Saturday, September 19, 2009

Machiavellian Theism

One encounters the most delightful delightful conundrum in reading Machiavelli's The Prince: the author hails from Italy, then as now, the most ostentatiously Christian place in Christendom; the seat of the Papacy and the Index of Prohibited Books (to which, fittingly, The Prince was added in 1559). The Catholicism of Machiavelli's Italy, then more than now, was rigid and morally absolutist, with the power to consign tracts and authors alike to the flames of this world and the next. So it is doubly scandalous to see in The Prince one of the most relativistic treatments of religion ever penned.

"A certain prince of the present time, whom it is not well to name" Machiavelli writes, "never does anything but preach peace and good faith, but he is really a great enemy to both, and either of them, had he observed them, would have lost him state or reputation on many occasions." If we were to end the quotation at "enemy to both," the typical reader, versed in some aspect of the moral tradition of the West, would assume a fairly standard denunciation of this prince's hypocrisy and false piety. The fact that this is exactly the opposite of what Machiavelli intends--a thoroughly scandalous kind of approval--is quite possibly why The Prince remains compelling: the book is, simply put, an instruction manual for an armory. It describes the tools of statecraft as a collection of weapons, how they are to be acquired, maintained, and employed, and--nothing else. The maintenance of power is as dispassionate as instructions for operating a DVD player or getting the most from the Atkins diet. In his hands (or, as he recommends, the hands of a prince), religion is a tool like every other: like armies and fortifications and ties to the nobility and attempts to compel the respect of the people. Like the state itself, there is nothing inherently moral or immoral about religion, any more than these inherent qualities might take up residence in a pitchfork or plow. Most notably, Machiavelli approvingly describes religion as a labor-saving device for those princes who are fortunate enough to compel loyalty on religion's behalf:
[Ecclesiastical principalities] are acquired either by ability or fortune; but they are maintained without either, for they are sustained by ancient religious customs, which are so powerful and of such quality, that they keep their princes in power in whatever manner they proceed and live. These princes alone have states without defending them, have subjects without governing them, and their states, not being defended, are not taken from them. [...] Only these principalities, therefore, are secure and happy.

None of this is an explicit denial of religion's God, however: Machiavelli makes clear that these principalities are also maintained by "higher causes, which the human mind cannot attain to." But rather than a statement of reverence, his effectively total divorce of the spiritual and the temporal reminds us of the Epicureans: if there are gods, they clearly don't have anything to do with us.

It would seem that for Machiavelli, religion is located somewhere in a theoretical great chain of utility: it is a tool in the service of the state, the state itself a tool in the hands of a prince, and the prince a tool in the service of history. And it is precisely because of the chilly detachment with which the author describes the institutions in which most men are emotionally so heavily invested that he has seemed, I think, so evil to some. But we do not think this of the historian describing a time ten centuries past, or of a modern scientists describing a colony of ants. We accept the detachment as a necessary tool of putting aside what we wish to be the case for the physical reality of the situations that we observe. We can currently apply this detachment, without reproach, to phenomena as diverse as child socialization, chemical bonds, sociopaths, and climate change--and be published in academic journals. But a functional critique of religion in the service of the state was probably a bit too ahead of Machiavelli's time...and perhaps of ours.

So could Machiavelli have had any orthodox theistic beliefs, despite his analysis of religion as a tool of great potential utility, not despite but because of its potential to deceive? Oddly, I think so. I think he would realize that the uses of religion would exist as they did regardless of its truth--in fact he seems to say exactly this when he claims it "presumptuous and foolish" to assess these higher causes. We have an example of another scientist, certainly a theist, three centuries after Machiavelli, expressing a similar thought: in the words of Benjamin Franklin, "God helps those who help themselves."


  1. It seems to me that there is a Machiavellian theology of sorts, e.g. God would want to rule in the manner of an absolute King who rewarded those who served him and punished with terrible punishments those who acted against him. If we work out the 'natural theology' of God as a prince, we'll see an interesting comparison to Christianity, in terms of the doctrines of heaven and hell, free will and grace, mortal and venial sin, the idea of salvation through one Church/religion, etc. So only some conceptions of God would fly, on Machiavelli's view, not any.

    On the other hand, I would question whether Machiavelli's philosophy is consistent with theism, assuming that implies divine power. The person with "arms of their own" presumably does not want to rely in any way on another, certainly not another who is infinitely more powerful. The person who would liberate Italy from its foreign invaders would want to liberate their hearts and minds, free them to be entirely self-reliant, free them to recognize this as the only world they will every know, etc. I think Machiavelli's prince, to really be the captain of his soul, must take the earth to be his true and only home.

  2. Interestingly, both Marx and Stalin took to Machiavelli's conception of religion as a tool of the powerful to oppress their subjects, Marx in theory and Stalin in his collaboration with the Russian Orthodox Church (after the initial conflict in which the church backed the czarists). Perhaps Machiavelli's prince would not be a theist himself, but at least one absolutist ruler whose reign parallel's Machiavelli's suggestions recognised the power of religion as an administrative tool. Promise people a better "next life", and they seem to be more tolerant of injustices in the only one they actually have.

  3. IST,

    It is, of course, ironic that Marx and Stalin both used Machiavelli: if you report accurately, it would seem that Marx viewed The Prince as a sort of cautionary tale on the oppressive potential of religion; Stalin, predictably enough, sought to exploit this to his advantage.