“Behold here then the end and scope which I have proposed unto myself, that is, to confute the doctrine of Machiavelli.”
—INNOCENT GENTILLET, CONTRE-MACHIAVEL (1576)
MACHIAVELLI WAS INTERRED IN THE SMALL FAMILY chapel in the Franciscan basilica of Santa Croce, across the Arno River from his house in the city. The ceremony was private, attended by family and friends. In keeping with the life of a man of few means and modest achievements, the tomb was unassuming. Time, it seemed, would soon swallow up the name of the former Second Chancellor of Florence; at best he would be a footnote in the long and illustrious history of the republic he claimed to love more than his own soul but that had repaid his devotion with ingratitude.
This initial neglect might surprise visitors to Florence today who find themselves in a city that has come to embrace her patriotic son. Streets, hotels, and trattorie bear his name, and his sardonic likeness peeks out from many a souvenir shop and postcard stall. The change in attitude is embodied at Santa Croce itself, where Niccolò Machiavelli, comic playwright and midlevel civil servant, now resides in a tomb every bit as grand as those dedicated to such other Florentine greats as Cosimo de’ Medici, Dante Alighieri, and Michelangelo Buonarotti.i He was moved here from his obscure grave in the eighteenth century when the fame he had achieved in the years since his death made his anonymous burial plot seem an embarrassment. The man once dismissed as a second-rate hack willing to sell his principles to whoever would give him a job was now hailed as the great defender of Florentine liberties and a second Moses pointing his compatriots toward the as yet unborn Italian nation.
Unfortunately, the pompous monument captures nothing of the spirit of the man it commemorates. Atop the marble sarcophagus sits a beautiful woman, embodiment of the fatherland, holding a shield that carries a likeness of the former Second Chancellor; the supporting plinth is inscribed “Tanto nomini nullum par elogium” (“For so great a name, no words will suffice”), an ironic epitaph given the silence with which his death was greeted at the time. In fact the whole monument smacks of opportunism. It is a begrudging and belated recognition of the genius who had lived among them but whose achievement they could appreciate only after it was pointed out by others.
• • •
Florentines can be forgiven their initial neglect on the grounds that in the summer of 1527 they had more important things on their mind. The cause of Florentine liberty, to which Machiavelli had devoted his life, was in peril, and the particular course he had charted very much in disrepute. He had followed a cautious path when the times demanded a more heroic stance. The events that led to his final disappointment were in fact the opening salvo in the last desperate struggle for Florentine independence, and the atmosphere of existential crisis that gripped the city in those days was hardly conducive to a dispassionate reassessment of his career.
Ironically, the government that replaced the discredited regime of Cardinal Passerini and the Medici bastards largely conformed to the model he set out in one of those writings—his “Treatise on the Reform of the Florentine Government,” commissioned by Cardinal Giulio in 1520—but this was not sufficient to rehabilitate a reputation tainted by his years of working with the enemy. The Savonarolan Great Council was restored, as Machiavelli had recommended, and those steering committees through which the Medici subverted the normal functioning of government were largely abolished. Real power was placed once again in the hands of the Gonfaloniere, while his term in office was limited to a single year to prevent him from assuming dictatorial power.
But the new republic was never given a fair chance. It was born in crisis and throughout its three years of existence never knew a minute of peace. This last great experiment in republican rule was doomed from the outset, as was the cause of Florentine independence. The small city-state that had sprung from the medieval commune was an anachronism in the era of the great nation-states. Florentines had taken advantage of the Pope’s defeat and imprisonment to throw off the hated yoke, but they remained babes surrounded by hungry wolves. Florence could maintain her independence only as long as the Emperor and the Pope remained mortal enemies, but that happy state of affairs was unlikely to last since it was in the interests of each to seek a modus vivendi.
