'Machiavelli and Erasmus Compared' by Gennady Stolyarov II
The Liberal Institute

Machiavelli and Erasmus Compared

Two scholars who lived simultaneously during the Renaissance could be considered the principal representatives of two colossally different schools of thought, humanism and pragmatism, which may be termed diametrical opposites in many respects. In their theories regarding government, war, toleration, and the perception of the individual, Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) and Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) differed dramatically, though with a few curious convergences on certain particular issues.

Machiavelli on Government

Niccolo Machiavelli’s political advice to Lorenzo de Medici the Younger, as outlined in The Prince (1513), amounted to a theoretical exposition of “realpolitik,” a separation of politics from ethics and the direction of politics toward the “practical” enhancement of the state’s power. All moral considerations are, according to Machiavelli, secondary or outright irrelevant. Whenever virtue or pretense at virtue serve a ruler’s practical ends, they should be followed, but even simple honesty is not an absolute for a Machiavellian statesman. "It's good to be true to your word, but you should lie whenever it advances your power or security—not only that, it's necessary." (The Prince.)

Though Machiavelli was a man of republican convictions, and a high-ranking diplomat and statesman for the Republic of Florence from 1498 to 1512, he concerned The Prince primarily with the tactics and dynamics appropriate to an absolutist ruler. Machiavelli’s professed motivation for this was a desire to see Italy united in an age when armed strife between the French and Spanish monarchies was wreaking devastation upon it. For this end, he was willing to sacrifice the republican ideal to a strong government capable of such unification, and aimed The Prince at his former political rivals, the Medici, who had tortured him prior to his exile from Florence.

As his model for an ideal ruler, Machiavelli uses Cesare Borgia, a ruthless autocrat who frequently employed tactics of treachery, deceit, conquest, and assassination to carve out a sfere of influence for himself in the Papal States. For Machiavelli, it is more important that a ruler inspire fear in his subjects rather than love, for those who fear a ruler can be coerced to aid him when there is need, whereas those who merely admire the ruler may often be inclined against supporting him by petty interests dictating to the contrary. Nevertheless, Machiavelli counsels rulers to avoid inspiring hatred within their subjects and thus to refrain from inflicting harm arbitrarily. He advises that executions be performed rarely, and only to obtain the maximum possible deterrent effect against criminal acts by the rest of the population, and that a ruler abstain from expropriating his citizens at all costs, for “people more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their inheritance.” It must be emphasized, however, that Machiavelli thought this not out of respect for individual rights or human decency, but for sheer utilitarian reasons.

While The Prince serves as a manual for autocratic rulers, Machiavelli’s later opus, Discourses on Titus Livy (published posthumously in 1531), explores the operations of a republic. Analyzing the early days of the Roman Republic, Machiavelli does not hesitate to praise virtuous acts performed by various Roman politicians, but focuses primarily on the optimal practical efficiency with which such acts can be achieved. Historians who favor Machiavelli tend to claim that the Discourses are a more accurate reflection of Machiavelli’s actual political convictions, which were concerned with both virtue and pragmatism, and that The Prince had been just a Machiavellian ploy to get into the good graces of the Medici family.

Erasmus on Government

The portrait of the ideal ruler presented by Desiderius Erasmus differs starkly from Machiavelli’s in its emphasis in virtue and moral principles above all. The Education of a Christian Prince (1518) was written partly as a retort to Machiavelli, and partly as an instruction manual to the future King Charles X of Sweden. The Erasmian ruler must primarily devote himself to administering justice to the people and abstaining from inflicting harm upon them. “Follow the right, do violence to no one, plunder no one, sell no public office, be corrupted by no bribes. To be sure, your treasure will have far less in it than otherwise, but take no thought for that loss, if only you have acquired the interest from justice,” writes Erasmus. According to historians like Paul Johnson, the Erasmian ideal served as inspiration for later governments, such as that of the United States, which, rather than functioning to enrich an autocracy or a ruling clique, was originally structured to protect its constituency while intervening minimally with the lives of the citizens. The Erasmian ruler cares not for others’ perceptions of him, even if he must be seen as weak and soft, for “it is far better to be a just man than an unjust prince.” The government office, for Erasmus, is not a means of self-enrichment, but rather an outlet for a relentless devotion to righteousness and principle.

