It also ups the ante for his biographers: how to tell his life in a way that meets Machiavelli’s standards of stylish economy and ruthless realism? Alexander Lee attempts to surmount the challenge by piling up detail: his biography is nearly eight hundred pages long. I am not, on principle, opposed to long books, but Machiavelli provides the strange and particular in spades, and yet these elements are difficult to spot in Lee’s telling. Exhaustiveness is even deadlier when paired with cliché: in Lee’s book, servants often seem to be ‘chattering’ in the background in order to provide a bit of premodern colour; there is a great deal of weather and travel. To commune with the past, we require history writing that leaves space for the imagination. Otherwise, the dead remain indistinct. And the indistinct is what Machiavelli could not abide.
The result is a life of Machiavelli that must surely be definitive in its faithfulness to the man and his experience of his time. Perhaps more surprisingly, given the rigorously biographical focus of his book, Lee presents a novel interpretation of his subject’s thinking. Machiavelli, Lee argues persuasively, was a radical conservative who aimed to show his fellow-citizens how to reclaim self-government from a corrupt oligarchy.
Well aware of the confusing variety of perspectives emerging from an explosion in Machiavelli studies in recent years, Alexander Lee aims to provide as detailed, accessible and authoritative a portrait of the man as possible. His concerns are integration, synthesis and totality: he seeks to position Machiavelli securely in the culture, society and politics of his time and to consider the full range of his writings, rather than concentrating narrowly on Il principe. He’s keenly aware of the need to read Machiavelli’s life forwards – to avoid seeing his past through his later life or ascribing to him a foresight that he never possessed.
Was he a realist? A cynic? A communist or a proto-fascist? Lee’s is a long, dense account of a fascinating man and a complex period, and for devotees only. Nevertheless, it will surely be the definitive book on Machiavelli for some years, and provides tough yet nourishing food for thought.
As Alexander Lee’s weighty, impressively detailed biography makes clear, Machiavelli’s belief that realism trumps idealism was formed the hard way. He lived at a time when statesmanship and power politics were in a state of permanent flux, providing a stream of brutal real-life examples by which he could stress-test his theories.