What Should You Learn from Machiavelli?

Scala/Art Resource
Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Rosso Fiorentino, early sixteenth century

When the Florentine Republic collapsed in 1512 and the Medici princes returned to power, Niccolò Machiavelli was suddenly and violently ousted from the position he had occupied in the Chancery since 1498. Writing to his friend Francesco Vettori in December 1513, he reported that he was now living on his farm and beguiling the time by reading about ancient statecraft:

When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Now clothed appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, graciously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine…. I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversation and composed a short study, De principatibus.

As Philip Bobbitt observes in The Garments of Court and Palace, Machiavelli is evidently referring here (in what Bobbitt calls “the most famous letter written during the Renaissance”) to the completion of The Prince. Although Machiavelli subsequently revised his draft, most historians agreed to treat the year 2013 as the five hundredth anniversary of The Prince, and many conferences were held, many exhibitions mounted, and many new studies and translations appeared.

Confronting this tall pile of new scholarship, it is Bobbitt’s book that particularly catches the eye. One reason is that he is already celebrated as the author of two major works on the history and prospects of modern states, The Shield of Achilles (2002) and Terror and Consent (2008). These works have caused him to be denounced in some quarters, he tells us, as an agent of satan. But others have hailed him as a major prophet, and his publishers are able to quote no less an authority on recent developments in philosophy than Henry Kissinger for the view that Bobbitt is “perhaps the most outstanding political philosopher of our time.” Having already invoked Machiavelli’s name on several occasions in his earlier works, Bobbitt now brings him center stage.

A further reason for focusing on Bobbitt’s book is that, although he concentrates mainly on The Prince, he also defends a bold thesis about the character of Machiavelli’s political thinking as a whole. Bobbitt starts out from what he calls “the Machiavelli Paradox”:

How can a man’s body of work mark him out as one of the most—perhaps the most—influential political philosophers since Aristotle when there is such profound disagreement over what he was actually saying?

This does not strike me as paradoxical in the least. Machiavelli’s writings have been subject to varying interpretations because they are complicated and difficult to understand, and because they have been studied in many different languages over a long period. The reason why they have nevertheless been so influential is…

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