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How Machiavelli was misunderstood

Machiavelli did not revel in tyranny. Instead, quite calmly, he observed that Christian virtues have no place in politics.

According to Isaiah Berlin, it is not Machiavelli’s supposed immorality that has made him a perennially scandalous thinker: “There is evidently something peculiarly disturbing about what Machiavelli said or implied,” Berlin wrote, “something that has caused profound and lasting uneasiness.” The Renaissance Italian diplomat and historian did not prize power for its own sake, as has been so often claimed. The conflict Machiavelli has never been forgiven for exposing was not between ethics and politics but two irreconcilably antagonistic moralities, one inherited from Christianity and the other from the ancient pagan world.

Machiavelli’s unpardonable sin was to reveal that, if they are genuinely practised and not just hypocritically professed, Christian humility, loving kindness and trust bring ruin to any state that honours them. In contrast, what Machiavelli called virtù – a pagan resolve “to do whatever may be necessary for the attainment of civic glory and greatness” – enables the state to achieve republican self-government, which he considered the supreme political good.

Berlin identified the true source of Machiavelli’s infamous reputation. The man who became notorious throughout Europe with the publication of The Prince in 1532, five years after he died, was not a lover of evil. Unlike Nietzsche, who lauded his would-be patron Cesare Borgia as a “predatory animal”, Machiavelli did not revel in an aesthetic spectacle of tyranny and cruelty. Instead, quite calmly, he observed that Christian virtues have no place in politics. “When it is absolutely a question of the safety of one’s country,” he wrote, “there must be no question of just or unjust, of merciful or cruel, of praiseworthy or disgraceful; instead, setting aside every scruple, one must follow to the utmost any plan that will save her life and keep her liberty.”

No ruler can govern for long without a constant readiness to dispose of his enemies. Yet the sword is a blunt instrument if it is wielded without the mask. A ruler must not be one person, the righteous sovereign as described in medieval “mirrors for princes” that were written to guide nobles who had succeeded to power. Instead, they must have many personae, changing the face they present to the world as circumstances require. Personal authenticity is a luxury they cannot afford, and truth a weapon that must be used sparingly. As much as the readiness to eliminate their enemies, rulers need constant exercise in dissimulation. Success in any political project depends on traits that Christianity condemns as vices.

Machiavelli reports these facts without sadness or regret. There is no trace in his writings of the narcissistic anguish of the disillusioned humanist.

Although he suffered many trials, including being imprisoned and tortured as a result of an unfounded accusation of being involved in a conspiracy against Florence’s ruling Medici family, he relished to the full the pleasures available to someone with his position in society. As was the custom he married for life, but that did not stop him patronising courtesans and rent boys, or engaging in a late-life love affair that for a time consumed him. A poet and playwright, he was a spirited conversationalist. When his public career was interrupted he made the best of exile in his farm outside of Florence, catching thrushes to roast and walking in the woods while reading Latin verse. In the course of his life he often suffered defeat, but did not let it trouble him too much. Though he died an avowed Christian and prayed to God to forgive him his sins, a deathbed dream provoked a laughing last word in which he confessed that he would be happier in the company of those who were consigned to Hell.

Alexander Lee writes that his biography does not “attempt to advance an especially radical vision of its subject”. He aims to set Machiavelli in his historical context, taking into account the full range of his writings while being fully aware of their almost accidental nature. If Machiavelli’s life and thought unfolded in any particular direction, it was known to him only in retrospect, if at all. He had no more foresight than anyone else. Lee tells us he has “treated each moment in Machiavelli’s life as it was lived – and only as such”.

The result is a life of Machiavelli that must surely be definitive in its faithfulness to the man and his experience of his time. Perhaps more surprisingly, given the rigorously biographical focus of his book, Lee presents a novel interpretation of his subject’s thinking. Machiavelli, Lee argues persuasively, was a radical conservative who aimed to show his fellow-citizens how to reclaim self-government from a corrupt oligarchy.

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Born in 1469 as the third child and first son of an old and once prominent family originating in a village a few miles south of Florence, Niccolò Machiavelli had comparatively modest beginnings. The family was far from wealthy. Niccolò’s mother Bartolomea, the remarried widow of an apothecary, was an independent-minded person who, despite legal restrictions on women, conducted business on her own initiative, though she spent most of her time managing the household. His father Bernardo had trained as a lawyer, but never practised that or any other profession. With the exact date of his birth unclear but known to be some time after the death of his own father, Bernardo was troubled throughout his life by rumours that he was an illegitimate child.

