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Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching People What to Fear

Patrick Boucheron

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“Is Machiavelli good, then, or is he evil?” asks the French scholar Patrick Boucheron in his discussion of The Prince, a book whose “whole program is to uncouple political action from conventional morality.” Is he advising political leaders to be treacherous, violent, and dishonest (as Diderot believed), or revealing to ordinary people the mechanisms behind their leaders’ dishonesty, violence, and treachery (as Rousseau believed)? “We would like to have an answer,” Boucheron writes, but the matter is better “set aside.” Machiavelli was simply saying “the truth about things.” Still, the question hangs in the air, if only because Boucheron’s anxiety over the deteriorating morality of politics today has him turning to the Italian for guidance.

Machiavelli has a way of prompting his commentators to assert their moral concerns. They do not want to be tarred with the villain’s brush.

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469, the year that Lorenzo de’ Medici, Il Magnifico, came to power in the city. “Let’s acknowledge that he often exaggerates,” writes Boucheron, reacting to Machiavelli’s claim that he was “born poor and learned to work before having fun.” Boucheron’s short book is based on a series of radio talks and retains a spoken voice that constantly seeks complicity and dramatic effect. Lee explores Machiavelli’s background soberly, at length. The family, once well respected, had fallen on hard times, partly because relatives on both the father’s and mother’s side had conspired against the Medici, partly because Bernardo, Niccolò’s bookish father, had inherited debts, was unable to pay his taxes, and hence was excluded from holding public office or practicing law, the profession for which he had studied. Rumors that he was an illegitimate child compounded the problem, since that would also have excluded him from public office.

The family had a house in Florence and a farm some seven miles to the south. On occasion Bernardo was obliged to sell his clothes to make ends meet. Such transactions were recorded in his memory book, a typical instrument of domestic economy in a Florentine household. “Coldly, methodically, Bernardo recorded the minute facts of family life,” Boucheron elaborates, something that “reminds us that all power starts at home.” Lee details Bernardo’s twenty-year debt-repayment plan and his despair when he was not properly compensated for a consignment of brushwood. He shows him compiling a topographical index to Livy’s Ab urbe condita in return for a copy of the book. Power is conspicuous for its absence.

The family ambition was that Niccolò should overcome the stigma that had obstructed Bernardo and participate in public life. He was sent to school, then educated by private tutors, one of them a priest who sexually abused him. This was not unusual, nor was Niccolò’s eventual bisexuality. Boucheron does not believe that he went to university; Lee gives evidence that he did. He was eight when the Pazzi conspiracy against the Medici failed—the conspirators’ corpses were hung from the windows of Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of government—after which the constitution was rewritten to give more power to Il Magnifico. Niccolò was twenty-three when Piero de’ Medici, Lorenzo’s son, was chased out of Florence because of his inept handling of a French invasion and the priest Girolamo Savonarola became the main force in the city. Again the constitution was rewritten, this time along republican lines. But the economically vital subject city of Pisa seized the chance to break away from the Florentine republic. Niccolò was twenty-seven, still unemployed, still on the margins, when in 1497 Savonarola ordered the first Bonfire of the Vanities in Piazza della Signoria, a sixty-foot pile of fashionable clothes, books, paintings, dice, card games, and musical instruments. A year later, after fierce factional tensions, Savonarola himself was burned in the same place.

Machiavelli at last profited from upheaval. After Savonarola was executed and his supporters purged, he was elected both second chancellor and secretary of the Ten of War, important government posts that had fallen vacant. “He was the ideal candidate,” Lee writes: “relatively obscure; able, but not outstandingly brilliant; and, crucially, untainted by success in any quarter.” He was also completely unprepared. He had attended the lectures of Marcello Adriani, who suggested that one should, in Lee’s words, “harness the wisdom of the ancients to rise above factional conflicts.” He had read Lucretius and made notes on his understanding of the balance between determinism and free will and the chances of controlling fate by understanding “the cause of things.” But he had no experience of administration or diplomacy. After striving to find a place for himself in Florence, he was suddenly faced with the problem of finding a place for Florence in the chaotic world of Italian and European politics.

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