Was Machiavelli really Machiavellian? Honestly, no.

Florentine diplomat and political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli spoke uncomfortable truths about power. Yet, in contrast to the harsh advice he offered in "The Prince" — a notorious work of philosophy that is often regarded as the tyrant's handbook — Machiavelli was devoted to his family and his country and was uncorruptible in his public life.

He would have been disappointed to see his disguise so easily penetrated. "I have never said what I believe or believed what I said," he wrote near the end of his life. "If indeed I do sometimes tell the truth, I hide it behind so many lies that it is hard to find." Machiavelli liked to portray himself as a master of deceit — but far from being the manipulator of legend, he lost his job as second chancellor of the Florentine Republic and almost lost his life when the Medici tyrants decided he was too loyal to the democratic regime they had overthrown. Such devotion is not what one expects of an accomplished back-stairs intriguer.

Machiavelli's naivete is more than a historical curiosity; it lies at the heart of his achievement as a political thinker. There are few books as honest as "The Prince," which exploded the platitudes that kept people from evaluating politics rationally. "It seems best to me to go straight to the actual truth of things, rather than to dwell in dreams," Machiavelli wrote. Only an innocent would assume that such honesty would be welcomed by the new Medici lords of Florence, who rejected his manuscript and kept an even closer eye on the dangerously independent thinker.

Machiavelli insisted that the human condition would never improve until we acknowledged our true nature: "I believe that the following would be the true way to Paradise — learn the way to Hell in order to flee from it." Even his infamous defense of the liar's art is merely an attempt to save us from the bigger lie that men are basically virtuous. After all, that is the falsehood that the unscrupulous tell to exploit the gullible. "If all men were good," Machiavelli explains to the would-be prince, "this precept would not be good, but since they are wicked and would not keep faith with you, you need not keep faith with them."

One early critic summed up popular opinion when he dubbed Machiavelli "an enemy of the human race," but that charge overlooks the warmth and wit of this midlevel bureaucrat and family man. True, he was a serial philanderer who consorted with prostitutes, but he was also a devoted father of six and a loyal friend to many who took advantage of his kindness. After his sister died, Machiavelli raised her infant son, Giovanni, as his own, adding to the burdens of an already stretched family budget.

More damaging to the caricature is the fact that in his professional life he was a tireless servant of the state, an ardent patriot and an honest steward of the people's money. During the war with Pisa, when the government tried to remove him from the front lines, he wrote: "I know that being stationed there would be less arduous and dangerous, but if I had not wanted danger and hard work, I should not have left Florence."

Unlike his colleagues who enriched themselves at the public's expense, Machiavelli left government service poorer than he had entered it. "My loyalty and honesty," he boasted, "are proven by my poverty." Indeed, the last word one would apply to a man who was imprisoned, tortured and almost executed after years of thankless service to his country is "Machiavellian."


Miles Unger is a historian and the author of "Machiavelli: A Biography."