Coordinated by Filip STANCIU


Machiavelli and His New Paradigm of Legitimate Order.

 A Voegelian Reading



University of Bucharest

Abstract: Most often, Machiavelli is understood in the light of his realism and pragmatism. This paper aims to offer a more comprehensive interpretation of his political thinking. I will start from the common premise that Machiavelli is considered one of the first early modern authors. In this regard, his works like The Prince and Discourses on Livy should not be understood separately. It is the main point in the following paper that Machiavelli created in these works a new paradigm of legitimate order. In the second part of the article I shall engage Eric Voegelin’s argument for an insight into the issue of legitimacy. He starts from the breakup between the temporal and spiritual unity of Western society which creates premises for a new order in history. Finally, the idea of “the myth of order through intra-mundane power” which is advocated by Voegelin offers an interesting hermeneutics of legitimacy to the new political order in Machiavelli’s thinking.

Keywords: Niccolò Machiavelli, paradigm of legitimacy, political order, Eric Voegelin.

1.                   INTRODUCTION


Towards the middle of the 20th century, the issue of the legitimacy of the modern age was raised by Karl Löwith in his book, Meaning in History (1949)[1]. From Löwith’s perspective, the rational project of the modern age in its entirety is seen, as an illegitimate attempt to immanentise the Christian salvation history, and to transform the Kingdom of God into paradise on earth. In 1966, Hans Blumenberg published Die Legitimitat der Neuzeit (The Legitimacy of the Modern Age)[2] in which he took issue with Löwith over the nature of modernity and re-launched the debate over the legitimacy of the modern age. The two German authors seemed preoccupied primarily about insight in the transformations that occurred in modern age and they used different frames for understanding world history, providence and worldliness. It is one of Blumenberg’s main viewpoints that the modern project is not “the transposition of authentically theological contents into secularised alienation from their origin but rather as the reoccupation of answer position that became vacant and whose corresponding questions could not be eliminated”.[3] The legitimacy of the modern age seems to be based on this claim of reoccupation. Whether we will agree with one of these authors or not, what I shall retain as important for this paper is that the issue of legitimacy has broken out in the early modern age together with the request for a new order.

My argument hereinafter is that Machiavelli created a new paradigm of legitimacy of political power through his revolutionary image of a new order. In the first part of this paper I shall bring together two of Machiavelli’s works: The Prince and Discourses on Livy hoping to get a deeper insight in Machiavelli’s political and philosophical ideas, and of course for the purpose to check my hypothesis. Apparently when compared, these works manifest an astonishing homogeneity when I shall analyse them in terms of Machiavelli’s search for a new paradigm of order.[4] In the second part of the article I shall refer to the “myth of order” as this expression is used by Eric Voegelin, and I shall consider his idea that “the myth of order through intra-mundane power must be presupposed in reading the systematic main work of Machiavelli”[5].

Later on in the exposure of my arguments, I shall try to use Voegelin’s argument in order to go deeper into the issue of legitimacy, which he only mentions. Finally I shall return to my hypothesis and I shall confirm that when Machiavelli enunciates the revolutionary principles for a new order, he not only imagines a new type of political order, but he creates at the same time the basis for legitimising such an order.



There is a particularity of Machiavelli’s work, namely that of being closely connected to the events of his time. Of course, scholars use very different criteria for their interpretations of such complex circumstances. For some of them, Machiavelli’s major writings are to be considered a direct response to the crisis of the Italian states. Another approach has paid a particular attention to the intellectual and ideological background in which The Prince and the Discourses emerged.[6] Beyond these tendencies, I consider that the historical and cultural context of Machiavelli’s writings is of great importance when one seeks to highlight a certain aspect of the novelty of his political ideas which are located in the early modernity.

The conflict with the great European powers did not create only disorder among the Italian states, but it has brought to the fore new models for the state. At that time, these models were alien to the composite Italian political world in such a way that they could not be considered imitable.[7] As the matter of fact they put in the spotlight the means by which they consolidated their legitimacy. These aspects certainly intrigued Machiavelli and gave him the necessary impulse to analyse and to explore the dimensions of legitimacy in the future unified Italian state. If we have in mind only The Prince, we may assert that the republican political system had come to appear fragile in its confrontation with the other European systems, according to Machiavelli. If on the other hand we have in mind the Discourses on Livy, we will notice a different political solution proposed by him, since in this work he argued in favour of the republican system.

