- Machiavelli: A Portrait by Christopher S. Celenza.
What is there left to say about Niccolò Machiavelli? We are amid a flurry of anniversaries marking five hundred years since important milestones in Machiavelli’s life. It seems that every year we are treated to more and more speculative texts, of greater and lesser degrees of seriousness, that attempt to apply the supposed insights of the Florentine secretary to management science, the conduct of business, even gender relations. He clearly remains on the brain and, because Machiavelli always thrust the burden of interpretation back on his readers, he finds reinterpretation in each generation. Christopher Celenza’s spare yet elegant portrait breaks little new ground in our understanding of this seminal figure. Nonetheless, for those seeking an introduction to Machiavelli, it’s a great starting point and is highly effective in addressing the question with which the author begins: why do we remain so fascinated by Machiavelli? [End Page 574]
There can be few historical figures who have elicited such a wide range of portrayals as has Machiavelli, from stenographer for tyranny to misunderstood advocate of liberty. Celenza explains why we must avoid such simple and lazy characterizations. First, Machiavelli was not what we would call a systematic thinker. He did not seek to offer programmatic solutions to the challenges of everyday political life. Instead his advice for men of state prescribed flexibility, foresight and decisiveness, a combination that called for different solutions according to the circumstances. Second, Celenza stresses that Machiavelli, like many Renaissance thinkers, worked out his ideas in conversation with others, using them as sounding boards, editors, and critics. Thus the image of Machiavelli, taken from his famous letter to Francesco Vettori, of a sage retreating to his scrittoio to converse in private with his beloved Ancients, is in fact deeply misleading.
This focus on the social dimensions of the Machiavellian corpus is welcome. While Celenza ably describes the intellectual building blocks of Machiavelli’s thought (especially his reading of ancient historians like Livy and Polybius), he points out that Machiavelli was not a scholar. Just as important to the formation of Machiavelli’s outlook was his esperientia — Celenza emphasizes in particular the time he spent alongside Cesare Borgia as well as his role in organizing a militia for Florence while serving the Soderini regime. Machiavelli was an insightful observer of people, from the past and in his own day — he had, per Celenza, a “proto-anthropological sensitivity.” Certain human behaviours are timeless, whether in the pages of Livy or the streets of sixteenth-century Florence. Indeed, this interface between past and present was a recurring tension in Machiavelli’s life and works; Celenza insists that Machiavelli was aware that he was vulnerable to accusations of excessive praise of the past, especially as he got older.
While Celenza’s book is written for the non-specialist and his prose is admirably clear and accessible, it will prove most rewarding to those who have already read Machiavelli’s works. Unsurprisingly for a philologer like Celenza, Machiavelli is viewed in this volume chiefly through the prism of his writings, which serve as touchstones for Celenza’s exploration of Machiavelli’s chief concerns. For Machiavelli’s early life, the evidence for which is scanty, Celenza undertakes an examination of the Latinate culture of Renaissance Italy, seeing it as key to the formation of Machiavelli’s outlook. Mandragola serves as the entry point for a discussion of Machiavelli’s private life and various loves, which Celenza labels the “comedy of life.” The lengthiest chapter is a reflection on The Prince. Celenza shows that Machiavelli’s emphases in this famous treatise — the exercise of political power, the consequence of individual action, the importance of seeing the world as it is, and the pervasive instability and unpredictability of [End Page 575] worldly affairs — extend into the rest of Machiavelli’s political and historical writing. Linking all of these concerns is the overriding value of military power to the conduct of politics and the security of the state.
One of the impressions with which...