Machiavelli on Religion

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Niccolò 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. "Niccolò 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...
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