Machiavelli and The Prince

Niccolò Machiavelli

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Machiavelli was a Florentine politician in an era of political instability throughout Italy. In 1512 he found himself on the losing side, and he was tortured and exiled from Florence. Disillusioned and cynical, Machiavelli thought that existing theories about the ethics of leadership were too idealistic: they did not match up to the cold reality of the struggle for power.

Machiavelli statue
A statue of Machiavelli in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence

His radical and controversial conclusions led him to write The Prince in 1513. In this treatise, he argued that a ruler can only be successful if they know how to consolidate power – and that sometimes, this will require deception and cruelty. Machiavelli’s endorsement of brutal methods to maintain power was shocking at the time and ever since, and The Prince has been controversial for five hundred years. But Machiavelli intended his work to be a force for good – giving pragmatic advice to princes so that they could defeat their enemies and benefit their subjects.

Machiavelli was following, yet rejecting, a tradition of writings about the ideal prince – which tended to discuss which virtues a prince much always cultivate to ensure a prosperous rule. Machiavelli, on the other hand, saw this as simplistic, and recognised that no “virtue” is applicable in every situation. The Prince is about harsh realities rather than idealism. As a result, it has been hugely influential in political thought ever since. Machiavelli’s revolutionary idea was that deceit is a necessary tool, and the proper use of deceit means that that ruler is sensible, rather than treacherous. The main lesson of The Prince is never to depend on the goodwill of another, and also to insulate oneself as much as possible from the vagaries of fortune.

This summary gives a sense of the main points in the text; the quotations are from the Penguin translation by Tim Parks. Another translation is online here.

The Prince

Types of Princedom

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Portrait of Machiavelli by Santi di Tito

Chapter 1: Of the various types of princedom

Machiavelli begins by saying that princedoms are either new or hereditary.

Chapter 2: Of hereditary princedoms

Hereditary principalities are in general easier to maintain. This is because the people have short memories, and they are likely to accept the status quo since an established prince “has less reason and less need to give offence.”

Chapter 3: Of mixed princedoms

It is difficult to maintain a newly-conquered principality. People naturally are willing to change rulers in the hope of something better. But, equally naturally, the new ruler is compelled to impose the burdens of conquest on them, while at the same time not daring to crush them; and then the people naturally become aggrieved and dangerous.

It is, however, much easier to hold territory that has rebelled and been reconquered, because the prince has a much freer hand in punishing enemies and strengthening his position.

When a prince annexes a state with similar languages and customs, it is easy to hold so long as the family of the old prince is destroyed, and the locals’ way of life is not affected by changes in law or taxation.

It is difficult to hold a foreign conquered territory; the best thing to do is for the prince to live there, to see and be seen, and the second best is to establish settlements, which will only offend the powerless displaced minority. These are better options than sending in troops, which is much more expensive and offends far more of the population.

“And here it has to be noted that men must be either pampered or crushed, because they can get revenge for small injuries but not for grievous ones.”

Louis XII
Louis XII, by Jean Perréal

Machiavelli advises a prince to establish a balance of weakness in and around the conquered province, and not to let a strong rival state get involved, or the weak elements will all flock to the newcomer’s side. Machiavelli cites the example of the Romans in Greece.

A ruler needs foresight to act against any future dangers when they are still easy to deal with: like diseases, they begin easy to cure but difficult to diagnose, and become easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. The Romans were wisely willing to go to war rather than let dangers grow “because they knew there is no avoiding war; it can only be postponed to the advantage of others.”

Unless necessity dictates otherwise, it is better to not acquire a target at all than to split it with a powerful foreign state which will then interfere with the balance of weakness.

When Louis XII, King of France, attempted to get a foothold in Italy, he needed Venice’s help. This alliance was necessary and it succeeded in accomplishing Louis’s initial goal. But then Louis did everything wrong: he helped strengthen the Church’s position, and rather than leave the weak kingdom of Naples as a counterweight, he split it with Spain, inviting in a major foreign power. It was in Venice’s interests to side with France against Spain and the Church, but Louis conquered Venice, depriving himself of an ally. Meanwhile, Louis had made Spain and the Church powerful enough for them to drive him out of Italy.

“Whoever is responsible for another’s becoming powerful ruins himself, because this power is brought into being either by ingenuity or by force, and both of these are suspect to the one who has become powerful.”

Chapter 4: Why the Persian kingdom did not rebel after Alexander’s death

Men rule big states either through ministers or through established nobles. Ministers gain their power from the centre, so these states are hard to conquer because of their loyalty to the ruler, but easy to hold afterwards because there are no alternative sources of power. Nobles have local power bases, which are easier to detach from the centre, so these decentralised states are easier to conquer but much harder to hold. Persia ruled through ministers, hence why there were no rebellions after Alexander’s death.

