The Authority Conflict: Machiavelli and Martin Luther

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Machiavelli and Martin Luther were two of the most profound and controversial historians of the sixteenth century. In The Prince, Machiavelli advocated unconventional measures and instructed the rulers of politically unstable Italy on gaining absolute power and setting aside moral values.

Luther’s On Christian Liberty considers the corruption of the Holy Roman Church and promotes the split of the secular from the spiritual. He instilled complete authority in the word of God.When comparing the different solutions concerning the problem of authority proposed by these pragmatists in the sixteenth century, it is evident that they agreed to some extent on the evil nature of human beings; however, their concepts of virtue were unique and their solutions were targeted to engage and gain support from different groups and figures of authority. Machiavelli and Luther used separate approaches and had different motives for conveying a similar message about human nature; people are inherently bad.

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Mankind is more prone to evil than he is to good (Taylor 23).They both agreed that men initially concern themselves with one another as means to satisfy their own desires. Luther quoted Galatians 5:17, “for the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh,” to show the struggles men face upon attempting to act moral and righteous (Luther, 4). While Machiavelli described this evil characteristic of mankind as essential to get ahead of others and hold a position of authority, Luther considered it a problem that must be resolved by believing in Christ alone.

Machiavelli had no notion of human development or progress in pursuit of ends ordained by God or by nature, and he did not condemn the Church because it strayed from the path of righteousness, as did Luther, but because it was not practical (Femia 39). Machiavelli thought that Italian society could not flourish if citizens embodied traditional Christian virtues of humility and passivity. Pursuing an image of human excellence would cause good men to fall prey to others. He considered sin a political error that occurred when rulers tried to follow Christian ethics and the circumstance at hand required ruthlessness or deception (41).

Machiavelli and Luther agreed that people are governed by an evil natural necessity, but the former was against thwarting these desires, while the latter believed it was necessary to accept Christ and earn the grace that turns one virtuous. Though he did recognize the importance of, and therefore promote, morals, ethics, and religious convictions in order to keep the people under control, Machiavelli thought that the ruler himself was under no obligation to live by these same morals.The ruler was duty-bound to act on whatever was necessary to keep and extend his power. Alternatively, Luther endorsed combating the evil nature of mankind and maintaining a strong spiritual side to resist temptation.

He believed that faith would enlighten man on all things in him that are blameworthy, sinful, and damnable (Luther 8). While Luther thought achieving inner goodness through faith alone could achieve eternal salvation and counteract the evil nature instilled in mankind, Machiavelli focused on the external appearance of one’s character.He said that if a prince set about the task of maintaining his state, then he will be universally praised and the common people will be impressed, even if he dishonorably achieves this success (Machiavelli 58). Morality is obtained when man wishes to be, not only appears to be, what others think he is.

His motives must be pure and transparent. Machiavelli states it the other way around, whereas Luther strives for Christian morality that demands doing the right thing for the right reason. Corresponding with their notions of morality and human nature are their concepts of virtue and its separation from the conventional definition.Machiavelli’s pamphlet is well-known for abandoning the traditional meaning of virtue as the quality of doing what is “right” and avoiding what is “wrong”, and associating it with the maintenance and improvement of ones power.

George Bull uses the word ‘prowess’ to capture the concepts of potency, efficiency, and ability that Machiavelli attributed to the word. Virtue is generally employed in The Prince to mean an exceptional capacity for the kind of action that brings success in military and civic affairs, which will in turn allow the prince to maintain control.He illustrates his concept of virtue when he recommends that a ruler know how to suppress his human nature and assume the characteristics of a beast. “The lion is defenceless against traps and a fox is defenceless against wolves; therefore, [a prince] must be a fox in order to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten off wolves” (Machiavelli 56).

He used symbolism of the fox and bear to represent deceptiveness and strength or brutality, respectively. In his view it is legitimate and necessary for a prince to deceive his adversaries and employ violence against them if the state will benefit.He referred to Alexander VI, a pope whom possessed Machiavelli’s virtue, as an example showing the successfulness of being deceptive. “[Alexander’s] deceptions always had the result he intended, because he was a past master in the art” (57).