In December 1527, Pope Clement was released from captivity. Among the most urgent items on his agenda was recapturing his native city. Rapprochement between the two universal rulers of Christendom was facilitated by another geopolitical crisis, one that had begun in far-off England, where King Henry VIII had fallen in love with the charming Anne Boleyn. To marry Anne, Henry had first to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon; the fact that Catherine was Charles V’s aunt, and that the power to dissolve the marriage lay in the hands of the Pope, meant that the Emperor had a powerful incentive to mend fences with Clement. In June 1529, Clement and Charles signed the Treaty of Barcelona, in which the Emperor pledged military assistance in restoring the Medici to Florence, with the tacit understanding that the Pope would return the favor by refusing Henry’s request for a divorce.ii In August, Florentines’ already slim hopes suffered another dispiriting blow when they learned that their longtime ally, Francis, had signed the Treaty of Cambrai with Charles, renouncing French claims in Italy.
The tiny republic was now effectively isolated. But despite the enormous odds, Florentines pulled together in one final heroic act of resistance. Like the last stand at the Alamo, the siege of Florence in 1530 is a tale of futile courage, a doomed twilight struggle whose romance belies the ugly reality of suffering, starvation, and disease. Had Machiavelli lived, he almost certainly would have been among the defenders on the walls, lending his expertise to the engineers who were strengthening the ramparts as the imperial army began to surround the city. Instead, overseeing the city’s fortifications was another great Florentine patriot, Michelangelo Buonarotti, whose talents, like those of his rival Leonardo, extended to the arts of war.
Not all Florentine patriots, however, stood with the republic against the papal army. Francesco Guicciardini, after some initial indecision, chose to side with the Medici and their Spanish patrons against his native city. Here one sees the essential difference between the aristocratic Guicciardini and his humble friend. Guicciardini belonged to the ottimati, the ruling elite of Florence that often found itself torn between fear of Medici tyranny and an even greater terror of the unruly people, while Machiavelli placed his faith in the collective wisdom of the popolo. When the government, under the pressure of war, became increasingly radicalized, threatening to ruin the ottimati through heavy taxation and outright confiscation, Guicciardini threw his support behind the besiegers.
By the summer of 1530 the blockade by the vastly superior forces of the Pope had reduced the city to near starvation, a condition to which Florentines might have succumbed sooner had the pressure on the food supply not been relieved by the death of thousands from the plague that was ravaging the poorer neighborhoods. In August the people of Florence reluctantly bowed to the inevitable and surrendered. Guicciardini was among the hard-liners in the new regime. In the bloody purge that followed the change in government he advocated the harshest measures against those now condemned as rebels, declaring “if one wishes to put this state on a proper footing, mild measures are useless.”
The restoration of the Medici on the strength of imperial arms effectively put an end to Florence as an independent state. Its subservient status was confirmed in 1532 when Alessandro de’ Medici was named Duke of the Florentine Republic, a high-sounding title that made him little more than a feudal vassal of the Holy Roman Emperor. The demise of Florence as a sovereign state closed a chapter in European history and in the history of Western civilization. It was in the small city-states of Italy, and Florence in particular, that the intellectual, scientific, and artistic revolution known as the Renaissance was born and flourished. And it was in the small city-state of Florence that Machiavelli learned the secrets of statecraft. The chaotic and often violent political culture, with its factions and class rivalries, temporary alliances and secret cabals, all struggling for control, convinced him that society conformed to no divine plan but was instead shaped and reshaped by personal ambition. In this bustling mercantile metropolis, humankind was revealed as an intensely political animal, hungry for power and jealous of his neighbors—a creature of infinite appetite and infinite possibility.
• • •
The contest over the meaning of Machiavelli’s writings began even before his death. Shortly after he wrote The Prince, and years before it was actually published, Biagio Buonaccorsi wrote to a mutual friend that they must defend him against those who would try“to bite and tear him.” Even people accustomed to the worldly, cynical tone of Florentine political discourse found him abrasive and worried that his words could be put to evil uses. When the first Florentine edition of The Prince came out in 1532, his publisher offered the weak defense “that those who teach the use of herbs and medicines also give instruction in poisons so that, recognizing them, we may protect ourselves from them.”iii The notion that The Prince was not a handbook of tyranny but rather an exposé of the very thing it appeared to promote is an old one and reflects the degree of discomfort the book stirred even among Machiavelli’s friends.
