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The real Machiavelli: 'Satan incarnate', or a pin-up for pragmatism?

Niccolò Machiavelli
Niccolò Machiavelli Credit: Alamy

The vilified author of The Prince can be sympathetic and funny – if you skip the famous bits, says Tim Smith-Laing

Has any thinker been as maligned as Niccolò Machiavelli? I can’t think of one. The Prince, first printed in 1532, five years after his death, caused a storm across Europe and made Machiavelli the great political bogeyman of his age. Early readers, as Erica Benner points out in her enjoyably unorthodox biography Be Like A Fox (Allen Lane, £20), were apt to see him as nothing less than Satan himself. Someone who, according to his own words, believed it was “better to be feared than loved”, Machiavelli was, as Thomas Heywood punned, clearly “Machevil”. 

Soon enough his name was synonymous with political practices that disregarded religion, morality, and the sanctity of human life altogether. “I am Machiavel,” Christopher Marlowe had him say in the prologue to his 1590 Jew of Malta,...

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