Essay: Machiavelli and Moses Machiavelli Has Been Praised

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Machiavelli and Moses

Machiavelli has been praised and denigrated for his stance regarding the qualities of a proper leader. Although his seminal work is researched by those engaged in leadership, whether business, political or marshal, its contents consist solely of the selfishness of that office. A portion of the work, Chapter Six, in which he describes Moses as a great, though marginal leader, has received much criticism due to Machiavelli's struggles with religion and the religious order of his day. Machiavelli's characterization of Moses, his projected ideas of the politics in which Moses was engaged, and whether Moses, from a Machiavellian-like perspective, exhibited virtue are subjects that bear some study.

Characterization of Moses

Along with three other princes, Moses is mentioned in Chapter Six of Machiavelli's masterpiece "The Prince." His presentation of Moses begins in somewhat deleterious fashion when he says "And although one should not speak of Moses, he having merely carried out what was ordered him by God, still he deserves admiration, if only for that grace which made him worthy to speak with God" (Machiavelli 21). Here the author is talking about four "princes" who were able to rise through some amount of trouble, to obtain and sustain their kingdoms. Machiavelli's first thoughts of Moses are colored by his patronage "Moses…had a great Master" (Machiavelli 21). So he is already biased against the prophet, though he does give him the deference of having been honored by God.

Machiavelli viewed Moses, and the other princes he mentions, through the prism of their actions rather than by their character. In Moses' case he says "It was thus necessary that Moses should find the people of Israel slaves in Egypt and oppressed by the Egyptians, so that they were disposed to follow him in order to escape from their servitude" (Machiavelli 22). In this passage Machiavelli characterizes the action of the imprisonment rather than the man himself. but, as he states with the other princes, the causation was necessary to get the result that would forge princes of these men. Though it was horrible that the Israelites were slaves, it does not matter in Machiavelli's mind because they were actors in Moses' play. To solidify this point he says "These opportunities…gave these men their chance, and their own great qualities enabled them to profit by them…" (Machiavelli 22).

Moses was "establishing a new order" and "running great risk" in doing so (Machiavelli 23). So, the problem arises that "on every opportunity for attacking the reformer, his opponents do so with the zeal of partisans, the others [his supporters] only defend him halfheartedly…" (Machiavelli 23). This is a test of the character of a prince as seen by Machiavelli. The princes were engaged in a "noble work" (Machiavelli 23), but they were opposed and weakly followed. Thus, it required strength of character to establish the new order. This can be seen in the Exodus account also. Exodus 14: 11 relates the following conversation: "and they said to Moses, "Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, in bringing us out of Egypt?" The prince was opposed on all sides just as Machiavelli said, but he did not falter since his responsibility was to the office of prince more than as the leader of the people.

Machiavelli goes on to praise the strength of an armed prophet (prince). He says "Thus it comes about that all armed prophets have conquered and unarmed ones have failed" (23). Moses was armed, but not with a spear or a sword as were the other princes mentioned in this chapter. He was armed with the power of God and a staff. When parting the Red Sea it is said that "21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided" (Exodus 14: 21). The prophet was armed as Machiavelli mentions, so the people followed him.

Machiavelli's final point about Moses was the reward he received from the people when they finally realized that he was the prince and they had respect for him. He says "Therefore such men as these have a great difficulty making their way, and all the dangers are met on the road and must be overcome by their own abilities; but when they have overcome them and have begun to be held in veneration, and have suppressed those who envied them, they remain powerful and secure, honored and happy" (Machiavelli 24).

This is demonstrated in the Exodus story when Moses is honored, at last, to stand and watch the people finally go into the promised land. The Bible says "And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended" (Deuteronomy 34:8). Although Moses is not allowed to cross over, he is honored of the people for getting them to their place of rest.

The Politics of the Exodus

The hierarchy of Moses and the princes that were beneath him, such as his brother Aaron and his general Joshua, made up the human government of the people, but the overriding King was God. The text from Exodus through Deuteronomy never mentions the word theocracy, but it is the form of government God required of Moses. Machiavelli was impressed by the other princes because they became their own men through strife and eventual triumph. He says Romulus would not have been King of Rome unless he had to leave Alba, Cyrus would not have ruled the Persians if he did not find "the Medes weak and effeminate through long peace," and Theseus would not have ruled Athens if the Athenians had not been dispersed (Machiavelli 21). It is difficult to say the same as Moses. It is obvious from his quote that he respected the other three because of their political superiority, but Moses had to answer to someone. Machiavelli speaks of honoring Moses because at least he was found worthy to speak to God, but it is a backhanded compliment.

Moses is not the ruler during the Exodus; he is merely a pawn in the hands of the most powerful Ruler. Machiavelli disdained religion as weak, but spoke of it as a tool in the arsenal of the leader. Later in the Prince he says

"Thus it is well to seem pious, faithful, humane, religious, sincere and also to be so; but you must have the mind so watchful that when it is needful to be otherwise you may be able to change to the opposite qualities" (Machiavelli 70).

Machiavelli said many things about religion and he always seemed relatively reverent when speaking of God, but the above statement cannot be mistaken. Religion, he believed, is a tool just like anything else in the prince's repertoire. He uses it to his advantage, or discards it if it has no advantage.

The Bible depicts the relationship between God and Moses in Exodus 33:9-11

"9 When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the door of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. 10 and when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the door of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, every man at his tent door. 11 Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face-to-face, as a man speaks to his friend."

Moses was not only a prince, but he was able to speak to God as "if he were a friend." However, this does show a political side that Machiavelli could not have approved of when analyzing earthbound ruler-subject relationships. Machiavelli, as stated previously, advised the prince to use religion, not to be so ensconced in it that he was seen as a zealot.

Moses and Virtue

It is difficult to ascribe virtue to anyone. It is a quality that requires knowledge of motivation and little clue to his actual impulse is given of Moses. Looking at Moses' description, given in the early part of Exodus, it is possible to say that he had not attained virtue, yet. He was selfish, for example when he killed the Egyptian "He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand" (Exodus 2:12). This not the act of a virtuous person. It could be said that he was acting with mercy toward one his own ethnicity (the soldier was beating an Israelite), but it seems like this was more a selfish act than a virtuous one.

The question must also be asked, does a person who is considered virtuous always have to act with virtue or can they have times when their actions do not seem altogether so. There are several incidents during his lifetime that Moses does not seem… [END OF PREVIEW]

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