Great Books: 31 Political Works Recommended by Faithful Catholic Colleges

Listers, certain “Great Books” have shaped the course of the Western world. Mortimer J. Adler, a Roman Catholic philosopher and professor, presented three criterion for a book to be considered “great,” he stated:

  1. The book has contemporary significance: that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times.
  2. The book is inexhaustible: it can be read again and again with benefit.
  3. The book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.1

While over one hundred universities and colleges in the United States and Canada have some form of a Great Books program, SPL has relied on three to compile this list: Thomas Aquinas College, the University of Dallas, and Ave Maria University. Thomas Aquinas College (“TAC”) – whose entire four year liberal arts program is a Great Books only program – explains the purpose of the Great Books tradition:

Yet the great books are not the objects of study at the College. Students here do not read these works — Homer, Shakespeare, Plato, Euclid, St. Augustine, Descartes, Newton, and so many others — as outstanding examples of the creativity of the human spirit (though that they certainly are). Nor do they read them to become more familiar with Western culture and civilization (valuable though that is). Rather, Thomas Aquinas College students read the great books because, more than any other works, when studied under the light of the teaching Church, they can open up the truth about reality.2

Reading the Great Books of the Western tradition imports an insight into our modern culture that is completely unparalleled. Advocacy of the great books, however, suffers from a fatal flaw. For example, a Roman Catholic and a secular humanist may both agree Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes should be included as a great work; however, they would differ significantly on why that book is great. Was it a great contribution to the West? – or was it a great mistake? Notice in their statement on the Great Books, TAC states, “when studied under the light of Church teaching.” Many of the “great” books are incredibly anti-Catholic. Some times they are explicitly anti-Catholic, like Hobbes mocking the scholastics and transubstantiation. Often times they present a theory and praxis that has led to today’s crisis of modernity.3 In fact, the entirety of modernity may be said to have started as a rejection. Consequently, a Catholic institution that recommends the Great Books, but does not present them through the lens of Truth, Jesus Christ, may in fact be undercutting its own commitment to the Church.4 The what to study is just as important as how to study it.

The following list is drawn from faithful Catholic institutions that present the Great Books under the Truth of the Church. TAC is a four year liberal arts college that centers its entire eduction on a Great Books program.5 The University of Dallas (“UD”) offers a very unique Great Books Program. The University offers doctoral degrees in Literature, Philosophy, and Politics, but places all of these students together for the beginning of their studies; thus, they have a Great Books core curriculum for when their students are together, and then they have a Great Books program tailored for each individual program.6 The graduate theology department of Ave Maria University (“AMU”) has found a unique way to present the Great Books. Instead of having a flat list, AMU presents them within the “Dialogue of the Ancients & Moderns,” which orders the books to show the interrelation. For example, the dialogue approach will list several works that build off each other, and then offer a “clarification by contrast” by listing the works that took a different path.  In other words, the dialogue of Ancients & Moderns method attempts to adopt a pedagogical prudence into the very listing of the works themselves.

The following is a synthesis of the lists from all three Catholic institutions. The footnotes indicate not only the source of each recommended reading, but also which institution recommended the linked translation. Following the example of AMU, the list is divided into “ancients” and “moderns,” but is otherwise simply presented as a flat list. The list is geared toward Catholic thinkers in the United States, since it recommends certain core U.S. political documents. Finally, only the UD Politics Phd program is tailored specifically to politics. The political contributions of TAC & AMU are pulled from their general Great Books lists. For those seeking Catholic commentary on how to understand these Great Works, please note the footnotes for suggested works that could serve as primers not only to the individual suggested works but also to Catholic political thought overall.7

 

The Great Books
Politics

 

The Ancients

1. The Holy Bible8

2. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War.9

3. Plato, The Republic.10

4. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.11

5. Aristotle, Politics.12

6. Plutarch, Parallel Lives.13

7. Augustine, Confessions.14

8. Augustine, City of God.15

9. Thomas Aquinas, Selections of the Summa Theologica.16

10. Thomas Aquinas, On Kingship.17

 

The Moderns

11. Machiavelli, The Prince.18

12. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan.19

13. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government20

14. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, First and Second Discourses.21

15. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract.22

16. Articles of Confederation.23

17. Declaration of Independence.24

18. United States Constitution of 1787.25

19. Virginia (1776) and Massachusetts (1780) Declarations of Rights.26

20. Northwest Ordinance of 178727

21. The Federalist Papers28

22. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason.29

23. Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.30

24. Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals31

25. Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto32

26. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America33

27. Abraham Lincoln, Various Texts.34

28. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates35

29. John Dewey, Liberalism and Social Action36

30. Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”37

31. Leo Strauss, Selections indicating his approach to political philosophy.38

  1. Mortimer List taken from Wikipedia, citing Adler, Mortimer J. “Selecting Works for the 1990 Edition of the Great Books of the Western World,” page 142. []
  2. TAC Website, The Great Books. []
  3. See 4 Steps to Understand the Crisis of Modernity. []
  4. See, Against Great Books by Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen on First Things. []
  5. TAC Great Books List. []
  6. UD Great Books: Core Curriculum & Other Curriculums. []
  7. Catholic Political Thought: For those seeking an introduction to Catholic political thought, see 6 Books for Proper Introduction to Catholic Political Thought. []
  8. The Bible is not a “political” text per se, but it arguably colors almost all thought in the West. Whether a Great Books list focuses on politics or literature, the Bible remains a must-read text. AMU suggests an emphasis on Genesis, Exodus 1-15, 19-14, Deut. 5-11, 28-30, Hosea, Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah, Job; in the New Testament, Matthew, John, Galations, Ephesians. UD PhD core curriculum recommends a focus on the following biblical texts: Genesis, Exodus, Job, Psalms (1, 2, 22, 23, 29, 37, 47, 51, 53, 73, 95, 110, 130, 146-150), Isaiah, Matthew, John, Romans, Corinthians I and II, Revelation; TAC lists the entire Bible on their syllabus. []
  9. The linked edition is recommended by TAC; Recommended by UD Phd Politics. []
  10. The linked Allan Bloom edition is recommended by TAC and also the preferred edition of AMU; Recommended by UD Phd Core Curriculum. []
  11. Recommended by TAC, AMU, and the UD PhD Core Curriculum. TAC recommends the Oxford edition of Nicomachean Ethics. A common edition at AMU is the linked Irwin translation. []
  12. Recommended by TAC, AMU, and UD Phd Politics; the Lord’s translation is widely regarded as the best English translation (explicitly recommended by TAC & AMU. SPL has a list of Aristotelian definitions – taken from the Lord trans. – that may be helpful, along with numerous lists tagged under Aristotle. []
  13. TAC recommends the edition linked and an emphasis on the following: Lycurgus, Pericles, Aristides, Alcibiades, Marcellus, Caius Marius, Sylla, Tiberius Gracchus, Caius Gracchus, Caesar, Cato the Younger, Marcus Brutus, Comparison of Dion and Brutus; UD Phd Politics recommends: Theseus, Romulus; Lycurgus, Numa; Alcibiades, Coriolanus; Alexander, Caesar. []
  14. Recommended TAC, AMU, and UD Phd Core Curriculum. AMU heavily recommended the linked Frank Sheed translation. []
  15. The linked Cambridged edition recommended by TAC; UD Phd Politics; AMU suggestions Book XIX. []
  16. UD Phd Core Curriculum recommends Summa Theologiae I, 1-5 (Questions on Theology and God) II.1, 90-110, 112-113 (Questions on Law and Grace); the UD Phd Politics Curriculum recommends St. Thomas Aquinas’ “Treatise on Law,” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, Questions 90-101, 104-108); TAC recommends similar corresponding Summa selections; SPL has written extensively on St. Thomas Aquinas, especially on his Treatise on Law and virtue, see Aquinas’ Catechesis on the Virtues and Aquinas’ Guide to Natural Law. []
  17. Recommended by both the UD PhD Politics and TAC. []
  18. The Mansfield translation recommended by TAC; Recommended by the UD Phd Core Curriculum & AMU. SPL offers: 7 Introductory Catholic Thoughts on Machiavelli. []
  19. The Hackett Classic edition recommended by TAC; Recommended by the UD Phd Politics & AMU. SPL offers: A Catholic Guide to Thomas Hobbes: 12 Things You Should Know. []
  20. University of Dallas Phd Politics curriculum recommends: all of the Second Treatise, plus the following selections from the First Treatise: ch. 1, sec. 1-3; ch. 2, sec. 6, 7, 9, 14; ch. 4, sec. 21-27, 33, 39, 42, 43; ch. 5, sec. 44-45, 47; ch. 6, sec. 53-54, 56-59, 61; ch. 9, sec. 86-100; ch. 11, sec. 106; TAC recommends the Hackett Classic edition of the Second Treatise on Government; recommended by AMU. []
  21. Recommended by the UD Phd Core Curriculum & AMU. []
  22. Recommended by the UD Phd Core Curriculum & AMU; the linked Hackett Classics anthology edition recommended by TAC. []
  23. Recommended by TAC. []
  24. Recommended by the UD Phd Politics and TAC. []
  25. Recommended by the UD Phd Politics and TAC. []
  26. Recommended by the UD PhD Politics. []
  27. Recommended by the UD Phd Politics. []
  28. TAC recommends the linked Modern Classics Library edition, and the UD Phd Politics curriculum recommends, No. 6, 9, 10, 15, 48, 49, 51, 57, 62, 70, 78. []
  29. Linked edition recommended by TAC. []
  30. Recommended by the UD PhD Core Curriculum. []
  31. Linked Hackett Classics edition recommended by TAC; recommended by the UD Phd Politics. []
  32. TAC recommends the linked text; The UD PhD Politics also emphasizes: (The Marx-Engels Reader, 469-500); Engels’ Eulogy (681-82); Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (683-717); “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction” (53-65); Theses on Feuerbach (143-45); “On the Jewish Question” (26-52); “1844 Manuscripts” (70-93); German Ideology (146-200); Address of the Central Committee (501-511); on non-violent revolution and “Critique of the Gotha Program” (522-541); AMU recommends the Manifesto and Theses on FeuerbachGerman Ideology. []
  33. TAC and UD recommend Mansfield edition, linked; UD PhD Politics emphasizes “appropriate selections showing his approach to the topic.” For example: Introduction (pp. 3-15), vol 1, pt 1, ch 2-5 (27-93), vol 1, pt 2, ch 5-6 (187-235), vol 1, pt 2, ch 9 (264-302), vol 2, pt 2, ch 1-8 (479-503), vol 2, pt 3, ch 8-12 (558-576), vol 2, pt 4, ch 1-3 and 6-8 (639-645, 661-676) (page numbers are from the Mansfield translation. []
  34. The UD PhD Politics recommends: Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), Speech on Dred Scott (1857), First and Second Inaugural Addresses, Address to Congress on July 4, 1861, Gettysburg Address. []
  35. TAC recommends the linked Douglas edition; The UD PhD Politics recommends the Robert W. Johannsen edition, (New York: Oxford, 1965); UD particularly recommends the selections showing the views of both Lincoln and Douglas. For example, 14-36, 78-79, 86-92, 145-49, 162-63, 195-200, 206-226, 229-39, 242-44. []
  36. Recommended by the UD PhD Politics. []
  37. Recommended by the UD PhD Politics, while the Core Curriculum recommends the entirety of Being and Time. []
  38. The UD PhD Politics recommends, for example, What is Political Philosophy, Chapter 1, 2, 3, and 9; or, Natural Right and History: Introduction, chapters 1 and 4, and one of the modern subchapters. Along with AMU, SPL highly recommends the essay The Three Waves of Modernity in his Introduction to Political Philosophy. SPL has written a summary list entitled 4 Steps to Understanding the Crisis of Modernity. []

