The Machiavellian Challenge


In the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas, though differences of premise can be identified, there is a certain totality of vision that is consistent between the two. This is to say that, in considering the Aristotelian or Thomistic points of view, readers can locate ‘no outside’ (to borrow and resituate Derrida’s phrase), no alternative system or framework, which would contravene the principles which they seek to establish. Certainly, both Aristotle and Aquinas discuss oppositions, errors, or contradictions that undermine or interrupt their principles, but these are not threats external to the system, not contradictions in fact. Such oppositions are contained by their systems, and are explicable in terms of a failure, rather than as the irruption of an other and competing order that exists apart from, external to, and in distinction of the orders which they detail and within which they operate. Such an irruption is, however, the effect of Machiavelli’s project upon the Aristotelian-Thomistic order. Machiavelli’s thought cannot be conceived as a mere failure needing repair or correction; Machiavelli’s thought is the elaboration of an alternative order, external to the totalities of Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy, a breaking into that directly unsettles the foundational principles of these two earlier thinkers. His is a true revolution, a radical departure from, and substantial critique of, the historical development of Aristotle’s philosophical project through Aquinas. The terms of Machiavelli’s argument posit an ‘outside’ to this tradition, finding in its language the seeds of its dissolution.

I. Seeds of Alterity

To identify the point at which Machiavelli breaks into and overturns the Thomistic-Aristotelian totality, it is necessary to identify the fissures in the system that Aquinas, in his own adoption and transformation of Aristotle’s philosophy, prompted to form. The specific transformation in question is Aquinas’s conception of nature and natural law which, though derived from Aristotle, admits of an alterity not given by the Aristotelian system.

For Aristotle in the Politics,1 there are two abstract premises that undergird his more concrete propositions about the nature of the state, which must be identified here: firstly, that “the final cause and end of a thing is the best”,2 and secondly, that “the whole is naturally superior to the part.”3 From this firmly teleological position, Aristotle undertakes his inquiry into the state. He writes that “mankind always act in order to obtain what they think good” and that “every social organization is directed at some good purpose.”4 Because the state is an aggregate of men, and is the largest such “social organization” known to humanity (in Aristotle’s time, at least), it is the “highest of all,” “embrac[ing] all” other forms of organization.5 The aim of the state, as the sum of the aims of its members, must aim, therefore, at the “highest good.”6 If men really do “always act in order to obtain what they think good,”7 error and vice are near certainties in the individual conduct of persons. Subjective judgment is not infallible. But taken together, the members of a state constitute a whole that is superior to the sum of its parts; the many, in theory, balance each other out, finding equilibrium—the Aristotelian mean—through the complex of intersubjective negotiation and adjudication.

Because of the teleological priority of the whole over the part, being the natural consequence of a myriad of parts existing in union, Aristotle can demonstrate the superiority of the state as an entity over the persons of which it is comprised. Though “it is of the nature of desire not to be satisfied,”8 and humans, by their reason, are “equipped at birth with weapons, meant to be used by intelligence and virtue, which [they] may use for the worst ends,”9 the state as a whole is more than the vicious appetites of its constituents. Justice “is the bond of men in states,”10 the necessary addition of the whole to the complex of its relations. The addition of justice as a “principle of order” allows for the expression of the human creature’s “social instinct,”11 in spite of the rapacious desires of certain members of the organization. Just as the “rule of the soul over the body” and the “mind and the rational element over the passionate” is “natural and expedient” in the life of the individual, so is it “natural and expedient” for justice—the principle of the whole—to rule over the parts.12 As Aristotle puts it with an analogy, “tame animals have a better nature than wild ones, and all tame animals are better off when they are ruled by man; for then they are preserved.”13 In the same way, it is better, and natural, for the rapacious man to be ruled by the just and by justice for the good of all.

