Machiavelli’s Morals

Christianity and Machiavelli: Mutually Exclusive? In class, we were reading McKay’s A History of Western Society when I came across an interesting piece about Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, a book about human nature in which he “explores the problems of human nature and concludes that human beings are selfish and out to advance their own interests” (McKay 415). His ultimately pessimistic view of humanity also says, according to McKay, that a prince “might have to manipulate the people in any way he finds necessary” (McKay 415). I’m not a Christian, but I’m fairly certain manipulating people is a Christian no-no. So, when I was reading this, I wondered how his other ideas corresponded with Christian values. McKay states “few people (including Machiavelli) questioned the basic tenets of the Christian religion,” but Christian humanists stressed in their programs, “for broad social reform based on Christian ideals” that “although human nature has been corrupted by sin, it was fundamentally good” (416). Christian humanists and Machiavelli’s opinions seem to disagree, but McKay did not seem to indicate that people of the time disagreed with Machiavelli’s statements (416).

In the hopes of getting my questions regarding Machiavelli’s opinions answered, I began first by talking to Corbet Clark (high school chaplain). He explained that Christians of the time would agree with Machiavelli; humans were fatally flawed by selfishness, and that is what subjects a person to sin. People of his time wanted a ruler to possess all the Christian ideals and be perfect, but Machiavelli said that this “goes against human nature and it was unfair to expect this”, and other people seemed to agree with him. Corbet made it clear that Machiavelli was not questioning any Christian ideals, nothing he said went directly against Christian beliefs, and that the Christians of his time would agree; all of these points reiterate what McKay said. Finally, he stressed that Machiavelli’s works were recognized as “addressing reality.”

Other research I conducted seemed to correspond with Corbet’s opinions that Machiavelli had a “far more traditionally Christian view of a man as a selfish, egotistical animal controlled by an instable desire for material gain and moved only by self-interest” (Discourses on Livy). However, other sources found that “Machiavelli’s morality is entirely unaffected by Christianity” (Bacon CXXXVIII). In The Proper Study of Mankind: an Anthology of Essays, authors Isaiah Berlin, Henry Hardy, and Roger Hausheer state that “Machiavelli’s values are not Christian but they are moral values” (Berlin, Hardy, Hausheer 300)

Okay, so his values weren’t Christian, but they were moral values. However, to me, his unconcealed thwarting of standards I believe people should be held to made me question the validity of that statement. In addition, when researchers interpret his works and find that he believes as “Princes are above laws, and have no conscience,” and “morality is sometimes too massive and weighty,” I wonder how could no one of his time viewed him as an extremely radical thinker (Bacon CXXXVIII)?

To answer my first question (did he have moral values?), I did find that Machiavelli seems to draw the line at certain places. For example, Machiavelli makes a clear distinction between actions that increase the ruler’s power and those that increase his glory: “still it cannot be called ingenuity to kill one’s fellow citizens, to betray friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion, by these means no one can acquire power but not glory” (Discourses on Livy). Machiavelli seems to allow immoral actions if they are for the greater good and they are performed in the public interest and not for private advantage (Discourses on Livy, Strauss 36).

My impression of Machiavelli as a radical thinker presents a bigger problem, but I think that it is through modern interpretations that we see the contrast between his ideas and those of his time. As readers today, we question Machiavelli’s morality in The Prince and see him as a standout radical thinker, but people of his time never seemed to question him. Perhaps the reason for this is that when people today reflect on Machiavelli and compare him to other scholars of his time, Machiavelli takes on a far more pessimistic view of human nature and as a result, there has been a misrepresentation of The Prince that “represents Machiavelli as caring little or nothing for moral issues” (Discourses on Livy, Berlin, Hardy, Hausheer 300).

Works Cited

Bacon, Francis. “Bacon’s Essays with Introduction, Notes and Index by Edwin A. Abbott … – Francis Bacon – Google Books.” Google Books. Longmans, Green, and Co., 1889. Web. 8 Feb. 2012.

Berlin, Isaiah, Henry Hardy, and Roger Hausheer. “Google Books – The Proper Study of Mankind: an Anthology of Essays – Isaiah Berlin, Henry Hardy, Roger Hausheer.” Google Books. Macmillan, 2000. Web. 8 Feb. 2012.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. “Discourses on Livy – Niccolo Machiavelli – Google Books.” Google Books. Oxford University Press, 11 Dec. 2008. Web. 8 Feb. 2012.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. “The Prince – Niccolò Machiavelli – Google Books.” Google Books. University of Chicago Press, 1 Sept. 1998. Web. 8 Feb. 2012.

McKay, John P., Bennett D. Hill, and John Buckler. “European Society in the Age of the Renaissance, 1350-1550.” A History of Western Society. 7th ed. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. 407-408, 412-418. Print.

“Niccolò Machiavelli.” Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2012.

Strauss, Leo. “Thoughts on Machiavelli – Leo Strauss – Google Books.” Google Books. University of Chicago Press, 1978. Web. 8 Feb. 2012.

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3 comments

  1. erinwritesagain

    I like how you follow a chain of questions to get your point across. Do you know why some of the perceptions towards Machiavelli’s writings have changed?

  2. vijaye

    Hi Austin,

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post. I especially liked the way you presented your argument by showing different viewpoints of Machiavelli. I thought the line “Christian humanists and Machiavelli’s opinions seem to disagree, but McKay did not seem to indicate that people of the time disagreed with Machiavelli’s statements (416)” in the first paragraph was a really good observation. However, do you believe that Machiavelli may have had a point, when he stated that “human beings are selfish and out to advance their own interests”? More specifically, do you believe that one of the reasons why no one questioned him was that he was telling the truth? If people back then believed he was telling the truth, are we sheltering ourselves from this truth now?

    Sincerely,
    Vijay

  3. kristin888

    Hi Austin!
    Great post with lots of interesting information presented! Why do you think that modern interpreters criticize Machiavelli’s pessimistic view of reality so much, and how come the ideas from the past have changed so drastically from those of today?

    -Kristin

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