Saintly Thoughts

Why I Fear Machiavelli

I am never so terrified as when I read the works of Machiavelli, have never felt myself falling so far into the abyss as when I read his cogent critique of the Christian vision, or indeed of any idealistic vision of human morality.  For Machiavelli offers a devastating critique against a society striving after moral ideals such as peace and love.  It isn't that he offers critiques against peace and love as such, it's just that he presents the results of striving after such ideals as utter folly for society.  For those who would turn the other cheek and repay evil with good leave themselves open to being killed unless some outside force steps in to protect them.  Will God ultimately protect his people?  Machiavelli shows many historical instances in which this has not been the case [and he is not alone in this, just think of the biblical story of Job].  Of course, the individual person may accept this principle when applied to themselves and hope for the recompense of the afterlife.  But, Machiavelli suggests, wouldn't we be disappointed if the ruler(s) of the state was to make such a decision, hazarding the lives of his people in the hopes that God might save them rather than acting in an evil way that may save their lives?  Machiavelli suggests, I think correctly, that this is a situation virtually all rulers will be faced with again and again over the course of their reigns, and that it is thus their duty to despise their own souls and goodness and virtue--yes, certainly for the sake of their own power and self-aggrandizement but effectually to the survival of the community.  Thus, not only may the good of the community result from human wickedness, but moral goodness itself may be seen to result in great evil for the community.  Now, a good casuist would break this apart and note that the cause of the evil in the two cases springs from different sources (and thus moral guilt may be imputed in the one case and not the other) but to my mind the quite possibly massive scale of the harm caused by an insistence on moral scruples should quiet such objections.  Size of the harm does matter and should matter to us when we engage in moral reasoning for, to borrow an analogy from geometry, the rules may change as the scale of measurement increases.  Now for myself, in my own life, there is little chance that I will ever be faced with a moral situation of such magnitude.  However, the leaders of our society--of any society--are regularly faced with such decisions and on some level we benefit or are harmed by the choices that they make and thus, to my mind, share in some small way in the moral hazard of the choice made.  Perhaps one might be willing to chalk such un-willed moral participation up to the umbrella of original sin, but I think this skirts the issue too quickly.  The fact remains that, in order for us to continue to exist as creatures in the world (at what we shall call a meta-level of human action) we are dependent upon our societies trading evil actions for evil actions.  Thus, it is good for our rulers to be able to act wicked; and since the truly good man will not wish to act wickedly, it will follow that it is better that our rulers be wicked rather than good.  Now I do not mean to suggest that this, in and of itself destroys the efficacy of doctrine per se, but does it not destroy the concept of Christendom or Christian society--for surely a Christian society would be at a disadvantage in producing such rulers?  Thus, even for a Christian, might not one see the disintegration of Christendom in some way as good since it allows for the society to continue to exist?  Such thoughts blow open the true character of the world, the evil interaction of power plays which lie at the base of all relationship.  The underlying truth leads us to speak of evil as good and good evil, and what good we may find being more a way of channeling our evil along pre-arranged pathways rather than squelching it and seeking after that which is good in itself.  In such a world, good and evil appear to merge into one another, and become less properties of things and more a correct gauging of the power dynamics at play in a given situation.  Thus in one situation it may be morally correct to heal the sick, in another to burn them.  There may be a time to keep one's promises and a time to break one's oaths--a time to give alms and a time to steal them; and with nothing to mediate the justice of one's choices other than the light of one's own will and freedom.  One might almost imagine humanity as a god in such an estimation.  And that is why I tremble, for I know not whether or not humanity has this mantle of divinity, but I know with all my soul that humanity shouldn't (for if I did not hold to this opinion I would keep my musings to myself and simply get with the program of determining how best to be wicked).  Thus to see into this darkness is to see a demonic face of existence written across the skies.  For in such a world, all goodness is suspect.