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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Burn in Hell, Suffer in Paradise

This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. This is the first of my reviews to merit a new lease on life, from Sep 23 2017. It concerns Erica Benner's excellent reading of Niccolò Machiavelli.

Review ~ Be Like the Fox

An apocryphal story relates that, before he made his confession, Niccolò told his grieving friends about a dream he’d had. In it he saw a crowd of people, emaciated and in rags. When he asked who they were, he was told that they were the blessed souls of Paradise, because it is written, ‘Blessed are the poor, for they shall reign in heaven.’ These vanished; then he saw a gathering of people in royal and courtly robes, deep in conversation about politics and philosophy. Among them he recognized Plato, Plutarch, Tacitus, and other famous men of antiquity. Asking who these were, he received the answer that they were condemned to Hell, because it is written: ‘Knowledge of sacred things is inimical to God.’ Asked which group he would like to join, he answered: ‘I’d rather burn in Hell for all eternity with the second lot than suffer in Paradise with the first.’

In 1557, in its efforts to deal with the outbreak of heresies encouraged by the Reformation, the Catholic Church under Pope Paul IV established an Index of Prohibited Books. All of Machiavelli’s works were soon put on the list. Giuliano de’ Ricci fought hard to persuade the Vatican’s censors to allow publication of an expurgated version of his grandfather’s works, with the offending passages cut. His efforts were in vain. Machiavelli’s books remained on the Index until 1890.


Every so often someone—be it Marxist Antonio Gramsci, novelist Salman Rushdie and here academic Erica Benner—rediscovers that not only are caricatures of Niccolò Machiavelli unfair, but his ideas were praiseworthy, ‘For every cynical Machiavellian argument I encountered,' writes Benner, 'I’d come across two or three other arguments that clashed with it. The cynical arguments are louder, and more thrillingly unconventional. But the reasons Machiavelli gives for them are often illogical, or just feeble.’ Machiavelli was no defender of tyranny, but ‘a thoroughgoing republican, a “eulogist of democracy.” His aim was to defend the rule of law against corrupt popes and tyrants[…] True, his morality came from ancient writers such as Livy, Plutarch and Xenophon rather than Christian Scriptures, and he loved to ridicule the empty moral platitudes of his day. But he never wanted to sever politics from morality. He simply wanted to put morality on firmer, purely human foundations.’

Benner structures her well studied and well read biography of Machiavelli around his non-cynical arguments, lessons Machiavelli imparts to readers able to understand his dramatic style, one that allows a multiplicity of voices leading towards a dialectical conclusion. The naïve reading of The Prince becomes difficult to sustain; if Machiavelli’s ‘aim was to write a handbook ingratiating himself with Florence’s new princes, his means—exposing the serpentine ways that had brought the Medici to power—were oddly chosen indeed.’ Instead, Benner meticulously demonstrates:

Rather, he’d written what he thought would please a prince, particularly the Medici prince to whom he dedicated the slender volume: Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, a young man with tyrannical leanings. But[…] Machiavelli’s aim wasn’t just to flatter his way into favour: he had a more sinister purpose. This wiliest of writers had no illusions about the utility of his cynical teachings. In fact, he was sure that any prince who put them into practice would soon arouse popular hatred and self-destruct.

Indeed, Benner goes on to show, there is reason to believe that this is not merely the intention of The Prince, but its successful one:

Machiavelli’s self-proclaimed realism, his book’s main selling point, was a fraud. And Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, and England were among its first victims. Cromwell had taken the Prince at face value[…] imbibing its devilish doctrines in the belief they were highest prudence—and in doing so had walked straight into Machiavelli’s trap. If the writer were alive, he’d be laughing at his handiwork. The results, though, were no laughing matter. England in 1539 was far along the road to perdition, and other Christian monarchs might soon go the way of Henry, should they or their counsellors fall under Machiavelli’s spell.

Among what we can learn from Machiavelli, Benner singles out particular points. Know thyself is the most recurrent warning:

  • Know your own limits. Don’t try to win every battle. Treat other people with respect so you can get them on your side and keep them there; observe justice with enemies as well as friends; always uphold the rule of law. These are a few of Machiavelli’s less notorious but more closely argued maxims.

  • For Niccolò, virtù can mean spiritedness, especially in battle. But the highest-quality virtù includes an aptitude for organization, industry, and far-sighted prudence. It further includes an unclouded knowledge of one’s own limits, the wisdom and self-discipline not to overreach them, and the ingenuity to use whatever opportunities and resources one has, however scarce they might be. Virtù doesn’t need good luck, or even much freedom, to work wonders. On the contrary, it is most admirable, even most effective, where there are obstacles to overcome.

