Machiavelli on Religion and Republics

In his Discourses on Livy, Niccolò Machiavelli devoted several chapters to the importance of religion to the long-lived Roman Republic. There are lessons here for America 2016.

Numa Pompilius, successor to Rome’s founder Romulus, was elected king in 716 BC. The tiny and precarious city-state was informally joined in self-defense with the nearby tribe of Sabines, of which Numa was a member.

Livy credits Numa with establishing religious institutions that served to bind the Romans and Sabines into one people, a Roman Republic. Through his personal relationship with various gods, Numa built the intellectual supporting framework for various pageants, rites, and public offerings that established him as the lawgiver to the Romans. He used religion to tame a fierce people and bring about civilized society. Whether the modern reader regards Numa’s supposed relationship with pagan gods as silly superstition is quite irrelevant; Numa’s early leadership, based on a common religion, set the table for the most enduring republic in history.

Machiavelli credits Numa’s early work with strengthening the Romans sense of honor. A Roman came to fear breaking an oath far more than breaking the law. Respect for the gods facilitated any enterprise the senate or those great men of Rome ever planned to undertake. After Hannibal’s defeat of the Romans at Cannae in 216 BC, many citizens gathered to consider abandoning Rome for Sicily. Scipio with sword in hand forced them to swear to never leave and to fight on. A careful examination of Roman history shows the usefulness of religion in controlling armies, giving courage to plebeians, keeping men good, and shaming the wicked.

All givers of extraordinary laws to any society had recourse to God because these laws would not otherwise be accepted. Because the good things known to a prudent man are many, these things in themselves lack the self-evident qualities that can persuade others. Wise men who wish to avoid this difficulty have recourse to God.

The religion introduced by Numa was among the principal reasons for the happiness of Rome because it produced good institutions; the good institutions created good fortune and from good fortune arose the happy successes of their undertakings. Just as the observance of divine worship is the cause of the greatness of republics, so the disregard of divine worship is the cause of their ruin, because where fear of God is lacking, that kingdom must either come to ruin or be sustained through fear of a prince who makes up for the shortcomings of religion.

Since princes are short-lived, such a kingdom must quickly fail when it loses his exceptional ability. Hence, it happens that kingdoms which depend only upon the exceptional ability of a single man are not long enduring. Rarely does similar ability appear in his successor.
Religion is longer lived than princes.

The salvation of a republic or a kingdom is not, therefore, merely to have a prince who governs prudently while he lives, but rather one who organizes the government in such a way that after his death it can be maintained.

To keep their republics or kingdoms, rulers must uphold the religion they profess. Do this, and they will find it easy to maintain a good and united republic. They must also encourage and support all those things that arise in favor of this religion, even those they judged to be false.

The inclination of new religions is to destroy the old. If a new language is introduced along with new religion, the past may be completely obliterated. It is fortunate the Christians retained Latin, for in addition to destroying pagan institutions, ceremonies, etc., they would have completely, rather than partially destroyed the written record of the ancients.

Salient points for America 2016:
• Religion enhances one’s sense of honor and respect for a power higher than the state and himself. Religion promotes civil society.
• Extraordinary changes to society require recourse to God. Our Founders sought support from Nature’s God, so much so that they “appeal(ed) to the Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude of their actions.”
• As demonstrated by both the Romans and our Framers, religion is the foundation of governing institutions. Before they were corrupted in both republics, they lead to societal happiness.
• Presidents alone cannot save a republic. The positive effects of Ronald Reagan’s leadership did not last long beyond his presidency.
• Members of government who uphold Christian ideals during their terms of office will leave behind a happier nation.
• New religions destroy the old. The debased beliefs of Leftist secularism works to destroy the good left behind by Christianity. Leftists have their own language to accelerate the destruction of Christianity.

Bingley. About Education. 19 February 2016. Internet. 13 April 2016.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. Discourses on Livy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

2 thoughts on “Machiavelli on Religion and Republics

  1. Wayne Lusvardi

    Machiavelli wrote “our religion (that is Christianity) teaches us the truth and the true way of life” (Discourses Part 2, 2). Machiavelli ranked religious leaders and founding fathers as the most glorious men (Discourses, Part 1, 10). Machiavalli opposed passive religion that adapted to suffering and evil rather than doing something courageous (Discourses 2, 2). But he opposed the political strategies and wars of the Popes (Discourses, I, 12). Ro establish and perpetuate a virtuous nation there must be respect for salutary customs, sound laws, and proper principles of behavior (Discourses 1, 12). Machiavelli never wrote the ends justify the means. What he wrote was that a few ends justify or excuse the use of of horrible means such as the ends of founding a state, reforming corruption, and removing radical elements from the nation but only as a last resort.

    1. Rodney Dodsworth Post author

      Yes to all. I thoroughly enjoyed his Discourses. Its a tragedy that so few take the time to learn from the past.

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