We're all Machiavelli now

The Italian thinker and politician makes a treacherous guide
June 19, 2013

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The Medicis as portrayed in Benozzo Gozzoli's "Procession of the Magi": Machiavelli was thrown out of office by the Medici family in 1512 © Alinar/Rex Features

The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World that he Made by Philip Bobbitt (Atlantic, £22)

Niccolo Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biographyby Corrado Vivanti (Princeton, £19.95)

It is exactly 500 years since Machiavelli wrote The Prince, yet he still continues to fascinate. Two new books have joined the more or less constant stream of works trying to interpret what he really meant, the first by Phillip Bobbitt, The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World that he Made, argues that he was really a constitutionalist and the prophet of the coming nation state, and the second Niccolo Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography by Corrado Vivanti, interprets his thought in the context of his life.

Bobbitt draws parallels between Machiavelli’s life and his own, careering from the academy to government to the writing chamber. As Vivanti beautifully illustrates, Machiavelli’s life and works are intertwined. From humdrum beginnings, in 1498 Machiavelli was catapulted into a position roughly equivalent to a Permanent Secretary by the execution of Savanarola, the radical monk who briefly ruled Florence. Shortly after this promotion, Machiavelli became secretary of the Council of Ten of Liberty and Peace, a position roughly the equivalent to National Security Adviser. His tenure in office coincided with the heyday of the Florentine Republic and he worked closely with the leader, Piero Soderini, a moderate who Machiavelli clearly liked, but who was hopelessly indecisive. Machiavelli was a great success as an official and much loved by his fellow bureaucrats. He was sent to a series of embassies for Florence, most notably to follow Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of the Pope, who was waging a bloody campaign to conquer the nearby Romagna for his father. Borgia’s ruthless methods attracted the admiration of Machiavelli and he drew many of his lessons in The Prince from observing him.

Machiavelli’s two big successes in office were recapturing Pisa, where he worked with Leonardo da Vinci, and in the creation of a citizen militia to replace Florence’s dependence on mercenaries. When the Medici returned to Florence in 1512 Machiavelli was thrown out of office and into jail where he was tortured. He was released as part of a general amnesty in 1513 and retired to his small farm outside the city to write, while spending the next 14 years until his death desperately and unsuccessfully trying to get back into government. As well as his two masterpieces, The Prince and The Discourses, he wrote a History of Florence, The Art of War and a farce, La Madragola, which reflected his bawdy sense of humour. His works intimately reflect his experiences in office and his later reading of the great classical authors such as Livy and Tacitus.

The central paradox of Machiavelli is that he is seen as a great thinker who changed the world but no one can agree on what he was actually trying to say. He has been adopted by figures as different as Mussolini and Gramsci, Napoleon and Rousseau, the poet Milton and the rapper Tupac Shakur. Every commentator has a different interpretation. The one common factor is that everyone wants to make Machiavelli agree with them.

Following this pattern, Bobbitt, a constitutional lawyer and historian who I admire, decides that Machiavelli is a constitutionalist like him, and that the central theme of his work, so far undetected by others, was the creation of a new constitutional order—which is of course also the subject of Bobbitt’s books The Shield of Achilles and Terror and Consent. He wants a single, consistent and comprehensive reading of his works and therefore decides that The Prince and The Discourses are two parts of one book that should have been called The State—an expression he believes Machiavelli uses in a new way. (This argument is complicated by the many different ways in which Machiavelli used the expression in his works, the subject of an extended appendix to Vivanti’s book.) Bobbitt suggests that Machiavelli started on The Discourses first when he was released from prison in 1513 and only interrupted it to dash off The Prince because he saw an opportunity to influence Giuliano de Medici (to whom the book was originally dedicated) and then returned to work on completing The Discourses in December. The only problem with this theory is that, as Vivanti points out, it almost certainly didn’t happen, not least because “in nine months he would have had to have written a complex and demanding set of chapters of The Discourses, not to mention The Prince.”

Nonetheless Bobbitt’s approach is highly stimulating when he tries to address the five main contradictions in Machiavelli’s work. The first is that The Prince takes the form of “a mirror book”—a common type of “how to” manual for rulers at the time—but shockingly appears to turn classical and Christian advice on its head. This has led subsequent commentators to suggest that Machiavelli’s book was a satire or cautionary tale. Bobbitt’s answer is that it is not a mirror book at all but a constitutional treatise offering a new basis of legitimacy for a new ruler.

Second, and most intriguing, is the contradiction between The Prince, which appears to advocate autocracy, and The Discourses, which appears to argue for republicanism. Bobbitt’s answer is that the two were part of a larger work in which he foresaw two different steps in the evolution of a state: first the creation of a state by a new prince and then its transformation into a republic, the better form of government. Bobbitt points out that Machiavelli never advocates a monarchy over a republic in The Prince, but he does make it abundantly clear how much he admires the Roman Republic in The Discourses.

Third, Machiavelli separates politics from ethics, suggesting that the ends justify the means. Bobbitt asserts, correctly, that Machiavelli is not amoral, but simply believes that you cannot carry your personal morality into government and still be a good leader. If you are acting as an agent of the state you must subordinate your personal preferences to the common good. Bobbitt calls this “the duty of consequentialism” by which he means that the leader’s primary responsibility is to produce the best results for the state.

Fourth, Machiavelli seems torn between “virtu” and “fortuna” as drivers of events. Sometimes he seems to say success is all down to luck and sometimes he seems to say it depends on the manly virtues of the leader. Bobbitt’s answer is that Machiavelli resolved this tension with his idea of “collective virtu,” which allowed for different leaders appropriate for different times. He believes that “success of a political society is not so much to have a prince who governs wisely while he lives,” but rather “one who organises the government in such a way” that its fate rests upon ‘the virtue of the people.’” And that is why a Republic is better because it can replace its leaders according to the demands of circumstances.

