Machiavelli – Morality, Religion, and Politics

These basic building blocks of Machiavelli’s thought have induced considerable controversy among his readers going back to the sixteenth century, when he was denounced as an apostle of the Devil, but also was read and applied sympathetically by authors (and politicians) enunciating the doctrine of “reason of state” (Viroli 1992). The main source of dispute concerned Machiavelli’s attitude toward conventional moral and religious standards of human conduct, mainly in connection with The Prince. For many, his teaching adopts the stance of immoralism or, at least, amoralism. The most extreme versions of this reading find Machiavelli to be a “teacher of evil,” in the famous words of Leo Strauss (1957, 9-10), on the grounds that he counsels leaders to avoid the common values of justice, mercy, temperance, wisdom, and love of their people in preference to the use of cruelty, violence, fear, and deception. A more moderate school of thought, associated with the name of Benedetto Croce (1925), views Machiavelli as simply a “realist” or a “pragmatist” advocating the suspension of commonplace ethics in matters of politics. Moral values have no place in the sorts of decisions that political leaders must make, and it is a category error of the gravest sort to think otherwise. Weaker still is the claim pioneered by Ernst Cassirer (1946) that Machiavelli simply adopts the stance of a scientist—a kind of “Galileo of politics”—in distinguishing between the “facts” of political life and the “values” of moral judgment. Thus, Machiavelli lays claim to the mantle of the founder of “modern” political science, in contrast with Aristotle’s classical norm-laden vision of a political science of virtue. Perhaps the mildest version of the amoral hypothesis has been proposed by Quentin Skinner (1978), who claims that the ruler’s commission of acts deemed vicious by convention is a “last best” option. Concentrating on the claim in The Prince that a head of state ought to do good if he can, but must be prepared to commit evil if he must (Machiavelli 1965, 58), Skinner argues that Machiavelli prefers conformity to moral virtue ceteris paribus.

In direct contrast, some of Machiavelli’s readers have found no taint of immoralism in his thought whatsoever. Jean-Jacques Rousseau long ago held that the real lesson of The Prince is to teach the people the truth about how princes behave and thus to expose, rather than celebrate, the immorality at the core of one-man rule. Various versions of this thesis have been disseminated more recently. Some scholars, such as Garrett Mattingly (1958), have pronounced Machiavelli the supreme satirist, pointing out the foibles of princes and their advisors. The fact that Machiavelli later wrote biting popular stage comedies is cited as evidence in support of his strong satirical bent. Thus, we should take nothing Machiavelli says about moral conduct at face value, but instead should understood his remarks as sharply humorous commentary on public affairs. Alternatively, Mary Deitz (1986) asserts that Machiavelli’s agenda was driven by a desire to “trap” the prince by offering carefully crafted advice (such as arming the people) designed to undo the ruler if taken seriously and followed.

A similar range of opinions exists in connection with Machiavelli’s attitude toward religion in general, and Christianity in particular. Machiavelli was no friend of the institutionalized Christian Church as he knew it. The Discourses makes clear that conventional Christianity saps from human beings the vigor required for active civil life (Machiavelli 1965, 228-229, 330-331). AndThe Prince speaks with equal parts disdain and admiration about the contemporary condition of the Church and its Pope (Machiavelli 1965, 29, 44-46, 65, 91-91). Many scholars have taken such evidence to indicate that Machiavelli was himself profoundly anti-Christian, preferring the pagan civil religions of ancient societies such as Rome, which he regarded to be more suitable for a city endowed with virtù (Sullivan 1996). Anthony Parel (1992) argues that Machiavelli’s cosmos, governed by the movements of the stars and the balance of the humors, takes on an essentially pagan and pre-Christian cast. For others, Machiavelli may best be described as a man of conventional, if unenthusiastic, piety, prepared to bow to the externalities of worship but not deeply devoted in either soul or mind to the tenets of Christian faith. A few dissenting voices, most notably Sebastian de Grazia (1989), have attempted to rescue Machiavelli’s reputation from those who view him as hostile or indifferent to Christianity. Grazia demonstrates how central biblical themes run throughout Machiavelli’s writings, finding there a coherent conception of a divinely-centered and ordered cosmos in which other forces (“the heavens,” “fortune,” and the like) are subsumed under a divine will and plan. Cary Nederman (1999) extends and systematizes Grazia’s insights by showing how such central Christian theological doctrines as grace and free will form important elements of Machiavelli’s conceptual structure.

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