The context might have deterred Machiavelli from looking critically at the models and the values which had been transmitted by tradition. Thus he cannot be regarded as an apologist of a system or another, but as an explorer of the limits of a new possible system of order that needs to be legitimate to be adopted in the near future. In this regard, I agree with Guarini’s suggestion that Machiavelli may be considered one step ahead of his time, because he goes beyond the “freedom or tyranny” scheme characteristic of civic humanism. In this respect, “Machiavelli compares the different models in a completely different context so as to shed light on a completely different problem – the problem, one might say, of the formation of the large state, the new protagonist of European politics.[8]

Another aspect which might have had a notable influence on Machiavelli’s works is his unclear civic status inside the city of Florence. Notwithstanding his unconditioned affection for his city, Machiavelli did not have full rights of citizenship and therefore he could not be elected to the civic magistracies. He was undoubtedly aware, on the one hand, of his exclusion from the citizenry, and on the other hand, of his role as public servant. Although he was excluded from any decision-making power, he had responsibility in executive functions where he could exert some influence as an adviser.[9] This position also gave him the possibility to acquire a specific experience outside the city, during his diplomatic missions. He became interested in the international situation and also in the possibility to conceive of a framework for a new political balance, capable to preserve the autonomy of the whole system of the Italian states.[10] Moreover, in my opinion, it was not only the issue of a possible form of civil government at the core of Machiavelli’s investigations, but the search for a new type of legitimate order able to ensure the survival of the state.

The Prince was destined to criticism ever since its publication and it enjoyed the special honour to be attacked from all sides. As the matter of fact, it became known to every reader of the sixteenth or seventeenth century. We need to mention that Machiavelli did not write The Prince simply to obtain the favour of a job from Lorenzo de Medici. His intention was to address the key issues concerning the security of a regime like that of the Medici family.[11] It is important to mention that aspect because it might be linked to the issue of legitimacy of a political regime, as Machiavelli himself seems to suggest:

A prince can never make himself secure when the people are his enemy, because there are so many of them; he can make himself secure against the nobles, because they are so few. The worst that a prince can expect from a hostile people is to be abandoned by them; but with a hostile nobility, not only does he have to fear being abandoned, but also that they will oppose him. […] the nobles […] always have time to save themselves, seeking the favours of the side they believe will prevail. Furthermore, a prince must always live with the same common people, but he can easily do without the same nobles, having the power every day to unmake them, or to take away and restore their power as he sees fit”.[12]

The issue of keeping the power for a long time is recurrent in The Prince. In this paragraph the preservation of reign depends on gaining the favour of the people. To be abandoned by them might be similar to loosing the legitimacy.

It is also symptomatic for the issue of legitimacy the purpose for which the book was written, as Machiavelli himself avouched:

“If followed prudently, the things written above make a new prince seem like a long-established one, and render him immediately more secure and settled in his state than if he had possessed it for a long time. For a new prince is far more closely observed in his actions than a hereditary prince. When his actions are recognized as skilful, they strike men much more and bind them to him more strongly than does antiquity of bloodline. For men are much more taken by present concerns than by those of the past […]. In fact, they will seize every measure to defend the new prince so long as he is not neglectful of his duty. Thus, he will have double glory of having founded a new principality, and having adorned and furnished it with good laws, good armies, and good actions; just as the doubly shameful who, being born a prince, loses his principality because of his lack of prudence”.[13]

What makes a new prince seem like a long-established one? To be able to formulate an answer to this question certainly implies a direct or an indirect reference to the problem of legitimacy. The difference between a new prince and a long-established one is that the latter finds himself in a legitimate posture which has strengthened and perpetuated his position. What would make the former to have the same privileged statute is the same legitimacy which functions as a guarantee for a durable reign. The principle of heredity is demystified and considered by Machiavelli only a fragile pillar for stability when compared to skilful actions. He also sets the common good at the core of these actions.

Sometimes the principle of legitimacy looks too vague, since one of Machiavelli’s recommendations for a prince is to make himself feared instead of to seek manifest gratitude. But these realistic and strong recommendations should be understood within the ambitious project of Machiavelli to compose a great work on statesmanship hoping to contribute to the foundation of a new political order and mainly to Italy’s emancipation. 

The Prince is the symbol of authority, but Machiavelli pushes the limits of authority in The Prince with the specific aim to restore political order. For this reason, Machiavelli gives recommendations for maintaining long governance in almost every chapter of the Prince. More implicit is his search for an internal source of authority of a prince in order to win his legitimacy. He puts this in a negative way:

“As I have said, what makes him hated above all else is being rapacious and usurper of the property and the women of his subjects. He must refrain from this. In most cases, so long as you do not deprive them of either their honour or their property, most men live content, and you only have to content with the ambition of the few, who can be restrained without difficulty and by many means. What makes him despised is being considered changeable, frivolous, effeminate, cowardly, and irresolute”.[14]

In a positive way, the prince who has already strengthened his position through his virtues has also gained an imperturbable legitimacy:

“I conclude, therefore, that a prince should not be too concerned about conspiracies when the people are well disposed toward him, but that when they are hostile and regard him with hatred, he must fear everything and everyone. Well-organized states and wise princes have taken great care not to drive the nobles to desperation and to satisfy the people and keep them contented, for this is one of the most important matters that concerns a prince”.[15]

One could assert that the issue of legitimacy is not so visible in The Prince, and therefore is by far the main concern of Machiavelli. I would answer that it is precisely this apparent overlook that made the issue of legitimacy ubiquitous. It is true that Machiavelli nowhere directly refers to the problem of legitimacy. This argument should be enough to make undue any preoccupations for the issue. But this very fact is extremely astonishing in a book concerned with the novelty of a regime, the duration of a reign, or the dynamic of power, all these in a transition period and a chaotic political context. This looks really intriguing and makes us wonder if The Prince is not chiefly about gaining legitimacy inside a new created political order.