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A mosaic from Pompeii showing Alexander defeating the Persians at the Battle of Issus

Chapter 5: Governing previously independent states

A newly conquered foreign state can be controlled by devastating it, living there in person, or setting up an oligarchy. This third method is not so reliable if the state was a republic, because it will cling to the memories of freedom.

Chapter 6: Of new princedoms acquired by the prince himself

Machiavelli says that the greatest examples of princes when the prince and the constitution are both new – the great founder-rulers – are Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, Theseus and Hiero of Syracuse. They had to rely on their own ability, seizing their opportunities, and they were able to back up their innovations with force: “all armed prophets have conquered, and unarmed prophets have come to grief.”

“There is nothing more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes in a state’s constitution.” Opposition is fierce, support is lukewarm, and persuasion too insecure – which is why it is necessary to use force.

Chapter 7: Of new princedoms acquired by others or by luck

Those who become princes through their own prowess, like those named by Machiavelli in Chapter 6, have to work very hard to attain that position but much less hard to maintain it. By contrast, those who acquire principalities through fortune and foreign arms – and minimal effort – need to work very hard subsequently to hold onto them.

This is because they lack political experience, and their power does not have strong roots: it is extremely hard for them to escape their dependence on external forces. For example, an emperor raised up by his troops is only there because of the soldiers who elevated him.

Cesare Borgia was given Romagna by his father the Pope. He lost it again when he could no longer depend on his father, despite his skill in the meantime at ruling, and despite how well he avoided relying on others. Cesare got his cruel, efficient deputy, Remirro de Orco, to pacify and control Romagna, then made him a scapegoat for the resentment his regime had built up and left his body in the piazza at Cesena.

Cesare eliminated potential rivals, won over the Roman patricians, sought to control the college of cardinals and prepared to conquer Tuscany. If this conquest had taken place, it would have given him enough power to be freed from dependence on his father. But his father died just too soon, and Cesare was too ill to ensure that no enemy of his became the new Pope, so he was ultimately ruined, so close to success.

“Men do you harm either because they fear you or because they hate you.” “Whoever believes that with great men new services wipe out old injuries deceives himself.”

Cesare Borgia
A painting believed to be of Cesare Borgia

Chapter 8: Princedoms seized through crime

Machiavelli looks at the Sicilian tyrant Agathocles and the Italian condottiere Oliverotto as examples of men who became princes through bloody criminal acts, killing the leaders of the states in question through trickery and massacre. From this he deduces that cruelty benefits the ruler in the long term only if carried out all at once and only as far as is necessary. If it goes on, increasing in frequency and intensity, this cruelty will cost the prince his power.

“So it should be noted that when he seizes a state the new ruler must determine all the injuries he will need to inflict. He must inflict them once for all, and not have to renew them every day.”

“Violence must be inflicted once for all; people will then forget what it tastes like and so be less resentful. Benefits must be conferred gradually; and in that way they will taste better.”

“Above all, a prince must live with his subjects in such a way that no development, either favourable or adverse, makes him vary his conduct. For when adversity brings the need for it, there is no time to inflict harm; and the favours he may confer are profitless, because they are seen as being forced, so they earn no thanks.”

Chapter 9: Of civil princedoms

In civil princedoms, princes are elected to their position by their fellow citizens. These princes get their power either from the people or from nobles. Getting power from the nobles is less secure, as nobles will be more independent and jealous, and too few to be a reliable safeguard against the people. It is easier to keep the people happy than the nobles, and it is also more crucial, though noble rivals must be assiduously guarded against.

Machiavelli believes that ruling through magistrates is more dangerous and less secure than direct rule.

“When things are quiet, everyone dances attendance, everyone makes promises, and everybody would die for him so long as death is far off. But in times of adversity, when the state has need of its citizens, there are found to be few. And this test of loyalty is all the more dangerous since it can be made only once. Therefore a wise prince must devise ways by which his citizens are always and in all circumstances dependent on him and his authority; and then they will always be faithful to him.”

Chapter 10: How the strength of all princedoms should be measured

If a principality cannot sustain itself in the field against an aggressor, says Machiavelli, the prince should focus on city defences. This is because a strong city deters most attackers, and because the advantage is always with the besieged as long as certain conditions are met. These conditions are: the city must be well-prepared, the prince must be loved, and the wider political situation too turbulent (as it normally is) to allow a siege of a year or more.

Chapter 11: Of Ecclesiastical princedoms

Once established, by their nature ecclesiastical principalities are particularly secure, kept stable by strong institutions; recently, Machiavelli points out, the Papacy has even established great temporal power beyond its old domains.