The final contradiction is that The Prince ends with a chapter, “An Exhortation to Liberate Italy from the Barbarians,” which seems totally out of character with the rest of the book in its emotional tone and its focus on one particular, current issue, rather than the detached consideration of timeless lessons elsewhere. Here, Machiavelli passionately urges Lorenzo de Medici to bring about the unification of Italy by driving out the French and Spanish. Bobbitt believes this is not an anomaly at all but the natural culmination of the book’s argument that the success of leaders should be judged by the common good, which favoured republicanism and the rule of law, and that a new unified state in the centre of Italy was the best way of bringing this about.

In 1500, when Machiavelli was in government, Christendom was still a complex system of overlapping duties and entities rather than a society of politically distinct states. Technological and social change, however, increasingly required an effective administrative apparatus. As that came into being, the legal characteristics, such as legitimacy and sovereignty, moved from the person of the prince to the state. Western feudal kings, like the King of France, had legitimacy without much power, while the recently installed princes in Italy had power without legitimacy. Machiavelli offered the latter an answer to their lack of legitimacy through the concept of ordini, or constitutional structures—a feature of Machiavelli’s work which Bobbitt thinks is insufficiently appreciated. Machiavelli was, he says, the first to understand that feudalism was dying all around him and that a new structure of organising human affairs would appear, which was to be the “neoclassical state.” Bobbitt concludes that The Prince foreshadows “the new constitutional order in Europe and the emergence of the first modern states.” He even goes so far as to suggest that Machiavelli is the “spiritual godfather” of the US Constitution.


Corrado Vivanti, who died last year, was a distinguished historian who published the classic version of Machiavelli’s complete works. Not surprisingly, he too wants to bring coherence to Machiavelli’s complete oeuvre and does so by relating the different works, including the plays, poetry, histories and The Art of War, to Machiavelli’s life and the period of history in which they were written. Vivanti argues that Machiavelli’s government jobs helped him develop his thoughts and gave him firsthand knowledge of different sorts of states across the Alps. This, in turn, equipped him with an understanding of comparative politics. He also puts Machiavelli’s republicanism in a personal and historical context. He spent his time in government fighting “the Optimates,” the upper classes of Florence, who attempted to frustrate his every move, and who succeeded in convincing him that “only a government founded on the people is solid.”

Both Bobbitt and Vivanti’s books are excellent, and accessible to anyone interested in finding out more about Machiavelli. But both try too hard to make Machiavelli coherent and to persuade readers that Machiavelli really agreed with the authors’ pet theories. In this respect, both are ultimately unconvincing. Machiavelli would have been mystified to be told that he had foretold the rise of the nation state. And while there is a common thread to Machiavelli’s thought from beginning to the end, he was constantly developing his ideas and refining them, changing his mind in the face of the facts. He was above all else empirical in his approach.

I, too, was guilty, like these authors, of trying to bend Machiavelli’s thought to agree with my arguments when I used The Prince and The Discourses as a device to tell the story of Tony Blair’s time in government. The maxims Machiavelli set out, for example that it is better to be feared than to be loved, or that a leader needs to be a fox as well as a lion, hold for New Labour as well as they did in the 16th century. But not all his lessons are relevant to the modern world, nor do we have to bend over backwards to justify his apparent infatuation with the blood-soaked, and ultimately unsuccessful, Cesare Borgia. It is ahistorical to try to force too much coherence on Machiavelli. He was not a political philosopher trying to come up with a “theory of everything” but a practitioner who learnt from his experience as an official and diplomat in service of the state of Florence and who tied those lessons together with those he drew from his reading of the classics. His books can be quoted selectively, like the Bible, to illustrate many contradictory points.

It is true that Machiavelli was writing at a time of great ferment, when Luther was challenging the Catholic Church, when Leonardo, whom he knew, was designing revolutionary inventions, when the art of war was changing with the use of artillery and when feudalism was collapsing. His great contribution, however, was not to foresee what would happen in the future but to break with the tradition of interpreting everything in terms of theory and, in particular, the values of the Catholic Church. He was a myth-buster who wanted rulers to make rational decisions in light of the probable consequences they would bring about on this earth rather than the hereafter. Machiavelli does not give us an orderly way of thinking, but his arguments force us to justify or reconsider our positions.

Just as in the plays of Shakespeare we still see circumstances and motives that we find familiar so in Machiavelli’s works we find lessons for government that still apply today. David Cameron and George Osborne, in their economic policy, clearly learned from Machiavelli’s advice to be bold early on and administer disagreeable medicine quickly rather than dragging out the pain. Having done so will stand them in good stead if the economy recovers by the next election in 2015. But they have been less assiduous in heeding Machiavelli’s advice to reformers: “he who innovates will have as his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.” Reform in health, in education or in the civil service will incur the opposition of vested interests—teachers, doctors and civil servants—but will not enjoy the support of the public because they do not really believe in the advertised improvements until they are delivered. That means that politicians planning reform must have a clear strategy of how to deal with the vested interests, particularly if, as in the public service, you need those same vested interests to deliver the change you have promised.

Machiavelli’s real value lies therefore not in creating a new school of Machiavellian thought but in illustrating the eternal truths of human nature. The reason we still read him 500 years later is that his work still provides one of the best practical primers there is for anyone exercising power and leadership.