The autocratic prince is, for Erasmus, the source of greatest vice. In 1500, Erasmus published the Adagia Collectanae, a collection of proverbs, among them: “Do we not see that noble cities are erected by the people and destroyed by princes? That a state grows rich by the industry of its citizens and is plundered by the rapacity of its rulers? That good laws are enacted by representatives of the people and violated by kings? That the commons love peace and the monarchs foment war?”

Ironically enough, while Machiavelli formulated an ideology pandering to authoritarian rulers, and was ostracized by even the Medici family whom he tried to gratify, Erasmus, the more principled republican of the two, was also the personal friend of numerous European monarchs, including Charles V, Henry VIII of England, and Francis I of France. Erasmus’s anti-Machiavellianism managed to gain him greater political and ideological influence than Machiavelli could ever have hoped to gather.

Machiavelli and Erasmus on War

In The Prince Machiavelli’s view of war was that of an entirely pragmatic affair, in which carnage, retribution, and plunder were merely means to the end of securing political power. Machiavelli’s The Art of War (1520) is mostly a practical manual on how to gather, keep, and use a military force. In The Prince, Machiavelli advises rulers to allow their troops to loot enemy cities in order to thus gain their soldiers’ loyalty. Moreover, he praises the cruelty of commanders such as Hannibal in stifling dissension within the ranks of their own men. A combination of intimidating one’s own army, and enticing it through the prospect of giving it ample spoils of war comprise the bloody backbone of Machiavelli’s attempt to use war as another weapon in his utilitarian arsenal.

Erasmus, on the other hand, was averse to war in nearly all situations. In The Praise of Folly (1511), Erasmus condemned war as “something so monstrous that it befits wild beasts rather than men, so crazy that the poets even imagine that it is let loose by the Furies, so deadly that it sweeps like a plague through the world, so unjust that it is generally best carried  on by the worst type of bandit…” Even in the defense of one’s realm, Erasmus could not justify the use of all means necessary. “If you cannot defend your realm without violating justice, without wanton loss of human life… give up and yield to the importunities of the age!” (The Education of a Christian Prince). Erasmus was disgusted by the bilateral cruelties committed during the religious Reformation, as the Catholic Church and the Holy Inquisition persecuted Lutherans as heretics and threatened them with death, while Martin Luther and his allied German princes ordered the execution of more than 100,000 peasants who rebelled against their rule in 1525. Erasmus considered the violent strife of the Reformation to be the greatest obstacle to peaceful scholarship and intellectual progress in his time. He foresaw even bloodier times ahead, and warned in On the Sweet Concord of the Church, one of his last works, that a failure of the Catholics and Protestants to reconcile their differences peacefully would lead to over a century of bloodshed.

Machiavelli and Erasmus on Toleration

Though Machiavelli was persecuted by the Medici and their Spanish allies for his personal republicanism, his pragmatist ideology could not be used to justify individual intellectual freedom and toleration of dissenting views. According to Machiavelli, “seditious people should be amputated before they infect the whole state." (The Prince). This is a necessary consequence of an ideology which pursues power as an end in itself, since, in order to secure his own rule, and inspire sufficient fear within his subjects, a prince would occasionally need to silence those critics whose exercise of free speech might undermine the people’s attitudinal inclinations toward the ruler.