The other most consistent piece of advice—that can be considered an extension of this Delphic injunction to self-knowledge—is to rely on your own power, not borrowed power; the reason for his famed distrust of mercenary armies and affection for militia defences:

  • Why did David think he stood a chance against Goliath? Because he fought for himself, from the gut, and all the harder knowing the greater strength of his enemy. And because he fought with his own arms, paltry as they were. When he took up the arms given him by King Saul, he felt as if his visceral fighting spirit was smothered under borrowed weapons. So he said he would rather meet the enemy with his sling and his knife, and with these he killed the giant.

  • People’s attitudes are the real key to a leader’s or a state’s power. Therefore, military reforms need to go hand in hand with social and political ones. A well-ordered political economy that ensures a decent living for all a city’s people is one of the main foundations of a city’s military power. And cities whose people are free, secure in their livelihood, respected and self-respecting, are harder to attack than those that lack such robust arms.

  • Human freedom doesn’t need to be vast in order to be effective. In fact, the most praiseworthy human works—such as the building of great cities, or their preservation over time—have come forth where there was less room for choice, where people had to think and work all the harder to overcome obstacles. So they should indeed never give up. They have always to hope and, since they hope, not to give up in whatever fortune and whatever travail they may find themselves.

The third most important principle Machiavelli repeats is to understand what motivates people:

  • According to Niccolò Machiavelli, one should assume that most people care more about their own gains than about doing the decent thing. So instead of haranguing them with pious sermons or moral outrage, show them why it’s in their own selfish interests to take responsibility for mistakes or stick to their agreements.

  • Founders of new institutions should assume that a large part of human nature inclines most people to behave badly, at least now and then: to take more than their share of power or wealth, to profit from other people’s weaknesses, to cheat, lie, betray promises. Inclinations like these can’t be rooted out of our species; human nature itself cannot be reformed so that more and more people become reliably angelic. That is why prudent founders have built strong checks on human badness into their constitutions.

To this can be added far more niche points.

Terrorism is ineffectual and often self-defeating:

  • Machiavelli never quite tells his readers whether secretive plots are useful or useless; he leaves it to them to judge their utility from his numerous examples. And the upshot of almost all of them is that such plots are so fraught with dangers, so unlikely to succeed, and so prone to provoke repressive backlashes that they are best avoided[…] Popular uprisings are more likely to succeed, and have some chance of leading to stable government, if the generality of people remains involved.

Beware false prophets:

  • Savonarola’s sermons already count for more than political debate. Prophecies prevail over evidence; terrifying visions trump reasoned arguments. Florence relies for its defences on one friar and his prophecies. But a city based on good laws and good orders has no necessity, as have others, for the virtue of a single man to maintain it.

Good laws protect you from your enemies. Violate a principle and you potentially give your enemies power over you:

  • First one exception is made to the general command to obey the laws, then another—and soon the laws look toothless, or like the mere instruments of partisan interests. Then no one respects or sees reason to obey them. That, according to Machiavelli, is how civility dies; it is how even great cities like Rome fell from greatness.

Everything Benner writes is backed by meticulous textual sources. She is also interested not only in a surface reading, but in Machiavelli’s reflections on his readers, ‘Niccolò reminds us, there are three kinds of brains: one that understands by itself, another that discerns what others understand, the third that understands neither by itself nor through others. The first is most excellent, the second excellent, and the third useless.’ This book is at once a historical biography and a meditation on an intersecting tradition of thought.

In many ways, Machiavelli’s tradition would find a renewed spirit in later celebrated thinkers from Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Weber to Karl Marx and the aforementioned Antonio Gramsci. The point of the book, however, is foremost a portrait of the man, and here (beyond the scope of my review) it works wonders, bringing him to life as few have managed. These two strands, however, also and often come together expertly, so that we see in the ideas the person himself:

Machiavelli would never be a conventional Christian—if he considered his beliefs as Christian at all. Like his father, he observes religious traditions for the sake of family and community: he joins confraternities, baptizes his children, accepts last confession, and occasionally donates money to churches. But his beliefs have little in common with most Florentines’ intense Christianity, with its cults of saints and adoration of the man-god Christ. The figure of Christ makes precious few appearances in Machiavelli’s writings. When he does appear, it is as the founder of a well-intentioned yet unworldly religion whose followers soon corrupted his teachings with their sectarian brawls.

It is a splendid book and worthwhile adding to anyone's reading.


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