Affixed to the front of Machiavelli’s most famous work, the Prince, is a dedicatory letter to Lorenzo de Medici, the ruler of Florence. In it, Niccoló describes his work as the gift of humble advice to an already magnificent Prince. Such a dedication is common of books of this variety. In the late 1270s, when Giles of Rome wrote his words on government, De Regimine Principum (On the Rule of Princes), he too affixed a dedication to a young prince, this one being Philip IV of France. Likewise, one Islamic scholar, claiming to be Aristotle, wrote their ‘Secret of Secrets’ as an address to the world-conquering Alexander the Great.
But beneath the guise convention lies the intriguing mystery of Machiavelli’s writings, a quality which beguiles those whose curiosities are triggered by his musings. Machiavelli wittily subverts the norm, his prose subtly mocks the church as he contradicts our laziest expectations. It is in these nuances where one begins to question who this book was really written for. Remove or dissect that dedicatory letter, contextualise his words with those of his other works, and witnesses a fascinating unfolding complexity at the heart of Machiavelli’s writings.
One reading of the Prince is that Machiavelli was, in fact, advising his fellow Florentines on what good governance entails. If this view is correct, then we are asked to confront a number of questions by our advisor. What makes a good leader? What should our expectations of those leaders be? Is it better to have one we like or respect? To read Machiavelli’s works with such an eye gives us a view of human and imperfect rulers, struggling to stay afloat in the swirling chaos of politics. Perhaps greatness is too high an expectation for such beings. Perhaps we should be satisfied with imperfect competence.
It is fun to ponder who Machiavelli might vote for in next week’s American election. Each candidate shows elements of his cold realistic prescription for leaders. Trump chooses to rely on his own wealth, promises America autonomy, albeit pledging it without substance. Clinton’s reputation for astuteness is both her biggest asset and her greatest weakness; people do not love her, yet she appears too wise to desire adoration. Beneath her politicking appears to be a genuine care for her country which she pursues through a learned pragmatism, something one feels Machiavelli would approve of.
This year, one scholar has attempted to discuss this topic in an admirably unusual way. If one wants an enlightening read on Machiavelli’s voting preferences, written by an accomplished scholar on the topic of Machiavellianism, one could do much worse than look to Maurizio Viroli. His repertoire of writings counts numerous books on the great Florentine; ‘Redeeming the Prince,’ ‘Machiavelli’s Smile,’ and ‘Machiavelli’s God’ amongst them. Structurally, his most recent work, ‘How to Choose a Leader,’ has a certain charm about it. Rather than presenting us a dry academic text titled ‘Machiavelli and Citizens,’ this little book echoes that ‘mirror for princes’ genre in the same practical, yet philosophical, way that Machiavelli wrote. What is most memorable about both Viroli and Machiavelli is their attempt to follow, yet subvert, that genre of self-help books for Monarchs.
If one is in doubt of Viroli’s scholarly credentials, then the elegance of his introduction may win you over. A good introduction to such a book should interest both strangers and students of Machiavelli alike, something Viroli has achieved excellently. Yet, disappointingly, Viroli chooses to begin with the statement that many hold a dubious misrepresentation of Machiavelli in their heads and that we must treat him with an open mind so not allow the biases of reified myths to blind us. While this is true, this introduction has become rather common in Machiavellian literature. Being such an unusual book on this topic, I hoped Viroli would choose a similarly idiosyncratic way to introduce his subject. Yet Viroli is not alone in this sin and has managed to avoid labouring this point beyond the first few sentences.
Each following chapter offers useful advice to American citizens, who next week must decide whether to elect their first female President or their first orange President. In the second chapter, we are asked to judge by deeds and not words, to think whether candidates are able delegators and managers. Then, in chapter four, we are told that it is a virtue for a President to change their opinions with the times, a virtue Clinton is often derided for. While we often value and trust those whose opinions remain consistent, we rarely vote for those who are two decades ahead of us. Each chapter is fleshed out with contemporary and classical examples, once more echoing Machiavelli; ‘Be suspicious of candidates who are keen to attempt bold enterprises,’ ‘Wise citizens choose leaders who put the common good above personal and particular interests,’ ‘We must look for a president who cares for his (or her) repute with future generations.’
