Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: May 2013



The Many Faces of Machiavelli

As we have considered throughout this book, Machiavelli has many faces, and attempting to detect the true or truest one has generated a highly stimulating interpretive literature. An early response to Machiavelli saw him as a teacher of evil, lending Satan the name “Old Nick” for “Niccolo,” while the stage Machiavel became a familiar figure in the dramas of Marlowe and Shakespeare, whose Iago says he will follow and improve upon “Machiavel's murd'rous intent.” From the outset, however, the evaluation of Machiavelli was mixed. Francis Digby, in his 1685 translation of the Education of Cyrus, recommended Xenophon by stressing his resemblance to “Machiavel” and the wisdom of his “Florentine Prince.” In other words, he reversed the trend we noted in Chapter 5 with regard to Machiavelli himself: whereas Machiavelli lent his own cause respectability by invoking the ancient Socratic, Digby praises the ancient thinker on the basis of his resemblance to the Renaissance modern. As we earlier observed, Bacon and Spinoza admired Machiavelli's political realism and the benefits this worldly approach might confer. James Harrington in Oceana extolled Machiavelli's preference for republican liberty in contrast with Hobbes's endorsement of an absolute monarchy indistinguishable from tyranny, which calls into question the tendency to see Hobbes as Machiavelli's direct and most systematic successor. By the same token, state-building despots ranging from Henry VIII (whose future eminence grise, Thomas Cromwell, was said to have discovered Machiavelli's Prince while living in Europe) to Hitler and Stalin have all been alleged (probably apocryphally) to have kept Machiavelli's handbook for tyrants close by for consultation.

Given his range of influences, one scholar has understandably been prompted to ask: Will the real Machiavelli please stand up? Throughout The Prince and the Discourses, we find Machiavelli extolling both principalities and republics; exhorting Florence to reassert her ancient republican love of liberty; urging other states to do the same, frequently at one another's expense; advising foreign princes how Italy might be reunited through conquest; and criticizing the French invader Louis XII for his mistakes in attempting to do so, as if to suggest someone else should have another go at it.

Taming The Prince (1993)