The Discourses on Livy, composed between 1513 and 1519, is considered the “republican masterpiece” of Machiavelli. In this work he instructed the future republican leaders with the same kind of political advice found in The Prince.[16] Yet the visible differences between The Prince and the Discourses on Livy, and the apparent opposition between them have often intrigued scholars to such an extent that they felt compelled to compare them. The common opinion that The Prince is a tyrannical book, whereas the Discourses is a virtuous republican book is also limitative.[17] We may consider the alternative to focus on each of these differences concurrently, but this method will certainly not offer a solution to the apparent contradiction between these two books.

The Discourses on Livy is considered the most unequivocal defence of the superiority of republican governments over principalities, and the most incontrovertibleargument is the paragraph in which Machiavelli proclaims that peoples have better judgment than princes:

“For a people that commands and is well ordered will be stable, prudent, and grateful no otherwise than a prince, or better than a prince, even one esteemed wise. On the other side, a prince unshackled from the laws will be more ungrateful, varying, and imprudent than a people. The variation in their proceeding arises not from a diverse nature – because it is one mode in all, and if there is advantage of good, it is in the people – but from having more or less respect for the laws within which both live”.[18]

Nonetheless, this paragraph looks like an argument that the two books are contradicting one another. In the following I will demonstrate that neither book is as opposed to the other as it first appears. In a more systematic and elaborate way, Machiavelli is concerned with the development of a new frame for a new order of the state as it appears in the Discourses. To be able to prove my assertion, I will dedicate a few lines to the key ideas of this book.

One of the early discourses is entitled “That It Is Necessary to Be Alone If One Wishes to Order a Republic Anew or to Reform It Altogether outside Its Ancient Orders”. Here Machiavelli strongly recommends that it is necessary for any ruling to depend on a single mind: “This should be taken as a general rule: that it never or rarely happens that any republic or kingdom is ordered well from the beginning or reformed altogether anew outside its old orders unless it is ordered by one individual. Indeed it is necessary that one give the mode and that any such ordering depend on his mind.”[19]

This emphasis laid on the singularity of the leader reminds us of The Prince. Moreover, in this discourse, Machiavelli again excuses the extraordinary actions of a founder or reformer, as being necessary to achieve sole authority so as to be able to order a republic. It might be necessary to have recourse to violence because “it is very suitable that when the deed accuses him, the effect excuses him; and when the effect is good, as was that of Romulus, it will always excuse the deed”[20]. But Machiavelli moves rapidly from one to many. The issue of legitimacy is suspended between the individual leader and civic community. As a matter of fact, the prince’s republic will last long only “if it remains in the care of many and its maintenance stays with many”. The singular leader is meant to order and his authority should be used in this sense, but if he has the legitimacy, many are needed to maintain such an order:

“Besides this, if one individual is capable of ordering, the thing itself is ordered to last long not if it remains on the shoulders of one individual but rather if it remains in the care of many and its maintenance stays with many. For as many are not capable of ordering a thing because they do not know its good, which is because of the diverse opinions among them, so when they have come to know it, they do not agree to abandon it[21].”

According to Machiavelli, the need for a strong leader arises not only once at the founding of order, but repeatedly for maintaining, reforming, or reorganising it. Scholars cannot but recognize the mixture of republicanism and despotism in the Discourses. That refutes the limitative opinion that the Discourses is a decent, republican book as opposed to the wicked, despotic The Prince.[22] In his apparent pure republicanism of the Discourses, Machiavelli reveals princely elements.[23]

The formation of a new good republic is like a circle: once a virtuous prince acquires the power, he organises the republic in such a way that it will become able to have successively infinite virtuous princes in the future through election: “A republic should do so much more, as through the mode of electing it has not only two in succession but infinite most virtuous princes who are successors to one another. This virtuous succession will always exist in every well-ordered republic”.[24] This would be at stake in the republican system, and not to take the government away from the hands of princes. The issue of legitimacy is not an end in itself for Machiavelli, and maybe for that reason it is not a principal subject in literature. He did not seek to find a formula of legitimacy but mainly an image of a reliable regime. In this way I think we should understand the remark: “Republics need to be founded by something like tyrants to be well ordered; tyrants need to found something like republics to maintain their states and names”.[25]

The advantage of republics is that they look just by definition. Yet they have their own diseases, like corruption, and Machiavelli problematised the issue of ordering and maintaining liberty in a corrupt city. It is important to see how he understands the corrosive nature of corruption, as harmful for order. This became one of the arguments of the dependence of republican ends on despotic means. In the context of pervasive corruption people “cannot live free”.[26] Machiavelli wonders “In What Mode a Free State, if There Is One, Can Be Maintained in Corrupt Cities” and “If There Is Not, in What Mode to Order It”[27]. According to him it is very difficult to maintain a free state in a corrupt city because it is “almost impossible to give a rule for it.[28]