Cesare Borgia’s father, Pope Alexander VI

Military Matters

Chapter 12: Soldiers and mercenaries

Every prince needs good foundations for ruling, principally good laws and good arms, and the former proceeds from the latter.

Machiavelli emphasises how terrible mercenaries are, serving only for gold and consistently failing in the hour of need. He traces most of Italy’s present woes to the unreliability and treachery of the condottieri who had been fighting its wars – not to mention the professional cosiness between condottieri who were supposed to be fighting one another. The message is not to rely on mercenaries, and never to put oneself into their power in any way.

Chapter 13: Auxiliary, mixed, and citizen forces

In Machiavelli’s judgement, auxiliaries are also disastrous: they are even worse than mercenaries because they have an independent existence and command structure which can be used against the prince they were helping. And in any case, the prince is left in their power when they are victorious.

“To sum up, cowardice is the danger with mercenaries, and valour with auxiliaries.”

David’s rejection of armour against Goliath is a metaphor for this: “armour belonging to someone else either drops off you or weighs you down or is too tight.”

“France has made use of a mixed force, partly mercenary and partly citizen: this combination is far better than a purely auxiliary or purely mercenary force, and far inferior to a citizen army. Unless it commands its own arms no principality is secure.”

Chapter 14: The prince’s military duties

“A prince, therefore, should have no other object or thought, nor acquire skill in anything, except war, its organisation, and its discipline. The art of war is all that is expected of a ruler; and it is so useful that besides enabling hereditary princes to maintain their rule it frequently enables ordinary citizens to become rulers.”

“The first way to lose your state is to neglect the art of war; the first way to win a state is to be skilled in the art of war.”

15th century Venetian statue of a condottiere

Unarmed leaders will fall, because they will be despised – which is very dangerous – and because armed men will not obey unarmed men. Cooperation with other states will be impossible because “there will be suspicion on the one hand and contempt on the other… So a prince who does not understand warfare… cannot be respected by his soldiers or place any trust in them.”

Machiavelli believes that hunting is a good activity, for its two crucial benefits: accustoming the body to hardship and teaching vital geography lessons. Reading history, Machiavelli advises, gives rulers great models to follow. Peacetime should be devoted to preparations for war.

A Prince’s Qualities According to Machiavelli

Chapter 15: Praise and blame

“The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous. Therefore if a prince wants to maintain his rule he must be prepared not to be virtuous, and to make use of this or not according to need.”

No prince, says Machiavelli, can have the perfect set of characteristics. So the important thing is that he should avoid the reputation for vices that will damage his rule, though “he must not flinch from being blamed for vices which are necessary for safeguarding the state. This is because, taking everything into account, he will find that some of the things that appear to be virtues will, if he practises them, ruin him, and some of the things that appear to be vices will bring him security and prosperity.”

Chapter 16: Generosity and meanness

To win a reputation for generosity, Machiavelli warns, a prince has to be generous on such an extravagant scale that his coffers, his people and he himself will come to grief. So he must accept being called a miser and use his parsimony to finance tangible results for the state. Generosity is good only when one is not yet a prince, or with regard to the spoils of war when the prince is giving away that which belonged to others.

“There is nothing so self-defeating as generosity: in the art of practising it, you lose the ability to do so, and you become either poor and despised or, seeking to escape poverty, rapacious and hated. A prince must try to avoid, above all else, being despised and hated; and generosity results in your being both.”

Chapter 17: Cruelty and clemency

Compassion is better than cruelty, but Machiavelli believes that too much compassion can lead to the spread of disobedience and violent disorder, while judicious cruelty can nip problems in the bud and act for the good of the state.

“By making an example or two he will prove more compassionate than those who, being too compassionate, allow disorders which lead to murder and rapine.” In other words, be willing to get your hands dirty.

“A new prince, of all rulers, finds it impossible to avoid a reputation for cruelty, because of the abundant dangers inherent in a newly won state.”

It is best to be loved and feared, but if this is not possible, it is better to be feared than loved, because men are less likely to turn against those whom they fear because this bond exerts a greater hold over them.

“One can make this generalisation about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit; while you treat them well, they are yours.”

The prince controls the bond of fear over his subject; but the subject controls the bond of love: it is in the subject’s power to break it.

A prince may be feared, but he must not be hated. He must avoid seizing his subjects’ property or women, “because men sooner forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony,” and he must only execute people “when there  is proper justification and manifest reason for it.”

Hannibal, the great enemy of Rome

Cruelty is necessary to hold an army together, and Hannibal proved how much was possible when extreme cruelty was applied in this way. Scipio’s lenience, by contrast, got him into trouble and could have done much worse.

