By Dr Peter Kreeft
Machiavelli – inventor of “the new morality”
We need to talk about “enemies” of the faith because the life of faith is a real war. So say all the prophets, Apostles, martyrs and our Lord Himself.
Yet, we try to avoid talking about enemies. Why?
Partly because of our fear of confusing spiritual with material enemies; of hating the sinner along with the sin; of forgetting that “our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Eph. 6:12).
But that fear is more unfounded today than ever in the past. No age has been more suspicious of militarism, more terrified of the horrors of physical war, than ours. And no age has been more prone to confuse the sin with the sinner, not by hating the sinner along with the sin but by loving the sin along with the sinner. We often use “compassion” as an equivalent for moral relativism.
We’re also soft. We don’t like to fight because fighting means suffering and sacrifice. War may not quite be hell, but it’s damned uncomfortable. And anyway, we’re not sure there’s anything worth fighting for. Perhaps we lack courage because we lack a reason for courage.
This is how we think as moderns, but not as Catholics. As Catholics we know life is spiritual warfare and that there are spiritual enemies. Once we admit that, the next step follows inevitably. It is essential in warfare to know your enemy. Otherwise, his spies pass by undetected. So this series is devoted to knowing our spiritual enemies in the struggle for the modern heart. We’ll discuss six modern thinkers who’ve had an enormous impact on our everyday life. They have also done great harm to the Christian mind.
Their names: Machiavelli, the inventor of “the new morality”; Kant, the subjectivizer of Truth; Nietzsche, the self-proclaimed “Anti-Christ”; Freud, the founder of the “sexual revolution”; Marx, the false Moses for the masses; and Sartre, the apostle of absurdity.
Niccolo Machiavelli (1496-1527) was the founder of modern political and social philosophy, and seldom in the history of thought has there been a more total revolution. Machiavelli knew how radical he was. He compared his work to Columbus’ as the discoverer of a new world, and to Moses’ as the leader of a new chosen people who would exit the slavery of moral ideas into a new promised land of power and practicality.
Machiavelli’s revolution can be summarized in six points.
For all previous social thinkers, the goal of political life was virtue. A good society was conceived as one in which people are good. There was no “double standard” between individual and social goodness-until Machiavelli. With him, politics became no longer the art of the good but the art of the possible. His influence on this point was enormous. All major social and political philosophers (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Dewey) subsequently rejected the goal of virtue, just as Machiavelli lowered the standard and nearly everyone began to salute the newly masted flag.
Machiavelli’s argument was that traditional morals were like the stars; beautiful but too distant to cast any useful light on our earthly path. We need instead man-made lanterns; in other words, attainable goals. We must take our bearings from the earth, not from the heavens; from what men and societies actually do, not from what they ought to do.
The essence of Machiavelli’s revolution was to judge the ideal by the actual rather than the actual by the ideal. An ideal is good for him, only if it is practical; thus, Machiavelli is the father of pragmatism. Not only does “the end justify the means” — any means that work — but the means even justify the end, in the sense that an end is worth pursuing only if there are practical means to attain it. In other words, the new summum bonum, or greatest good is success. (Machiavelli sounds like not only the first pragmatist but the first American pragmatist!)
Machiavelli didn’t just lower the moral standards; he abolished them. More than a pragmatist, he was an anti-moralist. The only relevance he saw morality having to success was to stand in its way. He taught that it was necessary for a successful prince “to learn how not to be good (“The Prince, ch. 15), how to break promises, to lie and cheat and steal (ch. 18).
Because of such shameless views, some of Machiavelli’s contemporaries saw “The Prince” as a book literally inspired by the devil. But modern scholars usually see it as drawn from science. They defend Machiavelli by claiming that he did not deny morality, but simply wrote a book about another subject, about what is rather than about what ought to be. They even praise him for his lack of hypocrisy, implying that moralism equals hypocrisy.
This is the common, modern misunderstanding of hypocrisy as not practicing what you preach. In that sense all men are hypocrites unless they stop preaching. Matthew Arnold defined hypocrisy as “the tribute vice pays to virtue.” Machiavelli was the first to refuse to pay even that tribute. He overcame hypocrisy not by raising practice to the level of preaching but of lowering preaching to the level of practice, by conforming the ideal to the real rather than the real to the ideal.
In fact, he really preaches: “Poppa, don’t preach!”-like the recent rock song. Can you imagine Moses saying, “Poppa, don’t preach!” to God on Mount Sinai? Or Mary to the angel? Or Christ in Gethsemane, instead of “Father, not my will but thine be done”? If you can, you are imagining hell, because our hope of heaven depends on those people having said to God, “Poppa, do preach!”
Actually, we have misdefined “hypocrisy.” Hypocrisy is not the failure to practice what you preach but the failure to believe it. Hypocrisy is propaganda.
