A recent article in the Catholic Journal by William Borst suggests Machiavelli was “(m)ost likely an undeclared atheist…” but the author gives no reference from Machiavelli’s works for this statement. I would argue that, while he may have been critical of church politics at times, he carefully did not express any solid statements about faith that allow us to label him in any way as either believer or atheist.
He certainly wrote about secular topics, politics and war in particular; in The Prince he separates theology from politics, by not putting the Christian stamp on his advice and referring back to scripture for his authority. His prince does not manage by the grace of God but by the realities required by pragmatic politics. It could even be called situational ethics. But was that being an atheist? Not by the standards of his time.
First, it’s important to appreciate that atheism as we understand it today is a relatively modern perspective on religion. During the Renaissance and the later Reformation, the term atheist was applied to people who challenged church doctrine, dogmas or politics: that taking a stance against previously accepted wisdom or presenting natural law instead of divine law, was godless or denied God’s involvement. It did not mean a lack of belief in God; that sense comes later, in the late 18th century. Most of those accused of atheism in the 16th and 17th centuries were still believers in God, but not in all human interpretations of the divine or its will.
Calling Machiavelli an atheist today is an example of presentism: “…in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past.” As I read him, Machiavelli knew far too much about church politics and history – some of it from personal experience – to be anything but cynical towards the divinity of either.*
Machiavelli was part of the Renaissance humanist movement in which philosophers and people with learning turned back to the Greek and Roman classics for inspiration. Florence was one of the main Italian centres of this intellectual blossoming. As Wikipedia tells us:
Humanists sought to create a citizenry able to speak and write with eloquence and clarity and thus capable of engaging the civic life of their communities and persuading others to virtuous and prudent actions. This was to be accomplished through the study of the studia humanitatis, today known as the humanities: grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy.
And as historian Steven Kreis wrote in Renaissance Humanism:
Robust secularism and intellectual independence reached its height in Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540)… The writings of Dante, and particularly the doctrines of Petrarch and humanists like Machiavelli, emphasized the virtues of intellectual freedom and individual expression. In the essays of Montaigne the individualistic view of life received perhaps the most persuasive and eloquent statement in the history of literature and philosophy.
As a humanist, Machiavelli praised Roman, Greek and other classical values – which were, of course, pre-Christian, therefore mostly pagan. This has caused some later writers to identify Machiavelli himself as a pagan, but it was typical of the humanist writers of that century to praise the behaviour of the antique heroes and leaders.
Dante wrestled with this two centuries earlier : where in his Hell to put the ‘virtuous pagans?’
Reading such pagan authors as Lucretius would have also edged Machiavelli towards a secular view of many social and natural conditions, but that does not necessarily equate with a loss of faith. In The Discourses, Machiavelli blends pagan and Christian values in his image of the ideal republican state.
In the Discourses on Livy Book II Ch. 2, Machiavelli wrote of the necessity of religion in bolstering patriotism:
For if they were to consider that it (our Religion) permits the exaltation and defense of the country, they would see that it desires that we love and honor her (our country), and that we prepare ourselves so that we can be able to defend her.
Maurizio Viroli, in the introduction to his book, Machiavelli’s God, claims,
…that Machiavelli not only asserted that republican liberty needs a religion that instills and supports devotion to the common good but also that Christian religion properly interpreted is apt to serve such a civic task… Along with the interpretation of Machiavelli the atheist, we may also discard the view of Machiavelli the pagan.
A description of Machiavelli’s Three Romes: Religion, Human Liberty, and Politics Reformed, by Vickie Sullivan, Dean of Academic Affairs for School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Chicago, notes:
Machiavelli’s ambiguous treatment of religion has fueled a contentious and long standing debate among scholars. Whereas some insist that Machiavelli is a Christian, others maintain he is a pagan. Sullivan mediates between these divergent views by arguing that he is neither but that he utilizes elements of both understandings arrayed by distinguishing among the three Romes that can be understood as existing in Machiavelli’s political thought: the first is the Rome of the Christian era, dominated by the pope; the second is the republican Rome of pagan times, which Machiavelli praises; and the third is an idealized Rome that is neither entirely pagan nor entirely Christian …he proposes an idealized Rome that will transcend the problems both of Christian and of pagan Rome… a highly original response to what he understood to be the crisis of his times.
As Kreis adds:
When men like Petrarch and his fellow humanists read pagan literature, they were infected with the secular outlook of the Greeks and Romans. Even rather pious humanists became enamored of what Augustine branded the City of Man. Petrarch, a devout Christian, worshipped the pagan eclecticism of Cicero. Erasmus suggested that such titles as St. Socrates and St. Cicero were not inappropriate or sacrilegious, and openly preferred the pagans to the Schoolmen. “Whatever is pious and conduces to good manners ought not to be called profane,” he wrote.
