On Ecclesiastical Principalities
(Antimachiavel, Chapter 11 by Frederic the Great, King of Pruzzia, Promoter of Enlightenment)
(the book “Antimachiavel” refers to Machiavelli’s book “The Prince” and is a refutation of “The Prince”)
Antoine Pesne, Frederic the Great (1712-1786), 1745
Photo: Roland Handrick / SPSG
I have always found it very strange that these who call themselves successors of the apostles, I mean some poor men – preachers of humility and repentance -, should possess great wealth, wallow in luxery, and fill posts more proper to satisfy the vanity of the age and the ostentation of the great than to occupy men who must meditate on the nothingness of human life and on the quest for salvation. However, the clergy of the Roman church is extremly rich. Bishops hold the rank of sovereign princes, and the temporal and spiritual power of the first bishop of Christendom renders him somehow the arbiter of kings (“arbiter of kings” means that the pope was higher than the Emperor and thus the actual temporal ruler of the whole world) and the fourth person of the Divinity (“person of Divinity” means that the pope really presumes to be on a level with God).
(Catholic) Clergymen and theologians separate the attributes of the body from those of the soul more scrupulously than anyone else, but their arguments might better be applied to the subject of their ambition. You, they could be told, whose ministry is restricted to the spiritual realm, how can you have so grossly confused it with the temporal? You who so subtly employ the distinguo when it comes to the mind, which you do not understand at all, and to matter, which you understand very little, how does it come that you reject these distinctions when it comes to your interest? It is because these gentlemen worry very little about the unintelligible jargon that they spout out and very much about the great revenues that they take in. It is because their fashion of reasoning must conform to orthodoxy and their fashion of action to their passions; and that the tangible objects of nature are as dominant over their intellect as the real happiness of this life is over the ideal happiness of the next world.
The astonishing power of clergymen as well as everything which regards their temporal government is the subject of this chapter.
Machiavelli finds that ecclesiastical princes are very happy because they have to fear neither the rebellion of their subjects nor the ambition of their neighbours (neighbouring princes). The respectable and impressive name of the Divinity shelters them from whatever could oppose their interest and greatness. The princes who attack them would fear the fate of Titans (Titans were thrown into the Tartarus, a kind of abyss, by the Greek god Zeus; the Catholic equivalent of Zeus is the pope) and the people who disobey them that of the sacrilegious. The pious policy of this kind of sovereign aims at persuading the world of what Despreaux expresses so well in the verse:
“He who loves not Cotin loves neither God nor king.”
What is strange is that these princes find enough credulous dupes who adhere blindly to whatever they want them to believe. It is certain, however, that no country swarms with more beggars than one run by priests. There one can see a touching picture of all human miseries, not of those poor attrackted by the alms of sovereigns, or of those insects who attach themselves to the reach, but of starving beggars deprived of necessities by the “charity” of their bishops so as to prevent them from becoming corrupted by affluence.
It is undoubtly upon the laws of Sparta, where money was prohibited, that the principles of these ecclesiastical governments are founded, with the difference that the prelates reserve for themselves the use of the wealth of which they most devoutly despoil their subjects. Blessed, they say, are the poor, for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven! And since they want everybody to be saved, they make sure that everyone is poor. Oh, ecclesiastical piety, is there anything that escapes your wise foresight?
Nothing should be more edifying than the story of the heads of the church or vicars of Jesus Christ. One expects to find examples of irreproachable und saintly morals there. However, it is just the contrary. There are only obscenities, abominations, and sources of scandal; and one cannot read the lifes of the popes without detesting their cruelty and perfidy.
One sees there their immense ambition to augment their temporal power, their sordid avarice in transfering great wealth unjustly and dishonestly to their families in order to enrich their nephews, mistresses, or bastards.
Those who reflect insufficiently find it peculiar that people suffer the oppression of this kind of sovereign with docility and patience, that they do not open their eyes to the vices and excesses of the clergymen who degrade them, and that they endure from a head that is shorn what they wold not suffer from a head crowned with laurels. This phenomenon appears less strange to those who know the power of superstition upon idiots and of fanaticism on the human mind. They know that religion is an old machine that will never wear out and that has always been used to insure the fidelity of people and put a brake on the restlessness of human reason. They knew that error can blind the most penetrating men and that there is nothing more triumphant than the policy of those who put heaven and hell, God and the devil into play in order to attain their designs. Even the true religion itself, the purest source of all our good, is most deplorably abused and often becomes the origin and principle of all our misfortunes.
The author (Machiavelli) most judiciously notes what contributed to the elevation of the Holy See. Hee attributes it principally to the able conduct of Alexander VI, a pontiff who pushed cruelty to the extreme and who knew no justice but perfidy. One could not thus confuse the product of the ambition of this pontiff with the work of Divinity. Heaven could not have played any direct part in the elevation of this temporal greatness, which is only the work of a very vicious and depraved man. One could thus do no better than to distinguish carefully among clergy men betweeen the mark of God when they announce the divine orders and the corrupt man when they are thinking only of satisfying their passions.
The eulogy of Leo X concludes this chapter, but his eulogy doesn’t carry much wight since Machiavelli was the contemporary of this pope. Any praise by a subject to his master or by an author to a prince appears, what ever one may say, as very close to flattery. Our life can only be judged by posterity, which judges without passions or interest. Machiavelli should have been the last to make an attempt at flattery, for he was not a competent judge of true merit, not even knowing what virtue was; and I don’t know if it is better to have been praised than blamed by him. I leave this question for the reader to judge.