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The Pope: Machiavellian

May 11, 2010
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NOTE: The purpose of this essay was to show with a modern event how Machiavelli could be used in today’s society relevantly. My personal views of the Pope are irrelevant. Purely used as an example and not to judge the Pope, even though it may look otherwise. I also compared Thoreau and Machiavelli to the play “Antigone”.

Machiavelli’s view in Antigone is clearly shown in how Creon handles himself and he keeps power. Henry David Thoreau’s philosophy is shown in Antigone, and these contrasting philosophies of Antigone and Creon lead to Antigone’s death. Antigone stays true to beliefs which make her a martyr while Creon is battling within himself and isn’t a pure Machiavellian which turns him into a tragic hero. The current Pope can be seen applying Machiavelli to the current issue within the church involving him. He displays Machiavellian characteristics to how he’s handling the situation. Especially being a person in such a high religious position, makes him even more interesting as how Machiavelli approaches religion in his philosophy.
Machiavelli sees life as war, and that enemies should be taken care of without mercy. He shows view he has when he said “A prince…must he take anything as his profession but war” (paragraph 1, lines 1-2). Creon believes this, and sees people as either enemies or allies. He shows this in his natural language. For example, he says to Antigone referring to her brothers “If you honor the traitor just as much as him” (Line 580), and also he says “Aren’t you ashamed to differ so from them(the public)? So disloyal!” (571-572) Phrases such as these show Creon’s Machiavellian mindset. Another thing Machiavelli says is needed to keep power is “a prince must be prudent enough to know how to escape the bad reputation of those vices that would lose the state for him”. In this he means that any things that make someone look bad should be hidden. This is where Creon fails at keeping up the “Machiavellian” way. Machiavelli endorses being merciless and ruthless, to be a tyrant. But not to be viewed as a tyrant is key to keeping power. Antigone reveals the public opinion of him when she says “The citizens here would all agree (with me)…if their lips weren’t locked in fear… Lucky tyrants… Ruthless power to say and do whatever pleases them.” (562-564)That sums up how Creon is viewed in the play. But to look good to where it becomes a hindrance is bad, as he states, applying it to generosity, “I say that it would be good to be considered generous… generosity used in such a manner as to give as to give you reputation for it will harm you”. (Paragraph 9) He means it’s good to be generous, but if you are seen as too generous then it will bring you down. Creon does not have the body buried to not look weak and show mercy on the enemy. Showing mercy to enemies is considered looking weak. Creon can’t show generosity to enemies, or he looks weak; that’s how he viewed his actions. That’s what Machiavelli was referring to when he said that being generous can become a hindrance. You need to look generous only when necessary. Machiavelli also says fear, over love, is the way to rule, he acknowledges this when he says “because love is held by a chain of obligation…which is broken on every occasion… but fear is held by a dread of punishment which will never abandon you.”(Paragraph 14) Through this philosophy, Creon sends out the decree that the punishment is death. This is how he rules in fear. And just as Antigone said the people’s lips were locked in fear, that is how Machiavelli says to rule, and that is how Creon rules.
Henry David Thoreau goes on the principle power isn’t everything. Antigone uses this principle also. But freedom for individuals and that the morale rights are more important than ruling. That too much regulation gets in the way of the morale law. Thoreau sees it right to go against government when it’s necessary. He says “All men recognize the right to revolution… and to resist government when its tyranny or inefficiency are great and unendurable.”( ) Although Antigone knows she’s breaking the law made by Creon, she doesn’t care, because the divine law law is more important. She displays this when she says to Creon “Not ashamed for a moment, not to honor my brother, my own flesh and blood.”(574-575) To be just is more important than retaining power. Power in the majority or in one person is not right. Thoreau reveals this when he says “Must the citizen… resign his conscience to the legislator?” Antigone’s conscience is shown when she says “I was born to join in love, not hate- that is my nature.”(590-591) In this she says no matter the law, she will not resign what she believes, so she went and buried her brother. Thoreau says it’s the right for citizens to overthrow an unjust government to uphold the divine law. Even though Thoreau does not have a favorable opinion of government, he still respects it, he shows this respect when he says: “The authority of government… such as I am willing to submit to.” Antigone’s beliefs also relates to this, as she does not fear the punishment of the law she has broken, and has broken it not trying to run from the law. Antigone doesn’t try to fight the punishment, and fully accepts death as her punishment. She admits to Creon that she accepts death when she rhetorically asks him “Creon, what more do you want than my arrest and execution?”(555-556) Thoreau goes on to say that “I shall endeavor to be satisfied with things as they are and say it is the will of God.” Antigone sees the will of the gods to be more important than anything Creon can decree. She tells it to Creon saying “Nor did I think your edict had such force that you, a mere mortal, could override the gods” (503-504). Antigone makes it clear what is more important and she pays for it with her life willingly.
