Machiavelli on Religion Essay

This essay has a total of 2298 words and 9 pages.

Machiavelli on Religion

Niccolo Machiavelli thoroughly discusses the importance of religion in the formation and
maintenance of political authority in his famous works, The Prince and The Discourses. In
his writing on religion, he states that religion is beneficiary in the formation of
political authority and political leaders must support and endorse religion in order to
maintain power. However, Machiavelli also critiques corrupt religious institutions that
become involved in politics and in turn, cause corruption in the citizenry and divisions
among the state. In the following essay, I will examine Machiavelli's analysis of religion
and discuss the relationship between religion and politics in Machiavelli's thought.

It is important to establish from the very beginning of the essay what Machiavelli's
politics are and how he arrives at his beliefs in order to understand his views on
religion in politics. Machiavelli is a realist thinker whose main arguments are about
maintaining political authority over a state by using historical evidence, especially
Roman, in order to support his theories. His main writings are an illustration of
realpolitik, a government policy that emphasizes retaining power by using any means
necessary including war and deceit. "Niccolo Machiavelli … emphasized a political
calculus based on interest, prudence, power, and expediency above all other
considerations." (Kegley pp 36) Therefore, one must remember when reading Machiavelli that
he is attempting to use religion as an instrument to maintain political power rather than
a mechanism for achieving ideals.

Machiavelli's view on religion stems from his famous argument of whether it is better to
be feared or loved as a leader of a state. Machiavelli feels that it is safer to be feared
than loved, but a great leader would hope to be both even though it is rather difficult.
His reasoning behind this is that he feels the nature of man is to be fickle and greedy
and man will turn against the political leaders in difficult times despite his loyalty
during prosperous times. Machiavelli writes, "…that prince who bases his power entirely
on their words, finding himself stripped of other preparations, comes to ruin; for
friendships that are acquired by a price and not by greatness and nobility of character
are purchased but are not owned, and at proper time cannot be spent." (The Prince Chapter
XVII) He goes further by stating that a prince should hope that he is considered merciful
by his people but should not rule based on mercy alone. A political leader should not
worry about being perceived as cruel if his actions are just and done in order to keep his
people united because with these "very few" examples of cruelty, he will appear more
merciful than the merciful leader who lets acts of cruelty go on without intervention.

Machiavelli's argument also focuses on the topic of integrity and generosity and on how a
political leader should keep his word. On one hand, he states that it is commendable for a
political leader to live by integrity and to be considered generous; however the leaders
who have accomplished great deeds throughout history hardly cared about keeping their word
and were men that were known to be able to manipulate every situation by clever and shrewd
means. Since it is impossible to always maintain all the qualities that man consider good
and also maintain a state in his view, a great leader would know when to break those
qualities when it is needed for the preservation of the state. However, he warns of excess
generosity and the burdens it brings because in order for a leader to maintain his
reputation as generous, he has to continuously tax his people in order to raise his funds.
This process in turn makes those who employ excessive generosity appear to be the most
miserly of all since they tax everyone in order to appear generous to a few.

Machiavelli uses the historical examples of Hannibal and Scipio as support for his
argument. He cites that Hannibal was inhumanly cruel and because of this he was
perpetually respected by his large army.

"Among the praiseworthy deeds of Hannibal is counted this: that, having a very large army,
made up of all kinds of men, which he commanded in foreign lands, there never arose the
slightest dissention, neither among themselves nor against their princes, both during his
good and bad fortune." (The Prince Chapter XVII)


On the other hand, he gives credit to Scipio for being an extraordinary man but states
that Scipio gave his men more liberty than military discipline should allow and his own
men rebelled against him. His tolerant nature allowed the wrongdoing of the Locrians to go
uncorrected adding to his reputation as a leader who only knew how not to harm his people,
but didn't know how to prevent them from harm either.

This brings my analysis to the subject of religion and its relationship with political
authority. Machiavelli feels religion is a double edged sword where an excess of it in
government is harmful but the appearance that it is part of government is not only
beneficiary, but necessary. Machiavelli writes that a political leader, "…should appear,
upon seeing and hearing him, to be all mercy, all faithfulness, all integrity, all
religion. And there is nothing more necessary than to seem to possess this last quality."
(The Prince Chapter XVIII) Machiavelli's argument centers around his assertion that having
all these qualities and employing them at all times is harmful because a leader often has
to resort to contradictory measures in order to maintain the loyalty and unity of his
people. That is why Machiavelli argues that a political leader must only appear to rule in
the name of mercy, faithfulness, integrity and religion because he must act on the
contrary when he is obliged to do so. For a political leader will often have to act out
against his promise of maintaining charity, humanity and religion in order to maintain his
state.

Machiavelli views religion as a fundamental organization necessary for the preservation of
public authority, for religion instills the fear of God; a fear that keeps man disciplined
and obedient. As Machiavelli writes, "…these citizens were more afraid of breaking an
oath than of breaking the laws, since they respected the power of God more than that of
man." (The Discourses Book I Chapter XI) For when the citizens lose their love for their
country and no longer find her laws just, they can be kept loyal to the state if they are
religious and pious because they will be restrained by an oath they made to the religion
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