Scholars appear to disagree about the precise view of Machiavelli on religion. Readers, who view his writings at face value, focus on his claims that Christianity has made the civic spirit and martial prowess weaker in Italy. Instead of strengthening the civic spirit, Christianity opened it to the knowledge and work of a priests and foreign invasion. However, other scholars view his critique of Christianity as a way of expressing the irreligious, neopagan, immoral, or scientific Machiavelli (Orwin, Clifford. “Machiavelli’s Unchristian Charity, 1217). The supporters of this view consider Machiavelli’s rejection of Augustine’s version of original sin and his suggestion that it is more secular, without considering story of the Garden of Eden and the redemption that followed the fall of man (Tarcov, Nathan. “Machiavelli’s Critique of Religion,” 193). Machiavelli appeared to reject most of the fixed or positive human essences that Augustine’s taught. He instead proposed the openness of humans change and alteration by socialization. Yet, another perspective of Machiavelli’s religious view considers his treatment of Christianity as a tool to promote favorable political behavior. Regardless of many views about Machiavelli’s opinion of religion, the most evident in The Prince, The Discourse, plays, and “Sermon on Penitence” is religion as a means of enhancing ideal political behavior, which he criticized as he pursued a divergent path of observing and promoting a virtuous life to achieve his piety.
Machiavelli presented a captivating blend of honesty and ambiguity in his views of religion in the politics of his time. He expressed a stand towards the subject that secular modernity would find familiar, but mystifying. Machiavelli’s view of religion was a message to leaders of republics or principalities to ignore religious dictates when essential but affirmed that a religious appearance was necessary for them. He also appeared to suggest that leaders should support their subjects to cling to religion, and praised ecclesiastical principalities as the means to secure happiness (Preus, J. Samuel. “Machiavelli’s Functional Analysis of Religion: Context and Object,” 173). However, he criticized Christianity as having made Italy more divided and corrupt. Regardless of the controversy surrounding his view of religion, he appeared to suggest that it was a critical part of the rulership of the republic. Hence, Machiavelli maintained that it was impossible to ignore religion and its related moral dictates in the politics of his time.
Machiavelli believed that religion was human-made, and its value was in its capacity to support the social order. According to him, religion would only be valid if it would promote positive political behavior in society. He used religious leaders as the model of good leadership that religion promotes. For instance, In The Prince and The Discourses, he mentions “prophets” as the models of good leadership. He uses the examples of Moses, Cyrus the Great, Theseus, and Romulus as the most successful Princes that leaders should emulate (Machiavelli, Niccolò. Discourses on Livy 200). He argued that leaders should follow the example of the historical figures who had achieved dominion over states through their ability and skills. He suggested that the said men had virtù, suggesting literally something like “manliness.” Furthermore, men who emulated the successful leaders in history had a better chance to be successful in governing compared to those who relied on luck or fortuna to get into power. He mentions the leaders as models of good leadership because instead of relying on fortune, they used it to find opportunities to gain power.
Machiavelli further suggested that leaders, such as Moses, Cyrus the Great, Theseus, and Romulus, were the founders of politics and provided the mechanism through which future leaders should use in their leadership. However, he criticizes the foreleaders (pagans and religious) because some of them engaged in a battle that killed many people, a move he considered immoral. He uses an example, in his Prince’s anti-papal rhetoric, he argues about the way Pope Alexander used money and power to con people. The king of Spain is another example of a leader who committed acts of cruelty against Jews. He argued that religion brought cruel and wicked men into politics; thus, his perspective of religion is that it dictated how the people of his time lived politically in the disguise of religion.