The key, here, is that justice is not imposed from the outside. Justice, for Aristotle, is an emergent property of a teleological system in which origins progress to ends, and in which wholes develop from parts, while manifesting attributes that are superadded to the sum of the attributes of these parts. It is a consequence of the social nature of human creatures that, in the pursuit of their “life-purpose[s],”14 they will find that organization is more conducive to that pursuit than solitude, and that justice is more conducive to organization than self-interest. Just as the regulation of appetite brings about the good of the individual, so the regulation of the state brings about the good of the many, which is the “highest good.” Justice is an internal property of the system that is, in a way, discovered by the constituents of the system. It is not “expedient” alone, not a mere convenience, but also “natural.” Justice is intrinsic to the social order, a natural good with which individuals can live in accordance. The human creature “uniquely has rationality,” which allows for “nature, habit, and rational principle [to] be brought into harmony with one another.”15 Indeed, these principles “must” be harmonized, “for they do not always agree; there are many things men should do against habit and nature, if rational principle persuades them that they ought.”16 Reason and justice are of a higher order than “habit and nature,” but this is not to say that reason and justice are ‘unnatural.’ Rather, it is the nature of human beings, as rational, social creatures, to practice justice in their relations, putting aside self-interest and personal appetite against the lower orders of their nature, so as to the pursue the higher—and “highest”—good, the good of society. Injustice, though a social ill, is but the behaviour of rational creatures in accordance with their lower order natural faculties.

The task of the philosopher, therefore, is to teach rational people to attain to that good which supersedes the “nature” of self-interest (which all animals possess), and the “habit” of appetite (the mis-ordering of reason by self-interest). This is not a transcendent supersession, but rather the natural aim of a natural faculty—reason—which is internal to the functioning of the natural order. Aristotle equates “goods” with “aims,” because nothing and no one aims at an evil knowingly or willingly. Evil is an error, a misapplication of reason; if an ‘evil-doer’ knew and understood that his evil was not for his good, not in his interest, then he would not do it. The philosopher must teach rational individuals that the “happiness” desired by all is found in “goods of the soul,” which are “virtue and wisdom,” because these are without limit.17 The objects of appetite and desire are limited, and cannot, therefore, bring satiety. It is rational, and so natural, for humans to seek only so much of these limited goods as are necessary to pursue the unlimited goods of the soul. For Aristotle, the “form of government is best in which every man, whoever he is, can act best and live happily,”18 which is to say, to act according to this natural principle, which, taken in sum, is given the name of justice. Justice, therefore, is the rational unity of a “plurality” 19 of interests, directed toward the natural good of cooperation and cohabitation in a social organization. Because “what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature,”20 and because the full development of a rational creature is to be virtuous and wise, and of a social creature to live in society, it is the nature of human creatures to seek justice; it is their highest end and final cause.

This total ordering of nature, from the base instincts of life, to the higher instincts of rationality, is central to Aquinas’s philosophical project. Building atop Aristotle’s foundation, Aquinas sets about integrating the Judaeo-Christian God, the Hebrew scriptures, and the vision of the Gospels, with the philosophical principles of his predecessor. But in undertaking a similar educational task to Aristotle—that is, teaching the way of reason so that his readers can attain to their highest end—Aquinas encounters a problem. In Aristotle, the good of reason is entirely knowable; the final cause, though not easily within reach, is attainable. Reason, being intrinsic to nature, and an internal property of human society, only requires natural effort and diligence in its pursuit. Because “absolute goods are the foundations and origins of good,”21 and because God is “happy and blessed ... in himself and by reason of his own nature,”22 it is God, in his absolute nature, from whom natural reason comes, and to whom natural reason is directed, as its end. Yet, as Aquinas claims in the Summa Contra Gentiles,23 there are “[s]ome things true of God beyond all the competence of human reason.”24 To know something is to know the “substance” of that thing, but “human understanding cannot go so far of its natural power as to grasp His substance.”25 God is “beyond sense,” and so “cannot be grasped by human understanding.”26 There are “some points of intelligibility in God,” knowable through worldly manifestation and observation, but others that “altogether transcend the power of human reason.”27 Something of God’s being always escapes human knowledge. This is a significant departure from Aristotle’s ‘God,’ and since, as established above, God as the absolute good is the origin and the final cause of the good, Aquinas must approach the question of reason and nature differently.

