Machiavelli and the Politics of Fear

May 19, 2016

Only a few years before Martin Luther shook the world with his 95 Theses, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote a short book that would revolutionize political theory for the next 500 years. Since that time, Machiavelli’s thought has been applied not only to politics but also to education and business. As this month marks the anniversary of Machiavelli’s birth, it is an appropriate occasion to reflect on his legacy.

Born May 3, 1469, Machiavelli received a humanist education typical of the Renaissance. He was trained in grammar, logic, and rhetoric. As a product of the Renaissance, his studies were based largely on a recovered examination of classical authors from Ancient Greece and Rome. As the greatest minds of the Renaissance era set out to develop and apply comprehensive policies to various cultural and social entities, Machiavelli produced one of the definitive works on political theory and the exercise of political power – a book called The Prince

In the early 16th century, Machiavelli experienced some success in leading the Florentine militia. However, the Medici family, with military support from Pope Julius II, deposed the Florentine leader. Following the Medici victory, Machiavelli was forced to exit political life, and he shifted his focus to producing works reflecting on politics. In 1513 he wrote The Prince, which he dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici, with the intended purpose of instructing rulers how best to achieve and maintain political power.

Machiavelli, in a distinct break from historical political philosophy, is among the first to remove any concern of morality from the exercise of political power. The Prince reveals that Machiavelli rightly understood that human nature is deeply corrupt and selfish. Therefore, a prince must be vigilant in order to prevent rebellion and disorder if he is to maintain his kingdom or if he wishes to secure new territories.

What results from Machiavelli’s jettisoning of morality and his elevation of the security and maintenance of a kingdom to the highest good for a ruler is a horrifying political ethic. Machiavelli rightly understands that each kingdom and set of circumstances requires a different approach. If a state loves and respects its leader, there is little cause for unease in his heart. However, it is impossible for a prince to please all of his people all of the time. Therefore, in almost all circumstances, the best course of action for a ruler is to instill fear in the people. If fear overwhelms the hearts of the citizens, there is no chance of rebellion. Machiavelli writes, “It has to be noted that men must be either pampered or crushed because they can get revenge for small injuries but not for grievous ones” (10). The spirit of rebellion must be so severely punished that there is no chance of the dissenters ever recovering.

The most famous passage from The Prince is in an answer to the question “Is it better to be loved than feared?” Machiavelli’s answer to this question is quite familiar to modern day readers. He writes, “The answer is that one would like to be both one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both” (71). The underlying logic for this answer comes in Machiavelli’s next sentence regarding human nature: “One can make this generalization about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit” (71). The deep-seated wickedness within the heart of man forces the ruler to strike fear into his people, though, Machiavelli argues, not in such a way as to arouse hatred.

Machiavelli proposes that rulers can be either “armed prophets” or “unarmed prophets.” An “armed prophet” is a leader who rules by force, while an “unarmed prophet” is one who has no way of directly forcing his rule on his subjects. Machiavelli argues that a leader who cannot force his will upon the people can never be successful. An unarmed prophet is doomed to despair because, according to Machiavelli, charismatic leadership or non-violent leadership can never have enduring power. Eventually, a prince, no matter how greatly admired, will eventually fall out of popularity.

A prince will never be able to bring all those in his domain to love him; it is beyond his control. However, he is able to determine to what extent his subjects fear him. Therefore, he writes, “So, on this question of being loved or feared, I conclude that since some men love as they please but fear when the prince pleases, a wise prince should rely on what he controls, not on what he cannot control. He must only endeavor, as I said, to escape being hated.” Machiavelli’s principle: make them fear you because you cannot make them love you.

Machiavelli’s principles are so menacing because they lead a ruler to act in his best interest rather than in the best interest of those in his care. When this becomes the prime directive, the prince is no longer required to behave with any code of morality or integrity. A prince must act out of wisdom governed by pragmatism in order to secure his rule. Machiavelli instructs rulers that “as a prince is forced to know how to act like a beast, he must learn from the fox and the lion; because the lion is defenceless (sic) against traps and a fox is defenceless (sic) against wolves. Therefore one must be a fox in order to recognize traps and a lion to frighten off wolves” (74).

According to Machiavelli, a ruler must always behave in his best interest. A ruler need not keep his word, if it is to his advantage, but he should keep his word when it is beneficial to do so. Again, recognizing the inherent corruption of the human heart, Machiavelli argues, “If all men were good this precept would not be good, but because men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you, you need not keep your word to them” (71-72). Here, Machiavelli abandons all notions that a leader is or should be held to a higher moral standard than the average person. He adopts something like an inversion of the Golden Rule “do evil unto others as they would do evil unto you.” Men will not always love you, but “fear is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective” (71). The fear of punishment and the fear of a ruler will never fade, while love for a ruler will.

The lasting legacy of Machiavelli’s authoritarian pragmatism is evident in the political philosophy that follows. While he rightly understands the problem of human sinfulness, he mistakenly proposes a solution that requires the use of fear and punishment rather than justice and righteousness. Machiavelli influenced men such as Thomas Hobbes who, in his 1651 work Leviathan, identified the need for a strong, authoritarian government to correct the natural state of man which is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Meanwhile, in the present, certain candidates for the United States presidency have signaled their willingness to abandon morality and justice in order to combat terrorism, even carrying the fight so far as to punish and kill the families of terrorists in order to prevent such acts from occurring in the future. This Machiavellian mentality can only lead to the oppression of the masses and to the sad destruction of liberty.

Christians must reject Machiavellian leadership and take a different view. While Machiavelli’s approach may prove effective at times, Scripture teaches that these methods must be rejected. Proverbs 3:31 says, “Do not envy a man of violence and do not choose his ways.”  When violence and cruelty are used by a leader so that he may retain power, justice is not being done. The Christian worldview embraces a ruler who leads not by cruelty, but through righteousness and peace. Philippians 2 teaches that Christ Jesus was willing to sacrifice his power to humble Himself, taking on flesh in order to save those who lived in rebellion. Rather than demonstrating cruelty and selfishness, Jesus selflessly laid down his own life for those who rejected and despised Him. Christ teaches us that leadership is not about power but about service and selflessness. If Christians are to speak to the culture regarding leadership, we must embrace the model of leadership demonstrated by Jesus rather than the one offered by Machiavelli.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. Print.

Seth Woodley
Seth Woodley serves as the Upper School Humanities teacher at Oak Ridge Christian Academy in Conroe, Texas, and as the Director of Student Ministries at Oak Ridge Reformed Baptist Church.

Seth Woodley

Seth Woodley is the principal Faith Christian School in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He completed a B.A. in English at the College of Charleston and an M.Div. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24