5. The Rise of the National State

The revolt of the communities
The age of federalism
Personal freedom and social union
The community of christendom
The decline of medieval culture
The dissolution of communal institutions
The great discoveries
Decline of the papal power
The janus head of the renaissance
The revolt of the individual
The "master man" people becomes mob
The national state
Machiavelli's Principe
National unity as a tool of temporal power
The high priests of the new state.

Submitted by Toms on September 5, 2011

Every political power tries to subject all groups in social life to its supervision and, where it seems advisable, totally to suppress them; for it is one of its most vital assumptions that all human relations should be regulated by the agencies of governmental power. This is the reason why every important phase in the cultural reconstruction of social life has been able to prevail only when its inner social connections were strong enough to prevent the encroachments of political power or temporarily to eliminate them.

After the downfall of the Roman Empire there arose almost everywhere in Europe barbaric states which filled the countries with murder and rapine and wrecked all the foundations of culture. That European humanity at that time was no; totally submerged in the slough of utter barbarism, was owing to that powerful revolutionary movement which spread with astonishing uniformity over all parts of the continent and is known to history as "the revolt of the communities." Everywhere men rebelled against the tyranny of the nobles, the bishops, and governmental authority and fought with armed hands for the local independence of their communities and a readjustment of the conditions of their social life.

In this manner the victorious communities won their "charters" and created their city constitutions in which the new legal status found expres-sion. But even where the communities were not strong enough to achieve full independence they forced the ruling power to far-reaching conces-sions. Thus evolved from the tenth to the fifteenth century that great epoch of the free cities and of federalism whereby European culture was preserved from total submersion and the political influence of the arising royalty was for a long time confined to the non-urban country. The medieval commune was one of those constructive social systems where life in its countless forms flowed from the social periphery toward a common centre and, always changing, entered into the most manifold connections, opening for man ever new outlooks for his social being. At such times the individual feels himself an independent member of society; which makes his work fruitful, gives wings to his spirit and prevents his mental stagnation. And this communal spirit, always at work in a thousand places, which by the very fullness of its manifestations in every field of human activity shapes itself into a unified culture, has its own roots in the community and finds expression in every aspect of communal life.

In such a social environment man feels free in his decisions, although intergrown in countless ways with the community. It is this very freedom of associations which gives force and character to his personality and moral content to his will. He carries the "law of the association" in his own breast, and hence any external compulsion appears to him senseless and incomprehensible. He feels, however, the full responsibility arising from his social relations with his fellowmen, and he makes it the basis of his personal conduct.

In that great period of federalism when social life was not yet fixed by abstract theory and everyone did what the necessity of the circumstances demanded of him, all countries were covered by a close net of fraternal associations, trade guilds, church parishes, county associations, city con-federations, and countless other alliances arising from free agreement. As dictated by the necessities of the time they were changed or completely reconstructed, or even disappeared, to give place to wholly new leagues without having to await the initiative of a central power which guides and directs everything from above. The medieval community was in all fields of its rich social and vital activities arranged chiefly according to social, not governmental, considerations. This is the reason why the men of today, who from the cradle to the grave are continually subjected to the "ordering hand" of the state, find this epoch frequently quite incom-prehensible. In fact, the federalistic arrangement of society of that epoch is distinguished from the later types of organization and the centralising tendencies arising with the development of the modern state, not only by the form of its purely technical organization, but principally by the mental attitudes of men, which found expression in social union.

The old city was not only an independent political organism, it also constituted a separate economic unit, whose administration was subject to its guilds Such an organization had necessarily to be founded on a Continual adjustment of economic interests. This was in fact one of the most important characteristics of the old city culture. This was the more natural because sharp class distinctions were for a long time absent in the old cities, and all citizens were therefore equally interested in the stability of the community. Labor, as such, offered no opportunity for the accumulation of riches so long as the major part of its products were used by the inhabitants of the city and its nearest environs. The old city knew social misery as little as deep inner antagonisms. So long as this condition prevailed the inhabitants were easily capable of arranging their affairs themselves, because no sharp social contrasts existed to disturb the inherent union of the citizens. Hence federalism, founded on the independence and the equality of rights of all its members, was the accepted form of social organization in the medieval communities, with which the state, insofar as it existed at all, had to come to terms. The church, likewise, for a long time, did not dare to disturb these forms, since its leaders recognised clearly that this rich life with its unlimited variety of social activities was deeply rooted in the general culture of the period.