Though Machiavelli used ironic characteristics to illustrate his ideal of virtue, he did exclude from the definition anything that Christians would have considered morally wicked behavior. He wrote, “It cannot be called prowess to kill fellow citizens, to betray friends, to be treacherous, pitiless, irreligious (29).He does recommend to the ruler generally admirable things; however his conception of virtue is rooted in his appetite for power and the idea of getting power by any means. While Machiavelli’s definition of virtue was intended to teach people to rule, Luther’s was aimed at reforming society and accepting the government without reducing Christ’s authority.

Instead of ignoring the moral connotation and subverting the Christian ideal of virtue as did Machiavelli, Luther used it conventionally. He recognized the importance of theological virtues like faith, hope, and charity in Christians, so that they act well and rightly.Since Luther believed in the authority of the textual scriptures and God’s word, he would have been opposed to Machiavelli’s definition of virtue that was based on man having the ability and means to disregard morals and gain power. Throughout On Christian Liberty Luther discussed the necessity of laws.

The laws are essential so that those who lack virtue and ethics are compelled to act rightly as well; however, the laws established by princes, kings, lords, and the government do not suffice for replacing Christ’s word.The aforementioned philosophies of Machiavelli and Luther are several attributing factors to the different kinds of authority that each man favored and addressed in his pamphlet. Machiavelli was willing to support any government that would defend Florentine independence and act as a positive force in the unification of Italy (Femia 12). He dedicated The Prince to the Medici lords in hopes that they might employ him; therefore, his work is most likely tailored to appeal to an authoritarian ruler.

However, this pamphlet proved to be self-defeating in terms of the career that Machiavelli sought to revive. He did not explicitly state what the ideal prince and principality was, but explained what actions and qualities enabled a prince to best rule a certain principality. He was clearly opposed to the antics of the papacy, which caused rejection from popes and clerical authority. Though his work was extremely controversial at the time of its publication, many tyrants throughout history have acknowledged this treatise and its contents (Rudowski 10).

Because The Prince condoned the use of unethical acts on behalf of a higher political goal it is plausible that it appealed to and affected more recent tyrants like Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, or even Sadam Hussein. It would have contributed to their dominions by enabling the followers to overlook the immoral deeds of their leaders. Luther’s argument was controversially equivalent to Machiavelli’s. He placed the authority of the Bible above that of the Pope.

According to Luther the scriptures provided the sole and authoritative source of truth.By removing the seat of religious authority from the Church to the Christian consciousness, Luther’s pamphlet established a new conception of religion (Davies 39). He also believed that the Word of God demanded complete submission in affairs of State. Princes and rulers, who held authority over all men, are subjected to God’s word, but this recognition of secular authority over man did gain support from the government.

In On Christian Liberty, Luther prohibited the rebellion of citizens against the government under any circumstance.He said, “Christians should be subject to the governing authorities and be ready to do every good work…

hat in the liberty of the Spirit they shall by so doing serve others and the authorities themselves and obey their will freely and out of love” (Luther 58). The only exception to this rule was if the government interfered with religious matter, and then the subject could only disobey on right grounds, still submitting to the Word of God. Though these two contemporaries used distinctly different approaches to discuss the problem of conflicting authorities in 16th century Europe, they each impacted politics, religion, and thought on levels that have had lasting effects on society today.Machiavelli’s principles of gaining power and authority can be applied in various fields of the modern world.

Five hundred years after its introduction, the “Machiavellian” style of leadership, with its deceiving and dishonest connotation, is still used to get ahead in politics and business. Luther’s notions sparked the Protestant Reformation, a testament to the impact of his ideas. The authority that he instilled in the Scripture and the morals and obedience that he promoted are responsible for the religious freedom, individual rights, and protection from central control that we enjoy today.

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The Authority Conflict: Machiavelli and Martin Luther. (2017, Dec 19). Retrieved from

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