Write Like the Fox

How to catch the conscience of the king

How did a diplomat who spent his career advocating republics become infamous for a book destined for the bedside tables of Napoleon, Mussolini and Stalin? Why would a writer who always advocated freedom offer amoral advice to an autocrat? Niccolò Machiavelli’s “The Prince” is a terse treatise, first distributed in 1513, which infamously sought to equip the domineering rulers of Renaissance Florence with the skills needed to gain and maintain power. “The Prince” is overflowing with sensible political advice, most of which is overshadowed by a notorious insistence that it if a prince is forced to choose between inspiring love and fear in the eyes of his subjects, he should always choose the latter. Erica Benner’s new biography, “Be Like the Fox” is a thoughtful attempt to exonerate her subject. To do this, Benner guides her readers through Florentine history armed with commentary from Machiavelli’s notes and correspondences to reveal an empathic and pensive protagonist.

During his formative years, Machiavelli watched as a politically inept reliance on mercenary armies allowed the French to march into his native Florence and later, for the same mistake to foil a Florentine attempt to subjugate the people of Pisa. He also witnessed the rise, fall and execution of an iconoclastic demagogue before securing a job juggling Italian geopolitics as a travelling diplomat. Throughout all of this, Machiavelli’s own writing retains a clear predilection for liberty, and not just for those living within the walls of Florence. To explain the obvious contradiction between the freedom-loving idealist and the unscrupulous realist, Benner suggests that the “The Prince” may have been as caustic as it was callous.

Why asks Benner, would a book which was written to impress the Medici’s — who cloaked their power under the guise of ‘first citizenship’ — be entitled “The Prince”? The author, Benner argues, simply knew his audience.

In Chapter 18 of “The Prince”, Machiavelli writes that “because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves … it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves.” What if Machiavelli was applying his political calculus to his writing too? Much of the violent chaos he had witnessed as a diplomat could have been avoided if the rulers of Florence had practised smarter statecraft, but how could he get the Medici to listen to him? What if the author, like the prince, had to be able to both frighten and finesse? An Italian autocrat in search of piety had no shortage of Bibles and bishops to turn to. Realism was rare.

Few throughout history have found the will or the ability to influence those they regard as objectionable. It always seems easier to imagine that everybody ought to simply accept the right ideas regardless of who they are. And yet, trying to tame those grappling with the realities power from a comfortable moral summit is unlikely to yield conversions. And so for Machiavelli to hold the attention of a prince in the Palazzo Vecchio, he would have to catch of the conscience of a king on the page.