Ever since Shakespeare labelled Richard, Duke of Gloucester, a ‘murderous Machiavel’, the word ‘Machiavellian’ in popular culture has meant being devious, cunning, scheming and quite prepared for the end to justify the means. Most scholars would agree that the popular image is a distortion of the real Niccolò Machiavelli’s ideas. In Be Like the Fox Erica Benner brings to life a Machiavelli who’s a man of considerable political principle. And not only that: he’s also a bright and entertaining sort of chap with whom I’d happily knock back a bottle of Chianti. But has Benner shattered a historical myth or simply created a new one?
Machiavelli was born in 1469 in Florence, one of the many city-states of Renaissance Italy. Some of these states were republics (albeit with narrow franchises) and others principalities. Florence belonged to the former category, but over Machiavelli’s lifetime its dominant ruling family, the Medici, used careful alliances and calculated manipulation of the political structures to extend their power. They faltered and were exiled between 1494 and 1512, but within a few years of Machiavelli’s death in 1527 Florence would be ruled by a Medici duke.
In an earlier generation, Machiavelli’s relatives had opposed the rise of the Medici as rulers of the city and had faced death and exile for it. Niccolò’s father, whose debts (probably inherited) excluded him from city office, kept his distance from politics. Although he qualified as a lawyer, he lived largely on the rents from a cluster of farms and a tavern. Young Niccolò got a respectable education, beginning with Latin grammar at the age of seven, and acquired a wide-ranging knowledge of the classics, though he would write his chief works in Italian. What we know of Machiavelli’s youth comes largely from his father’s ricordi – a matter-of-fact diary recording purchases, contracts and moments of family importance. The ricordi end in 1487 and the details of Machiavelli’s life from the age of eighteen to twenty-eight remain mysterious. Did he study at the university in Florence? Did he work and, if so, what did he do?
Machiavelli reappears in the records in 1497, by which time Florence had dramatically changed. The French had marched into Italy three years before and opponents of the city’s Medici oligarchs had seized the chance to expel them. Now Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar, dominated Florence with his hellfire preaching and famous ‘Bonfires of Vanities’. In early 1498, Machiavelli stood for election for the office of first secretary of the Signoria (Florence’s government). He was not a supporter of Savonarola, and that probably cost him the election, but a few months later Savonarola was burned at the stake for heresy and Machiavelli became second chancellor of the Florentine Republic.
It was in this role that Machiavelli made his name, carrying out diplomatic missions for the republic, including one to Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI. On the return of the Medici in 1512, he was forced out of the city. Later, however, he worked for the Medici and their allies, writing not only The Prince, which was dedicated to Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, but also the Discourses on Livy (a treatise, in essence, on republics) and some fine comic plays. Popes Leo X and Clement VII, themselves both members of the Medici family, commissioned Machiavelli to write, respectively, an opinion on the government of Florence and a history of the city. Clement, in fact, licensed the first printed editions of Machiavelli’s works after the author’s death. Their notoriety came later: it was only in 1559 that they were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books.
Be Like the Fox tells Machiavelli’s life story. Its title refers to his advice that by being like the fox one can avoid snares. In a rather breathless historical present, Benner organises Machiavelli’s own words into dialogue and commentary as her protagonist makes his way through the religious drama of Savonarola’s regime, encounters with Cesare Borgia, torture and exile, and finally his later years of writing. Machiavelli’s wonderful turns of phrase make for a creative, lively and very readable book with more than a little contemporary resonance. ‘Victories are never so clear’, he writes, ‘that the winner does not have to have some respect, especially for justice.’
Benner is a political philosopher whose previous works on Machiavelli have explored his ethics and, most recently, proposed a new reading of The Prince. In answer to that favourite question of seminar tutors, ‘Was The Prince a satire?’, she made a clever but controversial case for a third way, an ironic reading of Machiavelli, suggesting that his true views were often hidden for reasons of political caution and that a prince who actually followed The Prince’s advice was doomed to failure. Be Like the Fox continues her argument that (as its subtitle suggests) Machiavelli was a man on a ‘lifelong quest for freedom’, even during those years of work for the Medici, when many of Florence’s citizens were resigning themselves to the unpleasant reality that the dynasty was the only viable alternative to foreign domination.
From a historical point of view, however, her biographical method is not without its problems. Machiavelli would have been the first to admit that diplomatic letters – on which the narrative relies heavily – are full of spin. He advised the leading republican Raffaello Girolami (an ambassador to Spain) to present his conclusions not as his own opinion but as what ‘prudent men judge’. He told Girolami, too, that if it proved necessary while on embassy ‘to conceal a fact with words’ then he should make sure his hosts did not find out, and that ‘if it does become known, that you have a ready and quick defence’. Benner’s enthusiasm for explaining what Machiavelli really means renders him a more reliable narrator of his own life than perhaps he should be. Be Like the Fox also compromises on chronology. The Prince was written a decade after Machiavelli spent time with Cesare Borgia, but here Benner weaves together remarks Machiavelli made with the benefit of hindsight later in his career and the comments he made while spending time at Borgia’s camp. She does something similar with Machiavelli’s observations on events he could have seen only as a child. It makes for a very engaging narrative, but this approach to storytelling limits the possibility of exploring the development of Machiavelli’s thought.
That said, Benner does a wonderful job of bringing to life Florentine society – the world of the piazzas, the courts, the battlefields. This is a splendidly colourful book. Admittedly, some of that colour concerns Machiavelli’s rather dubious opinions on women. One of the most infamous passages, says Benner, is ‘too long and pornographic’ to reproduce in full (among other things, it features Machiavelli vomiting over a notably ugly woman). But Machiavelli’s misogyny was not purely a private matter. He was, after all, the man who wrote in The Prince: ‘Fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her down, it is necessary to beat and ill-use her.’ He was far from alone among Florentine men in such attitudes, but they were not universal in his age and if one wants – as Benner evidently does – to make a case for the relevance of his thought today, one should address the issue of gender in his writing. We are now accustomed to the idea that the Founding Fathers of America could simultaneously think radically about liberty and defend slavery. Benner’s determined defence of Machiavelli against the scheming stereotype would have been stronger for more of an acknowledgement of his faults.