Far from power mad, Machiavelli was a humane and principled man who never caught a break, according to a flattering new biography.

Published November 22, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

History's judgments of great and infamous men -- especially those defined by beefy adjectives such as "Machiavellian" -- are often reductive. In "Niccolò's Smile," a new biography of Machiavelli, Princeton professor Maurizio Viroli challenges the myth, depicting the 16th century political philosopher not as Draconian and power hungry but as a renegade thinker ahead of his time, an outcast who loved politics above all else.

Machiavelli was not born into the ruling class and so could not have been a politician himself, and he was too clever to be trusted as a political administrator. His career was at best rocky. He was a self-styled political scientist in an age ruled by class and status rather than by reason and strategy. Nobody wanted his opinions. His only loyalty was to power. Yet Machiavelli's writings laid the groundwork for modern politics -- the political campaign, the stump speech, the separation of church and state, government by representation -- all of it predicated on the embryonic democratic notion that power is neither a divine right nor a birthright but something fought for, earned and sustained. Machiavelli did not coin the phrase "by any means necessary," but he introduced the idea into our political landscape, separating in one fell swoop the philosophy of ethics and morals from the science of politics.

"Niccolò's Smile" is more an apologia of a misunderstood legend than a biography. "Machiavelli never taught that the end justifies the means or that a statesman is allowed to do what is forbidden to others," argues Viroli. "He taught, rather, that if someone is determined to achieve a great purpose -- free a people, found a state, enforce the law and create peace where anarchy and despotism reign -- then he must not fear being thought cruel or stingy but must simply do what is necessary in order to achieve the goal." Viroli reformulates Machiavelli's ideas, teasing out modern nuances, but he's operating on the defensive. He makes his case with charm, nonetheless, though at times his admiration for his charismatic subject overwhelms his argument, turning into hyperbole and purple prose.

What scant background material there is -- Machiavelli's formative years, intimacies, what he looked like -- is dispensed of in short order and we're plunged into a terrifically coherent portrait of the bewildering political history of late-Renaissance Italy. Early in Machiavelli's career, his talent won him a high administrative position in the republican government -- a glamorous apprenticeship that ended when the Medici family returned to power. "The Prince" was dedicated to Lorenzo de' Medici, nephew of Pope Leo X and operative chief of the government in 1513, though it wasn't an endorsement of Medici rule so much as an unsolicited and ill-fated petition to be rehired into politics.

Evident to all but Machiavelli himself, the forceful opinions laid out in "The Prince" would be interpreted as seditious -- especially his call for the limiting of papal power. Lorenzo himself couldn't have been less interested, and those who eventually did read the scorned manuscript were horrified. "The Prince" was seen as "an evil work inspired directly by the devil in which a malevolent author teaches a prince how to win and keep power through avarice, cruelty and falseness, making cynical use of religion as a tool to keep the populace docile." Machiavelli never really functioned in politics again. He consulted, wrote and lectured, eking out a living. He was revered by his friends and became a sort of local cult hero; twice, he was arrested and tortured for conspiracy.

When Machiavelli's argument lands on moral high ground, it's often inadvertent -- that's what gets him into trouble. For example, becoming a prince may require choosing between being loved and being feared. He points out: "Since some men love as they please but fear when the prince pleases, a wise prince should rely on what he controls, not on what he cannot control." A prince might have to be feared, but at all costs should avoid being hated, which means Machiavelli advises against raping and pillaging within one's own sovereignty. Even more infamously, Machiavelli defined and recommended "well-used cruelty": "We can say cruelty is used well (if it is permissible to talk in this way of what is evil) when it is employed once and for all, and one's safety depends on it, and then it is not persisted in but as far as possible turned to the good of one's subjects." In other words, criminal acts are not necessarily the best route to power -- but if used, criminality should be used effectively.

It's easy to recognize Machiavelli's pragmatic brilliance -- especially if you practice moral relativism. But Viroli works overtime to convince us of Machiavelli's humanness, with the idea that even if Machiavelli wasn't kind, he was principled. For Machiavelli, "the greatest men were princes and the rulers of republics: men who gave good laws to their people, who led their people out of slavery and into a state of liberty -- men like Moses." The sad irony of Viroli's portrait is that this consummate politician, who presumed to instruct princes on gaining and maintaining power, couldn't win respect in his own time. Machiavelli died in ignominy, albeit with a smile on his lips.

By Minna Proctor

Minna Proctor is an Italian translator and book critic. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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