Machiavelli and Holy Emperor Nicholas II

Archpriest Alexander Shargunov

Machiavelli and Emperor Nicholas II Machiavelli and Emperor Nicholas II
Not everyone knows that Machiavelli, the early sixteenth century Italian political thinker, with his famous book, The Prince, played a fatal role in the death of Emperor Nicholas II and the destruction of Orthodox monarchy in Russia. What is the logic of this strange conjunction? Why do the ideas of Machiavelli and his followers continue to this day to enable a reorientation of politics all over the world?

We have before us the phenomenon of loss of faith in God, and therefore a crude distortion of the understanding of original sin. At the foundation of all his reasoning is radical pessimism with respect to human nature. He asserts that, “A wise leader of a nation should not uphold the loyalty to which he has sworn if this loyalty goes against his own interests.” And he explains: “If all people were good, this rule would not be a good rule, but since they are bad and do not keep the promises they made to you, you should not consider yourself obligated to keep your promises with regard to them.” Machiavelli knows that people are bad, but he does not know that their corruptness is not radical; that this leprosy cannot destroy man’s original nobility, for human nature always remains good in its essence and deep yearnings. And this goodness that lies at the foundation of everything, which comes into contact with various manifestations of evil in man, is that mysterious power of his inner struggle with himself, and his spiritual growth. But Machiavelli’s horizon is only earthly, his understanding of man no more than fleshly, and his crude pragmatism conceals from him the image of God in man.

In such blindness is rooted all politics that rely on force, and all political totalitarianism. As Machiavelli supposes, people in their ordinary life are most often led by lust and fear. But the prince is a man, or more precisely, a beast of prey, gifted with a mind and ability to calculate. In order to rule people, that is, to take pleasure in having authority, the prince should be at once both a fox and a lion. Fear, animal fear and animal caution, united with human artfulness, are the highest regulators of politics in a kingdom. However, Machiavelli’s pessimism is quite distant from any heroic extremes. He enters into concordance with evil, which he sees all around. He is in agreement with it because otherwise a real danger exists of laboring more likely for his own demise than for his own success. “It is necessary for the prince,” he says, to learn how to be kind, if that is what circumstances require.” And that is perfectly logical if the main goal is only earthly success. Following after Descartes, he considers it a necessary code to emulate the customs and actions of those with whom he should associate, taking more into calculation what they do than what they say. He does not see that this is a good rule of immorality, for people more often live according to the feelings rather than the mind.

It is interesting that in support of his convictions, Machiavelli even points to the Church. In his opinion, the Church achieves success when it is guided by similar wisdom. After all, not only secular rulers, but even certain princes of the Church, such as the Roman Pope Alexander VI (Borgia),[1] whom Machiavelli often cites as an example, turned up among his adepts. But should Christians really emulate the behavior of such princes of the Church? According to the teaching of the Church, they should follow after Christ and His saints. The first step of a person desiring to live according to Christian morals should be the resolve not to accept the habits and deeds of this world. This is what the Gospels prescribe: But do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not (Mt. 23:3).

What is the practical result of Machiavelli’s teaching for the modern consciousness? A deep divide, an incurable separation between politics and morals. And, subsequently, a lethal contradiction between what they call idealism (mistakenly combined with morality), and what they call realism (mistakenly combined with politics). Thus is born an irreconcilable conflict between morals and pitiless reality. Thus was spilled the blood of the holy Royal Passion-bearers and the great hosts of new martyrs and confessors of Russia. We know the holy Tsar’s prophetic words: “If needed, I am ready to give myself as a sacrifice for Russia.” It is astounding that for Machiavelli (as also for Nietzsche) a so-called moral person is considered a victim. But in what sense? In the exact opposite sense. He considers him to be weak in spirit, unarmed in battle, and his harm consists in following the beautiful rules of a perfection that is separate from earthly reality. In Machiavelli’s opinion, it is only an appearance of virtue, a dream, self-indulgence, and ambition. When drawn into the complexities of life, he says, a truly virtuous person is not afraid to do what the ordinary person calls evil; and his actions, dictated by justice, are not revenge, or cruelty in the struggle against cunning and evil enemies. How familiar this reasoning is. Isn’t that how the politicians of “practical wisdom” accused the saintly Tsar of weak will and lack of discernment? Meanwhile, they themselves were filled with “betrayal, cowardliness, and deceit”.[2] Machiavelli teaches that patience (tolerance) is needed with regard to the evil that exists, for the sake of avoiding the greater evil, or for the sake of weakening or gradually decreasing that evil: “The lesser evil should be considered a good.” According to Machiavelli, even hiding your thoughts from your friends is not always a betrayal of them or incompatibility: “Man is given a tongue in order to hide his thoughts.”

What has been said does not mean that Machiavelli denied the moral foundations of traditional values. He was a cynic with an observant and sharp mind, more the inheritor than the opponent of the rich treasure of knowledge gathered over centuries of Christianity and degenerating before our eyes. He was ready to praise the rules of virtue if in specific circumstances they help achieve success. But at the same time he teaches his prince to be cruel and perfidious if circumstances require it. And when he writes that the prince should learn to be kind, he is absolutely admitting that not being kind means being evil. But what difference is there between good and evil, virtue and vice, if the main goal is success?

