No moral anchor: Machiavelli. Photo: © incamerastock / Alamy Stock Photo

What we get wrong about Machiavelli

The Renaissance thinker wasn't as diabolical—or as original—as we often assume
May 3, 2020

In Wolf Hall, while Thomas Cromwell is getting over his wife’s death, he whiles away the time reading Niccolò Machiavelli’s Principalities: “it is a Latin edition, shoddily printed in Naples, which seems to have passed through many hands.” Actually it must have been a manuscript not a printed copy, because we are in early 1529, and the first edition was published three years later, but certainly the real Cromwell does seem to have been well acquainted with the book known to us as The Prince. Nearly 10 years later we find Cardinal Reginald Pole scouring Florence for a copy on Cromwell’s recommendation. Pole is horrified by what he reads: “I had scarcely begun to read the book when I recognised the finger of Satan,” he wrote. Machiavelli was clearly “an enemy of the human race.” 

The cardinal was bewildered—he thought Machiavelli’s intolerable suggestions could only lead to a prince facing mutiny. Almost from the start his readers identified at least two Machiavellis. First came Old Nick, the devil incarnate. Both Machiavelli’s major works were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books by Pope Paul IV in 1559. By then, there were 15 editions of The Prince and 19 of the Discourses on Livy in circulation. In England, the Machiavel became a stock figure on the stage. In Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, Machiavel delivers the prologue, denouncing religion as “a childish toy” and declaring that “there is no sin but ignorance.” The adjective “Machiavellian” is first found in 1568, already meaning deceitful, manipulative, ruthless. For him the end justifies the means—that end being to secure power over others.

Yet very soon Machiavelli begins to develop a quite different reputation, as the father of modern political science—the first man to see the world as it really is without fear of popes or prince. He is identified as a key figure in the transition from the medieval to the modern, from the religio-moral to the results-based secular approach on which we pride ourselves today. On this reading, it is Machiavelli who injects the civic humanism of the Renaissance into the English and American thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries.

This was already a breathtaking double reputation for one man to possess. Later, the Big Beasts of the modern era lapped up The Prince. Hitler had a copy by his bedside. Mussolini called it “the statesman’s supreme guide” and wrote a new introduction. Napoleon reportedly told Metternich that Machiavelli was the only author worth reading, although the story that a copy of The Prince annotated in the emperor’s hand was found in his carriage after Waterloo seems to be a Jesuit fabrication. Stalin certainly did annotate his copy.

Perhaps these Machiavelli buffs were drawn by his subtle analysis of Livy. It seems more probable that what made them salivate was the raw red meat: “If you always want to play the good man in a world where most people are not good, you’ll end up badly. Hence, if a ruler wants to survive, he’ll have to learn to stop being good”; “it’s much safer to be feared than loved”; “there is nothing more important than appearing to be religious.” And so on. How deliciously shocking these bite-sized chunks are—just right for leaders with short attention spans. 

[su_pullquote]“Hitler had a copy of The Prince by his bedside. Stalin annotated his copy”[/su_pullquote]

In Machiavelli, there is no moral anchor, only the pitiless seas of fortune. Or is there? We have to ask ourselves whether the Big Beasts may have misread their master. Have they failed to grasp the subtle ambiguities, the sly undertext, that admiring scholars effortlessly extract from his work?

There is a growing trend to seek enlightenment from Machiavelli’s adventurous life. Biographies have come thick and fast—half-a-dozen in the past 10 years. Most of them are quite short, as was the first influential modern life by Roberto Ridolfi in the 1960s. This new biography by the Renaissance scholar, Alexander Lee, is about twice as long. This is partly because he cannot resist bringing the scene to life. Machiavelli was born in a courtyard near the Ponte Vecchio. “Especially on a warm afternoon like 3rd May 1469,” Lee writes, “the air would have been filled with the sound of wives scolding their husbands, children playing, servants chattering and crockery clattering. Yet, on one of the upper storeys, just as the office of None was beginning, all was happiness and joy. Watched over by her delighted second husband, Bernardo, the exhausted Bartolomea di Stefano was cradling their newborn son in her arms. And, as the bells of Santa Maria del Fiore echoed faintly in the distance…”

Don’t be put off. The book is also a superb work of scholarship, securely grounded in the turbulent Italy of Machiavelli’s day, and unflinchingly truthful. Machiavelli’s letters and papers are so plangent and lively, it is tempting to go easy on him. Lee is fond of his subject, but not indulgent. And this is crucial if we are to form any reliable judgment about whether Machiavelli “really means it,” about where the irony stops, or never started.

