What We Get Wrong about Machiavelli

In Wolf Hall, while Thomas Cromwell is getting over his wife’s death, he whiles away the time reading Niccolò Machiavelli’s Principalities: “it is a Latin edition, shoddily printed in Naples, which seems to have passed through many hands.” Actually it must have been a manuscript not a printed copy, because we are in early 1529, and the first edition was published three years later, but certainly the real Cromwell does seem to have been well acquainted with the book known to us as The Prince. Nearly 10 years later we find Cardinal Reginald Pole scouring Florence for a copy on Cromwell’s recommendation. Pole is horrified by what he reads: “I had scarcely begun to read the book when I recognised the finger of Satan,” he wrote. Machiavelli was clearly “an enemy of the human race.” 

The cardinal was bewildered—he thought Machiavelli’s intolerable suggestions could only lead to a prince facing mutiny. Almost from the start his readers identified at least two Machiavellis. First came Old Nick, the devil incarnate. Both Machiavelli’s major works were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books by Pope Paul IV in 1559. By then, there were 15 editions of The Prince and 19 of the Discourses on Livy in circulation. In England, the Machiavel became a stock figure on the stage. In Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, Machiavel delivers the prologue, denouncing religion as “a childish toy” and declaring that “there is no sin but ignorance.” The adjective “Machiavellian” is first found in 1568, already meaning deceitful, manipulative, ruthless. For him the end justifies the means—that end being to secure power over others.

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