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Machiavelli and the Chosen People

It is a well-known fact that throughout history there have always been powers that have been compared to the Chosen People (sometimes by themselves and other times by others). Now, according to the historian José Álvarez Junco, the nation touched by divine grace would be the United States, just as 500 years ago it was the Spain of the Catholic Kings, later embodied by the Hapsburgs. But the nation that becomes the number one power of its time, says the author, “has no doubt achieved much. The mistake is in believing that it has a link to the deity or a ‘natural superiority over the others”. Believing the triumphant, self-satisfied discourse that comes after victories have the disadvantage, among others, that if those victories had the hand of God behind them, how can one explain the defeats that, sooner or later, will inevitably follow.

The Reverend Fred Phelps, leader of the Baptist Church of Westboro, Kansas, has put up a video on YouTube in which he blesses the actions of the gunman who tried to kill Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona. This representative deserved what she got, the preacher explains, because she had given her support to laws that permit abortion and gay marriage, sins which have made God irritated with the United States. Phelps was already known for disrupting funerals of soldiers killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and repeating his theory of divine anger at the American people.

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This preacher is an extreme case of madness and hatred. But his idea of the American nation’s providential destiny is rather more common than is thought outside that country. According to this theory, the Americans are the latest Chosen People, and that is why they receive greater rewards than others if they follow God’s commands (world domination, no less) and suffer greater punishments than others if they disobey them.

The thesis is not new. Five hundred years ago the reign of the Catholic Kings was coming to an end, with a spectacular outcome. They had joined the crowns of Castile and Aragon, conquered Granada and put an end to Muslim domination over the Peninsula, discovered vast lands across the ocean, defeated the invincible French cavalry in Italy, and taken various cities in North Africa. Francesco Guicciardini, a great political observer, said that these events had altered the European order of the preceding centuries. Machiavelli did the same while attempting to offer a modern explanation for those and other political changes based on factors such as Fortuna, virtù, and necessità; for which he was accused of immorality.

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Nevertheless, thinkers in the Iberian Peninsula, dazzled by the recent triumphs, remained mired in medieval providentialism. God was the agent of history; there was no Fortuna, in the sense of chance or random events, just as there was no virtù, in the sense of political skill, because even the most insignificant event was the result of divine will, although his reasons might frequently be inaccessible to the human mind. The successes of Kings could only be due to the protection of providence, because of their determined defense of the true faith. As Doctor Palacios Rubios explained to King Ferdinand, speaking of the conquest of Navarre: “for reasons known only to Him, God has decreed that the kingdom should be taken away from the kings of Navarre and given over to Your Majesty. Because it is God who transfers kingdoms from person to person, as the Holy Bible says”.

Providentialism led, logically, to prophetic literalism. If what had happened in the past was the product of divine will, it was easy to guess the direction the future would take. Both Alonso de Cartagena and Sánchez de Arévalo deduced from providence’s protection of the Castilian-Aragonese monarchy that the great mission for which it was destined had not yet come to an end. For a start, the absorption of Portugal could be seen on the horizon. Diego de Valera used to say to King Ferdinand that “it has been prophesied for many centuries that you will hold sway over all the Spains”.

The manifestation of divine favor towards the Spanish monarchs meant, at the very least, that a new historical era had begun, that a new empire had been born, comparable to the Persian or the Roman empire. But many believed that a universal monarchy was being established, destined to conquer Jerusalem and present the earthly crown to a resplendent Christ who would descend on the Mount of Olives and thus put an end to human history. Empires, these prophets observed with apparently impeccable logic, moved from East to West, following the sun’s path: born in Assyria and Persia, and embodied successively in Greece and Rome, they now culminated in Spain, a Finis Terrae that would also be the Finis Historiae.

A little over a century later, at the beginning of the reign of Philip IV, that optimism had faded a lot. Ferdinand and Isabella had not been succeeded by their son, Prince John, who died young – who knows whether according to a divine plan or a blow of blind Fortuna. They were followed by the Hapsburgs, who had built an extremely powerful empire based on their successes. But, maybe because they had taken their destiny as rulers of the world seriously, they had embarked upon so many endeavors that they were overwhelmed.

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By the 1620s, the Spanish monarchy was at war with more than half of Europe. Instead of extending the truce signed by Philip III with the Dutch, his successor chose to reopen hostilities, and the rebels not only dominated the north of Flanders but had also occupied territories in Brazil, which irritated the Portuguese, who saw their empire under-protected by its new masters, the Spanish Hapsburgs. Philip IV also joined in the Thirty Years’ War in support of his Austrian cousins against the warlike Danish and Swedish Lutherans. To help the latter, France would end up joining in, even though it was ruled by the Catholic Cardinal Richelieu. Olivares even got into an absurd war, which he lost, over the succession of the Duchy of Mantua.

In spite of the monarchy receiving consignments of silver from America which allowed it to maintain armies far superior to those of any of its European rivals, there was not enough to keep so many fronts open. Furthermore, the Mainland Fleet sank in 1621 with great losses for the royal treasury; the following year the West Indies Fleet suffered losses, and the disaster was complete in 1628, when the entire Mexico convoy was captured by the Dutchman, Piet Heyn. Increasing taxes on Castile, the main provider of men and resources for the regiments, was no longer possible because the voraciousness of the royal Treasury had ruined and depopulated this kingdom some time ago. So the Duke decided to put pressure on the Portuguese and Catalans, who understandably clung to their privileges to avoid the disaster in Castile being repeated there, and provoked the two rebellions in 1640 which ended in lengthy internal wars and the independence of Portugal.

At one point in that catastrophic process, the king’s counselors thought of calling a Reformation Council to study how the situation could be remedied. After much debate a plan was approved which mixed economic measures aimed at increasing income, with others targeted against luxurious clothing and the sumptuous consumerism of the court. These measures had more moral than economic content; one very significant article decreed forthwith the closure of brothels. As Philip IV himself admitted, he had understood that God was angry with him and his people for their sins. The best way to deal with military failures and economic hardship was therefore to placate Him by purifying the customs of the kingdom.

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We should not exaggerate the parallels. The Reverend Phelps is not Philip IV, neither because of his power nor because of how representative his words are. But there is something in common in the logic they use. The country that becomes the number one power in the world has no doubt achieved much. The mistake is in believing that it has a special link to divinity, or “natural superiority” over the others.

Because when it comes to failures, when an operation, for example, a military one, turns out badly, there will be no way of explaining it except by thinking that it has in some way displeased Divine Providence. Then the solution will not be to rectify its policies, improve its military techniques or abandon some undertaking because of its excessive risk or cost, but, for example, by closing brothels, as Philip IV did; or by harshly punishing homosexuality, as Phelps proposes.

Words are written for internal consumption the morning after victory, in the midst of self-satisfied complacency, must not be taken seriously because doing so leads to stubbornly going ahead with impossible, ruinous enterprises. It would be more reasonable to study past situations that might teach something about the current situation and apply the lesson. An adult should be able to do without the idea of exceptionalism, to recognize that his case is not unique, to compare himself with others, and think in worldly, practical terms of simple efficiency. This is what Machiavelli proposed.

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