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Niccolò Machiavelli, 1469-1527 (Illustration by Michael Daley)

The myth of Machiavelli took flight within a generation of his death in 1527. One of the stock villains of Elizabethan literature is “Machiavel”: a sinister, even diabolical figure who preaches blasphemy, treachery and hypocrisy. In Christopher Marlowe’s luridly anti-Semitic play, The Jew of Malta, Machiavel delivers a prologue that includes the notorious lines: “I count religion but a childish toy,/And hold there is no sin but ignorance.”

Though this legendary cult of “the murderous Machiavel”, as Shakespeare calls him, has cast a long shadow over the Florentine philosopher’s reputation, however, it is a caricature of his ideas. Niccolò Machiavelli is indeed a “subtle” writer, but not in the pejorative sense of the word that gave such a frisson to posterity. One of the many ironies bequeathed by this master of irony is that he was the father of the art form which would later blacken his name. Mandragola, his satire on the sexual politics of his day, was a sensation: the first play to spread the taste for Renaissance drama far beyond Italy.

Machiavelli also wrote on Florentine history, on the art of war and what many scholars consider his magnum opus, the Discourses on Livy. But it is for The Prince that he has acquired such extraordinary notoriety as to have given a new word to the language: “Machiavellian”. In the 500 years since he wrote his short treatise while temporarily exiled by the Medici rulers of his beloved Florence, Machiavelli’s name has become synonymous with the 16th-century notion of ragion di stato, raison d’état or reason of state, and with its 19th-century descendant, realpolitik. The assumption that states and their leaders are governed by a different moral code from individuals, and that the former must of necessity be more unscrupulous than the latter, has become an axiom of modern statecraft. But, as John Bew explains in his brilliant new study Realpolitik: A History (OUP, £14.99), the Anglo-American tradition has never felt comfortable with any radical disjunction between realism and idealism in politics.
Bew quotes Henry Kissinger, the high priest of realpolitik, telling an audience of diplomats at Chatham House in 1982 that Britain had bequeathed to America “a convenient form of ethical egoism” which held that “what was good for Britain was best for the rest”. Kissinger’s visit, which took place in May 1982 during the early stages of the Falklands War, revealed a sharp contrast between two conceptions of realpolitik. The diplomats, he recalled, all believed that a deal could be done with Argentina to avert a war. But when Kissinger repeated this view at Downing Street to Margaret Thatcher, she was so furious that he thought she was about to hit him. “Where did you get such an idea?” she demanded to know. He hadn’t the courage to tell her that it was her own officials who wanted a compromise. Mrs Thatcher saw, more clearly than either British or American diplomats, that such “realism” would in this instance have amounted to a catastrophic blow to British prestige—and thus contradicted raison d’état—not to mention her own ruin. Mrs Thatcher, not the diplomats, was the true Machiavellian.
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