Machiavelli introduced the concept of the fear of the Supreme in civic society, which meant that people were expected to fear those in authority. Although he borrowed the concept from religion, he replaced the fear of God with the fear of the Prince and suggested that religious subjects should fear the source of authority. Machiavelli further argued that having a religion, which promotes reverence to authority (especially with a strong enough Prince), was a necessary precondition for order in a republic. Besides, he believed that although the Prince might not be inherently religious, he should promote religion among the subjects and integrate religion because he ruled in a religious context. He explored the idea from the perspective of “church states” that ancient religious institutions upheld, suggesting that they were powerful and well-grounded. According to Machiavelli, in The Prince, the state church strived to maintain their rulers in power no matter what. Whether leaders are religious or not, leaders possess states whether they defend them or not (Machiavelli 91). Machiavelli mentioned that religion is critical for practical politics in any society because it taught the subjects how to behave towards their leaders. He argued that the fear of God (or leader) facilitated planning among rulers because they could rule over their subjects with great efficiency (Strauss Leo. Thoughts on Machiavelli, 226). Furthermore, religion played an essential role in commanding armies, animating the plebs, shaming the wicked, and encouraging men to be respectable (Preus 173). During Machiavelli’s time, religion played a critical role the type of leaders that governed what he referred to as the church state. He also concluded that religion was the basis for the connection between the ruler and his subjects.
Machiavelli’s view of religion focused on the ability to promote morality in people, especially those in leadership. He suggested that for political success and security of people, rules of morality are necessary to create a productive civic society. He suggested that effective leadership should imitate the virtuous deeds of ancient captains, kings, legislators, and citizens. In the preface of the Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli laments that the leaders of his time had ignored the deeds of the more celebrated leaders (Machiavelli 193). He further explained that this arises “not so much from the weakness into which the present religion has led the world as it does from the judgment that imitation of the ancients is impossible, as if heaven, the sun, elements, and men varied in motion, order, and power from what they were anciently” (Machiavelli 193). Machiavelli indicated that Christianity weakened the world and impeded imitation of ancient morality in the leadership of the republic. He judged that it was impossible to imitate the ancient rulers because Christianity had weakened the rulership of the state by creating the model of religion that leaders should follow. For example, since Christianity has penetrated the state, it eliminated the possibility of imitating historical figures outside the religion (Sumberg, Theodore A. “Machiavelli’s Sermon on Penance,” 172). Machiavelli focused on the importance of morality in leadership, although Christianity weakened the view of ancient virtues in leadership.
Machiavelli concentrated on the implications of religion in the ability to live a prudent life. He suggested the existence of “extraordinary laws” that are unlike “civil and military orders,” which Romulus introduced. Some scholars translate his views as religious laws that promoted morality in leadership, which affirmed the truism that it would be impossible to order and use religious laws devoid of religion itself. However, his argument concerning religion in the role of leadership remained vague (Strauss 226). For example, his view that Numa was a greater king for Rome than Romulus is unclear. His rank of Numa over Romulus relates to his contrast between a weak and an excellent prince. He also concludes that Romulus’s virtue allowed Numa to govern with “the arts of peace” (Machiavelli, Niccolò. Discourses on Livy 195). He appeared to suggest that Numa supported and integrated religion to the military and society. Numa was a just, pious king and reigned by peace. Although Machiavelli felt like religion played an important role in Numa’s leadership, he did not actually believe that religion was an essential condition for good leadership.
Machiavelli proposed the way religion should guide political leadership, including in a battle. For example, in The Prince, he argued that Louis lost his Italian conquest because of erring, which means that he failed to follow the dictates of religion in rulership. Some of the errors that Louis committed included destroying the minor powers and bringing in a foreign power. The king did not aggrandize the Church. He appears to have gone against Machiavelli idea of creating a successful church state. Machiavelli further concluded that the loss was not any miracle but reasonable and ordinary (Machiavelli, 200). Machiavelli claimed that religion presents an order of the things that makes them reasonable and ordinary; hence, humans should live according to the religious teachings to succeed in various aspects of life, especially political leadership. He explained political failure and success based on rationality and ignored any other explanation (Tarcov 195). Although Machiavelli did not discount the possibility of divinity in ordering life, he argued that natural causes do not have a significant implication on the success or failure in leadership. Regardless of discussing religion in The Prince, he highlighted the Church’s limitation in teaching kings how to lead, such as following papal approval in various aspects of life, including teaching them to depend on miracle rather than on their prudence and virtue. The argument related to the qualities that the prince needed to “maintain his state” and to “achieve great things”, such as a “flexible disposition”. The ruler is suited for office if he can balance between good and evil and change “as fortune and circumstances dictate” (Machiavelli 66). According to Machiavelli, these are the qualities that the church fails to develop in a leader.