By this definition Machiavelli was almost the inventor of hypocrisy, for he was almost the inventor of propaganda. He was the first philosopher who hoped to convert the whole world through propaganda.
He saw his life as a spiritual warfare against the Church and its propaganda. He believed that every religion was a piece of propaganda whose influence lasted between 1,666 and 3,000 years. And he thought Christianity would end long before the world did, probably around the year 1666, destroyed either by barbarian invasions from the East (what is now Russia) or by a softening and weakening of the Christian West from within, or both. His allies were all lukewarm Christians who loved their earthly fatherland more than heaven, Caesar more than Christ, social success more than virtue. To them he addressed his propaganda. Total candor about his ends would have been unworkable, and confessed atheism fatal, so he was careful to avoid explicit heresy. But his was the destruction of “the Catholic fake” and his means was aggressive secularist propaganda. (One might argue, perhaps peevishly, that he was the father of the modern media establishment.)
He discovered that two tools were needed to command men’s behavior and thus to control human history: the pen and the sword, propaganda and arms. Thus both minds and bodies could be dominated, and domination was his goal. He saw all of human life and history as determined by only two forces: virtu (force) and fortuna (chance). The simple formula for success was the maximization of virtu and the minimization of fortuna. He ends “The Prince” with this shocking image: “Fortune is a woman, and if she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce her” (ch. 25). In other words, the secret of success is a kind of rape.
For the goal of control, arms are needed as well as propaganda, and Machiavelli is a hawk. He believed that “you cannot have good laws without good arms, and where there are good arms, good laws inevitably follow” (ch. 12). In other words justice “comes out of a barrel of a gun,” to adapt Mao Tse-tung’s phrase. Machiavelli believed that “all armed prophets have conquered and unarmed prophets have come to grief” (ch. 6). Moses, then, must have used arms which, the Bible failed to report; Jesus, the supreme unarmed prophet, came to grief; He was crucified and not resurrected. But His message conquered the world through propaganda, through intellectual arms. This was the war Machiavelli set out to fight.
Social relativism also emerged from Machiavelli’s philosophy. He recognized no laws above those of different societies and since these laws and societies originated in force rather than morality, the consequence is that morality is based on immorality. The argument went like this: Morality can only come from society, since there is no God and no God-given universal natural moral law. But every society originated in some revolution or violence. Roman society, e.g., the origin of Roman law, itself originated with Romulus’ murder of his brother Remus. All human history begins with Cain’s murder of Abel. Therefore, the foundation of law is lawlessness. The foundation of morality is immorality.
The argument is only as strong as its first premise, which-like all sociological relativism, including that which dominates the minds of writers and readers of nearly all sociology textbooks today-is really implicit atheism.
Machiavelli criticized Christian and classical ideals of charity by a similar argument. He asked: How do you get the goods you give away? By selfish competition. All goods are gotten at another’s expense: If my slice of the pie is so much more, others’ must be that much less. Thus unselfishness depends on selfishness.
The argument presupposes materialism, for spiritual goods do not diminish when shared or given away, and do not deprive another when I acquire them. The more money I get, the less you have and the more I give away, the less I have. But love, truth, friendship and wisdom increase rather than decrease when shared. The materialist simply does not see this, or care about it.
Machiavelli believed we are all inherently selfish. There was for him no such thing as an innate conscience or moral instinct. So the only way to make men behave morally was by force, in fact totalitarian force, to compel them to act contrary to their nature. The origins of modern totalitarianism also go back to Machiavelli.
If a man is inherently selfish, then only fear and not love can effectively move him. Thus Machiavelli wrote, “It is far better to be feared than loved…[for] men worry less about doing an injury to one who makes himself loved than to one who makes himself feared. The bond of love is one which men, wretched creatures that they are, break when it is to their advantage to do so, but fear is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective” (ch. 17).
The most amazing thing about this brutal philosophy is that it won the modern mind, though only by watering down or covering up its darker aspects. Machiavelli’s successors toned down his attack on morality and religion, but they did not return to the idea of a personal God or objective and absolute morality as the foundation of society. Machiavelli’s narrowing down came to appear as a widening out. He simply lopped off the top story of the building of life; no God, only man; no soul, only body; no spirit, only matter; no ought, only is. Yet this squashed building appeared (through propaganda) as a Tower of Babel, this confinement appeared as a liberation from the “confinements” of traditional morality, like taking your belt out a notch.
Satan is not fairy tale; he is a brilliant strategist and psychologist and he is utterly real. Machiavelli’s line of argument is one of Satan’s most successful lies to this day. Whenever we are tempted, he is using this lie to make evil appear as good and desirable; to make his slavery appear as freedom and “the glorious freedom of the sons of God” appear as slavery. The “Father of Lies” loves to tell not little lies but The Big Lie, to turn the truth upside down. And he gets away with it-unless we blow the cover of the Enemy’s spies.