I was dinking around my house the other day, looking for something to read, and I came across my copy of “The Prince”, the 16th century book (my copy is not this old) written by Niccolo Machiavelli. I pulled it off the shelf, and began the thought process of remembering it’s contents, and also the controversy that has surrounded the book since it was first published.
Like many banned books, it is interesting to read the book, and then spend many hours scratching your head wondering why this book was so controversial. “The Prince” was so controversial that it was banned by the Pope! Yet the contents of the book were not shocking. They weren’t evil. They weren’t sexually explicit nor violently gory.
As an amateur historian, I find this disconnect fascinating. What was it about the book that was so offensive that it was considered heretical. The answer lies in the way that governments were thought of 500 years ago vs. today.
A fairly significant portion of government leaders throughout the history of the world claimed divine appointment to their position. This is true of the Roman emperors, the Japanese emperors, Genghis Khan, the Aztec empire, the Persian empire, all monarchies, many dictators, etc. The major difference between elected officials and divinely appointed officials, of course, is their absolute authority. If you have a direct pipeline to the gods, then what meager human could possibly call you wrong?
Governments were not “by the people, for the people” as we think of them today. Governments were not groups of our peers working for us, to make a better life for us. No, governments of the day were though of as supreme people leading the lowly. Us lay folk were not the constituency, we were the support cast. We were cogs in a wheel. Only leaders could rule, and they had the authority to be as rich and extravagant and comfortable as they chose, for the gods smiled on them.
The bible supports this view as well. It is echoed in Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17, Titus 3:1, Daniel 2:20-21, Psalm 22:28, Romans 13:7, Luke 20:25, Proverbs 8:15, Matthew 22:17-21, 1 Samuel 8:6-22, and others. Hell, both 1 and 2 Kings are almost entirely dedicated to god instilling and removing kings from office.
Naturally, the Catholic church (the only christian church back then) was highly motivated to follow this model. After all, it kept them in power for all those years. And with a solid biblical foundation, they seemingly had every right to claim as much power as they wanted. God had willed it to them.
But then, along came Machiavelli. Machiavelli did not, in his entire book, invoke the power of God as advice on how to do business as a head of state. New state, old state, large state, small state, internal affairs, external affairs, war, peace, trade, and travel, all issues that could be dealt with by political theory rather than divine inspiration or protection.
Lest I be accused of being Machiavellian (yes, from his name), I would like to note that I am not agreeing or disagreeing with any of his conclusions. Part of being “Machiavellian” after all, implies a sort of under-handed dealing or dishonesty. I am not suggesting our leaders be dishonest or scheme to maintain power.
However, for the first time in at least a millennium, the levers of power were put to paper as being something other than divine guidance. God was not needed. And this is why the Church lost it’s collective shit.
Fast forward about 270 years, and the United States of America was formed. Our government does not appoint rulers by divine appointment, they are elected. Our government does not decide disputes with prayer, prophets, or executive rule. We have courts. Our government does not plan zoning, taxation, commerce, war, trade, or treaties in consult with priests. We have department heads with staffs, and elected governing bodies. In other words, absolutely nothing about our government today would fly 500 years ago. It would be considered quite heretical.
It’s stupid enough that many modern Christians believe that the US government was “based on the bible”, despite biblical law and US law having almost nothing in common. But to illustrate this stupidity, our entire concept of government is completely different from the biblical view. In my humble opinion, nothing illustrates just how wrong the bible is on governments than the lessons we learn from “The Prince.”
The Spartan Atheist