He came from a solid Florentine family of the middling sort, which had done the state some service. Not much money to speak of, nothing to compare with the great families whose grim palaces have hemmed in the city since the 14th century—the Medici, the Pazzi, the Strozzi, the Rucellai, the incurably nouveau Pitti. His father, Bernardo, had inherited a few farms in the delightful Val di Pesa and a ramshackle mansion-tavern, the Albergaccio, in the village of Sant’Andrea in Percussina, where Machiavelli was to spend most of his later decades. Bernardo was a friend of the great Florentine humanists Poliziano, Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. In a dialogue written by the future chancellor of Florence, Bartolomeo Scala, he speaks up for good laws as the foundation of a good republic. He seems to have been orthodox and without much discernible ambition, keeping obsessive records of his household expenses and worried about his children. Nothing devilish about him at all.

We don’t know much about Machiavelli’s education, except that he studied under Marcello Adriani, successor to Poliziano at the Studio Fiorentino. There he translated and annotated Lucretius’ De rerum natura, and imbibed the Latin author’s unflinching materialism—“the gods don’t care about mortal things,” he scribbled in the margin. Somewhat strangely, Lee declares at the end of this book that Machiavelli had “always been a sincere believer,” who confessed and received the last rites on his deathbed. Yet throughout his work there is not only a remorseless concentration on the church’s hypocrisy, but a repeated insistence that religion was useful as an instrument of social control and that wise rulers need only seem to believe this stuff. I think it is safe to assume that he was conformist rather than croyant.

In 1498, his friend Adriani became first chancellor of the Republic, and the unknown Machiavelli became, by a mysterious process, second chancellor at the age of 29. This launched him on a career of gruelling foreign missions to preserve or restore the shaky peace on the peninsula and the independent existence of Florence, menaced as she was within Italy by Venice, Siena, Lucca, Pisa and Rome, and beyond by Louis of France, Ferdinand of Aragon and the Emperor Maximilian. Reliant on headstrong and deceitful condottieri who were as likely to seize power as to leave you in the lurch, unable to raise taxes from a population of tightwads, the fragile city’s fathers again and again refused to take the only plausible cure, recommended by Machiavelli: a home-grown citizen militia financed by higher taxation.

The city treated her envoys like dirt, keeping them short of ducats, refusing to take firm decisions or issue prompt instructions, leaving Machiavelli to tramp over snowbound passes deep into France and Germany, and shiver and starve for months at the courts of some of the toughest cookies in history from Cesare Borgia to Catherine Sforza. He rarely had any hope of clinching a deal, because the popolani back in the Signoria never allowed him enough cash to meet the insatiable demands for protection money.

Lee retells the stories of plagues and brush-offs, of brothels, betrayals and massacres, in a brisk and compelling style. We can trace the evolution of Machiavelli’s moral character from his lurid experiences. And what strikes us forcefully both in his letters and in his later recastings in The Prince and The Discourses is his apparent lack of moral horror, or even physical recoil, at what he sees. 

His adulation of Cesare Borgia was not dented when Borgia had his wayward condottieri strangled, and went on to behead his own governor-general for the Romagna, Ramiro de Lorqua, placing his bloody head on display in the piazza at Cesena: “I can’t find anything to criticise; on the contrary, I mean to propose him as a model for anyone who comes to power through fortunate circumstances.” Cesare’s only black mark was that he was taken for a sucker by the equally vicious Pope Julius after he succeeded Cesare’s appalling father in the Vatican.

Machiavelli had no experience of military command until he became Secretary of the Dieci and took charge of yet another attack to recapture Pisa. He cheerfully gave orders to demolish warehouses, burn down houses and, if necessary, kill the inhabitants. Three years later, he set off again with his half-trained yokels, burning crops and blocking Pisa’s access to the sea until children were starving and the Pisans surviving on rats. If the siege had lasted any longer, there is no reason to think he would have been any more merciful than Cesare. In 1499’s Discorso sopra le cose di Pisa (Discourse on Pisa), he argued the city could never be taken by love, only by brute force. 

It is tempting to turn away from these bleak calculations to Machiavelli’s charming, self-deprecating letters to his many friends, to his languid philosophical debates with his city cronies in the Oricellari gardens, or his jolly drinking sessions with the local butcher out at Sant’Andrea. And there is no doubting his fondness for his many children and his much betrayed wife Marietta. But there is a savage side to his temperament. Lee does not shrink from his knocking around with prostitutes and rent boys. 

One rainy evening, he picked up a pretty lad and, after he has had his way in the darkness, explains that he has no money, but states that he is called Filippo Casavecchia—and if he calls at his shop tomorrow, the boy will get his money. A surprised Filippo, a buddy of Machiavelli’s, denies it was him, and the boy threatens him with prosecution for sodomy. Filippo asks if the boy would recognise the man’s voice? The boy says yes, so he is taken to a spot near the Porta Romana where Machiavelli regularly holds court. The boy creeps up behind the bench where the great man is telling an anecdote. He sees the boy and runs off. 