Furthermore, not only is God beyond sense and reason, but the expected errors of reason, those accidents of nature which Aristotle allows for, act as further impediments to the pursuit of the final cause. As Aquinas elaborates, knowledge can be hampered by natural disposition, the “needs of business,” and “sloth.” Knowledge takes much time and reflection, which is not afforded to the majority of people. And more, even one disposed to learning, and permitted the time to reflect and study, is still afflicted with the “infirmity of our judgment and the perturbing force of imagination.” Error is unavoidable.28 Aquinas’s conception of God does not allay this feature of Aristotle’s nature, which only compounds with the unknowability of God’s substance to make the certainty of true knowledge, and so the achievement of the highest good (i.e., God), unlikely. This does not leave readers of Aquinas without hope, however. If reason alone cannot reach the highest good, then something else must be added to it to augment its limited capacities. This, Aquinas proposes, is faith: “things even that reason can investigate,” which might be limited to those with time enough for study, “are commanded to be held on faith, so that all might easily be partakers of the knowledge of God, and that without doubt and error.”29 This is a radical proposition. Aquinas is asserting that human beings, by the “clemency” of God,30 possess a faculty that allows them to go beyond reason and error, to attain to that knowledge which cannot be explained in terms of or be observed within the natural world of sense.

What follows is a startling series of arguments that effectively dismantles the narrow bounds of Aristotle’s natural reason. Firstly, Aquinas asserts that the “natural dictates of reason must certainly be quite true: it is impossible to think of their being otherwise.” But secondly, having admitted of the necessity of faith, he asserts that it is not “permissible to believe that the tenets of faith are false, being so evidently confirmed by God.” Since, then, both natural reason and faith are true, and “falsehood alone is contrary to truth, it is impossible for the truth of faith to be contrary to principles known by natural reason.”31 To this, Aquinas adds: “What is natural cannot be changed while nature remains. But contrary opinions cannot be in the same mind at the same time: therefore no opinion or belief is sent to man from God contrary to natural knowledge.”32 Thus, not only are nature and the divine, reason and faith, compatible, but this relation cannot be changed by God’s arbitrary whim; nature exists in such a way that it persists consistent with itself, and so for God to change the dispensation of divine knowledge through faith would be to violate the consistency of creation, and the consistency of the relation between it and creator. God wills that his person be revealed in such a way that remains consistent with natural reason, and which is still true to his transcendent nature. As such, the “things of sense, from whence human reason takes its beginning of knowledge, retain in themselves some trace of imitation of God,” a residue or echo of God’s will that functions as a link between otherwise incommensurate ‘natures.’ If one accepts, with Aquinas, the existence of a God that is beyond sense, and yet still can be known, then the apparent union of faith and reason is, for Aquinas, evidence of God’s goodness, his gracious condescension to finite, created beings.

Through his adoption of the Aristotelian, teleological framework, transformed by Christian doctrine, Aquinas radically extends the ground upon which his philosophical project rests. Since all is “referred to an end,” and “whatever things are referred to an end, are all subject to [the] management” of that end, it is therefore God’s management which orders nature: “by His providence He governs and rules all things.”33 The emergent quality of Aristotle’s natural justice is replaced with the providence of the divine: “Things that are distinct in their natures do not combine into one system, unless they be bound up in one by one directing control.”34 Since such “control” or order is the end of things combined into a system, and “[e]very agent that intends an end cares more for that which is nearer to the last end,”35 and because the “last end of the divine will is the divine goodness, and the nearest thing to that in creation is the goodness of the order of the entire universe, that being the end to which every particular good of this or that thing is referred,”36 what “therefore God most cares for in creation is the order of the universe.”37 Not only is the insensible substance of God admitted as a trace into nature, a beyond requiring faith to be apprehended, but the order which humanity sees to emerge out of the matter of nature, the order which gives justice in Aristotle, is the mark of an intentional, caring, and providential creator, from whom all good flows and to whom all good is referred. These two features of Aquinas’s thought—faith and providence—are profound modifications of Aristotle’s conception of nature. Little did Aquinas know that such innovations would contribute to Machiavelli’s own revolution in political thought.