Precisely because the men of that period were so deeply rooted in their fraternal associations and local institutions they lacked the modern concept of the "nation" and "national consciousness" destined to play such a mischievous role in the coming centuries. The man of the federalistic period doubtless possessed a strong sentiment for the homeland, because he was much more closely connected with the homeland than are the men of today. However, no matter how intimately he felt himself related with the social life of his village or city, there never existed between him and the citizens of another community those rigid, insurmountable barriers which arose with the appearance of the national states in Europe. Medieval man felt himself to be bound up with a single, uniform culture, a member of a great community extending over all countries in whose bosom all people found their place. It was the community of Christendom which included all the scattered units of the Christian world and spiritually unified them.

Church and empire likewise had root in this universal idea, even though animated by different motives. For pope and emperor Christianity was the necessary ideological basis for the realisation of a new world dominion. For medieval man it was the symbol of a great spiritual community, wherein were embodied the moral interests of the time. The Christian idea also was only an abstract concept, like that of the fatherland and of the nation-with this distinction, however, that while the Christian idea united them, the idea of the nation separated and organised them into antagonistic camps. The deeper the concept of Christianity took root in men, the easier they overcame all barriers between themselves and others, and the stronger lived in them the consciousness that all belonged to one great community and strove toward a common goal. But the more the "national consciousness" found entrance among them, the more disruptive became the differences between them and the more ruthlessly was everything which they had had in common pushed into the background to make room for other considerations.

A number of different causes contributed to the decline of the medieval city culture. The incursions of the Mongols and Turks into the East European countries and the Seven Hundred Years' War of the little Christian states at the north of the Iberian peninsula against the Arabs greatly favoured the development of strong states in the East and the West of the continent. Principally, however, profound changes had taken place within the cities themselves whereby the federalist communities were undermined and a way made for a reorganisation of the conditions of life. The old city was a commune which for a long time could hardly be designated as a state. Its most important task consisted in establishing a fair adjustment of social and economic interests within its borders. Even where more extensive unions were formed, as for instance in the countless leagues of various cities to guard their common security, the principle of fair adjustment and free association played a deciding role; and as every community within the federation enjoyed the same rights as all the others, for a long time no real political power could be maintained.

This condition, however, was thoroughly changed by the gradual increase of the power of commercial capital, due primarily to foreign trade. The creation of a money economy and the development of definite monopolies secured commercial capital an ever growing influence both within and without the city, leading necessarily to far-reaching changes. By this the inner unity of the commune was loosened, giving place to a growing caste system and leading necessarily to a progressive inequality of social interests. The privileged minorities pressed ever more definitely towards a centralisation of the political forces of the community and gradually replaced the principles of mutual adjustment and free association by the principle of power.

Every exploitation of public economy by small minorities leads inevitably to political oppression, just as, on the other hand, every sort of political predominance must lead to the creation of new economic monopolies and hence to increased exploitation of the weakest sections of society. The two phenomena always go hand in hand. The will to power is always the will to exploitation of the weakest; and every form of exploitation finds its visible expression in a political structure which is compelled to serve as its tool. Where the will to power makes its appearance, there the administration of public affairs changes into a rulership of man over man; the community assumes the form of the state.

