Monday, May 15, 2017
ERICA BENNER - How Machiavelli Trolled Europe’s Princes
Machiavelli’s advice for rulers was ruthless and pragmatic - and he may have intended for it to secretly destroy them. In the winter of 1538, an Englishman living in Italy travelled to Florence. Cardinal Reginald Pole was a devout adherent of the Church of Rome at a time when the English Reformation threatened to tear the Church apart. He had fled into self-imposed exile from his native shores after opposing King Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and settled in Italy. Along with his other business in Florence, Pole had a personal mission. About a decade before this journey, he’d had a conversation with Thomas Cromwell, a man of low origins who now served as the king’s most intimate counsellor. Cromwell had stopped at nothing - or so it seemed to Pole - to indulge Henry’s lusts and blasphemies. It was this ambitious adviser who, Pole believed, had masterminded the monarch’s divorce, put England in a state of war with the Church, had priests and noblemen murdered - and had always found some righteous pretext to color these deeds.
Contemplating the evils that had driven him from his homeland, Pole longed to get his hands on a book about statecraft that Cromwell had praised when they’d met. The book’s author was a citizen of Florence. He had died over 10 years previously, so Pole could not meet him in person. But if the cardinal could read that book, it might help him better understand Cromwell’s mind and Henry’s actions, and thereby make sense of what was happening to his poor England. On acquiring a copy, Pole began to read with fascination, then with growing horror. “I had scarcely begun to read the book,” he later wrote, “when I recognized the finger of Satan, though it bore the name of a human author and was written in a discernibly human style.”. The Florentine’s text laid bare all the doctrines that seemed to guide Cromwell’s policies. Princes, it said, should build their states on fear rather than love. Since they live in a world teeming with lies and violence, they have no choice but to practise duplicity. Indeed, the prince who best knows how to deceive will be the most successful. In short, Pole declared, the book Cromwell so admired is full of “things that stink of Satan’s every wickedness.”Its author is clearly “an enemy of the human race.” The book that so appalled Cardinal Pole was the Prince, and the name of its author Niccolò Machiavelli.Aghast and intrigued, Pole was determined to find out more about the man who could write such things. Machiavelli, it transpired, had at one time caused a good deal of trouble for Florence’s own princely family, the Medici. In 1512, a year before Machiavelli wrote his most notorious work, the new Medici government had ejected him from the civil-service posts he’d held for nearly 15 years, then imprisoned and tortured him on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the principality. These fragments of biography must have come up when Pole asked his Florentine hosts about their compatriot. For, he wrote, when he told them his thoughts about the book, they excused the author, “answering the charge with the same argument that Machiavelli himself had offered when they had confronted him.”
Machiavelli’s reply, the Florentines said, had been that not everything in the Prince expressed his own opinions. Rather, he’d written what he thought would please a prince, particularly the Medici prince to whom he dedicated the slender volume: Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, a young man with tyrannical leanings. But, Pole’s unnamed hosts continued, Machiavelli’s aim wasn’t just to flatter his way into favour: he had a more sinister purpose. This wiliest of writers had no illusions about the utility of his cynical teachings. In fact, he was sure that any prince who put them into practice would soon arouse popular hatred and self-destruct. And this, said Pole’s Florentine friends, was precisely what Machiavelli wanted. His design “was to write for a tyrant those things that are pleasing to tyrants, bringing about in this way, if he could, the tyrant’s self-willed and swift downfall.” In other words, the book’s most shocking advice was ironic. Its author wore the mask of a helpful adviser, all the while knowing the folly of his own advice, hoping to ensnare rulers and drag them to their ruin.
This explanation made sense of something that had bothered Pole while reading the Prince. Though Machiavelli was clearly a man of uncommon intelligence, some of his maxims seemed to show, as the cardinal put it, a “crass stupidity.” It seemed obvious to Pole that a prince who wins power through fear won’t achieve security for himself or his state. The Prince claimed to put hard political facts ahead of moral ideals. But as a handbook on how to secure power, its advice was flagrantly unrealistic. Machiavelli’s self-proclaimed realism, his book’s main selling point, was a fraud. And Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, and England were among its first victims. Cromwell had taken the Prince at face value, Pole insisted, imbibing its devilish doctrines in the belief they were highest prudence - and in doing so had walked straight into Machiavelli’s trap. If the writer were alive, he’d be laughing at his handiwork. The results, though, were no laughing matter. England in 1539 was far along the road to perdition, and other Christian monarchs might soon go the way of Henry, should they or their counsellors fall under Machiavelli’s spell. “Mark this well, rulers,” Pole warned; beware of this two-faced writer. “For it is the aim of his doctrine to act like a drug that causes princes to go mad,” making them attack their own people with “the savagery of the lion and the wiles of the fox.”.. read more: