One of my colleagues is teaching Machiavelli’s The Prince for the first time and asked me if I might provide some commentary on this magnum opus. Here goes. Machiavelli is THE veritable bad boy of political philosophy. His name has entered the English lexicon as an eponym synonymous with immorality, deception, and all manner of subterfuge and cunning related to realpolitik. Machiavellianism is rightfully associated with many of these attributes, but it would be an unfair assessment of this thinker to reduce his philosophy solely to these simplistic and overgeneralized bullet points. The reality of the matter is that Machiavelli offers some profound insights on human nature and its implications for the maintenance and management of political power in the City of Man.
It has been many years since I last looked at The Prince, but one of the things that jumped off the page this time through the treatise was Machiavelli’s profoundly Augustinian view of human nature. St. Augustine, a fourth and fifth century North African theologian, bishop, and Doctor of the Church, developed the notion of original sin as a means of explaining man’s fallen nature after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden due to Adam and Eve’s primordial transgression. Augustine’s aim was to contrast the iniquity of mankind’s forefathers with the amazing grace of the typological New Adam (Christ) and New Eve (Mary). This understanding of a fallen nature redeemed through Christ and salvation history was pivotal for not only Augustine’s soteriological, eschatological, sacramental, and ecclesial theology, but also his political philosophy, too.
In his landmark work, The City of God, the great bishop sought to defend Christianity from the charge that its doctrines were the principal cause for the decline of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. To achieve this end, Augustine made the case that each person always has dual citizenship in his or her pilgrimage through life. Each individual is born into a polity, or a City of Man. Augustine’s was the Roman Empire. Ours, of course, is the American republic. Augustine argued that we owe a certain degree of allegiance, or limited fealty, to the nation state and should work for the true telos of the City of Man, order and peace, when it is possible to do so without coming into direct conflict with the City of God.
We are citizens of the City of God by virtue of our Creator’s telos for the human race, namely union with Him in Heaven. This fact of the natural law is illuminated by the revelation of both the Old Law and the New Testament, and most especially in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are made naturalized citizens of the City of God through our incorporation into the Body of Christ via the Sacrament of Baptism. As citizens in this city, we also have specific rights and responsibilities just as in the City of Man. Thankfully, most of the time the rights and responsibilities of both cities converge; however, when there is a divergence between the two, our final fidelity belongs to God, not the secular polity.
Augustine’s assessment of the two cities can be summarized by the following simple syllogism. Polities (the manifold manifestations of the City of Man) are built on the backs, hearts, and souls of men. Men are flawed and prone to mistakes and sinful tendencies due to original sin. Consequently, polities based on men are flawed and prone to mistakes and sinful tendencies, the penultimate upshot of which is the eventual systematic failure of any and all nation states. Therefore, we should work to build up our respective polities but never falsely attribute infinite durability or eternal significance to them. Cities of Men by definition are subject to the whims of time, fortune, and human nature. The City of God on the other hand is eternal and subject only to the Divine Personhood. This is helpful in forming a proper understanding of our place in this world alongside our ultimate destiny as spiritual persons.
Machiavelli accepts Augustine’s vision of a fallen human nature. He readily admits and documents this through his rich reflections on past rulers, their interactions with their peoples and vice versa, and the clash of their will and power with their neighbors' will and power. I would term this acceptance of human nature’s wounded, sick or flawed status as a kind of religiously formed humanism, or Christian realism about the human condition. So, when Machiavelli speaks of Chiron and the centaurs as providing an education that is half-beast and half-man, he is commenting on man’s capacity to be human or to be sub-human, or beastlike, at any given moment based upon his mind, will, and choice; this is an explicit recognition of man’s potential for both good and evil and a pragmatic approach to it from a political leadership point of view. In other words, for Machiavelli, it is imprudent to base politics on idealism if the world is not idealistic but realistic. This Augustinian realism shapes his attitude about how men will behave and so how they must be controlled in order to maintain the hegemony of the City of Man.
The line of demarcation between Machiavelli and Augustine is that, where the Doctor of the Church promotes responsible dual citizenship, Machiavelli argues for the primacy of the City of Man. It is not that Machiavelli does not believe in the City of God, but that he thinks it irrelevant or imprudent to the machinations of realpolitik in the City of Man. He is not espousing immorality for the common man; rather, he is insinuating, in a deeply cynical and pessimistic manner akin to the classic skeptics, that human affairs require a man to lay aside his moral convictions to rule well.
For Machiavelli, the political life in the City of Man is often deeply incompatible with duties of a citizen of the City of God; therefore, it demands a certain kind of person, a great man even, who is willing to risk his own soul in order to do what must be done to preserve the state. Let’s be clear. Machiavelli is not calling for a general disruption of the moral order or even a revaluation of it. He is a realist who calls a spade a spade. He is no sophist insisting that vice is virtue in the abstract or moral realms, though he does support sophistry and vice as key skills and implements for the political actor in practical situations.
Machiavelli is insisting that the prince must be a centaur capable of acting as man when he is able to do so, but also playing the part of the beast when the circumstances call for it. The prince must be a moral shape shifter or chameleon in a political jungle in which only the strong survive and thrive. Ask yourself, “Is he not right? Is it not the rule rather than the exception that politicians behave as if they are above both the civil and moral laws? Do representatives today not display many of these same attributes?” It seems to me that while Machiavelli is no teacher of morals for the common man, he is a sagacious mentor for rulers who must be centaurs when no one else is capable or willing to make the nasty decisions of daily life in the City of Man.
Machiavelli’s political philosophy in The Prince may leave a bad taste in my mouth because of its fundamental aversion to the City of God, but I do not fault him for seeing that in the real world things get ugly and messy and sometimes you have to crack a few heads to maintain the peace. Thank God, I am not a politician! I don’t think that I have the courage to be a centaur, nor am I willing to sell my soul to the devil for the City of Man; however, I will try to refrain from being too judgmental of those who take up the mantle of political leadership and are faced with exactly the sort of realpolitik that Machiavelli so accurately and poignantly describes in his masterful treatise.