One more anniversary, one more cache of commemorative books. This time we are celebrating the half-millennium since Niccolò Machiavelli produced his notorious work, The Prince. He wrote it after a significant career blip in 1512, when the Florentine Republic fell and the Medici regained power. Machiavelli was not merely sacked from his job — secretary to the Republic — but also accused of conspiracy, imprisoned and horribly tortured. In 1513, he was released into exile, and went to live on his family farm, south of Florence. There he walked, consorted with ‘vulgarity’ (the locals) and read classical writers, including Livy, Tacitus, Sallust, Plutarch, Suetonius and Procopius. By December 1513, Machiavelli had finished The Prince, a book of advice to new princes, explaining how they might establish themselves in their territories and win glory. Though such books were common at the time, Machiavelli’s unconventional remarks about politics earned him an abiding reputation as a Renaissance Mephistopheles, whispering depravities into the ears of princes.
In this way, Machiavelli entered an exclusive group — including Freud and Darwin — of writers whose names are used adjectivally even by those who have never read a word they wrote. In Niccolo Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography, the late Corrado Vivanti explains:
In the entire history of political thought we cannot find another example of a flow of ideas so defined by hostility towards the author as is anti-Machiavellianism… nor can we find an example of an author whose work was adulterated to the point of becoming a system of principles at odds, in many aspects, with his true intentions.
In The Garments of Court and Palace, Philip Bobbitt (recently interviewed in these pages) agrees:
The Prince is often described as a great book that changed the world, yet… it has been so variously and contradictorily interpreted that any change in the world it may have brought about is likely to have been through a kind of horrible inadvertence that would have amused, though perhaps not surprised, Machiavelli.
Was Machiavelli a Machiavellian? Was he actually a really nice guy? Hordes of the illustrious, from Isaiah Berlin to Quentin Skinner to Salman Rushdie, have considered these questions. What do Vivanti and Bobbitt add to the debate?
Bobbitt is a former senior official at the White House, a current professor of jurisprudence and the author of well-regarded books on war, terror and American foreign policy, The Shield of Achilles and Terror and Consent. He opens The Garments of Court and Palace with a series of antinomies: ‘Was [Machiavelli] a forthright totalitarian or a human rights-respecting Republican?’ ‘A Christian or a pagan?’ ‘An ethical writer or an unabashed amoralist?’ ‘A Renaissance humanist or a neoclassical realist?’ He wonders if Machiavelli was neither ‘the necromancer of evil… nor… the benign liberal humanist’. Instead, he was the ‘clear-sighted prophet of a new constitutional order’; this order being ‘republican government’.
Vivanti, who was an eminent Machiavelli scholar, suggests that Machiavelli’s poor reputation derives from his ‘refusal to rely on intangible values’. This ‘deeply wounded dogmatic minds’, who then flocked to ‘condemn Machiavelli’s work’. For Vivanti, Machiavelli is a realist, who describes the difference between ‘how men live and how they should live’. He disagrees with Bobbitt’s interpretation: Machiavelli never proposed in ‘absolute terms that the republic is the preferred form of government’. Machiavelli should not be placed ‘within an ideology’ and was not remotely ‘the forefather of… a republican model, capable of imposing itself across the centuries in countries on both sides of the Atlantic’.
Between them, these books present a further antimony: ‘Evangelical Republican, or non-aligned realist?’
The reader by this point may be oscillating to an uncomfortable degree between rhetorical polarities, an unpleasant experience in general. Yet take heart. Vivanti supplies a fascinating, concise guide to Machiavelli’s life and work, his role within the Republic, his formative visits to the court of Louis XII of France, to Cesare Borgia and to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. He takes the reader on a tour through Machiavelli’s other writings, including Discourses, The Art of War and ‘one of the greatest comic creations of Italian literature’, his play, The Mandrake.
He explains that Machiavelli hoped The Prince would impress the Medici, that he longed to return to political life, ‘even if they [the Medici] begin by making me roll a stone’, as he wrote to his friend Francesco Vettori. Yet, as Vettori recognised, the text was a complete blunder in this respect. Though effusively dedicated, it was too candid, too pragmatic and too lifelike. Machiavelli calmly offered advice to ‘men who gain a princedom through wicked deeds’, and differentiated between ‘badly used’ and ‘well used’ cruelties.
He suggested that a prince had better murder a man than ‘[take] the property of others… because men forget more quickly the death of a father than the loss of a father’s estate’. Yet, Vivanti emphasises that Machiavelli was not rubbing his hands and salivating over acts of slaughter. Instead, he was writing ‘bitterly’ and ‘bleakly’ about a ‘corrupt’ situation, a ‘situation of crisis and general ruin’. In such dire circumstances, the prince must set aside all ‘consideration of just or unjust, of merciful or cruel, of praiseworthy or disgraceful’, for the ‘safety of one’s country’.
Bobbitt, meanwhile, presents a pithy, eloquent argument for The Prince as a ‘constitutional tract’ and Machiavelli as the ‘spiritual forefather’ of the US Constitution. He ‘stood on the cusp of a change in the constitutional order from a feudal order to that of the first modern state’. He was ‘almost alone in recognising this, and his writings must be read accordingly’. Bobbitt turns to Machiavelli’s ideas about how the prince can master ‘fortuna’, fortune, with ‘virtù’, manly resolution, determination and courage. He explains that while Machiavelli’s predecessors had ‘thought of virtù as a trait of the individual, Machiavelli conceived of a collective virtù that would be found in the character of the people’, expressed through ‘the rule of law’.
Bobbitt also muses on the contemporary loathing of politicians, which he suggests might be hypocrisy. The official who must behave badly for the good of the state is less compromised than the civilian who ‘authorises the role of a governing official but disclaims any responsibility for the action of government.’ ‘The officials of the Machiavellian state have hands at least as clean as those of the rest of us and possibly a good deal cleaner.’ But only if they are really driven by collective virtù and not by individual virtù which they have mistaken for collective virtù, one assumes? ‘The good of the people’ has become one of the most overused terms in public life, and can at times be wildly abused or misconstrued, as we have seen.
Quoted on the cover, Henry Kissinger suggests that The Garments of Court and Palace ‘may well become a new standard interpretation’. However, Bobbitt demonstrates that, when it comes to Machiavelli, any interpretation will be instantly
countermanded by a host of others. Yet, both Vivanti’s and Bobbitt’s books are well worth reading. They may even cancel one another out but, as Isaiah Berlin said, ‘where more than 20 interpretations hold the field, the addition of one [or two] more cannot be deemed an impertinence’.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10