Erasmus, however, was renowned for promoting intellectual tolerance and free expression in an age when such views were often perceived as dangerous and even heretical by both the Catholic establishment and the Protestant reformers. Erasmus was a staunch foe of the Catholic Inquisition, and wrote Against the Holy Inquisition to protest its burning of books and heretics. Erasmus condemned the papal Bull of Excommunication against Martin Luther as a mere further trigger for the coming violent religious strife. Though the Holy Inquisitor Hyeronimo Aleandro promised to have “this lousy man of letters” killed, Erasmus maintained favor with the popes through his continued personal devotion to Catholicism. He saw no need, however, to persecute others for divergent religious views and suggested that, though rulers should obey Christian principles, they should not compel subjects to obey their faith. Erasmus additionally repudiated the petty ethnic and nationalist rivalries of his time and termed himself “a citizen of the world.” Erasmus thus traveled throughout Europe without regard for national boundaries or allegiances and repeatedly counseled rulers to cultivate peace and intellectual exchange rather than war and hatred of foreigners.

Machiavelli and Erasmus on Free Will and the Individual

Both Erasmus and Machiavelli claimed to believe in the existence of free will and in the ability of the individual to design his own destiny. Nevertheless, of the two, Machiavelli was the more cynical and more willing to counsel individuals to succumb to “greater” social currents to attain their private ends. According to Machiavelli, the practical ruler “must have a mind disposed to adapt itself according to the wind, and as the variations of fortune dictate…” and that “he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation.” (The Prince). Though this leaves little room for enacting an individual’s vision of the moral life, and implies Machiavelli’s belief in the impossibility of maintaining both a wholly virtuous and a highly successful existence, this does not rule out a more devious theory of free will. In a passage from The Prince which is scandalous by the standards of any time, Machiavelli compares fortune to a lady, and advises rulers to grab her as they desire rather than entreat and beg her for her favors. The individual’s will is capable of achieving for him control over a powerful and stable state, but even this, in Machiavelli’s judgment, necessitates a high, almost infallible degree of political calculation and machination to attain.

Erasmus, on the other hand, believed in an individual’s complete free will to determine himself, both practically and morally. In his Discussion of Free Will (1524), Erasmus maintained that, unless individuals are capable of affecting the fysical and moral dimensions of their own lives, obtaining the grace of God is meaningless. Erasmus traced the violence and anti-intellectualism inherent in Luther’s Reformation to the latter’s militant denial of free will, which rendered the Lutheran movement open to attaining its ends through coercion rather than peaceful scholarship.

Additionally, Erasmus was living proof to the attainability of his ideal of virtue integrated with practical success. Erasmus remained celibate his entire life, and devoted his days to the study of ideas and the production of a prolific literary output. He could write up to forty pages a day, and was one of the first authors to actively involve himself in the commercial publishing process, thus achieving bestselling status during his lifetime. Erasmus’s impeccable personal integrity caused him to view with great disappointment and shock the commonplace hypocrisies, corruption, superstition, and irrationality of his time. The Praise of Folly is his most famous satire, ridiculing tyrannical kings, fraudulent merchants, militant theologians, decadent clergymen, and brutish monks. A society populated with such detestable characters rewards absurdity at the expense of reason, argued Erasmus, and allows the elites to thrive on the gullibility and ignorance of the populace. Machiavelli had presented a similar evaluation of mainstream society when he wrote that “it may be said of men in general that they are ungrateful, voluble dissemblers…” However, while Erasmus shows nothing but utter scorn and distaste for such a state of affairs, Machiavelli proposes that a ruler conform to it in order to suit his purposes.

The influences of both Erasmus and Machiavelli on the political and ideological development of the Western world can be witnessed in the often antagonistic forces that shaped its further history. The individualistic, toleration-oriented thinking of Erasmus explicitly inspired Enlightenment thinkers, such as Locke and Voltaire, upon whose ideas America’s Founding Fathers drew in formulating the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The realpolitik of Machiavelli, on the other hand, influenced such figures as Otto von Bismarck, the architect of Imperial Germany, the first authoritarian state of the modern era, characterized by strict martial discipline, colossal government intervention in individual affairs, and a policy of relentless military expansionism. These two visions would come to an ultimate confrontation during the twentieth-century series of global conflicts between liberty and totalitarianism.

GENNADY STOLYAROV II is an award-winning poet, published novelist,
and wide-ranging entrepreneur; he is also the editor and publisher
of the magazine The Rational Argumentator