As I was girding up to write this review, The New York Times published its own review of this most recent book by Erica Benner, a sign to me that the book itself had acquired the status of a publishing event. One does not expect to see biographies of Machiavelli reviewed in the Times; not even Sebastian de Grazia’s Machiavelli in Hell, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1990, found its way into those hallowed pages. And yet Machiavelli remains a figure in and of the public imagination, less perhaps for himself than for the unfortunate adjective, Machiavellian, that has trailed him and yields more than three million hits in a Google search. So Benner’s book, even with its imperfections, is a welcome addition to the literature of Machiavelli. Although it does not address Machiavelli’s legacy directly, it offers an important corrective to the distorted portrait that accompanies his name.
Benner has perforce written a political biography, beginning her story before Machiavelli enters the scene of Florentine politics. She traces the influence of his father, Bernardo, a humanist and armchair political philosopher who, because of heavy tax debts, could not be a candidate for political office, and who passed much of that debt along to his son. She recounts as well as the history of Florence in the late 15th century, which the young Niccolò had occasion to observe and reflect on. This included the period of domination under Lorenzo the Magnificent, who followed family tradition in deploying its financial power—the Medici were one of Europe’s most important banking families—for political ends; the brief period of his son Piero’s incompetent leadership, during which the French invaded Italy and the feckless Piero’s response led to the family’s ouster; and the years in which the Dominican priest Savonarola held sway over the city. These figures mark two poles in the curious politics of Renaissance Florence, those of a secular quasi-monarchy and a religious quasi-monarchy, each functioning under a putatively republican, but in fact quite oligarchic, order. They also represent two cultural poles, the Medici on the one hand embracing the economic possibilities, material luxury, and philosophical expansiveness of the Renaissance, Savonarola condemning materialism and promoting a theological, rather than philosophical, vision.
These ideological polarities did not bode well for the city’s political stability, even as they point to a curious Florentine predilection for a strong leader. When the Florentine republic undertook to shed its disguises, changing its constitution to allow for a gonfaloniere a vita, a sort of elected king, it appeared to recognize this aspect of its political culture. At the same time, because of other features of its constitution, the office itself was institutionally weak, and Soderini himself turns out to be a less-than-decisive leader. In any event, the depth of the investment in, and nostalgia for, the earlier order becomes clear later in Machiavelli’s life, with the restoration of the Medici in 1512 and the re-emergence of the Savonarolans in 1527, when the republic was briefly re-established.
Savonarola’s exit from the Florentine scene in 1498—he turns to ash in a public bonfire—roughly coincides with Machiavelli’s entry, as a civil servant whose career will span more than a decade of critical Florentine history. With no specific training—he received a general humanist education—he steps rather effortlessly into the job, suggesting that he was born for this role. He regularly performs three tasks: representing Florentine interests outside of Florence (though, to his occasional frustration, not with the credentials of an ambassador, a level of diplomatic intervention whose need he would at times recognize); reporting on his missions back home; and offering policy advice. Benner narrates that career and its aftermath from Machiavelli’s point of view, favoring narrative over analysis. There is no consideration, for example, of whether Savonarola might have had some valid points about Florentine politics and culture in the late 15th century, or of why some Florentines might have remained so nostalgically invested in the Medici. Such questions, key to the history of the period, are lost on this biographer.
… the Cesare Borgia Machiavelli knew was less the model leader than Machiavelli, author of The Prince, would later have him be. Such comparisons are essential for understanding the rhetorical project of The Prince, in which Machiavelli simplifies the narrative of history in the service of accessible political advice.
