The following is an adapted version of a term paper I wrote for a graduate level class in 2013. I hope that many of you will appreciate the juxtaposition of these two worldviews, especially in light of our current times.
“You cannot be a prince, if you are not a philosopher; you will be a tyrant.” So declared Desiderius Erasmus in The Education of a Christian Prince, a lesser-known yet exemplary contribution to the mirror for princes genre. His call to look to the ideal as guidance for political leadership was representative of his time and stands upon a long tradition of political thought dating back the Plato’s Republic. Frequently citing both works of classical antiquity and medieval Christian scholarship throughout his work, Erasmus notes, “I do not mean by philosopher, one who is learned in the ways of dialectic or physics, but one who cast aside the false pseudo-realities and with open mind seeks and follows the truth. To be a philosopher and to be a Christian is synonymous in fact.”
Erasmus’ mirror is written as a guide to attain his desired form of government. To achieve this end he summarizes the thoughts of others more than he attempts to promote new concepts of political theory. The mirror for princes genre, “…usually depicts a stable and harmonious relationship between the ruler and the ruled,” according to Erasmus scholar Erika Rommel, and Erasmus’ suggestions for a prince, “are prescriptive, rather than analytical, and charged with a moral imperative.” Erasmus wrote to further calls for a more virtuous rule as found throughout the western tradition. He sought to keep this hope for an ideal governance alive at the tail end of the Renaissance, even while writing amidst the darker historical realities of war, schism, and rebellion of early sixteenth century Europe.
In contrast, as Erasmus penned his guidebook for princes, a freshly completed mirror of an entirely new perspective opened with the charge, “Let us leave to one side, then, all discussion of imaginary rulers and talk about practical realities.” Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince broke from the long tradition of writing on an ideal form of governance and instead sought to offer a view of pragmatic guidelines based on common problems faced by rulers in his present age.
Machiavelli ”…therefore proclaims the need for clever management or brutal force to maintain the status quo. In devising his policies – domestic or foreign – the Machiavellian prince is motivated by self-interest.” The difference between these competing mirrors rests upon conflicting moral visions set forth for rulers of a state. Where Machiavelli promotes self-interest, Erasmus promotes the traditional expectation for rulers to seek after the common good, with an additional emphasis on a Christian ethic of self-sacrifice.
At first glance, the two mirrors of Erasmus and Machiavelli could not be more different in content and purpose. These two divergent paths highlight a vital question for the study and practice of politics that has plagued the field in recent centuries. Is it the business of politicians to primarily consider the ideal or the real?
A former undergraduate professor of mine opened his classes by observing a stark distinction between the pragmatic and the theoretical for the study of government. As a self-proclaimed realist and lecturer on international affairs, he concluded that these two branches of political study had little impact on the other when it came to practical decision-making for a ruler of state. This professor followed in the tradition often attributed to Machiavelli, one institutionalized whence the study of politics shifted from the mastering of an art to the calculations of a science. He suggested that the world of policy and political action must operate within the harsh realities of the real world.
Representing a current trend in political study, my professor’s views suggested to his students that any discussions of the ideal in political thought, while an interesting mental exercise, have little impact on the actual business of governance. This assertion raises the question, is a distinction between the real and the ideal a truism, or is it actually a false dichotomy?
Proponents for the relevance of political thought to the realm of political action contend that many situations demand use of both approaches and often utilize one view to support or justify the other. It is with this contemporary debate regarding the theoretical versus the practical in governance in mind that the divergent mirrors of Erasmus and Machiavelli are compared below.
Although Erasmus’ advice for a Christian prince is steeped in the idealism of classical Western political thought, his goals were grounded in a firm belief that this vision, at least in adapted form, could be made into a reality. Machiavelli’s attempt to define political rule in terms of “practical realities”, on the other hand, lowered the responsibility of the prince to improve society through an absolute moral ethic, yet, at the very last, he relies on an emergence of his realist prince for national redemption.
Ultimately, both works attempt to solve the very real political ills of their era with aspirant hopes of a better, and potentially ideal, political future. Underlying theoretical assumptions about the nature of man, the role of the state, and the theological implications of salvation, make both works simultaneous mirrors of the real and the ideal. In these works pragmatism is prescribed for the sake of some form of perfection. Even if that form of perfection is suggested with limitations, the belief is ever-present that an ideal can be reached through the activity of the real.
