Niccolò Machiavelli has certainly been one of the most maligned figures in the history of ideas. Though The Prince, his most famous work, was not published during his lifetime, it had circulated among the author’s Florentine contemporaries between 1513, when he completed it, and his death in 1527. Even this limited exposure had already made the civil servant and political adviser a byword for cynicism. As one of those who knew him commented, by the time of his death “the common people hated him because of The Prince; the rich thought his Prince was a document written to teach the duke to take away all their property; from the poor all their liberty; the piangioni [ascetic followers of Savonarola] regarded him as a heretic; the good thought him sinful; the wicked thought him more wicked or more capable than themselves—so they all hated him.”

To posterity his image became ever blacker. When the Papal Index of Prohibited Books was initiated in 1559, Machiavelli’s works were among the first on the list. England’s influential Cardinal Reginald Pole dubbed him the “Finger of Satan” and blamed Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Church upon the devious Italian’s influence. Later in the century, some laid the blame for the bloody St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre at the same door. Machiavelli, claimed one sixteenth-century critic, “hath taken Maximes and rules altogether wicked, and hath builded upon them, not a Politicke, but a Tyrannical science.” Later centuries have cited The Prince as the inspiration for tyrants as various as Napoleon, Stalin, and Hitler.

Miles J. Unger’s excellent and tremendously readable Machiavelli: A Biography sets out to refute such judgments. Not that any rehabilitation should really be necessary by now, for ever since the seventeenth century thinking people have recognized that Machiavelli’s writings marked a turning point in intellectual history. Francis Bacon, father of the modern scientific method, neatly summarized the Florentine’s immense contributions to political science: “we are much beholden to Machiavel and others,” he affirmed, “that write what men do, and not what they ought to do.” Unger aptly compares Machiavelli’s contributions with those of the Renaissance mapmakers, who transformed cartography from a branch of theology to a science. “The revolution achieved by The Prince,” he claims, “is to engineer a radical shift in perspective away from the God-centered universe of previous thinkers to one in which the human animal takes his place alongside the other beasts in a perpetual struggle for security and the gratification of the appetite….The moral architecture of sin and redemption painstakingly constructed over the centuries by the Church has vanished, replaced by the empirical methodology of the laboratory. In this new setting the moralist gives way to the political scientist, whose job is not to condemn human nature but to describe it….”  

On of the factors that made The Prince shocking not only to Machiavelli’s contemporaries but to posterity as well was the fact that for perhaps the first time since the late Roman Empire, someone was treating religion with as cold an eye as any other aspect of human life. Machiavelli was not alone in blaming the papacy for the divisions and instability in sixteenth-century Italy, but he was so in his implications, reasserted throughout his political writings, that one actually cannot base a functioning society on the precepts of Jesus Christ. Like Edmund Gibbon two and a half centuries later, he even established a causal link between the rise Christianity and the decline of civic virtue. “Our religion has glorified the humble and contemplative man, rather than men of action,” he stated. “It has assigned as man’s highest good humility, abnegation, and contempt for mundane things, whereas the other (paganism) identified it with magnanimity, bodily strength, and everything else that conduces to make men bold.”

The revolutionary nature of Machiavelli’s ideas can be demonstrated by comparing them with those of every other political philosopher, ancient and modern, to that date. The Prince belongs to a medieval and Renaissance genre known as the specula principi, the mirror of the prince: handbooks designed to instruct young rulers on the principles of statecraft. Until Machiavelli, such treatises had been idealistic in the extreme. Dante’s De Monarchia called for a universal empire based on divine law. (Fat chance!) Erasmus’s Institutio Principis ChristianiEducation of a Christian Prince—urged the object of his tutelage, the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to assume a superhuman moral stature and become “a sort of celestial creature, more like to a divine being than a mortal: yea, sent by the God above to help the affairs of mortals by looking out and caring for everyone and everything; to whom no concern is of longer standing or more dear than the state; who has more than a paternal spirit towards everyone….” (Devout Catholic though he was, Charles unsurprisingly ignored Erasmus’s exhortation, instead becoming a master of Realpolitik. According to a contemporary biographer the monarch only ever read three books: Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier and Machiavelli’s Prince and Discourses.)

Machiavelli’s political creed was very much a product of the world he knew, the endlessly feuding and battling petty states of central Italy. These states were led not by “divinely-appointed” monarchs (such as Charles V, or Francis I of France) but by freebooters and warlords, of whom Cesare Borgia, prototype for Machiavelli’s ruthless prince, is perhaps the best-known example. Such leaders’ positions were precarious and life in their realms was unpredictable at best. The history of Renaissance Florence has always been dauntingly complicated for the general reader. Guelphs and Ghibellines; Medici popes, Medici cardinals, Medici bankers; Holy Leagues and their ever-changing lists of alliances and enemies; Florence’s continual shifts back and forth between republican and Medici rule; battles between the French and the Spanish carried out on Italian soil: all this can be hopelessly confusing. Not the least of Unger’s accomplishments is the way he has made these events beautifully comprehensible; Machiavelli is masterly popular history as well as fine biography. This is not particularly surprising, for Unger’s 2008 Magnifico, a life of Florence’s Lorenzo de’ Medici, showed a similar touch. An art historian and journalist who has spent much time in Italy, Unger is steeped in his subject.

