Machiavelli: A Biography

  • Miles Unger
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 416 pp.
  • June 28, 2011

From a journalist and art historian, an accessible guide to understanding the man and the thinker behind The Prince.

Reviewed by Ronald K. L. Collins

There are so many good men in hell.

— Machiavelli (1524)

In Machiavelli’s teaching we have the first example of a spectacle [that] has renewed itself in almost every generation since.

― Leo Strauss (1959)

Fame and infamy came to him posthumously. His best-known work, The Prince,  was not published until five years after his death. This pocket-sized,  political handbook impressed Francis Bacon: “We are much beholden to Machiavelli and other writers of that class, who openly and unfeignedly declare or describe what men do, and not what they ought to do.” Then again, it outraged the Church. In 1559, it was placed on the Roman Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books. In the 479 years since the publication of The Prince,  Niccolò di Bernardo Machiavelli (1469-1527) — philosopher, poet,  playwright, diplomat and the pater of modern political science ― has been tagged everything from magnificent to monstrous.

This father of modern Realpolitik has been the object of umpteen biographies, studies, commentaries and every kind of critique imaginable. Hardly a year passes when a new book on this famous Florentine and his several works does not find its way into print. In the past year alone, we have seen the publication of:

—Niccolo Capponi’s An Unlikely Prince: The Life and Times of Machiavelli—Maurizio Viroli’s Machiavelli’s God—John P. McCormick’s Machiavellian Democracy, and —The Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli edited by John Najemy.

Not to be overlooked is a recently released incarnation of Quentin Skinner’s Machiavelli. And if this partial list of U.S publications is not enough, this December will bring Machiavelli: A Life Beyond Ideology by Paul Oppenheimer.

It is against this backdrop that Simon & Schuster has elected to publish Machiavelli: A Biography by Miles Unger, a journalist and art historian whose last book was Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’ Medici (2008). Unger, who is also a contributing writer for the New York Times,  is suited for his task given his knowledge of the period in Renaissance Italy during which Machiavelli lived, a knowledge he put to good use in his Lorenzo de’ Medici book. Unger’s familiarity with his subject and his milieu combined with his use of original Italian materials speaks well for him as Machiavelli’s latest biographer.

But what can possibly be revealed about Machiavelli, one must ask, after so many have so frequently plowed the fields of his life and thought? Here are but of few of the more noted authors:

—Innocent Gentillet (1576)—Frederick of Prussia (1740)—Pasquale Villari (1891) (2 vols.)—Ernst Cassirer (1946)—Federico Chabod (1958)—Leo Strauss (1958)—Roberto Ridolfi (1963)—Felix Gilbert (1965)—Sydney Anglo (1969)—J.G.A. Pocock  (1975)—Mark Hulling (1983)—Sebastian de Grazia (1989)—Harvey Mansfield (1996)—Maurizio Viroli (2000)

For that matter, what remains to be done on the biographical front after de Grazia’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Machiavelli in Hell? ― a scholarly book heavily steeped in a rich soil of Italian sources, translated by the author.

Where Unger excels is where most biographers and commentators fall short ― he makes his subject accessible and colorful. Consider, for example, the way he begins his book: He offers up the year 1513 as a touchstone by which to understand Machiavelli the man and Machiavelli the thinker.  While de Grazia provides a fuller account of that period (200-plus pages into the biography), Unger skillfully uses the same year to introduce the reader to what made the man tick: his incarceration, alienation,  intellectualism, satirism, patriotism, atheism, isolationism,  republicanism and exceptional ability to endure in the face of failure.  In these ways and others, Unger’s prologue is presented with economy (fewer than 11 pages), accuracy, and creativity ― and it all works to introduce the reader into the world that made the man who made The Prince.

Unger’s chapter on The Prince is cast in something of the same light. While it does not offer the kind of analytical, historical and philosophical nuance characteristic of J.G.A. Pocock, Leo Strauss or Harvey Mansfield, Unger’s non-specialist readers will be thankful that they do not have to suffer the rigors of such scholarship. Weaving biographical context with substantive acumen, Unger’s user-friendly tutorial manages to strike a popular balance, one capable of informing his lay readers without boring them.

The Prince,  we are told, was “a response to personal disappointment,” and Unger shows how and why that was so. There is, for example, the psychological story, that is, how “thwarted ambition” drove Machiavelli to pen The Prince with “a contempt for weakness and a worshipful attitude toward those who refused to cower beneath the blows of fortune.” After depicting his subject’s cruel life circumstances, Unger adds: “The ruthless man of action he conjures [in The Prince] offers the perfect antidote to his miserable existence.” Indeed.

Unger’s chapter on The Prince,  nonetheless, has its philosophical side, and the author does a commendable job in discussing this notorious work on statecraft in light of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Erasmus and others. Never turgid, Unger takes his readers back in time to the topsy-turvy world of 16th-century Italy, especially Florence, to help them understand how immobilizing fatalism is not the preferred Machiavellian response. Rather, argues Unger, the author of The Prince firmly rejected the notion that “passivity is the only rational response to a universe in which the consequences of one’s actions are completely unpredictable.” In that grubby and cold-blooded world, a new morality, a new science, and a new vision of man were born.  Machiavelli’s phoenix thus rose from the rubble of chance.

There is more ― more about Machiavelli the author of The Discourses, Florentine Histories, The Mandrake and other works — that is ably and artfully set out in Unger’s Machiavelli. It is likely to become the biography by which a new generation of Americans comes to meet Machiavelli, both as a minor functionary caught up in the swirl of 16th-century geopolitics, on the one hand, and as a great thinker who thrust modernity into the political world, on the other hand.

His first name (“Old Nick”) is synonymous with the Devil, and his last name is an eponym for duplicity of the kind that would make Satan blush.  Still, something is to be said for the kind of brutal honesty and brave sincerity one finds in Niccolò Machiavelli, this despite the shortcomings of his philosophy of power.

At a time when pious drivel, feckless rhetoric and fatal arrogance too often rule the affairs of us all, a realist dollop of Machiavellianism might well be added to the caldron of post-modern statecraft. By that measure, Miles Unger’s engaging biography can teach us something that many have long forgotten, and it is this: For lack of courage one loses honesty; and losing honesty, one loses integrity; and having lost integrity, not much remains. If that is the Machiavellian gospel, pray that we heed it.

Ronald K. L. Collins is the Harold S. Shefelman scholar at the University of Washington Law School and the co-author, with David Skover, of The Judge: 26 Machiavellian Lessons (forthcoming, Oxford University Press).

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