The Purpose of the Mirrors
Written in 1515 after Erasmus is named a counselor to future king and emperor, Charles V, and awarded an annual pension, The Education of a Christian Prince began with the stated goal, “I, a theologian, am acting the part of a teacher to a distinguished and pure hearted prince – one Christian to another.” Presented in 1516 to the then sixteen-year-old prince, Erasmus clearly saw his work as an attempt to influence the political future of Europe.
One biographer noted of his writings in this period, “The goal of his work was to make of Christians Christians in reality and not in name only, and to show them the way to the great example, the great teacher. Only in this way can the world again do justice to God’s intentions.” The Holy Roman Empire, an ostensibly Christian regime, had a troubled and violent past that did little to strengthen the message of the church in the world. Thus, Erasmus saw his mirror as one attempt of many to use his theological wisdom to correct the perversions of his society and purify Christendom from the top down.
In contrast, it is widely speculated among scholars that Machiavelli’s work was written in 1513 with the hope that he might obtain employment from a member of the powerful Florentine Medici family through private circulation of his thoughts. The self-interested motives parallel the messages of self-preservation found throughout the work. As a mid-level political appointee, Machiavelli claims the work was produced after he had, “long thought about and studied the question of what makes for greatness.” He continues,
But my hope is to write a book that will be useful, at least to those who read it intelligently, and so I thought it sensible to go straight to a discussion of how things are in real life and not waste time with a discussion of an imaginary world…For anyone who wants to act the part of the good man in all circumstances will bring about his own ruin, for those he has to deal with will not all be good. So it is necessary for a ruler, if he wants to hold on to power, to learn how not to be good, and to know when it is and when it is not necessary to use this knowledge.
The above passage sets the tone for the rest of the work and laid forth the foundational elements of Machiavelli’s legacy. First, he implies that the tradition of mirror literature couldn’t be useful to a real life ruler, for these mirrors typically address fantasy worlds or mere thought experiments. Second, he identifies the most unrealistic quality of the tradition as the expectation that rulers ought to be virtuous above all else.
Third, he states that the true goal of a ruler is to stay in power. As it is impossible, through his logic, for a ruler to remain in power and always act virtuously, it is best for a ruler to be equipped to know how and when to be unrighteous. The rest of the work aims to prepare the ruler accordingly.
Typical analysis holds that Machiavelli’s goals are more realistic given his upfront explanation of the ever-present corruption of political rule. Yet Erasmus did not start with an unrealistic assessment of his contemporaries, for, in the words of Halkin, “His grievances were born out of a harsh analysis of the role of the Church in the Catholic world. The obstacles that he perceived in the way of the Gospel were scandalous and menacing realities: war, Machiavellianism, greed, immorality.” While the use of Machiavellian here is retrospective (there is no indication that Erasmus read The Prince while writing his own mirror) the inclusion of these qualities as problems he sought to fix is vital.
At the outset of the work Erasmus was not naively blinded to the harsh realities Machiavelli desires to address. Rather, the theologian offers his work as an attempted remedy to a society in turmoil. It is meant as a means to prevent, not encourage, the continued proliferation of political abuses. The ideal works, likes those of Erasmus, sought to hold the prince to a higher moral standard, while the realistic approach of Machiavelli seems to merely excuse a prince’s baser motives as a means to maintain or expand power.
Moreover, Machiavelli assumes that men cannot be good in the face of an evil and still succeed. Erasmus, on the other hand, has faith that his message could change the entire empire – if heeded by those in power. As European contemporaries, albeit in very different political roles and geo-political contexts, they both recognized with a bold-faced certainty the challenges that faced the rulers of their age. The difference came in the reflections each desired their princes to see as they looked into their respective mirrors and learned how to become a king.
