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Human beings have always yearned to know the future, and there have always been other human beings who claimed they could predict it. The ancient Greeks consulted the sibyls, female oracles of great age who under divine inspiration uttered verses given them by the gods of the famous shrines they served. All religions of the book have had their millenarian preachers and visionaries who thought they could discern God’s plan for the future in scripture. The Romans, a superstitious lot, would never dream of undertaking an important action without first taking the auspices from the flight of birds or seeking omens in the entrails of animals. They had an enormous vocabulary for the apparatus of prognostication. The joke at my high school’s annual classics bee was that, if you didn’t know the word in Greek, it meant “pain or suffering.” If you didn’t know the word in Latin, it meant “entrails.” We regarded this difference as a deep insight into Greco-Roman culture.

Most of these readings of the future produced intelligence that was limited in value. The responses of the sibyls, famously ambiguous, would tell you how an action you contemplated would turn out, but you had to interpret the sibyl’s words correctly. Croesus, king of Lydia, famously lost his empire to the Persians when he misread a response of the Delphic Oracle. He thought she was going long on Lydia when in fact she was hedging her bets. The Roman haruspex could tell you whether the day and hour you chose for your action was favorable or not, but it was still up to you to take advantage of the moment, and things could still go wrong if your virtue failed. Roman auguries were “soft” predictions in the sense that they admitted only probable futures that could be altered by human agency. End-time prognosticators were equally hard to falsify, since if the predicted disaster failed to materialize, it was because the people had followed the prophet’s call to reformation; if it did materialize, well, there you were. Deadlines for golden ages, second comings, and the end of time could always be extended, like last-chance sales on the Internet.

The Italian Renaissance had the whole business of predicting the future down to a science. Literally. Astrology was taught in the science curriculum of the universities, and most institutions boasted at least one specialist in the subject. The reason for this was the key role of astrology in premodern medical education. All the ancient authorities agreed that the sun, moon, and stars in their various configurations affected health in the sublunary world. People believed that the scientific practice of medicine required doctors to understand planetary influences. Hence, every university had a list of required Greek and Arabic texts in astrology that aspiring doctors had to master. Physicians carried star charts with them on their rounds and in many cities were required by law to calculate the position of the moon before conducting surgeries. Taking a patient’s horoscope allowed the doctor better to understand an individual patient’s “humors” and “complexions” and prescribe accordingly, much as nutrition companies today offer special diets based on one’s DNA. Horoscopes were also thought to help a doctor predict critical moments in the course of a disease, along with the number of days the disease would run after the dies indicativi of onset, and thus make a prognosis of death or recovery. No doctor would think of bleeding or leeching his patient unless the stars were in a favorable position. The science was settled!

Many of the more famous doctors and professional astrologers in Italy developed a lucrative sideline advising princes and city-states about the future. If celestial bodies exerted an influence on individual bodies, it was obvious that the body politic must be subject to them as well. Thus princes and republics, too, required the services of professional astrologers. No city-state would think of presenting the baton of command to its captain-general at the start of the summer campaign without determining per puncto d’astrologia the right day and time. No prince would go on a ceremonial progress or start a war without consulting an astrologer—or better yet, a team of ­astrologers—about the proper time and place to begin. Astrologers were consulted to cast the horoscopes of enemies or potential wives so that princes could reckon how long they might live, how many children they would bear of each sex, and what their ultimate fates would be. Astrologers were needed to predict the weather, the harvest, and the likely outcome of military ventures. Astrological prognostications could also be used in disinformation campaigns to cause popular unrest in a neighboring city or weaken a rival prince. A ruler’s ability to form ­alliances could be undermined if some famous astrologer predicted his imminent death. Spy services often filed horoscopes of foreign leaders along with the other intelligence in their dossiers.

Why did people believe astrologers’ prognostications? For the same reason they believe economic forecasters today. Their deep longing to see into the future made them seek out the expertise of forecasters. The astrologers themselves, like stock pickers today, were clever enough to make a range of predictions bracketing likely outcomes that would allow them to claim accuracy after the event. They knew that people in their lust for certainty would be dazzled by the outcomes they had correctly predicted and forget about their far more numerous mistakes.

Perhaps the principal reason why people believed astrologers, though, and why astrologers trusted their own pseudoscience, was astrology’s position as an epistemic parasite on the certainties of astronomy and mathematics. The three subjects were taught together at the university, and the predictions of astronomers about planetary positions were demonstrably accurate. Before Galileo and Newton, the physics of planetary motion were not understood, but the measurement and prediction of celestial phenomena, even using the premodern Ptolemaic model of the universe, were as close as the Renaissance came to an exact science. Astrology was an accepted part of medicine, too, and the need to believe in the reliability of medical science was as deep then as it is now. Premodern medicine had negative utility in the sense that it killed more than it cured, but doctors already knew how to dress up their ignorance in pseudo-Greek terminology and the confident citation of recognized authorities.

