Victoria Kahn

University of California, USA


Political Theology and Modernity: The Case of Machiavelli




This essay takes Carl Schmitt’s and Leo Strauss’s arguments about political theology as a point of departure for thinking about Machiavelli’s contribution to modern debates about political theology. My argument is that Machiavelli’s view of religion elaborates a political theology in the specific sense that it makes religion a contested political instrument: theology in this sense is only relevant to the extent that it is politically useful or has political consequences. But Machiavelli is divided about the effects of civic religion. While he sometimes presents civic religion as a positive bond that ties political communities together, he also presents religion as a political instrument of manipulation and oppression, one that saps the people’s virtù. Thus Machiavelli offers a diagnosis and critique of the tyrannical uses of religion, but he also offers a radical interpretation of religion as man’s indirect self-consciousness of his own agency, including his own creative and poetic powers to make or shape his own experience. In demystifying belief as a function of the founder’s art and the people’s imagination, Machiavelli gives a priority to art that is radically at odds with both Schmitt and Strauss. At the same time, he implies, with Schmitt, that the source of value or belief cannot be a transcendent good but must be grounded in the concrete order of any given political community, an order that, contra Schmitt, will always be contested.