Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli In His World by Erica Benner

Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli In His World

Since the publication of The Prince five centuries ago, Machiavelli has been associated with political amorality. But that characterization is unfair. In Be Like the Fox, Erica Benner sets the record straight: far from the ruthless "Machiavellian" henchman that people think he was, Machiavelli emerges here as a profound ethical thinker who fought to uphold high moral stand...

Title:Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli In His World
Author:
Rating:
ISBN:0393609723
Edition Language:English
Number of Pages:384 pages

Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli In His World Reviews

  • Laura
  • Roman Clodia

    This is very much a political biography rather than a personal one, a 'life and times' of Machiavelli rather than a psychological study of the man. Benner builds on a solid scholarly foundation of primary sources and delivers from them a lively, mostly accessible, account of the struggles for power in Florence during Machiavelli's lifetime.

    In some ways, this is another rise and fall of the Medici with interventions from Savonarola and Cesare Borgia at various parts of the history. Machiavelli h

    This is very much a political biography rather than a personal one, a 'life and times' of Machiavelli rather than a psychological study of the man. Benner builds on a solid scholarly foundation of primary sources and delivers from them a lively, mostly accessible, account of the struggles for power in Florence during Machiavelli's lifetime.

    In some ways, this is another rise and fall of the Medici with interventions from Savonarola and Cesare Borgia at various parts of the history. Machiavelli himself, not always as central as Benner might wish, works as a diplomat, helps establish a short-lived citizen army, then falls foul of the ruling powers and comments from the margins via plays, poetry and political discourses.

    Benner is very positive, almost hagiographical, about her subject but it's difficult to get a sense of the 'real' man - not necessarily her fault as the period doesn't lend itself to displays of interiority, but disappointing all the same. We know he marries and has five children, we hear briefly of his infatuation with a courtesan, but the book focuses on his political personality, his politicised friendships such as that with Francesco Vettori.

    It's not new, of course, to read

    as irony but there are contradictory moments such as when Machiavelli asks the advice of his friends as to whether he should present it to Guiliano de'Medici (p.247), odd if it's intended as an exposé of the Medici family's political manipulations?

    Benner has a jaunty style of writing: the narrative is in the present tense with embedded quotations distinguished typographically according to who is 'speaking' (italics for Machiavelli himself, bold for Savonarola's ranting, for example). There are places where the complications of wars and changing alliances between France, the papal powers, Florence and other Italian city states get a little hard to keep hold of and a historical time-line would have been handy for quick look-ups. Overall, though, this is a lively, intelligent and enjoyable re-look at Machiavelli's role in Florentine politics.

    I read a review copy via Amazon Vine.

  • LoLo

    As an afficianodo of political philosophy, I've always held Niccolo Machiavelli's work in high esteem. And any careful examination of his teachings will reveal that he isn't quite the amoral mastermind that his name has become synonymous with. In fact, the thing that stands out most about his work is that he seems to speak from both sides of his mouth, both advising the power-hungry tyrant while also advocating for the merits of a happy and equitable republic. This book delves into the roots of

    As an afficianodo of political philosophy, I've always held Niccolo Machiavelli's work in high esteem. And any careful examination of his teachings will reveal that he isn't quite the amoral mastermind that his name has become synonymous with. In fact, the thing that stands out most about his work is that he seems to speak from both sides of his mouth, both advising the power-hungry tyrant while also advocating for the merits of a happy and equitable republic. This book delves into the roots of this dichotomy, and lays bare the truth of o Machiavelli's subversive intentions and why he wrote the way he did. It provides a very clear understanding of Machiavelli's true political thought, and it's surprising just how fiercely democractic it is.

    His most ardent belief, and his passion project, was that Florence absolutely needed it's own militia, composed of it's own citizenry. Florence was only capapble of employing mercenaries for military protection, and this proved to be ineffective and ripe for corruption, over and over again. Only a citizen, whose entire existence is bound up in the struggle, could defend his own republic with a passion (and therefore effectiveness) that hired guns could never be motivated to achieve. In this concept, Machiavelli highlights the power of patriotic love and it is a central theme that runs through the rest of his philosphy.

    He stresses the importance of a well-ordered political economy because ensuring a decent living for all citizens is one of the main foundations of a state's military power. He emphasizes how popular sentiment can make or break a head of state: "if the people hold you in hatred, fortresses do not save you." He advocates, with the health and longevity of the replublic in mind, for the rule of just laws over the rule of a single man. He argues that a rich public, funded by taxes and sumptuary laws, makes for a safer and freer society. He expounds, with impressive feverency, the degree to which people will fight against their oppressors. And he does all this while appearing to compliment the (naked) emperor's clothes.

