Niccolò Machiavelli was the first thinker to take an unequivocal stand in regard to the relationship between religion, morality and virtue on the one hand, and politics, on the other. A brief introduction is necessary to acquaint us with this highly debated person in all of political thinking.
Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1468 in a family that was traditionally seen as belonging to middle aristocracy. Machiavelli’s life became more relevant after the year 1498, when he, although barely 29, managed to secure an important job of chief of the second chancellery. He was one of the top policy-makers of the state. His famous work- The Prince was published in 1532. It explored the causes of the rise and fall of states and the factors for political success. It became a constant reference point and inspired different avenues in political research.
To comprehend the full importance of Machiavelli’s writings and their context, it is important to understand the series of political, social, cultural changes that began in the fourteenth century called the Renaissance. It signified a rebirth of the human spirit in the attainment of liberty, self-confidence and optimism. At the centre of the Renaissance was the emergence of the new human who was ambitious and relentless, he motivated by self-interest, and his aim was to seek glory and fame. Alongside the development of the modern individual was also the beginning of the modern state.
Machiavelli saw stable political authority and order as a basic criterion for social cohesion and moral regeneration. It was for this reason that he stressed the need for a unified polity. According to him, the individual was wicked, selfish and egoistic. He was fundamentally weak, ungrateful, fake, anxious to avoid danger and always greedy for gains. Thus, since the individual was lacking in honesty and justice, he was ready to act in a manner that was detrimental to the community.
Machiavelli’s state was a secular entity, with no relation to the church. It was independent and isolated, with no obligation to anything outside itself. A state was necessary, as it existed to fulfil the desire for security of person and property. His ideal was a republic.
Machiavelli’s attitude towards religion was thoroughly utilitarian. It was seen as a social force and did not have any spiritual connotation. As a social force, it played a pivotal role by inducing a kind of behaviour and conduct that was deemed necessary for the well-being of a society. Religion determined the social and ethical norms and values that governed human conduct and actions.
Machiavelli did not condone the use of immoral ways. To him, the end was important, which could be attained by any means. He contended that a ruler need not always adhere to conventional morality. He was convinced that the use of violence although could be controlled, it cannot not be altogether eliminated. However, he recommended the cautious and judicious exercise of such violence, because otherwise it would create widespread distrust and hostility towards the government, which would result in instability.
Reference- A HISTORY OF POLITICAL THOUGHT: PLATO TO MARX. By SUBRATA MUKHERJEE & SUSHILA RAMASWAMY