Here are two quotes from two men:
A man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil. For if everything is considered carefully, it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity.
- Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
The means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from Birmingham Jail"
Before going out into the tall grass, some background assumptions: Machiavelli and Dr. King are both writing at very different times for very different reasons.
The Prince is Machiavelli's attempt to convince Lorenzo de' Medici to take up the task of Italian patriotism, and give him the political tools to do so successfully. This quote is what usually gets boiled down to the maxim 'the end justifies the means,' although Machiavelli himself never used that phrase. For him, the greatest evil of his time was Italy's perpetual submission to foreign invaders, and the peninsula's hapless rulers were to blame. Thousands of Italians died in every war, and thousands more lived in perpetual meanness under siege and misrule. These evils, according to Machiavelli, were allowed to occur because Italy's leaders were feckless and refused to shoulder the burden of dirty, sinful work, so their subjects could live in peace and faith. As John Adams formulated it, "I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy."
Dr. King's Birmingham letter is also directed at a specific audience and a wider readership, simultaneously. He is answering a letter from Christian and Jewish leaders in Birmingham while incarcerated in the city's jail for "parading without a permit." Quite forcefully and stubbornly, Dr. King is justifying his nonviolent direct action methods by demonstrating that unjust laws must be justly broken, and that nonviolence does so appropriately. This particular passage chastises the leaders for their commendation of the Birmingham police, who restrained their public actions in order to maintain the injustice of segregation and racism. Indeed, siccing dogs on the protesters, denying them food, and mistreating them in custody can hardly be called 'restraint.' Those actions are, Dr. King says, the charlatanry of bigots and the city's religious leaders are their oblivious patrons.
So, I guess Machiavelli and Dr. King are not writing about very different things at all.
Clearly, though, Machiavelli is ready to sacrifice morality before the altar of happiness (or Christianity before the nation-state), while Dr. King defines morality as the struggle towards happiness (or Christianity's contribution to the nation-state). In practice, the two men's philosophies are identical: if the end is just, the means will necessarily be also just.
But Dr. King's admonition of "immoral means to attain moral ends" seems so diametrically opposed to Machiavelli's 'ruinous virtue.' Can they be squared? Another factor to consider is Dr. King's reproach of black nationalists' methods and his certainty that their strategy would result in bloodshed across the South. Just as the Birmingham police seem to act morally, the black nationalists' ends only seem moral. In reality, they would be a nightmare.
The operation that is central for both men is the determination of the justness of the end. Both are quite certain of the justness of their particular end and go to great lengths to prove such.
Machiavelli's work, as well as his other works such as The Discourses on Livy, details all the failures of Italy's rulers and implies the loss of life, liberty, and wealth (i.e. happiness) they hasten. Dr. King, for his part, explains that the first step of nonviolence is to determine that injustice does somewhere exist, and in Birmingham he cites the city's brutal record of mistreatment and several bombings of homes and churches.
Thus, just as Machiavelli would say that being a good Christian ruler is without true virtue if it results in the suffering of people, Dr. King would argue that no act is Christian in nature which precipitates injustice.
I doubt the two men would see eye to eye, though they share one more thing in common: a profound dissatisfaction with the church. Both men criticize so-called Christians for oppressing themselves and their neighbors with mealy-mouthed religious rhetoric. Dr. King, of course, was a minister, though he was frustrated by his White co-religionists' unwillingness to answer the call to justice. Machiavelli, however, was no man of the cloth, but was also a contemporary to the most notorious of the 'secular Popes' such as the syphilitic Alexander VI. Both men were raconteurs of similar men in different robes.
It is without a doubt difficult to find common ground between Machiavelli and Dr. King - probably a fool's errand. But it is equally hard to deny both men's insight into the nature of justice, and impossible to ignore their contributions to the art of politics, insofar as it seeks to secure human happiness.
Perhaps for us, their lessons can only be this: never let what appears righteous deter us from what is righteous.