Can Evil be Fought with Evil?: Analyzing the Works of Machiavelli, Erasmus, and Montaigne
Viewed through the lens of history, Niccolo Machiavelli, Desiderius Erasmus, and Michel de Montaigne appear to have little in common. Machiavelli’s The Prince is now typically taught as a cruel manual for ungodly dictators and tyrants, while Erasmus is known as one of the great Church reformers, a devout Christian trying to eradicate the evils perpetrated by God’s people. Montaigne, in a departure from both camps, has become famous for his skepticism, deconstructing many things, colonialism and traditional Christian theology included. Yet in the works of these authors lies one underlying similarity which serves to unite them far more than might have been expected. All three view human nature as essentially selfish and, therefore, contemporary societies as essentially corrupt. They believe the corruption of society is a result of the movement of humanity away from the most perfect natural order to a falsely constructed one.
In this, they are also very similar to Boccaccio. Unlike him, however, they place more emphasis on the corrupt natures of the people and the difficulties of being ruler to such a society rather than emphasizing the hypocrisy of the rulers alone. The Decameron and Heptameron seem to view moral transgressions as something to be expected in lower classes, while they consider the same actions in higher classes as important character flaws. Machiavelli, Erasmus, and Montaigne, on the other hand, hold everyone to the same standard and see rulers perhaps even more sympathetically for having to corral and constrain such people. It is true, however, that their responses to the corruption of society and how it should be ruled differ dramatically in many ways.For example, the ancient republic was, to Machiavelli, the most perfect form of government, one which had been horribly twisted and corrupted. He believed that in his society “the modern debasement of religion, laws, and military training [had] reached extreme levels of corruption, particularly among those holding the reins of power” (Najemy 96). This was not, however, something he saw as unique. He had derived from the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers how easily all three forms of government – monarchy, aristocracy, and popular government – could become “their corrupt counterparts tyranny, government by the few, and anarchy” (Najemy 98). He attributed it to his belief in the Platonic principle of the “inevitable degradation of good forms into [their] bad opposites,” which he saw at constant work in both individuals and the state (Najemy 98).
In the face of such pervasive corruption of both individuals and society, therefore, Machiavelli saw the ruler as having the duty of guarding against this happening on a societal level or, in the case that it had already occurred, of reinstating the original and most perfect order employed by the Romans. For both objectives, his response is one that argues for the proper use of actions usually considered both moral and immoral. Such actions would have the goal of establishing an order, however, that would then ensure greater happiness for all. In The Prince, therefore, he endeavors to outline a way in which contemporary rulers, working against their now corrupt society, can reinstate such a government by applying methods discerned from historical accounts.In Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy he writes that “he must ‘boldly’ say what he understands ‘of past and future times, so that those, still young, who will read these writings of mine can reject the present and prepare themselves to imitate those former times whenever fortune gives them the opportunity” (Najemy 96). To execute this return, he advocates at various points throughout the book murder, deception, the use of religion as coercion, national miserliness, and numerous other actions typically considered immoral as the proper course for rulers in certain situations. His justification for this is that without a strong hand the people will quickly return to their corruption: “the nature of people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. And thus it is necessary to take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force” (Machiavelli 30).
In light of this low opinion of human nature, Machiavelli argues that it is far better for a ruler to be feared than loved because love can be more easily lost. Despite his controversial methods, it is erroneous to argue that he supports tyranny, as has been the view of him passed down throughout most of history. He is quite clear that unwholesome actions are only justified so long as they decrease over time or can be turned to the “advantage of the subjects” (Machiavelli 28). If evil actions persist or increase throughout a leader’s reign it is a sign that he too is corrupt and failing to accomplish the virtuous goal for which certain moral conventions have been temporarily sacrificed. It is this clause that has been often overlooked throughout history by later rulers.He was “refashioned as an amoral counsellor to tyrants, as the atheist he may have been, and increasingly as a forerunner for the subjugation of religion to the state: increasingly but misleadingly” (Pocock 154). This occurred due to their failure to recognize the drastic differences in the political structure of his time and that of the later generations who, viewing his teachings as unnecessarily evil, vilified him. Machiavelli was writing at a time when governments were constantly shifting without a clear structure for each successor to follow. Wars from within and without wracked Italy, and each successive ruler, be he good or bad, was quickly and bloodily supplanted It was chaotic, violent, and dangerously inconsistent.