Unger’s natural sympathy for his subject is evident from the quotations he has chosen, for a distinctive and rather attractive personality (at least by modern standards) permeates all these writings, from political theory to theatrical farce. His prose is masculine, direct, and forceful—markedly free, as Unger points out, from the flowery addenda and rhetorical flourishes beloved of so many other Renaissance humanists. His Discourses (full title: Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius), a pragmatic study of Roman history as applied to current Florentine reality and a championing of republican government over monarchy, is as clear and at least as pertinent to modern politics as The Prince. His sex farce La Mandragola, a tremendous hit in its day (it was even mounted in a special command performance at the Vatican for Pope Leo X and his cardinals!) is eminently accessible to modern readers and, as Unger points out, thematically linked with Machiavelli’s political writings as well, for as in the real-life events described in the political works, La Mandragola’s scoundrels and deceivers ultimately win the day and the author revels in demonstrating old-fashioned virtues to be naïve, inadequate, and often destructive.

Machiavelli’s cold and realistic political insights were hard won: as a civil servant in very uncertain times his fortunes shifted as governments changed, and in those days backing the wrong team could result in exile, torture, and even death. He entered public life at the age of twenty-nine, when he was made Second Chancellor of Florence. Four years previously the armies of the French king Charles VIII had laid northern and central Italy waste; in the wake of the destruction, the ruling Medici family had been driven from Florence and a republic declared. It was as a servant of this republican government that Machiavelli learned the craft of government, overseeing the Florentine military and leading diplomatic visits to grandees such as the king of France and Cesare Borgia himself. As the representative of a decidedly second-rate power which was for most of his career a lowly client-state of the French king, Machiavelli had to use his wits if he wanted to advance Florentine interests.

He acquitted himself as well as the situation could have permitted, but in 1513 the Medici returned to power and the republic was overthrown. Machiavelli was exiled from the city and headed for his country house at Sant’Andrea in Percussina, ten miles to the south. At one point he was implicated (groundlessly) in a conspiracy plot, and was imprisoned and tortured. Otherwise he was left alone, and it was in this country retreat that Machiavelli wrote The Prince, dedicated to one of the younger Medici: in offering this prince the distilled fruits of his political and diplomatic experience Machiavelli was essentially asking for rehabilitation and applying for a job in the new Medici administration.

The quest was not successful, but over the following years Machiavelli was slowly reintegrated into Florentine culture, in the process enjoying a second career as a successful comic playwright. At long last he was reconciled with the Medici, only to be thrown again into the wasteland when they were expelled in 1527 and a new republic declared. Again the supposed pragmatist had backed the wrong side. Could he have climbed back into favor? No one knows, for he unexpectedly died later that same year.

Whether in the guise of Realpolitik or raison d’état, Machiavelli’s principles have been invoked for centuries by cynical politicians; notable examples of such disciples have included Richelieu, Bismarck, and Kissinger. His theory that strong states are more desirable than weak ones, being less anarchic, has proved a special favorite of those in search of power; as Unger points out, it has not always been borne out by history. (Look at the examples of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.) His contention that swift ruthlessness might in the end prove more beneficial to the state and its people than well-meaning, merciful actions has also horrified readers. “Cesare Borgia was considered cruel,” Machiavelli argued, “yet his cruelty brought an end to the disorders in the Romagna, uniting it in peace and loyalty. If this is considered good, one must judge him as much kinder than the Florentine people who, in order to escape being called cruel, allowed Pistoia to be destroyed.”

The problem with this is that leaders so often invoke raison d’état when they have their own or their cronies’ interests at heart instead of their country’s. That so many proceed along these lines is what has given the cynical, pragmatic Florentine such a bad name. In the truest sense of the epithet, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt were as “Machiavellian,” perhaps more so, than Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler, and the American founding fathers, as Unger demonstrates, drew great inspiration from the Discourses when they were drawing up the Constitution: he cites Madison’s Federalist 51, in which the principles of checks and balances are spelled out, as the fruit of Machiavelli’s ideas about creative competition.

It is this more benign Machiavelli—the Florentine patriot with his country’s interests at heart, the realist who believed that men’s sins and imperfections could be use to create a productive political system (a theory that inspired not only James Madison but Adam Smith)—that Unger seeks to rehabilitate, and his efforts are most persuasive.