What does The Prince instruct national leaders to do? Is it an accurate depiction of Renaissance political life?
In The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli instructs the reader on how princes may seize, maintain, and defend their power, encouraging them to embrace cruelty and deception as necessary tools in their arsenal. He does this through simple maxims and historical examples.
Here’s our overview of the lessons that Machiavelli teaches in The Prince.
Synopsis of The Prince
The Prince is a 16th-century work of political theory and (possibly) an educational resource aimed at fledging authoritarian leaders, or “new princes.” In The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli argues that no action is unjustifiable if it contributes to the overall strength and stability of the government.
Machiavelli was a Florentine author, diplomat, and historian who lived through a period of great social and political upheaval in Renaissance Italy. The Prince was the sum of all his experiences in politics as well as a gift offered to Florence’s newly ascended authoritarian leaders in the 1510s, in the hope, or so he claimed, that it would help them lead Italy to greatness. His true intentions have been debated for centuries, and The Prince is both the work for which he is best known and his most controversial.
In the modern day, Machiavellian is used mainly as an insult, describing a treacherous or cutthroat approach to politics. At the same time, many political analysts and scholars invoke Machiavelli’s lessons as a guide to a pragmatic or clear-eyed view of politics, in which other leaders and nations are understood not as idealized symbols but as fundamentally self-interested political actors. The Prince doesn’t argue for tyranny but rather that the reader should understand themselves and all other leaders as imperfect people working towards a noble vision—a great state, the unification of disparate territories, the liberation of a people, and so on—and willing to undertake whatever is necessary to achieve it.
We’ve consolidated Machiavelli’s 26 lessons into four main sections. The first two provide an explanation of Machiavelli’s core ideas about politics and government organization. The latter two lay out his advice for how a prince should conduct themselves, both generally and when attempting to establish a new state.
Defining Types of Government
Machiavelli uses the first few chapters of The Prince to describe different types of government. Though he begins by stating that all states are either republics or principalities, the book focuses almost exclusively on principalities, discussing how they’re formed and how a prince can keep them stable against both internal and external threats.
Republics vs. Principalities
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.
Luck vs. Ability
Throughout the book, Machiavelli sets up a dichotomy between fortuna, meaning fortune or fate, and a prince’s innate skill or ability. According to him, everyone is subject to the whims of luck to some extent. What sets successful princes apart from their peers is that they act decisively against the odds and don’t let bad luck defeat them.
Machiavelli contends that up to half of all human events are subject to chance, implying that half are subject to our own will. He argues that what makes a prince truly great is their refusal to let their life be dictated by fortuna, either through their adaptability or their caution and foresight.
A successful prince must be prepared to act differently according to the particular needs or threats that their state faces. Two princes could behave exactly the same way, but because one rules Rome in the third century and the other rules France in the 12th, one will fail where the other succeeds. Machiavelli advises that, when a principality is prosperous and at peace, the prince can be lenient. However, when the principality is at war or suffering economic hardship, the prince may need to be controlling and harsh.
In Machiavelli’s view, pre-planning and foresight are the most important tools a prince can wield against chance. No matter how stable a principality appears, the prince should never become complacent in times of peace or economic prosperity. They should always anticipate future threats, provide for followers, and be prepared for war at any time.
How Fortuna Can Destroy a Prince
Princes often meet their downfall due to bad luck, but Machiavelli argues that a lack of skill also plays a role in their failure. If the prince had planned ahead better or anticipated threats, they could have endured whatever bad luck came their way. As an example, he cites Cesare Borgia, a notorious Italian prince of the late 1400s and early 1500s.
How a Prince Should Behave
When it comes to how princes should conduct themselves, Machiavelli advises pragmatism. For him, whether a prince is a good and just ruler or a cruel and tyrannical one matters only inasmuch as it helps or hurts their ability to keep power. However, Machiavelli still believes that princes should have and work towards certain guiding principles.
For Machiavelli, what makes a prince great is their virtú, which he defines as their ability to take decisive action and to stand as an individual.
To appear ‘virtuous,’ as Machiavelli defines it, a prince shouldn’t aim to appear morally good, but to appear as someone whose continued success can be relied upon. According to Machiavelli, a prince lacking in virtú will eventually lose their state.
Being a Realist
Machiavelli argues that too many politicians and political theorists approach questions of rule with idealism rather than a realistic sense of the problems they face. Princes should strive to rule effectively rather than to create a utopian government. Princes should act according to necessity and circumstance and be prepared to do the wrong thing if it means preserving the principality.
The Value of Deceit
Interestingly, while Machiavelli argues that princes shouldn’t be concerned with behaving morally, he says they should be very concerned with appearing moral. Princes should strive to have a reputation of being just, loyal, kind, generous, and religious. (Machiavelli particularly emphasizes the need for a leader to appear religious, even if they don’t truly subscribe to religious principles.)
Balancing People and Peers
Examining princes who have fallen from power, Machiavelli observes that a prince needs to strike a delicate balance between keeping the love and support of the people they rule, and keeping the love and support of those who aid them in ruling, be they nobility, a council of advisors, potential successors, military leaders, and so on. That said, Machiavelli argues that the support of the people is always more valuable and should take priority.
Being Feared, Rather Than Loved
Machiavelli’s adage that it’s better to be feared by people than loved by them is one of The Prince’s most infamous lessons. His justification for this idea is simple: Obedience due to love and affection is unreliable, while obedience due to fear is not. People are inherently disloyal, and no matter how much love they have for a prince, they may betray him if they believe it’s in their best interest, or even in the best interest of the state.
How to Form a State
Because Machiavelli wrote The Prince primarily for new princes, he dedicates several chapters to the question of how a prince should approach conquering and then organizing the territory that they intend to make into their principality.
Building Up Armed Forces
Machiavelli distinguishes three types of armies: hired forces, borrowed forces, and personal forces. He cautions princes to avoid hired forces, to be wary of borrowed forces, and to opt for personal forces when possible.
Developing a personal army has several advantages: The prince relies solely on their own resources, they have full control over how their army is organized and run, and they can enforce loyalty within the ranks through a combination of legal structures (such as making desertion a crime) and social shaming (encouraging the populace to see military service as part of their patriotic duty).
Princes should not just be the heads of their states on the civilian side of things; they should be seen as military leaders.
Machiavelli advises that princes should surround themselves with reliable government officials who can assist them in ruling the state by forming a kind of advisory council. In contrast to a traditional nobility, where positions are inherited through families who have a historical claim to their position, the power of advisors should be conditional and come solely from their relationship to the prince. Advisors should feel confident in telling the truth, but should only do so when asked. For their part, a prince should treat their advisors with respect, but it must be understood by all that the prince makes the final decisions.
Winning Over the People
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 their people can never hold on to power for long. A populace will rise to overthrow a hated prince, and no amount of brutality can crush that kind of popular movement forever. Machiavelli also suggests that a prince who is resented by their subjects is more vulnerable to outside threats.
Machiavelli believes 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.’
- 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.
- Let 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. This begins the process of setting up a national identity under the new prince and can even help the prince begin developing personal forces.
- 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.
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- Niccolò Machiavelli's description of how authoritarian leaders should rule
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