Machiavelli – A Portrait


Machiavelli – A Portrait
By Christopher S. Celenza
Harvard University Press – £18.95

”Is it better to be loved or feared?”

Brimming with assorted one liners that in themselves, are capable of triggering much socio-politico food for thought, this book, while at times a majestically unyielding read, is nevertheless compelling for a number of reasons.

The most fundamental being, that so much of what is written herein, can be seen, felt, read and heard amid our everyday lives.

To be sure, Machiavelli – A Portrait, is a succinct clarification of the politicised mode of our inadvertent behaviour; that which is deeply inherent, if not entrenched, within so much of what we already know. Yet, the way in which Christopher S. Celenza puts much of what we term as ‘Machiavellian’ across, invariably invites readers to take stock of the spurious, pre-ordained, inherited knowledge.

In so doing, he also invites us to reflect upon Machiavelli for what and whom he truly was. A highly educated observer of life, he was a man who had the strength and the temerity to tell it as it both was, and to a certain degree, still is. Celenza nigh clarifies as much, when, in the chapter ‘Highs and Lows,’ he writes: ”The world was fundamentally different then, and Machiavelli’s gift was his ability to see the world as it was. And this gift was the result an inborn intelligence combined with on-the-ground experience during this crucial decade.”

In the same chapter, he shortly thereafter (re)asserts such thinking when he writes: ”One observes Machiavelli’s interest in larger-than-life figures, men who possess strength of personal character and happen to act at the right moment in history.”

In itself, this partly quantifies so much of what is so astutely written within the pages of Machiavelli’s masterpiece, The Prince. One need only think of the ”larger-than-life figures” from that of the last century (Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, JFK, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair) to wholeheartedly embrace the foresight of the Italian’s writing(s).

Following on from this, there’s the aforementioned collection of classic one liners, for which Machiavelli might not be terribly well known, but perhaps ought: ”Everyone sees what you seem to be. Few understand what you really are,” ”With God or without God, great men will perform great actions, but only on one condition: that they have the right ”chance,”” ”Be happy if you wish, for tomorrow promises nothing certain,” ”In republics, there is more life, more hatred, more desire for revenge.”

Depending on one’s point of view, the list could be deemed almost endless, which, like much of Machiavelli – A Portrait, provokes the reader into an abundance of long forgotten realisation and self-introspection. What more could one possibly ask of a book?

David Marx


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