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Machiavelli's Christian Morals in The Prince

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In The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli, the author, generally lays forth a system of ethics for rulers. Given the strength of Christianity at the time that he wrote this work, Machiavelli’s instructions to aspiring rulers are surprising. His definition of “goodness,” or “virtue,” seems to stray far from traditional Christian teachings. In his Summa Theologica II, for instance, Thomas Aquinas directly contradicts some of Machiavelli’s claims. Interestingly, however, Saint Augustine, author of The City of God, agrees with some of Machiavelli’s code of ethics.

First, what is Machiavelli’s code of ethics for rulers? He speaks for the most part on three personality characteristics: generosity, compassion, and integrity. On all three he takes what seems at first glance to be a non-Christian stance.

With regard to generosity, Machiavelli claims that it is best to be considered generous, but that it is dangerous to actually be generous. His case is simple:

…a ruler who pursues a reputation for generosity will always end up wasting all his resources; and he will be obliged in the end, if he wants to preserve his reputation, to impose crushing taxes upon the people, to pursue every possible source of income, and to be preoccupied with maximizing his revenues. This will begin to make him hateful to his subjects, and will ensure no one thinks well of him, for no one admires poverty (The Prince, 49).

When a ruler commits himself to spending income generously, Machiavelli argues, he also commits himself to creating new or enforcing old forms of revenue collecting. Machiavelli also argues that any positive reaction to the generosity will be far outweighed by the overwhelming negative response to harsh revenue collection. Hidden in this explanation of the dangers of generosity is a strangely perverted Christian idea: that of doing the greatest good to the greatest number of people, or utilitarianism. When a ruler is parsimonious instead of generous, Machiavelli states, “he will be thought to be generous towards all those whose income he does not tax, which is almost everybody, and stingy towards those who miss out on handouts, who are only a few” (The Prince, 49).

Machiavelli has a similar opinion on rulers being compassionate. He argues that compassion is also a danger to a ruler and that “it is much safer to be feared than loved” (The Prince, 51). In regard to this characteristic, it is only good to be viewed as cruel rather than compassionate in one instance: when a ruler is addressing an army:

When a ruler is at the head of his army and has a vast number of soldiers under his command, then it is absolutely essential to be prepared to be thought cruel; for it is impossible to keep an army united and ready for action without acquiring a reputation for cruelty (The Prince, 52).

Troops will only stay committed to the causes of the ruler if they fear him and he appears cruel to them. In that case alone, it is best to be perceived as not compassionate; to the rest of society, though, an outward façade of compassion is necessary. Once again, Machiavelli uses the basic principle of utilitarianism to support his argument. It is best to be viewed as compassionate and actually act cruelly, “for it is more compassionate to impose harsh punishments on a few than, out of excessive compassion, to allow disorder to spread, which leads to murders or looting” (The Prince, 51).

Finally, and more briefly, Machiavelli discusses integrity and honesty. He makes a similar argument, contending that it is best to appear honest while actually keeping one’s word only when absolutely necessary. A ruler should not “keep his word when doing so is to his disadvantage, and when the reasons that led him to promise to do so no longer apply” (The Prince, 54). In this, though, there is no pretense of utilitarianism?Machiavelli makes a purely selfish argument for dishonesty.

Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica II, makes no direct contradictions to Machiavelli’s assumptions on honesty or compassion, but instead attacks all three through a study of the Christian principle of charity. Charity, defined as “man’s love of God and his neighbor” (Oxford English Dictionary, “charity”), is a theological and divine virtue, according to Aquinas, and should therefore be practiced above all else. Charity, in a Christian sense, means less formally to treat others with respect, love, and kindness at all times. Therefore, Aquinas condemns Machiavelli’s conceptions of generosity, compassion, and honesty with one fell swoop. Because charity is to be practiced above all else, one should not be cruel or dishonest to one’s neighbor. Also, Aquinas contends, generosity is a virtue, not something to be despised the way Machiavelli declares?man was commanded by God to perform charity, and thus, generosity, before anything else.

Saint Augustine, however, disagrees with Aquinas’ argument. Through convoluted language, Augustine explains that charity, more than anything else, is treating one’s neighbor as one’s self. Because of this, charity cannot ever really be practiced?it is both selfish and altruistic at the same time:

…they do not perform charitable actions even when they think they are doing so. For if they gave bread to a hungering Christian because he is a Christian, assuredly they would not deny to themselves the bread of righteousness, that is, Christ Himself; for God considers not the person to whom the gift is made, but the spirit in which it is made (The City of God, 806).

As a result, if a truly selfless act of charity can never be performed, perhaps Machiavelli is simply performing another patently Christian act: treating others as he would have them treat him.

The Machiavellian ruler, therefore, may actually be Christian in his moral beliefs. For the ruler never commits any act which he would not have performed on him; when he lies to the public, he would expect another ruler to lie to him as a member of that public. Maybe the Machiavellian ruler simply loves his neighbor as himself. Despite all appearances, Machiavelli’s principles, as laid out in The Prince may be Christian.

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