The truth, of course, is at once more subtle and more straightforward. Machiavelli clearly meant what he said in The Prince, but this small book represented only one aspect of a more complex body of thought that included The Discourses and other heartfelt defenses of republican government. He was neither an ideological democrat nor an apostle of tyranny, but rather a pragmatist who was willing to pursue whatever path seemed to offer the best chance of success at a given moment. He resembled one of those Renaissance mapmakers who, during the century or two before he wrote his seminal works, transformed cartography from a branch of theology—where the earth displayed the Garden of Eden and Jerusalem at its center—to a science based on observation and subject to empirical tests. Machiavelli himself pushes the metaphor in his dedication to The Discourses, where he begins: “Although owing to the envy inherent in man’s nature, it has always been no less dangerous to discover new ways and methods than to set off in search of new seas and unknown lands . . . I have decided to enter upon a new way, as yet untrodden by anyone else.” If his methodology was often flawed and his data inaccurate or incomplete, he shares these shortcomings with all who blaze trails through uncharted territory.
Machiavelli is generally credited with founding the new field of political science, but when he is judged by the standards of the discipline he supposedly invented, he sometimes seems to fall short of the mark. Francis Bacon, father of the modern scientific method, never doubted the crucial importance of the Florentine’s insights, declaring “we are much beholden to Machiavel and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do.” Many others who followed in his footsteps faulted Machiavelli for his lack of consistency, but it is unfair to condemn him for not achieving a scientific rigor to which he never aspired. Although he attempted to place the study of politics on a more rational basis, his approach remains anecdotal rather than programmatic, as if he never really abandoned his role as a diplomat and bureaucrat dispensing practical advice for real-world situations.
Unlike his successors—even those whose theories had a far greater impact on the way politics was actually practiced—Machiavelli looms large in the popular imagination, where his name has become associated not only with a particular approach to politics but with a particular type of personality. To describe someone as a Marxist is to define his political views; to describe someone as Machiavellian is to impugn his character. Machiavelli was certainly not the world’s first cynic, but he has been so closely identified with a certain kind of unscrupulousness that any manipulative, self-serving behavior is now described as Machiavellian.
Machiavellianism in the popular imagination is little more than an endorsement of underhanded and immoral behavior. This largely inaccurate, or at least simplistic, interpretation is again a function of his pragmatism, an approach that offends those who insist that morality should be based on something more ethereal. One of Machiavelli’s most important contributions was to collapse the distinction between theory and practice, the vital first step in transforming the study of politics into a science. While Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas had dwelt in realms of abstract theory far removed from the places where men lived, Machiavelli took his role of adviser to a practicing politician seriously. As a writer he never really left behind the habits and attitudes he had developed in the Chancery of Florence, where he confronted on a daily basis crises that demanded a realistic assessment of facts. Assuming the worst of both friends and enemies was always the safest course, and in taking this approach he was rarely disappointed. Results were all that mattered. Instead of asking: What course of action should a prince take in order to be considered good? he asked what to him was the more important question: What course of action should a prince take to remain in power, without which his ability to do good vanishes altogether? “It is a sound maxim that reprehensible actions may be justified by their effects,” he writes in The Discourses, “and that when the effect is good . . . it always justifies the action.” This is not an apology for selfishness, but rather a plea that we judge actions not in the abstract but by their consequences. Having spent many years closely observing the powerful, Machiavelli came to the conclusion that those whose actions conformed to traditional notions of virtue often invited calamity, while those who violated those standards often improved the lives of their citizens. Because he promoted what worked instead of what conformed to conventional notions of right and wrong, he provided ammunition to generations of the righteous who preferred to look down on him from their high horse rather than meeting him on his own ground.