Competing Portraits of a Prince
Concerned primarily with the virtue of the ruler, Erasmus pronounces, “What is it that distinguishes a real king from the actor? It is the spirit befitting a prince. I mean he must be like a father to the state. It is on this basis that the people swore allegiance to him.” In similar fashion he later quipped, “For it is the character, not the title, that marks the king.” His view on the intrinsic value of the prince’s own virtue led to his emphasis on the education and moral formation of a prince, starting in infancy with careful selection of nurses and, later, tutors.
Deeply influenced by Christian thought, Erasmus believed that it was not just in the virtues of antiquity that a prince ought to be trained, but also the specific commands of Christ. The primacy of religious belief for the makings of a good prince formed the central pillar of Erasmus’ vision for ideal leadership in a Christian state. He penned, “Before all else the story of Christ must be firmly rooted in the mind of the prince…He should be taught that the teachings of Christ apply to no one more than to the prince.”
Through a biblical model of self-sacrifice, the common good would be promoted and the prince made truly virtuous. Erasmus concluded, “A man who is great because of his own good qualities, that is, his virtues, will be great even if his princely authority is stripped from him.” Thus the prince who is Christian, philosophical, and true, should risk loosing his power rather than seek to keep it through baser means.
Machiavelli’s prince, however, has an altogether different appearance. Encouraged to train for facing the worst in men, the prince “…should do what is right if he can; but he must be prepared to do wrong if necessary.” Sebastian de Grazia, noted biographer of Machiavelli, suggests that instead of following the popularized paraphrase of Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:30, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ Niccolo’s norm, lends itself to the notion of, “Do unto others as they would do unto you.” These two rules resemble each other in that they both are urging reciprocated conduct: the scriptural based upon desired treatment of the self, Niccolo’s on the anticipated fallenness of others.
Once again critiquing the traditional examples of political thought which, “…constructed imaginary republics and principalities that have never existed in practice and never could,” Machiavelli insists that it is impossible for men to both attain virtue and rule well. He continues, “…for the gap between how people actually behave and how they ought to behave is so great that anyone who ignores everyday reality in order to live up to an ideal will soon discover that he has been taught how to destroy himself, not how to preserve himself.” The blatant self-preservation of the Machiavellian prince starkly contrasts with the self-sacrificial model presented by Erasmus.
Moreover, Machiavelli counters the inherent need for the Christian prince to attain virtue in more than name only with his assertion, “So a ruler need not have all the positive qualities I listed earlier, but he must seem to have them. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that if you have them and never make any exceptions, then you will suffer for it; while if you merely appear to have them, they will benefit you.”
Machiavelli asserts that the motive for the prince’s behavior ought to be based on an opportunistic assessment of what would keep the ruler in power rather than an adherence to absolute norms. As he counseled, “So you should seem to be compassionate, trustworthy, sympathetic, honest, religious, and, indeed, be all these things; but at the same time you should be constantly prepared, so that, if these become liabilities, you are trained and ready to become their opposites.”
Erasmus, however, envisioned a different form of preparation for the Christian prince. He claimed, “It is not enough just to hand out precepts to restrain the prince from vices or to incite him to a better course – they must be impressed, crammed in, inculcated, and in one way and another be kept before him, now by a suggestive thought, now by a fable, now by an analogy, now by a proverb.”
His is a deep and thorough formation of the entire character of the prince. It is by constancy and devotion to moral absolutes that a prince’s legacy will be determined. “The prestige of a prince, his greatness, his majesty,” he elaborates, “must not be developed and preserved by fortune’s wild display, but by wisdom, solidarity, and good deeds.”
Machiavelli is not without a belief in human agency. He bases the ability of the prince to maintain his power on a doctrine of self-preservation and individual initiative and, like Erasmus, dismisses views that belittle political changes as the sole realm of fate or political pre-destination. “God does not want to have to do the whole thing,” Machiavelli states, “for he likes to leave us our free will so we can lay claim to part of the glory by earning it.”
While out of character for most of The Prince, such lofty language found in Machiavelli’s final chapter suggests that even with the acknowledged constant brutal realities of the depravity of man, he still seeks hope in the ability of some men to lead their polity beyond a state of chaos or servitude.
The question remains, to what end ought princes apply their free will?