The transformation of the old city in fact took place along this line. Mercantilism in the perishing city republics led logically to a demand for larger economic units; and by this the desire for stronger political forms was greatly strengthened. For the protection of its enterprises commercial capital needed a strong political power with the necessary military forces, which would recognise its interests and protect them against the competition of others. Thus the city gradually became a small state, paving the way for the coming national state. The histories of Venice, Genoa and many other free cities, all show us the separate phases of this evolution and its inevitable accompanying phenomena, a development which was later unexpectedly favoured by the discovery of the passage to India and of America. By this the social foundations of the medieval community, already weakened by internal and external struggles, were shaken in their inmost core; and what little remained in them fit for future development was later totally destroyed by victorious absolutism. The further these inner disintegrations progressed the more the old communes lost their original significance, until at last only a waste of dead forms remained, felt by men as an oppressive burden. Thus, later, the Renaissance became a rebellion of men against the social ties of the past, a protest of individualism against the forceful encroachment of the social environment.

With the age of the Renaissance a new epoch commenced in Europe, causing a far-reaching revolution in all traditional views and institutions. The Renaissance was the beginning of that great period of revolutions in Europe which is not yet concluded today. In spite of all social convulsions we have not yet succeeded in finding an inner adjustment of the manifold desires and needs of the individual and the social ties of the community whereby they shall complement each other and grow together. This is the first requisite of every great social culture. Evolutionary possibilities are first set free by such a condition of social life, and can then be brought to full development. The medieval city culture had its roots in this condition before it was infected with the germs of disintegration.

A long line of incidents had contributed to bring about a profound revolution in men's thought. The dogmas of the church, undermined by the shattering criticism of the nominalists, had lost much of their former influence. Likewise, the mysticism of the Middle Ages, already classed as heresy because it proclaimed an immediate relation between God and man, had lost its effectiveness and yielded place to more earthly considerations. The great voyages of discovery of the Spaniards and the Portuguese had greatly widened the outlook of European man and had turned his thoughts to earth again. For the first time since the submersion of the ancient world the scientific spirit revived again, but under the unlimited dominance of the church it found a home only among the Arabs and Jews in Spain. Here it burst the oppressive fetters of a soulless scholasticism and became tolerant of independent thought. As man then turned toward Nature and her laws it was inevitable that his faith in a Divine providence should become shaken, for periods of natural scientific knowledge have never been propitious for religious faith in the miraculous.

Furthermore, it became ever clearer that the dream of the Respublica Christiana, the union of all Christendom under the pope's shepherd's crook, was at an end. In the struggle against the arising nationalist states the church had been forced into the rear. Furthermore, even in its own camp, the forces of disintegration were becoming constantly stronger, leading in the northern countries to open secession. When in addition to all this we consider the great economic and political changes in the body of the old society we can understand the causes of that great spiritual revolution, the effects of which are perceptible even today.

The Renaissance has been called the starting point for modern man, who at that time first became aware of his personality. It cannot be denied that this assertion is partly based on truth. In fact modern man has by no means exhausted his heritage from the Renaissance. His thought and his feeling in many ways bear the imprint of that period, though he lacks a large part of the characteristics of the man of the Renaissance. It is no accident that Nietzsche, and with him the protagonists of an exaggerated individualism, who unfortunately do not possess Nietzsche's intellect, are so much inclined to revert to that period of "liberated passions" and "the roaming blond beast" in order to give their ideas a historical background. Jacob Burckhardt cites in his work, The Culture of the Renaissance in Italy, a wonderful passage from the speech of Pico della Mirandola about the dignity of man, which is also applicable to the twofold character of the Renaissance. The Creator is speaking to Adam:

"In the middle of the world have I placed thee that thou mayst the more easily look about thee and see all that is therein contained. I created thee as a being neither celestial nor terrestrial, neither mortal nor immortal, only that thou mayst be thine own free creator and master. Thou canst degenerate into the beast or reshape thyself into a godlike being. The beasts bring with them from the mother's womb all they were meant to have; the highest spirits among them are from the beginning, or soon after, what they will remain through all eternity. Thou alone hast the power of development, of growth according to free will. Thou hast the germ of an all-embracing life in thee."

