Though sometimes amusing, it is always disturbing when intelligent people seriously talk nonsense. This is true even of the dead; we are always surprised at the credulity of our forebears. Sometimes it shocks us; they often held views that seem wicked as well as false, and they sometimes acted on them. It ought to be merely a truism that bad ideas can be as effective and influential as good, but obviously it is not, since we are so surprised by this. The hardest things to understand about much of the past are its errors and delusions. We are shut off from understanding them not only by the difficulties of research and by insensibility, for these are only general and preliminary obstacles to any discovery of the past, but also by the particular, anachronistic incredulity which we bring to anything which does not rest on our own intellectual assumptions.
Buonarroti’s last years blended the myth and the reality of the secret societies as never before. Each, too, was then at the peak of its strength. This book has been about the first; it has argued that though secret societies existed in large numbers in Western Europe between 1750 and 1830 and strove to influence events, their main importance was what people believed about them. This always mattered more than what they did and their numbers and practical effectiveness were in no way proportionate to the myth’s power. This is their true instrumental importance as well as their interest for the historian; what was believed about them was an important part of the information shaping men’s reactions to great events.If this is granted, then can we hope – ought we to try? – to understand any more about this fact than its historical context? The mythology is, after all, a historical artefact. It is one characteristic achievement and expression of a particular age, a collective dream of one particular culture. We feel able to understand quite a lot of the social context in which, over eighty years or so, it was born and grew to its full stature; we ought therefore to have a fair chance of discerning what there was in it that locks the mythology into that particular culture at that particular time. Most of what has gone before in this book perhaps expresses that view implicitly. Yet this does not seem to exhaust the matter. Although the mythology has its peculiar features it is also based on elements which recur in other historical situations and it has itself shown astonishing powers of survival and adaptation. Long after the years which saw its birth, these powers have renewed its life at many times and in many places.
The Renaissance consigliere and political thinker Niccolò Machiavelli has for centuries been portrayed, indeed demonised, as the ideological father of political duplicity, manipulation, amorality and cold selfishness. All of these are identifiable traits common not only among the “political” and mandarin classes but also among those individuals and institutions who pursue their interests, i.e. money, power, market-share, sex, etc., as though in a “society in which the individual stands alone, with no motives and no interests except those supplied by his own egoism”.
The view that Machiavelli’s analysis of the nature and mechanics of political power reflects the values of an individual motivated by a self-interest that overrides all other considerations is not, I believe, one that can be sustained by a careful consideration of his writings. In fact, the very opposite can be said to be the case … Machiavelli argues in both The Prince and The Discourses that all well-ordered principalities and republics are based on mutual understanding between rulers and ruled, and that the state is no more than the sum of the individuals who comprise it. In addition, the state has characteristics and responsibilities that cannot be explained in terms of the properties and ethical relationships to one another of the individuals within society.