Machiavelli: A Biography
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He is the most infamous and influential political writer of all time. His name has become synonymous with cynical scheming and the selfish pursuit of power.
Niccolò Machiavelli, Florentine diplomat and civil servant, is the father of political science. His most notorious work, The Prince, is a primer on how to acquire and retain power without regard to scruple or conscience. His other masterpiece, The Discourses, offers a profound analysis of the workings of the civil state and a hardheaded assessment of human nature.
Machiavelli’s philosophy was shaped by the tumultuous age in which he lived, an age of towering geniuses and brutal tyrants. He was on intimate terms with Leonardo and Michelangelo. His first political mission was to spy on the fire-and-brimstone preacher Savonarola. As a diplomat, he matched wits with the corrupt and carnal Pope Alexander VI and his son, the notorious Cesare Borgia, whose violent career served as a model for The Prince. His insights were gleaned by closely studying men like Julius II, the “Warrior Pope,” and his successor, the vacillating Clement VII, as well as two kings of France and the Holy Roman Emperor. Analyzing their successes and failures, Machiavelli developed his revolutionary approach to power politics.
Machiavelli was, above all, a student of human nature. In The Prince he wrote a practical guide to the aspiring politician that is based on the world as it is, not as it should be. He has been called cold and calculating, cynical and immoral. In reality, argues biographer Miles Unger, he was a deeply humane writer whose controversial theories were a response to the violence and corruption he saw around him. He was a psychologist with acute insight into human nature centuries before Freud. A brilliant and witty writer, he was not only a political theorist but also a poet and the author of La Mandragola, the finest comedy of the Italian Renaissance. He has been called the first modern man, unafraid to contemplate a world without God. Rising from modest beginnings on the strength of his own talents, he was able to see through the pious hypocrisy of the age in which he lived.
Miles Unger has relied on original Italian sources as well as his own deep knowledge of Florence in writing this fascinating and authoritative account of a genius whose work remains as relevant today as when he wrote it.
political health derives from a creative tension between the haves and have-nots—what Marx would later call the class struggle—Machiavelli, like the good bourgeois he is, makes his allegiance clear: [I]f we ask what it is the nobility are after and what it is the common people are after, it will be seen that in the former there is a great desire to dominate and in the latter merely the desire not to be dominated. Consequently the latter will be more keen on liberty since their hope of usurping
their opponents or even to resort to the dagger and the club. Most numerous were the piagnoni (weepers or snivelers), pious followers of Savonarola who dominated the councils of government and policed the streets for signs of immorality. Arrayed against them were a variety of parties, like the arrabbiati (angry ones), or the aristocratic compagnacci (the rude companions), and the sinister bigi (grays), a secret society plotting to restore the disgraced Medici to power. The always bitter rivalries
weakness in a man who famously spurned conventional piety and excelled at exposing human foibles. Few were more adept at tripping up a religious believer in the tangle of his own contradictions, or took more delight in ridiculing the amorous gymnastics of an older colleague mooning over a young beauty. Friends forgave the barbs launched by the man they dubbed Il Machia (the spot or the stain) not only because he usually delivered them with disarming humor, but also because he was happy to offer
by Callimaco’s servant, who says, “with gentle words you can usually get a woman where you want her to go.” There is no question of Machiavelli treating his wife, or any of the other women in his life, as an equal. Men who doted on their wives were considered fools and, in all likelihood, cuckolds who deserved what they got for having turned the natural order of their households upside down. In his own writings Machiavelli enjoys skewering men who strayed from the “ideal” prescribed by moralists
an important constituency within the oligarchic faction, remained little more than a hidden cabal, fearful and conspiratorial. Young pro-Medici hooligans had been among the most militant agitators against Savonarola and his regime, but while they succeeded in destroying the hated preacher, the government that replaced him turned out to be equally hostile to their aims. In the early days of their campaign the palleschi were not helped by the man whose cause they championed. Whenever they seemed