Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog: awalkingdelight)
 Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Be Like the Fox (Machiavelli in His World)

By: Erica Benner

Narrated by: Karen Saltus

Erica Benner (Author, British political philosopher and historian)

Erica Benner gives context to Machiavelli and his role as a diplomat and advisor to leaders of the 15th and early 16th century. Machiavelli is not depicted as a supporter but as a clever advisor to tyrannic leaders of Florence and city-state regions of Italian power. What Benner reminds one of is that there is no country called Italy at this point in history.

There are three centers of power in the country now known as Italy. One is Florence where Machiavelli is born and raised, the second is in city-state regions, and the third is the Catholic Church in Rome. All are centers of power.

Benner’s history infers most of Machiavelli’s life is a duel with the Medici family’s power. The Medici family initially controls Florence when Machiavelli is a young man. The Medici family is dethroned in 1494. Machiavelli comes under suspicion as a possible co-conspirator. In August 1512, the Medici’s return to control of Florence.

Nicolo Machiavelli lives (1469-1527) in interesting times. The Renaissance occurs between the 1300s and 1700s. Benner infers Machiavelli is like a fox with nine lives.

When the Medici family is overthrown, Florence comes under the rule of a Dominican friar in 1494. The new leader is Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola is an ascetic who unwisely ridicules the Pope’s Catholic Church leadership and influence. He accuses the bishops of simony, mismanagement, and greed. Pope Alexander VI, a Borgia family descendent, becomes Pope and has Savonarola beheaded. Savonarola’s experience undoubtedly influences Machiavelli to keep his own counsel when dealing with power.

Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498, Ruled Florence from 1494-1498

Benner explains Machiavelli counsels the Borgia’s but only serves in a way that seems supportive. Benner suggests Machiavelli’s advice to the Borgias hides his real beliefs about city-state’ leadership. Machiavelli is in his twenties when serving the Borgias. These seem the formative years of Machiavelli’s future book, “The Prince”.

Cesare Borgia (1475-1507, died at the age of 31)

There are three Borgias that become Popes. It is the second, Pope Alexander VI, which has a son named Cesare Borgia which appears to be a model for Machiavelli’s “…Prince”. Benner suggests interpretation of Machiavelli is often wrong. After the Borgias, Machiavelli’s leadership beliefs are shown by Benner to be more nuanced. One might consider Machiavelli a political genius, ahead of his time. Benner explains “The Prince” is filled with irony while appearing to laud tyrannic power while his true belief is in just treatment of the ruled. Machiavelli warns of tyranny’s negative consequence.

Caterina Sforza (Noblewoman of Forli.)

An interesting acquaintance of Machiavelli in 1499, before the Medici restoration, is Caterina Sforza, an Italian noblewoman who succeeds her husband as a leader of an area identified as Forli. Women are shown as a force, even in the 15th century. She shows herself to be a tigress by facing down Borgia’s martial control of the town. The reason this is an interesting note is because Benner refers to a dream Machiavelli has of a forceful woman who counsels him to confront the new Medici rulers of Florence and offer his services as an experienced diplomat.

A not widely known contribution in Benner’s history is that Machiavelli promotes the idea of drafting citizens of a city-state into an army for defense of their homeland.

Most Italian city-states hired mercenaries to fight their battles and expand their fiefdoms. Machiavelli recognizes the concomitant risk with mercenaries who can turn on their benefactors for their own interests. Machiavelli convinces Florence’s leaders of the folly of using mercenaries because of their loyalty to whomever pays them best. Machiavelli is charged with raising what we today call a national guard. Soldiers would spend several days for training, and later be called-up when there is a threat to their country. By being citizens of their homeland, Machiavelli argues a home-grown army is more effective and reliable than a mercenary military force when defending their homeland.

Machiavelli is imprisoned and tortured when the Medici’s return to power. He is implicated in an effort to keep the Medici’s out of power in Florence.

With the support of Spain, and a Medici Pope, the Medici family returns to power in Florence. In 1513, a Medici Pope is elected by the Catholic Church. The Medici family returns to rule in the 16th century. Machiavelli’s career is partly resurrected when he writes to the Medici’s about how foreign powers should be handled. He is known to be speaking from personal experience. Though the Medici’s mistrust Machiavelli, they note the value of his understanding of negotiation and diplomacy.  Machiavelli is now in his 40s. “The Prince” is generally thought to have been published in 1513.

Another interesting note in Benner’s history is that Machiavelli becomes an accomplished playwright when the Medici family returns to Florence. His plays are comedies, dramas, and satires about Florentine customs and habits,

Two other momentous occurrences happen during Machiavelli’s life. One is Martin Luther’s attack on the Catholic Church and its purposeful belief that one can buy their way to heaven with indulgences offered for sale (aka simony) by the Church. The second momentous occurrence is the rise of the Muslim religion with the advance of Sulieman the Magnificent. Both were viewed as direct threats to the Church and Catholic faith. Machiavelli is near the end of his eventful life.

Martin Luther’s attack on the Catholic Church with the 95 Thesis in 1517.

Sulieman the Magnificent captures much of the middle east and spreads belief in the Muslim religion. (6 November 1494 – 6 September 1566)

Benner implies “The Prince” is a compilation of Machiavelli’s life as a diplomat. She suggests “The Prince” reflects on the dual nature of leadership with one side beneficent, the other maleficent. Bennet’s history suggests Machiavelli dies penniless and in obscurity because of his sly political fencing with great powers like the Borgia’s and Medici’s.

Machiavelli’s life story shows two leadership styles that effectively lead Italy’s city-states. In Benner’s opinion, Machiavelli’s life experience reinforces belief that beneficent (more democratic and enabling) rather than maleficent (autocratic, and top down) leadership is best. She argues “The Prince” satirically criticizes the second and extolls the first.

Author: chet8757

Graduate Oregon State University and Northern Illinois University, Former City Manager, Corporate Vice President, General Contractor, Non-Profit Project Manager, occasional free lance writer and photographer for the Las Vegas Review Journal.

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