What defines a good society or state? Some will say that a good state could be defined as one where a ruler and his followers live in peace and harmony under the teachings of a religion that promotes healthy social behavior by promoting moral and ethical values. Or, one can argue that a good state should be run by promoting power under manipulation to bring fear within the state so no common man would be able to question the ruler. These are views that two early philosophers, St. Augustine de Hippo and Niccolo Machiavelli, had on how a state should be operated. Each philosopher’s view of a perfect state is unique in their own way and has the potential to raise a civil society. In the end, which philosopher’s view could bring the best society?
A good society is one that brings harmony and peace to the ruler and the state. A civilized society benefits from a good ruler and the ruler requires his followers to believe that he is the one that will bring this harmony. St. Augustine and Machiavelli each had their own interpretations on how to bring forth this civilized state. However, each philosopher’s approach to running this state can be open for different interpretations. As nations have grown over the centuries, we can find traces of each philosopher’s views in today’s society and the past. As two of the earliest minds behind political thought, St. Augustine and Machiavelli have definitely etched their work in history and their teachings have shaped many nations.
To find the meanings behind each philosophers work, we have to look no farther than the fall of Rome. Both philosophers have used this reference in history to outline how a good society should have been lead to prevent the fall. In his book “De Civitate Dei”, translated as City of God, St. Augustine wrote that Rome fell because the Romans lacked protection from Christianity or God (Walsh, 1958). In the book City of God, Augustine preached to the refugees of Rome in Hippo that the Romans fell because some of their beliefs were negatively influenced by material goods, selfishness, violence, thievery and lust for power. Augustine felt that these sinful acts were the reason Rome was beyond saving therefore it fell (Walsh, 1958). Therefore, he used the word of the Bible to guide his followers that to show love toward God and your neighbors is the true way to achieve a proper society (Deustch & Fornieri, 2009). Augustine suggests that by following the Bible and word of God, once they have passed on they will be welcomed into Jerusalem, or heaven (Walsh, 1958).
Machiavelli’s view of Rome was far more erratic than that of Augustine. Instead of faulting Rome for falling, Machiavelli praised the Roman for its power (Machiavelli, n.d.). While Augustine felt that Rome fell because of its sinful ways, Machiavelli preached that Rome fell because the state started to elect lazy and corrupt leaders who lacked intelligent or strength in its military (Machiavelli, n.d.). It’s for these reasons that Machiavelli used Rome’s fall as a subject in his book “The Prince”. Machiavelli’s view differs from Augustine in that instead of doing the good deed for God to sustain a good society, he insists that power and fear by manipulation is best. To back his statements, Machiavelli stated (translated from Latin) “People are by nature changeable, It is easy to persuade them about particular matter, but it is hard to hold them to that persuasion. Hence it is necessary to provide that when they no longer believe, they can be forced to believe” (Machiavelli, n.d.).
There is much to be compared by both philosophers and their opposing views of what can constitute a good society. Augustine’s methodology is based on the Bible where doing good is rewarded. Machiavelli promotes a more vile approach that many can almost view as tyrannical. But does having a leader who does good make a better society or does having a strong leader that rule through fear and manipulation make more sense? It’s hard to determine because throughout time we have seen many nations run their state based on some of the philosophies that Augustine and Machiavelli preached and history has shown that neither has truly created a good society. While some nations and leaders may not have significantly stated that these philosopher’s works were in mind when determining how their state was run, we can see evidence of their philosophies embedded within.
St. Augustine believed that the people had a duty to serve the state and that the state must provide a “sin-free” life to the people to prevent any wrong doing in order to keep peace. Augustine put this theory into perception by writing about a City of Man and a City of God (Deustch & Fornieri, 2009). Augustine describes the City of Man as a temporary stage lived by humans for material reasons before their transition to the City of God, or heavenly life. In order to reach the City of God, Augustine explained in Book XII of City of God (Walsh, 1958) that “all physical things, since they exist and have therefore their own rank, design and, as it were, internal law of peace, are surely good. And when they are in places where they should be according to the natural order, they keep their own beings safe and in such measure as they have received”. By his words, Augustine believed that as long as a state does good by the law of the Bible, their time here will be rewarded with eternal life in the City of God.
Machiavelli’s view was not as positive as Augustine as he felt that a ruler or a “prince” should get and retain power by a “willingness to not be good” (Deustch & Fornieri, 2009). In his book The Prince, Machiavelli (Machiavelli, nd) claims that a “prince must himself be bad in order to preserve his reign” and that “good men cannot attain or maintain power in a world full of deceit”. Machiavelli made no attempt to disguise his ideals and feels that a ruler should exploit these attributes to gain maximum political benefit (Deustch & Fornieri, 2009). Machiavelli’s view, compared to Augustine, didn’t follow any religious belief and showed no moral values other than to rule by all means necessary. His immoral stance couldn’t be more true as Machiavelli has also emphasized that a prince should only seem to be “compassionate, faithful, humane, honest, and religious” to the public only to gain respect (Gorland, 2010).