“For as good customs have need of laws to maintain themselves so laws have need of good customs so as to be observed. Besides this, orders and laws made in a republic at its birth, when men were good, are no longer to the purpose later, when they have become wicked. If laws vary according to the accidents in a city, its orders never vary, or rarely; this makes new laws insufficient because the orders, which remain fixed, corrupt them”.[29] 

Here we understand that according to Machiavelli, not only the regime is important, but the order of the state, or to be more specific “orders” understood as its fundamental institutions or constitution. We see how the idea of order becomes a genuine political notion in Machiavelli’s thinking. Political order is not merely opposed to political disorder. The “order of government” might be identified with a political background, a way of imagining the state:

“To make this part better understood, I say in Rome there was the order of the government, or truly of the state, and afterward the laws, which together with the magistrates checked the citizen. The order of the state was the authority of the people, of the Senate, of the tribunes, of the consuls; the mode of soliciting and creating the magistrates; and the mode of making the laws”.[30]

In this kind of political order neither tyranny, nor republic have absolute power or represent absolute danger. It is a long term project of Machiavelli and it might be considered his political ideal.

If one is needed to order, then many should be empowered to maintain it: “If princes are superior to people in ordering laws, forming civil lives, and ordering new statutes and orders, people are so much superior in maintaining things ordered that without doubt they attain the glory of those who order them.”[31] Republicanism conducted by a strong leader is capable of re-legitimation, therefore it has an intrinsic dynamism. Machiavelli foresaw that the republican system is self-reforming and self-controllable. Republics are able to accommodate themselves to the times by choosing among their citizens those they will employ as princely leaders. In Machiavelli, “tyranny” is used precisely to balance the republican system as well as republic is necessary to prevent potential abuses of “tyranny”.

Another element which makes visible the resemblances between the two books is Machiavelli’s critique of classical morality and religion that appears in the Discourses as well as in The Prince. This argument will lead us toward some provisional conclusions of this first part of the present study, as it will be seen later. At first glance the issue of religion in the Discourses leads us to believe that we are dealing with an initiative of de-legitimating promoted by Machiavelli in order to obtain a re-legitimation of political systems, and I will explain this statement.

In what resides the in-actuality of religion according to Machiavelli’s new image of order? A harsh criticism can be found in these Discourses:

“Of How Much Importance It Is to Take Account of Religion, and How Italy, for Lacking It by Means of the Roman Church, Has Been Ruined;[32] What Peoples the Romans Had to Combat, and That They Obstinately Defended Their Freedom;[33] If One Wishes a Sect or a Republic to Live Long, It Is Necessary to Draw It Back Often toward Its Beginning”.[34]

At first sight, it appears that Machiavelli’s objection refers only to the Church as institution, which has kept Italy weak and disunited:

“For as where there is religion one presuppose every good, so where it is missing one presupposes the contrary. Thus we Italians have this first obligation to the church and to the priests that we have become without religion and wicked; but we have yet a greater one to them that is the second cause of our ruin. This is that the church has kept and keeps this province divided. […] Thus, since the church has not been powerful enough to seize Italy, nor permitted another seize it, it has been the cause that [Italy] has not been able to come under one head but has been under many princes and lords, from whom so much disunion and so much weakness have arisen that it has been led to be the prey not only of barbarian powers but of whoever assaults it”.[35]

As we can see, his anticlerical critic envisages both the monopoly of the church legitimacy together with its authority, and the weakness of the church in secular affairs, like politics. The church might have its own representation of earthly order, but that certainly does not coincide with Machiavelli’s notion of political order. Besides, his anticlerical critique is enhanced by some other kind of reproaches. He accuses not only the corruption existing in the church, but also the passivity and weakness promoted under the mantle of religion.

“For our religion, having shown the truth and the true way, makes us esteem less the honour of the world, whereas the Gentiles, esteeming it very much and having placed the highest good in it, were more ferocious in their actions. […] The ancient religion did not beatify men if they were not full of worldly glory, as were captains of armies and princes of republics. Our religion has glorified humble and contemplative more than active men. It has then placed the highest good in humility, abjectness, and contempt of things human; the other placed it in greatness of spirit, strength of body, and all other things capable of making men very strong. And if our religion asks that you have strength in yourself, it wishes you to be capable more of suffering than of doing something strong.[36] […] And although the world appears to be made effeminate and heaven disarmed, it arises without doubt more from the cowardice of the men who have interpreted our religion according to idleness and not according to virtue”.[37]

As we can notice, Machiavelli contests the authority of the church in two essential points: the institutional and psychosocial one. If the first aspect does not seem unusual for that, the second aspect might be easily considered Nietzschean avant la lettre. However, I still believe that this understanding would be incomplete without the issue of legitimacy. The fact that Machiavelli only belittles the role of religion I think is a strong argument. In this respect Machiavelli stresses the importance of religion for the legitimacy of a new prince. First of all, the religious ceremonies indicate the level of equilibrium in a certain order: “Those princes or those republics that wish to maintain themselves uncorrupt have above everything else to maintain the ceremonies of their religion uncorrupt and hold them always in veneration; for one can have no greater indication of the ruin of a province than to see the divine cult disdained.”[38]