Author Nick Spencer wrote in his series on Machiavelli in The Guardian, that Machiavelli’s Biblical references were chosen not for their moral references, but their military ones:
…Machiavelli’s minimal but careful use of the Bible. It was far from strange for humanist tracts to eschew biblical examples, as The Prince largely does. What is more noteworthy is the way Machiavelli does deal with the Bible, when he does. The New Testament is completely absent, and his few Old Testament examples are lauded for their martial abilities rather than their godliness. They are effectively indistinguishable from the book’s non-biblical heroes, Moses rubbing shoulders with Cyrus, Romulus and Theseus, and their special role within salvation history is carefully undermined.
Was Machiavelli an atheist? He certainly had a realistic – one might even call it cynical – attitude towards the church hierarchy of his day and preferred a secular approach to politics over a theological one. That would result in Machiavelli being later demonized by the church when his works were printed and circulated – after his death, of course.
In his day, any criticism of the political structure of the Catholic Church* was often treated as criticism of the faith itself, and resulted in such labels as heretic or atheist. Machiavelli managed to be carefully critical because at no point in his writing did Machiavelli critique faith itself – only its appearance. But his criticism is aimed squarely at the politics of power in the church, not in its faith. As he wrote in The Discourses, Book I, Ch. 12:
If the Princes of the Republic had maintained this Christian religion according as it had been established by the founder, the Christian States and Republics would have been more united and much more happy than they are. Nor can any greater conjecture be made of its decline, than to see that those people who are nearer to the Church of Rome, the head of our Religion, have less Religion. And whoever should give consideration to its foundations, and observe how much different present usage is from them, should judge that without doubt her ruin or flagellation (chastisement) is near. And because some are of the opinion that the well-being of Italian affairs depend on the Church of Rome, I want to discuss those reasons against them that occur to me, and I will present two most powerful ones, which according to me are not controvertible. The first is, that by the evil example of that court, this province has lost all devotion and all Religion: so that it brings (with it) infinite troubles and infinite disorders; for where there is Religion every good is presupposed, so too where it is lacking the contrary is presupposed. We Italians therefore have this obligation with the Church and with the Priests of having become bad and without Religion; but we also have a greater one, which is the cause of our ruin. This is that the Church has kept and still keeps this province (country) of ours divided: and Truly any country never was united or happy, except when it gave its obedience entirely to one Republic or one Prince, as has happened to France and Spain.
Machiavelli recognized that, while he disliked the politics of the church, it was important for the prince to appear religious, even if he was not particularly thus. In Chapter XVIII, he wrote:
…it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite… a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious.
Appearances contribute to reputation and reputation was always foremost in Machiavelli’s mind when directing the behaviour of leaders. As Borst writes, Machiavelli looked to the pragmatic side of an often hypocritical situation:
Machiavelli was disturbed that most people in the 16th century lived according to the immorality of the day, even though they espoused Christian principles. The precept of Do unto others…had become I must kill you before you kill me. Since the Italians of his day were morally weak, cowards, or poor, traditional rules had to be altered. Machiavelli’s Prince was a realist who had to work with the existing situation. This is akin to the motto of political pragmatism if it works, do it! It seemed futile for him to urge that people just be good and things will be better. While the new Prince should be personally decent and principled, he must never let his principles get in the way of the evil he must do to preserve himself and his reign.
Paul-Erik Korvela, writing in Machiavelli’s Critique of Christianity, opens with:
There are scholars who claim that he was a sincere Christian in private life and constantly distressed by the fact that politics appears to operate by rules very different from the ones taught by Christ. Then there are those who claim that he was an atheist who aimed at devastating the whole of Christianity. In previous research, his opposition to Christianity has been often assumed but seldom proved or clarified.
He concludes this lengthy article with these words:
Machiavelli remained within the framework of Christianity when he maintained that Christians should not meddle with stately affairs and statesmen should not worry about the fate of their souls in the afterlife. Politics is a game played by the damned.
* The church was a major power in Italy, and even fielded its own armies during Machiavelli’s time. The armies of the Holy league – an alliance cobbled together by the church to fight the French invasion – pushed the French out of Italy in 1511, but also put Florence – which had sided with France – at its mercy.Florence submitted, but Pope Junius II made one of his terms the restoration of the Medici. The family was brought back to Florence in September, 1512. The Florentine Republic dissolved and, when the Medici swept back in, Machiavelli was among the civil servants dismissed. He never regained public office after that.