At the time of his death Machiavelli was better known as a satirist than as a political writer, particularly in Venice and Rome, where performances of La Mandragola were frequent and well received. This reputation changed in the following decades when all his major political works were published in multiple editions, evidence that they had struck a chord with a wider public. The businessmen who ran the small printing houses of the era soon learned that there was a reliable market for his work, and the more controversy the books generated, the more sales improved. By 1559, the Art of War had gone through thirteen editions, The Discourses twenty-six, The Prince seventeen, and the Florentine Histories fifteen, so that within a couple of decades of his death Machiavelli was among the biggest selling authors of the day.
In part one can attribute Machiavelli’s posthumous success to an obvious but often overlooked aspect of his work: he is simply a wonderful writer.iv His Italian is spare, muscular, without those extraneous flourishes and literary devices beloved by his humanist colleagues. “I have not adorned this work,” he says in his dedication to The Prince, “with sonorous phrases, with pompous or magnificent words, or with any of those ingratiating or irrelevant ornaments with which many are apt to decorate their writings.” Such directness makes him a joy to read, but it also gets him into trouble when he exaggerates for effect. Many of his most shocking pronouncements—such as that it is better to be feared than loved, or that good princes must be good liars—turn out to be more nuanced than they at first appear, but as Guicciardini noted, his friend never sacrificed a memorable phrase for the sake of precision.
Machiavelli’s writing and his thought are both marked by clarity and directness; he had a gift for penetration, for going straight to the heart of the matter without being distracted by superficialities. Just as in his prose he eliminates unnecessary ornaments of style, in his philosophy he strips away the phony pieties of religion and convention. His goal is always to discover the universal rules underlying the apparent chaos of the world and the truth hidden beneath the fancies spun by his fellow philosophers.
Though the appeal of Machiavelli’s writings is universal, they spoke with particular eloquence to the new age whose painful birth pangs he witnessed in the last years of his life. They were a final creative utterance from the passing age of the small city-state republics, but they appeared to be addressed to the world to come—an age of sprawling nation-states proclaiming the divine right of kings. The Prince in particular, with its cunning hero ready to resort to any expedient to increase the reach of his power, seemed prophetic of the new world order where great monarchs bestrode the continent, aided by vast bureaucracies that reached deep into the lives of ordinary people. The Machiavellian concept of raison d’état captured the ethos of these newly consolidated states: vast, impersonal, and ubiquitous. His nationalism, while poignant or even pathetic in the context of his native Italy, encouraged monarchs and civil servants in the rising states of Spain, France, and England who were intent on consolidating power over their own subjects as a prelude to projecting that power abroad. Not everyone agreed these innovations were beneficial, but few denied the relevance of the man who seemed able to peer into the future.
Initially it was the Roman Church that led the charge against Machiavelli, its moral authority contributing to the popular image of him as a man in league with the Devil. In 1559 he was among the first writers placed on the first Papal Index of Prohibited Books, a perverse testament to his popularity since the Pope would not have singled him out if no one read him.v It is not surprising that the Pope came down hard on Machiavelli. His anticlericism, a common attitude in Renaissance Florence, was less acceptable in the era of the Council of Trent (1545–63) when the Church responded to the challenge of Protestantism by reforming and clarifying its doctrines and practices. Ambrogio Catharino, who was active at the council that launched the Counterreformation and influenced the decision to ban Machiavelli’s works, called him “wholly destitute of religion and a contemner thereof,” a common critique among churchmen, who felt themselves already under siege from heretics and had no tolerance for dissent from within the fold.
