Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic

By Janowski, Zbigniew | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, October 2009 | Go to article overview

Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic


Janowski, Zbigniew, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


AGAINST THRONE AND ALTAR: MACHIAVELLI AND POLITICAL THEORY UNDER THE ENGLISH REPUBLIC by Paul A. Rahe Cambridge, 432 pages, $90

In 1637, Marchamont Nedham graduated from All Souls College, Oxford. Both facts, that the prestigious All Souls has ever had students and that Nedham was a founding father of modern politics, have been forgotten.

As Paul A. Rahe tells us in his erudite and fascinating account of English politics under the republic (1649-1660), Nedham was the first person in modern times to realize the importance of the press. He used it to its limits, editing a "newsbook," or political weekly as we would call it today, in order to make the opinions of ordinary people matter.

Politics and political survival was everything to Nedham. To those of us who want to employ moral categories, he was a man without principles, a political mercenary. Yet Nedham was politically "dexterous" and "risk averse," Rahe notes, and "if he was quite often bent, Nedham never once bowed." Nedham, with his idea of raison d'etat, made material interest- not justice, honor, or religion- a regulative principle in politics, and thus he was not only a student of Machiavelli but a real embodiment of MachiavelH's teaching. It was partly thanks to him that MachiavelH's pernicious "new science of politics" made inroads into England.

Nedham's contemporary, the poet John Milton, supported Oliver Cromwell. And for Milton- who was, after all, a representative of classical republicanism with virtue as its foundation- the failure of the republic was due to the fact that Britain was "not over fertile of men able to govern justlie & prudently in peace. …

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