Leadership Lessons with Aquinas and Machiavelli

By Olivia Rogers

This article was published in the Dec. 2019 edition of Live Ideas. View it HERE.

With a presidential election approaching, Americans are reflecting more than ever on what “American” leadership means. Two Italian philosophers, Aquinas and Machiavelli, seem to embody the dichotomous view of leadership held by America. Their beliefs exhibit the tension between effective leadership and virtuous leadership. This paper explores those differences and asks the question — are effectiveness and virtue always at odds, or is there something we are missing?

Thomas Aquinas and Niccolo Machiavelli couldn’t seem more different. Aquinas is an emblem of justice, natural law, and Christianity. Just the mention of Machiavelli’s name denotes cunning and scheming, especially in the political realm.

Yet there are striking similarities between these two men: both were Italian philosophers and political theorists. They lived only two hundred years apart. Both were somehow associated with the church (Thomas was a Dominican, Machiavelli closely involved with the ruling class of Florence). Both wrote versions of “mirror” documents that discussed methods of ruling and provided examples of good leadership. Despite these similarities, the two hundred years that passed between Aquinas’ On Kingship and Machiavelli’s The Prince brought a shift in political ideology. What was the cause of the shift, and, perhaps more importantly, how does this shift manifest itself in modern day America?

Interestingly, the United States seems to be batting for both teams when it comes to the ideology of Aquinas and Machiavelli. On one hand, we hold our leaders to the same high moral standard of Aquinas. We want them to be stable, morally pure, fair-minded, and treat all people with respect. On the other hand, we recognize the need for effective government, and are often willing to let moral issues go unnoticed if they don’t interfere with a leader’s ability to carry out his mission. It’s almost as if there are two levels of morality: one that applies to the general society of individuals, and a code of ethics that leaders follow. Leaders can cut corners that individuals couldn’t, because their ultimate goal is different.

This distinction wasn’t drawn for Aquinas and other medieval thinkers. Political philosopher Charles Taylor explains this through the words of Francis Oakley: “Kingship…emerged from an ‘archaic’ mentality that appears to have been thoroughly monistic, to have perceived no impermeable barrier between the human and divine, to have intuited the divine as immanent in the cyclic rhythms of the natural world and civil society as somehow enmeshed in these natural processes, and to have viewed its primary function, therefore, as a fundamentally religious one, involving the preservation of the cosmic order and the ‘harmonious integration’ of human beings with the natural world” (Taylor 151). Leadership was a function of the natural order; good leadership was an inevitable practice of leaders, just like citizens were expected to be virtuous.

Machiavelli writes “How laudable it is for a prince to keep good faith and live with integrity, and not with astuteness, everyone knows. Still the experience of our times shows those princes to have done great things who have had little regard for good faith, and have been able to by astuteness to confuse men’s brains, and who have ultimately overcome those who have made loyalty their foundation” (Machiavelli 72).  A good prince, in Machiavelli’s eyes, knows how and when to be cunning and utilize “astuteness” to his advantage.

Somehow, Americans hold these two views in tandem. Contrasting the definitions of virtuous leadership in the writings of Aquinas and Machiavelli exposes the roots of this paradoxical view, and causes us to ask: can the paradox be resolved?

Thomas Aquinas was born in what is now France to a land-owning family. He joined religious life as a Dominican, dedicated to serving the poor and living in austerity. He was university educated, first at Naples and later in Paris. There, he learned Greek and Arabic so that he could read ancient thinkers such as Aristotle, Al Farabi, Averroes and Maimonides. It was at this time that he absorbed the ideals of independent reason and logic, both of which were foundational to his theological and political works.

Aquinas paired the rational logic of the Greeks with the theology and spirituality of the Church, paving a middle road between two seemingly opposed ideas. His writings parallel the style and logic of Aristotle, if Aristotle compulsively quoted Bible verses. His most famous work is Summa Theologica. It deals with basic philosophical questions like natural law and where moral order comes from. It’s comparable to Aristotle’s Ethics. 

