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Amazing Grace: Fortune, God, and Free Will in Machiavelli's Thought

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 60, Number 4, October 1999
pp. 617-638 | 10.1353/jhi.1999.0042

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Journal of the History of Ideas 60.4 (1999) 617-638

Machiavelli and Religion

Surely there is no political theorist about whom scholarly opinion is more divided than Niccolò Machiavelli. The subject of intense and continuous examination almost from the time of his death, Machiavelli has become if anything more enigmatic with the passage of time and the proliferation of interpretations. Although one might argue that this fact reflects the highly unsystematic and context-bound nature of his thought, the now well-established consistencies in his linguistic usage and narrative style suggest that certain principles inform his writings across genre and circumstance.

One of the most contentious aspects of Machiavelli's writing has been his attitude towards religion, in particular, Christianity. To be sure, Machiavelli was no friend of the institutionalized Christian Church as he knew it. The Discourses makes clear that conventional Christianity saps from human beings the vigor required for active civil life. And the Prince speaks with equal parts disdain and admiration about the contemporary condition of the Church and its Pope. Many scholars have taken such evidence to indicate that Machiavelli was himself profoundly anti-Christian, preferring the pagan civil religions of ancient societies such as Rome, which he regarded to be more suitable for a city endowed with virtù. At best Machiavelli has been described as a man of conventional, if unenthusiastic, piety, prepared to bow to the externalities of worship but not deeply devoted in either soul or mind to the tenets of Christian faith.

In recent times, the only dissenting voice of note has been Sebastian de Grazia, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning intellectual biography, Machiavelli in Hell, attempts to rescue Machiavelli's reputation from those who view him as deeply hostile to Christianity. De Grazia argues that not only do central biblical themes run throughout Machiavelli's writings but that these works reveal a coherent conception of a divinely-centered and ordered cosmos in which other forces ("the heavens," "fortune," and the like) are subsumed under a divine will and plan. Machiavelli in Hell points to evidence from throughout the Machiavellian corpus supporting an idea of divine ordination of earthly events, especially in the case of the accomplishments of extraordinary individuals. For de Grazia's Machiavelli success in human affairs depends primarily upon the friendship of God.

De Grazia's interpretation of Machiavelli's religious faith has, of course, proven controversial, not least because he introduces his case in a fairly unsystematic and speculative way. But while de Grazia's presentation may be somewhat haphazard, the general reading he defends has important merits that ought not to be overlooked. Machiavelli does make reference to a monotheistic divinity, as well as to central elements of Christianity theology, rather more often in his corpus than most scholarship might lead one to believe. Moreover, the passages in which these references occur are often among the most important and troubling sections of his work. De Grazia would seem, then, to be correct in asserting that we must grasp Machiavelli's idea of God and the divine role in earthly affairs if we are to understand the basic principles of Machiavellian political theory.

If de Grazia's basic observation is indeed persuasive, why have Machiavelli's religious ideas been so widely overlooked (or indeed dismissed) by recent scholars? To explain this we have to take into account Machiavelli's own exaggerated statements regarding the originality of his teachings, as well as his already mentioned antipathy towards the institutions and officials of the Roman Church. But perhaps more important has been the reluctance to read Machiavelli in conjunction with many central cultural and intellectual features of his time, especially in terms of persisting patterns and traditions of medieval Latin thought. One of the most striking developments in the study of Western intellectual history in recent years has been the recognition of important continuities between the ideas of the late medieval and the early modern periods. Scholars have come to realize that many of the supposed innovations of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and even the early Enlightenment had clear roots or antecedents in the Middle Ages. At the same time it turns out that numerous alleged features of early modern...

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