Niccolò Machiavelli can enter public debate not merely as a wicked man concerned only with power and political maneuvering, but as a philosopher with myriad insights to offer modern politics, politicians, and even apolitical members of the public…

Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli In His World, by Erica Benner (384 pages, W. W. Norton & Company, 2017)

machiavellianIn the divisive arena that is modern American politics, the adjective “Machiavellian” is negatively assigned to a broad array of people and situations. The term is tossed around to uncover cunning moves on Capitol Hill, to unveil ambition, and to attack one’s political opponents. Today, the public sees Niccolo Machiavelli as the public has perceived him throughout much of modernity: as a teacher of evils and instructor in sin. Cherry-picking quotations from the Renaissance Florentine’s writings, many who view him this way fail to do justice to his ideas. Indeed, more than almost any famous figure of the last 500 years, Niccolò Machiavelli, who lived from 1469 to 1527, is in dire need of a revived portrait in the public imagination.

Recognizing the need to touch up his portrait, a few scholars have embarked upon book projects targeting the general reader, with the intention of producing a more accurate public understanding of Machiavelli. Reflecting on writing her new book, Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli In His World, Erica Benner notes that “it’s time we got [Machiavelli] right, because no contemporary writer is a better guide to understanding and confronting our own political world.”[1] Dr. Benner attempts to get Machiavelli “right” in her accessible and engaging book, through which she reframes his teachings, popular conceptions of him, and the meanings the public have ascribed to him. With this bookaimed at a readership far wider than the narrow assembly that is academiaDr. Brenner begins to erode some of the most pernicious misconceptions about Machiavelli. In so doing, she promotes the use of this exceptional sixteenth- century European thinker’s ideas as the foundation for more historically informed, fruitful insights into the modern age.

Common misperceptions of Machiavelli’s wickedness mire his thought in philosophical mud and uncertainty. Those who cite Machiavelli’s writings as words of malevolence often point to his teachings that “it is much safer to be feared than loved” and that the prince must be “other than good” when necessary.[2][3] In these aphorisms Machiavelli is discussing how rulers must be prudent enough to know when to be heavy-handed and when to be humane. Machiavelli does not wish for the prince to be feared, but he recognizes that a people in fear of their ruler are more likely to obey, and consequently, is more likely to maintain his state. Moreover, Machiavelli cautions against the free use of fear-inspiring actions. In The Prince, for example, Machiavelli warns against a ruler’s undue seizure of private propertynot only because such an action would make the prince feared, but also because it could turn rulers into robbers.[4]

As Erica Benner notes, it is helpful to take Machiavelli’s “less-known maxims, and […] apply them to his own words.”[5] Among Machiavelli’s lesser-known maxims are “don’t judge by reputation or appearances” and “take nothing on authority,” both of which complicate—and contradict, even—the aphorisms in the previous paragraph and thus the popular narrative about Machiavelli. Challenging these narratives reveals the nuances in Machiavelli’s theorizations and writings. Working against the popular narrative of  Machiavelli’s work, Dr. Benner concludes that “Machiavelli makes it clear why popular government is better than authoritarian rule.”[6]

Getting past the narrative that Machiavelli is a man of evil teachings allows for his work to be more seriously and openly considered in contemporary society. Rather than espousing evil, Machiavelli’s theories about the prince and politics might be representative of the realities of placing power in human hands. Machiavelli does challenge optimistic views of government, but that does not make him an evil heretic as some did, and would still, label him; instead, it indicates that he was an adroit political realist far before his time. (In earlier, more religious and socially cohesive centuries, Machiavelli’s political realism was the chief cause of his association with evil and heresy.) As with all thinkers and texts suffering from contemporary, public misconceptions, this kind of accessible scholarship makes more applicable the timeless ideas at the core of a life’s work or a good book—it restores meaning and relevance.

Through the process of producing public scholarship on one of the most misunderstood men in political philosophy, Dr. Benner breaks through the commodified, evening-news pronouncements of politics being a Machiavellian game and politicians Machiavellian players, painting instead a richer, more useful picture of Machiavelli. Through an understanding of his work devoid of the baggage “Machiavellian” brings to the table, Machiavelli can enter public debate not merely as a wicked man concerned only with power and political maneuvering, but as a philosopher with myriad insights to offer modern politics, politicians, and even apolitical members of the public. Indeed, cutting away at the public’s accumulated misperceptions of a particular philosopher, pruning the centuries-old overgrowth obscuring the historical value or meaning of a person and his ideas, can only enhance today’s tough conversations, by welcoming famous thinkers into the fold not as scarecrows of their life’s work, but as forever-flowing founts of insight.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Benner, Erica. “Have We Got Machiavelli All Wrong?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 3 Mar. 2017.

[2] Machiavelli, Niccolo. “The Prince.” N.p., n.d. Web. 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Benner, “Have We Got Machiavelli All Wrong?” The Guardian.

[6] Ibid.

The featured image (detail) is a portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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