9th Grade: Machiavelli’s Bombshell


This we week we wrapped up some aspects of Renaissance exploration by thinking about why exactly Europe experienced such a huge burst of exploration activity in the mid-late 15th century.

Most of us might tend to think that the key to the increased activity was the advent of new technology.  That is, Europeans discovered new tools that would help them sail the seas, and so now they could make the attempts to find new lands that lack of technology made previously impossible.

In his book Pathfinders, historian Felipe-Fernandez Armesto discounts this notion.  Very few technological advances took place in the decades leading up to the great expansion of exploration.  One thing did change significantly, however, and that was their desire to explore.  Quite simply, they wanted to go, whereas before they did not. Exploration resulted from a belief that mankind should take great risks to find out more about the world.  While they made some technological advances as a result of their sailing, things continued more or less as they had been from 1450 until the discovery of how to measure longitude in late 18th century.  Belief, not technology, spurred on exploration.

What happened?  The Renaissance shifted the emphasis from orienting one’s life from “top to bottom,” as the Medievals viewed life and thought, to a more “side to side” perspective that focused on the knowable, observable, and measurable.  Whether this shift indicated that the Renaissance tried to “improve upon God’s handiwork of creation,” as the great Umberto Eco stated, or that, “the people of the Renaissance had a renewed sense of humanity’s responsibility and stewardship of creation,” as the great art appreciator Sister Wendy postulated, is a question I want the students to consider.

So, what building cathedrals was to medievals, exploration was to the Renaissance.  Both capture the spirit of the times, and show the values of each time and place.  A good question for us to consider is, “What values does our society pursue?”  Do cultures need to dream, to risk, to reach beyond themselves to function well?

We then went on to discuss the controversial political philosopher Nicolo Machiavelli.  To help set the groundwork for understanding him, I asked the students a few questions:

1. Martin Luther supposedly said, “I would rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian” (though many now believe that Luther never said this exactly, though he said other things like it).  If we agree with Luther, this assumes that what we want from political governance differs from what we want from our spiritual leaders.  If we followed Machiavelli, for example, we would not put moral character or spiritual guidance at the top of our list for qualities we look for in political leadership.  Consider these two alternatives for president

  • A solid Christian in belief and morals, but possessing little political experience, imagination, or intelligence,


  • A shrewd, intelligent, and experienced leader with respect from the international community, but who does not consider himself a Christian.

“See,” Machiavelli might argue, “Contrary to your instincts, religion is not most important in politics.”  Machiavelli encourages rulers not to be hostile to religion, but believes that politics operates independently from it.

2. Can politics have a redemptive effect on humanity?  St. Augustine argued that politics, as it dealt with the ordering of earthly relationships, could not by definition help lead one to God.  Other theologians disagree with Augustine, but if you agree with him, then one opens the door for politics to have different rules than “normal” life.  For example, we have no problem admitting that trying to bluff in poker is not a sin, however much one tries to deceive others in the game.  Poker is not “normal” life.  When we play poker, we enter into an agreed upon alternate reality.

Politics functioned in a similar kind of alternate reality, according to Machiavelli.  There are times when we expect our leaders to lie or disseminate false information, especially about military operations.  Most of us would not only expect it, we might even admire the tactic should it prove successful and give our country a greater measure of safety.  Whether we agree or not, if we understand these questions we can understand where Machiavelli came from with some of his ideas.

In a famous phrase intended as jibe against Plato, Machiavelli urges us not to seek out “imagined republics.”  Like the Renaissance in general he sought guidance from what he saw in front of him, a consummate political realist.  For example. . .

1. It would be best if you (the ruler) were perfect.  But you’re not, so you will have faults and vices.  First, seek to turn your faults to your advantage if you can.  If you lack consistency of character, perhaps this could mean that your enemies will fear your unpredictability. Failing that, make sure you avoid vices that will directly effect your ability to rule.  Much better for you to run around with women, for example, than to steal from the public till.  God can forgive all sin, people will probably forgive the former, but not the latter.  Above all, power is your guiding star.  Do what you needed to do to maintain and keep power, for without that, nothing else matters (from a political perspective).

2. Should a ruler prefer to be loved or feared?  Again, ideally the answer is, “both.”  But very few can achieve this.  Since nearly all of us must choose one or the other, Machiavelli writes,

Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

Some of you may remember the controversy Surgeon General C. Everett Koop created when he allowed for contraceptive education in public schools.  He stood against abortion and as a Christian privately supported abstinence, but as a public servant he believed in that if teens did have sex, they should use contraceptives, as it would protect them from disease and reduce teen pregnancy and abortions.  Some Christians applauded this stance. Others believed that Koop did not just take sin into account with his policy, he gave it the victory.  One can level the same charge against Machiavelli.  Koop and Machiavelli both, though in different ways and to different degrees, touch on the dilemma between public service and personal belief and practice.

Few Christians would want to go as far as Machiavelli did, yet many would probably find themselves agreeing with some of his assumptions.  Drawing the line appropriately will require great wisdom, and the students did a great job discussing some of these tough questions this past week.

Many thanks,

Dave M