4 Steps to Understand the Crisis of Modernity

Though each modern philosopher worked toward his own end, they all contributed to the grand project of modernity – the emancipation of the human will from all externalities. It is not God, nature, or history that grants this life value. It is the human will.

Listers, modernity developed as a rejection. Though each modern philosopher worked toward his own end, they all contributed to the grand project of modernity – the emancipation of the human will from all externalities. It is not God, nature, or history that grants this life value. It is the human will. The following list views modernity through the lens of political philosophy and maps a step by step development of how modern man slowly lost faith in reason. The primary source for this list is an essay entitled “The Three Waves of Modernity” by Leo Strauss. Strauss was a political philosopher who almost single handedly returned these questions of modernity to academia. Though not a Catholic, Strauss’ critique of modernity has resonated with the faithful and serves as an excellent starting point to discuss the problems of modernity.1 One note of caution. Modernity and modernism are distinct concepts. Modernity is a historical term indicating the post-medieval world. Modernism is a Catholic term indicating an amalgamation of principles that are in error. For example, all men born in modernity would be moderns, but only those who follow modernism would be modernists. This list is a primer on how modernity developed and why it is now in crisis.

 

1. The First Wave of Modernity

Machiavelli Statue at the Uffizi, Italy.
Machiavelli Statue at the Uffizi, Italy.

