Erica Benner, Be Like the Fox:
Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), the Florentine writer, civil servant, diplomat and political philosopher, continues to confound historians, philosophers and those interested in the genealogy of political thinking. His name has become a well-known adjective, “Machiavellian,” referring to principles and methods of expediency, craftiness, and duplicity in politics. Common synonyms for “Machiavellian” include “scheming,” “cynical,” “shrewd” and “cunning.” For some, Machiavellian politics constitute nothing less than a prescription for maintaining power at any cost, in which dishonesty is exalted and the killing of innocents authorized if necessary. Machiavelli earned this dubious reputation primarily through his best known work, The Prince, published in 1532, five years after his death, in which he purported to advise political leaders in Florence and elsewhere – “princes” – on how to maintain power, particularly in a republic, where political leadership is not based on monarchy or titles of nobility and citizens are supposed to be on equal footing.
But to this day there is no consensus as to whether the adjective “Machiavellian” fairly captures the Florentine’s objectives and outlook. Many see in Machiavelli an early proponent of republican government and consider his thinking a precursor to modern democratic ideas. Erica Brenner, author of two other books on Machiavelli, falls squarely into this camp. In Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom, Benner portrays Machiavelli as a “thorough-going republican,” and a “eulogist of democracy” who “sought to uphold high moral standards” and “defend the rule of law against corrupt popes and tyrants” (p.xvi). Brenner discounts the shocking advice of The Prince as bait for tyrants.
Machiavelli wore the mask of helpful advisor, Benner writes, “all the while knowing the folly of his advice, hoping to ensnare rulers and drag them to their ruin” (p.xv). As a “master ironist” and a “dissimulator who offers advice that he knows to be imprudent” (p.xvi), Machiavelli’s hidden intent was to “show how far princes will go to hold on to power” and to “warn people who live in free republics about the risks they face if they entrust their welfare to one man” (p. xvi-xvii). A deeper look at Machiavelli’s major writings, particularly The Prince and his Discourses on Livy, nominally a discussion of politics in ancient Rome, reveals Machiavelli’s insights on several key questions about republican governance, among them: how can leaders in a republic sustain power over the long term; how can a republic best protect itself from threats to its existence, internal and external; and how can a republic avoid lapsing into tyranny.
Benner advances her view of Machiavelli as a forerunner of modern liberal democracy by placing the Florentine “squarely in his world, among his family, friends, colleagues and compatriots” (p.xix). Her work has some of the indicia of biography, yet is unusual in that it is written almost entirely in the present tense. Rather than setting out Machiavelli’s ideas on governance as abstractions, she has taken his writings and integrated them into dialogues, using italics to indicate verbatim quotations – a method which, she admits, “transgresses the usual biographical conventions” but nonetheless constitutes a “natural way to show [her] protagonist in his element” (p.xx). Benner’s title alludes to Machiavelli’s observation that a fox has a particular kind of cunning that can recognize traps and avoid snares. Humans need to emulate a fox by being “armed with mental agility rather than physical weapons” and developing a kind of cunning that “sees through ruses, decent words or sacred oaths” (p.151).
Machiavelli’s world in this “real time” account is almost Shakespearean, turning on intrigue and foible in the pursuit and exercise of power, and on the shortsightedness not only of princes and those who worked for them and curried their favor, but also of those who worked against them and plotted their overthrow. But Benner’s story is not always easy story to follow. Readers unfamiliar with late 15th and early 16th Florentine politics may experience difficulty in constructing the big picture amidst the continual conspiring, scheming and back-stabbing. At the outset, in a section termed “Dramatis Personae,” she lists the story’s numerous major characters by category (e.g., family, friends, popes), and readers will want to consult this helpful list liberally as they work their way through her rendering of Machiavelli. The book would have also benefitted from a chronology setting out in bullet form the major events in Machiavelli’s lifetime.
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Florence in Machiavelli’s time was already at its height as the center of the artistic and cultural flourishing known as the Renaissance. But Benner’s story lies elsewhere, focused on the city’s cutthroat political life, dominated as it was by the Medici family. Bankers to the popes, patrons of Renaissance art, and masters of political cronyism, the Medici exercised close to outright control of Florence from the early 15th century until thrown out of power in 1494, with the assistance of French king Charles VIII, at the outset of Machiavelli’s career. They recaptured control in 1512, but were expelled again in 1527, months before Machiavelli’s death, this time with the assistance of Hapsburg Emperor Charles V. Lurking behind the Medici family were the popes in Rome, linked to the family through intertwining and sometimes familial relationships. In a time of rapidly shifting alliances, the popes competed with rulers from France, Spain and the mostly German-speaking Holy Roman Empire for worldly control over Florence and Italy’s other city-states, duchies and mini-kingdoms, all at a time when ominous challenges to papal authority had begun to gather momentum in other parts of Europe.
The 1494 plot that threw Piero de’ Medici out of power was an exhilarating moment for the young Machiavelli. Although Florence under the Medici had nominally been a republic — Medici leaders insisted they were simply “First Citizens” — Machiavelli and other Florentines of his generation welcomed the new regime as an opportunity to “build a republic in deed, not just in name, stronger and freer than all previous Florence governments” (p.63). With the Medici outside the portals of power, worthy men of all stripes, and not just Medici cronies, would be “free to hold office, speak their minds, and play their part in the great, messy, shared business of civil self-government” (p.63).
