Machiavelli: A Man Misunderstood
Little, Brown, 16.99
HAVING your name become part of the language sounds like the greatest possible honour: but eponymous fame can be negative, as Quisling or Guillotine would attest. The word ‘Machiavellian’ suggests fiendish cunning and shameless duplicity, and was being defined as such in English dictionaries as far back as 1569, just 42 years after Niccolo Machiavelli died. But according to biographer Michael White, we have got ‘Machia’ (as his friends called him) all wrong. He was a fun-loving joker with the soul of a poet and a mistress in every town: an innovative thinker ahead of his time. The trouble with this supposedly revisionist thesis is that the more White tells us about Machiavelli, the more it seems the dictionaries got him right all along.
Born in 1469, Machiavelli was a Florentine legislator and diplomat who wrote several works, including a highly popular stage play that was the Renaissance equivalent of a bedroom farce. But his fame rests on a single short book, The Prince: a kind of self-help manual for aspiring rulers. White says of it, bizarrely, "the only book that has been read by more people over a longer period of time in the Western world is the Bible". He offers no evidence that Machiavelli has had more readers than Plato, Dante or Shakespeare: the claim is pure hyperbole.
Suspicions are equally aroused by young Niccolo’s reading tastes: "His favourite writer was Lucretius and he was particularly fond of the Roman poet and philosopher’s De Natura Rerum". There is only one surviving book by Lucretius: it is called De Rerum Natura.
Such little slips, however, do not detract from White’s ability to tell a good story. A prolific author of popular biographies, with past subjects ranging from Tolkien to Stephen Hawking, he is well able to summarise the complexities of Renaissance politics. What he lacks in scholarly authoritativeness, he makes up for in readability: this is an enjoyable journey through the ups and downs of Machiavelli’s life.
MACHIAVELLI’S fortunes were tied to those of the Medicis, the banking dynasty who became de facto rulers of the Republic of Florence, then actual rulers. After badly letting the home side down against a French force in 1494, Piero de Medici was hounded out of town with the rest of his clan. Savonarola took charge, only to be burned at the stake four years later. In the ensuing regime, Machiavelli was made Secretary: effectively the top civil servant. He seems to have got this plumb job through good networking (he was not from a high-ranking family), and his place was secure as long as his principal patron remained in office.
He was, however, no idle time-server. He advocated reform, and in particular the raising and training of a permanent militia. Italian states depended on mercenaries - the original ‘freelancers’ - and Machiavelli saw the pitfalls of a system that was not only costly but unreliable. Machiavelli’s small army had successes, and their founder’s status rose.
The key event in his life, however, was when he was sent to negotiate with (and spy on) one of the republic’s enemies: Cesare Borgia. In trying to persuade us that we have got Machiavelli wrong, Michael White faces a big problem with Cesare. The man who inspired The Prince was one of the most ruthless psychopaths in political history.
Cesare’s first murder victim was his own brother, an act possibly motivated by sexual jealousy over their younger sister Lucrezia, at least one of whose husbands would later die at Cesare’s hands. A gangster far more terrible than anything in a Martin Scorsese film, Cesare got his kicks by disguising himself and prompting unwitting strangers to bad-mouth him. One victim was promptly arrested and had his hand and tongue cut off, with the tongue being nailed on the stump for good measure.
Cesare was the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, a man who, according to contemporaries, turned the Vatican into a brothel, enjoying "every night twenty-five or more women between Ave Maria and one o’clock". Cesare used his power base to intimidate and overwhelm a succession of small principalities. Machiavelli accompanied him on campaigns and saw his shock tactics. The people of one town woke to find that the leader installed by Cesare had fallen from favour: he was lying in two neat pieces in the town square.
Machiavelli, White admits, was "stunned by this savagery" - yet he later wrote admiringly in The Prince of how it kept a subjugated people "appeased and stupefied".
A detailed analysis of The Prince would be needed in order to unpick the ambivalent feelings Machiavelli had towards Cesare. Unfortunately, Michael White attempts no such analysis: apart from a few excerpts and a chapter on the work’s composition history, he is more concerned with the narrative of Machiavelli’s life. Given that his aim is supposedly to make us rethink Machiavelli, this is a drastic oversight, since one cannot help coming away from this book still holding the traditional view, that Machiavelli was at best an apologist for a despot, and at worst a fan.
White treats his subject with affection, though one’s sympathy for Machiavelli is strained by his incessant extramarital antics. In a letter, Machiavelli describes a whore he has had, who kept a towel over her face during the act. Wishing afterwards to see "the merchandise", he lifts the towel to find her so ugly, louse-ridden and foul-breathed that he throws up on her. Machiavelli wrote all this to his mates as a laddish boast; but one is left reminded that the anonymous woman, stuttering in bewilderment at Machiavelli’s fury, was the sort of ordinary person who fell victim to the high politics Machiavelli found so absorbing.
His fall from grace coincided with the return of the Medicis to Florence; a few years in the political wilderness, which nowadays would lead to a self-serving memoir and a lot of after-dinner speeches, gave us The Prince. Its notion that earthly power comes from earthly cunning, not from God, outraged Catholics and Protestants alike: this is the true origin of his devilish reputation.
Assessing Machiavelli’s legacy, White lapses back into his earlier hyperbole: Shakespeare and Karl Marx supposedly got ideas from him. White overstates and hence undermines a basically plausible case. Machiavelli understood that politics is based on human nature, not divine intervention; and the most fundamental feature of human nature is self-interest. Machiavelli wrongly concluded that cunning and deception are therefore essential to success.
History shows, however, that back-stabbing results only in short-term gains. As soon as your back is turned, someone will put the knife in you. Cesare and his father plotted to poison an opponent at a banquet but ended up poisoning themselves: Alexander died in agony, and Cesare lost his nerve, allowing the succession of Pope Julius II. Cesare was sent into exile, and quietly bumped off en route. If you want to be a Machiavellian, do not expect to enjoy a long career.
Andrew Crumey is Scotland on Sunday’s literary editor