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Machiavelli, Not Such a Bad Guy?

He's long been associated with political manipulations, but was Machiavelli a schemer or a satirist?
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
He's long been associated with political manipulations, but was Machiavelli a schemer or a satirist?

Nearly 500 years ago, an exiled ex-politician named Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince, a little book of advice for those who would set out to conquer other countries. Almost instantly, his name became a synonym for political scheming, and it remains so to this day.

Machiavellian. It's a word that's often bandied about during intense political campaigns — but almost never by the candidates themselves.

"People who use the word know what it means but not its long etymology," says Peter Constantine, who recently translated Machiavelli's most infamous work.

Machiavelli's work was widely censored before it was translated, Constantine says, and condemned before it was clearly understood.

"People had heard that there was this incredible book that was forbidden," he explains. "It took quite a few decades for it to come, so the term 'machiavellian' was definitely in high use in the English language before anyone had read the book in English."

Case in point: Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1602, about 80 years after Machiavelli wrote The Prince, but decades before it was translated. Nevertheless, in act III, scene 1, he has a character say:

"Peace, I say! hear mine host of the Garter. Am I politic? Am I subtle? Am I a Machiavel?"

But Machiavelli was not simply a political writer. Italian studies Professor Albert Ascoli describes him as a skilled literary stylist who deliberately courted controversy.

Machiavelli used irony and sarcasm, but Ascoli says he was aware "that virtually every precept that he gives — or many of them — are going to be understood to be comic inversions of the accepted wisdom about things."

As an example, Ascoli points to this passage:

This raises the question whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the contrary. My reply is that one would like to be both; but it is difficult to combine love and fear. If one has to choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.

Machiavelli's The Prince was written in a time of political upheaval. He used direct language and dry humor to address the problems one could expect when setting out to overthrow an existing state.

Is it black humor or sage advice? That's open to interpretation. What's not ambiguous is the fact that Machiavelli's name, especially when used by a politician, continues to carry a very specific and very negative connotation — as it has for centuries.

Rick Kleffel reports from member station KUSP in Santa Cruz, California.

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Rick Kleffel