Self-Interest vs. the Common Good
A primary distinction between the more traditional mirror of Erasmus and the modern mirror of Machiavelli is the chief end for a prince to aspire. Highlighted above, the idealist works trumpet the importance of serving for the common good, while the realist view of Machiavelli encourages princes to seek after their natural inclination for a self-interested preservation of power.
Erasmus viewed this element of his work as one intertwined with the chief ends of antiquity. In referencing Plato’s Guardians, he cautioned, “Only those who govern the state not for themselves but for the good of the state itself, deserve the title ‘prince.’ His titles mean nothing in the case of one who rules to suit himself and measures everything to his own convenience: he is no prince, but a tyrant.”
Seeking synthesis in the two great philosophical traditions of antiquity, he continues with supportive summarization of Aristotle’s Politics. Erasmus warns his readers,
A prince is vitally concerned with the needs of his subjects, even while engaged in personal matters. On the other hand, if a tyrant ever chances to do something good for his subjects, he turns that to his own personal gain. Those who look out for their people only in so far as it redounds to their personal advantage, hold their subjects in the same status as the average man considers his horse or ass.
Considered in light of Machiavelli’s pragmatic advice for rulers to change as needed in order to maintain their rule, as articulated in The Prince, Erasmus’ mirror begins to read as a harsh condemnation for all forms of political rule grounded in the self-interest of the rulers over the ruled.
One defense of Machiavelli on this score is his political context. The relative political instability of the Italian principalities may warrant a reading that it was in the common good of those states for the ruler stay in power. Still, this argument cannot overlook the classical emphasis on the character of the prince. It is not enough, claims Erasmus time and again, for the action of rulers to have virtuous ends. These ends must be achieved through virtuous means, carried forth by a ruler whose character is submitted to a higher standard, specifically for Erasmus, submitted to the Trinitarian God of Christian teachings.
To encourage his prince to follow in the way of Christ, Erasmus charged, “It is the duty of a good prince to consider the welfare of his people, even at the cost of his own life if need be. But that prince does not really die who loses his life in such a cause.” Erasmus’ awareness of the potential end for a virtuous prince to be one of death bespeaks not of an ideal polity but of a weary admission of the baseness of the world. In fact, for Erasmus, the self-interested view of governance espoused by Machiavelli was the very heart of Christendom’s greatest ills:
Now, while everyone is looking out for his own interests, while popes and bishops are deeply concerned over power and wealth, while princes are driven headlong by ambition or anger, while all follow after them for the sake of their own gain, it is not surprising that we run straight into a whirlwind of affairs under the guidance of folly.
Considered in light of De Grazia’s Machivellian adage to ‘do unto others as they would do unto you,’ greater clarity emerges on the distinctions between Erasmus and Machiavelli. The heart of their disagreement, it appears, is not over which one is more based in reality. Rather, they differ on how a prince ought to handle the anticipated foibles of humanity: a question of both practicality and ideology.
Wickedness and Redemption
DeGrazia suggests that Machiavelli’s apparent rejection of the biblically based Golden Rule was stemmed from, “The doctrine of men’s evil disposition – reiterated several times in the qualities chapters of The Prince.” In another popular translation of The Prince, Machiavelli concluded his observations on the ends justifying the means, “For the vulgar are taken in by the appearance and the outcome of a thing, and in the world there is no one but the vulgar.” When faced with vulgarity and meanness in others there is only one person for the ruler to trust: themselves. “No method of defense is good, certain, and lasting,” Machiavelli insists, “that does not depend on your own decisions and your own strength [virtu].”
While a prince ought to aspire to some good, and he apparently has some freedom to achieve self-betterment and self-control, he also cannot loose touch with the inherent vulgarity of men, including his own. “It may be difficult for men to resist their wicked tendencies and easy for them to flow into sin; doctrinally, at least, they still have the choice of resistance, of control, of good acts.” The choice to be better, however, is not assured for even the prince, let alone his political competitors. The only fact a prince can count on is that others will act through their vulgar nature, and he must prepare and respond in all things with this anticipation in mind.
Thus, not only must a prince be prepared to use baser methods if he anticipates a challenge to his authority, he is also free to lie or abuse his own people if the situation requires such action to secure power. As he writes, “You will find people are so simple-minded and so preoccupied with their immediate concerns, that if you set out to deceive them, you will always find plenty of them who will let themselves be deceived.” According to Machiavelli’s mirror, the certainty of vulgarity in all men both justifies and demands baser actions on the part of the ruler.
