7 Introductory Catholic Thoughts on Machiavelli’s The Prince

The term Machiavellian is synonymous with cunning and unscrupulous political action. In general, Machiavelli is seen as the philosopher who separated morality from politics and advocated the “end justifies the means” principle to govern political thought. At worst, he sometimes seen as the thinker who freed political thought from religion and other superfluous external moral codes, and rooted it in practical reality. However, taking the perspective of the ancients looking forward to Machiavelli – not modernity looking back – it is evident that Machiavelli did much more than separate morality from politics. He separated politics from an ordered cosmos.

Hannibal was praised by Machiavelli for his "inhuman cruelty." Hannibal by Motte.

Listers, the term Machiavellian is synonymous with cunning and unscrupulous political action. The cultural reputation of Niccolo Machiavelli may be summed up in the fact that the term Old Nick stems directly from his name and is a term for the Devil.

In general, Machiavelli is seen as the philosopher who separated morality from politics and advocated the “end justifies the means” principle to govern political thought. At worst, he sometimes seen as the thinker who freed political thought from religion and other superfluous external moral codes, and rooted it in practical reality. However, taking the perspective of the ancients looking forward to Machiavelli – not modernity looking back – it is evident that Machiavelli did much more than separate morality from politics. He separated politics from an ordered cosmos.

1. The Pre-Machiavelli Political Tradition:

Aristotle observed that men are by nature political animals and that political organization, i.e., the city or the polis, is a naturally occurring event. For Aristotle, both the polis and the forest exist by nature. He saw nature as a standard. Nature provided an order, e.g., the polis cannot just be a proximate collection of households, but rather must be properly ordered for the sake of living well. According to Aristotle, the proper actions of men within the order of nature are called virtues, and the prime virtue of the polis is the one by which it has proper order: the virtue of justice.

According to the advent of Jesus Christ and the revelation of the New Testament, St. Thomas Aquinas was able to articulate that the polis (ordered by nature) actually exists within a divinely ordered cosmos. The natural virtues – temperance, fortitude, justice, and prudence – along with the theological virtues – faith, hope, and charity – were now seen as man’s proper action in accordance with The Good that ordered the entire cosmos. Nature displays God’s broad moral order, and the polis specifies that broad moral order into specific laws for the common good. Overall, the entire universe exhibits a divine and harmonious cosmological order.

Statue of Machiavelli

All quotes are taken from Machiavelli’s The Prince, chapter XV: Of the Things Which Men, and Especially Princes, Are Praised or Blamed.

By way of introduction, the focus on this post will be chapter XV of Machiavelli’s The Prince. The chapter more prominently displays the philosophy of his writing, rather than the practical advice that peppers the other chapters. However, before looking at chapter XV, lets look at an outline of the whole:

1.Various Types of Principalities (1-11)
2.The Prince & His Enemies: Foreign Policy (12-14)
3.The Prince & His Friends: Domestic Policy (15-23)
4.The Role of Prudence & Luck (24-26)

“But my intention being to write something of use to those who understand, it appears to me more proper to go to the real truth of the matter than it its imagination: and many imagined republics and principalities which have never been seen or known to exist in reality.”

2. The Virtue of Utility:

A constant theme throughout Machiavelli’s work (and modernity overall) is an isolated focus on how can a thing be used? God’s ordered cosmos, as seen in nature and revelation, is no longer the canon by which to judge an action, but rather the standard of utility asks what can I gain from this? Questions of whether an action is wrong or right – ordered or disordered – are discarded for the sake of achieving an end.

3. Imagined Republics:

Machiavelli is referring to the cities in speech that were common among the ancient philosophers, most notably Plato & Aristotle. In his Politics, Aristotle speaks of nature as a standard as sees men as political animals that inhabit a polis ordered by the natural virtue of justice. Furthermore, the most notable imagined republic for Machiavelli is the Kingdom of God as articulated by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. The problem with the Kingdom of God and other so-called imagined republics is that they place man’s actions within an ordered whole.

“For how we live is of far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin that his preservation.”

4. The Individual Over the Common Good:

Casting aside the imagined republic of the Kingdom of God, Machiavelli seeks to describe a new and real standard. Within this sordid political order, those who try and live according to any moral standard will bring about his own ruin. It is no longer about what one ought to do, but rather what one can do to ensure his political dominance. According to the divinely ordered cosmos, those who hold political office ought to strive for the common good and a polis that is well-ordered according to the virtue of justice; however, Machiavelli speaks nothing of a common good, but only of the individual good.

