How Machiavelli Trolled Europe’s Princes

Erica Benner in The Daily Beast:

MachIn the winter of 1538, an Englishman living in Italy travelled to Florence. Cardinal Reginald Pole was a devout adherent of the Church of Rome at a time when the English Reformation threatened to tear the Church apart. He had fled into self-imposed exile from his native shores after opposing King Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and settled in Italy. Along with his other business in Florence, Pole had a personal mission. About a decade before this journey, he’d had a conversation with Thomas Cromwell, a man of low origins who now served as the king’s most intimate counsellor. Cromwell had stopped at nothing—or so it seemed to Pole—to indulge Henry’s lusts and blasphemies. It was this ambitious adviser who, Pole believed, had masterminded the monarch’s divorce, put England in a state of war with the Church, had priests and noblemen murdered—and had always found some righteous pretext to color these deeds. Contemplating the evils that had driven him from his homeland, Pole longed to get his hands on a book about statecraft that Cromwell had praised when they’d met. The book’s author was a citizen of Florence. He had died over 10 years previously, so Pole could not meet him in person. But if the cardinal could read that book, it might help him better understand Cromwell’s mind and Henry’s actions, and thereby make sense of what was happening to his poor England. On acquiring a copy, Pole began to read with fascination, then with growing horror. “I had scarcely begun to read the book,” he later wrote, “when I recognized the finger of Satan, though it bore the name of a human author and was written in a discernibly human style.” The Florentine’s text laid bare all the doctrines that seemed to guide Cromwell’s policies. Princes, it said, should build their states on fear rather than love. Since they live in a world teeming with lies and violence, they have no choice but to practise duplicity. Indeed, the prince who best knows how to deceive will be the most successful. In short, Pole declared, the book Cromwell so admired is full of “things that stink of Satan’s every wickedness.” Its author is clearly “an enemy of the human race.” The book that so appalled Cardinal Pole was the Prince, and the name of its author Niccolò Machiavelli.

Aghast and intrigued, Pole was determined to find out more about the man who could write such things. Machiavelli, it transpired, had at one time caused a good deal of trouble for Florence’s own princely family, the Medici. In 1512, a year before Machiavelli wrote his most notorious work, the new Medici government had ejected him from the civil-service posts he’d held for nearly 15 years, then imprisoned and tortured him on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the principality. These fragments of biography must have come up when Pole asked his Florentine hosts about their compatriot. For, he wrote, when he told them his thoughts about the book, they excused the author, “answering the charge with the same argument that Machiavelli himself had offered when they had confronted him.”

More here.