Harro Höpfl

University of Essex, UK


A Machiavellian Case for True Religion and Virtue



For its critics, ‘Machiavellism(e)’ was political practice impervious to considerations of religion and morality. That, however, was not something new or invented by Machiavelli, did not require a new label, and threatened no one except its victims. Machiavellism, on the contrary, was seen as new and as threatening orthodox and heretical religion alike as well as the polity and its innocent victims. What anti-Machiavellians found objectionable about Machiavelli and his like was that they were justifying and recommending political malpractice, in the name of political success and necessity. Its opponents unsurprisingly understood Machiavellism as interpreting ‘success’ and the object of ‘policy’ as staying in power and aggrandizement of the ‘state’, and political prudence as skill at managing refractory events and persons. All of these views were unobjectionable per se; even necessity had a time-honoured place as a justification for departures from the letter of the law and morality (necessitas non habet legem), and the need for cunning, (dis)simulation and subterfuge was acknowledged. The trouble with Machiavellism was that it allowed no considerations apart from ‘matters of state’ or ‘policy’ any independent locus standi. Even religion and the Church were construed as instruments of policy; Machiavelli himself had notoriously preferred the religion of the Romans to Christianity as a civic religion. Anti-Machiavellians emphatically agreed that religion was essential to maintaining the state, but this was a derivative benefit not its justification. The difficulty was demonstrating that Machiavellian ‘policy’ and ‘reason of state’ were erroneous, especially given that religion was the reason or pretext for the most virulent political conflicts of the age. The most rhetorically plausible way of doing so was on Machiavelli’s own ground (to the extent that his amphibological utterances allowed discerning what that was. Anti-Machiavellians therefore attempted a refutation by (a) undermining the foundations of Machiavellian prudence, and (b) restating the case for the necessity of true religion and virtue as the sine qua non even for the secular commonwealth. This paper examines Thomas Fitzherbert’s Treatise concerning Policy and Religion as an exemplary statement of this case.