Few expressed skepticism about the entire enterprise of astrology, and those who did were mostly cranks who lacked cultural prestige. People could express skepticism about particular results without disturbing belief in astrology’s scientific status. “­Scientific” astrologers and doctors sneered at divinatory practices that slipped religious premises into the serious business of prognostication. Princes often sought a second opinion when they didn’t like the predictions offered by the first astrologer they consulted. Sometimes they consulted two or three independently before making up their minds. Unreliable astrologers undermined their own reputation, not that of their art. Predictions that turned out to be false could even be dangerous to the practitioner’s own health, as the court astrologer who predicted long life for King Edward VI discovered. Much like literary critics today, astrologers had an incentive to make their studies as arcane and unfalsifiable as possible. Then, as now, pseudoscientific language concealed poverty of understanding.

You could also criticize excessive credulity without casting doubt on the scientific character of astrology. Duke Ludovico Maria Sforza of Milan, famous for the high salaries he paid to his team of astrologers, was among the most credulous. He was ridiculed by the great medical authority of the sixteenth century, Girolamo Cardano—himself a famous astrologer—for putting so much faith in the science that he would lead his court on ceremonial progresses in the midst of heavy downpours, dragging his elegantly dressed courtiers through the mud just because some astrologer had decided that the moment was propitious. Then, as now, the prestige of a pseudoscientific prognosticator could drown a ruler’s common sense.

Renaissance astrology, in other words, was a premodern form of scientism, if we take scientism in its broadest sense of unwarranted reliance on science, or a predisposition to believe opinions that present themselves illicitly as scientific facts. It differed from our contemporary forms of scientism largely relative to its intellectual prestige. In the modern world scientism is parasitic on an enormous body of valid ­scientific achievements as well as on the dominance of materialism and utilitarianism in public philosophy. In the Renaissance, by contrast, the scientistic practice of astrology had to share the intellectual ecosystem with powerful traditions of practical reasoning that challenged its premises in fundamental ways: the moral theology of the Catholic Church and the moral philosophy of the ancient Greeks and Romans, taught everywhere in schools and universities. In the ­quattrocento, the backbone of the curriculum in moral philosophy was Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Cicero’s On Duties, and classical philosophers took a dim view of astrology. Even Galen, whose philosophical writings were informed by his towering authority in ancient medicine, drew the line at judicial astrology, the pseudoscience of predicting the future. He decried the ignorance of “­horoscope-casters.”

Astrology as a practice encouraged consequentialist thinking: If we know x is necessarily going to happen, we should adopt course y to prevent or take advantage of that outcome. If x represents a threat to my survival, y must be done, even if morally ­dubious. Survival, after all, is the highest law. Aristotle ­rejected such thinking in the first chapters of the Ethics with this famous dictum:

It is the mark of an educated person to look for precision in each kind of inquiry just to the extent that the nature of the subject allows it. It looks like the same kind of mistake to accept a merely persuasive account from a mathematician and to demand demonstrations from an expert in oratory.

The study of moral action is not an exact science and is not capable of mathematical precision. It is a mistake of moral reasoning to pretend that it is. The supreme moral virtue is phronesis, practical wisdom or prudence, whose role is to survey each moral decision comprehensively, from above as it were, and to choose the pattern of action that most befits a noble soul. Phronesis must take into account the full range of possible actions, find the virtuous mean, and consider the wider situation, time and place, and the persons involved, all while guiding us to our ultimate goal of building fine character in ourselves and others. Phronesis is irreducibly qualitative and requires a sense of balance and proportion. When ­phronesis makes its sovereign decision, the whole person is involved; a fine action is the product of a person’s nature, upbringing, education, and total moral experience. It expresses who he or she is.

States, as Aristotle teaches in the Politics, must act on the same principles:

The happy state may be shown to be that which is best and which acts rightly, and it cannot act rightly without doing right actions, and neither individual nor state can do right actions without virtue and wisdom. Thus the courage, justice, and wisdom of a state have the same form and nature as the qualities which give the individual who possesses them the name of just, wise, or temperate.

Base calculations as to the optimal means of survival and self-aggrandizement could never count as the virtue of phronesis in Aristotle’s scheme of values, either for individuals or states. A ruler who thought only in such terms would be hardly better than an animal.