A bookish man who composed an index to one of the works of the Roman historian Livy, Bernardo was a failure in worldly terms. Just as he was finishing his legal studies his extended family was jolted by political conflict. The Medici were bent on turning the city into a private corporation, displacing the popular self-government Florence had traditionally enjoyed. The attempt was resisted by leading figures in the city, including a second cousin of Bernardo’s and several of his wife’s former in-laws. The opposition was crushed, and its leaders banished. Though playing no part in the struggle Bernardo was tarnished by his family connections with the rebels and forfeited any future he may have had as a public figure. He relied for sustenance on local farms he had inherited, which provided regular supplies of basic foodstuffs along with a meagre income.

Bernardo’s life was made harder by debts he had also inherited. The family lived in a decayed palazzo on the Via Romana, and at times he was compelled to sell his clothes to make ends meet. When he died in 1500 he left a muddle of unpaid rents and outstanding borrowings.

Niccolò was much more astute and venturesome than his father, but his life and thinking tracked his father’s in several respects. Niccolò too was plagued by money troubles, and his career as a public figure disrupted by political intrigues in which he was not himself involved. Above all, like his father and many in Italy at the time, Niccolò took his moral and intellectual bearings not from the Christian religion they all professed but from classical civilisation.

Importantly, it was not to the mysticism of Plato or the metaphysics of Aristotle that Machiavelli returned. In his youth he had been much impressed by the materialism of Lucretius, scribbling in the margin of a copy of the Roman philosopher-poet’s De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things) the observation: “the gods don’t care about mortal things”. History contains no redemptive providence or meaning. The Rota Fortunae – the randomly spinning wheel of fortune – governs everything. This was hard for Machiavelli to accept, and like many in Renaissance Europe he turned to astrologers when life seemed exceptionally uncertain.

A version of Lucretian philosophy surfaces in The Prince, where Machiavelli claimed that half of human life was owed to fortuna and the other half to virtù. Intelligence and energy can seize the opportunities that fortune grants. Great projects can be realised. But then the wheel spins again, and what has been achieved is lost. The human world is ruled by the turns of chance.

In a letter to Machiavelli, his friend the historian and statesman Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) spelled out the implications of this unending cycle:

I earnestly believe that only men’s faces and the outward aspect of things change, while the same things reoccur again and again. Thus we are witnessing events that happened earlier. But the alteration in names and outward aspects is such that only the most learned are able to recognise them. That is why history is a useful and profitable discipline, because it shows you and allows you to recognise what you’ve never seen or experienced.

Guicciardini agreed with Machiavelli in thinking of history as a guide to action, but differed in his assessment of how much in life could be shaped by human will. Reflecting his own experience, Guicciardini’s Ricordi (Maxims and Reflections) are much more sceptical of the capacity of human beings to outwit fortune. In comparison, The Prince is the work of an optimist.

As Lee shows, the book was written as an attempt to mend his relations with the Medici family. As a stratagem to restore Machiavelli’s fortunes it came to nothing. When a new republican government was formed in Florence he was denied any role in it. Sick and worn out, he died, like his father, a failure in worldly terms. But his incendiary little volume transcended the events that produced it, and the challenge it poses are as profound today as they were when it first scandalised European opinion.

Machiavelli planted a bomb in the foundations of Western ethics, whose detonating shock reverberates more loudly even as Christian virtue has seemingly fallen into disrepute. His objection to Christian morality was that, taken seriously, it was incompatible with the necessities of power. Defenders of Christianity will point to St Augustine’s two cities, the worldly city of Rome and the heavenly city of Christian love, as evidence that the imperfections of human government have long been recognised by believers. But this is an evasion of Machiavelli’s message, for he does not teach imperfection. He dismisses the very idea of perfection in ethics and politics. The two moralities he distinguishes are incomparable, and one is not better or worse than the other. Choose between them as you please, he tells us, and pay the price.

It is a message that challenges liberal humanism as much as monotheism. The Christian gospel of universal salvation extended moral concern to sections of humankind the pagan world ignored. But this had a dark side, for it meant Christian values were binding on everyone. The early 19th-century Italian poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi believed this universalism produced what he regarded as the peculiar barbarism of Christianity, for it licensed the Church to destroy classical civilisation. Liberals claim a similar licence when they look forward to a universal civilisation ruled by personal autonomy and human rights. Here as elsewhere, liberal humanist values are Christian values in secular clothing.

Yet the greater danger at the present time is not that liberalism will destroy other ways of life. Rather, a hyperbolic liberal ideology is unravelling the liberal way of life itself. A generation of alt-liberals believes the liberal West is the epicentre of evil, injustice and oppression. In their moral frenzy they are not unlike the early Christians who destroyed the classical world. The irony is that the liberal world these neo-Christian zealots are bent on demolishing was itself a Christian creation. As Machiavelli knew too well, the wheel of history never stops turning. 

Machiavelli: His Life and Times
Alexander Lee
Picador, 768pp, £30

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article appears in the 08 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain