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Augustine Versus Machiavelli

500 Years and Counting: Why the World Is Still Terrified by Machiavelli |  The National Interest

By William Springer, University of Texas at Austin

Men appear to come to different ends in their lives, much of the time seemingly regardless of the way in which they lived, be it virtuously or viciously or otherwise. A question then naturally presents itself: why is this the case? Both St. Augustine of Hippo and Niccolo Machiavelli, through their respective classic works The City of God and The Prince, explain and contend with this phenomenon through two different competing views of Fortune, that force which ultimately determines the lot of a man, and what exactly one is to do in response to it. Augustine and Machiavelli disagree fundamentally on the definition of Fortune properly speaking, the meaning of virtue as the response to Fortune, and ultimately over the significance of the Good as the end of Fortune.

The definition of Fortune is an elusive thing, but it seems fair to say that Augustine and Machiavelli manage to capture the two primary modes of thought concerning the subject within Western discourse today: that of the Christian and that of the Secular Modern. Augustine, in his seminal work The City of God, rarely uses the language of ‘Fortune’ explicitly. Rather, he speaks of the reality of Divine Providence, and more specifically Divine Providence as it is ordered toward the Last Judgement of mankind by Christ. He writes in Book 20 of The City of God when referring to the Last Judgement that “It will then be made clear that true and complete happiness belong to all the good, and only to them, while all the wicked, and only the wicked, are destined for deserved and supreme unhappiness” (Augustine 896). This is written in light of the lived reality of seemingly unjust judgement, that “there are righteous men who receive the treatment due to the ungodly; and there are ungodly men who receive the treatment merited by the righteous” (Augustine 898-899). The discrepancy between one’s virtue and one’s fate in this world is owed to the “inscrutable” and “hidden” judgements of God that are yet to be revealed until the Final Judgement of Christ when all men will receive treatment in accordance with their works, for “God is even now judging” (Augustine 895-896, 898). Augustine continually states that whether it appears that a man receives his due in accordance with his deserts in this world or the one to come, the Christian ought always to trust that the hidden judgements of God are just and by implication ordered and directed toward an ultimate end, though this may not always be obvious. Machiavelli, by contrast, identifies Fortune with something akin to random chance, or rather a confluence of various unforeseen circumstantial factors that are not united by some common end or purpose. The analogy of a flood that Machiavelli uses in chapter 25 of The Prince is fitting, as it effectively illustrates the chaotic and uncertain account of Fortune that he professes (Machiavelli 99). This lack of order directly contradicts Augustine’s vision of Providence that intentionally directs human life toward a single end. However, although Machiavelli sees Fortune as being highly variable, he claims that men ought not to submit wholly to Fortune, be it chance or God, but that it only accounts for roughly half of our actions, the other half being governed by our free-will (Machiavelli 98). Machiavelli alludes to the “malignity of fortune” that ails such men as Cesare Borgia and himself, but in the case of Cesare, Machiavelli blames him for his lack of foresight and ultimate ruin, thus begging the question of what Machiavelli proposes a man is to do in response to the precariousness of Fortune (Machiavelli 4, 27, 33).

Machiavelli and Augustine both claim that virtue serves as the only sensible solution to the problem of Fortune in their respective accounts, but they depart quite radically in their treatments of virtue through their contrary metaphysical commitments. Machiavelli infamously redefines virtue in terms of “effectual truth,” meaning that if the action in question does not produce a desirable outcome, then it is not actually virtuous (Machiavelli 61). Virtue for Machiavelli is defined purely in terms of consequences produced. Machiavelli writes that “one will find something appears to be virtue, which if pursued would be one’s ruin, and something else appears to be vice, which if pursued results in one’s security and well-being” and later uses the examples of the Florentine treatment of Pistoia and the actions of Hannibal in the Second Punic War to intimate that mercy can be vicious and cruelty virtuous due to the outcomes that they effect (Machiavelli 62, 65, 67). In view of this assessment of virtue in terms of outcome and his overall emphasis on final success, Machiavelli argues that the effects of Fortune are to be mitigated to the utmost through the establishment of “dikes and dams” to prepare for any unforeseen catastrophe through sufficient virtue, particularly “impetuosity” (Machiavelli 98-99). The argument supposes that Fortune, should she betray the prince, can be stayed by a combination of sheer force of will and abundant foresight; as Machiavelli writes, “fortune is a woman; and it is necessary, if one wants to hold her down, to beat and strike her down” (Machiavelli 101). The notion of Fortune as a mere obstacle to be dominated or mastered by the powers of the human will is antithetical to the Augustinian idea of virtue and its relationship to Divine Providence. For Augustine, virtue in the face of Divine Providence and imminent Judgement is to assent to the truth and obey it, or more succinctly, “to fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole man” (Augustine 899). In this life, we are to seek after the Supreme Good through a faith granted by God himself, and this is the task of the just or virtuous man in the eyes of Augustine (Augustine 852). Nothing approximating the Supreme Good of Augustine appears to exist for Machiavelli, and this lack of a divine presence shapes his rather subversive ideas, which introduces the problem of what exactly the Good is within Machiavelli’s account and how it relates to Fortune.

Machiavelli envisions the Good in The Prince as being the accumulation of power and glory for the ruler individually and stability in the commonwealth collectively when he writes that “truly it is a very natural and ordinary thing to desire to acquire… when men do it who can, they will be praised or not blamed,” and that the common people only desire not to be “oppressed” (Machiavelli 14, 40). Machiavelli’s project generally seems to consist in attempting to harmonize the interests of the common people with the interests of the prince to achieve stability and prosperity; the Fortune of the prince may either obstruct or facilitate this cause, among other things. Machiavelli orients his ethical system and its relationship to Fortune toward this two-fold end of the creation of stability through the harnessing of the prince’s desire for increased power and glory. The inversion of virtue for the sake of temporal peace is deeply reminiscent of Augustine’s notions of the City of Man that he excoriates decisively in The City of God (Augustine 599). Augustine sees the desire for glory and power in themselves, or the libido dominandi, as a function of pride, the inverse vice to the virtue of humility, which is necessary to attain the Supreme Good, namely eternal life (Augustine 575-577, 852). Moreover, Augustine’s vision of the Good consists not only in eternal beatitude but in man “remade in the likeness of verity” as opposed to vanity, a notion undermined by Machiavelli’s insistence on the use of dishonesty to attain one’s desires (Augustine 899). Machiavelli seems to believe that what Augustine might call our sinful inclinations or concupiscence can be manipulated toward the end of the common good, but this is simply impossible for Augustine, because for him, the means actually define and inform the ends, unlike in Machiavelli’s account. Augustine contends that the means of virtue in faith and Divine Providence are ordered to the ultimate end of Eternal Life in an integrated whole, unlike the dichotomous and dialectical account given by Machiavelli where the prince is constantly attaining and maintaining power by way of the conflicting forces of personal virtue and Fortune, resulting in a constant struggle against the uncertain and even the world more broadly. Hence, Fortune, which could either be beneficial or detrimental, is perceived as a factor among many in the attainment of Machiavelli’s vision of the Good, not as the guiding principle which draws us into the ultimate Good as is the case for Augustine.

Clearly, Machiavelli and Augustine hold antithetical positions on the substance of Fortune, the nature of virtue, and the notion of the Good as the end of Fortune. Perhaps the disagreement between Machiavelli and Augustine consists in their answer to the following question: is the world, and consequently Fortune, governed by justice? The former would say no, that Fortune is unforgiving, unmerciful, purposeless, and unjust, and as a result it is permissible, even fitting, that men should act ruthlessly, cruelly, and viciously when it suits their ends, and when this course of action appears efficacious to those ends, it shall be called virtue. Fortune or reality itself is to conform to the will and image of men, or at least this is what is desirable and expedient according to Machiavelli, and not that men should seek conformity to Reality, as there is no Ultimate Reality or complete happiness, only pretenses for confused and impotent ethical systems. For this reason, Machiavelli’s virtue ethics function as a mirror or consequence of his treatment of Fortune. The vision of Divine Judgement provided by Augustine serves as a consolation for the unhappy state of this world, a point on which he and Machiavelli can perhaps agree, yet Augustine contends for a vision of the world that terminates in rest in God, our Maker and Final End, who reveals the meaning of our sufferings, griefs, and fates; He redeems them, along with the world itself, but no such vision of redemption exists for Machiavelli, and thus no rest.

Works Cited

Augustine, Saint. Concerning the City of God against the Pagans. Translated by Henry Bettenson, Penguin Classics, 2003. 

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield, 2nd ed., The University of Chicago Press, 1998.

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