The story of the obscure civil servant who became the world’s most famous cynic.
Art historian and New York Times contributor Unger (Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’ Medici, 2008) offers a captivating biography of Italian philosopher and playwright Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), whose classic book, The Prince, remains a definitive handbook for practicing politicians. Born into an old, down-on-its-luck family, Machiavelli grew up in the small, independent Republic of Florence at a time of peace and prosperity. The fabulously rich Medici family ruled; great artists like Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci flourished; and bright young Machiavelli, with little money or influence, came of age aimlessly, devoting his free time to reading, whores and gambling. Yet he was ambitious. At 29, he became Second Chancellor, serving as a diplomat and handling state correspondence for 14 years. Prickly and abrasive, he was dismissed in 1513 over policy decisions leading to the fall of the republic. With no means of supporting his wife and children, Machiavelli began writing his small book on the secrets of statecraft based on his own observations during government service. He hoped The Prince would lead to a new government job; instead, the book propelled him into political and literary history. Against the background of war and rivalries between Italian states, Unger traces the development of Machiavelli’s cynical, secular, anti-clerical views, and examines the blunt precepts of his masterpiece that announced “the coming of the modern world.” Shattering cherished assumptions about God-centered government, Machiavelli declared that rulers must rule by whatever means necessary. Now commonplace, his original, pragmatic insights simply stated what he called “the actual truth of things.” Ironically, writes Unger, despite his disdain of honesty, he was actually “the most honest” and least Machiavellian of men.
Lively, well-researched portrait of a master political strategist.