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Machiavelli: Good guy or bad? This biography argues for the former

"Be Like the Fox" can be read by anyone interested in the craft of politics and the life of ideas

Edmund Fawcett | NYT 

Niccolò Machiavelli (Photo courtesy: Wikipedia)
Niccolò Machiavelli (Photo courtesy: Wikipedia)

Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom
By Erica Benner 
360 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $27.95
It is January 1506. Niccolo is out in the Tuscan countryside recruiting for a militia. Like other Italian cities caught in the Franco-Spanish struggle for Italy, Florence is an underdefended pawn. Time presses and Machiavelli’s efforts are not going well. A reluctant peasant worries that if he gives his name for soldiering, the city will dun him for taxes. Others refuse to parade with recruits from the village next door. As old enemies, they explain, the neighbours are more of a nuisance than any remote foreign army could be. When Machiavelli’s superiors in the city complain of his slow progress, he answers that they should try it themselves.

Vivid episodes like that dot Erica Benner’s erudite and engaging life of (1469-1527), a leading bad boy of political ideas. Hidden by legend and counterlegend, he is hard to get into view. Like the moralist Nietzsche, who also spun off disconcerting and misquotable epigrams, is at once overfamiliar and obscure.

Except to specialists, he is known chiefly for a single short book, “The Prince,” which purported to advise new, that is nonhereditary, rulers how to stay in power. Printed five years after his death, though known before in manuscript, it divided opinion across Europe, especially among the vast majority who knew it only by repute. “The Prince” implied that stable depended more on force and manipulation than on good conduct and divinely sanctioned law. It asked with unseemly zeal how far in the writ of morality ran.

The little book ensured an afterlife in which author and reputation blurred into a single object of obloquy or celebration, depending on where you stood. Detractors took him for a preacher of villainy and a menace to godly order, defenders for a civic-minded patriot and proto-democrat, especially if “The Prince” was read, as defenders thought it should be read, together with his other political writings. Modern scholarship has added layers of interpretive subtlety but never quite escaped the pull of that polar contrast: Machiavelli, good guy or bad?

Among specialists, Benner is squarely in the good-guy camp. She takes him, as in previous like “Machiavelli’s Ethics,” for an enemy of autocratic rule who in “The Prince” hid his lifelong belief in the people’s will and rule by law. Happily for nonspecialist readers, “Be Like the Fox” presumes rather than argues scholastically for that approach to Machiavelli, which is at least as old as Rousseau. Benner’s book is a life-and-times biography, not an interpretive work. It recounts the up-and-down career of a tricky personality in stormy times.

Machiavelli’s was a fascinating if tangled story. He was a city functionary, foreign envoy, political exile, a student of military tactics and author of much apart from “” In shrewd, at times mocking, dispatches, which served him later as raw material, he described the popes, kings, emperors and military captains he met. Besides “The Discourses,” his study of republican or non-princely government, he wrote a of Florence, a treatise on warfare and a constitutional proposal for the city. He composed poems, satires and fine comic plays, notably “The Mandrake,” which Voltaire praised for its anticlericalism and which still delights lovers of bawdy farce.

He left several hundred letters, which Benner makes good use of in sketching a mercurial character. Those to friends are by turns crude, sublime, mocking, sincere, self-pitying and proud. Family letters — he had six children, a wife and mistresses — suggest an attentive father and affectionate if difficult husband. Without dwelling on the point, Benner makes plain the coarseness and brutality of the time, especially toward women and the weak.

Machiavelli’s father, Bernardo, was a lawyer with debts that barred him from office and that may have passed down to the son. The family lived off rents from small lands outside Florence. At age 7, young began to learn Latin, although his chief works were in Italian. For Greek classics, he relied on translations. He was schooled, that is, not as a humanist man of letters but as a future official.

His father’s diary, the main source for Machiavelli’s youth, stops when the boy is 18. For 10 years, nothing is known of what he did or thought. Still, it is not foolish to think that the political upheavals and foreign wars that now swept over Florence confirmed his deep-rooted conviction that fortune was mutable and that circumstances always shifted.

was a volatile mixture. The city was a republic under elected office-holders, albeit with a limited franchise. In practice, the Medici clan controlled city offices with “munificence” (bribes), for which it raided the family bank and which helped it survive assaults from rival oligarchs and recurrent popular unrest. By the 1490s, the bank was dead in the water, civic support had crumbled and the Medici were reliant on foreign whim. They were tossed out in the turmoil of a French invasion (1494) but later reinstalled amid further warfare (1512).

In the intervening 18 years, Florence was a precarious republic. now made his entry into public life, but only after the fall and execution of Savonarola, a puritanical friar who dominated the republic’s first years. In 1498, won appointment as supervisor of Florence’s diplomatic office and secretary to its military committee. Both were responsible posts, although it irked him as a commoner to be denied ambassadorial rank. He was sensitive as well about Florence’s lowly status. In France, to his chagrin, patronising officials called the city “Mr Nothing.”

That sense of powerlessness confirmed a second conviction: the need for self-reliance, particularly in warfare. Despite patrician opposition to arming the people, in 1505 he persuaded Florence’s military committee to form a militia. On his recruitment trip, somehow found enough peasants to parade 400 militiamen through Florence’s main square.

His militia was a valiant dream. In 1512, Spanish mercenaries made matchwood of Tuscan defences, the republic fell and the Medici returned. Suspected as an anti-Medicean, was in due course arrested, tried under torture and imprisoned. He was soon freed in an amnesty when a Medici became Pope, but his career was over. He lived in the country, writing, ruminating and begging friends with connections to ask the Medici on his behalf for a post. Although deaf to pleas from an ex-republican, they encouraged his writing, asked him for constitutional ideas and in time threw him the sop of a few minor missions.

never abandoned hope of returning to serve the city he loved. When in 1527 fortune turned again and the Medici fell, he put in for a post but lost to an old Savonarola man. He died soon after, having received, but not it seems called for, a priest.

“Be Like the Fox” is not detached, archival but a remarkable work of imaginative engagement backed by scholarly learning. Benner brings alive by weaving his words and those of his contemporaries into the narrative as a playwright might. (His words appear in italics, which takes getting used to.) She does not disguise her admiration for and his ideas as she understands them. Nor does she hide personal flaws and intellectual inconsistencies that point to opposite conclusions, although a less committed writer might have brought them out with more force.

The jacket copy misleadingly presents Benner as salvaging Machiavelli’s thoughts and opinions from demonization, as if they needed rescue. If anyone is keeping count, his historical defenders have probably outnumbered the calumniators. There are ample reasons besides age-old reputational disputes to be intrigued by this elusive figure with his enigmatic smile. Among them are the fortunes and misfortunes of a tumultuous life, which Benner tells with verve. Despite its odd typography, “Be Like the Fox” can be read with pleasure by anyone interested in the craft of and the life of ideas.
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