- - Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Upbraiding his countrymen for failing to obey a national lockdown order, French President Emmanuel Macron decried what he called their “insouciance.” Mr. Macron, who wrote a youthful essay on the Italian Renaissance philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), might well have applied the same word to France’s eminent intellectual historian Patrick Boucheron, who has produced a breezy series of reflections on the thinker. Originally presented on French radio in July 2016, it has arrived in a slim printed volume translated by Willard Wood.

“Who was Machiavelli?” is Mr. Boucheron’s central question. We use the adjective “Machiavellian” to suggest the arch ruthlessness of a Frank Underwood or, with more elegance and greater success, Francis Urquhart in the earlier British version of “House of Cards.” The term’s disreputable pall landed Machiavelli’s works on the Catholic Church’s List of Forbidden Books, with one cardinal decrying “The Prince” as a book written by “the devil’s finger.” To be “Machiavellian” equals acting without scruple or principle to get ahead in an amoral world where, to use a line Machiavelli never actually wrote, “the ends justify the means.”

Separating the adjective from the man, however, we learn that Machiavelli was, to use a modern term, a loser. Lacking the background, education or ability to rise in Renaissance Florence, then a city-state dominated by the Medici family, Machiavelli proved a mediocrity destined for dull low-level bureaucratic posts.

A succession crisis in the 1490s, followed by the harsh theocratic interlude of the fiery preacher Savonarola, created a power vacuum that allowed Machiavelli to rise to the fringes of restored republican power. He still found himself an outsider, rarely listened to and excluded from any really important job.

His talent for drama and poetry attracted ephemeral attention but proved to be of no lasting significance. When the Medici returned to power in Florence in 1512, Machiavelli was imprisoned, tortured and nearly executed before packing off to his family’s property. He whiled away his mature years as a self-styled “prophet unarmed,” a soubriquet next applied by Marxist scholar Isaac Deutscher to Trotsky, another marcher in history’s loser parade.

Machiavelli supinely dedicated “The Prince” to Lorenzo de Medici — the same ruler who had imprisoned and tortured him — ostensibly as a means of advertising his political savvy for employment. He also wrote his “Discourses on Livy,” a trove of shrewd political analysis drawn from ancient Rome.

Neither book was officially published in Machiavelli’s lifetime, and scholars have since wondered who his intended audience truly was. Was Machiavelli really writing to impress a potential employer, or was he distilling recent events into solid political theory for any ruler’s use? Was it for remote posterity, or a sly attempt to instruct people how to deal with capricious rulers?

Mr. Boucheron believes Machiavelli was writing for all of us, just as Machiavelli imbibed lessons from authors of antiquity. The presentation is not free of glib elisions, some of which disappear in Mr. Wood’s translation, but it tries to follow the “what-can-this-famous-writer do-for-me?” genre familiar to readers of Alain de Botton’s insipid “How Proust Can Change Your Life” or Andrew D. Kaufman’s more substantive “Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times.”

What can Machiavelli teach us? Mr. Boucheron’s provocative subtitle suggests a judicious understanding of what discerning people should fear. He warns from the outset that if we are reading Machiavelli today, “it means we should be worried” about “Machiavellian moments,” troubled times allowing the rise of unscrupulous people.

This conceit falls flat since for Mr. Boucheron “today” means “Trump.” His radio essays, however, were broadcast in mid-2016 and conceived earlier, when no one expected Donald Trump would win. Besides, in French as well as Anglophone academic contexts, “The Prince” is mandatory reading for students studying history and political science. Mr. Boucheron’s lengthy bibliographical essay listing many recent studies and of the philosopher’s works disproves his own point.

If tying his reflections to the current Zeitgeist falls short, Mr. Boucheron does give the worthier lesson that Machiavelli was the first major Renaissance thinker to view humanity through a lens of realism, of people as they truly were and not as they should be. Breaking with earlier idealism has earned the philosopher grudging acknowledgment as the world’s “first humanist” even in today’s academia, an institution ever further removed from reality. 

To be truly “Machiavellian” is not to resort to gratuitous nastiness, but to take people and events on their own terms, seeking advantage and opportunity by understanding rather than smashing them. The aspiring ruler need not be evil, but merely know how “not to be good.” The road to power is thus a value-neutral path that deftly navigates extremes of cruelty and benevolence, with no deviation from what is merely necessary to achieve the goal. What we should fear, then, is an all-too-profound understanding of ourselves. 

• Paul du Quenoy is president and publisher of Academica Press.

• • •

Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching People What To Fear

By Patrick Boucheron

Translated by Willard Wood

Other Press, $14.99, 176 pages

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