When reading this book, I cannot help but myself ask who best fits these requirements. After each chapter, it was Hillary Clinton who frequently appeared the most credible candidate. Clinton’s campaign has been realistic, and has been more difficult for it. Americans are presented a woman who has worked hard over her political life, gained ample experience, and refused to give way to the criticism of not being radical enough by making unrealistic pledges to voters. She has repeatedly chosen the difficult path of sensibility, opted not to promise the world, and in the end becomes a person we respect rather than love. What, in the end, appears to motivate Clinton is a clear desire to see her country made fairer and more prosperous, which she has sacrificed much in her life to achieve.
Trump, meanwhile, appears little more than an opportunity to lash out at the system, with the addition of improbable promises made by an intolerable man. He has become a parody of politics’ lowest common denominator; everything will be ‘so great,’ disagreeing experts are ‘losers,’ even the constitutional norm of accepting defeat should be ignored lest it tarnish his ego. One gets the feeling that in his campaign, it is always Trump who comes first, rather than America, ignoring the advice of chapter fourteen’s note that the candidate should value the public welfare above their own. Even compared to the words of the Prince, Trump appears to take glee in the prospect of using torture on enemies; reminiscent of Agathocles the tyrant who draws Machiavelli’s scorn for his unnecessary brutality.
Yet to write such a modernised Machiavellian text poses one particular risk. Imagine we task ourselves to write a sequel to Machiavelli’s works, attempting to follow the logic of our maestro. In this task, we are to take delicate care not present Machiavelli as an extension of our own opinions. Should we fail, we gift our readers a mere collection of unscrupulously chosen quotes serving only to support the writer’s biases. This book carries a similar risk through its subtitle being ‘Machiavelli’s Advice to Citizens,’ not Maurizio Viroli’s advice. A reviewer of such a text has the task to distinguish whether this is genuinely Machiavelli’s advice or the author’s. This is a danger Viroli himself is aware of, professing to have been ‘careful to let Machiavelli’s voice speak always the louder.’
It is in manner that the chapter on Machiavelli’s opinions on God begins to worry. How Machiavelli felt about God is a matter of scholarly debate, one which Viroli has contributed to in his book ‘Machiavelli’s God.’ There are numerous myths surrounding his professed atheism alongside a legend of a death-bed conversion to Christianity, something which Viroli is no doubt aware of. In my own reading, Machiavelli often strikes as ambiguous surrounding his own feelings on God, being rather human in this regard. The Prince and the Discourses both subtly, sometimes openly, criticise the Pope and the Church. Such readings have sometimes led Machiavelli’s work to be read as a critique of government through Christian shepherding, a theme of his scholarly predecessors. Such an argument has formed the basis of the recent book ‘Machiavelli’s Gospel,’ showing Machiavelli with a comparably sceptical mind. It was thus a disappointment that the scholarly debate over this subject appeared to be missing, and Machiavelli’s mind appears clearly made up.
Yet this one chapter symbolises the difficulty of Viroli’s task. Any update to Machiavellian teachings must ultimately be achieved by a human scholar through their own reading. The question is not whether the reading is purely objective, but whether it is credible and their logic can be followed and repeated. Viroli’s work appears credible, albeit summoning the odd quibble, which is an acceptable standard for such a book. ‘How to Choose a Leader’ is, in essence, an attempt by a distinguished scholar on Machiavelli to apply his work to a contemporary issue, refocussing Machiavelli’s advice to the subject of how to judge a good leader, and providing citizens advice on carrying out their duties. In this manner, Viroli has achieved his aims and given us an enjoyable, creative, and thoughtful read.