For Machiavelli the politician’s aim is to win new positions and hold on to power. In fact, the aim of a politician should be the good of the people; that is, something essentially and concretely human, inalienably linked with morality. This good is a good life, and that means not only in the material sense. It should be connected with the essential needs and dignity of mankind. This good is at once material, intellectual, and moral. It is mainly moral, as the person himself. It is the good of the human personality. Treachery, betrayal, lies, cruelty, murder, and other similar means that can be (according to circumstances) useful for the one in power or for the development of a nation, can prove destructive for the good of the people, here on earth, and in eternity. For the fate of the human personality is higher than time and bound up with a goal that absolutely surpasses earthly interests. Therefore, we say that power built upon Christian foundations helps a greater number of people to achieve their ultimate destiny. Machiavelli destroyed this fundamental principle of politics and life.

If the goal of politics is power, then the ruler should learn how to overstep everything in in order to keep it, says Machiavelli. Many great politicians, especially the ones we know of in the past century, understood this lesson well and consciously assimilated it. Essentially, the history of mankind then followed this path.

It is enough only to recall the name, Hitler. Absolute Machiavellianism turned politics into the art of creating misery for millions of people. This is all too obvious. But doesn’t Machiavellianism achieve undeniable success? In the least it achieves success in the eyes of all during the course of a specific time period. How can it not achieve success when everything it sacrifices is for the sake of one goal—success? Herein lies the trial and temptation of the modern consciousness. The twentieth century has more than convincingly shown that the people who do not wish to be swallowed up by such power can stop its victorious march and dash its banner to the ground only when they sacrifice in this struggle their own blood, their own wealth, their own dear treasures of peaceful life, and turn against it all their material weaponry. But in order to put an end to this chimera and save themselves, mustn’t they also use not only material weaponry, which in certain situations may be completely lacking, but also their thought and spirit? Will they give in to the temptation to perish out of their love for earthly life, which will be seized from them in any case, perhaps along with the heavenly life—out of infidelity towards higher human duty?

St. Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century wrote about the unrighteous, falsely religious authority that will make all goodness abstract in order to proceed to extreme evil. The Church does not have the right to confirm an abstract power decorated with a cross, because service to the Church lies in preaching the Cross, which is God’s power and our salvation.

By his labor of confessing the faith, the holy Tsar put to shame, first of all, democracy—the “great lie of our time,” in the expression of Constantine Pobedonostev, when everything is determined by the majority of voices, and, in the final analysis, by those who cry the loudest, “We do not want Him, but Barabbas”—not Christ, but antichrist. And secondly, the Tsar rebuked in the embodiment of a constitutional monarchy all compromise with a lie—also a great danger of our time.

Russia has had outstanding Tsars: Peter I, Catherine the Great, Nicholas I, Alexander III, when Russia flourished with great victories and prosperous reigns. But the Tsar and Passion-Bearer Nicholas II, under whose reign Russia’s might decidedly continued its growth, is first of all a witness to the truth of Orthodox sovereignty and authority, built upon true Christian principles. For him, there wasn’t the slightest separation between the service of a sovereign and the fulfillment of his personal Christian duty.

To the end of time, and especially in the latter times, the Church will be tempted by the devil, as Christ was in Gethsemane and on Golgotha: “Come down from the Cross!” “Depart just a little from the demands of man’s greatness, about which Your Gospels speak, become more accessible to all, and we will believe in You. There are situations when it is necessary to do this. Come down from the Cross, and the Church’s affairs will go better.”

The main spiritual significance of today’s events—the conclusion drawn from centuries infected by the spirit of Machiavelli and especially the twentieth century—are the ever more successful efforts of the enemy directed at making our “salt lose its flavor”. Just as before the [Bolshevik] Revolution, so also now, the greatest danger consists in “outward appearances”. Many believe in God, in His Providence, many strive to restore an Orthodox monarchy, but in their hearts they rely on earthly power: on “horses and chariots” (Ps. 18:8). They say, let the cross be as a beautiful symbol… Meanwhile we will set up our own earthly kingdom, according to our earthly understanding. But the martyric blood of the holy Tsar rebukes the apostates now, just as it did then.

Archpriest Alexander Shargunov
Translation by

17 июля 2014 г.

[1] (1 January 1431 – 18 August 1503) was Pope from August 11, 1492 to his death on August 18, 1503. Called “most successful” by some of his papal successors, he was notorious for a rapacious desire for power and a huge progeny born to numerous mistresses.

[2] The words of Tsar Nicholas II concerning the government officials around him.

Храм Новомученников Церкви Русской. Внести лепту
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Carol Dietrich13 февраля 2016, 21:00
Do you know if Tsar Nicholas II had read Machiaveli's The Prince or whether he was familiar with Machiavelli's writings? Might his ministers or advisors been familiar with Machiavelli's political theory? Thank you.
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