By Alina Martel '23
Edited by Miranda Papes '21 and Gamze Kazakoglu '24
In a lecture hall brimming with first-year Yale students, eager to begin a semester of reading and discussing the best works the western world has to offer, Professor Bryan Garsten made an intricate, unsettling supposition: to read a book is to allow the author possession of one’s mind. While the book is open, the reader thinks what the author thinks, sees what the author sees, and entertains what only the author has begun to dream. It is a full surrender of control, and it is disarming. No author invades the head of his audience as cunningly as Machiavelli. Insistent and charming in his prose, Machiavelli can entice his reader to believe just about anything if she is not careful. Therefore, reading his works with a discerning eye is critical. However, one finds incredible value not only in what Machiavelli does say, but also in what he ignores, and some of the most troubling truths of The Prince and The Discourses lie in Machiavelli’s limited discussion of ecclesiastical states and the power they derive from God. Noting the immense power of religious rulers only briefly in The Prince and offering contradictions to that power in The Discourses, Machiavelli merely flirts with a vital truth: the latent Machiavellian nature of religion and the identity of God as a perfect Machiavellian prince.
Machiavelli’s conception of ecclesiastical states and their efficacy seems to overpower all other guidelines for behavior in The Prince, and his refusal to discuss this is cause for investigation: why do religious states operate as well as they do? Why does Machiavelli barely hint at an answer? Among complex analyses of hereditary, new, and mixed principalities and how to attain them, Machiavelli’s characterization of ecclesiastical states as low-maintenance, rewarding entities is unexpected and jarring. The notion that “all the problems are encountered before one gets possession of [an ecclesiastical state]”1 and that said possession can be sustained “without either [strength or luck]” seems entirely improbable. For rulers to maintain control of their states “though they do not defend them,” to retain the respect of their people “though they do not govern them,” and never to fear being replaced “no matter how they live and behave” is something both coveted and revolutionary, and Machiavelli’s claim that “long-established institutions… rooted in religion”2 can provide such luxuries must be taken seriously. The Prince itself is a guide of strategy and conduct—how a prince should behave. Suggesting that possession of an ecclesiastical state negates the need for strenuous self-control and calculation is monumental. Machiavelli’s motion to avoid “presumptuous and rash” debate over a state “built up and maintained by God”2 is rash in itself: it is critical to understand why religious government supersedes Machiavelli’s strict rules. It cannot be ignored.
Placing Machiavelli’s many characterizations of religion alongside his determinations regarding fear, love, cruelty, and compassion, it becomes clear that the success of papal states lies in religion’s underlying Machiavellian nature. Machiavelli’s polemic argument that “it is much safer to be feared than loved”3 is morally unpalatable, but it is central to the success of religion in “keeping men on the straight and narrow”4 and maintaining a “law-abiding and united”5 state. Much of religion revolves around fearing God. Machiavelli’s understanding that fear “restrains men because they are afraid of punishment”6 applies to laws and morality derived from religion—what fear is stronger than that of Hell? Religious leaders understand that people are “a good deal more afraid of the consequences of breaking their oaths than of breaking laws,”4 and—adhering to Machiavelli’s advice—they use fear to their advantage. However, this is not sufficient: a ruler “must take care to avoid being hated,”7 and religious states prosper due to the undertones of love and compassion attributed to God. Using fear as a basis for order can garner a reputation for cruelty, but “claim[ing] that [one’s] actions were authorized by God”8 confers an element of necessity—the harshest parts of Christianity become mere products of tough love. The intricate balances between fear, love, cruelty, and compassion within religion and worship protect ecclesiastical rulers; religious states are so effective because religion itself is Machiavellian.