Machiavelli’s inclusion on the Index reflected a growing consensus that he was a wicked man advocating wicked behavior. The first extended anti-Machiavellian diatribe came barely a decade after his death. It was written, perhaps surprisingly, by an Englishman, Cardinal Reginald Pole, whose 1539 Apologia Reginaldi Poli ad Carolum V (“Apology of Reginald Pole to Charles V”) credits the Florentine’s writings with a great and sinister influence. “This poison,” he wrote, “is spread through the courts of princes in this man’s books which are circulating almost everywhere.” The savagery of Pole’s attack (he goes on to call Machiavelli an “enemy of the human race” and the “finger of Satan”) suggests personal pique as well as ideological objections. Pole was convinced that his nemesis at the court of Henry VIII, the king’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, was a disciple of the devious Florentine, and that it was under his baleful influence the fateful decision to break with Rome was made. Whether Cromwell actually read Machiavelli, Pole’s charge is not entirely implausible since two of the pillars of Machiavelli’s thought—his anticlericism and his belief that the state took precedence over the Church—might well have proved useful to Henry in his ongoing struggle with the Pope.
Ironically, the man to whom Cardinal Pole addressed his screed—the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V—was also said to be a disciple of this “son of Satan.” According to Francesco Sansovino’s 1567 biographical sketch, the Emperor read only three books: Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier and Machiavelli’s Discourses and The Prince. But this peculiar situation, in which Machiavelli was accused of being the evil puppet master controlling both sides in a bitter dispute, was not unusual. Though Pole believed the English Reformation to be the brainchild of the wicked Florentine, it was just as plausible to view the author of The Prince as the ally of a Catholic autocrat.
Indeed the fact that Machiavelli was roundly condemned by the princes of the Catholic Church did not prevent him from being savaged by their ideological foes. In the second half of the sixteenth century, as France was plunged into a civil war between Protestants and Catholics, Machiavelli’s name was again invoked. The struggle between the Calvinist Huguenots and the Catholics culminated in the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) when mobs, egged on by a royal court that had remained loyal to Rome, assaulted and killed the religious dissenters in their midst. In the ensuing war of words, the prominent Huguenot pamphleteer Innocent Gentillet laid the blame squarely at Machiavelli’s door. In his 1589 essay Contre-Machiavel (“Against Machiavelli”), Gentillet insisted that the massacre was part of a diabolical plot on the part of the Queen Mother, Catherine de’ Medici, and her Italian courtiers, inspired by the writings of Machiavelli. Here the link was ethnic rather than ideological since Catherine was a Florentine, daughter of that same Lorenzo to whom Machiavelli dedicated The Prince. “[M]y intent and purpose,” Gentillet wrote, “is onely to shew, that Nicholas Machiavell, not long agoe Secretarie of the Florentine commonweale . . . understood nothing or little in this Politicke science whereof we speake: and that he hath taken Maximes and rules altogether wicked, and hath builded upon them, not a Politicke, but a Tyrannical science. Behold here then the end and scope which I have proposed unto myself, that is, to confute the doctrine of Machiavell.” Gentillet assumed that because Machiavelli’s rules were “altogether wicked” they were necessarily false, an assumption Machiavelli himself would have regarded as quaint. Machiavelli was perhaps the first to confront us with the terrifying thought that something could be both wicked and manifestly true.
Because Machiavelli did not promote any particular ideology, both sides in any contest found it easy to smear his reputation. In the next century Edmund Burke could blame “the odious maxims of a Machiavellian policy” for the “democratic tyranny” of the French Revolution, while a hundred years after that, Marx and Engels contended that a “Machiavellian policy” was the hallmark of anti-revolutionary reaction.
More sympathetic were the so-called Commonwealth men, followers of John Locke, who discovered in the Florentine’s philosophy a basis for a liberal society: “All these discoveries and complaints of the crookedness and corruption of human nature,” wrote John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in their influential collection of essays, Cato’s Letters, “are made with no malignant intent to break the bonds of society; but they are made to shew, that as selfishness is the strongest bias of men, every man ought to be upon his guard against another, that he become not the prey of another.” These essays, which in turn influenced our own Founding Fathers, rehabilitated Machiavelli as a humane philosopher who laid the foundations of the modern state by recognizing that political institutions could be built only on interest rather than virtue. When Madison insists that “[a]mbition must be made to counteract ambition,” he is paraphrasing Machiavelli and, whether he is willing to acknowledge it or not, his contention that democracy forms the only sound basis for good government, “supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives,” he marks himself as a true disciple of the cynical Florentine.
