A new look at an old book—and the philosopher/diplomat who wrote it.
Everyone in school learned Machiavelli’s (1469-1527) famous advice, set forth in The Prince, to those in power: the ends justify the means. Benner follows up on her previous Machiavelli’s Prince: A New Reading (2014), which argued for an entirely new way of interpreting the book, with this timely, dramatic, and comprehensive life of the Florentine, drawing on his poems, plays, letters, diplomatic dispatches, and his many friendships. This is a very personal biography. Benner invites us right into Machiavelli’s world, his thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, quoting him extensively on a wide variety of topics. The author begins with a helpful, four-page dramatis personae, and she tells Machiavelli’s story in lively, almost novelistic prose. A person says something “coldly,” while another speaks “quietly.” Some readers may be put off by this methodology—too much creative writing and less historical scholarship—but Benner knows her subject well, and she wants us to know him well, too. The well-educated Machiavelli worked in the government, then as a diplomat, and later as the leader of the Florentine militia. Life at this time in Florence was strewn with political and religious land mines. A wrong step on the toes of a certain prince, Medici family member, or cleric could get you thrown into prison, as Machiavelli was in 1513, for conspiracy against the Medici. He denied it and was tortured for nearly two weeks by having both shoulders dislocated. After he was freed, he wrote his famous treatise, published after his death. Benner posits a reading that has been put forth before but never in such detail: that Machiavelli’s “true intention in The Prince was to expose the perversities of princely rule.” In support of that argument, she provides an eye-opening, captivating portrait.
Benner succeeds at what every biographer tries to do: she brings her subject to life for her readers.