Machiavelli further emphasises that a prince should have in mind that the existing religious order has an intrinsic legitimacy. This might be a disadvantage to him, since the prince has a delicate mission to forge a new order based on an exterior legitimacy. I called it exterior legitimacy because it needs to be sustained by some visible aspects like the prince’s virtues, and also by some concrete effects like the unity of the state or the common good. Thus, the prince should not commit the imprudence to challenge the consecrated legitimacy of religion. The exterior legitimacy is exposed to contestations at any time, while the former medieval religious legitimacy which I will call homogeneous legitimacy is unbreakable, at least for a period of time:

“This is easy to understand once it is known what religion where a man is born is founded on, for every religion has the foundation of its life on some principal order of its own. The life of the Gentile religion was founded on the responses of the oracles and on the sect of the diviners and augurs. All their ceremonies, sacrifices, and rites depended on them; for they easily believed that god who could predict your future good or your future ill for you could also grant it to you”.

Machiavelli proves to be an authentic modern man when he operates such dissociation inside the medieval homogeneous legitimacy. But that certainly was not his main purpose. He was fully aware that it was not yet the moment for a break with the past homogeneous legitimacy, and that could prove to be counterproductive. What Machiavelli tried to achieve through such dissociation was to transform the issue of religion from a fundament of legitimacy into an instrument of legitimacy:

“Thus, princes of a republic or of a kingdom should maintain the foundations of the religion they hold; and if this is done, it will be an easy thing for them to maintain their republic religious and, in consequence, good and magnify, even though they judge them false; and they should do it so much the mode as they are more prudent and more knowing of natural things. […] If such religion had been maintained by the princes of the Christian republic as was ordered by its giver, the Christian states and republics would be more united, much happier than they are. Nor can one make any better conjecture as to its decline than to see that those peoples who are closest to the Roman church, the head of our religion, have less religion”.[39]

What gives unity to both works, The Prince and the Discourses on Livy? The answer to this question is of great relevance for this study, and I will put it in simple words: Machiavelli’s search for the legitimacy of the new political regime. The prince is a form of legitimacy, as well as the people.

In The Prince we identified more or less visible traces of quest of legitimacy. This is primarily based on the prince’s authority and virtues. It is one of the reasons why Machiavelli insists on virtues. The prince is amoral, cunning, and violent, he obtains the power by force, but nowhere is he against his own state or neglectful with his people. He is not corrupt, and nowhere is his aim to become rich but a goal in itself. As regards the Discourses, this work completes and gives a real form to the paradigm of legitimacy, suggested and metaphorically treated in The Prince.

This is possible because in the Discourses the issue of legitimacy is addressed to the entire social body. It cannot be a republic without a strong leader, but he cannot fulfil his ordering mission outside a republican system. The two sides of the same form of legitimacy are brought together. They cannot function properly one without the other because they are intrinsically complementary to each other. They are different and they may look in opposition to one another, but both contain only a partial form of legitimacy. There must be a regime in which the two harmonize, even if not a perfect one. The issue of corruption shows that no regime is absolutely good: “One should presuppose as a thing very true that a corrupt city that lives under a prince can never be turned into a free one, even if that prince is eliminated along with all his line.”[40]

Nevertheless, it is my argument that Machiavelli’s main concern is not only to combine or to find a compromise between principality and republic, but to move forward toward a new dimension of legitimacy. He tries to empower the new system and to re-legitimate the future ordered political system. A final and decisive argument for this is the more or less visible, more or less violent break with the religious ground of the old established forms of legitimacy, the rupture with the “hypocrite morality”. According to Machiavelli, both the religious ground and morality claim to offer a defective ground for a legitimate political order. On this assumption Machiavelli builds his paradigm of legitimacy and moves toward modernity.



Eric Voegelin was born in Cologne, in Germany, in January 1901, but he lived in Vienna from 1910. Here he obtained his doctorate in political science, in 1922. In 1938, he left Austria as a refugee. After a short period as itinerant scholar at Harvard, Bennington College, and the University of Alabama, Voegelin received an appointment as associate professor of political science at the Louisiana State University, in 1942. When an invitation came to return to Germany and establish an Institute of Political Science in Munich, he could not refuse it and left for his motherland in 1958. Voegelin considered his years in Munich “a considerable success”, but on the other hand, he remained haunted by the devastation of the German academy by National Socialists. In 1969, he and his wife Elizabeth returned to the United States, where he joined Stanford University’s Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace as Henry Salvatory Fellow. One of his students considers his writings from this period to be the most profound. The quality of these writings consists in the ongoing development and refinement of premises, theories, and insights that continued even during this later period of his life. Eric Voegelin passed away at age 84, on January 19, 1985.[41]

Voegelin lived through both World Wars, at a time in which the structures of society were collapsing. He directly experienced the collapse of order, and he witnessed the rise of Nazism. As a decisive influence, the dissolution of order and its relation with reality become leitmotifs in his entire work.[42] At the core of Voegelin’s interests was also the divine ground of order. He believed in the possibility of restoration of political science through a recovery of classical philosophy.[43]

Voegelin has in mind two beginnings of the modern world: the first is represented by the work of Machiavelli, and to some extent, that of Erasmus and More, and the second is represented by the Reformation. Yet in the course of history, the powerful effects of the second have obscured the first.[44] However, Voegelin characterises the modern period in terms of the breakup of the temporal and spiritual unity of Western society as represented by imperial Christianity. This breaking up had as consequence the relatively autonomous realms of church and state.[45] This assertion may look as a cliché, but we will see that it is the key to Voegelin’s interpretation of Machiavelli’s work.

