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MLN 119.1 Supplement (2004) S224-S246

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Machiavelli and the Politics of Grace

Marjorie O'Rourke Boyle
University of Toronto

The simplicity of Machiavelli's complexity is established in unprincipled expediency. This is bluntly expounded in Il principe concerning antithetical qualities that traditionally evoke praise or blame. These are generosity and miserliness, benefaction and avarice, cruelty and compassion, faithlessness and faithfulness, effeminacy and cowardice versus ferocity and courage, courtesy and pride, lasciviousness and purity, guilelessness and craftiness, stubbornness and flexibility, gravity and frivolity, religiosity and skepticism. 1 The lack of parallelism, the rhetorical disorder that presents now a virtue, now a vice, first in each antithesis signals his intention of upsetting their usual evaluation. Machiavelli scrambles their status perversely to counsel an evaluation that is valueless. An option about piety concludes the list emphatically: religiosity and skepticism. This is a false antithesis. In only a decade the humanist Erasmus will both religiously and skeptically deliberate divine grace and human choice. Indeed, he will propose that in disputed questions skepticism is piety. The conflicting methods of treating that question, whether deliberatively or assertively, will have violent, divisive, irreversible political effects. 2 Although Machiavelli does not venture to explain his false antithesis, he [End Page S224] designates it the most important. His meaning is inferable from his exposition of other pairs. 3

The gaping discrepancy between moral prescription and active practice promises political ruin, rather than survival. "Therefore if a prince wants to maintain his rule he must learn how not to be virtuous, and to make use of this or not according to need." Machiavelli acknowledges the common praise for the princely possession of all of the qualities on his list that are esteemed good. Yet, in his judgment the depravity of human nature forbids the prince from their total possession, or at least their indiscreet exhibition. Machiavelli invents a prudence whose norm becomes the preservation of the state. "So a prince should be so prudent that he knows how to escape the evil reputation attached to those vices which could lose him his state, and how to avoid those vices which are not so dangerous, if he possibly can." He must endure blame for possessing those "vices which are necessary for safeguarding the state." The reason is that the practice of some apparent virtues will ruin it, while the practice of some apparent vices will secure and prosper it. The classical discrimination between appearance and reality, from metaphysics to morality, becomes contextual. The universal necessity is to control the political situation by avoiding public hatred. This goal requires the ability to dissemble in word and deed. Necessity demands the integration and activation of the native human and beastly natures, which are "half and half," 4 a hybrid deviant from the tripartite Christian paradigm of Platonist inspiration. 5 In Machiavelli's scheme there is no aspiration to virtue for its own sake or even for reward. The vacuum results from his rejection of metaphysical reality to descend wholly into material appearances. There is no intellectual order; contemplation is not a princely pursuit. Action toward "effectual truth" suffices. 6

Developing his basely practical catalogue, Machiavelli prescribes that "a prince, therefore, need not necessarily have all the good qualities I mentioned above, but he should certainly appear to have them." While the complete possession of the virtues and their [End Page S225] consistent application ensures ruin, "if he only appears to have them they will render him service." Thus the prince should maintain the appearance of being "compassionate, faithful to his word, guileless, and devout." Machiavelli repeats, "indeed he should be so." However, the prince should be versatile so that "if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how." The maintenance of the state will frequently force the prince "to act in defiance of good faith, of charity, of kindness, of religion." Circumstance and fortune alone dictate his decision. Again, the prince "should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but he should know how to do evil, if that is necessary." In these concatenations "devout" and "religion" are rhetorically emphatic...


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