Be Like the Fox

Machiavelli In His World

Erica Benner (Author)

Overview | Formats

The dramatic, myth-shattering story of how Machiavelli—arguably the most misunderstood thinker of all time—fought to change his corrupt 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 standards and restore the democratic freedoms of his beloved Florence.

Shaking the dust from history, Benner masterfully interweaves Machiavelli’s words with those of his friends and enemies, giving us a biography with all the energy of fiction. Through dialogues and diaries, we witness dramatic episodes, including Savonarola’s fiery sermons against the elite in Florence’s piazza, Machiavelli’s secret negotiations with Caterina Sforza at the court of Forlí, and the Florentines’ frantic preparations to resist Pope Julius’s plan to over-throw their Republic.

Benner relates how Machiavelli rose as an advisor in the Florentine Republic, advancing the city’s interests as a diplomat and military strategist, only to become a political pariah when the Republic was defeated. His egalitarian politics made him an enemy of the Medici family, and his secular outlook put him at odds with religious zealots. But he soon learned to mask his true convictions, becoming a great artist of foxlike dissimulation. Machiavelli’s masterpiece, The Prince, was in fact a critique of princely power, but the critique had to be veiled, written as it was after the Medici triumphed over the Republic.

In Be Like the Fox, the most accurate and compelling portrait of Machiavelli yet, Benner recounts the gripping story of a brilliant political thinker, showing that Machiavelli’s ideas—about democratic institutions, diplomacy, and freedom—are more important than ever.

Book Details

  • Hardcover
  • May 2017
  • ISBN 978-0-393-60972-1
  • 6.6 × 9.5 in / 384 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide, excluding Canada, the British Commonwealth and the European Union.

Other Formats

  1. Book CoverBe Like the Fox: Machiavelli In His World


Endorsements & Reviews

“In this tightly composed narrative of Machiavelli’s life and works, Benner argues that ‘The Prince’ is a work of secret subversion, using irony and beguilement to advance a staunchly republican message. . . . [A] gripping portrait of a brilliant political thinker, who understood the dangers of authoritarianism and looked for ways to curb them even though independent speech had become impossible.” — The New Yorker

“Erudite and engaging. . . .Be Like the Fox is not detached, archival history but a remarkable work of imaginative engagement backed by scholarly learning. Benner brings Machiavelli alive by weaving his words and those of his contemporaries into the narrative as a playwright might. . . . Be Like the Fox can be read with pleasure by anyone interested in the craft of politics and the life of ideas.” — Edmund Fawcett, New York Times Book Review

“Lively, unshowily erudite, compulsively readable.” — Terry Eagleton, The Guardian

“Unconventional. . . Benner argues that in [his] turbulent, violent world, Machiavelli’s most consistent advice favoured principle, restraint and respect for the rule of law, even in The Prince. . . . Compelling.” — Julian Baggini, Financial Times

“Engaging, entertaining, splendidly colourful. . . . Brings to life a Machiavelli who's a man of considerable political principle. Benner does a wonderful job of bringing to life Florentine society – the world of the piazzas, the courts, the battlefields. . . . A creative, very readable book with more than a little contemporary resonance.” — Catherine Fletcher, Literary Review (UK)

“A ripping read. . . . fascinating, charming, enjoyably unorthodox.” — Tim Smith-Laing, The Telegraph (UK)

“Erica Benner succeeds brilliantly in overturning centuries-old received views of a seminal but misunderstood writer and thinker. Her enthralling and moving evocation of Machiavelli’s turbulent career, set in the milieu in which he lived, also reveals how much he is our contemporary.” — Rosamund Bartlett, author of Tolstoy: A Russian Life

“Erica Benner’s compelling book testifies to the eternal return of Machiavelli’s puzzle: whether he was the voice of Satan, or the author who wanted to put morality on firmer human foundations by unveiling the empty moral platitudes that politicians used to shroud their foxy and ruthless behavior. Like a riveting novel, Benner’s book guides us through Machiavelli’s times and shows the variety of masks he put on, suggesting that the man behind them was less likely to compromise than his words might lead us to believe.” — Nadia Urbinati, author of Democracy Disfigured and professor of political science, Columbia University

“No other writer about Machiavelli approaches the liveliness of Erica Benner. In Be Like the Fox she boldly confronts the most daunting obstacle to interpreting him: that being himself so foxy he rarely means quite what he writes. Drawing on his life and all his varied writings and inter-weaving these with the turbulent life of Florence in his day, she retrieves a Machiavelli who is not the promoter of crookedness but its critic, a friend of democracy and honest government whose heart is with the underdog.” — Clifford Orwin, professor of political science, classics, and Jewish studies, Toronto University

“In Erica Benner’s Be Like the Fox, Machiavelli—in his own words the ‘historian, the comic writer, the tragic author’—comes alive as the master of irony deployed in the service of justice, civic morality and the rule of law. This delightful and convincing account should be the final nail in the coffin of the derogatory term ‘Machiavellian.’” — Samuel Bowles, author of The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens

“Is there anything more to say about Machiavelli’s Prince after more than five hundred years? Well, yes. Erica Benner beautifully embeds Machiavelli’s most famous book within the Florentine politics of his time. More than any other book known to me, this one genuinely illuminates the humanity of Machiavelli.” — Steven B. Smith, Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science, Yale University

“Fascinating, remarkable. . . . Erica Benner illuminates not only the life of Machiavelli but the complex and cruel political world in which he operated.” — Avi Shlaim

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