Machiavelli: A Life

By Miles Unger

Most biographies of famous writers are hard to recommend. Writers don’t usually lead very exciting lives, for one thing. For another, the story of an author’s life often doesn’t add much to an appreciation of their work.

The life of Niccolo Machiavelli, however, is essential given how radically decontextualized his legacy has become. A prolific and wide-ranging writer, he is now almost exclusively known as the author of a single slim book: The Prince (written in 1513 but first published posthumously in 1532). On the basis of this one work the adjective Machiavellian has become synonymous with cynicism and deceit, if not downright wickedness.

It was a reputation that got started early. Machiavelli’s works were among the first to be put on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books, and while the legend that he gave his name to the devil (“Old Nick”) is false, he soon became a byword for evil among Elizabethan dramatists.

But The Prince was neither a wicked book, nor a complete statement of Machiavelli’s political philosophy. It was a response to a particular historical situation: the humiliation of the Italian states as they became the playthings of France and the Holy Roman Empire (the squabbling European superpowers of the day). Machiavelli could personally identify with this humiliation, as a working Florentine diplomat at a time when Florence was an insignificant player he had to endure being treated as a nobody (literally “Sir Nihil”) in foreign courts.

In this new biography, Miles Unger, a resident of Florence with a previous bio of Lorenzo de’ Medici under his belt, emphasizes this metaphorical “impotence” (metaphorical only, since Machiavelli was a notorious and indefatigable “john”). By way of compensation Cesare Borgia, by most accounts a truly wicked man, became the hero of The Prince because of his ability to play with the big boys. At least before Fortune, the real God of this world, cast him down – as it so often tripped up Machiavelli himself.

Unger’s book covers all of the basics and is well-argued, if a bit fuzzy in places. He returns to the poem at the end of The Prince a couple of times, with its exhortation for Italians to unite and throw off the barbrian yoke, without ever indicating that Machiavelli is here quoting Petrarch. He also tosses out sloppy lines like “For thousands of years men looked to Cicero’s essays . . .” when this is clearly impossible.

Perhaps what strikes one the most reading The Prince today is how unexceptional it all seems. Unger explains this by calling the book “a victim of its own success” since “many of its most original insights have become commonplace.” We are all familiar with realpolitik, raison d’etat and political Darwinism now, not to mention pundits with a flair for dramatic pronouncements. Still, Machiavelli deserves credit for being there first. And if we are all Machiavellians today it’s worthwhile getting to know the conditions that gave rise to this very contemporary way of understanding our world.

Review first published online February 20, 2012.

%d bloggers like this: