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Erasmus and Machiavelli on a Renaissance Prince

The revitalization of political thought during the Renaissance concerned many questions, including the one of what constitutes a good government. Both Erasmus and Machiavelli discuss this question in their respective writings, trying to synthesize the image of an ideal ruler. While they agree that the government should demonstrate at least some concern for the subjects, Erasmus posits that the ruler should be an example of Christian virtue, while Machiavelli argues in favor of sheer practicality.

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Both authors differ in their respective definitions of a successful prince. According to Erasmus (1936), a good prince is one who does not put oneself too much above one’s subjects. He gives an example of Augustus, the Roman Emperor, who detested being called a master because that would imply that his subjects were slaves (Erasmus, 1936). Machiavelli (1906), on the other hand, posits that a successful prince is the one to achieve wealth, prominence, and, above all, secured political power. His example of choice is Alexander VI, who managed to gain power over most of Italy through war and intrigue (Machiavelli, 1906). Thus, Erasmus (1936) measures success by virtue, while Machiavelli focuses on practical results.

In their vision of a Renaissance state, the two philosophers surprisingly agree that rulers should demonstrate concern for their subjects. Erasmus (1936) points out that a good ruler should only exercise power “to the great advantage” of his subjects (p. 175). In a similar manner, Machiavelli (1906) criticizes the rulers of Romagna, who plundered their subjects instead of ruling them wisely and with some restraint. Granted, Erasmus (1936) views effective government that promotes prosperity and stability as an end in itself, and Machiavelli (1906) only considers it a means to a secure reign. Still, the authors agree that a renaissance state should take care to govern its population reasonably rather than tyrannically.

Unsurprisingly, though, the philosophers disagree on what is necessary for a well-functioning government. From Erasmus’s (1936) perspective, a good government requires a ruler trained in Christian virtue and avoiding any corrupting influences. Conversely, Machiavelli (1906) insists that a well-functioning government requires the ruler to be ruthless, shrewd, and ready to deceive people because they will otherwise deceive him. Once again, it illustrates the difference between the two writers’ respective concerns of virtue and practicality.

When comparing the hypothetical princes constructed by both authors, it would probably be the wiser option to opt for a Machiavellian one. Undoubtedly, Erasmus (1936) offers a laudable image of the pursuit of virtue, but the foremost concern of a ruler is efficient government rather than moral self-perfection. The ruler can be an excellent example of mercy, kindness, generosity, and other Christian virtues, but it would do the people little good if he is not competent enough. A Machiavellian prince, concerned with the realm’s long-term stability over morality – if only for the sake of securing his own power against popular uprisings – is ultimately a better option for the population/

As one can see, Erasmus and Machiavelli offer widely different versions of an ideal Renaissance prince. The only thing they have in common is the agreement that a good ruler should be concerned about the subjects’ well-being – but for profoundly different reasons. For Erasmus, this concern is the manifestation of Christian virtue, which is the main prerequisite of good government and the ultimate criterion of princely success. For Machiavelli, this concern is merely the means to secure political power because his ideal prince is a ruthless schemer who puts efficiency and practicality above all.


Erasmus, D. (1936). The Education of a Christian Prince (L. K. Born, Trans.). Columbia UP.

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Machiavelli, N. (1906). The Prince (N. H. Thomson, Trans.). In J. H. Robinson (Ed.) Readings in European History, vol. 2, pp. 10-13. Ginn.

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