Machiavelli entered onto the Florentine political stage at this optimistic time. He went on to serve as a diplomat for the city of Florence and held several high-level civil service positions, including secretary – administrator – for Florence’s war committee. In this position, Machiavelli promoted the idea that Florence should abandon its reliance upon mercenaries with no fixed loyalties to fight its wars and cultivate its own home grown fighting force, a “citizens’ militia.”
Machiavelli’s civil service career came to an abrupt halt in 1513, shortly after Guiliano de’ Medici, with the assistance of Pope Julius II and Spanish troops, wrestled back control over Florence’s government. The new regime accused Machiavelli of participating in an anti-Medici coup. He was imprisoned, tortured, and banished from government, spending most of the ensuing seven years on the family farm outside Florence. Ironically, he had reconciled with the Medici and re-established a role for himself in Florence’s government by the time of the successful 1527 anti-Medici coup, two months prior to his death. Machiavelli thus spent his final weeks as an outcast in a new government that he in all likelihood supported.
The Prince and the Discourses on Livy took shape between 1513 and 1520, Machiavelli’s period of forced exile from political and public life, during which he drew upon his long experience in government to formulate his guidance to princes on how to secure and maintain political power. Although both works were published after his death in 1527, Benner uses passages from them — always in italics — to illuminate particular events of Machiavelli’s life. Extracting from these passages and Benner’s exegesis upon them, we can parse out a framework for Machiavelli’s ideal republic. That framework begins with Machiavelli’s consistent excoriation of the shortsightedness of the ruling princes and political leaders of his day, in terms that seem equally apt to ours.
To maintain power over the long term, leaders need to eschew short-term gains and benefits and demonstrate, as Benner puts it, a “willingness to play the long game, to pit patience against self-centered impetuosity” (p.8). As Machiavelli wrote in the Discourses, “for a prince it is necessary to have the people friendly; otherwise he has no remedy in adversity” (p.167). A prince who thinks he can rule without taking popular interests seriously “will soon lose his state . . . [E]ven the greatest princes need to deal transparently with their allies and share power with their people if they want to maintain their state” (p.250). Governments that seek to satisfy the popular desire are “firmer and last longer than those that let a few command the rest” (p.260). Machiavelli’s long game thus hints at the modern notion that the most effective government is one that has the consent of the governed.
Machiavelli’s ideal republic was not a democracy based upon direct rule by the people but rather upon what we today would term the “rule of law.” In his Discourses, Machiavelli argued that long-lasting republics “have had need of being regulated by the laws” (p.261). It is the “rule of laws that stand above the entire demos and regulate the relations between ‘its parts,’ as he calls them,” Benner explains, “so that no class or part can dominate the others” (p.275). Upright leaders should put public laws above their own or other people’s private feelings. They should resist emotional appeals to ties of family or friendship, and punish severely when the laws and the republic’s survival so demands. Arms and justice together are the foundation of Machiavelli’s ideal republic.
Several high-profile executions of accused traitors and subversives convinced Machiavelli to reject the idea that when a republic is faced with internal threats, “one cannot worry too much about ordinary legal procedures or the rights of defendants” (p.121.) No matter how serious the offense, exceptional punishments outside the confines of the law “set a corrupting precedent” (p.121). Machiavelli’s lifelong dream that Florence should cultivate its own fighting force rather than rely upon mercenaries to fight its wars with external enemies arose out of similar convictions.
In The Prince and the Discourses, Machiavelli admonished princes that the only sure way to maintain power over time is to “arm your own people and keep them satisfied” (p.49). Cities whose people are “free, secure in their livelihood, respected and self-respecting, are harder to attack than those that lack such robust arms” (p.186). Florence hired mercenaries because its leaders didn’t believe their own people could be trusted with arms. But mercenaries, whose only motivation for fighting is a salary, can just as easily turn upon their employers’ state, hardly a propitious outcome for long-term sustainability.
During Machiavelli’s time in exile, the disputatious monk Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses onto a church door in German-speaking Wittenberg, challenging a wide range of papal practices. Luther’s provocation set in motion the Protestant Reformation and, with it, more than a century of bloody conflict in Europe between Protestants and Catholics. The Prince became an instrument in the propaganda wars stirred up by the Reformation, Benner contends, with Machiavelli demonized “mostly by men of religion, both Catholic and Protestant” (p.xv), who saw in the Florentine’s thinking a challenge to traditional relations between church and state.
These men of religion rightly perceived that the church would have little role to play in Machiavelli’s ideal republic. In the Discourses, Benner explains, Machiavelli argued that the Christian “sect,” as he called it, had “always declared war on ideas and writings that it could not control – and especially on those that presented ordinary human reasoning, not priestly authority, as the best source of guidance in private and political life” (p.317). Men flirt with disaster when they purport to know the unknowable under the guise of religious “knowledge.” For Machiavelli, unchanging, universal moral truths can be worked out only through a close study of human interactions and reflections on human nature. Instead of praying for some new holy man to save you, Machiavelli advised, “learn the way to Hell in order to steer clear of it yourself” (p. p.282). These views earned all of Machiavelli’s works a place on the Catholic Church’s 1557 Index of Prohibited Books, one of the Church’s solutions to the heresies encouraged by the Reformation, where they remained until 1890.
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The ruthlessly duplicitous Machiavelli – his “evil double” (p.xiv), as Brenner puts it — is barely present in Benner’s account. Her Machiavelli, an “altogether human, and humane” (p.xvi) commentator and operative on the political stage of his time, exudes few of the qualities associated with the adjective that bears his name.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
October 25, 2018