courts of the ancients:

Machiavelli’s academy of active imagination

Machiavelli may be an unlikely teacher of imaginal studies, but an examination of his writing suggests that he sought visions and inner wisdom using the technique C.G. Jung would later call ‘active imagination.’

C.G. Jung is generally understood to be the progenitor of the technique known as active imagination, an imaginal practice directed at making unconscious contents conscious, and a key to getting to know the varied subpersonalities within us. And, certainly, Jung has made the practice available for our era. But long before it had the name “active imagination,” people from many cultures, in many times, engaged in something very like Jung’s practice.

Of course, Jung’s vivid examples of active imagination stand out to us. The Red Book[1] offers perhaps the richest window into the practice ever recorded. And his Memories, Dreams, Reflections[2] is a guide which has long inspired readers to look more closely at Jung’s life and methods. But history offers us other accounts of active imagination, some of them from unlikely sources. Consider this one:

When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty, workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world.[3]

This is a moving account of the vibrancy and potential of imaginal practice. And here’s the remarkable bit: the passage comes none other than Niccolò Machiavelli. Who would have suspected the author of The Prince[4] of such sublime depths?

So, let’s take a few minutes to consider Machiavelli’s account and what it might teach us about active imagination.

1) why is this active imagination?

To be fair, it may not be. Machiavelli may simply be using poetic language to convey just how much he likes reading old books. But there are some markers here which suggest more than mere metaphor.

Machiavelli’s sense of encountering the ancients and being welcomed by them[5] illustrates an important element of active imagination: the sense of real interaction. Active imagination is not about a passive view of the inner world. It is an engagement with an image and, as the process develops, the evolution of that image. In this case, Machiavelli’s image likely arises from the sense of a voice on a page, the speaking ghosts of Socrates or Tacitus, perhaps. Machiavelli opens himself to that image and allows the ancient worlds of Greece or Rome to arise in his mind’s eye. And when he arrives there, he is welcomed. He tastes their food — intellectual food, certainly — but perhaps he sits at their meal tables, too, conversing over bread dipped in wine. These interactions, the belief that we are really there, interacting with people who are, in some way, real, is at the heart of active imagination.

2) the conversational attitude of active imagination

The fact that Machiavelli can ask the ancients questions, and that they in their humanity, reply,[6] gives us a good sense of the dialogical nature of imaginal practice. When we engage in true active imagination, we trust that the figures we encounter have something to teach, something worthwhile to share. What’s more, we invest the conversation with real emotion, asking questions out of genuine curiosity and raising subjects we truly care about. For Machiavelli, this includes a wish to understand why the figures of the past made the choices they did. And, in the spirit of the best of imaginal researchers, he trusts that legitimate knowledge can be gleaned from these dialogues.

Of course, we might ask ourselves, what can an imaginal conversation really tell us about the motivations of Socrates, or what Tacitus truly saw when he traveled among the Germanic peoples? How does this qualify as legitimate knowledge? And, yes, if we are seeking forensic truth, there may be better, or at least, more factual sources. But the imaginal world draws from a deep well of ancient knowledge.

Jung’s two-million year-old human lives in the depths of our psyches, and he has seen plenty. He knows how the archetypal patterns of humanity play out in all their glory, in all their horror. And when we allow this ancient voice to inspirit the figures of our inner world, there is a richness to that speaking, a depth that exceeds our ability to ‘make something up’ (a worry that many folks have when they engage in active imagination).

3) the personal nature of the work

Though he clearly valued his meetings with the ancients, Machiavelli (to my knowledge) made no public claims that he spoke to the great Socrates and now he, Machiavelli, alone, knew the true meaning of the Republic. As we work with inner figures, we would be wise to recall the words of Morpheus of Matrix fame: What was said was for you and for you alone.[8] Active imagination is about moving towards our own individuation, not about impressing our discoveries upon others. Yes, Machiavelli tells us that, in his imaginal hours, he tremble[s] no more at death.[9] But he does not tell us not to tremble. In an era of high-drama pronouncements shouted out in social media fora, it can be hard to remember that our personal truths, like good tea, need time to steep. And what is meant for us may not be meant for others.

4) active imagination enriches

Machiavelli’s words suggest that his imaginal time-traveling is a regular practice with a bit of ritual to it: When evening comes...On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty, workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace.[10] This is not a lark. Machiavelli is a regular visitor in those courts of the ancients.[11] Why? Because, there, he is liberated from his worldly persona. His fears and vexations fall away. In this short paragraph, we get a sense of paths worn smooth by frequent travel, and of a humble expertise honed by experience. He meets his ancient friends often, and he does this because the journey opens him to feelings and truths that he cannot find elsewhere. He joins with a greater river, one that has flowed since time immemorial.

As a final point of reflection, it may surprise some readers that Machiavelli enters into active imagination with the images of figures who ‘really existed.’ But the truth is, we can engage any image in active imagination. Moments from our pasts, pieces of our dreams, works of art and, yes, figures from history.[⌘] In fact, if you find yourself curious as to how the mercenary author of The Prince squares with the image of Machiavelli as a modest friend of the ancient courts, you might invite him into your own active imaginations.

an art with many teachers

Johnson’s Inner Work,[13] is an excellent book that teaches the nuts-and-bolts of active imagination, and I highly recommend it. But, in some ways, small snippets like Machiavelli’s above, can teach us just as much as any instructional manual. This one short paragraph gives us a sense, not only of how to enter into active imagination, but also how to treat the figures we meet there — with respect for their person and their reality. There are many teachers of active imagination, and many ways to do the practice. Machiavelli offers us only a brief window into his imaginal world, but he provides an excellent blueprint, all the same.

[⌘] In this vein, I highly recommend this essay which features examples Naomi Ruth Lowinski’s imaginal dialogues with ghost of her grandmother, a Jew killed in the Holocaust. Read it in: Lowinski, N. R. (2003). Wrestling with God: From the Book of Job to the poets of the Shoah. In J. Beebe (Ed.). Terror, violence and the impulse to destroy. Daimon.

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