II. The Outside of Nature

The sense of an outside of nature, which Machiavelli’s The Prince38 effectively introduces to political philosophy, can be traced, in part, to Aquinas’s innovation upon Aristotle’s philosophy. By necessity of Christian doctrine, Aquinas’s God must exist separately from nature, being beyond sense and ungraspable. Such a view necessitates faith, a faculty complementary to but distinct from reason. In Aristotle, however, because the absolute good and final cause are reason, all nature, all that can be known, falls within the bounds of the rational faculty. Faith is simply unfounded belief. Such a limitation is why Aquinas must go beyond Aristotle and allow for a reality that is continuous with, but not explicable in terms of, nature. Though subtle in Aquinas, this seeming continuity is broken by a point of articulation, a space which simultaneously joins and separates the domains of created and creator. His understanding of providence maintains (at least to a degree) the totality of Aristotle’s system, but it allows for the active involvement of a transcendent God in the material world. Consequently, Aquinas’s sense of the divide between finite reason and an infinite God creates a fissure in the very understanding of the world which he elaborates, a fissure which, by Machiavelli’s day, has spread and entrenched itself in the culture, a fissure which Machiavelli will open wide and exploit. Before discussing Machiavelli’s overturning of the Thomistic ideal, however, it is necessary that we examine Aquinas’s thought on practical law and politics, so as to identify more clearly how his innovative conception of the relation between nature and the divine, as discussed above, could lead to the philosophy of the likes of Machiavelli. The significant concept here is agency, and specifically, agency that goes beyond the dictates of natural law.

In the Summa Theologiae,39 Aquinas attempts to demonstrate that natural law is one of the aforementioned “trace[s]” of the benevolence and will of God in the natural world. In the “order of natural inclinations,” 40 which is the order of “natural law,”41 humanity finds itself uniquely situated. The first “inclination to good [is] in accordance with the nature which [humans have] in common with all substances: inasmuch as every substance seeks the preservation of its own being.” The second “inclination [is] to things that pertain to [humans] more specially, according to that nature which [they have] in common with other animals ... [such as] sexual intercourse, education of offspring and so forth.” The third, and superior, “inclination to good, [is] according to the nature of [human] reason, which nature is proper” to human beings.42 In the order of natural inclinations then, which is to say, according to natural law, it is proper for people to adhere to the good of reason, insofar as it is the highest natural end to which the human creature is referred. It is this inclination which, similarly to Aristotle’s three-tiered division, is the faculty by which the human creature resists her desires and appetites so as to seek the highest good of social organization.

With Aquinas, however, the highest good is not social organization but God himself, in all of his ungraspable alterity. Aquinas asserts that “man has a natural inclination to know the truth about God,” in addition to his inclination to “live in society.”43 In Aristotle, the good of reason directs humans to the goods of virtue and wisdom, which are sufficient to conduct humans to what he believes to be the final cause. As has been seen already, however, reason is not sufficient for humankind to attain to God, who for Aquinas is the final cause. Furthermore, the natural goods that God has providentially provided are “insufficient to declare the substance of God Himself.”44 The means of attaining the good are not made available by nature. And still, according to Aquinas, “every agent acts for an end, under the aspect of good ... Hence this is the first precept of law, that “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.””45 If states are doomed by fate to fail, as Aristotle’s Politics would seem to indicate, the good which “every agent” pursues cannot terminate in the state, because then, inevitably, the agent will find herself pursuing evil, instead of good, when the state crumbles. If the individual agent is dependent on natural reason and natural means, she will forever be barred from the good. The material, contingent expression of natural law, as it is found in human states, cannot be the ultimate reference for the good and the just. Natural law cannot rely upon human law. Not only, then, does faith make possible the knowledge of God, but faith makes accessible the beyond of the state, without reducing human beings to either “beast[s]” or “god[s].”46 This beyond is in fact necessary, in that it frees the individual from the certain and perpetual failures of society so that she might pursue her highest good, God in his perfection, regardless of her material circumstances, and regardless of other natural faculties and advantages she may or may not possess. Aquinas inadvertently opens nature, and so natural law, to an ‘unnatural’ outside, an alterity and an agency to which it is subjected, and by which it can be overruled. In short, Aquinas introduces freedom to nature, a freedom which refers to something beyond nature, and which is inexplicable in terms of nature; it is this freedom, too, which allows for the vital agency of Machiavelli’s prince

III. Virtuosity and Freedom

By a strange sort of alchemy, the freedom which Aquinas uses to unmoor virtue from the contingencies of a changeable world becomes the same freedom which motivates Machiavelli’s virtù. I use the term “alchemy” to indicate the fact that this freedom is transformed in its matter, no longer finding its basis or aim in the person of God, but in the real capacity of humans to act toward those ends which they desire. In allowing for freedom, Aquinas tries to accommodate for agency within the terms of natural law, but must resort to the unnatural agency of faith. Machiavelli does away with the need for faith, seeing in this unnatural agency the artifice necessary for actions of will.