In The Prince, rather than an instruction manual for a tyrant to overthrow a well-established government, can be seen a desperate attempt to simply formulate a ruler who can bring peace through a single long and unified reign at a time of virtual anarchy. For Machiavelli, therefore, a wholly virtuous ruler in the conventional sense is not only incapable of ruling but also unworthy because he lacks the necessary tools to enforce unity and peace, thereby leading humanity to greater goodness and happiness. In this opinion, despite his agreement over the corrupt nature of humanity, one could perhaps find no author whose views are more diametrically opposed than Erasmus. While Machiavelli advocates fighting fire with fire, Erasmus instead calls for all humans, rulers and people alike, to imitate Christ in self-sacrifice. He is in agreement with Machiavelli that society has strayed from the original order and become corrupt. The salient difference, however, is his stalwart belief in Christianity. Whereas Machiavelli sought a practical and, arguably, unreligious way to reverse corruption that relied on human power rather than divine, Erasmus calls on humanity to turn to their faith and look to Christ for society’s salvation. The original and most perfect order for society was given by God, and it is only through belief in him that humanity can return to it.
While Erasmus recognizes the immorality and hypocrisy of in those in power as unacceptable, he is unable to in good conscience advocate that a ruler commit a sinful act. According to his worldview, there is no situation in which actions that go against God’s commandments are not sins. Therefore a desirable leader should exude at all times Christian virtues such as generosity, mercy, and pacifism, seeking in all things to emulate Christ. Erasmus even “departed from conventional opinion, in denying the theory of the ‘just war’” (McConica 83). Whereas contemporary “Christian authorities like Augustine” espoused the idea that certain war was godly and just depending on the circumstances and the campaign methods employed, Erasmus’ work is characterized by “impassioned appeals to all and sundry to apply themselves to the issue of peace among Christians” (McConica 83). In Erasmus’ eyes any war involves the sins of murder based on greed and hate and is, therefore, ungodly. A worthy ruler, then, would be a pacifistic one.Such a governor would, quite obviously, differ significantly from Machiavelli’s ideal leader. Yet Erasmus recognizes the truth of Machiavelli’s argument that a virtuous ruler such as he envisions would be unable to hold power over the corrupt people of contemporary society and would be trampled due to their own willingness to commit avarice against him. Therefore, a Christian ruler must be supported by a system of people who emulate Christ as well. Erasmus’ response to society’s corruption is to call on all people, of every rank from the king to the serf, to follow Christ’s teachings. If all people submit to God and endeavor to remain virtuous, a noble and sinless leader may preside over his people and lead them to peace and happiness.
In an attempt to secure this revolution of faith and actions, Erasmus labored incessantly throughout his works. Though he has been often criticized for his sharp wit, he employs it as a way to force people to see their sin as it really is rather than presenting an understanding view of it that allows them to escape from its true evil. He is constantly striving to show humanity the folly and error of their ways in hopes that they will repent and allow God to enter the people and enable such a change in society.If Erasmus’ solution may be open to criticism for attributing too much virtue to humanity, while Machiavelli’s certainly attributes very little, Montaigne’s view is in many ways the middle ground between the two. During the writing of his essays he served as Mayor of Bordeaux and “as negotiator between Henry of Navarre and Henry III” (Cave 61). These positions afforded him insight into the difficulty of the position of a ruler and also allowed him to experience first-hand both evils of war and the corruption of society and its individuals. Like Erasmus, dedicated as he had been to negotiation, Montaigne is loath to sanction violence and deception as a viable option to rulers. Yet he cannot help but recognize a certain amount of truth in Machiavelli’s argument that there is sometimes no alternative way of coercing corrupt people to accept peace.Terence Cave writes of Montaigne, “He always maintains the distinction between the expedient and the moral and recognizes the superior claims of the latter. Yet his own intimate knowledge of power…leads him reluctantly to allow certain exceptions in extreme necessity” (61). Montaigne admits that a ruler may make use of “unsavoury” people and methods for the betterment of the state, and in this “his conscience may be excused” (Cave 61). Yet he qualifies this with many “cautions, reservations, and counter-examples,” and stipulates that it is imperative that the prince feel regret for such resorting to such recourses (Dave 61-62).
Cave explains that, according to Montaigne, “If the prince doesn’t regret acting in this way, there is something wrong with his conscience; if on the other hand ‘there should be a prince of such delicate conscience that no cure seemed worth such a dire remedy, [Montaigne] would not hold him in less esteem.’ Machiavelli would not have agreed” (Cave 62) Therefore, though their responses vary, Machiavelli, Erasmus, and Montaigne can all be seen as struggling to create order and peace in a disordered and violent world. Is it possible that the most virtuous answer to violence is in some cases violence itself? Such a question continues to haunt politicians and philosophers as well as common people. It is one that, though the greatest minds of humanity have sought to answer it, yet remains unanswered due to their vastly differing responses.
Cave, Terence. How to Read Montaigne. London: Granta Books, 2007. Print.
Machiavelli. The Prince. London: J. P. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1960. Print.
McConica, James. Erasmus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.
Najemy, John. M. “Society, Class, and State in Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy.”The Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli. Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 2010. 96-111. Google books. Web. 3 June 2011.
Pocock, J. G. A. “Machiavelli and Rome: The Republic as Ideal and as History.” TheCambridge Companion to Machiavelli. Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 2010. 144-157. Google books. Web. 3 June 2011.
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