The epoch of the Renaissance wears, in fact, a Janus head, behind whose double brow concepts clash, differences arise. From the one side it declared war against the dead social structure of a vanished period and freed man from the net of social ties which had lost their fitness for him and were felt only as restraints. From the other side it laid the foundation of the present power policies of the so-called "national interests" and developed the ties of the modern state. These have been the more destructive because they have not sprung from free association for the protection of common interests, but have been imposed upon men from above to protect and extend the privileges of small minorities in society.

The Renaissance made an end of the scholasticism of the Middle Ages and freed human thought from the fetters of theological concepts, but at the same time it planted the germs of a new political scholasticism and gave the impulse to our modern state-theology whose dogmatism yields in no way to that of the church and equally with it destroys and enslaves the spirit of man. Along with the old institutions of the community it also destroyed their ethical value without seeming able to provide an effective substitute. Thus the Renaissance developed simply into a revolt of man against society, and sacrificed the soul of the community for an abstract concept of freedom which was itself based on a misconception. The freedom it strove for was but a fateful illusion, for it lacked those social principles by which alone it could survive.

True freedom exists only where it is fostered by the spirit of personal responsibility. Responsibility towards one's fellowmen is an ethical feeling arising from human associations and having justice for each and all as its basis. Only where this principle is present is society a real community, developing in each of its members that precious urge toward solidarity which is the ethical basis of every healthy human grouping. Only when the feeling of solidarity is joined to the inner urge for social justice does freedom become a tie uniting all; only under this condition does the freedom of fellowmen become, not a limitation, but a confirmation and guarantee of individual freedom.

Where this prerequisite is missing, personal freedom leads to unlimited despotism and the oppression of the weak by the strong- whose alleged strength is in most cases founded less on mental superiority than on brutal ruthlessness and open contempt for all social feeling. The revolution of the Renaissance did in fact lead to such a situation. As its chosen leaders shook off all the ethical restraints of the past and contemned every consideration of the welfare of the community as personal weakness, they developed that extreme ego-cult which feels bound by no commandment of social morality and values personal success above any truly human feeling. Thus, from so-called "human freedom" nothing could emerge but the freedom of the Master Man, who welcomed any promising means for gaining power. Contemptuous of all feeling for justice, he was prepared to make his road even over corpses.

The concept of the historical significance of the Great Man, which today is again assuming ominous proportions, was developed by Machiavelli with iron logic. His treatise on the prince is the intellectual precipitate of a time when, on the political horizon, gleamed the gruesome words of the Assassins; "Nothing is true; everything is permitted!" The most abominable crime, the most contemptible act, becomes a great deed, becomes a political necessity, as soon as the Master Man puts in appearance. Ethical considerations have validity only for the private use of weaklings; for in politics there is no moral viewpoint, but solely questions of power, for whose solution any means is justifiable which promises success. Machiavelli reduced the amorality of state power to a system and tried to justify it with such cynical frankness that it was frequently assumed, and is still sometimes assumed today, that his Principe is only a burning satire on the despots of that time, overlooking the fact that this document was written merely for the private use of one of the Medici, and was not at all intended for the public; for which reason it was not published until after its author's death.

Machiavelli did not just draw his ideas from his inner consciousness. He merely reduced to a system the common practices of the age of Louis XI, Ferdinand the Catholic, Alexander VI, Cesare Borgia, Francesco Sforza and others. These rulers were as handy with poison and dagger as with rosary and sceptre and did not permit themselves to be influenced in the least by moral considerations in the pursuit of their plans for political power. II Principe is a true portrait of every one of them. Says Machiavelli:

