My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
I sometimes blog for two other organizations, the Canadian Baptist Historical Society and the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.
The views expressed in these blogs represent the views of the authors, and not necessarily those of any organizations with which they are associated.
A Tale of Two Princes
A few years ago, I had a conversation with a fine young Christian man who was pondering going into politics. He asked me if I had any suggestions for reading on the subject but my answer at the time was not very helpful.
But now I know what book I would recommend without hesitation!
I have known about Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) since I was a teenager. It is a book notorious for its cutthroat and pragmatic approach to politics. It is not so much concerned for what is morally right, but rather with what works. The advice Machiavelli gives to the princes of his day makes for fascinating reading, but living under the rule of such a prince would not be a pleasant experience. Nor is it describing a biblically or theologically informed view of serving as a prince (or, to use our language, a politician). Needless to say, this is NOT the book I would recommend.
The book I would recommend is by Desiderius Erasmus, a contemporary of Machiavelli. Erasmus wrote The Education of a Prince (1516) to address the same types of social ills Machiavelli was concerned with, but his vision for a Christian prince was radically different and more in line with the medieval genre called Mirrors for Princes, or Mirrors of Princes (specula principum). It was a genre quite common in the Christian (and Muslim) world, one that portrayed an ideal monarch in order to inspire and instruct in the exemplary way to exercise authority and live up to the high calling of political leadership.
Erasmus details the many aspects of a prince, from childhood through to adulthood, noting the key ingredients necessary for serving as a ruler. What is fascinating is how he weaves together biblical injunctions and ancient Greco-Roman sources on how rulers are to act. There is no way to provide a complete summary of the book’s contents in this brief blog, but I hope the following quotations will entice you to read it yourself. [online] The quotes are taken from this version [click here].
At the heart of the education of a ruler is the intention to inculcate a view of being a godly prince for the purpose of service. Knowing the mechanics of governing are important, something that Machiavelli sought to outline. But a fundamental difference between the two views of princes is that Machiavelli’s prince rules to get, use, and maintain power, whereas Erasmus’ prince rules to serve. It is a tale of two very different princes.
 It is worth reading for its insights into how politics often works, but it would be folly for a Christian leader to see Machiavelli’s prince as someone to emulate hook, line, and sinker.
 Amber Handy, “The Specula principum in Northwestern Europe, A.D. 650–900: The Evolution of a New Ethical Rule,” PhD dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 2011.
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