Framed in this manner, the two thinkers’ approaches can be contrasted in terms of metaphysics. Machiavelli ties religious organizations to institutions that have metaphysical world-views; yet he does not analyze these metaphysics according to their own teachings, but instead according to the extent to which they serve the ambition of political power. Thus, Machiavelli writes that “ecclesiastical principalities…are sustained by the ancient ordinances of religion, which are so all-powerful, and of such a character that the principalities may be held no matter how their princes behave and live.” (831) Religion offers a complete and “all-powerful” metaphysical world-view to the principalities where they take root: the “ancient” nature of these institutions and the encompassing nature of their ideology grant them a sense of authenticity. Machiavelli is not concerned about their accuracy: he gauges the metaphysical in terms of their real-world effects, and thus, in regards to politics, religious institutions become effective ways for political bodies to remain in power.
At least in this regard, Confucius comes near to Machiavelli, acknowledging the power of the religious. But Confucius does not approach the metaphysical and the religious in terms of how they are manipulated by the political, but the exact opposite: namely, how the religious can shed light on the affairs of men: “what the great learning teaches, is to illustrate illustrious virtue; to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest excellence.” (316) The function of religion is not, as for Machiavelli, a matter of control, but rather betterment: the religious life includes a virtue and ethical system beyond social normativities of the political.
Both Confucius and Machiavelli thus paradoxically recognize the power of the religious. Yet Machiavelli only understands religion in terms of its function in establishing political hegemony. Confucius, in contrast, understands religion as a means by which politics itself can become virtuous.
Confucius. “The Great Learning.”
Machiavelli. “The Prince.”