Comparing the Secular Humanist, Machiavelli and the Religious Humanist, Erasmus
One can often identify a person's political, religious or cultural orientation by his or her reaction to certain words. A case in point is the expression "secular humanism." For religious conservatives those words sum up much of what is wrong with contemporary society.
Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary gives several definitions for humanism, a word which made its appearance in 1832. The first is "a devotion to the humanities or the revival of class, individualistic and critical spirit, and emphasis on secular concerns characteristic of the Renaissance." Renaissance is capitalized. Another definition reads as follows: "a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values, especially a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual's dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason."
Ousted from power and in exile from Florence, the city where he had served as a diplomat, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote a famous how-to-do politics book called The Prince. That was nearly 500 years ago and yet it holds a prophetic relevance for own age. Machiavelli fits both parts of our definition of humanism. On one hand, he was versed in the classics and inspired by his study of the government of Republican Rome and his own experience; thus he fits into the Renaissance period. On the other hand, he could be called a secular humanist because he rejects the authority of religion; he trusts his own reason and informs us that he will deal only with "the truth of the matter as facts show it" (34). Most people today would agree with him that the state needs to restrict the power of the church.
The essence of Machiavelli's modernism can be found in Chapter 15 on page 35 where he asserts that "there is a difference between how men live and how they ought to live." Like a scientist Machiavelli concentrates on how men live; he assumes that one can explain and predict political behavior. Because it is difficult to reach agreement on values, why we exist or what we should do, Western society has concentrated on the "how" of life. If you can't answer a hard question, ask an easier one. For example, we may not be able to describe love, but we have made enormous progress on the description of the physical manifestations of sexual arousal. I am reminded of a character in Ambiguous Adventure, a French African novel, who is advising her brother to send his child to a Western school. She tells him, "We must learn from the West the art of conquering without being in the right." By that statement she recognizes the divorce between power and morality.
When you read the short excerpts from Machiavelli's The Prince from our text I hope that he made you feel angry and defensive. Reading Machiavelli makes me bristle; I want to argue with him. His formulas for political success contradict my most basic religious beliefs,...