Scholars have noted the difficulty of isolating Aquinas’s political beliefs. Michael Breidenbach47 and William McCormick discuss the question of resistance in Aquinas, and attempt to locate Aquinas’s position in the nexus of “the dual orders of justice and charity.”48 Paul Cornish49 identifies those “areas of liberty or mastery” in Aquinas’s philosophy that “are exempt from all human authority,” which is to say, that are exempt from human law. In such spaces, the individual person “has rights to decide how to pursue natural human goods,” apart from the dictates of that law which otherwise would be considered an expression of the law of nature.50 Benedikt Koehler51 highlights a distinction between Aristotle and Aquinas’s economics, with the ideal state for Aquinas being a state of “paradise.”52 This, Koehler suggests, is a notion without a true analogue in Aristotle, a notion which allows for an order beyond the rigid dictates of the state. Kevin O’Reilly53 argues for the necessity of Aquinas’s “religious impulse” in the “domain of the political,”54 and the role of charity as a virtue which is “ecstatically ordered to God,” motivated by faith in the transcendent truth of the divine.55 Finally, Michael Zuckert,56 in his historical analysis of the reception of natural law theory after Aquinas, argues that “the natural inclinations cannot be the bases of a natural moral law of the type Aquinas propounds because the natural inclinations impel toward one’s own profit, advantage, or benefit only.”57 “If,” Zuckert writes, “the law of nature provides for the sorts of things Aquinas says it does, the natural inclinations cannot be the source of its precepts.”58 A just and virtuous ruler cannot truly be said to participate in the natural law, because just rule, for Aquinas, depends on virtues that are not evidenced by the natural order. As Zuckert writes, for Aquinas natural law is the way by which “rational beings share in the eternal law. The eternal law governs all beings, but only rational beings participate through knowledge and will, reflecting the far more complex capacities of rational beings.”59 As such, “behind Aquinas’s identification of the natural inclinations and their objects ... is his doctrine of God.”60 Natural law and virtuous rule are contingent upon the unique form of agency bestowed upon humans by the will of God. As this brief survey of the secondary materials would seem to show, Aquinas’s politics are dependent on a reality external to the nature which he posits, a reality which is of a different nature entirely.

This metaphysical division of reality into the two orders of divine and natural makes way for the pluralization of orders of which Machiavelli’s virtù takes advantage. It is enough for Machiavelli to see the ruin to which Fra Girolamo Savonarola comes, and the contrary success of Pope Alexander VI, to put aside virtue in accord with the will of God in favour of the virtù of the will. Where before all events, good or ill, were encompassed by nature, and the fate by which nature was ordered, with Aquinas and those who followed him, nature finds itself no longer coextensive with the will by which it is ordered—acting in accordance with nature does not assure success; as the story of Savonarola would seem to indicate, neither does acting in accordance with the will of God. This is the gap, or fissure, which Machiavelli exploits. Savonarola, who endeavoured to reform Florence, met a brutal end at the hands of the very church he presumed to represent.61 Alexander VI, however, adeptly wielded both “money and arms,”62 and his successor Julius capitalized on Alexander’s successes. He “found the way open to accumulate money in a manner such as had never been practiced before Alexander’s time,” and he “pursued these practices ... even improv[ing] on them.”63 In short, these leaders who might be generally referred to as “Christian” are not all so in kind; those whom Machiavelli praises, and who history acknowledges as successful in their pursuits, are not those who behave as virtuous rulers, but those who practice Machiavellian virtù. It is this Machiavellian innovation, which he simply identifies in reality and codifies in The Prince, that propels Thomistic freedom into modernity, and which overturns the classical notion of virtue which found its greatest final defense in the work of Aquinas.