    I love this shit. This is why I hold a degree in poly-sci. Also, as a hilarious aside, I learned that Machiavelli's greatest fear was to be shunted off to some godforsaken countryside and forced to teach children how to read. It conjured up a hilrious mental image of this great strategist banging hsi head on the wall as he's stuck in a room full of little Ralph Wiggams.

  • MH

    A biography of Machiavelli with a focus on how his professional life and his active involvement in Florentine politics influenced his writing, and vice versa, Benner contextualizes Machiavelli's work within his world and with his intended readers and audiences, showing him to be fiercely republican rather than cold-eyed and calculating. And there's a lot to contextualize - between the competing factions of civic and religious leaders in Florence; the Medicis and their many enemies; Rome, the Fre

    A biography of Machiavelli with a focus on how his professional life and his active involvement in Florentine politics influenced his writing, and vice versa, Benner contextualizes Machiavelli's work within his world and with his intended readers and audiences, showing him to be fiercely republican rather than cold-eyed and calculating. And there's a lot to contextualize - between the competing factions of civic and religious leaders in Florence; the Medicis and their many enemies; Rome, the French and the Spanish; and various Italian city-states and Florentine client-states, Machiavelli was personally involved in a wide range of intrigues and embassies over the decades Benner covers. Benner tells her story cleanly, though, and rarely strays away from Machiavelli and Florence, making this complicated history much easier to follow, and her frequent use of quotations from his writings and letters makes a convincing case for seeing The Prince as an ironic outlier and Machiavelli as a greatly misunderstood political thinker.

    I was lucky enough to win a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway.

  • Marks54

    This is a thoughtful and readable political biography of Machiavelli by a top political theorist with ties to Yale, Oxford, and the London School of Economics. Her intent is to provide a rich introduction to the life of Machiavelli that brings his core issues to light in ways that are relevant for both the time of Renaissance Florence and today. She succeeds in this admirably and I will make a point to find more of her books.

    Why is a biography of Machiavelli a challenge? To start with, he is lik

    This is a thoughtful and readable political biography of Machiavelli by a top political theorist with ties to Yale, Oxford, and the London School of Economics. Her intent is to provide a rich introduction to the life of Machiavelli that brings his core issues to light in ways that are relevant for both the time of Renaissance Florence and today. She succeeds in this admirably and I will make a point to find more of her books.

    Why is a biography of Machiavelli a challenge? To start with, he is likely the most read and commented on political theorist of the past 500 years. Saying something new might not be so easy. Second, Machiavelli is one of the most misunderstood and vilified writers ever, whose name is synonymous with amoral power seeking and whose works were on the Vatican's Index of forbidden books well into the 19th century. Third, Machiavelli's work has been the subject of controversey among careful analysts due to the rich textures of his writing and the the irony inherent in many of his works. There are multiple levels of meaning in the Prince and the Discourses and it is not surprising that scholars have divided between good and bad interpretations of Machiavelli's work.

    Benner is clearly in the camp of the "good" Machiavelli who sought to promote republican values over those of tyranny but who was also prudent about publishing his writings in an environment that was often harsh to political or theological criticisms. Benner tells the story of Machiavelli's life by focusing on the critical political events he was involved with and then judiciously moving from the facts of Machiavelli's life to what he and others wrote about that life and its political challenges as he was working through it or reminiscing about it later in life. I am well of the arguments for studying books like the Prince or the Discourses by sticking to the text. Benner's point, however, is to study Machiavelli's life, and in doing so I can only see value in situating his work into the broader political context within which he lived and was employed. The result is a masterful and convincing picture of the author of the Prince that is believable and highly informative. The political logic of Machiavelli is also compelling, especially in our contemporary age of brutally partisan politics, confusions in understanding the world, and rising stakes of apparently unending political conflict. It is not at all surprising to me that Machiavelli is relevant and Benner has done a great service to those interest in learning about him.

    This is a very good book.

  • Keith

    is an informative and useful book, most especially for two kinds of reader. First, people like me who read

    and

    ever so long ago. Erica Benner’s book serves as a vivid refresher to both Machiavelli’s political thought and to the historical events in Fifteenth-century Italy. I remember first reading

    in an undergraduate class and realizing I would understand it all much better if I kn

    is an informative and useful book, most especially for two kinds of reader. First, people like me who read

    and

    ever so long ago. Erica Benner’s book serves as a vivid refresher to both Machiavelli’s political thought and to the historical events in Fifteenth-century Italy. I remember first reading

    in an undergraduate class and realizing I would understand it all much better if I knew the historical background. This book is also recommended to anyone who is about to read Machiavelli. I think reading Benner’s biography first would be a great help in understanding Machiavelli.

    Benner’s method is useful. She writes what is essentially a political biography of Machiavelli’s life. There are some personal details of his youth and family life; however not enough is known to fill in these gaps. Nevertheless, his thought can be illumined by a comparison of his life and times. The structure of the book are sections of historical detail, in particular explaining who the major actors were, buttressed by many quotes from Machiavelli's work as well as from his contemporaries.

    Benner adroitly merges different voices into the biographical narrative. Here is an example from the book. The bold type is a quote from Friar Savonarola; the italicized section is a quote from Machiavelli’s

    and the plain text is Benner’s explication.

    Overall, this presentation works very well, although I must admit I occasionally lost track of the speaker when there were two different voices being presented at the same time. Finally, as to Benner’s interpretation of Machiavelli’s teaching, she adheres to a theory of Machiavelli that sees him as a philosopher of freedom:

    Machiavelli may not have been a democrat but he was a republican (classically defined in both cases). There are many who still adhere to a conception of Machiavelli as a teacher of evil. Often his advice is hard-hearted for a often cruel world but the ideal state for him seems always to be one in which all are happy. Neither oligarchy nor aristocracy can accomplish that. Machiavelli's pragmatic republicanism seems much the best of all possible worlds.

  • JQAdams

    This is an aggressively revisionist biography of Machiavelli, arguing that he was less the cynical

    master he is often accused of being, and instead a committed defender of the rights of the people and of good-faith alliances whose sardonic writings have been misinterpreted by po-faced posterity. Benner is not always convincing in this, but she nevertheless creates a compelling, wide-ranging portrait of the man and his circle in Florence, with nearly as much attention to Machiavelli's

    This is an aggressively revisionist biography of Machiavelli, arguing that he was less the cynical

    master he is often accused of being, and instead a committed defender of the rights of the people and of good-faith alliances whose sardonic writings have been misinterpreted by po-faced posterity. Benner is not always convincing in this, but she nevertheless creates a compelling, wide-ranging portrait of the man and his circle in Florence, with nearly as much attention to Machiavelli's comic plays

    and

    as to his more famous political works.

    The writing is kind of gimmicky. The text is mostly in the present tense, and the book takes some liberties with recreating dialogues. It's also not totally consistent: Benner talks about wanting to allow Machiavelli to speak in his own words, which she usually represents with italics, though sometimes but not always it's instead letters to Machiavelli that are quoted in italics, which makes the typographical convention a bit confusing. (Having all the quotations from Savonarola printed in boldface just felt right, though.) If you don't tolerate those sort of quirks well, this book will be a struggle. But it was an enjoyable read.

  • Bill Lucey

    Niccolò Machiavelli had a heart?

    Who knew?

    Author Erica Benner in "Be Like The Fox: Machiavelli and His World" shatters many of the myths associated with the Italian diplomat, politician, historian, philosopher, and writer of the Renaissance period, depicting him not as a ruthless amoral politician; but rather someone who worked carefully to uphold high moral standards, while taking means to restore democratic freedoms in his native homeland of Florence.

    Many of the most unscrupulous means of attai

    Niccolò Machiavelli had a heart?

    Who knew?

    Author Erica Benner in "Be Like The Fox: Machiavelli and His World" shatters many of the myths associated with the Italian diplomat, politician, historian, philosopher, and writer of the Renaissance period, depicting him not as a ruthless amoral politician; but rather someone who worked carefully to uphold high moral standards, while taking means to restore democratic freedoms in his native homeland of Florence.

    Many of the most unscrupulous means of attaining power in his most famous work (or infamous) “The Principe” (The Prince) is best understand as a piece of writing that was disguised (he, being a "great artist of foxlike dissimulation") since it was published after the Florentine Republic was dissolved and replaced with Alessandro de' Medici as the ruler of the city. It’s been persuasively argued that Machiavelli was trying to ingratiate himself, hoping to obtain a position in the Medici government.

    What’s most interesting about Benner’s book is how she matches written opinions (through dialogues and diaries) of Machiavelli from both his friends and foe alike against his political actions and how he conducted himself in the public sphere.

    --Bill Lucey

    August 13, 2017

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