The shrewd approach recommended to Machiavelli’s prince is to maintain the appearance of moderation in all things, with an ever-watchful eye for the next attempt to steal, threaten, or undermine their power. While a reaction to reality, the moral justification (or lack thereof) for less than virtuous leadership is based on a theoretical assumption regarding the nature of man.
Moreover, his supposedly pragmatic rejection of ideal regimes begins to form his own theoretical imperatives. He leads princes to assume that the baseness of mankind is so great the only way to counter these forces is through equally base actions. Such is a basis of a new moral theory.
Machiaevelli’s mirror, supposedly offered as a practical guidebook for rulers’ reality, begins to read as a dystopian contrast to works like Thomas More’s 1515 Utopia (the namesake for the genre). Machiavelli’s ethic and the picture the world he paints, given his absolute claims regarding human nature and the only proper response to human depravity, may be just as much a work of fantasy as very mirrors he set out to condemn.
On the question of sin, Erasmus looks to the baseness of mankind first through the cross of Christ. To avoid abuses of power he argues the prince ought to learn how,
Nature created all men equal, and slavery was superimposed on nature, which fact the laws of even the pagans recognized. Now stop and think how out of proportion it is for a Christian to usurp full power over other Christians, whom the laws did not deign to be slaves, and whom Christ redeemed from all slavery.
To Erasmus, all men are depraved but for those who call upon Christ there is also hope for redemption from their own depravity. This view, as articulated in his mirror, does not mean that Erasmus denied the political and cultural realities of his time. Rather, he looks to the prince as a natural source for moral guidance and reformation in social matters. He notes the tendency for corruption and “unruly” natures of magistrates and common people alike and thus concluded, “There is just one blessed stay in this tide of evils – the unsullied character of the prince. If he, too, is overcome by foolish ideas and base desires, what last ray of hope is there for the state?”
The language in these passages emphasizes the difficulties facing the prince in light of the depravity of man. He also cautions against attempts to corrupt princes, due to the power by example they hold for the people. “Just as one who poisons the public fountain from which all drink deserves more than one punishment,” asserts Erasmus, “so he is the most harmful who infects the mind of the prince with base idea, which later produce the destruction of so many men.”
Instead of rejecting the possibility for social improvement through political leadership, Erasmus saw the potential for a prince to help correct these ills. His ideal was a Christian society where the rulers looked to model their headship of the people after Christ’s headship of the Church. For the prince, “All his plans, all his efforts, all his interests will be turned to the one aim of ruling over the province entrusted to him in such a manner that when Christ makes the final reckoning he will win approval and leave a very honorable memory of himself among all his fellow men.”
While not an enterprise that guarantees success, his vision is perhaps not so idealistic that it could not have been achieved. To Erasmus, his words and counsel offered more than a mere dream, for he “…actually believed he was following the path of progress inherent in historical time.” His vision for the Christian prince did not call for a perfect society free of corruption, sin, or danger. For Erasmus, hope for societal redemption in Christendom could begin with the turning of a single man: the prince. The goal of The Education of a Christian Prince was idealistic, but his means were fundamentally pragmatic.
Concluding Thoughts: Evaluating the Mission
Erasmus’ mirror sought to give “instruction on a subject that no theologian would dare to undertake. In these years Erasmus was conscious of his strength and his boldness. He had a mission to fulfill.” Unfortunately, his mission to see a renewal of piety and peace in all sectors of a united Christendom appears to have been a losing battle from the very start.
Scholars note that Charles V, “was not a model of the Christian, peaceful prince” and “probably did not read” the copy of Erasmus’ Christian Prince, gifted in 1516. Yet even in the face of rejection in his own time, Erasmus continued to believe that “…history would definitely bring improvement on all fronts – partly as the outcome of a natural process, but mainly because God would have it so and even used his detractors to this end.”