Statue by Lorenzo Bartolini outside the Uffizi, Florence.

5. Preservation over Perfection:

Within the divinely ordered cosmos, the individual seeks to live his life according to the Good. In habituating himself to the Good, the individual orders himself according to the order revealed by God. For example, charity is the mother of all the virtues, and has as its end the forming of the individual to Jesus Christ. In gist, the individual works toward perfecting himself by becoming more Christ-like. However, Machiavelli replaces perfection with preservation. The worth of a man’s action is rooted in whether or not it helps him maintain his power and station.

“I know everyone will admit that it would be highly praiseworthy in a prince to possess all the above-named qualities that are reputed good, but… human conditions not permitting of it… he should be prudent enough to avoid the scandal of those vices which would lose him the state.” “And yet he must not mind incurring the scandal of those vices, without which it would be difficult to save the state… it will be found that some things which, seem virtues would, if followed, lead to one’s ruin, and some others which appear vices result in one’s greater security and wellbeing.”

6. The Reinterpretation of Virtue:

According to Machiavelli’s advice, Virtue is actually the cunning ability to gain and maintain power, while Vice would be any action that endangers or causes one to lose power. Notice also that Justice, the political virtue, is missing from Machiavelli’s treatise on political action. Justice requires a well-ordered polis and a perseverance toward the common good. Also missing from his advice is any notion of “the Good” or the value of friendship in politics.

7. How Machiavelli Should Be Read:

In general, Machiavelli’s The Prince is taken in two ways: either, he is seen in a negative light as one the one who first advocated the separation of morality and politics, or he is unfortunately seen in a positive light as the one who removed the religious and idealistic fancies from politics. The former view does not fully state the rupture Machiavelli had with the pre-modern political tradition, and the latter has been used to justify any number of crimes against humanity. Aristotle, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas all have something in common: their political thought cannot be separated from the whole of their philosophy. Aristotle’s Politics cannot be understood without reading his Nichomachean Ethics as well. The political thought of Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas cannot be properly understood unless you place it within their broader understanding of the divinely ordered cosmos.

Virtue is man’s correct action within the ordered whole. In separating politics from any proper order – natural or revealed – Machiavelli not only advocates politics isolated from morality, but describes a new cosmological order. A cosmos focused only on how do men will to live without any external standard or order. Religion is reduced to a private affair; one without any power to speak publicly. Though enforced and re-crafted by tributaries such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and even Nietzsche, the headwater for understanding the secular modern regime is found in Niccolo Machiavelli. It is the beginning point for modernity’s liberation project of the human will from all externalities.

  • Cal-J

    I was always intrigued by the theory that Machiavelli wrote The Prince perhaps as a shot /against/ the Medicis, that he was basically trolling them.

    • Kathleen Firth-Comerford

      It has been said that it could be satire, that Machiavelli himself as a person was not that ruthless in thought nor was he against republican ideals; the fact that he had been tortured by the Medici’s and lost his political career for good because of them- doesn’t seem likely the dedication he penned to them in the introduction to “The Prince” was anything but snarky and facetious. However, the legacy of the “The Prince” has been as it is viewed here: a statement of the need to divorce ethics and moral reasoning from political thought and actions. The whole utilitarian idea of the ends justifying the means has been a debacle for human rights and personal ethics on the whole, in my opinion. That doesn’t mean Machiavelli was a bad man himself, as he is often portrayed as a devil of some kind.

  • A. Behr

    Machiavelli divorced self from the inner being in order to ascribe to the separation of ethics and morality from politics. However, its is highly likely that as an individual he lived a separate life from his writings. After all Machiavelli is neither a nation nor a state in order to seek power and preserve it ruthlessly. As Strauss articulates, in order to speak of laws, various types of legislative bodies ought to be considered. For the ruthlessness of Machiavelli’s work to come to fruition, there ought to be holistic coming together of the various legislative bodies. Is this practically possible? if the answer is yes, then consider the legislators “evil” and various mixture there-of, in the legislative methods and spare Machiavelli personal persecution.

  • Machiavelli’s thought can’t be appreciated based in reading his very short, although very popular The Prince. I’d recommend tackling his Discourses of Livy to fully understand his political philosophy which was very republican. The Prince was written as a guide for freeing Italy from foreign occupation in the South and from the internecine warfare of small city-states in the North. His legacy is forever, rightly, tied to his most influential book, but reading The Prince in total isolation from his age and his other works leads to the gross oversimplifications of his thought.