To discuss the meaning of Machiavelli’s virtù, I will use the term “virtuosity” to indicate the skill and aptitude which are central to the concept, and to distinguish more clearly between that and the “virtue” of his classical predecessors. Wherein Aristotle and Aquinas the teleological perspective is firmly adhered to, in Machiavelli the virtuosity of the Prince breaks into the order of nature, reshaping it according to the will of the actor. Machiavelli “hold[s] the position that fortune manages only half our actions, and still allows us to direct the other half (or perhaps a little less).”64 This is profoundly contrary to Aristotelian fortune and Thomistic providence, both of which leave nothing to chance. In these prior paradigms of thought, everything, including misfortune and evil, is ordered toward the end of the good. In Machiavelli, there is no such end, no such good. Reality is pure contingency, continually unfolding into the future. He is close to the emergent quality of Aristotle, in this way, but where the emergence of Aristotle’s political vision is in accord with a final cause, Machiavelli lets the ends fray and tangle, free of any ordering principle. Calamity is only calamity when it is the rule of fate, or the judgment of God. For Machiavelli, calamity results from a lack of virtuosity, and nothing more; indeed, calamity is too strong a word.

To elaborate his understanding of reality, Machiavelli presents an image of nature which strongly contradicts the Aristotelian and Thomistic frameworks:

I compare her [fortune] to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, removing the earth from one place and depositing it at another, everyone flees before it, all yield to its violence, without being able to withstand it in any way. Although that is the way it is, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes calm, cannot make provisions using embankments and dikes, so that when the waters rise again, they will be channeled off, and their force will not be so unrestrained and dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where no measures have been prepared to resist her. She turns her forces to where she knows that embankments and dikes have not been built to restrain her.65

There is no sense of fate here, nor judgment. Nature is. It does as it does. Fortune, then, is merely the name for nature in its unpredictability, synonymous with chance. In another, more brutal analogy, Machiavelli compares fortune to “a woman,” whom “it is necessary to beat and mistreat” if one would “control” her. “It has been observed,” Machiavelli writes, “that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly.”66 And again, Machiavelli challenges the classical notions only a few paragraphs later: “you must do the rest. God does not want to do everything—that would take away our free will and our share of the glory.”67 Free will is an opportunity. Whether or not God does really exist is beside the point. If God wills that we have freedom, then it is for us to use our virtuosity to master chance as best as we are able, and not resent the fact that we cannot control it in its entirety, either.

In the Discourses,68 Machiavelli solidifies the alterity or ‘outside-ness’ of the agency which, rather than be ruled by fate, cooperates with it as one would cooperate with a temporary and fickle ally. Fortune, “when she wishes to effect some great result ... select[s] for her instrument a man of such spirit and ability that he will recognize the opportunity which is afforded him.”69 As cited above, fortune and actor divide agency between them, vying for ends independent of each other, which, from moment to moment, may align or may conflict. Acting according to goodness, or virtue, or justice, or divine will, is no assurance of success. Only virtuosity—“skill and ability”—is effective. “If we observe carefully the course of human affairs,” Machiavelli writes, “we shall often notice accidents and occurrences against which it seems to be the will of Heaven that we should not have provided.”70 The seeming, here, makes all the difference. Whether an accident or occurrence is willed or not does not matter. It is one’s response, the virtuous ability to improvise, to adapt, that is of consequence. Neither fortune nor providence rules in Machiavelli’s world. The order of things obeys no single rule. His is a plurality of orders, a plurality of laws, a plurality of natures, each of which overlap and collide and conflict with each other, producing intersections that the virtuous Prince, the skilled Prince, must do his best to navigate and capitalize upon. This is the cost—and the opportunity—of freedom.

IV. The Outside and Christianity

It remains to be seen whether Machiavelli’s project is an outright repudiation of Christianity, or if it is the logical consequence of the particular form of Christianity promulgated by Aquinas and the school he established. Certainly, the freedom which Aquinas introduces to Aristotelian teleology is a desirable addition to the philosopher’s rigid worldview. But is this freedom, in its Machiavellian expression, something to be desired? Put otherwise, is Machiavellian contingency the necessary outcome of Thomistic freedom?

