed out of hand the ancient mode of winding roads paying deference to topographical contours. Instead, he seared a grid of iron regularity onto the land. That the steepness of many streets made them unnavigable was solved by another innovation, Andrew Smith Hallidie's grip cable car, which pulls men and machine up, up, up slopes that hooves can't handle.
California began its life under American rule as a purely extractive economy: rape the Mother Lode for every fleck and speck of gold she would yield. To this ancient mode of earning bread and feathering nests, the 49ers applied wholly modern methods, above all hydraulic and dredge mining, whose scars on the land remain to this day. At the more honorable mode of taking out of the ground not merely what you find but what you first put in yourself, Californius Americanus was no less ingenious. Machiavelli's pupil and successor Francis Bacon described their joint project as "the conquest of nature for the relief of man's estate." Nowhere has nature been more thoroughly subdued than in California. To take a land that can barely supply enough water for a backyard herb garden and irrigate it so thoroughly that today it produces more food than all but five of the globe's entire countries must be counted one of mankind's most impressive achievements—truly a Wonder of the Modern World.
That Californians were able to apply this ingenuity in infinite ways is the chief reason why, virtually alone, their society was able to overcome the economists' infamous "resource curse." Indeed, as intelligent observers intuited at the time and subsequent research has proved, the real profiteers of the Gold Rush were not the miners but the merchants who sold them their equipment. One may be tempted to conclude, on apparently Machiavellian grounds, that this arrangement was purely exploitive. But that misses the essential nature of the California character, which has always been defined by Machiavelli's "quasi-impossible combination" of wily practicality with utopian fabulism.
The California dream is no mere updating of its American parent. Historian H.W. Brands observes that the old dream "was the dream of the Puritans, of Benjamin Franklin's ‘Poor Richard'...of men and women content to accumulate their modest fortunes a little at a time, year by year by year. The new dream was the dream of instant wealth, won in a twinkling by audacity and good luck." Soaring expectations were one result, a fact captured by Steinbeck in the early pages of East of Eden, where he wrote that "[a] man who might have been well-to-do on ten acres in Europe was rat-poor on two thousand in California."
To those who have imbibed their modernity and been numbed by Machiavelli's brute cynicism, the suggestion of any connection between Machiavellian cunning and utopian dreaming will appear implausible. But Machiavelli's project is nothing if not utopian. "Put not thy faith in princes" may be said to encapsulate the classical teaching on moderation. Individual men may be perfectible but mankind is not, nor are any of the institutions he builds. Machiavelli would concede the wisdom of not putting faith in individual princes, but in institutions—specifically in his own new modes and orders—he urges men to go all-in. Politics may not have been perfectible in the old sense—the direct rule of philosopher kings—but it is perfectible in the new sense: through the creation of institutions that deliver what most men actually want and can achieve, above all, security and prosperity.
California in the middle decades of the 20th century may at first glance appear to be the ultimate vindication of Machiavelli's vision. In a celebrated passage in the Discourses, he describes the "golden times" of Rome under the Antonines: a "world full of peace and justice...the Senate with its authority, the magistrates with their honors, the rich citizens enjoying their riches, nobility and virtue exalted...all quiet and good...the world in triumph...the peoples full of love and security." Stipulate the necessary adjustments to certain nouns and that is not a bad description of American California.
Peace, security, and riches were there in abundance, especially among il popolo. Historian Kevin Starr and others have observed that never and nowhere in history did the common man have it so good. The institutions and magistrates protected his interests. Science and technology eased his burdens and enriched his life. Getting rich quick was still a very real possibility, but with the added benefit that the surest path to instant wealth was now through innovation that profited everyone.
There was virtue too—and not merely the Machiavellian virtù of cunning ferocity. The explorers, the friars, and the first polyglot wave of miners brought courage to spare. Justice, wisdom, and moderation had to wait for the more characteristically American cohort who followed. California virtue is, or was, American virtue with a twist—of citrus, sunshine, optimism, exuberance, impetuosity, call the extra ingredient what you will. Somehow it helped to mingle and marry the toughness of the miners, the fortitude of the pioneers, the ingenuity of the dreamers, the shrewdness of the merchants, and the stolidity of the farmers into a harmonious whole, like the tannins, sugars, fruit, and acid in a fine Napa wine. But this bottle turned out to be corked.
The corruptive effects of plenty, Machiavelli teaches, can be overcome by good laws. These California had, at least in the beginning. Impartial courts replaced the lynch law of the gold fields. The state's first constitution was a fine mirror of the federal effort of 1789. An attempt by the "slave power" to spread servitude to the Pacific and manipulate California's rise to splinter the nation was defeated. On this indispensable foundation, a plethora of goods arose.
But the utopian temptation inherent in Machiavelli's call to master fortune eventually gave rise to Progressivism, America's home-grown brand of corruption, which took over Sacramento (you might say as a pilot program) before subjugating Washington. That was hardly the only "ism" to emerge, unanticipated, from his thought. One could also name liberalism, historicism, positivism, subjectivism, relativism, socialism, hedonism, feminism, multiculturalism, and nihilism. Any one of them would have been bad enough. Together, they proved fatal.