A prince need not possess all the above-mentioned virtues, but he should have the reputation of possessing them. I even venture to say that it is very harmful to possess them and constantly to observe them; but to appear pious, true, human, God-fearing, Christian, is useful. It is only necessary at once so to shape one's character as to be able when it is necessary to be also the opposite of these. It must, therefore, be understood that a prince, especially a new prince, cannot be expected to observe what is regarded as good by other men, for to maintain his position he must often offend against truth, faith, humanity, mercy, and religion. Therefore he must possess a conscience capable of turning according to the winds of changing fortune and, as we have said, not neglect the good when it is feasible but also do the bad when it is necessary. A prince must therefore be very careful never to utter a word not full of the above-mentioned five virtues. All that one hears of him must exude compassion, truth, humanity, mercy, and piety; and nothing is more necessary than to guard the appearance of these virtues, for men judge in general more by the eye than by the feeling, for all can see, but only few can feel. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few feel what you really are; and these do not dare to oppose the opinion of the mass guarded by the majesty of the State. Of men's acts, especially those of the princes who have no judge over them, we ever regard but the result. Let the prince, therefore, see to it that he maintains his dignity. The means will ever be regarded as honourable and brave by everyone. For the common herd ever regard but the appearance and the result of a matter; and the world is full of the common herd. 1

What Machiavelli stated here in frank words (bluntly because only meant for the ear of a definite ruler) was only the unadorned profession of faith of the representatives of each and every power policy. It is, therefore, idle to talk of "Machiavellism." What the Florentine statesman set forth so crisply and clearly and so unequivocally has always been practiced and will always be practiced as long as privileged minorities in society have the necessary power to subdue the great majority and to rob them of the fruits of their labour. Or is one to believe that our present secret diplomacy uses other principles? As long as the will to power plays a part in the communal life of men, so long will those means be justified which are best for the winning and the maintenance of power. While the outer form of power policy, now as always, must needs adjust itself to the times and circumstances, the ends it pursues always remain the same and hallow any means serviceable to its purposes; for power is inherently amoral and transgresses against every principle of human justice, which feels that all privilege of individuals or special castes are a disturbance of social equilibrium, and consequently immoral. It would then be senseless to assume that the methods of power are better than the ends they serve.

What Machiavelli reduced to a system was naked, unashamed reasons of state. It was quite clear that brutal power policy was unguided by ethical principles. Therefore he demanded, with the shameless frankness characteristic of him (the trait really does not quite conform to the principles of his own "Machiavellism"), that men who cannot do without the superfluous luxury of private conscience had better leave politics alone. That Machiavelli so completely exposed the inner workings of power politics, that he even despised to gloss over the most inconvenient details with empty phrases and hypocritical words, is his chief merit.

Leonardo da Vinci engraved on the pedestal of his equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza the words: Ecce Deus! ("What a God!"). In these words are revealed the fundamental changes everywhere apparent after the disappearance of the medieval social organization. The glamour of the godhead had faded; in its place the Master Man was endowed with new honours, a reversion to the Caesar cult of the Romans. The "hero" became the executor of human destiny, the creator of all things on earth. No one has furthered this hero cult more than Machiavelli. No one has burned more incense to the "strong individual" than he. All devotees of heroism and hero worship have merely drunk from his cup.

The belief in the surpassing genius of the Master Man is always most noticeable in times of inner dissolution, when the social ties that have bound men become loosened and the interests of the community yield place to the special interests of privileged minorities. The difference of social ambitions and objectives, which always leads to sharper contrasts within the community and to its disintegration into opposing castes and classes, continually undermines the foundations of communal feeling. But where the social instinct is continually disturbed and weakened by alteration of the external conditions of life, there the individual gradually loses his equilibrium and the people becomes the mob. The mob is nothing but the uprooted people driven hither and thither on the stream of events. It must first be collected again into a new community that new forces may arise in it and its social activities be again directed toward a common goal.

Where the people become the mob, the time is favourable for the growth of the "Great Man," of the "recognised Master Man." Only in such periods of social disintegration is it possible for the "hero" to impose his will upon the others and to force the mob under the yoke of his individual desires. The true community permits no rulership to arise because it unites men by the inner bonds of common interests and mutual respect,: needing no external compulsion. Rulership and external compulsion always appear where the internal ties of the community fall into decay and communal feeling dies. When the social bond threatens to be broken the rulership of compulsion enters to hold together by force what was once united into a community by free agreement and personal responsibility.