Erasmus was not alone in his ultimate appeal to God for the future success of his goals. While hardly a religious work, Machiavelli’s concluding chapter mentions God at least half a dozen times. DeGrazio surmised, “The references to the divine in The Prince comprise significant metaphysical and theological statements, with political bearings just as significant.” Bemoaning the sad state of Italian affairs as the oft conquered and vanquished, he cried out to his future prince, “Italy, so long enslaved, awaits her redeemer.”
To some degree his work was as much a failure in his own age as that of Erasmus. Machiavelli never gained the employment with the Medici family he aspired to, nor did he live to see the redemption of Italy from internal conflict and external conquests. Yet the final words of his practical rulebook are dedicated to a famous stanza by Christian Humanist Plutarch, which prophesies a restored future for the Italian people. Trapped in a depraved world where the vulgarity of men must be countered at every turn, Machiavelli awaits the ideal of his country’s savior.
In an entirely different context, Erasmus quotes wisdom from Plutarch’s own mirror, Discourse to an Unlearned Prince: “When you who are a prince, a Christian prince, hear and read that you are the likeness of God and his vicar, do not swell with pride on this account, but rather take pains that you correspond to your wonderful archetype, whom it is hard, but not unseemly, to follow.”
Erasmus saw no need to appeal for the coming of a political savior for he saw the political realm in light of the salvation of Christ. The Christian prince, while an important figure in God’s ordained social hierarchy of the time, was not the savior of Christendom. In fact, it was only through imitating the real savior, Jesus Christ, that he could ever hope to become a true prince in both spirit and name.
One mirror, in the name of pragmatism, offers his people a vision of the future that may always search fruitlessly for a missing ideal. The other, through a hopeful vision for a social incarnation of an already realized ideal (that of the victory of Christ), suggests a pragmatic response to the corruption of his time. Both works, composed during a watershed era of Western history, can serve as a reminder for students and practitioners of government that the ideal and the real, the theoretical and the practical, are often linked more closely than some professors and experts may lead us to believe.
Even the most hardened realist bases their assumptions on some form of philosophical principles and moral ethic. In turn, the loftiest ideals carry practical implications for the here and now. To overlook the interconnected nature of the pragmatic and the theoretical risks misunderstanding our political history and thereby endangering the cogency of how we shape our political future.
In light of recent political events, these two mirrors also challenge us to ask and assess the following of our contemporary politicians: what are the ends they seek and by which means will they achieve them?
We cannot set aside questions of ethics, morality, and character as if they have no bearing on political leadership. Erasmus understood the significance of a ruler’s virtue for the purpose of inculcating (or undermining) the virtue of the people. Even the realism of Machiavelli had to wrestle with these notions, finding that pure pragmatism devoid of moral assumptions and ideal ends does not exist. Christendom as a ruling political empire in the West may be a notion of the past, but as Christians we can still learn from the wisdom – and follies – of those who came before us.
Seen in a certain light, our times are very dark indeed. Which path will we choose? Which path will you advocate? A power hungry and base self-preservation, searching after some form of national redemption and redeemer? Or a self-sacrificing vision, not defined by titles or earthly victories, but rather built upon the eternal victory of Christ and a refusal to partake in poisoning the virtue of the public well against the witness of His image?
*I had trouble copying footnotes to WordPress for this post. When I have more time I will update with appropriate citations. In the meantime, let me know if any questions arise regarding my quotes, assertions, and sources.
Augustijn, Cornelis. Erasmus: His Life, Works, and Influence. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.
Bejczy, Istvan. Erasmus and the Middle Ages: The Historical Consciousness of a Christian Humanist. Boston: Brill, 2001.
Benner, Erica. Machiavelli’s Ethics. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2009.
De Grazia, Sebastian. Machiavelli in Hell. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
Erasmus, Desiderius. The Education of a Christian Prince. Translated by Lester K. Born. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1968.
Halkin, Leon-e. Erasmus: A Critical Biography. Translated by John Tonkin. Cambridge , Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1993.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. “The Prince.” In Selected Poltical Writings, by David Wooton. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1995.
Olin, John C. “Erasmus and Reform.” In Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Selected Writings, by Desiderius Erasmus, 1-21. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1973.
Rummel, Erika. Erasmus. New York: Continuum Books, 2004.