Why Machiavelli Matters: A Guide to Citizenship in a Democracy

Why Machiavelli Matters: A Guide to Citizenship in a Democracy

Why Machiavelli Matters: A Guide to Citizenship in a Democracy

Why Machiavelli Matters: A Guide to Citizenship in a Democracy


Machiavelli (1469-1527) is the seminal figure in early modern intellectual history for those living, or wishing to live, in a functional democracy. What Machiavelli is primarily about, and what makes him indispensable to those of us living in and struggling to preserve democracy in America, is the sum of individual and collective qualities required of a citizen, or what he termed virtu: a host of traits ranging from manliness to boldness, ingenuity, excellence, self-esteem, and even stoic resignation. In a narrative spanning Machiavelli's life and work as one of the world's most fascinating philosophers, Bernard illuminates for the modern reader just how relevant his insights are to our own evolving debate on the appropriate relations between religion and politics, church and state.

Besides offering a detailed sketch of Machiavelli as a chancellor in the Italian Soderini Republic (1498-1512), this book examines the man's political philosophy, particularly his complex view of republics and principalities, in "The Prince," the "Discourses," and the "Florentine Histories." It also establishes the importance of Machiavelli's writing as it evolved during his exile, especially in the reflexive passages of his plays "Mandragola" and "Clizia." The book concludes with the potential uses of Machiavellism in 21st-century mass democracies, as well as presenting ways in which his legacy lives on in our own activities as citizens in a democracy.


This book has a dual purpose. On the one hand, it is a belated homage to a seminal thinker who has profoundly influenced my life. On the other hand, it is a plea by one concerned citizen to others to become actively engaged in preserving our precious democracy.

In my former vocation as an English professor, I spent over twentyfive years in a first-rate honors program (later college) at the University of Houston. Up to then, I had been a pretty straightforward specialist in Renaissance English poetry. But beginning in 1979, I spent a large part of my classroom time team-teaching a “Great Books” course to exceptionally bright freshmen and sophomores, in various areas of concentration, under the inspiring leadership of Ted Estess, director of the program, and later dean of the college.

Although I had read The Prince in college, my acquaintance with its author up to that time was shallow and my sense of him conventional. The program in which I then renewed the acquaintance was dominated by a succession of political theorists from schools like Chicago, Toronto, and Yale that were steeped in the tradition of Leo Strauss. The Straussian take on Machiavelli, relentlessly driven home to both students and neophyte professors, was not flattering. We took away two “facts” from the week or so devoted to Machiavelli: he was (in the master’s phrase) a “teacher of evil,” and —his one redeeming feature, I suppose—in the retiring years when he produced his wicked tome he communed with the wise men of antiquity. But the main thing we learned from this introduction to one of the world’s great republican thinkers was the one thing everyone knew already: that Machiavelli was indeed “Machiavellian.”

While repeating this academic ritual over two-and-a-half decades, I gradually developed my own reading of Machiavelli, aided by other colleagues with very different perspectives. Putting the text in its historical and biographical contexts, I came to read The Prince in more subtle ways. So when Machiavelli notes (in Chapter 5) that anyone . . .

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