In the Discourses, Machiavelli makes abundantly clear the incompatibility of paganism and Christianity, which has already been discussed above in the context of the distinctions between Aristotle and Aquinas’s philosophies. In Book Two, Chapter Two of the text, “What Nations the Romans Had to Contend Against and with What Obstinacy They Defended their Liberty,” Machiavelli enters into a discussion of how “it came that in ancient times the people were more devoted to liberty than in the present.”71 Given the present inquiry, such a statement might come across as strange. Have I not asserted that Aquinas’s Christianity adds freedom to the teleological vision of Aristotle? Machiavelli contends, however, that it is this difference in religion which has, by his day led to what he refers to earlier in the Discourses as the “proud indolence which prevails in most of the Christian states.”72 It is “our religion,” he laments, that “teaches us of the truth and the true way of life, [and] causes us to attach less value to the honours and possessions of this world; whilst the Pagans, esteeming those things as the highest good, were more energetic and ferocious in their actions.”73 In a world governed by providence, the “indolent” Christians of Machiavelli’s Europe see no need to act, no need to will or strive. They expect success to be given them, demanding that God reward them for their semblances of piety. Freedom, where once the gift of a benevolent God, comes to be an excuse for inaction, for frivolous self-satisfaction, and gratuitous satiation of appetite. The Christians Machiavelli accuses use their God-given freedom to do as they will, not as God would have them willingly do, while doing so with neither the energy nor the virtuosity of their pagan forbearers. With “Heaven disarmed,” Machiavelli argues, Christians “have interpreted our religion according to the promptings of indolence rather than those of virtue.”74 He continues:

For if we were to reflect that our religion permits us to exalt and defend our country, we should see that according to it we ought also to love and honor our country, and prepare ourselves so as to be capable of defending her. It is this education, then, and this interpretation of our religion, that is the cause of there not being so many republics nowadays as there were anciently; and that there is no longer the same love of liberty amongst the people now as there was then.75

This is the sad irony which Machiavelli draws from the philosophical, theological, and political discourse of his day: humankind, afforded freedom by heaven, abdicates it in favour of a reality more limited than their pagan progenitors.

His is not simply a call to do evil, however, nor to be self-serving, nor, in short, Machiavellian (in the pejorative sense in which the word has come to be used), but to take up, once again, the freedom made possible by the outside of nature, the freedom which Aquinas discovered at the fringes of natural law, the freedom of the beyond which breaks into the order of things from a realm other than the natural, a realm external to the limit. It is a radical dwelling in finitude that appropriates to its end the infinity of possibility which surrounds it and suffuses it, an infinity which Machiavelli owes to Aquinas’s theology, an infinity which indebts him to the Christian tradition, but which he takes further than a theologian like Aquinas could go. He does not simply return to paganism—such a move would not be an improvement—but neither does he seek to reform Christianity. Machiavelli’s project flows from the collision of these worlds, fusing them, adding to them, elaborating a new practice of contingency and opportunity that is truly devoted to liberty. Perhaps a Christian reading Machiavelli today could undertake a similar project, fusing Machiavelli with contemporary discourses in society and politics and religion, while adding to him that which he could not have expressed or accounted for from his historical position. Such an application of Machiavellian thought would not seek to replicate his dictums, nor practice his ruthlessness, but to dwell in the contingency of freedom that seeks every occurrence, every accident, as a chance for the practice of charity instead. Such a practice would be a practice of virtue that is not demanded nor required nor legislated nor enforced, but a virtue that flows from the radical openness of the human creature in its relation to the absolute divine, the wholly other, that alterity which breaks apart the totality of the world, that allows for change and newness and growth to be made manifest.

Works Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Contra Gentiles. In The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, edited by Andrew Bailey, et al., 305-308. Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008.

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae. In The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, edited by Andrew Bailey, et al., 309-321. Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008.

Aristotle. Politics. In The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, edited by Andrew Bailey, et al., 177-242. Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008.

Breidenbach, Michael D. and William McCormick. “Aquinas on Tyranny, Resistance, and the End of Politics.” Perspectives on Political Science 44, no. 1 (2015): 10-17.