In comparison, both philosophers provide a good foundation on how each theory could constitute a good society, but both views can also lead to a path of tyranny and oppression. On one hand, any state that would choose to follow Augustine’s view of using religion to build a foundation for a good society has values and moral responsibility to make things right for the citizens. If citizens feel that if they follow the moral leadership of their ruler, in turn, they can be rewarded with peace and harmony. The positive teachings that Augustine promotes is that a state is a “divine gift” if it is “righteously ruled” (Mattox, 2011). Augustine’s Christian influence can be seen in modern politics here in the United States as noted by former North Carolina Senator John East. He wrote “From the Augustinian view the primary function of government is to maintain the internal good order of society, to protect against external enemies, and thereby enable men to order their own lives with tranquility and predictability” (East, n.d.). While envisioning a good state on the foundation of religion could be rewarding, history has also shown that it can also be used to oppress.
Augustine’s preached heavily about Christian faith and by following it would lead to rewards in the City of God. While this philosophy is a positive influence, some could use his teachings for oppression. One such case of using religion to lead that caused oppression was the Taliban. While there were never any known indications that the Taliban used Augustine’s views, one can relate to how the Taliban ruled Afghanistan to Augustine’s theory of City of God. Under the rule of Mohammed Omar, he enforced the Afghan citizens to follow a strict Islamic religion. His ideals mirror that of Augustine’s that if the Afghan people lived under this rule, they would be rewarded in the afterlife. The Taliban enforced such a strict law that those who defied these laws would be punished by death (Simpson, 2013). The Taliban’s rule under Omar forced the Afghan people to live in a state of oppression for over a decade until joint military operations by the US and Britain was able to overthrow them during the battle against terrorism. Whether or not Augustine would ever agree with how the Taliban ruled, it’s clear to see that leaders who forcefully use religion onto their followers with the benefits of reward in the afterlife could be done in a negative light.
In contrast to the moral values of how Augustine saw a good society through guidance of religion, it’s hard to believe that any state could find any positive out of Machiavelli’s philosophy. As stated in his work The Prince, the main purpose is to rule by any means necessary. While in theory, it can be a benefit to have a strong leader that will do whatever necessary to lead. Without any morals it’s hard to imagine if there could be anything positive to reflect on. Machiavelli preaches fear within his writings and concludes that a prince should rather be “feared” than loved (Gorland, 2010). The reasoning for this as he states in his book that a prince’s safety can only be guaranteed when others “fear” him (Gorland, 2010) because “anyone who does not care about dying is able to harm him” (Machiavelli, nd). While there have been some controversy as to whether Machiavelli actually believed in what he wrote or whether it was just his interpretation on how a prince should rule, his teachings have made a big impact in our world (Deutsch & Fornieri, 2009).
Machiavelli’s influence is especially noticeable among some of history’s worse dictators. Adolph Hitler is a perfect example of how Machiavelli’s teachings in The Prince could’ve been an influence. When we think about the writings that Machiavelli wrote about showing fear to the people and doing whatever necessary to rule, Hitler’s actions during World War II seems to have been taking right out of The Prince. Machiavelli depicts a brutal world in of duplicity, cruelty and savagery (Deutsch & Fornieri, 2009). Hitler’s reign of Germany during World War II also depicted this image. Hitler stormed across most of Europe and slaughtered millions of Jewish people without remorse. A quote from chapter XIV from The Prince that best describes Hitler’s actions (Machiavelli, n.d.) states that “a prince must have no other objective, no other thought , nor take up any profession but that of war, it’s methods and it’s discipline, for that is the only art expected of a ruler”. In seeing how Machiavelli’s philosophy focusing so much on ruling by intimidation, it’s hard to see anything positive to come from it. A regime that would use Machiavelli’s words to rule could not exist today.
Each philosopher has provided much influence to political thought and both have given different views on what could be a good society. In the end, what really matters the most is which philosopher provides the best stance on how a good society could be created. Augustine’s view of religion and how it can influence society is the most logical because there are moral values that both state and ruler need to follow. However, any ruler can seize that opportunity to use religion to rule and brainwash the followers to live a life that they may not agree with, as witnessed in the Taliban rule. Another thought is that there are so many other religions in the world that it would be hard for one ruler to choose just one religion for everybody to follow. In doing so that can cause instability or civil unrest among the state.
Machiavelli’s rule by any means necessary can only lead to unrest and oppression. A leader who places fear in to their followers can only lead to war. We have seen this in history during World War II and most recently in the Iraq war. Dictators like Hitler and Saddam rule by placing fear into their state and threaten death to anyone who opposes. The times have shown that these types of regime usually do not last long and in the aftermath, all that remains will be a broken state. That is hardly what I would call a good society.
In conclusion, while Augustine’s view is flawed in some ways, it’s easiest to see that good morals and good leadership is what creates a good society. While we may not agree with what our governments may propose from time to time, we can be assured that most decisions that are made were with good intentions. At least in Augustine’s view, morality over rules power. A good society is one that makes us love our neighbor and hope to do good for the better of man. What good is a society when we are constantly live in fear? Augustine believed that all living beings “possess and intrinsic and natural yearning for peace” and when we find that peace “distinctive to our own being”, that’s when we will find a good society that will make us whole (Deustch & Fornieri, 2009).
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