But what if the claims of survival and ­flourishing come in conflict with moral principle? It was the theme of Cicero’s On Duties, based on Stoic ­teachings, that such a conflict between the utile and the honestum, the useful and the honorable, was always illusory. Doing the right thing was always the best thing for you and for others. The dead opposite of consequentialist calculation was the Stoic maxim ruat caelum, fiat iustitia: “Let the heavens fall, let justice be done.” To hell with consequences. For a Stoic, any consideration of outcomes at all was a sign that one was ignorant of the fundamental truth of Nature: that there was a Divine Providence, a logos or an intelligent fire that swept through all things and brought them into conformity with the Good. If you thought an immoral course of action would benefit you or others, you were simply mistaken. You had not understood that we were all part of a whole that was being shaped at every moment by God, the very source of morality, and only by God. True phronesis was to align your will with the Good and trust that the Good, being all-powerful, could not but achieve its end. To do something you know is wrong and harmful because you think you understand the order of Nature better than the Giver of Nature’s law was dangerous folly. Any conflict between the moral law within us and uncertain prognostications of the future arrived at through limited human understanding could be resolved in only one way.

The person who invented scientism in its modern form was Niccolò Machiavelli, possibly the greatest contrarian and rebel of the Western tradition. Machiavelli’s writings rebelled more or less explicitly against the Catholic Church, the Christian faith, and the Greco-Roman philosophy taught in the universities and humanist schools of his day. As an idiosyncratic follower of the atomist Lucretius, he rebelled, too, against the pretentious determinism of astrological science. He accepted, to be sure, the premise of natural astrology that heavenly bodies powerfully influenced the sublunary world, but privately he mocked judicial astronomy, which alleged the ability to foretell the future. Instead, he developed his own science of human nature, which he claimed had predictive value.

Machiavelli’s key move was to exclude morality and religion from the science of practical reasoning. Our actions should be dictated by facts, not values. Realistic goals, like survival, wealth, and power, could not be achieved by the consistent application of traditional moral principles. Morality might make you a good person, but your enemies would cut you down while you were punctiliously observing the moral law: “A man who takes a vow of goodness in all things must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good.” Machiavelli taught that we have to learn the real reasons, the “effectual truth,” that drove human behavior if we wanted to control our future.

Machiavelli’s political writings thus purport to advise rulers based on what human beings actually do, not what they should do. His descriptions of behavior illustrate quasi-scientific rules that will enable a ruler to predict the effects of his own actions and those of others within any given causal field. In this sense, Machiavellian prudence is far more ambitious than Aristotelian or Stoic phronesis. His is less a form of prudence than a kind of scientific theory of political behavior. His fundamental principle is that all political actors are forced by necessità to act in their own selfish interests or that of the polities they rule. Only force and necessity can make most people behave with virtù, with manly effectiveness.

A fine illustration of Machiavellian prudence can be found in his Florentine Histories, which offers in book 2 an analysis of the reasons why the tyrant Walter of Brienne did not retain his lordship over the Florentines in 1343. The Florentine Histories was originally a work intended for a private ­audience, written for, and at the behest of, the Medici. Machiavelli’s transparent purpose was to show the Medici why they should not try to take away Florentine political liberty. Secretly a republican sympathizer, Machiavelli used the work to demonstrate to the Medici why their project of turning Florence into a principality must necessarily fail.

Machiavelli’s analysis takes the form of a speech by Florence’s chief board of magistrates, the Priors, who come to Walter the night before his tyrannical coup. Machiavelli paints the Priors as good men who speak the truth. They tell Walter frankly that they know he is plotting to seize illegal power. Being unable to oppose him by force, they hope to convince him by argument that he will never succeed in making himself the signore of Florence. Their argument runs as follows:

I. A city with a long tradition of liberty will never willingly give that up. So, the city will have to be enslaved, its liberty taken from it by force.
II. (a) Large forces are necessary to enslave a large city; (b) these can come from outside the city or from within. (b1) Those from outside, composed of foreigners, will not be enough at every moment, and (b2) of those who support you from within the city (b2α) the powerful will discard you once they have used you to overcome their enemies, and (b2β) the common people are fickle. So, (c) eventually the whole city will be against you, and (d) nothing can protect a signore when an entire population opposes him. (e) And if you try an exemplary punishment of part of your opposition, the rest will become more filled with hatred and the desire for vengeance.
III. The reign of one signore doesn’t allow enough time to stamp out liberty. The memory of liberty, even when lost, is powerful and hard to eradicate. It will be passed down lovingly through the generations, and if liberty is ever regained, it will be guarded all the more tenaciously.
IV. You cannot win over the Florentines either by military conquests or good government. (a1) The glory of military triumphs will count as yours, not theirs; (a2) more peoples conquered by you will only increase the number of the Florentines’ fellow-slaves, because subject cities will be subject to you, not to them. (b) Good, pious, just government will not be enough to make an autocrat loved, because “to someone used to living unfettered, every chain has weight and every bond cuts.” (c1) Good government and violence are inconsistent with each other. (c2) Since you can’t hope to please people by good government, you will have to use the utmost violence, a possibility already disproved in II. Therefore, the only rational course of action is to be content with the constitutional power we, the Priors, have already given you.

