[Review] Machiavelli by Miles J. Unger

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He is the most infamous and influential political writer of all time. His name has become synonymous with cynical scheming and the selfish pursuit of power. 

Niccolò Machiavelli, Florentine diplomat and civil servant, is the father of political science. His most notorious work, The Prince, is a primer on how to acquire and retain power without regard to scruple or conscience. His other masterpiece, The Discourses, offers a profound analysis of the workings of the civil state and a hardheaded assessment of human nature. 

Machiavelli’s philosophy was shaped by the tumultuous age in which he lived, an age of towering geniuses and brutal tyrants. He was on intimate terms with Leonardo and Michelangelo. His first political mission was to spy on the fire-and-brimstone preacher Savonarola. As a diplomat, he matched wits with the corrupt and carnal Pope Alexander VI and his son, the notorious Cesare Borgia, whose violent career served as a model for The Prince. His insights were gleaned by closely studying men like Julius II, the “Warrior Pope,” and his successor, the vacillating Clement VII, as well as two kings of France and the Holy Roman Emperor. Analyzing their successes and failures, Machiavelli developed his revolutionary approach to power politics. 

Machiavelli was, above all, a student of human nature. In The Prince he wrote a practical guide to the aspiring politician that is based on the world as it is, not as it should be. He has been called cold and calculating, cynical and immoral. In reality, argues biographer Miles Unger, he was a deeply humane writer whose controversial theories were a response to the violence and corruption he saw around him. He was a psychologist with acute insight into human nature centuries before Freud. A brilliant and witty writer, he was not only a political theorist but also a poet and the author of La Mandragola, the finest comedy of the Italian Renaissance. He has been called the first modern man, unafraid to contemplate a world without God. Rising from modest beginnings on the strength of his own talents, he was able to see through the pious hypocrisy of the age in which he lived. 

When I picked up a copy of this biography I was seriously excited. Unger’s biography of Lorenzo de’ Medici was excellent and has to be one of my favourite biographies of all time. So I had high hopes for this book. And unfortunately the book didn’t really meet my expectations.

Now then, that’s not to say the book is bad. Oh no. I would say that the first three quarters of it are outstanding – Unger has used his extensive knowledge of the Italian Renaissance alongside Machiavelli’s own works and other primary sources to tell the exciting story of Machiavelli’s early life. We learn how Machiavelli rose through the ranks of the Florentine government to become Second Chancellor, and how he found himself rubbing shoulders with some of the most famous and influential men (and women!) of the time. I was particularly interested in the time that Machiavelli spent in the court of Cesare Borgia – who Unger seems to mainly call ‘Valentino’, based on Borgia’s nickname – and the respect that Machiavelli had for the man.

In fact I will say that had this biography finished with Machiavelli’s fall from grace and his arrest, that it would be one of the greatest biographies of Machiavelli out there. However I feel as though the last part of the book really let it down.

Whilst I understand that it’s important to analyse Machiavelli’s works – The Prince and the Discourses being the main ones – Unger seemed to go on about these works, delving into them in such great detail, for far too long. It read like something I would have to study back at A-Level or something, picking apart and analysing every little bit of these admittedly fantastic works. And sadly I found myself growing rather bored by it all. Though I will admit that I was interested in how Machiavelli used his down time away from the city to work on these pieces and how he thought his diatribe in The Prince would win him back favour. Sadly for Machiavelli, it was the book that would have him being vilified for hundreds of years.

This book then, is a book of two parts. Would I recommend it? Yes, I would. But I would warn readers to be wary of the time Unger spends discussing Machiavelli’s works towards the end of his life. This book is perfect for anyone interested in both the history of this wonderful man and the sort of work that he did – I will certainly be using it in my own current project. Up until the end of the book I would have given it four stars – however the slight let down at the end has me dropping to three, which is a great shame.

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