Still, what casual readers took away from Machiavelli’s writings was not specifically political. More memorable was his attack on traditional morality and his substitution of a new kind of ethics based on self-interest for one based on traditional notions of good and evil.vi Machiavellianism soon broke free of Machiavelli and of the particular political conditions that molded his thought. Coined in the early seventeenth century, the term (Machiavellisme in the original French of its inventor) stood for insincerity and deviousness, no matter the context and no matter the ideology promoted. The descriptive noun was defined by its inventor as “subtle policie, cunning roguerie,” a meaning that has endured almost unchanged down to the present century. In this broader sense the adjective “Machiavellian” can be applied to all behavior, not merely to unscrupulous political acts. Voltaire, for example, described Machiavelli’s essential lesson as “ruin[ing] anyone who might someday ruin you; assassinat[ing] your neighbor who might become strong enough to kill you”—an approach to life as old as humanity itself and one that bears only the most tenuous resemblance to his actual philosophy.
Machiavelli did not invent a particular way of looking at the world, but he expressed that viewpoint in such stark and vivid prose that he quickly came to stand for a universally recognizable type. He is the cynic with the disdainful grin curling on his lips as he contemplates the folly of the human comedy; he is the puncturer of every gaseous piety, the debunker of every comforting illusion. As soon as his books were absorbed into the collective consciousness Machiavelli became a stock character, his malevolent influence lurking behind every evil scheme and diabolical plot. Elizabethan playwrights in particular found him a useful dramatic prop. His reputation for villainy was so widely accepted that one only needed to invoke his name to conjure up all manner of crime. In The Jew of Malta, Christopher Marlowe creates a fictional Machiavelli who embodies the monster without conscience, to whom nothing is sacred and nothing prohibited. “I count religion but a childish toy,” he scoffs, “and I hold there is no sin but ignorance.” Shakespeare also discovered in Machiavelli an irresistible dramatic device. Richard III, the treacherous schemer who murders his way to the throne, is modeled on the Florentine Chancellor. In Henry VI, Part 3, Richard, still Duke of Gloucester, lays out the villainous plot that will eventually win him the crown by declaring:
I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk,
I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colors to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages
And set the murtherous Machevil to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.
Machiavelli came to embody the dark side of the Renaissance belief in man’s infinite potential. The universal genius, the Renaissance man—signaled in Pico’s lines “O great and wonderful happiness of man! It is given to him to have that which he chooses and to be that which he wills,” or Shakespeare’s “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty!”—has an evil twin in Machiavelli’s prince, whose only cause in life is the gratification of his own selfish desires. Playing Mr. Hyde to all those Dr. Jekylls of the age—revered geniuses like Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Galileo—Machiavelli represents all those who, having thrown off the shackles of religious orthodoxy, believe themselves to be gods.
• • •
It is difficult to overestimate the influence of Machiavelli on the development of modern political thought, even though few of his successors openly acknowledged the debt. Indeed, to a large extent modern political science can be viewed as a response to Machiavelli, as an attempt to address the problem of human government in a godless world, without resorting, as the Florentine was said to have done, to immorality. Admitting that Machiavelli perceived with unprecedented clarity the nature of the problem, those who followed in his wake found his solutions inadequate or downright troubling. He was too quixotic, too undisciplined, and, frankly, too cheeky, to fit comfortably within the elaborate theoretical structures they liked to build. Political theorists as diverse in temperament and intent as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, James Madison, and Karl Marx set out in directions and for purposes Machiavelli could hardly have imagined, but each began from the premise established by the Florentine bureaucrat: that politics involves the study of human character and follows patterns that can be discerned by the careful student. Freeing the analysis of power from the metaphysical shackles that had constrained such investigations in the past, Machiavelli set Western civilization on a course of bold innovation. Once he established the principle that the way people governed themselves was open to scientific inquiry, all manner of theories and experiments were permitted. Every attempt to remake society on a new basis, from totalitarian dictatorship to free-love commune, starts from the basic premise Machiavelli first articulated.