Machiavelli affirmed the role of religion as a source of virtue in his numerous teachings. He suggested the power of religion in a claim regarding Agathocles of Syracuse in the eighth chapter of The Prince “one cannot call it a virtue to kill one’s citizens, betray one’s friends, to be without faith, without pity, without religion; these modes can enable one to acquire rule, but not glory” (Machiavelli 200). However, Machiavelli wrote about Agathocles’s “virtue,” suggesting that indifference or hostility to religion was a way of acquiring the rule; hence, the state would hinder the achievement of glory if the ruler believed in it. He wrote about the princes desiring the acquisition of both rule and glory, which means that rulers would desire the religious and secular lives to attain both qualities (Sumberg 27). The achievement of actual virtue required real religion instead of a perception of being religious. Many leaders would spend most of their lives striving to gain rulership and glory, which they saw as the preconditions for greatness. Thus, virtue was a critical condition in the religious ideals that Machiavelli propagated.
The “Sermon on Penitence” provides an idea of the extent to which Machiavelli pursued his piety. He focused on the connection between politics and religion because the two are intimately related, and one could not become a moral politician without religious virtues. In his Exhortation to Penitence, he revealed his personal view of the way a person can achieve real devotion (Machiavelli 93, also cited in Sumberg 27). The book is a clear sermon developed and delivered to a religious confraternity. During the final years of his life, he composed the text that explained the way he viewed his life from the perspective of piety and the way he desired others to be morally good or embrace virtù. The Exhortation is an echo of personal devotion, his view of how religion contributed to a virtuous life, which includes his perspective and desire for an ideal life. Overall, he concluded that a virtuous person would participate morally in social and political affairs.
The context that shapes the dimension of Machiavellian logic provides an analysis of the way he pursued his piety. The concept of virtu emerged in what Machiavelli believed was necessary for a great person and political leader, such as the Prince. He developed his model of virtue, which he exemplified in his life, and revealed the dependability of moral principles in the pursuit of moral life. Besides, Machiavelli used his life to present what he meant to have a successful life. Although Machiavelli might not have been a religious person, he taught and lived a life of devotion, which exemplified morality and challenged other people to follow the path of a virtuous life. He encouraged others to be human and rule with moral goodness. He pursued a fundamental truth, which was anchored in religious and political principles. The political message in The Prince, The Discourse, and “Sermon on Penitence” revealed a true believer in virtue as dictated by religious and political principles (Sumberg 31). For example, he challenged corrupt leadership because it violated the need for moral governance in the republic. Overall, as evidenced in his writing and teachings, Machiavelli lived what he preached, which focused on a virtuous life. He lived a virtuous life and encouraged others to embrace the same. For example, he exemplified the rulership of the prince that he advocated in his teachings.
As a philosopher, Machiavelli proposed numerous teachings about various aspects of life. Religion was one of his many teachings, but also the most controversial among the interpretations of his teachings. Although many scholars have understood his ideas of religion in The Prince, The Discourse, and “Sermon on Penitence” differently, the most powerful message is the role of religion in political life during his days. He suggested that although leaders could have the leeway to avoid religion in their readership, they were expected to demand religious observance among their subjects. Thus, religion was an essential condition to create subjects in the republic. He also proposed the need for religion because it promoted virtuous living among the leaders and the people, and focused on morality to achieve his devotion. The concept of virtù is constant in all his texts, the Prince, The Discourse, and “Sermon on Penitence.” Although many people may disagree about his particular stand on religion, it is evident that his work included many passages that mentioned religion and its role in political behavior in the republic.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. Discourses on Livy. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985.
Orwin, Clifford. “Machiavelli’s Unchristian Charity.” American Political Science Review, vol. 72, 1978, pp. 1217–1228.
Preus, J. Samuel. “Machiavelli’s Functional Analysis of Religion: Context and Object.” Journal of the History of Ideas 40.2 (1979): 171-190.
Strauss, Leo. Thoughts on Machiavelli. Glencoe: Free Press, 1958.
Sumberg, Theodore A. “Machiavelli’s Sermon on Penance.” Perspectives on Political Science, vol. 23, no. 4, 1994, pp. 171-173.
Tarcov, Nathan. “Machiavelli’s Critique of Religion.” Social Research, vol, 81, no. 1, 2014, pp. 193-216.