Christianity and religion, however, evolve with time, and Machiavelli’s recognition of factional conflict and the degradation of religion in The Discourses rules out theocratic government as a political panacea, but what is to blame? Why is it possible for religion to fail now despite its history of success? Machiavelli’s brief description of detrimental factional disputes and the popes’ inability to end them provides the beginnings of an explanation, but it is nowhere near enough. How can Machiavelli applaud religion and its powers in The Prince only to question its tendency to “turn the men of our own day into weaklings”9 in The Discourses? Something has changed: men are not maintaining religion as they should. Where Machiavelli recognizes that “religious worship is the foundation of the greatness of a republic, so the neglect of it will bring about its ruin”8—religion left unattended will deteriorate, and it can erode the states that have used it as their foundation. Because men are “ungrateful, fickle, deceptive and deceiving”6 and “never do anything good except when forced to,”10 it is no surprise that religion, something officiated by men, can fail. For as long as humans are flawed, for as long as “we do not live in an ideal world,”11 Machiavelli’s coveted ecclesiastical states and the religion that birthed them will be—despite their clear merits—imperfect. Only one thing remains untouched.
Removing human error from religious rule, it becomes clear that the past and remaining successes of ecclesiastical states lie not in man, but in God—the closest one can get to Machiavelli’s ideal prince. The parallels that religion shares with Machiavellianism—the delicate balances between fear, love, cruelty, and compassion—come from the relationship between God and His people. What is the object of religious fear, “essential for the maintenance of a civilized way of life?”4 God. Whose historic Great Flood, ten plagues, and night of Passover epitomize Machiavelli’s assertions that one should “do all the harm [one] must at one and the same time”12 and that “it is more compassionate to impose harsh punishments on a few, than… to allow disorder to spread?”3 God’s. Who is credited with the creation of man, languages, and everything, mastering Machiavelli’s strategy of “build[ing] new cities, … moving populations from one place to another,” and “mak[ing] everything new” and “his gift?”13 God. God embodies all that Machiavelli wants his prince to be, and He will continue to do so. While Machiavelli’s critique of religion in The Discourses emphasizes a flaw in humanity and notes a degree of weakness in Christianity, it illustrates an infallibility in God. The determination that fault for religious decline lies in “the sinful nature of mankind” and in “false interpretations of our religion” despite the possibility that “God himself allows injustice to flourish”14 illustrates the human tendency to exempt God from blame—the men who promote and distill religion can fail, but God cannot. Throughout The Prince and The Discourses, amid the names of Moses, Cyrus, Severus, and Cesare Borgia, God arises as the one ruler who has yet to fall. He is Machiavelli’s perfect prince.
In abandoning the discussion of ecclesiastical states in the earlier chapters of The Prince and only partially enumerating upon religion in The Discourses, Machiavelli has neglected the pivotal relationship between God, religion, and his own political philosophy; he has resolved to avoid discussing a “higher power, which human intelligence cannot grasp,”2 and he has unwittingly obscured God’s Machiavellian nature in doing so. Remedying his mistake is difficult and baffling, and the repercussions of discovering the truth are even more troublesome.
The recognition of God as some kind of Machiavellian ideal prompts a series of questions. One must now consider the feasibility of Machiavelli’s advice. Is it impossible to be the prince he is describing? Even more pertinently, is it even worth it to try? While some can cite great leaders as evidence for the affirmative, even Machiavelli admits that the great deeds of the past are “scarcely imitated”15 in the present. At what point does The Prince lose the power and persuasion for which it is held so famously? In an increasingly secular world, where do Machiavelli and his aspiring princes, whether they recognize their dependence on religion or not, belong? Perhaps it is possible that time—as it does with all things—has shoved them into books, bits of history on which the masses may chew, but never taste.
1. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, in Selected Political Writings, ed. and trans. by David Wootton (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1994), ch. 11, p. 55.
2. Ibid, ch. 11, p. 36.
3. Ibid, ch. 17, p. 51.
4. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Discourses, in Selected Political Writings, ed. and trans. by David Wootton (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1994), ch. 11, p. 114.
5. Ibid, ch. 12, p. 117.
6. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, ch. 17, p. 52.
7. Ibid, ch. 17, p. 53.
8. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Discourses, ch. 11, p. 115.
9. Ibid, ch. 2, p. 168.
10. Ibid, ch. 2, p. 93.
11. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, ch. 15, p. 48.
12. Ibid, ch. 8, p. 31.
13. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Discourses, ch. 26, p. 131.
14. Ibid, ch. 2, p. 169.15; preface, p. 83.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Discourses, in Selected Political Writings, ed. and trans. by David Wootton. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1994.
Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, in Selected Political Writings, ed. and trans. by David Wootton (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1994).