Machiavelli, writing in the 1520s, of course knew the outcome of Walter of Brienne’s tyrannical coup in 1343. He was expelled from Florence and the republic restored. A historian’s hindsight is always 20/20. But his implied advice to the Medici, despite its categorical certainty, was completely wrong. After a brief rebellion in 1527, the year of Machiavelli’s death, the Medici in 1530 established a principality, the Duchy (later Grand Duchy) of Tuscany, that lasted down to its incorporation into the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Machiavelli was in general a poor prognosticator. On salient issues he predicted the exact opposite of what turned out to be the case. At the end of The Prince, he foretold that Italy was ripe to reclaim its liberty from foreign invaders; Italy remained under foreign dominance down to the nineteenth century. For a man believed to have extraordinary powers of observation and analysis, it remains astonishing that he seems to have lived through the Reformation without noticing it. There seem to be no references anywhere in Machiavelli’s literary works or correspondence to Martin Luther, for example.

Machiavelli condemned Christianity as a source of military weakness at the very moment when it was evolving into an ideology of empire and European world dominance. He wrote in The Prince that subjects of ecclesiastical princes can never get rid of their rulers; three decades later a third of Europe had rid itself of ecclesiastical princes. His contemptuous dismissal of the “weak and womanish” nature of Catholic Christianity ignored the papacy’s role since the late eleventh century in inspiring the Crusades. Some of its greatest triumphs were to come later in Machiavelli’s own century. In the Battle of Lepanto (1571), for example, a crusade organized by Pius V under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin defeated an Ottoman fleet and put an end to their military expansion in the Mediterranean for good. Most of Machiavelli’s predictions about the future of military tactics and strategy, too, were proved wrong. Even his own career as a political advisor was crippled by a persistent inability to back the right horse. As his friend Francesco Guicciardini once remarked, ­Machiavelli always asserted his conclusions troppo assolutamente. He was right about that.

Machiavelli’s scientism has gained many followers but has seen few successes. In the Western tradition, while ­serious intellectual resources have been devoted to scientific prognostication since the eighteenth century, it is hard to find a single case where a theorist correctly predicted, using scientifically valid arguments, what was going to happen next. Many philosophers have had serious doubts whether predictions of the future—formally speaking, inductive inferences from the observed to the unobserved—can count as science at all. A brilliant guess is not a scientific prediction. As Niall ­Ferguson has remarked, the only law of history is the law of unintended consequences. In any case, the social ­sciences, including political science, quite apart from their predictive failures, are subject to methodological failure even at the descriptive level, being notoriously unable to reproduce or replicate their results. The timing of future events is even harder to predict. To quote a famous Wall Street maxim, just because something is inevitable does not mean that it is imminent, and this fact renders most predictions useless.

A science of human behavior can be created only by simplifying it, fragmenting it, and debasing it. For example, to create a science of economics with predictive value (or claiming predictive value), the economist has to reduce human beings to utility maximizers—a “utility” ordinarily understood in material terms. The view of humanity taken by Machiavellian prudence is ultimately Epicurean in origin: Human nature is an unstable material substance that experiences a stream of selfish and insatiable desires ending only in death; once illusions are stripped away, the only real human goods are security and pleasure. Machiavellian prudence is intrinsically adversarial and selfish, both in the case of individual selves and our collective selves as members of states; it is directed to improving one actor’s position vis-à-vis another’s. It assumes that human beings cannot prefer interpersonal human interests to individual ones except when seeking collective security, and that states operate under the same necessity with respect to other states. In short, it assumes that human beings can never prefer interpersonal interests to personal ones. Machiavellians thus assume that cooperation and consensus can be based only on fleeting, unstable shared interests and can never rest on universal principles—on ideals.

Human beings, of course, are often adversarial and selfish, and other nasty things as well. But that’s not the whole picture. We can be decent, even noble, caring and even self-sacrificial. Aristotelian ­phronesis is not blind to our baser impulses. But it knows that man is, as Pascal observed, both angel and beast. This allows for a truer realism in those who must govern, one that accounts for our worst impulses and yet is alive to our higher desires.

Still, persons wrapping themselves in the white coat of the laboratory continue to make claims to know the future, with the wildly inconsistent results we see all about us in our current crisis. When a culture is inclined to regard scientistic predictions as operational intelligence, those with authority over us are easily tempted into foolish, harmful, and even immoral decisions. One may well ask whether in our modern world, where the moral foundations of our polities are falling into ruins, it is Machiavellian scientism or Aristotelian phronesis that provides us with the better guide to personal morality and ­public policy. 

James Hankins is professor of Renaissance history at Harvard University.

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