The project to emancipate the human will from all externalities begins with an exiled Italian politician named Niccolo Machiavelli (d. 1527). Machiavelli advocated an abandonment of the old “imagined republics” of the pre-moderns. The imagined republics were, inter alia, Aristotle’s polis governed by nature and nature’s virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, & fortitude – and the Kingdom of God as articulated in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. In the West, particularly after St. Thomas Aquinas, nature and divine revelation were seen as compatible and formed one ordered cosmological whole. The state or polis existed so that all men may live well and live virtuously. Under Machiavelli, however, two radical concepts were constructed. First, he jettisoned any cosmological ordered whole in favor of treating different sciences as isolated bodies. For example, for Aristotle or Aquinas their writings on politics are unintelligible without their writings on ethics. In contradistinction, Machiavelli held “political life proper is not subject to morality.”2 Second, Machiavelli reinterpreted virtue. No longer was virtue a good habit, but rather it was the cunning ability to gain and maintain power within the political sphere.3

What Machiavelli did for the prince, Thomas Hobbes (d. 1679) did for all citizens. Continuing the emancipation of the human will from all externalities, Hobbes held that nature imported no morality to man. The pre-modern world under Aquinas held that nature granted humanity three innate inclinations: (1) self-preservation (2) procreation and the education of offspring and (3) an inclination to seek the good. In contrast, Hobbes held that nature gave to man only the inclination of self-preservation; thus, where the pre-moderns saw nature as a moral standard, Hobbes saw nature as a chaotic clash between the right of self-preservation of individuals. In short, the man’s natural state is a state of war. In this context, Hobbes developed two key concepts for modernity. First, Western political speech began to favor speaking of individual rights rather than the external standard of natural law; and second, Hobbes laid the foundation for the West’s obsession with equality. Note, however, that Hobbes’ focus on equality is set within his belief that nature is a state of war. In this context, Hobbes believed all men are equal because all men have the ability to murder one another. Murder was the great equalizer and served as the foundation of modern notions of equality. On a final note, it is critical to understand that in this Hobbesian nature of war and chaos, humanity’s salvation lies in granting its power of self-preservation to the state, the Leviathan. It is the state that will be man’s salvation.4

 

2. The Second Wave of Modernity

A 1766 portrait of Rousseau wearing an Armenian costume by Allan Ramsay.
A 1766 portrait of Rousseau wearing an Armenian costume by Allan Ramsay.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (d. 1778) ushered in a “radicalization of the Hobbesian concept of the state of nature.”5 The pre-moderns taught that man was by nature a rational and political animal. Under Hobbes, man became a pre-political animal only seeking society to escape a nature of war and chaos. Under Rousseau, man is not even a rational animal by nature. According to Rousseau, man’s “state of nature is subhuman or prehuman,” because rationality was actually an acquired trait.”6 For Rousseau, man’s natural state is twofold. First, he is interested in self-preservation. Second, he holds a natural repugnance to “seeing any sentient being, especially our fellow man, perish or suffer.”7 Rousseau’s concept of repugnance is not charity or compassion, but simply the belief “that could be me.” Rousseau went as far to claim that neither marriage nor familial ties are natural to man. Any notion of charity is simply a sustained pity toward a particular person. For example, a mother does not nurse her baby out of love but simply to relieve the pain in her swollen breasts.

Any reinterpretation of nature demands a reinterpretation of virtue. For Rousseau, human nature is by and large a malleable concept; thus, what is and is not virtuous is also malleable. In this context, Rousseau continued modernity’s aim to emancipate the human will from all externalities by submitting his concept of the “General Will.” In short, Rousseau attempted to establish virtue by a consensus of the general public.8 The General Will produces a rational society under the belief that all things generally willed by the public must be rational.9 Virtue and reason become subject to democratic rule. Another furtherance of modernity is found in Rousseau’s treatment of history. Oddly, while Rousseau advocated his narrative of man’s natural state, he also stated that his version of human nature “perhaps never existed.”10 Under Rousseau, Western man begins to treat human history as a narrative free from an external control – nature or God. Most notably, history is seen as a malleable tale of the human will than the narrative of God’s people.11

 

3. The Third Wave of Modernity

Drawing by Hans Olde from the photographic series, The Ill Nietzsche, mid-1899.
Drawing by Hans Olde from the photographic series, The Ill Nietzsche, mid-1899.

Friedrich Nietzsche (d. 1900) heralded the third and final wave of modernity. The suspicions the second wave voiced concerning history are confirmed as Nietzsche declares history is meaningless.The only purpose of history is to show that history is purposeless. There is no transcendent truth – nature or God – that connects the historical eras of humanity; thus, each historical period and their inhabitants are severed from one another. For example, modern man studying the Scriptures or ancient Greece is meaningless. All apparent ideals and truths are simply “human creations or projects” encapsulated within that specific time period. If God, nature, and history are all meaningless, what is left for modern man? The will.

