Machiavelli’s Bite

Stuart Hampshire

  • Machiavelli by Quentin Skinner
    Oxford, 102 pp, £4.50, May 1981, ISBN 0 19 287517 5
  • The Prince and Other Political Writings by Niccolo Machiavelli, translated by Bruce Penman
    Dent, 354 pp, £3.50, June 1981, ISBN 0 460 11280 5

This is a short book, scarcely more than a long essay, on a subject vastly investigated and written about. Professor Skinner’s powers of compression and command of the evidence provide as good an introduction to Machiavelli’s thought as could be asked for. As in his Foundations of Modern Political Thought, he is determined to place Machiavelli’s theorising in its historical context among the not unrelated thoughts of lesser Florentine humanists and of other contemporaries. This might be expected to have a levelling effect on the reputation of some original thinkers: their ideas might appear less innovative once they were seen to be not untypical of their time and place. Reading The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, however, one finds that the levelling effect is generally small. The salient thinkers remain salient, even when Professor Skinner’s scholarship has shown that others were saying rather similar things at much the same time. Posterity, not unreasonably, remembers only those who had a commanding tone or an individual style, or a gift of phrase-making, or a sharpness in argument, to raise them above their forgotten contemporaries. The giants remain giants, and among them conspicuously Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Mill, the prime sources of modern political thought; only Hegel and Marx have added substantially to the legacy of these five.

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