It was Machiavelli himself, now aged 45, who told the story in a letter to his bosom friend Francesco Vettori, not in the least worried that it might seem unsavoury. Though familiar, many biographies have looked the other way from this tale. Again, such biographies glide over a letter to Luigi Guicciardini which details a horrific sexual encounter with an ugly woman in an underground laundry in Verona. Erica Benner, in her biography Be Like the Fox, brushes the tale aside as an “obvious invention,” which may well be a “political allegory.” If that’s an allegory, I’m the Marquis de Sade.

Even if we set aside Machiavelli’s private life, and focus instead on his public record, we run into difficulties. It is a central part of the Machiavelli persona—as an exemplar of virtù or manliness—that he should be a stalwart defender of Florence. Yet when his boss, the decent and long-suffering Piero Soderini, is chucked out and the Medicis and their cronies surge back into power, what does he do?

[su_pullquote]“He cheerfully gave orders to demolish warehouses, burn down houses and, if necessary, kill the inhabitants”[/su_pullquote]

First, he writes the Lettera a una gentildonna—supposedly Isabella d’Este, ruler of Mantua—presenting the coup as a popular response to civil unrest, and saluting the prospect of peace and stability under the restored and “magnificent Medici.” Meanwhile, he scribbles a letter to the incoming Cardinal Medici stressing his worth as a counsellor. This famous letter was known as “Ai Palleschi”—to the Ballsmen, after the famous ball-studded Medici coat of arms that inspired their supporters to rush around the city shouting “Palle! Palle!” much as Boris Johnson used to shout “Buller! Buller!” on meeting a fellow alumnus of the Bullingdon Club. The letter also advises the new rulers not to compromise, but to bury the old republic. As Lee concludes, “in a few confused paragraphs, he had repudiated everything he had worked for since becoming second chancellor. He had poured scorn on Soderini, spat on his regime and rejoiced over the destruction of the militia. Even if he had not said so openly, he had silently promised that, in return for his livelihood, he would betray everything and say anything.” It didn’t work. He was flung into jail and tortured. 

His job applications may not always have been successful, but nobody until Henry Kissinger can have submitted so many to so many different rulers. The Prince is itself the greatest of them all. The first intention was to dedicate it to Giuliano de Medici, then Machiavelli switched to his young nephew Duke Lorenzo. Unfortunately, when he went to the palazzo Medici to present a copy, someone had just given the hunting-mad Lorenzo a pair of hounds that he was drooling over, sparing scarcely a glance for Machiavelli’s poor opuscolo.

Even if we push aside all the praise of ruthlessness and mendacity, there are other problems with Machiavelli’s supposed civic humanism. How does it really differ from traditional Christian approaches to politics, which equally lay stress on freedom and free will? The same is true of Plato and Aristotle. What exactly new does Machiavelli bring to the party? 

He is sometimes said to have laid the grounds for the modern technocratic state by stripping out the insistence on moral virtue in the old sense, as opposed to virtù. But is modern politics virtue-free? Surely modern societies make more, rather than fewer, moral demands on their citizens, insisting not merely on law-abidingness, solidarity and charity but also on respect for the environment and “others.” By contrast, “rogue” or “failing” states are identified as such because of moral turpitude, not administrative incompetence: their rulers steal billions from the state and rig elections, officials take huge bribes and the police beat up racial minorities and oppress immigrants.

Machiavelli didn’t invent these expectations. He praises the city states of Germany for not being “corrupt.” But this is scarcely a novel criterion. Citizens and officials in classical republics were judged against comparable demands. Political virtue, not virtù, is a perennial, it is just that what it may require in any particular society will evolve. 

What remains shockingly original is Machiavelli’s realpolitik, which insists that extreme ruthlessness and unashamed mendacity are, in some circumstances, the way to hang on to power. Yet we have only to look at the ultimate fates of Machiavelli’s fans to wonder: sticky ends all the way from Thomas Cromwell and Cesare Borgia to Benito and Adolf. Dishonesty isn’t always the best policy either. On the evidence of recent history from Suez to Iraq, there is no quicker destroyer of political capital than the Big Lie.

This likeable, easy-paced work does not seek to diminish Machiavelli any more than it tries to magnify him. Lee gives full value to his sardonic charm, his dazzling stamina, his rollicking private life and his genuine dedication to Florence. But somehow it sucks a certain intellectual vitality from his works. Considered so dispassionately, his advice begins to seem no more compelling than the club bore laying down the law. Nor does Machiavelli’s much admired ambivalence remedy our unease. So often he seems to end up saying: “this always works—except when it doesn’t.”

As Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell replies when someone asks what is in his little book: “A few aphorisms, a few truisms, nothing we didn’t know before.” 

Machiavelli: His Life and Times by Alexander Lee (Picador, £30)