Machiavelli: Governments Comes in Two Flavors

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Prince" by Niccolò Machiavelli. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the two types of government, according to Machiavelli? What’s the ideal form of government?

Niccolò Machiavelli uses the first few chapters of The Prince to describe different kinds of government. According to Machiavelli, governments can be separated into two types: republics and principalities.

Read more to understand the difference between these two forms of government.

Machiavelli on Government

According to Machiavelli, governments are either republics or principalities. However, The Prince focuses almost exclusively on principalities, discussing how they’re formed and how a prince can keep them stable against both internal and external threats.

Machiavelli does not offer a formal definition of his terms, but, from his descriptions, we can gather that republics are ruled by a group of people, chosen for their positions because of their abilities and that citizens under a republic have some freedom to influence politics

In contrast, principalities are ruled by a single individual who holds exclusive or near-exclusive power. The position may be hereditary, elected by a council of advisors, or with successors being hand-picked by previous princes. 

(Shortform note: Despite our modern associations with the word “prince,” Machiavelli is not speaking exclusively of hereditary monarchies. For him, a prince is anyone who exercises authoritarian control over a state. This means that some modern monarchies, such as the one in England, would not be principalities, since the English king or queen occupies a largely ceremonial role, and the actual system of government is a parliamentary democracy. It also means that dictators with no royal blood, who passed their position to a chosen successor rather than a child, would be princes—such as Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union.)

What Is Republicanism?

Republics are not the focus of The Prince, but understanding them provides important context. While Machiavelli uses The Prince to advise absolute rulers, in life he was a staunch believer in republics as the ideal form of government. He served in a republic for more than a decade before it was overthrown and replaced with an authoritarian system.

A republic is defined, in simplest terms, as a government by the people. Unlike a “pure democracy,” in which every citizen participates in governance, the people of a republic choose representatives to speak on their behalf whenever political decisions are made. These representatives may be elected, appointed, or chosen by lottery, as they were in the Florentine Republic of Machiavelli’s day. The representatives make decisions by consensus or by majority rule, meeting regularly to debate and vote on certain actions, and their power is restricted by a constitution, which prevents them from taking actions that would jeopardize the basic rights of the people. The United States of today is a republic, as are most democracies. 

Scholars have often struggled to reconcile Machiavelli’s love for republics with his writing of The Prince. Among other things, the book advises princes on how they may invade or destroy existing republics and how to rule with an iron fist, crushing attempts at challenging their power. How could Machiavelli sincerely give advice to the type of person whom his fellow republicans would consider a tyrant? Adding to the confusion is the fact that in nearly all of Machiavelli’s other writings, written both before and after The Prince, he explicitly praises republics as the ideal form of government, making this book the odd one out.
Machiavelli: Governments Comes in Two Flavors

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  • Niccolò Machiavelli's description of how authoritarian leaders should rule
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  • Analyses of how Machiavelli's lessons survive in modern-day politics

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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