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Essay: Machiavelli – the importance of religion for maintaining power

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In his works, The Prince and The Discourses, Machiavelli analyzes the importance of religion to the construction and preservation of political authority. Machiavelli states that religion is crucial to the formation of political authority and that leaders should encourage and endorse religion in order to maintain their power. While examining Machiavelli’s view of religion in political life, I will also compare his views to those of St. Augustine.

Machiavelli’s outlook on religion branches from his widely renowned argument of whether it is better to be feared or to be loved as a leader. Machiavelli believes that it is always safer to be feared rather than loved, but that a leader should still strive to be both even though it is challenging. He supports this claim with his belief that the natural tendency of man is to be greedy and that humans will always turn against their political leaders during challenging times despite their supreme loyalty during flourishing 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) He goes deeper into this problem by declaring that a prince should strive to be considered merciful by his people, but should never rule solely based off of mercy. Thus, as long a leader is acting justly and with the best intentions of his people in mind, he should not have to worry about being perceived as cruel.

Machiavelli’s argument also concentrates on the topics of integrity, kindness, and how a political leader should keep his word. Initially, he states that it is admirable for a political leader to act with integrity and to be considered generous by his people. However, he goes on to explain how most of the leaders who have accomplished great deeds throughout human history rarely valued keeping their word and acting according to principle. In fact, they were generally men that were known to be able to manipulate every situation through cunning and shrewd means. Since it is impossible to always maintain all the qualities that man consider good and also maintain a successful society, Machiavelli claims that a truly great leader should know when to stray from those good qualities for the betterment of the state.

To provide support for his argument, Machiavelli uses the historical stories of Hannibal and Scipio. 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)

Contrarily, Machiavelli praises Scipio for being an honorable and extraordinary man, but asserts that Scipio afforded his men much more liberty than should be allowed in the military which lead to his own men revolting against him. His tolerant nature allowed the wrongdoing of the Locrians to go without punishment, further adding to his reputation as a leader who was unable to protect his citizens from danger.

This brings my analysis to the subject of religion and its relationship with political authority. Essentially, Machiavelli feels that religion is a double-edged sword, meaning that an excess of it present in the government is potentially harmful, but the appearance that it is part of the government is not only beneficial, but essential. In his writings, Machiavelli stresses that any 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) 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 merely appear to rule in the name of mercy, faithfulness, integrity, and religion, because he will often be obliged to act contrary to these qualities. As stated earlier, as long as the leader is acting in order to maintain the order of is state, then it is acceptable to abandon these principles.

Still, Machiavelli views religion as a crucial institute that is vital for the preservation of public order, for religion instills the fear of God; a fear that keeps man disciplined and obedient. As Machiavelli states, “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) For during times of duress when citizens inevitably lose their love for their country and no longer agree with the laws of society, they can be controlled and kept loyal to their country if they are bound by the principles of religion. For example, he cites that the because of their religion, the people of Rome had taken an oath that forced their allegiance to their homeland, despite the havoc that was caused by Hannibal after the battle of Cannae. He furthers his argument by pointing out that throughout the course of history, religion has been paramount in helping create good, honorable men in society, and has been extremely helpful in the leading of armies.

Thus, in order to maintain a well-run state, a leader must organize the government so that it is capable of being maintained even after the departure or death of its leader. Again, Machiavelli suggests that having properly managed religious establishments give the people incentives to be loyal to the state and to act virtuously. Therefore, if the priority of a leader is to cultivate unity and good virtue among his citizens, it would be wise of them to “maintain the foundations of the religion that sustains them,” (The Discourses) and endorse all things regarding religion, even if they know they are false.

Surprising as it may be, Machiavelli shares many common beliefs with St. Augustine regarding the role of religion in political life. Similarly to Machiavelli, Augustine argues that “Christianity does not destroy patriotism but reinforces it by making of it a religious duty” (Augustine City of God). However, while Machiavelli believes that the main purpose of religion is to maintain order within society, Augustine believes that political states hold a divine purpose from God. Therefore, political leaders serve as ministers of God in their states. Thus, citizens must always obey the authority of their political leaders, regardless of whether the leader is wicked or righteous. However, if the imperatives of obedience to God conflict with the obedience to civil law and authority, citizens should choose to obey God and accept the consequences for civil disobedience. Augustine and Machiavelli agree that religion is a key component to a successful state, but they do not fully agree on the functions of religion.


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