Voegelin published some of the material on Machiavelli during the 1950s. Jene M. Porter considers that Voegelin’s interpretation was quite original at that time, and it could be easily employed by contemporary studies given the fact that he neither dismisses Machiavelli as an immoral realist, nor views him as a rather rambunctious civic republican.[46] He had a strong interest in Machiavelli for at least two reasons. The first reason was his concern with the modern breakup of the temporal and spiritual unity of Western society. The second reason was Voegelin’s interest in the influence of particular individuals in history and their action in the world. According to him, this tendency is a symptom of the disintegration of the empire and its temporal and spiritual unity.[47] I will add a third reason why Voegelin is so much engaged in the study of Machiavelli: being so concerned with the idea of order, Voegelin certainly remarked the strong sense of order in the Florentine’s political thinking.

In the fourth volume of the History of Political Ideas, Voegelin provides a detailed textual analysis of The Prince and the Discourses. From the beginning, Voegelin considers important to mention that the moralistic approach cannot be taken as basis for a critical analysis of Machiavelli’s ideas, since that approach was a distortion operated by the propaganda of the Counter-Reformation. What we need to keep in mind is the consciousness of the age that a severe break with the tradition had occurred.[48] Because of this contextualisation, Voegelin emphasises that there is nothing solitary or enigmatic about Machiavelli: “What is historically unique is the genius of Machiavelli, as well as the peculiar constellation of circumstances that bent his genius toward crystallising the idea of the age in the symbol of the prince”[49]. In order to make this argument clear, Voegelin pays a great attention to the historical and cultural context in which Machiavelli wrote his works, as well as to the sources which influenced him.

As I have mentioned above, Voegelin certainly had very fresh in his memory the traumatic experience of a disordered world, therefore he manifests empathy with the “trauma of 1494” lived by Machiavelli. As the matter of fact, Voegelin was convinced that “frequent minor and occasional major disturbances become the basis for an internal development toward a more stable national organisation”.[50] Voegelin was particularly interested in the experiences of dissolution and chaos, and the opposite experiences of order.[51] He is convinced that the experience of social disorder provokes human mind to create order by an act of imagination in accordance with its ordering idea of man.[52] It could be relevant to mention that Voegelin correlates, on the one hand, Machiavelli with The Order of Power and, on the other hand, he attributes to Erasmus and More The Order of Reason, within the same chapter.

From the beginning, Voegelin outlines Machiavelli’s insistence on recognising the reality and responsibility of power. Given the collapse of the sacrum imperium, Machiavelli’s position is a coherent one. As Voegelin asserts, the author of The Prince understood that history had been changed and therefore a new reality of power appeared together with the need for a new order. That was the emergence of power outside the Christian charismatic order. Moreover, according to Voegelin, power goes beyond the categories of good and evil. The hero who acts in history – so magnificently portrayed in The Prince – and who in acting with virtue in the face of fortune becomes a source of order in the state.[53]

Together with Erasmus and More, Machiavelli recognised the collapse of the medieval synthesis, the decline of Christianity as a civilising source of order, and the rise of the nation-state and of power politics. All these three thinkers tried to present in different ways an alternative to the collapse of the new political order.[54]

Voegelin interprets the virtùof the conquering prince as the source of order, since the Christian, transcendental order of existence had become a lost cause for the Italian thinkers of the fifteenth century. Henceforth the virtù ordinata of the prince is the only order that is experienced as real. It takes over human-divine heroic proportions.[55] Here Voegelin considers necessary to make a distinction between the hero who through his virtùrestores the order of the republic and the usurper who bends the people under the yoke of his monarchy.[56]

Voegelin goes even deeper when he criticises Machiavelli’s understanding of religion. Machiavelli is not a Christian, but his faith is a revival of the “Myth of Nature”. A certain spirituality is not missing, but it is no more differentiated into its transcendental fulfilment. Thus it remains intra-mundane and finds its fulfilment in the flowering of virtù into the order of the commonwealth. In Voegelin’s words, “Machiavelli had elaborated a system of human existence in society from the religious, sacramental bond to the lowliest occupational functions”.[57]

Because the idea of Christian Imperium had become irrelevant, the meaning of history has changed and the natural structure of history in the ancient sense becomes visible again.[58] In this respect, Machiavelli’s “Myth of Nature” and his faith in virtù are no longer a simple “theory”. Given the liberation of man from the divine order of the universe, he needs to create his earthly order, more precisely the state, out of his demonic virtù, certainly assisted not by providence, but by fortuna. It is a self-assessment which deters Voegelin from understanding “the horror of the prince” as “the revelation of the demonic nature of man as the source of order”.[59]


4.                   CONCLUSIONS


As we have noticed, Voegelin did not focus on the question of legitimacy in his interpretation of Machiavelli’s political ideas. To offer an elusive response I would say that he avoids in this way to address directly the problem of the legitimacy of the modern age in general. However, it is interesting how his hermeneutics of the idea of order profoundly contains all the aspects of this issue.