Beyond this vast but admittedly amorphous intellectual legacy, Machiavelli is father to a specific strand within the history of political discourse. Terms like Realpolitik or raison d’état, theories that take a dim view of humanity and advocate strong medicine to curb our appetites, can be traced to Machiavelli’s writings, particularly to The Prince, where he sets out most forthrightly his bleak vision of our animal nature. Thomas Hobbes’s contention that “the dispositions of men are naturally such, that except they be restrained through fear of some coercive power, every man will distrust and dread each other” is pure Machiavelli. Even those who hold the opposite view of human nature—philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that humans are naturally good and that it is civilization itself that is to blame for their corruption—owe a debt of gratitude to Machiavelli since it was in refuting his pessimistic vision that their own philosophy came into focus.
The intellectual heirs of Machiavelli call themselves realists or pragmatists; they are skeptical of utopian schemes, insisting that since human beings are naturally fallible, the search for social or political perfection is misguided and even dangerous. Empiricists like Francis Bacon found in him a kindred spirit. John Locke and his American disciples, men like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, shared with Machiavelli a distrust of human nature and sought to temper our worst excesses by dispersing power, thereby protecting individual liberty from collective tyranny.
Of course other interpretations of Machiavelli’s work are possible. Tyrants from Charles V to Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini were all said to be admirers and to have discovered in his writings useful tips on how to gain and to hold power. But only by rejecting the majority of his thought and by focusing on narrow tactical issues can the despot discover much in Machiavelli that is to his taste. Many a dictator would find Machiavelli’s tolerance of cruelty and deceit useful cover for his own crimes, but the larger message—which he would have to ignore—was that such tactics must ultimately serve the greater good. Valentino’s cruelty is redeemed by the security he brought to the people of the Romagna; absent this public good he would be nothing but a petty despot.
Those who prefer to see Machiavelli as an apologist for tyranny tend to concentrate on The Prince while ignoring passages in The Discourses where he clearly states that the seizure of dictatorial powers is legitimate only when the normal tools of government have failed to meet a crisis.vii Indeed he consistently shows disdain for the simple, one-size-fits-all solutions that are the essence of totalitarianism. Mixed governments are better than monolithic ones because a system in the hands of many fallible human beings pulling in different directions is more adaptable than one controlled by a single master convinced he can do no wrong. Machiavelli’s insistence on the role of chance in human history, and his view that political science can only serve the rather limited purpose of providing a temporary bulwark against the vicissitudes of fortune, provides little to justify totalitarian schemes promising utopia. In a world where, as he says, “all human affairs are ever in a state of flux” what room is there for a Thousand Year Reich?
The misuse of Machiavelli derives in part from his approach, which is aphoristic and epigrammatic rather than systematic. His fondness for memorable phrases and lack of an overall program has allowed readers to pick and choose what they wish from his writings without fear of contradiction. Unlike, for instance, Karl Marx, who also had a gift for the memorable phrase, Machiavelli is not identified with a particular political creed. He is neither liberal nor conservative; he associates as easily with those on the left as on the right, infuriating both sides with his apparent lack of ideological purity.
