Schemer or dreamer?
TRACY BORMAN is pleasantly surprised by a reinterpretation of Machiavelli’s supposedly cruel intentions
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