The pagan religion holds and lifts up their hearts, and so makes them hardy to enterprise great things; but the Christian religion, persuading to humility, humbles and too much weakens their minds, and so makes them more ready to be injured and preyed upon. (Discourses, Book 2 chapter 5)
Entering into consideration, what should be the cause that the force and power of Christians is less than that of Gentiles, such as were the ancient Greeks and Romans, it seems that it was the difference of religion. For that the Christian religion makes the honor of the world contemptible and of little estimation, whereas the Gentiles esteemed honor to be the sovereign good, for which to obtain, they had an exceeding great fierceness and hardiness in all their deeds and enterprises. Moreover the pagan religion promises no happiness, but those having fought for the prince, country, and common weal, were replenished with glory and worldly honors. So it is plainly seen that the Christian religion has conducted and brought the world unto that weakness and feebleness that we see in it, delivering it as a prey to the wicked and barbarous people, who can deal with Christians as they will, and vanquish and bring them under the yoke. Because all Christians, to take the way of paradise, dispose and arm themselves rather to receive blows than to take vengeance. And it seems that that which makes Christians so effeminate and cowardly proceeds only from this, that they esteem more an idle repose and contemplative life than an active life.
Behold the maxim and the reasons which this most unhappy atheist has disgorged in his good discourses, to blame and altogether despite the Christian religion, and to bring us unto atheism, and to despoil us of all religion, fear of God, and of all conscience and loyalty, which are taught by Christianity. But God by his grace preserve us from such a pestilence and contagion, and make us know and shun that execrable poison, wherewith that unhappy man has infected the hearts and spirits of infinite, from whence spring the evils and calamities which we see in Christendom today, and especially in France. For without doubt, so many evils and mischiefs as we see and feel at this day, and long before, proceed from a just judgment of God, provoked unto wrath against the world, for the contempt of his most holy commandments, and of our most holy Christian religion.
True it is that our Christian religion teaches us humility towards God. For we ought to acknowledge before his face that we are poor sinners, and to demand pardon of him, as criminals do, who fall on their knees before a prince, begging grace and pardon. We ought also to acknowledge that the graces we have proceed from God, and that we ought not to be proud of any good thing in us. Moreover, we ought to be modest and gentle towards our neighbor, and to detest all fierceness and cruelty. But do those things debase and disable the hearts of good men to perform and execute their duties of fortitude and valiance in war? Does this Christian humility diminish their generosity? I will ask the resolution of this point of none other but Machiavelli’s own nation, which has come into France to make war against the evangelists. For they have well felt, if the humility of Christians has so much abated the Frenchmen’s hearts, that they dared not well handle them (as they say) both backs and bellies; yet if they will not confess it, the fields, which are white with their bones, will always give good witness thereof. It is strange that this villainous atheist dared utter and send abroad such absurd things, which are so far from all experience and truth. If what he says were the truth, it should follow that no Christian prince could stand against the pagan and infidel princes. But all ancient and modern histories, do they not show us the contrary? The emperor Constantine the Great was a very humble Christian prince, so humble (as some write) that he held the stirrup of the pope of Rome till he got on horseback. Yet he vanquished Licinius, who was a pagan emperor with him, and made him forsake the empire, and besides overcame many pagan nations, as we have said in another place. The emperor Theodosius was so humble, that being reprehended for a certain fault he had committed, by Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, he debased himself so much to acknowledge his sin, that he went upon the ground on all fours from the church door to the place where Ambrose administered the sacrament, and by that means was received into the communion. Yet although he was so humble, he had very great victories against the barbarians and infidels, and against other enemies of the Roman Empire. The emperor Valentinian, who was a Christain, vanquished the Goths in Gaul; and the emperor Justinian overcame them in Italy and in Africa. Charlemagne and many other kings of France, very humble, have notwithstanding gained and obtained good victories against the pagans, as we have otherwise said. The emperor Charles V of late memory obtained in his time victories in Africa against the Turks. Briefly, this point needs no further debate. For it is clearly seen that Machiavelli is a filthy liar to say that the Christian religion is the cause that Christians fall prey to the pagans. For contrary, a small number of Christians have often beaten a great number of Goths, Turks, and other infidels. And it is no more true what the Machiavellians say, that those who horribly swear and blaspheme, with mortdieu, sangdieu, and such like, fight better than those who say surely and truly. Because (say they) surely and truly enfeeble and weaken men’s hearts; but experience shows in many places that this is false.
When I think upon and consider where Machiavelli has fished this goodly maxim, I can hardly be persuaded but he learned it out of the history of Aygolant, a pagan king of Africa, of Mahomet’s religion. This king was a great and puissant ruler, who demanded and maintained great wars with Charlemagne; but he was always vanquished, and Charlemagne victorious. So that to escape from Charlemagne by the cheapest and best means, he could devise nothing better than to make Charlemagne understand that he would become a Christian and be baptized. Charlemagne rejoiced thereat and invited him into his lodging, with intent to feast him and give him good entertainment. When he came in to Charlemagne’s lodging, he saw thirteen poor men, beggarly appareled, eating on the ground without cloth, as beggars used to do; which Charlemagne did to always have before his eyes an image of poverty, to remember Christ and his Apostles, and their humility. Aygolant, seeing these poor men, desired to know what they were. Charlemagne answered him, “These be the servants of God”; Aygolant said, “Has your God his servants in so evil order, and are your servants so brave? Truly I will never be baptized, to become the servant of your God, for I will never yield to so base an estate as I see God’s servants hold.” So Aygolant would not be christened, for the humility he saw in the estate of God’s servants. So Machiavelli rejects the Christian religion because humility is recommended unto us, but loves much better the pagan religion of Aygolant, because (says he) it maintains the heart haughty and fierce.