Another of his other notable works, On Kingship, is Aquinas’ version of The PoliticsIt begins with Aquinas noting that people are naturally drawn to society, and need some sort of order to guide them. “Human beings have an end to which their entire life and actions are ordered…Humans, however, adopt different methods to proceed towards their intended end…therefore humans need some directive principle to guide them towards their end” (Aquinas 99). That directive principle, he decides, is reason (Aquinas 99).

Reason directs people to the understanding that in order to fulfil their ultimate telos, purpose, it is better that they be in society than alone. Aquinas quotes Proverbs, “When there is no governor, the people shall be scattered” (Aquinas 100). A society is best ruled by one person, as this allows for the greatest amount of unity and a clear direction toward the intended telos of a city. “The aim of any ruler should be directed so that he secures the welfare of those whose government he undertakes” (Aquinas 102). He describes the analogy of a ship, noting that “many men could not pull a ship in one direction unless joined together in some manner” (Aquinas 103). In order to be unified, a single leader is better than many.

However, a single leader is a dangerous thing. There’s no grey area: a ruler is either a king (the best form of government) or a tyrant (the worst form). Aquinas draws a direct link between worldly kingship and divine approval. A good ruler “looks to God for a reward” (Aquinas 107). He doesn’t search for approval from men, or attempt to gain more worldly power than he is given. Kings must live virtuously themselves in order that their subjects might do the same.

For Aquinas, virtue for the common, individual person was indistinguishable from that applicable to the king. The relationship between an individual’s body and soul, between God and his people, and between king and subjects were all parallel. The moral code, the natural law, that was applicable to one segment was applicable to all. The telos of Aquinas’ king was outward-facing: toward the people and their needs, helping to orient them toward their telos to obtain happiness through virtue. “The king ought to recognize that such is the duty he undertakes that he exists in his kingdom in just the same way as the soul exists in the body and God exists in the world” (Aquinas 113).

This is where tyrants differ from kings: “tyrants err when they desert justice for a few earthly advantages; for they are deprived of the great reward which they are able to obtain by ruling justly” (Aquinas 110). A government becomes unjust when the king begins to seek his personal advantage, “rejecting the common good of the multitude” (Aquinas 104). In other words, the telos of the ruler turns inward, instead of outward towards the people.

A tyrant follows his own passions, and in doing so oppresses the people. The negative effects of a tyrant are not only seen in this world but eternally, as a bad king “hinders [the people’s] spiritual good, since those who try to be in charge rather than to be beneficial prevent all progress of their subjects, suspecting all excellence on the part of their subjects to be prejudicial to their harmful lordship” (Aquinas 105). In other words, a tyrant cannot tolerate virtue and excellence in his subjects, because that would hinder him from carrying out his unjust ideas. Virtuous people will not tolerate injustice, and therefore cannot exist in a tyrannical regime.

Aquinas notes that a government of tyrants is not stable or long-lasting. It is “hateful to the multitude,” and “sustained by fear alone,” which is a frail foundation (Aquinas 111). A ruler who is not fulfilling his proper telos is harmful to the people spiritually and physically. In Aquinas’ eyes, he’s not an effective ruler, either. Fear and hatred are no foundations upon which a king can succeed. No ruler, Aquinas says, can steal more from a fearful people than a loving people would freely give up (Aquinas 112). A ruler should strive to be loved by his people by acting virtuously, and in accordance with the divine laws.

Machiavelli’s ideal ruler is in direct opposition with Aquinas. He holds princes to a different set of rules than the common people, in effect arguing that the telos was different. The king wasn’t supposed to bring his people to virtue; he was supposed to rule effectively, keep his people safe, and manage the country.