From the beginning, the preoccupation of Voegelin for the divine ground of order led him to the origins of the breakup between the temporal and spiritual unity of Western society. The further disintegration of the Christian empire addressed the issue of legitimacy in its double aspect: the legitimacy of truth and legitimacy of political regimes. Voegelin considers both these aspects as being part of the construct of order. In this way, I think Voegelin offers not only a deep but also a complete understanding of the legitimacy as conceived by Machiavelli.  

Voegelin is tempted to metaphorise the image of the prince seen as a symbol which crystallises the idea of the age. Given the collapse of sacrum imperium he embodies the reality and responsibility of power by his novelty. The prince who is able to act with virtue in the face of fortune becomes a source of order in the state. Virtùin its multiple meanings is an organising principle replacing providence. Therefore, in its human-divine heroic proportion and given the liberation of man from the divine order, he needs to create his earthly order of the state.

Machiavelli is credited with the great lucidity of recognising the collapse of the medieval synthesis, the decline of Christianity as a civilising source of order, and the rise of the nation-state and of power politics. In this sense, Voegelin asserts that “the myth of order through intra-mundane power must be presupposed in reading the systematic main work of Machiavelli”. When Machiavelli enunciates the revolutionary principles of a new order, he not only imagines a new type of political order, but he is aware of the profound implications for legitimising such an order.

What is original in Voegelin’s focus on Machiavelli is that he offers a hermeneutics of legitimacy. Because he has such an extensive view of order and history, Voegelin is able to provide us an ideological framework to understand Machiavelli’s paradigm of order.

The two parts of this paper seem heterogeneous. One might say that I could demonstrate my hypothesis without the need for Voegelin’s arguments in the second part and that is partially true. But at a closer look the two parts of my demonstration are closely related because they have the same source of critique: the new order of power in the early modern age. They are also complementary, because Voegelin’s argument fully integrates my idea of legitimate order.


ALTHUSSER, Louis, Machiavelli and Us, Verso, London & New York, 1999.

BALOT, Ryan, Stephen TROCHIMCHUK, “The Many and the Few: On Machiavelli’s ‘Democratic Moment’”, The Review of Politics, Vol. 74, 2012.

BLUMENBERG, Hans, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, 1983.

FASANO GUARINI, Elena, “Machiavelli and the crisis of the Italian republics”, in Gisela BOCK, Quentin SKINNER, Maurizio VIROLI (eds.), Machiavelli and Republicanism, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1990.

HEILKE, Thomas W., Eric Voegelin. In the Quest of Reality, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC., New York, 1999.

MANFRED J., Holler, “Niccolò Machiavelli on Power”, in Leonidas DONSKIS (ed.), Niccolò Machiavelli. History, Power, and Virtue, Editions Rodopi, Amsterdam, New York, NY, 2011.

LÖWITH, Karl, Meaning in History, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1949.

MACHIAVELLI, Niccolò, Discourses on Livy, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1996.

MACHIAVELLI, Niccolò, The Prince, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005.

PORTER, Jene M., “The Birth of Modernity”, The Review of Politics, Vol. 62, No. 4, 2000.

RANIERI, John J., Eric Voegelin and the Good Society, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 1995.

STRAUSS, Leo, Thoughts on Machiavelli, The Free Press, Glencoe, Illinois, 1958.

THOMASSEN, Børn, “Reason and Religion in Rawls: Voegelin’s Challenge” Philosophia, Vol. 40, 2012.

VOEGELIN, Eric, History of Political Ideas, Vol. 7, “The New Order and Last Orientation”, in Jürgen GEBHARDT, Thomas A. HOLLWECK (eds.), The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 25, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 1999.

VOEGELIN, Eric, History of Political Ideas, Vol. 4., “Renaissance and Reformation”, in David L. MORSE, William M. THOMPSON (eds.), The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 22, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 1998.

[1] Karl LÖWITH, Meaning in History, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1949.

[2] Hans BLUMENBERG, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, 1983.

[3] Ibidem, p. 65.

[4] I want to mention that this comparative method is not completely new. Manfred J. Holler, for example, uses the concept of power to analyse both The Prince and the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius. Manfred J. HOLLER, “Niccolò Machiavelli on Power”, in Leonidas DONSKIS (ed.), Niccolò Machiavelli. History, Power, and Virtue, Editions Rodopi, Amsterdam & New York, 2011. From the perspective of the theme of novelty, Louis ALTHUSSER finds an evident compatibility between The Prince and Discourses, Louis ALTHUSSER, Machiavelli and Us, Verso, London & New York, 1999, p. 56.

