Machiavelli on Christian Education
By Ilya Winham
Education: Forming and Deforming the Premodern Mind – Selected Proceedings of the Newberry Library Center for Renaissance Studies 27th Graduate Student Conference
Introduction: On the subject of Christian education in Machiavelli’s Discourses a tacit scholarly consensus concludes that it precludes political citizenship, or at least the kind that pursues worldly glory and dedication to the public good. This view is expressed by John Pocock, who writes in his Machiavellian Moment that Machiavelli “distrusted Christianity, or at least he divorced it from the political good, because it taught men to give themselves to ends other than the city’s and to love their own souls more than the fatherland.” In the first section of this paper I describe in fuller detail the assumptions and basis of this view, which I call the “civil religion approach.” In the second section I argue that this approach is built upon a superficial understanding of the relationship between politics and moral character. The few studies that have explored Machiavelli’s understanding of how education shapes behavior demonstrate that the moral principles on which Machiavelli’s political thought are founded represent not principles of conduct, whether normative or consequentialist, but principles of human psychology and character formation. In emphasizing that Machiavelli’s various portraits of political conduct involve character I follow the lead of a number of scholars who account for Machiavelli’s idea of a distinctly political virtù in terms of a kind of “virtue ethics” whose structure bears a strong resemblance to Aristotle’s ancient approach to ethics. My primary point is not to vindicate Christian education as good for the well-being of cities but to complicate the assumptions of the civil religion approach by examining Machiavelli’s reflections on human character and psychology.
The steady production of scholarship on Machiavelli’s reflections on religion, especially in his Discourses, has long been marked by the assumption that he analyzes and evaluates religion—ancient pagan and modern Christian religion—with a concern for its external, public, political dimension; that is, what it does or could do for political liberty and the well-being of the state. Religion becomes what it does, and what it does depends essentially on its moral content. And the moral content of the Christian religion, according to many commentators, is not the foundation on which Machiavelli lays his political thought. Thus Machiavelli compares contemporary Christianity unfavorably to the ancient religion of the Romans on account of his concern with the political dimension of religion; that is, the worldly effects of religion on human action.