• • •
In the nearly five hundred years since his death, Machiavelli has almost always been cast in the role of the villain. Even men like Metternich and Bismarck, politicians noted for their unsentimental pursuit of any advantage in the service of the state, would not have described themselves as Machiavellian, though there were many others only too happy to apply that label to them. Realpolitik might be acceptable in diplomatic circles, but Machiavellianism implies something more underhanded. When in an interview inThe New Republic a journalist asked Henry Kissinger, then President Nixon’s National Security Advisor, whether he was influenced by Machiavelli’s writings, Kissinger felt compelled to deny the charge. Kissinger would admit to being a realist, but not a cynic.viii
People in public life who must submit to the verdict of the ballot are leery of being associated with the notorious Florentine, but in other contexts Machiavelli has gained a certain cachet. Anyone who wants to project a no-nonsense attitude, an ability to see through the pious drivel that passes for conventional wisdom or to slay a few sacred cows, will find it handy to invoke his name. Books dispensing advice on how to run a successful business or manage personal relationships often claim insights derived from his writings. His supposed ruthlessness is the perfect antidote to that greatest of sins for the worldly-wise—naïveté. In sophisticated circles there are worse things to be accused of than adopting “subtle policie, cunning roguerie.” Confessing an admiration for Machiavelli, we demonstrate we’re nobody’s fool.
What would Machiavelli himself have made of all this? He would almost certainly be surprised, though probably not dismayed. In life he had been worldly and ambitious, eager to leave something behind by which he would be remembered, and in this he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. His posthumous fame eclipsed anything he could have anticipated, and while he might be perplexed at the strange uses to which his words were put, the uncongenial causes they were used to promote, and the strange bedfellows with whom he has been forced to share eternity, he was sufficiently attuned to the unpredictability of the universe to take it all in stride. Even at his lowest ebb he never lost sight of the comic aspect of his existence, knowing that admitting one’s own ridiculousness was the best way to forestall ridicule by others. Surely, he would have regarded his immortal reputation with the same ironic smile. In life it had been his misfortune to be misunderstood and underestimated, and the dead are powerless to choose either their friends or enemies.
But Machiavelli was convinced that the dead had much to tell future generations, if only they took the time to listen. When he sat down to write The Prince he claimed he was visited by ghosts:
Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I absorb myself into them completely.
Now that he has joined that spectral crowd, we should pay him the same courtesy and be as attentive to his whispered wisdom as he was to the words of those who came before him.
i Florence has made a habit of first neglecting her famous sons and later regretting it. Dante was exiled from his native land and died in Ravenna, where he was buried. Despite repeated attempts to recover his remains, Florentines have had to content themselves with a cenotaph, located near Machiavelli’s tomb in the nave of Santa Croce.
ii Clement’s rejection of Henry’s petition led, of course, to England’s break with Rome, far more consequential for world history than the treaty’s impact on the independence of Florence.
iii The Discourses was first published in 1531.
iv Friedrich Nietzsche, no mean writer himself, praises Machiavelli for “presenting the most serious matters in a boisterous allegrissimo” (Beyond Good and Evil, 28).
v More than six hundred authors appeared on the papal list. The ban, in any case, was ineffective; more than half the 158 editions of his works in the century after his death were published after 1559.
vi Machiavelli anticipated Thomas Hobbes, who traced the origin of government to the basic human right of self-preservation. Hobbes’s philosophy in turn anticipates the modern liberal tradition in which society is founded on rights rather than duties. (See Leo Strauss, “On the Spirit of Hobbes’ Political Philosophy,” in Essays in the History of Political Thought.) Even a political philosopher as far from Machiavelli’s worldview as John Stuart Mill inevitably starts from the premise set down by the Florentine, that human society is ruled by violence and coercion. “The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle . . . that the sole end for which mankind are warranted . . . in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection” (Mill, On Liberty, I, 6).
vii See in particular Discourses, I., 34, where he says: “I claim that republics which, when in iminent danger, have recourse neither to a dictatorship, nor to some form of authority analogous to it, will always be ruined when grave misfortune befalls them” (p. 196).
viii A typical example of the way Machiavelli’s name is invoked comes in a recent biography of Karl Rove, George Bush’s political adviser, titled Machiavelli’s Shadow. The author does not mean to imply that Rove seriously studied Machiavelli’s philosophy, only that his approach to politics was cynical and devious.