Machiavelli’s example of an ideal prince is Cesare Borgia. Borgia was a nobleman with excellent political connections, as the son of a pope. He mobilized armies, made alliances, and undermined cities in order to maintain power. During one episode, he appoints a “cruel and able man” (Machiavelli 31) to render the “fullest authority” on an unruly people through means of punishment and justice. After a short time, the people were sufficiently subdued and Borgia removed the man from office, having used him to the degree necessary. Removing the man from power both satiated the people so that they wouldn’t rebel and placed Borgia in a favorable light, as he was seen as the one to save them from a harsh overlord.

Machiavelli praises the actions of Borgia, touting them as great foundations for a stable administration. Machiavelli’s code for leaders was dependent only upon what would keep him in power and provide stability, not a divine code of ethics as Aquinas used. Sometimes, this meant that leaders should act – or at least seem to act – in a moral manner, to appeal to the people. However, Machiavelli wasn’t troubled by whether this is a sincere act of virtue; in fact, he states that a leader need only “seem” to be virtuous, and not actually be virtuous.

Machiavelli’s ideal government was an amoral entity, its purpose being a vehicle for the ambitions of a ruler. Machiavelli redefined “virtue” to mean excellence, cunning, shrewdness. Virtue was removed from the religious context it had in the writings of Aquinas. It now denoted the level of effectiveness of a prince: can he keep his principality under control? Can he ward off threats? There is no inherent purpose in the state; it is simply a means to an end, to use the famous Machiavellian terminology. Indeed, with this black-and-white view of government, Machiavelli hints that the existence of an “ecclesiastical state” and by extension, a church, only stands in the way of a unified Italy. The church is constantly interfering in efforts to gain power and unity, even sabotaging the “perfectly” laid plans of his hero Cesare Borgia. The fact that Borgia was unscrupulous and cruel does not diminish him in Machiavelli’s eyes; he is interested only in power.

Today, American government is a constant balancing act between the practical realism of Machiavelli and Aquinas’ telos. There’s an inherent tension between the ideals of a virtuous society and rulers and effective government. Are both goals able to be pursued? Is there a middle ground between Machiavelli and Aquinas?

Perhaps the answer can be found by venturing outside of the political realm. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, has studied business leadership for years, finding a range of great leaders. In a podcast with entrepreneur and personal development guru Tim Ferriss, he described how a company might be led by a genius – someone who had the ideas, the passion, and the knack for running an excellent business. But that leadership alone didn’t guarantee the lasting success of the company. A transcription of the interview with Collins describes this further: “what’s the difference between these leaders? It wasn’t leadership, because they were both leaders who did leadership. There was something different about the leaders. So there was this signature of their humility, and then their fierce will on behalf of something that’s not about them” (“Tim Ferriss”).

Collins observed how leaders who left legacies “were able to subsume their ego into the company…there’s something about this duality” (“Tim Ferriss”). The great leaders weren’t just humble. They weren’t just passionate about a cause external to themselves. They were both, and that combination looks a lot like Aquinas’ concept of a virtuous king – while also valuing effectiveness and success, like Machiavellian leadership.

Unlike the times of Machiavelli and Aquinas, we are not a nation under a kingship. The American government is divided between three branches, fifty states and thousands of legislators spread across the country. Aquinas and Machiavelli wrote to rulers, imploring and guiding them to act as they directed. But the power to decide what rulership looks like today lies in the hands of the citizens, not kings. Ethics and effectiveness need not be at odds. The pluralism of the American government allows now more than ever for ethics like that of Jim Collins’ business leadership to be applied. It’s up to the communities, states, and the nation as a whole to decide how the “paradox” is resolved.


Works Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. “On Kingship.” Readings in Medieval Political Theory 1100-1400, edited by

Cary J. Nederman and Kate Langdon Forhan, Hackett Publishing Compnay, 1993, pp.


Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Penguin, 2008.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Harvard University Press, 2018.

The Tim Ferriss Show. Hosted by Tim Ferriss, 18 Feb 2019. Transcript.

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