Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Meet Machiavelli

Meet Nick. He is a wealthy man, and he works for President Noble as a high-powered ambassador. In a radical upset, Noble is ousted at the next election, and President Masse takes power. Nick continues to work at the capital for Masse—after all, it pays the bills.

In the next election, Noble manages to regain the Presidency. Nick comes back joyfully to reclaim his place of affluence with the administration, but instead, because he worked for Masse, Nick accused of treason. He is tortured, exiled, and all his property is seized. Still, Nick misses the importance and bustle of government work. He writes a book to Regis—a pragmatic guide to gaining and maintaining political power—in hopes ‘getting in good’ once again.

Welcome to Niccolo Machiavelli’s life, leading up to his writing of The Prince, published in 1513.

You may have heard some nasty slurs about Machiavelli. A despotic political figure might be called ‘Machiavellian’, or the phrase spat out, ‘it is better to be feared than love’. Not directly tied in origin to Machiavelli, the saying ‘might makes right’ is also closely associated with The Prince.

As with Darwin, who I discussed in my last ‘Classics’ post, Machiavelli should be read before being condemned. For the contemporary Christian, especially one concerned with current politics, The Prince can be a painful read. Why?: because it names a fanged, white elephant, and then faces us with the question, “If we don’t want this to be true, what do we do about it?”

The Prince, as I said, is practical: Machiavelli doesn’t lament that ‘power corrupts’, he assumes that breaches of ethicality are simply part of the power game. His words should ring true (though perhaps gratingly) in our ears:

You must realize this: that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things which give men a reputation for virtue, because in order to maintain his state he is often forced to act in defiance of good faith, of charity of kindness, of religion. And so he should have a flexible disposition, varying as fortune and circumstances dictate.

When Machiavelli says ‘flexible disposition’, he means that a ruler should be willing compromise religious moralities for the sake of temporal power. That does not mean that Stalin or Idi Amin were Machiavellian—in The Prince, the ideal leader is sharply attune to the desires and opinions of his citizens. Machiavelli’s leader will found his state on “good laws and good arms”; reason and strength fortify his society. While Machiavelli has some less-than-pleasant suggestions for a prince (such as assassinating entire families of discontent nobility), his time and place should be taken into account. City-states comprised 14th century Italy, which meant that a powerful, rebellious family in a city was an acute danger to that city’s governor. Knowing that won’t make ol’ Machy a saint, but it will help us be charitable while reading him.

Machiavelli’s ideas are not fully compatible with Christian leadership. For Machiavelli’s prince, ‘appearing’ virtuous is vital—‘being’ virtuous is not. Deceit and cruelty, so long as they are used efficaciously to the general preservation of the state, are not lamentable necessities; they are commendable ‘prowess’.

Contemporary Christian leaders also face the tensions inherent in ‘lesser evil’ situations. After 9-11, do we ‘turn the other cheek’ or go to war? If a police officer goes undercover, shouldn’t he use deceit for a greater end? These and similar situations would swiftly lead us into a discussion of situational ethics.

Machiavelli is not concerned with situational ethics-at least, not in the same way. He handles the tension by creating a new ethical system. As he writes, “he should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but he should know how to do evil, if that is necessary.” On first take, it is easy to agree with this: after all, isn’t war sometimes justified as a means of self-defense? However, when we say this, we are trying to show that war is still some type of ‘good’ even if not the most ideal ‘good’. Machiavelli, though, has no problem with actions that are ‘deviations’ from good–those that are not the most ideal good according to Christian ethics–for the sake of maintaining power.

Machiavelli uses two sense of ‘good’, and in that, he is divided from the Christian ruler. The ‘end’ which might makes a Christian’s ‘unethical’ behavior circumstantially ethical is not identical to that of Machiavelli’s prince. While temporal power can play a part in the Christian’s achievement of a ‘greater good’ (the undercover officer lying his way into a high position within a drug cartel), there is only one conception of good, and it is ethical. Actions should manifest a striving for peace and the pursuit of ideals like justice.

Machiavelli paints power itself as the highest good. When religious ethics come into conflict with the ethical of power, religion gives way. Political power includes some compatibility with religious ethics—not being overly cruel in order to maintain peoples’ approval, for example—but these are means to power for Machiavelli, not the purpose of power.

Keep in mind the double (but paralleling) standards employed by Machiavelli while reading The Prince. I encourage you to grapple with Machiavelli, but do so remembering his terms: he offers sound advice on leadership, even if The Prince never peers beyond the mere possession of affluent position. The Prince will not permit lofty, abstract idealism. Machiavelli forces his reader to think clearly, realistically, and dare I say it, powerfully. ‘