Machiavelli’s Religious views:


Not enough attention has been paid to the process through which religion and its presuppositions shaped Machiavell’s thought and work.  Machiavelli’s many references to God and to the various popes who attained power on a political stage can be connected to his personal religious views.  An examination of passages drawn from The Prince, The Discourses, Florentine Histories, The Mandrake Root and his letters to friends will shed a conclusive light on the development of Machiavelli’s religious views.  The political natures of these works determine the level of Machiavelli’s investigation into his religious and political values.  Politics determine his interest and insight into religion.

“The presuppositions of Machiavelli’s approach to religion were decisively shaped by his secular profession as a diplomat and by his passion for understanding political reality. His profession as well as his intellectual assumptions, separated him from the medieval theological and ecclesiastical perspective on religion, (Preus, 172).”


Machiavelli’s views of religion seem to be typical of Renaissance Florence, where intellectual thought and learning were related to professional needs and directed towards the satisfaction of the people.  Machiavelli’s development of his political ideology can be closely related to his religious theories.


The Church and Machiavelli’s Depiction of Italy’s Historical Situation:

 Machiavelli’s references to the various popes confirm that the church had become a forceful power in Italy.  Christianity is the highest rank in authority to the Roman Empire and its employment of power took on a political role. In order to fully comprehend

Machiavelli’s take on religion it is necessary to look at his criticism of Rome with respect to religion.


“Machiavelli’s ultimate judgment regarding the Church’s temporal influence is particularly important in assessing his intentions because he dedicates his most famous work, The Prince, to Lorenzo de’ Medici, nephew of the then reigning pope, Leo X. Florence’s fortunes at this time were closely tied to Rome, (Sullivan, 17).”


Machiavelli’s life and work coincide with Italy’s turbulent political situation of the period.  Florence was one of the few cities that remained resistant to conquest, of which Machiavelli concentrates his writings. Thirty years of French invasion, by three kings, Charles VIII, Louis XII, and Francis I, ended with Italy’s surrender. The Medici, who for almost a century ruled Florence were overthrown. The Medici family gained the respect of the populous that refused to recognize other ruling parties and drove them out of the city proclaiming a republic.  In 1512 the Medeciean dominance returned after the Florentine republic collapsed. The Christian orientated Medici, who had been expelled since 1492, returned to a Florence that was directed by Rome. The leading men of Florence were clerics and so religion mandated authority. Giovanni de’ Medici, became Leo X and after Pope Leo’s death Giulio de’ Medici succeeded his cousin as head of the family and Church, becoming Pope Clement VII.  Machiavelli’s dedication of The Prince to Lorenzo de’ Medici seemed to reflect the attitude of Italy as a whole, his native city, and his own personal political and religious aspirations.

“Thus Rome Guided Florence during the time that Machiavelli, excluded from participating in government due to the suspicions of the Medici, completed his political works, The Prince and the Discourses. Later the author managed to work himself into the good graces of the Medici to the extent that he received a commission from Leo X for the completion of the Florentine Histories, (Sullivan, 18).”


From Machiavelli’s dedication of The Prince and the involvement of religion and power, he appears to link the Church to Italy’s future expectation of foreign invasion. This is portrayed in the last chapter of The Prince, where Machiavelli proposes that the Medici rid Italy of all foreigners.


“Therefore, may your illustrious house take up this mission with that spirit and with the hope in which just undertakings are begun; so that to under your banner this country may be ennobled and, under your guidance, those words of Petrarch may come true...”


Due to the fact that his more powerful uncle dominated Lorenzo, if the Medici were to undergo the task of forming a new state that would control Italy for the purpose of resisting foreigners, the state would clearly be directed by Rome. It can be derived that Machiavelli viewed the alliance between a secular prince and a pope to be the answer to Italy’ political agonies. This aspect can be connected with his assessment of Cesare Borgia, who is famous for the political ambition of his father, Pope Alexander VI, had administered.  Maybe it can be deduced that Machiavelli’s intentions is that the papal power is the key ingredient, which would stop the flow of foreign invasions.

Although it is quite obvious that Machiavelli cunningly integrates both the Church and the clerics of the Medici with his writings in The Prince, Machiavelli does not depict the Church as a mechanism to remedy the politics of his period.

“Neither his Discourses nor his Florentine Histories need to be regarded with special care to determine that he regarded the Church as an obstacle - not as a means - to Italy’s unification, (Sullivan, 18).”


Machiavelli hoped to find the founder of the new state in the Medici house.  This exercise of was acceptable to Machiavelli through the ruling of a prince who could leave his personal interests alone, while ensuring the well being of the state. The Church would play a leading role in the ruling efforts of this Medici prince.


The Prince and the Historical/Religious Link:

To accentuate Machiavelli’s work, Ecclesiastical principalities can be achieved either by means of ability or through fortune.  These principalities are difficult to conquer, but neither ability nor fortune is required to maintain them. As Alvarez explains - “We have come to the weakest of temporal principates, the Holy Roman emperor, who seems in effect not to govern at all.”  The existing, long-passed, religious foundations that have had the strength to hold their prince in power, regardless of personal lifestyle and behavior, sustain ecclesiastical principalities.  Machiavelli examines the reasons that explain why, since the time of Alexander VI, the church became such a strong mundane force.

“Nevertheless, someone might ask me why it is that the Church, in temporal matters, has arrived at such power when, until Alexander, the Italian powers - not just those who were the established rulers, but every baron and lord, no matter how weak - considered her temporal power as insignificant...”


It must be understood that prior to the invasion of Charles VIII, Italy had been under the control of five powers: Venice, Milan, Florence, Rome, and Naples.  The major concerns of the sovereign were that foreign power should not enter Italy and that none of the five states should become more powerful than the others.  Alexander VI arose and was successful through the use of both money and arms, and through utilizing his son Cesare and the French invasion as opportunity to secure power. Despite the fact that the pope’s intention was to increase the power of the state of Cesare, the Duke of Valentinois, it resulted in the increased power of the church. Therefore after the death of the duke the church became heir to Alexander’s vast domain.  Julius II, who followed Alexander, found that the church was a powerful state with all of Romagna under his rule. However, he was determined to make it even greater by conquering Bologna, putting down the Venetians, and driving the French out of Italy.  In all these enterprises he succeeded. The contemporary pope, Leo X, inherited a very strong pontificate, and Machiavelli believed he would be able to maintain its power as described in The Prince and in The Discourses.


The Discourses and the Historical/Religious Link:

Machiavelli’s argument that he is leaning towards the papacy as the solution to Italy’s political strife contrasts with his proclamation in The Discourses that the papacy is their very cause:

“The Church has kept and keeps this province divided. And truly no province has ever been united or happy unless it has all come under obedience to one republic or to one prince... The cause that Italy...does not also have one republic or one prince to govern it, is solely the Church. For although it has inhabited and held a temporal empire there it has not been so powerful nor of such virtue as to be able to seize tyranny of Italy and make itself prince of it.”


He then continues to back his argument by his analysis of the sources of Italy’s problems in discussing the prospects of sending the Roman court to live in Swiss cities. Machiavelli explains that such an exercise would create disorder even among the Swiss, who live with regard to military and religious order, the same as Italians.  This portrays Machiavelli’s distrust for the Roman court and their clerical leaders. The root of Machiavelli’s grievance is with the papal state, proclaiming that the state is highly inadequate to unite Italy, while being sufficient and effective in the political realm.  It can be assumed that if the Church possessed the strength to unite Italy that maybe it would not have to rely on foreign aid. Machiavelli writes in The Discourses that papal efforts need to overcome the divisions within its own state and this in turn may be the key to overcoming all of Italy’s problems.

“So henceforth, all the wars waged by the barbarians in Italy were for the most part caused by the pontiffs, and all the barbarians who invaded it were most often called by them.  This mode of proceeding still in our times; it is this that has kept and keeps Italy disunited and infirm.”


Machiavelli’s view of the papacy and of the church is inherently different in his complaints in The Discourses. Machiavelli makes it quite clear that the clergy has had a significant role in disuniting Italy.  This theory contrast to his development of the ecclesiastical principate in The Prince.  In his complaints with regard to the clergy and their disuniting element Machiavelli strikes another blow at the Church.  He discusses their corruption, declaring, “the bad customs of that court would take more disorder than any other accident that could arise there at any time.” He also goes as far to say that the Church’s corruption almost results in the ruin of religion.  Machiavelli is clearly on a different level of political thought when he is discussing the Church and its influences in The Discourses.