Machiavelli was certainly a humanist (in the Renaissance sense) and possibly a Christian, but probably not a Roman Catholic. Machiavelli wrote as though he were a Christian and respected the spiritual authority of the papacy. His short work An Exhortation to Penitence, in which he espouses humility, charity, and obedience to God, at first glance seems to be a clear endorsement of Christianity. But for Machiavelli, endorsement does not imply adherence. Machiavelli wanted desperately to see Italy unite and return to the glories of the Roman republic. Encouraging religious unity was one way he could contribute towards that goal.
In The Prince and also the Discourses, he emphasizes time and time again that a strong faith makes people easier to govern, moral and good, and in some cases even more effective as soldiers. He says, “one can have no better indication of the ruin of a country than to see divine worship little valued,” (226) and “[in Rome] religion was [helpful] in controlling the armies, in inspiring the people, in keeping men good, in making the wicked ashamed,” (224). Clearly, Machiavelli thought religion was a cornerstone of civil society.
However, aside from occasionally calling paganism “false religion” and Catholicism “true religion”, he does not differentiate between the two and when he does, he favors paganism. Machiavelli states “Our [religion], because it shows us the true way makes us esteem less the honor of the world... pagans, greatly esteeming such honor... were fiercer in their actions... our religion... prefers that you be adapted to suffering rather than to do something vigorous” (331) and later he states that Christianity makes people more tolerant of evil rulers because they “leave them to God for punishment,” (422). By these words, he presents a view of Christianity as essentially nihilist because it encourages people to undervalue earthly life in anticipation of Heaven, whereas the pagan religions put a greater emphasis on the present life causing pagans to be more willing to struggle to preserve earthly freedom and privilege.
Machiavelli is especially critical of Catholicism because some of the clergy of his time were blatantly impious which caused the people to lose respect for religion, “through the bad examples of that court [the Roman Church] this land has lost all piety and all religion.” (228) He goes on to blame the Church as one of the key obstacles to a united Italy.
Despite his conviction that religion is necessary for a stable society, Machiavelli is also quite cynical of religion. Of Savanarola he says, “countless numbers believed him without having seen anything extraordinary” (226), suggesting that even the cultured and cosmopolitan people of Florence were easily duped and controlled by religion. Miracles, he says, “are celebrated even in false religions,” (227) the logical, though tactfully omitted, implication is that false miracles may also be celebrated in “true” religions. In The Prince, he expresses cynicism of religion when he says, “to convince [people] of a thing is easy; to hold them to that conviction is hard. Therefore a prophet must be ready... to make them believe by force.” (26) Once again, Machiavelli avoids offending the religious establishment by not connecting this idea to the modern Church, but it is inconceivable to think that he was not aware of the history of forced conversions and violent suppression of heresy. Whether or not he believed in some essential trueness of Christianity, he was certainly aware that Catholicism was not enlarged and preserved by the Holy Spirit, but by the tricks and sticks of the Church.
How is the interpretation of his Exhortation to Penitence changed in light of Machiavelli’s skepticism of Christianity, criticism of Catholicism, and admiration of paganism? He answers the question himself on page 227, “It is the duty, then, of the rulers of a republic or of a kingdom to preserve the foundations of the religion they hold.” By endorsing Christianity, Machiavelli is merely performing his civic duty. One cannot help but suspect that if the worship of Zeus were the fashionable religion in Florence, he would have no problem endorsing that religion instead.
Page references are to Machiavelli : The Chief Works and Others, Vol. 1 ISBN: 978-0822309451