Machiavelli’s Philosophy About a Loyal Populace (The Prince)

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 does Machiavelli recommend regarding an armed populace? Where does he advise princes to live once they’ve conquered new territory?

Niccolò Machiavelli sees a loyal populace as one of the most valuable tools a prince can have. In turn, he warns that a prince who is hated by the people can never hold on to power for long.

Continue reading to learn Machiavelli’s philosophy about winning over the people.

Winning Over the People

A populace will rise to overthrow a hated prince, and no amount of brutality can crush that kind of popular movement forever. In the end, a prince’s resources and the goodwill of their allies will run out. 

Machiavelli also suggests that a prince who is resented by their subjects is more vulnerable to outside threats. Instead of rising up to defend their homeland in the event of an invasion, a hated prince’s people might welcome their new conquerors as a needed change.

(Shortform note: This occurred in several colonial nations, where the native people had no loyalty to the foreign and often discriminatory local government. When the colonizers found themselves at war with a neighboring country or another colonial power, many of the natives chose to ally themselves with this new opponent in the hope that it would be their “liberator.” For example, in the Spanish-American War, Cuban and Filipino resistance movements aided the Americans, mistakenly believing that once the Spanish were gone they would be granted independence.)

Machiavelli’s philosophy is that most people aspire only to a safe, prosperous, and comfortable life. If a new prince can offer them that, then the people will fall in line. In that vein, he offers several suggestions for how a new prince can win over the populace after establishing their principality. 

Live Among the People

Machiavelli argues that, once a prince has conquered a territory, they should immediately establish a home there. This dissuades foreign invaders from taking advantage of the confusion of a regime change, allows the prince to become familiar with local culture, and makes the prince less faceless in the eyes of the people. Propaganda is more effective when people feel truly close to the person being praised, and can ‘put a face to a name.’ 

If moving to the new state is impossible, either as a matter of safety or because the prince’s government is based elsewhere, Machiavelli suggests setting up colonies instead. In that instance, government officials or citizens of the larger principality can act as stand-ins for the prince. However, the prince must carefully monitor the behavior of these officials and soldiers to ensure that they aren’t exploiting the locals and giving the principality a bad name. 

Cultivating Local Appeal

Even in the modern day and in democratic nations as well as authoritarian ones, leaders will often attempt to appeal to the people on the basis of a shared home, geography, or culture. People are more attracted to politicians that they see as being “like them,” however superficially, and that emotional connection can be a powerful source of support.

For example, in the United States, both Democrats and Republicans will claim to originate from or have a personal connection to “rural America” to attract rural voters. This might involve highlighting a town they once lived in, participating in local events or traditions, or just using familiar symbols—farms, wildlife, guns, plaid and denim clothing, and so on—in their advertising. The success of these tactics varies widely, and perceived insincerity can doom a political campaign. 

Avoid Changing the Existing System

When establishing a system of government, Machiavelli suggests changing the existing laws and taxation system as little as possible so that people can go about their everyday lives much as they did before. This avoids breeding resentment against the new prince, and it takes less effort than setting up an entirely new system. Machiavelli points to the success of the Roman Empire, which allowed its colonies across Europe and the Mediterranean to essentially run themselves as city-states while using them as a resource from which to draw taxes, soldiers, and slaves. 

(Shortform note: While modern political campaigns tend to emphasize what a leader will do differently from their predecessors rather than what will stay the same, nostalgia and faith in the existing system still play a major role in appealing to the people. People fear change because they fear losing what they have. Political campaigns that promise “restoration” or a return to an idyllic past are attractive because they promise to calm recent upheavals and preserve what people find most comfortable and positive about the existing system. In contrast, candidates who promote the belief that the existing system needs to be overhauled tend to be polarizing.)

Let the People Keep Their Arms

While it may seem dangerous to allow potentially rebellious civilians to be armed, Machiavelli warns that people accustomed to having weapons on hand will react strongly to a government trying to take them away. Since disarmament is a protective gesture on the state’s part, Machiavelli suggests that a prince should instead encourage people to use their arms on behalf of the new state—to defend themselves against foreign invasion, to drive out members of the old regime, and so on. This begins the process of setting up a national identity under the new prince and can even help the prince begin developing personal forces. 

The Risks of Arms Control

Various authoritarian governments throughout history have attempted to disarm their people to diminish popular power. How successful these attempts were varied widely—in Nazi Germany and the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, these efforts were focused on minority populations (Jewish people and Armenians, respectively) and worked alongside other laws to deprive the population of freedom of movement and basic human rights. On the other hand, attempts by British colonial authorities to seize American revolutionary weapons backfired violently

The modern American gun control debate shows how controversial an issue disarmament still is, with millions of people determined to keep their arms despite government restrictions, and said restrictions being shot down in many states. Even Machiavelli’s princes, who ruled an authoritarian government rather than a democratic one, risked turning the people against them by attempting to seize their weapons.

Support Cultural Development

Machiavelli advises princes to be patrons of the arts and to publicly honor and reward those who contribute to society through successful businesses, scientific or historical discoveries, or great works of art. This patronage helps in the development of the people’s sense of identity and pride in their nation, and it shows that the prince has a personal interest in their well-being. It may also boost the national economy, which contributes to people’s happiness. For these same reasons, Machiavelli also suggests that princes make an effort to entertain the people with festivals, holidays, and sporting events. 

(Shortform note: The Medici family were some of the most generous patrons of the Renaissance, financially supporting artists like Botticelli and Michelangelo. In the modern day, politicians and independently wealthy businesspeople similarly attempt to connect to the people through philanthropy. This includes organizing and financially supporting things like art installations, educational programs, and public health campaigns. Sporting events and federal holidays also provide the opportunity to give back to the people and enhance a public image.)

Machiavelli’s Philosophy About a Loyal Populace (The Prince)

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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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