The project of modernity to emancipate the will from all externalities – God, nature, and history – comes to a zenith in the Nietzschean concept of the Uber-man. With God, nature, and history all cast aside as meaningless, the third wave is marked by a type of nihilism. Nietzschean nihilism, however, sees the canvas of life wiped clean and primed for creativity. Nietzsche believed “a living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength – life itself is [a] will to power.”12 Nietzschean nihilism is not a relaxed relativism. In a world where all value is simply a human project, there will arise individuals who take advantage of reality. The individuals are called Uber-men. First, the Uber-man will shed the effect the concepts of God, nature, or history attempt to place on him. Second, the Uber-man will realize the world is a blank canvas upon which he can impose his creative will. At the end of the third wave, human will stands liberated from not only God, nature, and history but from reason itself. The creativity of the human will is the source of all value.

 

4. Modernity in Crisis

The crisis of modernity is exemplified in the fact that “modern western man no longer knows what he wants” and has lost all “faith in reason’s ability to validate its highest aims.”13 For modern man, reason can no longer discern any meaning from God, nature, or history. Value in the modern world is a human project. Overall, modernity came into existence as a rejection. It posits nothing new, just an ever growing privation of humanity’s belief that reason can perceive the world around it. Even when a modern philosopher thought he was solving the problems of modernity, he was actually contributing to the slow atrophy of reason.

As the three waves demonstrate, it is not difficult to imagine that Catholicism stands as the complete antithesis to modernity’s project to emancipate the human will. Though this list approaches modernity from the science of political philosophy, there are a few observations worth sharing on the relationship between the modern philosophers and Catholicism. First, every modern thinker had to set aside Catholicism in order to submit their own belief system. Catholicism – especially Scholasticism under St. Thomas Aquinas – stood as a bastion of support that God, nature, and history were all harmonious and rational. Under the waves of modernity, Catholicism was ridiculed and mocked, but it was never philosophically engaged. For example, Hobbes jeers transubstantiation and Scholasticism as difficult to understand but never attempts to prove them wrong. The second observation is that the rejection of Catholicism leads to the rise of modern myths. Rousseau is a classic example of this methodology. Rousseau jettisons Catholicism in favor of his noble savage concept and then predicates his views of reason and nature upon it. He then, however, turns around and claims that his noble savage narrative need not even be true. The three waves demonstrate that modernity is in crisis, because modernity developed as a rejection and now no one knows what – or even how – to believe in anything.

  1. A Further Comment on Strauss: Faithful institutions such as the University of Dallas and Ave Maria University rely heavily on Strauss’ critique of modernity, but not necessarily on his solutions. Strauss is not a Catholic and consequently did not see faith and reason as harmonious. If anything, he found Athens and Jerusalem to be at odds, while Catholicism sees faith and reason as one in Rome. In short, Strauss offers excellent critiques of modernity, of which Catholicism has the solutions. []
  2. Strauss, 86. []
  3. Machiavelli & Modern Science: The Spirit of Machiavelli is seen in two other first wave philosophers – Rene Descartes (d. 1650) and Francis Bacon (d. 1626). Broadly speaking, both thinkers agreed with Machiavelli that nature was not a moral standard; rather, nature was something to be conquered, vexed, and unlocked. In short, modern science began to view an individual’s health as their highest good. Man becomes the master of nature and his conquest will aid in his self-preservation. []
  4. Quotes & Citations for Thomas Hobbes: SPL has written an extensive Catholic guide to Thomas Hobbes, which is littered with quotes and citations. []
  5. Strauss, 90 []
  6. Strauss, 90 []
  7. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. First & Second Discourse (Indianapolis: Hackett), 35. []
  8. Strauss, 91. []
  9. Strauss, 91. []
  10. Historicism: Under the second wave the concept of “historicism” begins to take root. Human history sheds the external controls of God and nature. There is no natural law inherent in men and there is no divine story coming to an end. It is just human history. This first brand of historicism is referred to as theoretical historicism. []
  11. Kant: Another second wave philosopher is Immanuel Kant (d. 1804). In short, Kant attempts to handle modernity’s problem of jettisoning nature but needing morality; thus, Kant radicalizes the human will into a universal compass for morality. In Kant’s famous categorical imperative, he states, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Consequently, Kant establishes “universal legislation” predicated upon man’s rationality. The “moral laws” of man are “no longer understood a natural laws,” but rather “reason replaces nature” as humanity is now “radically liberated from the tutelage of nature.” Strauss, 92. []
  12. Friedrich Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufman. Beyond Good and Evil. (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), 21. []
  13. Strauss, 81-82. []

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.

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.