[5] Eric VOEGELIN, History of Political Ideas, vol. 4, “Renaissance and Reformation”, in David L. MORSE and William M. THOMPSON, (eds.), The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 22, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, London, 1998, p. 59.

[6] For an overview of the studies dealing with the context of Machiavelli’s work see Elena FASANO GUARINI, “Machiavelli and the crisis of the Italian republics”,in Gisela BOCK, Quentin SKINNER, Maurizio VIROLI (eds.), Machiavelli and Republicanism, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1990.

[7] Elena FASANO GUARINI, “Machiavelli and the crisis… cit.” p. 19.

[8] Ibidem, pp. 25-26.

[9] Ibidem, pp. 20-21.

[10] Ibidem, p. 22.

[11] Maurizio VIROLI, “Introduction” to Niccolò MACHIAVELLI, The Prince, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, p. XIV.

[12] Niccolò MACHIAVELLI, The Prince…cit, IX, p. 36.

[13] Ibidem, XXIV, pp. 82-83.

[14] Ibidem, XIX, pp. 62-63.

[15] Ibidem, XIX, p. 65.

[16] Ibidem, p. XX.

[17] Leo Strauss dedicates an entire chapter of his Thoughts on Machiavelli for the comparison between The Prince and Discourses. He also observes many crossing issues from one book to another: “Just as the addressee of the Prince is exhorted to imitate not only the ancient princes but the ancient Roman republic as well, the addressees of the Discourses are exhorted to imitate not only the ancient Roman republics but the ancient kings as well”. Leo STRAUSS, Thoughts on Machiavelli, The Free Press, Glencoe, Illinois, 1958, p. 21.

[18] Niccolò MACHIAVELLI, Discourses on Livy, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1996, I, 58, p. 117.

[19] Ibidem, I, 9, p. 29.

[20] Ibidem.

[21] Ibidem.

[22] Ibidem, p. XXV.

[23] This fact leads Ryan Balot and Stephen Trochimchuk to denounce the interpretation promoted inside the “Cambridge School” in which Machiavelli is subsumed within the republican tradition. They also reject the idea that Machiavelli’s central thrust is a pro-democratic one. Ryan BALOT and Stephen TROCHIMCHUK, “The Many and the Few: On Machiavelli’s ‘Democratic Moment’”, The Review of Politics, Vol. 74, 2012.

[24] Niccolò MACHIAVELLI, Discourses on Livy… cit, I 20, p. 54.

[25] Ibidem, p. XXIII.

[26] Ibidem, I, 16, p. 44.

[27] Ibidem, I, 18, p. 49.

[28] Ibidem.

[29] Ibidem, I, 18, p. 49.

[30] Ibidem.

[31] Ibidem, I, 59, p. 118.

[32] Ibidem, I, 12, p. 36.

[33] Ibidem, II, 2, p. 129.

[34] Ibidem, III, 1, p. 209.

[35] Ibidem, I, 12, p. 38.

[36] Ibidem, II, 2, p. 131.

[37] Ibidem, p. 132.

[38] Ibidem, I, 12, p. 36.

[39] Ibidem, I, 12, p. 37.

[40] Ibidem, I, 17, pp. 47-49.

[41] Thomas W. HEILKE, Eric Voegelin. In the Quest of Reality, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC., New York, 1999, pp. 6-8.

[42] John J. RANIERI, Eric Voegelin and the Good Society, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 1995, p. 5.

[43] Børn THOMASSEN, “Reason and Religion in Rawls: Voegelin’s Challenge”, Philosophia, Vol. 40, 2012, p. 243.

[44] David L. MORSE and William M. THOMPSON in “Editor’s introduction” to The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 22, History of Political Ideas, Vol. 4, Renaissance and Reformation, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 1998, p. 4.

[45] Ibidem.

[46] Jene M. PORTER, “The Birth of Modernity”,The Review of Politics, Vol. 62, No. 4, 2000, p. 802.

[47] Eric VOEGELIN, History of Political Ideas… cit, Vol. 22, p. 5.

[48] Voegelin observes another aspect which I think was perpetuated because such a moralistic approach and that aspect are present even among the admirers of Machiavelli: the focus on the evil character of The Prince has created the illusion that its author was a solitary figure. Eric Voegelin, History of Political Ideas… cit, Vol. 4, p. 31.

[49] Ibidem, p. 32.

[50] Ibidem, p. 36.

[51] Bjørn THOMASSEN, “Reason and Religion in Rawls… cit”, p. 247.

[52] Eric VOEGELIN, History of Political Ideas, Vol. 7, “The New Order and Last Orientation”,Jürgen GEBHARDT and Thoms A. HOLLWECK, (eds.), The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 25, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 1999, p. 60.

[53] Eric VOEGELIN, History of Political Ideas… cit., Vol. 4, p. 6.

[54] Jene M. PORTER, “The Birth of Modernity… cit.”, pp. 803-804.

[55] Eric VOEGELIN, History of Political Ideas… cit., Vol. 4, p. 56.

[56] Ibidem, p. 60.

[57] Ibidem, p. 84.

[58] Ibidem, p. 85.

[59] Ibidem, p. 61.