Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Machiavelli Reconsidered


MACHIAVELLI IN HELL by Sebastian de Grazia, Princeton, N.J.:

Princeton University Press, 497 pp., $39.95.

About these ads


edited by Quentin Skinner, and Russell Price, New York:

Cambridge University Press, 152 pp.; $29.95, cloth; $6.95, paper.

MARX, Jefferson, Machiavelli: stars in the firmament of modern political consciousness. Sebastian de Grazia's ``Machiavelli in Hell'' brings one of them - the least understood perhaps - down to earth.

De Grazia explains the myth of Machiavelli. Did the champion of Florentine republicanism actually advocate expediency, deceit, and cruelty as his name now implies? Did Machiavelli preach that the end justifies the means - centuries ahead of Karl Marx? Or was he, like Jefferson, a friend of freedom?

The literature around Machiavelli is voluminous. Some of the best of it tries to solve the problem of Machiavelli's Machiavellianism by dating his opinions into an evolutionary line, leading away from his infamous tract called, ``The Prince.''

A new edition of ``The Prince'' allows us to hear the master's voice. Grave, almost solemn, elegantly plain, tendentious, Machiavelli sounds like Henry Kissinger on ``Nightline''!

About these ads

This edition is loaded with extras. These include a fine introduction by Quentin Skinner, who argues that ``The Prince'' is a critique of classical humanism; a time line; a bibliography (very selective); a map of northern and central Italy, circa 1500. The appendixes include passages from Machiavelli's letters, an invaluable glossary of key words, and an equally valuable 25-page set of biographical notes to names Machiavelli mentions, from Aesculapius (legendary Greek hero) to Vitellozzo Vitelli, a contemporary leader of mercenaries. Two indexes - one of subjects, one of proper names - close out this compact, useful presentation of Machiavelli's most popular work.

But there's more to Machiavelli than ``The Prince.'' De Grazia has read it all, and translated something from everything for this book. He places Machiavelli's imputed antihumanism in the context of his other ideas, his work, his family life, his imagination. De Grazia's Machiavelli is complex, brilliant, attractive, at times profound.

Machiavelli served the Florentine republic for 14 years. When he was 29 years old, the puritanical regime of Savonarola was replaced by an elected government. Niccolo (de Grazia prefers to call him by the name he himself preferred) then became secretary for the main foreign relations committee. While traveling for the republic, he dealt with leaders and formulated policies he would later discuss in the pages of ``The Prince.''

The republic did not last. At the invitation of the Pope, Spanish troops threatened to sack the city, which had allied itself with France. The power vacuum created by the threat of annihilation was filled by the exiled Medicis, who quickly accused Niccolo of conspiracy, then tortured and imprisoned him. A year later he had finished ``The Prince,'' a handbook for such new regimes as that of the Medicis.

Was he a hypocrite, a genius, or both?

``The Prince'' reflects his years in the sun during the republic as well as in the shade of his forced retirement. At its most sensational, ``The Prince'' conveys the necessity of choosing the lesser evil and of keeping up appearances. ``Everyone sees what you seem to be, few sense what you are.'' Shakespeare's sonnet 94, ``They that have pow'r to hurt and will do none,/ That do not do the thing they most do show ...'' echoes this part of ``The Prince.''

But as de Grazia shows, Machiavellianism is only one aspect of Machiavelli's thought. De Grazia's book has its own complexities, its own architecture. As a whole, it re-creates the discussions Machiavelli had with his friends in the Rucellai gardens after he had finished a draft of ``The Prince.'' It's virtually a dialogue with the great man, much as Machiavelli entertained Livy and Cicero in his library.

De Grazia's own style is pithy, sinewy, vigorous - taut and relaxed by turns: not unlike Niccolo's. While scholars dispute the dating of single texts, de Grazia has read everything and tries to give everything its due. Machiavelli, he reminds us, wrote one of the finest comedies in Italian. He also wrote commentaries, histories, an ``Art of War.'' His letters are classics of the vernacular.

While Machiavellianism is important, Machiavelli is more important. How to sum up the name? ``The truth about this world out of joint,'' de Grazia writes of Machiavelli's chief discovery, ``is that it is inhabited by rational brutes hell-bent for ruin.'' The Italian states had become stages for bloody political dramas. Niccolo had himself been at the top of the wheel of fortune and at the bottom. That's one footnote for the phrase ``rational brutes.'' Another, better footnote, would cite the founders of the American republic, who so distrusted human nature that they built a set of checks and balances into their Constitution.

If Niccolo was antihumanist in ``The Prince,'' he was also a humanist in a more profound sense of the term. ``Niccolo approaches the act of writing with an attitude bordering on reverence,'' de Grazia explains towards the end of the book. Then, in a shining, rhythmical, and explosive sentence he adds: ``Writing leads to reading, reading leads to action, and action is what God wants.''

What God wants, it appears, was never far from Niccolo's mind. He had his chance to act when Lorenzo de Medici died. Pope Leo X, himself a Medici, appointed his cousin, who asked Niccolo and a few others for their opinions about what should be done. The paper Niccolo submitted, written in the garden during his retirement, urges the case for a republic in the Florentine tradition.

De Grazia concludes: ``Toward the close of the work Niccolo states the connection between morality, religion, and state thus: `I believe that the greatest good that one can do, and the most gratifying to God, is that which one does for one's country.' That is at the heart of his credo.''

Was Machiavelli the devil's advocate? For him, the wisdom of the ancients (Moses was his greatest hero) led not simply to commitment (as we would say in our psychological times), but to action. But writing can itself be a form of action.

As de Grazia presents his life and thought, Niccolo Machiavelli belongs with Plato ``as a writer of model constitutions.'' He goes further. ``Superior to all ordinary acts, this writing becomes res gestae, and Niccolo a member in good standing of the goodly company.''

``Machiavelli in Hell'' is both monumental and intimate, provocative and winning. Sebastian de Grazia is a wonderful writer. His book, beautifully composed, produced (I found only one error), and illustrated, should help restore Machiavelli to his rightful place among the sages, and this in turn should help restore wisdom and common sense to our political climate of ideas. In poet Tom Gunn's phrase, Niccolo is one of those ``sad captains'' who shine in our infirm firmament, whether we notice him or not.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.