The Getaway Car

Glen Newey

  • Machiavellian Democracy by John McCormick
    Cambridge, 252 pp, £21.99, March 2011, ISBN 978 0 521 53090 3
  • Machiavelli in the Making by Claude Lefort, translated by Michael Smith
    Northwestern, 512 pp, £32.50, January 2012, ISBN 978 0 8101 2438 7
  • Redeeming ‘The Prince’: The Meaning of Machiavelli’s Masterpiece by Maurizio Viroli
    Princeton, 189 pp, £18.95, October 2013, ISBN 978 0 691 16001 6

Marchamont Nedham’s The Excellency of a Free State of 1656 sums up both Machiavelli’s notoriety and his place in the short-lived English republic: ‘It was a noble saying, (though Machiavel’s), “Not he that placeth a virtuous government in his own hands, or family; but he that establisheth a free and lasting form, for the people’s constant security, is most to be commended.”’ Nedham’s apologetic tone reflects Machiavelli’s already hoary demonisation. Along with his other works, The Prince and the Discourses had figured almost a century earlier on the first Index Librorum Prohibitorum, issued in the Counter-Reformation pontificate of Paul IV, on the suspect grounds that they had fuelled the corruption of French politics. In the preface to the Six Books of the Commonwealth of 1576, Jean Bodin talks of ‘the delightful principles of Machiavelli, who lays down impiety and injustice as dual foundations of the republic, and renounces religion as undoing the state’. During negotiations with Vatican censors during the 1590s to get his own Politica removed from the Index, Justus Lipsius agreed to expurgate a passage bemoaning the ill repute into which ‘the Italian reprobate’ had fallen (‘for who is not for flogging the poor man these days?’); he was allowed to keep a remark that dismissed ‘most modern authors’, Machiavelli excepted, as ‘worthless’, since the author of The Prince was ‘shrewd’ if ‘immoral’. In Britain, the influential 1602 translation by Simon Patrick of Innocent Gentillet’s treatise Anti-Machiavel managed to disseminate Machiavelli’s ideas, sometimes in garbled form, as it rebutted them. Gentillet notes with satisfaction that although he doesn’t know if the Medici (to one of whom, Lorenzo, The Prince is dedicated) had read Machiavelli’s book, ‘they grabbed the principality of Florence, and turned the republic into a duchy.’

The stage was set for Machiavelli as a republican cacodemon too devious for his own good. In Elizabethan and Jacobean drama ‘Machiavel’ was the stock tag for a personification of evil. In Henry VI Part III, Gloucester vows proleptically to ‘set the murderous Machiavel to school’. In the prologue to the Jew of Malta, ‘Machevill’ boasts of being ‘admired of those that hate [him] most’. ‘A sicke Machiavell Pollititian,’ John Stephens wrote in his Essays of 1615, ‘is a baked meate for the devill.’ No other political theorist has received remotely similar treatment. Hobbes, who came in for a handsome share of vilification from the 1650s, was namechecked as an early exponent of libertinism in Farquhar’s The Constant Couple, and Bernard Mandeville attracted a certain amount of knocking copy (‘Mandevil’) – but their reputations have been detoxified as Machiavelli’s hasn’t.

In part that’s because of his irreligion and liking for blasphemy, which Leo Strauss claimed to find shocking. But those who see him as proselytising from an atheistical pulpit misidentify as inverse religiosity what often seems more like simple je-m’en-foutisme. The demonisation of Machiavelli in the anglophone world has often been offset by a nod to his eminence as a republican theorist, but in Nedham’s time that gave monarchists another count for the bill of indictment. In The Famous Tragedie of King Charles I (1649), Cromwell was goaded to ever greater wickedness by the New Model Army chaplain Hugh Peter, his sidekick ‘i’the Machiavilian world’: the future Lord Protector’s outsize red toper’s nose, a staple of royalist humour, eventually takes on celestial dimensions as a comet portending Charles’s doom. Cromwell’s avowed republicanism masks his aspirant despotism, the implication being that no avowal of republican views could be sincere, and that Machiavelli’s own republicanism was refuted by his condoning trickery as a political ploy.

Nedham was far from alone among English republicans in revering Machiavelli. When James Harrington, the author of Oceana, was interrogated in the Tower after the Restoration on suspicion of plotting to bring back the English commonwealth, he grumbled: ‘Machiavel, what a commonwealthsman was he! But he wrote under the Medici when they were princes in Florence; did they hang up Machiavel, or did they molest him?’ Twenty years later, Algernon Sidney, the republican martyr and would-be regicide, echoed Nedham and Harrington in his own Discourses. He noted that Machiavelli found ‘virtue to be so essential’ to liberty ‘that he thinks it’s impossible for a corrupted people to set up a good government.’

It’s not surprising that Machiavelli morphed into a pantomime baddie, to be reviled or revered according to taste. His sinuous writings have always proved apt to outwit and outdo would-be caricaturists, though interpreters blunder in nonetheless. He pitches the reader towards one pole or the other with his sentences on the tag-wrestle of political power, and with epigrams that tease and taunt. In the chapter in The Prince on the savage Syracusan tyrant Agathocles, he says that cruelty may be well or ill matched to its end, ‘se del male è licito dire bene’ – if it’s OK to talk ‘well’ of evil. Macaulay thought that the Pistola manuscript, a morbid account in Machiavelli’s hand of the Florentine plague of 1523, could not have been written by him. He was right, but not for the reason he gave, which was that the content was beneath Machiavelli: the holograph was produced in the 1520s while Machiavelli was acting as an amanuensis for his patron Lorenzo Strozzi. One wonders what Macaulay might have made of Machiavelli’s obscene and scatological letters.

Macaulay’s plight is emblematic. Beside the hermeneutically destitute figure of the straw man lies the no less wanton blow-up doll, a simulacrum of a thinker puffed into three dimensions for the purposes of intellectual congress; often the persona so forged flaunts virtues the reader suspects himself of possessing. Both figures can be found in Machiavellian exegeses – sometimes in the same reading, as with Strauss. The dolls are swollen with what different readers have taken to be Machiavelli’s gritty realism, moralism, atheism, scientism, artistry, modernity, classicism, absolute monarchism and republican virtue. To say that one reader’s straw man is another’s blow-up doll is to use a rhetorical trope that Machiavelli himself makes ample use of. He deploys the term ‘ruin’ (rovina), which sounds like a death knell throughout the Discourses and The Prince, to enforce the idea that practising conventional virtue undoes the prince, while what’s conventionally branded as vice (vizio) wins security and wellbeing.

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