Neither Machiavelli nor Thoreau have any flaws in their argument on how to live life. Flaws only appear when there are conflicting assumptions between two philosophies. For example, for Creon, the assumption was to keep power. And had he ruled more ideally, more Machiavellian, he would have become powerful. He was justified in his actions through the assumption that retaining power is the most important thing, and Machiavelli’s philosophy is the most proficient way of gaining and retaining power. But looking through Antigone’s eyes, it has many flaws, but that is only it is not power she values. She values the upholding of a divine law, a power more powerful than herself. It is not power she is searching for, but to honor what needs honoring. So to Creon, what Antigone was silly, only because he held different values. His higher values were power and retaining it. Antigone does not see it that way. SO when the decree was made, they were bound to end up how they did, because of their opposing views had them face off. So in the end, Creon failed to stick to his Machiavellian ways, turning him into an antihero and Antigone into a martyr. But for Antigone, she accepted her punishment because of her belief that it was meant to be as long as she upheld the divine law. So even though she died, she actually didn’t lose, because she didn’t hold her life and possessions above what she was fighting for, the divine law. So each philosophy is not flawed in its own right. They justify themselves through their own assumptions.
The current pope, Benedict XVI, can be seen as a Machiavellian. He is described as “more introverted than his predecessor… with the crags and wrinkles of a sinister great-uncle… jousting with liberal theologians and being caricatured as “God’s Rottweiler.””(Ross Douthat, “The better pope”, NY times, 11 April, 2010 ) John Paul, the former pope was much more loved, but Benedict does not follow the same path. In the current papacy, there is a scandal. It is failure to report pedophilia in the church. Prior to Benedict becoming pope, he was a cardinal. He was described by a witness, saying “The cardinal “was tough as nails in a very cordial way,” (Ross Douthat, “The better pope”, NY Times, 11 April 2010) This shows how Benedict made himself to be. Being a cardinal it was his duty to report cases, some of which were priests breaking their vows, and committing pedophilia. What happened was it took a very long time for the case to be properly taken care of. It took four years just to be looked at, as revealed in this statement: “four years after the priest and his bishop first asked that he be defrocked, the future Pope Benedict XVI, then a top Vatican official, signed a letter saying that the case needed more time and that “the good of the Universal Church”(Laurie Goodstein and Michael Luo, “Pope put off punishing abusive priest”, NY times, 9 April 2010). In this he uses the logic that it is for the “good” and for the church. When if taken with a Machiavellian viewpoint, it is only good when it is good for reputation to be good; and to not let it hold you back from gaining power. He is only now addressing this issue because it is more public and can hurt his image in the eyes of the people and ultimately, can take power from him. The pope is addressing it very well in terms of Machiavelli’s philosophy. It was not necessary for him to do anything, but now he must look good and religious since more attention is called to him in such a scandalous way. He reacts to the scandal, shown here: “In his first such encounter since a sexual abuse scandal began to envelop the Catholic Church in recent months, Pope Benedict XVI met privately on Sunday with a small group of victims of sexual abuse by priests, expressing his “shame and sorrow” at their plight” (Rachel Donadio, “Pope meets victims of abuse in Malta”, 18 April 2010) Once the news broke, he started a campaign to make his image look favorable in view of sexual abuse, so he goes and visits victims of sexual abuse. Now he is building an image of his compassion toward these victims even though it was not shown when he was a cardinal. He pope said, referring to his visit to Malta “I shared their suffering and emotionally prayed with them,” (Elisabetta Povoledo, “Pope pledges to confront abuse crisis” 21 April 2010). The pope has a very serious tone to him but also, when he needs, appears religious and very good. It can be seen as classic Machiavellian, and he is dealing with the situation in a Machiavellian style also.
The Machiavellian approach to life can be used very successfully. But it is a fine line that is walked in order to be successful. With Machiavelli, it’s all about keeping for yourself but not to look as if you are taking from people. Not to seem like you are taking power. And being greedy. Being a Machiavellian, it means to be ruthless, self-serving, greedy, and be overall selfish for success, but not to show it. It is about deceiving and looking good even though you really are utilizing bad qualities. It’s hiding those bad qualities that maintain your power that you need people to not see. Creon fails at this, he breaks down in the end, but the pope, one of the more unlikely people ideally, can be said to display these qualities and execute a Machiavellian style rather nicely. However, with Thoreau, it is much simpler and easier to follow his philosophy. The value of power isn’t as great as the value of good. With that assumption, there is no need or want for power, just justice, and when put into effect, can create a harmony, also no need to be ruthless and evil and self-serving. As far as the ultimate question of which is more applicable today; it depends on the point of view. If you want that power, Machiavelli’s philosophy works quite well, but if you focus on more pure things, and strive for justice, Thoreau makes a better argument.

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