And as for what he says, that the Christian religion promises not paradise but to idle and contemplative people, he shows well that he never knew what the Christian religion meant; for it commands us to travail and not to be idle, and every man loyally to exercise his vocation. Very true it is, that among Christians there must be some contemplatives, that is to say, studious people who give themselves to holy letters in order to teach others. But we do not find by the documents of that religion that there is allowed any idle contemplation of dreamers, who do nothing but imagine dreams and toys in their brains; but a contemplative life of laboring studious people is only approved, who give themselves to letters to teach others. For after they have accomplished their studies, they ought to put in use and action that which they know, bringing into an active life that which they have learned by their study in their contemplative life. And those who use this otherwise do not follow the precepts of the true Christian religion.
Touching what he says, that the Christian religion disposes men to receive blows, rather than to vengeance. I confess that is true, that our religion forbids us to take vengeance of our own enmities and particular quarrels, by our own authority; but the course of justice is not denied us. And if it were lawful for everyone to use vengeance, that would be to introduce a confusion and disorder into the commonwealth, and to enterprise upon the right which belongs to the magistrate, unto whom God has given the sword, to do right to everyone and to punish those who are faulty, according to their merits. But what is all this to purpose, touching the generosity of heart that men should have in war? For although a man should not be quarrelsome nor vindictive, to find quarrels for needless points, yet he will not cease to perform his duty in warfare, for the service of his prince. Yet there is one point in Christians more than in pagans; that is, that a Christian being well resolved in his conscience that he bears arms for a good and just cause, he will less esteem his own life, and will more willingly hazard it than a pagan or an infidel will, because he has a firm trust and belief that he will enjoy the eternal life after this frail life. Caesar writes that our ancient Gauls were very generous and warlike, because they held as resolute the immortality of souls, and that those who die, die not at all. How much more then ought Christians to be courageous, who not only are resolved of the immortality of souls, but also allow that God has prepared for them an eternal rest, an immortal glory, and a perdurable beatitude with him and his angels. Surely, as that life and eternal felicity are more excellent than this frail life full of miseries and calamities, so the Christian will never doubt nor fear to change one for the other, but with a magnanimous and generous heart will willingly always bestow his life in a just quarrel. Machiavelli and all his school of atheists, who have nothing that so much troubles their conscience as to think of God, have no such mind. They show themselves generous and valiant to execute some massacre, to slay men unarmed, who have no means to defend themselves; but otherwise they are resolute to hold themselves far from blows.
Finally, when Machiavelli says that the Christian religion teaches us to despise honor, he shows himself a stinking liar. True it is that a man must distinguish the virtue, and what is good, from vice and the evil which resembles it. For ambition is a vice which comes very near the desire of good reputation, which good men ought to have. If then a man travails and takes pains to come to some estate and greatness by all lawful and unlawful means, and uses it fiercely and to his own commodity, rather than to the profit of the commonwealth, we confess that our religion teaches us to fly and despise such honors. But when a man maintains himself by all honest and lawful means in a good reputation, although by such means he aspires to some estate and dignity whereof he feels himself capable to use it well, and to serve God and the commonwealth therein, we say that by our Christian religion there is not forbidden us such an affectation of honor, and that we may lawfully say we ought to seek and pursue such honor. Briefly, the thing which Christians hold most precious and dear is their conscience towards God, and their honor among men.
M. Philip de Comines, chamberlain of Louis XI, writes that this king was very humble in his habits, in words, and in all other things, and that he could well acknowledge his faults and amend them, and that these virtues were the means whereby he dispatched the great affairs he had on his hands on coming to the crown. So he commonly had this notable sentence in his mouth, clean contrary from Machiavelli’s maxim: “When pride marches before, shame and damage follow.”
So we must say that humility, kindness, gentleness, patience, easiness to pardon, clemency, and all other virtues which accord with a humane and benign nature, are not contrary to the true magnanimity, but agree thereunto. For magnanimity is nothing but a constant and perpetual will to employ oneself courageously in all good and virtuous things, and to fly, abate, and chase away all vices and vicious things. It is then magnanimity to be humble, soft, gentle, patient, inclined to pardon, and to be far from vengeance, since all those things are virtues, not vices. And on the contrary, it is pusillanimity to be proud, rigorous, sharp, impatient, vindictive and cruel, because all those things are vices and not virtues. For that virtue of magnanimity is never accompanied with the said vices, neither receives them to wait upon her, only she is waited upon with all other virtues. And for an example, there were never men more moderate, humble, and gentle, nor more inclined to pardon, than were Scipio the African, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and great Pompey. Yet were there never in the world men who were more magnanimous.
As much may we say of Charlemagne, Philip, Augustus the conqueror, Saint Louis, Charles the Wise, Charles VII, Louis XII, and many other kings of France, who were very magnanimous, yet very soft and gentle. But I shall in another place handle this point more fully, and show that magnanimity has always been joined with humanity, gentleness, and clemency; and contrary, pusillanimity has always been accompanied with cruelty, pride, and vengeance.