Niccolò Machiavelli openly embraced the use of power and utility over the restraint and charity of love and dignity. In Machiavelli’s corruption, “prudence” came to mean knowledge of when to choose good and when to choose evil.

In his magisterial Roots of American Order, Russell Kirk tried to put the Renaissance, Reformation, and Counter Reformation in a larger (maybe massive) historical context.

The Protestant and Catholic Reformations of the sixteenth century were both reactions against the excesses of the Renaissance. For that intellectual and artistic and social movement called the Renaissance amounted, often, to a denial of the Christian understanding of the human condition. The Renaissance exalted man’s egoism, in defiance of Christian teachings of humility, charity, and community. The Renaissance glorified in fleshly pleasures… [and] accepted the craft ‘power politics’ of Machiavelli, as distinguished from the Christian political theories of justice and freedom and order that had prevailed from the time of Gregory the Great to the time of Dante–Russell Kirk, Roots of American Order, 230.

Whatever one thinks of Kirk’s views of Luther, Calvin, and Pope Paul III (and many scholars of the era would dispute Kirk’s claim rather profusely; among the The Imaginative Conservative crowd, Michael Bauman and Kevin Gutzman, for example), one might also criticize the father of modern conservatism for being too soft on Machiavelli, though probably for reason of art rather than intent. Indeed, one might go as far as to claim that Niccolo Machiavelli undermined nearly 2,000 years of the finely honed Socratic tradition, recognizing the horrors of sin and our proclivity to crime and war making but placing as many limits upon our ability to create such darkness as possible. Machiavelli embraced the darkness.

From Socrates forward, one may trace a line of ethics that demanded “do no harm.” From Socrates to the Stoics to Cicero to Augustine to Aquinas to Dante. The West had acknowledged sin, but had done much to limit its capacity to grow. Machiavelli—through just a few works—gave justification to the growing impetus of the post-medieval world to embrace power at the expense of sacrifice and love. In more ways than one, Machiavelli served as the direct counter to Aquinas, who had argued forcefully time and again that the only good leader was one who would sacrifice himself for his people as had Christ. Just as Aquinas had written his gorgeous letter On Kingship as a coronation gift for the rising king of Cyprus, Machiavelli wrote The Prince for Lorenzo di Pero de Medici, Duke of Urbino. While one cannot be certain that Machiavelli intentionally mocked Aquinas, the case for such is strong.

Making no apology for admiring both Mohammad for his violence and Pope Alexander VI for his cruelty, Machiavelli openly embraced the use of power and utility over the restraint and charity of love and dignity. The effective ruler, in an almost perfect contrast to the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, utilizes good as well as evil when working toward a greater good. Machiavelli calculated how much force to bring to bear by, slyly redefining “prudence.”

Someone is considered a giver, someone rapacious; someone cruel, someone merciful; the one a breaker of faith, the other faithful; the one effeminate and pusillanimous, the other fierce and spirited; the one humane, the other proud; the one lascivious, the other chaste; the one honest, the other astute; the one hard, the other agreeable; the one grave, the other light; the one religious, the other unbelieving, and the like. And I know that everyone will confess that it would be a very praiseworthy thing to find in a prince all of the above mentioned qualities that are held good. But because he cannot have them, nor wholly observe them, since human conditions do not permit it, it is necessary for him to be so prudent as to know how to avoid the infamy of those vices that would take his state from him and to be guard against those that do not, if that is possible; but if one cannot, one can let them go with less hesitation.” [Machiavelli, trans. by Harvey C. Mansfield, The Prince (University of Chicago Press, 1998), 61-62.]

In the classical understanding of prudence as one of the four cardinal virtues, it meant “the ability to discern good from evil.” In Machiavelli’s corruption, it came to mean when to choose good and when to choose evil.

In case one missed the point of The Prince, originally written in secret but distributed rather openly through correspondence, Machiavelli made the same point much more clearly in his diabolic play, Mandragola. In a conversation between the “protagonist” Ligurio and a Catholic priest, Timoteo, the playwright explored the limits of calculating the use of evil to do good.

Ligurio: “A year ago, this man went to France on some business of his, and, not having a wife—for she had died—he left his one marriageable daughter in the care of a convent, the name of which I don’t have to tell you know.
Timoteo: What followed?
Ligurio: It followed that, either through the carelessness of the nuns, or the brainlessness of the girl, she finds herself four months pregnant; so that if the situation’s not repaired with prudence, the Dottore, the nuns, the girl, Cammillo, and the house of Calfucci will be disgraced; and the Dottore regards this shame as so great that he has vowed, if it’s not disclosed, to give three hundred ducats for the love of God.
Nicia: (What chitterchatter!)
Ligurio: (Be quiet.) And he will give them through your hands; and only you and the abbess can remedy this.
Timoteo: How?
Ligurio: By persuading the abbess to give the girl a potion to make her miscarry.
Timoteo: This is something to be thought over.
Ligurio: Keep in mind, in doing this, how many goods will result from it; you maintain the honor of the convent, of the girl, of her relatives; you restore a daughter to her father; you satisfy Messer here, and so many of his relatives; you do as much charity as you can with these three hundred ducats; and on the other side, you don’t offend anything but a piece of unborn flesh, without sense, which could be dispersed in a thousand ways; and I believe that good is that which does good to the most, and that by which the most are contented.
Timoteo: So be it in the name of God. I’ll do what you want, and may everything be done for God and for charity. Tell me the convent, give me the potion, and if you like, this money, with which I can begin to do some good.
Ligurio: Now you seem to me that man of religion that I believed you were. Take this part of the money….
[Niccolo Machiavelli, Mandragola, trans by Mera J. Flaumenhaft (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press; 1981), 31-32]

Whatever the intent of The Prince, Machiavelli published the above as a comedy in Florence in 1518 under his own name. If The Prince really is a satire as some scholars and apologists have claimed, Machiavelli has fooled leader after leader over the past five hundred years, as it has served as a handbook for the powerful ever since.

Should we be surprised that the English came to refer to him as “Old Nick,” employing the same name for the prince of darkness?

Author’s note: A special thanks to my colleague, Steve Smith, and my good friend, Sarah Skwire, for introducing me to Mandragola.

This essay first appeared here in November 2013.

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