Machiavelli was a nice guy—really, he was. Or so says Miles Unger in his Machiavelli. Oh, sure, Niccolò (1469–1527) left his wife home with the six kids for very long stretches while on his diplomatic missions, but at least he had dinner with the family before going whoring in town when back in Florence. But he was no different than other men of his generation—layman or cleric . . . or pope.
Unger, whose main qualification for writing a book on THE founder of modern thought seems to be that he lived in Florence for “several years” (and wrote a book on Lorenzo de’ Medici), is intent on rescuing the reputation of the political philosopher thought to be downright evil by many, then and now. He should have, I think, stuck with Machiavelli’s life and stayed away from his writings. One or the other.
We get the historical context of Florence and Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries from Unger, and what we learn is that Machiavelli was a second-rate bureaucrat (Second Chancellor) in a third-rate power, Florence, living within a rather confusing and crazy place called Italy. By the time Machiavelli comes on the scene in 1498, Florence is only hanging on by the skin of its florin, which does have some influence in Italy and with foreign invaders. The courts he visits treat him and his city as near nonentities. Amazing to know that despite this status, Florence gave us the likes of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael (I know, I know, the last was originally from Urbino).
Unger tells us that we don’t know much about Niccolò before he turned 28—so why not just start there? The book could easily have started on page 71 when the young man takes his post in the Florentine government. But what I found very interesting is that Machiavelli took it upon himself to recruit and train a citizen army—he often warns against using mercenaries in his writings—and then successfully leads them against the archrival Pisa.
Unger writes as if he were given a minimum word count. He repeats himself much too much. Yes, I see, I get it already—Machiavelli was a realist, a hardnosed guy who learned his politics in the trenches of real life in the midst of the most powerful men (and women) in Italy. Not like those previous, pie-in-the-sky political philosophers of yore, such as Plato and Aristotle. But worse than the repetition is that Unger thinks this is what sets the author of The Prince and Discourses apart from his predecessors. I say, no, Machiavelli presents us with a radical new interpretation, not of the world, but of the ancient texts themselves.
Unger does get a lot of things right, however. But the book should have, could have been about one hundred pages shorter. (Can someone tell me what editors do these days?) The best parts of Machiavelli involve quotes from the evil one himself.
Beside the also repetitious (and annoying) use of “while”—please, people, what’s wrong with “although” these days?—Unger, although he cites some very good works in his bibliography, does not seem up to the task of interpreting Machiavelli’s thought. On page 232 he makes an error too big to be ignored. Unger claims that it wasn’t just Machiavelli who “gave aid and comfort to tyrants,” but Aristotle and Aquinas did it too. In my scholarly opinion, I have to say: “No freakin’ way, man!”
F. Scott holds a PhD in political philosophy, has lived in Rome, visited Florence, and studied lots of Machiavelli with pleasure (even though he really is evil).
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Simon & Schuster. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.