Machiavelli: A Biography

Posted on May 23, 2013. Filed under: Nonfiction | Tags: , , |

book cover for Machiavelli: A BiographyMachiavelli: A Biography
by Miles Unger

The great diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) authored in 1513 the controversial political treatise The Prince, a work which is arguably the first book of modern-day political philosophy (the subject of political philosophy is the pre-cursor to today’s study of political science). However, The Prince has also been commonly and tragically viewed as a “Dictators Handbook” of sorts in modern times. Consequently, Machiavelli’s name has morphed post-mortem into a contemptuous adjective: to act in a Machiavellian manner is to act with cunning, deceit and dishonesty; it embodies the phrase “the ends justify the means.”

So, it was the clever book cover of Miles Unger’s Machiavelli: A Biography that compelled me to read about his life: could this bright-eyed, amiable-looking man with a puckish grin (posed against the backdrop of a vibrant Florentine town square) truly be a figurehead of philosophical ruthlessness and villainous amorality, as his name today suggests?

Unger’s biography focuses on the life of the man (as opposed to Machiavelli reflected in his most controversial work, The Prince). While some reviewers have found this a fault, I relished reading about “everyday life” in early Renaissance Italy as Machiavelli would have seen it: as a young man trying to find a niche in the highly stratified Italian hierarchy; as a more decent-than-usual family man, 16th-century style; as a diplomat living in (and witnessing) an age of terrifying violence and bloody political upheaval; as a man who loses his diplomatic post when the Medici Family returns to power and—after being wrongfully tortured and nearly executed—comes to terms with his losses and seeks redemption through his writing.

But most importantly, the author Unger drives this home: Machiavelli wasn’t the beast he is made out to be. He was, actually, no beast at all. The Prince—the work that gave him a bad name—has been commonly misread and misinterpreted; it is viewed outside of the bloody political turmoil of 16th century Europe; and, in particular, it is frequently deconstructed outside of his complimentary works, such as Discourses on Livy, which were written to temper the harshness of The Prince.

Miles Unger’s Machiavelli: A Biography is slightly academic, but pleasurable enough to be read by the layperson (this includes myself) who might not be interested in a dry scholarly analysis of Machiavelli’s life. I took my time reading it (it’s 416 pages), and I came away with a fresh and surprising new perspective. Highly recommended.

–post by Russ K.

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