"And this too shall pass away," Lincoln said, to emphasize the impermanence of everything human. California's golden age had to end, and Machiavelli supplies the reason: "Virtue gives birth to quiet, quiet to leisure, leisure to disorder, disorder to ruin," he writes, pithily restating the classical teaching on the cycle of regimes. Machiavelli causes the birth of California and explains its demise.
He thought he had found the key to overcoming the cycle. This and that regime would surely die but the system—or, to use his own language, the "sect"—would go on forever. This new sect would override in importance any individual city or state or "mixed body," i.e., human institution, and would move from strength to strength, achievement to achievement, in an endless upward arc of progress. So who was the real realist: Machiavelli, or the classical philosophers whose supposed utopianism he so mercilessly attacked?
A partisan of Machiavelli might try to argue that had his scheme been followed to the letter, it would have worked—the perennial defense of the failed ideologue. It's certainly true that in post-war California, a crucial part of Machiavelli's equation was missing. He was concerned about men becoming slack where there was not enough necessity to force virtue. The solution was for men to impose necessity on themselves, through violent institutions—bloody public executions and the like—and through the ever-present threat of war. The Cold War—for 45 years central to California's character and economy—supplied some of the necessary tension. But then it too passed away—along with the bases, industries, and military culture it sustained and that in turn helped sustain the state—replaced by nothing. And Californians were able to sit, in perfect weather and endless comfort, under their vine and fig tree, with none to make them afraid. They did what men in such times have always done and what Machiavelli warns they will always do: they became frivolous.
Machiavelli himself, being not an ideologue but a philosopher, would not have made such a defense. Not only did he not expect his precise instructions to be carried out to the letter, he actively sought to cultivate successors who would carry his enterprise "to the destined place." Their ingenuity was part of the project, built into the design from the beginning. Changes must be made because to live is to change and to stagnate is to die, "for worldly things are not allowed by nature to stand still." The changes made to Machiavelli's instructions by his successors were mostly sensible, or appeared so when compared to the "revolting character" (as Strauss called it) of the original. And they brought great good to a very great number. Machiavelli and his early heirs mostly supplied what they said they would. Modern man is far healthier, richer, and freer than any of his ancestors.
Yet it hasn't quite worked out as intended. It's safe to say that Machiavelli would be appalled by contemporary California—a society perhaps more characteristically modern than any on the planet today. Above all, he would be repulsed by the slackness and flatness and silliness. He might also look askance at the rampant hedonism unalloyed with any virtue, but in his honesty he would have to admit that his ideas led to it, in almost a straight line.
Machiavelli's error was, first, to overestimate the dismalness of the Middle Ages and underestimate its strengths. Certainly dentistry was not among these, but Michael Knox Beran has written movingly of the human connections formed by the "market square" culture of the times—connections that modernity erodes just as relentlessly as the Pacific carves away at the California coastline.
His greater error is coeval with his central premise: he set mankind's sights too low. He savages religion, discards justice as a joke, ignores teleology. Philosophy he transforms from an end into an instrument, from a way of life into a servant, on whose tray is "the end that each has before him, that is, glories and riches." He offers satisfaction as a substitute for sublimity. But it proves to be an unsatisfying substitute.
Machiavelli takes for granted that among those satisfied will be the philosophic few, each of whom will not only have the freedom to "hold and defend the opinion he wishes," but will also enjoy unprecedented status as a writer-captain, one of mankind's hidden rulers. Yet he failed to anticipate the inexorable way that putting all society's machinery to work at satisfying ordinary wants and needs would grind everything else into irrelevance. He should have: he understood that "nature has created men so that they are able to desire everything."
As Machiavelli hoped, a legion of thinkers answered his clarion call to conquer Fortuna. But many of them skipped the caveat: of our actions, Machiavelli cautions, she leaves only "half, or close to it, for us to govern." The balance she reserves for her capricious self to do with as she will, without input. To voice such skepticism today is to risk being called a cynic. The "charm of competence" induced by Machiavelli's revolution has indeed bewitched whole nations—and California perhaps more thoroughly than anywhere.
The contemporary Californian truly believes that he can have it all: fantastic innovation and regulation that protects against all contingencies, perfect job security and sky-high economic growth, endless energy without drilling—all gain, no pain, all the time. Californians believe unconsciously that History has an end state and they are It. That the idea is disproved on their own soil every day, in every way, never dims their implicit faith in the writer-captains who've promised them everything but proved unable to deliver.
What Walter Russell Mead calls "the blue state model" is coming to an end, and with it both Machiavelli's experiment and the California Dream. What comes next is hard to foresee and foolhardy to try. It won't be better than California at its best. Catching lightning in a bottle is hard enough once; twice depends less on chance than providence. The natural beauty and much of what was built will still be there, to be enjoyed by coming generations, including—I hope—my own. That there is a future is some comfort, even if the achievements of the past will always cast an unflattering shadow.
There are two famous spots on earth called Land's End, where a country gives way to the great beyond. The English one is at the western tip of Cornwall, past which—at the height of Britain's glory—laid empire, adventure, opportunity, and risk.
In San Francisco it is a nude beach.