A question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.
—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
More flies are caught with a spoonful of honey than with a hundred barrels of vinegar.
—St. Francis de Sales
No doubt Machiavelli would have considered the wisdom of the saintly bishop of Geneva somewhat quaint, or even dangerously naïve. And it’s easy to see why. As a politician seeking to win the ear, and the favor, of the ruling class of Tuscany, young Niccolo lived through a particularly turbulent time in Italian history. One of the formative events of his childhood was the assassination of Giuliano Medici, which occurred in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore during Easter Sunday Mass, in front of ten thousand shocked Florentines. Of course, these were people used to political intrigue, but this particular incident, in its disregard for all that was sacred, surpassed anything they had experienced before. Predictably, and to the dismay of many—including Machiavelli—such violence not only continued in the ensuing decades, but even escalated.
It’s not surprising, then, that the would-be statesman (he never obtained the appointment he sought) framed the question of love or fear as one of “safety.” Could a ruler neglect to instill fear and hope to evade the stiletto? No one would be foolish enough to try.
St. Augustine addressed the question of love versus fear eleven centuries before Machiavelli put it to paper. Living amidst the disintegration of the Roman Empire, Augustine certainly knew the power of fear. But through the bitter experience of his own weakness and sin, he also grew to know the power of the love of Christ, and how this love was essential to forming a society of peace and goodwill.
Whereas Machiavelli posed his question to a powerful political personage, Augustine addressed his answer to a group quite unfamiliar with the power, wealth, and calculating worldliness of the Medici. In his Rule,which was composed for early Christian religious communities and later adopted in the thirteenth century by the Order of Preachers, he writes,
Your superior should consider himself to be fortunate as one who serves you in love, not as one who exercises authority over you. Accord him the first place of honor among you, but in fear before God he shall lie prostrate beneath your feet . . . When both are necessary he shall strive nevertheless to be loved by you rather than feared, mindful always that he will be accountable to God for you.
Having been a bishop and shepherd of souls for over twenty years, Augustine clearly speaks from experience when he urges those in authority to rule with both fear and love. While Machiavelli urges civil leaders to value fear above love and, if need be, to sacrifice the latter to the former, Augustine insists that both are necessary, with charity holding pride of place.
This may seem unrealistic or impractical, but in fact it remains a wise and time-tested piece of advice. When, for example, the Church’s hierarchy has tried to rule primarily by fear rather than by loving example, the results have often been disastrous. On the other hand, successful movements of reform, such as those led by the Dominicans and Franciscans in the Middle Ages, have always been characterized by genuine, self-sacrificing love. Indeed, by God’s grace and in spite of her mistakes, the Church remains a unique, living example of the unity and permanence that only love makes possible.
When Napoleon—a studious pupil of Machiavelli’s methods—had the Pope imprisoned, he boasted to the Cardinal Secretary of State that he would destroy the Church. Cardinal Consalvi’s reply was as disarming as it was provocative: “Your Majesty, if eighteen hundred years of bishops and priests were unable to do it, you don’t stand a chance.” Napoleon was deposed within five years, and the Church simply picked up where she left off.
Two hundred years later, in this election season, we hear much said about fear—fear for the future of the Church in America, fear for our nation’s role on the world stage, fear as a political tool. These are the sorts of fear of which Machiavelli spoke. But the fear that Augustine recommends is something quite different. It is the fear of God, which casts out worldly anxiety and distress. The link between reverence for God and serenity is beautifully expressed in a prayer of preparation from the Eucharistic Liturgy of the Eastern Church:
May we, who mystically represent the Cherubim,
and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the Life-giving Trinity,
set aside all cares of life.
Founded in love, and in a spirit of true self-governance, may our society, our families, and we as individuals lay aside all unnecessary cares of life, making our own the words of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass:
Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil,
graciously grant peace in our days,
that, by the help of your mercy,
we may be always free from sin
and safe from all distress,
as we await the blessed hope
and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Image: Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence