Leo Strauss, the political scientist often seen as the godfather of the US neo-conservatives, admired Machiavelli because the 16th-century Florentine understood the work that powerful people must do. Machiavelli's Prince does not have to be wicked or behave as though he believed all men are, but he must read the nature of the people he is dealing with: he will come across wickedness and weakness, subtlety and folly, and must operate duplicitously and forcefully when needs be.
"Therefore," says Machiavelli, "a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because... he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders and robberies." We'd call it Tough Love.
One turns to a popular biography with high hopes. Here, one imagines, will be a lucid account of what Machiavelli wrote and how his diplomatic missions brought him wisdom. With luck, the whole will be leavened by the bittersweetness of our hero's slitherings on the greasy pole of ambition. Some of this work is done by Michael White, but none of it well. His writing is amateurish, and he handles historical material clumsily.
Machiavelli was a humbly born careerist sent to royal, papal and princely palaces to make sure his small, rich city - Florence - was not stitched up by its neighbours, France, or by sundry emperors and megalomaniacs. He negotiated for and with men who were variously sophisticated and sociopathic. The star of The Prince - Cesare Borgia - did not so much exemplify its cynicism as the gloomier thought that power drives people mad.
Machiavelli, with his scientific analysis of behaviour, was that very modern thing, a humanist. He was an operator in the emerging world of modern states, and something of a visionary - an idealist, even - in plotting their future. He was a power-broker who would have been equally at home in The Sopranos, The West Wing or Yes, Minister.
White's problems start in his subtitle: "a man misunderstood". He says that "Machiavellian" often appears in the same sentence as "evil", "tyrant", and "duplicity". Then he worries that Machiavelli's ideas have become so famous that he is "perceived as having practised what he defined". But the reader wonders what would be wrong if he did, granted White's own reasonable contention that Machiavelli was a case-hardened observer and practitioner working in a tough world. Even when Machiavelli talks of people's capacity for love and trust, he does so with the chilliness, but also the honesty, of a manager or sociologist.
But Machiavelli's name is not synonymous with evil: no one says that Hitler was Machiavellian. As White amply demonstrates, Machiavelli did indeed admire tyrants, and yet he yearned for an almost democratic order in human affairs. He was richly conflicted, and a better biography exploring his contradictions would have been fascinating.
Richard D North is media fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs
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