This is one of several volumes in the HarperCollins Eminent Lives series. Each offers a concise rather than comprehensive, much less definitive biography. However, just as Al Hirschfeld's illustrations of various celebrities capture their defining physical characteristics, the authors of books in this series focus on the defining influences and developments during the lives and careers of their respective subjects. In this instance, Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (1469-1527).
Obviously, this is not a definitive biography nor did Ross King intend it to be. However, for most readers, it provides about all of the information they need to understand the meaning and significance of this excerpt from the final chapter in King's biography: "The key to some of the ambiguities may lie in the nature of the man himself. Machiavelli's numerous undertakings - diplomat, playwright, poet, historian, political theorist, farmer, military engineer, militia captain - make him, like his friend Leonardo, a true Renaissance man. Yet, like Leonardo, who denounced the 'beastly madness' of war while devising ingenious and deadly weapons, Machiavelli is awash in paradoxes and inconsistencies...Probably his greatest contradiction was that he understood better than anyone else in the sixteenth century how to seize and maintain political power - and yet, deprived of power himself in 1512, he spent many long years in the political wilderness, making a series of bungling and fruitless attempts to regain his position."
With remarkable precision, concision, and eloquence, King examines not only Machiavelli's life and career but also the cultural, political, and religious environment in which he was so actively involved more than 500 years ago. The Prince (or The Ruler) is Machiavelli's most famous work but was not published until four years after his death, in 1531, when Pope Clement VII granted that permission to Antonio Blado. It was published together with Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy and The History of Florence. The Art of War (1520) was the only one of Machiavelli's works to be published in his lifetime. King notes that The Prince circulated in manuscript and earned for Machiavelli a certain notoriety. "'Everyone hated him because of The Prince,' one commentator observed around the time of Machiavelli's death. 'The good thought him sinful, the wicked thought him even more wicked or more capable than themselves, so that all hated him.' This was no doubt an exaggeration: Machiavelli was far better known as a popular dramatist and controversial state functionary than as the author of a tract on statecraft. Still, in the decades that followed, the hatred did indeed begin to curdle."
King points out that a well-worn edition accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte to the Battle of Waterloo and Adolph Hitler kept a copy on his bedside table. Today, many people who have never read The Prince and know little (if anything) about its author do not hesitate to invoke his name -- or at least apply it as an adjective -- to describe or repudiate any political maneuvering they perceive to be devious. However, King asserts, rather than having been uniformly demonized or unfairly misunderstood "as a preacher of the straightforward message of evil," Machiavelli has been "conscripted into service" by adherents of all manner of political causes because his thought is strangely malleable to any number of diametrically opposing ideologies and approaches."
As I hope these brief remarks indicate, I learned a great deal about Machiavelli, a man of "numerous antimonies," that I did not know before. I am grateful to Ross King for that but also for all that I learned about the extraordinarily interesting age in which Machiavelli lived, more than 500 years ago. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that King "brings it to life." No one could. But he does present material with the skills and eloquence of a storyteller...and in seamless combination with the skills of a cultural anthropologist.