Cornish, Paul J. “Marriage, Slavery, and Natural Rights in the Political Thought of Aquinas.” The Review of Politics 60, no. 3 (1998): 545-561.

Koehler, Benedikt. “The Thirteenth-Century Economics of Thomas Aquinas.” Economic Affairs 36, no. 1 (2016): 56-63.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius. In The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, edited by Andrew Bailey, et al., 375-389. Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. In The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche. Edited by Andrew Bailey, et al., 346-375. Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008.

O’Reilly, Kevin E. “The Eucharist and the Politics of Love According to Thomas Aquinas.” The Heythrop Journal 56, no. 1 (2015): 399-410.

Zuckert, Michael. “The Fullness of Being: Thomas Aquinas and the Modern Critique of Natural Law,” The Review of Politics 69, no. 1 (2007): 28-47.


  1. Aristotle, Politics, in The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, eds. Andrew Bailey, et al. (Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008): 177-242. 

  2. Ibid., 178. 

  3. Ibid., 218. 

  4. Ibid., 177. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Ibid. My emphasis. 

  8. Ibid., 193. 

  9. Ibid., 179. 

  10. Ibid. 

  11. Ibid. 

  12. Ibid., 180. 

  13. Ibid. 

  14. Ibid., 179. 

  15. Ibid., 242. 

  16. Ibid., 242. 

  17. Ibid., 239. 

  18. Ibid. 

  19. Ibid., 188. 

  20. Ibid., 179. 

  21. Ibid., 242. 

  22. Ibid., 239. 

  23. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, in The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, eds. Andrew Bailey, et al. (Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008): 305-308. 

  24. Ibid., 305. 

  25. Ibid. 

  26. Ibid. 

  27. Ibid. 

  28. Ibid., 306. 

  29. Ibid., 307. 

  30. Ibid. 

  31. Ibid., 307. 

  32. Ibid. 

  33. Ibid., 308. 

  34. Ibid. 

  35. Ibid. My emphasis. 

  36. Ibid. 

  37. Ibid. 

  38. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, in The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, eds. Andrew Bailey, et al. (Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008): 346-375. 

  39. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, in The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, eds. Andrew Bailey, et al. (Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008): 309-321. 

  40. Ibid., 314. 

  41. Ibid. 

  42. Ibid. My emphasis. 

  43. Ibid. 

  44. Ibid., 307. 

  45. Ibid., 313. 

  46. Aristotle, Politics, 179. 

  47. Michael D. Breidenbach and William McCormick, “Aquinas on Tyranny, Resistance, and the End of Politics,” Perspectives on Political Science 44, no. 1 (2015): 10-17. 

  48. Ibid., 10. 

  49. Paul J. Cornish, “Marriage, Slavery, and Natural Rights in the Political Thought of Aquinas,” The Review of Politics 60, no. 3 (1998): 545-561. 

  50. Ibid., 545. 

  51. Benedikt Koehler, “The Thirteenth-Century Economics of Thomas Aquinas,” Economic Affairs 36, no. 1 (2016): 56-63. 

  52. Ibid., 59. 

  53. Kevin E. O’Reilly, “The Eucharist and the Politics of Love According to Thomas Aquinas,” The Heythrop Journal 56, no. 1 (2015): 399-410. 

  54. Ibid., 399. 

  55. Ibid., 403. 

  56. Michael Zuckert, “The Fullness of Being: Thomas Aquinas and the Modern Critique of Natural Law,” The Review of Politics 69, no. 1 (2007): 28-47. 

  57. Ibid., 32. 

  58. Ibid. 

  59. Ibid., 34. 

  60. Ibid., 46. 

  61. Machiavelli, The Prince, 348. 

  62. Ibid., 356. 

  63. Ibid. 

  64. Ibid., 372-73. 

  65. Ibid., 373. 

  66. Ibid., 374. 

  67. Ibid. 

  68. Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, in The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, eds. Andrew Bailey, et al. (Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008): 375-389. 

  69. Ibid., 387. 

  70. Ibid. My emphasis. 

  71. Ibid., 384. 

  72. Ibid., 377. 

  73. Ibid., 384. 

  74. Ibid., 385. 

  75. Ibid. 

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