The Renaissance was a time of such dissolution. The people changed to the mob, and from the mob was formed the nation, which was to serve as stepping stone to the new state. This origin is very instructive, for it shows that the whole power apparatus of the national state and the abstract idea of the nation have grown on one tree. It is not by chance that Machiavelli, the theoretician of modern power politics, was also the warmest defender of national unity, which played from then on the same part for the new state as the unity of Christianity had played for the church.

It was not the people who brought about this new condition, for no inner necessity drove them to this division, nor could they derive any benefit from it. The national state is the definite result of the will to temporal power, which in pursuit of its purposes had found a powerful Support in commercial capital, which needed its help. The princes imposed their will on the people and resorted to all sorts of tricks to keep them compliant, so that later it appeared as if the division of Christendom into nations had originated with the people themselves, whereas actually they were but the unconscious tools of the special interests of the princes.

The internal disintegration of papal power, and especially the great church schism in the northern countries, gave the temporal rulers the opportunity to turn long-held plans into reality and to give their power a new foundation independent of Rome. But this disrupted the great worldwide unity whereby European humanity had been spiritually and mentally united and wherein the great culture of the federalist period had had its firmest root. It is solely because Protestantism has been regarded, especially in the northern countries, as a great spiritual advance over Catholicism that the fateful result of the Reformation has been almost totally overlooked. 2 And as the political and social reconstruction of Europe had taken the same course also in Catholic lands, and as the national state had there especially achieved its highest perfection in the form of the absolute monarchy, the enormous consequences of this event, resulting in the separation of Europe into nations, were all the more easily overlooked.

It was in furtherance of the political aims of the national state that its princely founders set up differences in principles between their own and foreign peoples and strove to deepen and confirm them, for their whole existence depended upon these artificially created differences. Therefore they attached importance to the development of different languages in the different countries, and they had a love for definite traditions, which they enveloped in a veil of mysticism and tried to keep alive among the people; for the inability to forget is one of the first requisites of "national consciousness." And since among the people only the "holy" took root, it behooved them to give to national institutions the appearance of holiness and in particular to surround the person of the ruler with the glamour of divinity.

In this matter also Machiavelli served as a pioneer, for he understood that a new era had arrived and he could indicate its trend. He was the first decided supporter of the national state against the political ambitions of the church. Because the church stood as the strongest barrier in the way of the national unity of Italy, and therefore of "freeing the land from the Barbarians," he fought it most determinedly and promoted the separation of church and state. At the same time he tried to raise the state on the pedestal of divinity, although he was no Christian and had definitely broken with all belief in the supernatural. But he felt deeply the implicit Connection between religion and politics and knew that temporal power could only prosper when it stood close to the source of all authority, so that it might shine with the light of divinity. For reasons of state, then, Machiavelli wished to preserve religion among the people, not as a power Outside the state, but as an instrumentum regni, as a tool of government by statecraft. Therefore he wrote with cold-blooded realism in the eleventh chapter of the second book of his Discourses:

In reality no one has ever introduced new laws among the people without referring therein to God. The doctrines would otherwise not have been accepted, for a wise man can recognise as good much of whose excellence he cannot convince other men. Therefore do governments take their refuge in divine authority.

The high priests of monarchistic politics continued to work in this direction. They created a new political religious feeling which gradually took shape as "national consciousness" and, fertilised by man's inner urge for a formula, bore, later, the same strange fruit as did formerly the belief in God's eternal providence.

  • 1Niccolo Machiavelli, Il Principe.
  • 2Novalis had clearly grasped the deeper meaning of this tremendous political change when he wrote:
    "Unfortunately the princes had interfered in this schism, and many used it for the confirmation and extension of their temporal power and income. They were glad to be relieved of that high influence, and took the new consistoria under their fatherly protection. They were most eagerly concerned to prevent the complete union of the Protestant churches, and thus religion was most irreligiously enclosed within state boundaries; whereby the ground was laid for the gradual undermining of religious cosmopolitan interests. Thus religion lost its great political peace-making influence, its peculiar role as the unifying individualising principle of Christianity." (Novalis, Christianity or Europe. Fragment written in 1799.)