Schemer or dreamer?

TRACY BORMAN is pleas­antly sur­prised by a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of Machi­avelli’s sup­pos­edly cruel in­ten­tions

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Reviews - Tracy Borman’s many books in­clu­ude Thomas Cromwell (Hod­der & Stoughton, 2014)

Be Like the Fox: Machi­avelli’s Life­long Quest for Free­dom by Erica Ben­ner Allen Lane, 394 pages, £20

Nic­colò Machi­avelli is syn­ony­mous with cun­ning, schem­ing and un­scrupu­lous po­lit­i­cal deal­ings. His most fa­mous work, The Prince, seemed to pro­vide a blueprint for that old say­ing, ‘the end jus­ti­fies the means’ – even if those ‘means’ were im­moral and down­right evil. Car­di­nal Pole claimed that his arch en­emy Thomas Cromwell used it as in­spi­ra­tion for his po­lit­i­cal deal­ings in Henry VIII’s court. When Pole him­self got his hands on a copy, he was so hor­ri­fied that he de­nounced it as be­ing full of “things that stink of Satan’s ev­ery wicked­ness”.

On the sur­face, there­fore, Machi­avelli was very much a man of his times. Politi­cian, diplo­mat, philoso­pher and writer, he lived in Florence, ar­guably the most bru­tal, cor­rupt and grasp­ing city in Re­nais­sance Europe. There he rubbed shoul­ders with the pow­er­ful Medici rulers. He was also as­so­ci­ated with the no­to­ri­ous Ce­sare Bor­gia who, with his fa­ther Pope Alexan­der VI, stopped at noth­ing to bringg a large part of cen­tral Italy und­der their con­trol. Lit­tle won­der that with such role mod­els, Machi­avelli epit­o­mised the cor­rup­tion and ruthless self-pro­mo­tion of the age.

But, as Erica Ben­ner con­vinc­ingly ar­gues, there was a great deal more to Machi­avelli than that. She in­ter­weaves his own words with those of his con­tem­po­raries, as well as set­ting him in the con­text of his world. The re­sult is a rich, vivid and end­lessly sur­pris­ing por­trayal of the man and his times.

Far from the amoral prag­ma­tist of the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, Be Like the Fox shows Machi­avelli as a man with a driv­ing pas­sion to change cor­rupt so­ci­ety for the bet­ter, hence his de­ci­sion to work for the Floren­tine gov­ern­ment. But his nascent po­lit­i­cal ca­reer was shat­tered when the Medi­cis came to power in 1512 and dis­solved the Floren­tine city-state and repub­lic. They had Machi­avelli im­pris­oned and tor­tured on sus­pi­cion of plot­ting to over­throw the prin­ci­pal­ity. On re­lease, he de­voted him­self to writ­ing po­lit­i­cal trea­tises.

As Ben­ner proves, these writ­ings have been con­sis­tently mis­in­ter­preted. In The Prince, for ex­am­ple, Machi­avelli ar­gues that un­just means tend to ruin good ends, in­clud­ing the sal­va­tion of one’s coun­try. He also in­sists that vic­to­ries are never se­cure un­less jus­tice is re­spected. At other times, he urges his read­ers to know their lim­its and to al­ways up­hold the rule of law. Machi­avelli emerges not as a man of his age, but as an ad­mirable ex­cep­tion to iit: a staunch ad­vo­cate of lib­erty and a cham­pion of the weak and down-trod­den. His teach­ings are just as per­ti­nent to­day as they wwere 500 years ago.

The name Machi­avelli be­came a by­word for de­vi­ous, un­der­hand be­hav­iour. But, ar­gues Erica Ben­ner, a sense of pub­lic duty un­der­pinned his words

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