How Machiavelli’s writings can guide political action in times of stress.
In a slim, beautifully illustrated volume, French historian Boucheron (History/Collège de France; France in the World: A New Global History, 2019, etc.) distills the life and works of Renaissance writer Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), with the goal of restoring “the face of Machiavelli that lies hidden behind the mask of Machiavellianism.” The author of The Prince, Boucheron believes, was more than a “wily and unscrupulous strategist” who crafted a cynical guide for tyrants and “put violence at the heart of political decisions.” Serving for 15 years as secretary of the chancery in Florence, he witnessed political intrigues at home and abroad and, in 1512, became implicated in a coup that resulted in his imprisonment, torture, and exile. Within a year, deeply disillusioned with statesmen who failed to act with speed and decisiveness, he wrote The Prince, which, surprisingly, he dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici, a member of the family that had destroyed Florence’s republican government—and Machiavelli’s career. Both the context and content make The Prince an enigmatic, controversial text: Did Machiavelli write for princes “or for those wanting to resist them?” Was he offering “instruction to the powerful” in the art of tyranny or “instructing the people on what they have to fear”? Boucheron believes that he addressed his book to princes who have attained power through conquest, force, guile, or luck and therefore must find the means “both to preserve the state” and their own position. Characterizing most humans as “ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers,” Machiavelli advised a prince to always expect “the worst from those he governs.” Boucheron concurs with that assessment: “You make laws, or avoid making them, anticipating their most nefarious use,” he asserts. Because Machiavelli is a “thinker of alternatives who dissects every situation into an ‘either or else’ and is acutely sensitive to the mutability of political situations, Boucheron argues provocatively for his relevance to our own times. “He heralds tempests,” writes the author, “not to avert them, but to teach us to think in heavy weather.”
A penetrating portrait of a complex political thinker.