Context is all when it comes to Machiavelli, and Benner does a thorough job of providing it, including many of the lesser-known elements of his life story: the difficult missions on behalf of the Florentine government, the project of a citizen militia, his limited success in re-entering public service after the Medici restoration in 1512. On full display here as well are his wry sense of humor and the close friendships, often recorded in epistolary, that both sustained him personally and helped sharpen his thinking about politics. Readers familiar with the exemplarity of Cesare Borgia as sketched in The Prince will find the pages about Machiavelli’s dealings with him to be a revelation. All of Borgia’s legendary virtù is on display, but so too is his own weakness in the face of events that eventually swamp him. InThe Prince The Machiavelli devotes scant attention to Borgia’s undoing, attributing it simply to the untimely death of his father, Pope Alexander VI and his one bad decision that led to the election of Julius II. But the Cesare Borgia Machiavelli knew was less the model leader than Machiavelli, author of The Prince, would later have him be. Such comparisons are essential for understanding the rhetorical project of The Prince, in which Machiavelli simplifies the narrative of history in the service of accessible political advice.
Perhaps the most important moment in Machiavelli’s career involves his efforts to create a citizen militia. He actually succeeds while working for the Florentine republic, but he continues to insist on the importance of a militia in his later writings. Indeed, you can—Benner does not—write an entire book around this central element of Machiavelli’s thinking. Machiavelli’s experience in government—and Benner makes this clear, if not explicit—taught him about the fundamental weakness of Florence on the world stage. The city-state’s considerable wealth was not matched by military power. Buffeted by greater political forces, including the papacy, France, and the Empire, Florence found itself always negotiating from a position of weakness, never confronting from strength. Machiavelli’s efforts to organize a Florentine militia reflected his belief that Florence could only be strong when it could defend itself.
This single-minded focus on questions of Florentine military power discloses something else about Machiavelli that Benner does not quite bring into focus. Readers have for years puzzled over the seeming contradictions between Machiavelli’s major works, the monarchical The Prince and the republican Discourses, both written in the second decade of the 16th century when he no longer worked for the Florentine government. The Prince has—unfairly, to my mind—earned Machiavelli his unfortunate adjective, associated with a ruthless conniving for the sake of power and nothing else. This sort of argument suggests just how easy it is for people who want to find a rationale for a power-driven politics to misread Machiavelli for their own purposes. For in fact The Prince insists, repeatedly, on the prince’s duty to deploy his power for the benefit of his subjects. In yet another document, his Discourse on Remodeling the Government of Florence, addressed to the then-head of the Medici family, Leo X, Machiavelli makes this same point, as Benner details in some of her book’s most moving pages. In neither case are these arguments gratuitous embellishments. The relationship between power and the common good is a theme in Machiavelli that transcends party. This is why he can so easily stymie his readers, who seek to reconcile his republicanism with his appeal to the interests of monarchy. Machiavelli’s career, as Benner lays it out, suggests a man whose primary loyalty was not to party, but to the city of Florence itself.
Perhaps the most important moment in Machiavelli’s career involves his efforts to create a citizen militia. He actually succeeds while working for the Florentine republic, but he continues to insist on the importance of a militia in his later writings. Indeed, you can—Benner does not—write an entire book around this central element of Machiavelli’s thinking.
This is where Benner’s narrative of Machiavelli’s career becomes so important for our understanding of him. As a public servant Machiavelli’s job often required him to present the official thinking of the government he represented, not to represent his own thinking, on diplomatic missions. It just so happened that he was ideologically aligned with the republican government he served, but his job taught him to think like others. Machiavelli makes this clear in the dedicatory letter of The Prince, in the curious sentence about how to know the nature of the people one must be a prince, and to know the nature of a prince one must be of the people. The aphorism disguises its specific referent, which is to Machiavelli himself, who understands the nature of princes not simply because of his subject position but because his mind has the well-nourished capacity to analyze from the point of view of others.
That is not all. Machiavelli can appear to morph ideologically, now defending the interests of republicanism, now appealing to interests of monarchy, because in the end for him what is at stake is transcends ideology: to wit, it is Florence itself. The plan for a citizen militia, after all, was a plan to defend Florence itself, not a specific governing regime. To borrow from today’s terminology, the Machiavelli who emerges here is a deep state actor, committed to state rather than party. Benner makes this point about her subject in paraphrasing a letter Machiavelli wrote to his friend Francesco Vettori in March 1513, asking him to intervene with the Medici to get him a job. He had lost his government posts as second chancellor and secretary to the Ten of War a tumultuous four months prior, and just a month earlier he had been arrested, imprisoned, and tortured, accused of participating in a conspiracy against the Medici. Nevertheless, he takes care now to emphasize that Vettori communicate to Pope Leo that, in Benner’s words, he “might wish that Florence were a republic in more than name, but he’d never dream of jeopardizing his city’s safety if it were consigned to his care” (240). That sentence says it all.
Indeed, thinking of Machiavelli as a deep state actor helps resolve some of the fundamental contradictions of his political writings. The Prince takes its rightful place as a reaction to an urgent moment, one in which fundamental notions of the public interest were being rewritten. The little treatise concedes that monarchy has come but then undertakes, overtly and covertly, to remind the monarch of his responsibility to ensure the safety and happiness of the people. The Discourses apply the lessons of republican Rome to contemporary Florence, with particular attention to the social tensions that nearly upended Rome and the process by which a solid republican government can provide the impetus for territorial expansion.
To the extent that we pillory Machiavelli for being a monarchist one day and a republican the next, we overlook the fact that he is behaving in a way that is consistent with his own view of human nature as essentially practical. Rather than insist that his thinking be consistent, we might better ask ourselves why his seeming inconsistency troubles us so.
Contributing as well to the consistency of Machiavelli’s worldview are his trenchant notions of human nature. Brenner notices small contradictions in Machiavelli’s writing, but in fact those contradictions reflect a fundamental predicate of all his thinking: that human responses are always contingent on circumstance, and that human beings do not task themselves with being consistent but rather behave according to an instinctive sense of what response to a given set of circumstances will yield the best outcome for them. To the extent that we pillory Machiavelli for being a monarchist one day and a republican the next, we overlook the fact that he is behaving in a way that is consistent with his own view of human nature as essentially practical. Rather than insist that his thinking be consistent, we might better ask ourselves why his seeming inconsistency troubles us so.
All of which is a long-winded way of suggesting why Benner’s central claim, that the arguments set forth in The Prince are less than serious, rankles. Benner borrows this point from some of Machiavelli’s compatriots, who were said early on to defend its author by arguing that The Prince is a bomb intended to induce a tyrant to behave so egregiously that he will cause his own downfall. This sort of retraction—made by a third party, no less—is reminiscent of the not uncommon situation in which somebody blurts out an uncomfortable truth and then says, after realizing he had given offense, “I didn’t mean it.” Nobody buys the retraction, and no one should: it is a courtesy meant to re-establish social equilibrium, but the true statement is always the first one. Why, then, does Benner cling to this notion? She is of course trying to reconcile the Machiavelli of The Prince with the Machiavelli of the other writings; she wants to explain away his embrace of monarchy because she wants him to be a republican. He was a republican; of this we need have no doubt. But he was a republican capable of writing The Prince because there was more at stake in 1513 than the survival of republicanism, namely, the survival of Florence itself. Machiavelli writes The Prince not to cause the destruction of Florence through bad governance, but rather to ensure that monarchy would not ruin it. He correctly argues that people must be able to trust their government, and government its people, for the state to survive (this is a point deserving consideration as we witness the implosion of American civilization). Medici resistance to the idea of a citizen militia lay precisely in a fear of arming the people. Had the Medici and the people trusted one another, arming the latter would not have created a threat.
So let us not write off The Prince as the ironic work of the comic-spirited playwright of the great Mandragola as well as the Andria and the Clizia. Let us savor instead the delicacy of its author’s effort, all aimed at creating a social and political equilibrium that will ensure the safety and prosperity of the city he so loves. Let us also embrace the exemplarity of the life Machiavelli lived, and that Benner so adeptly recounts for us: that of a deeply patriotic Florentine who was willing to put the interests of his city-state before any political outcome that might be consistent with his own ideology.