Chapter 18: The way in which princes should keep faith

When law – man’s way – fails a prince, he must be ready to use force – the animals’ way; which is why Achilles’s teacher Chiron was half-man and half-animal. The prince needs a lion’s strength and a fox’s cunning to complement each other.

“A prudent ruler cannot, and must not, honour his word when it places him at a disadvantage and when the reasons for which he made his promise no longer exist. If all men were good, this precept would not be good; but because men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you, you need not keep your word to them.”

“But men must know how to colour one’s actions ad to be a great liar and deceiver. Men are so simple, and so much creatures of circumstance, that the deceiver will always find someone ready to be deceived.”

A prince “should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, kind, guileless and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how. …He should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but he should know how to do evil, if that is necessary.”

“Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.”

“In the actions of all men, and especially of princes, where there is no court of appeal, one judges by the result. So let a prince set about the task of conquering and maintaining his state; his methods will always be judged honourable and be universally praised.” In other words, the ends justify the means.

Good and Bad Government
The Effects of Good Government, an allegorical painting in Siena

Chapter 19: Avoiding being despised and hated

Avoiding contempt and hatred are vital.

“He will be despised if he has a reputation for being fickle, frivolous, effeminate, cowardly, irresolute; a prince should avoid this like the plague and strive to demonstrate in his actions grandeur, courage, sobriety, strength.”

His judgement should be seen as irrevocable, and nobody should dare to try to trick him.

All this will lead to esteem, which is an enormously helpful shield against conspiracy and attack. It will also attract good allies.

A would-be conspirator would be extremely put off by the thought that disposing of the prince would earn him the people’s outrage. He also has to be absolutely sure that potential co-conspirators hate the prince so much that they will not be tempted by the rewards of informing on the plot. So if the prince has the people on his side, conspiracies are almost impossible. The flip-side is that conspiracies will flourish if the prince is hated.

“Princes should delegate to others the enactment of unpopular measures and keep in their own hands the means of winning favours.”

“Princes cannot help arousing hatred in some quarters, so first they must strive not to be hated by all and every class of subject; and when this proves impossible, they should strive assiduously to escape the hatred of the most powerful classes.” The Roman emperors, trapped between the wishes of the civilians and the soldiers, regularly settled upon satisfying the latter. This is an example of how standing armies become dangerously powerful.

“One can be hated just as much for good deeds as for evil ones,” if it harms a group’s interests, or offends their principles – for example, if the group is corrupt.

The Prudence of the Prince

Chapter 20: Fortresses and other tactics

By arming part of his subjects, a new prince gains security through the arms and the loyalty of those who wield them. Disarming subjects is only a good idea when they belong to a newly-annexed state.

Sowing dissension among followers only leaves one vulnerable to external threats: it is a bad, short-termist way to rule.

Initial opponents can be one over once they “need someone to lean upon;” and their loyalty is then more useful as they have something to prove.

Princes raised up by men dissatisfied with the status quo will be bound to disappoint them and so cannot rely on them; whereas those satisfied with the previous regime, though initially hostile, may make firm allies.

“The prince who is more afraid of his own people than of foreign interference should build fortresses; but the prince who fears foreign interferences more than his own people should forget about them.” But fortresses are no substitute for not being hated by the people.

Chapter 21: Gaining renown

“In the event that someone accomplishes something exceptional, for good or evil, in civil life, he should be rewarded or punished in a way that sets everyone talking. Above all, in all his doings a prince must endeavour to win the reputation of being a great man of outstanding ability.”

It is always better to pick a side than alienate both by remaining neutral, for example in a nearby war.

“A prince should never join in an aggressive alliance with someone more powerful than himself, unless it is a matter of necessity, as I said above. This is because if you are the victors, you emerge as his prisoner; and princes should do their utmost to escape being at the mercy of others.”

There is no safe course: every choice involves risk. “Prudence consists in being able to assess the nature of a particular threat and in accepting the lesser evil.”

Endeavour, talent and skill should be rewarded; festivities must be put on, and the various guilds or family groups should be met from time to time.

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The Ideal City, a painting in Urbino

Chapter 22: A prince’s ministers

The quality of a prince’s ministers, says Machiavelli, is the first way to judge the prince himself.

To be trustworthy, a minister should act in the prince’s interests rather than his own.

“To keep his minister up to the mark the prince, on his side, must be considerate towards him, must pay him honour, enrich him, put him in his debt, share with him both honours and responsibilities. Thus the minister will see how dependent he is on the prince; and having riches and honours to the point of surfeit he will desire no more; holding so many offices, he cannot but fear changes.”

Chapter 23: Avoiding flatterers

A prince should avoid flatterers, and should also avoid being despised for letting everyone speak their mind to the prince and/or for changing one’s mind because of conflicting advice. The solution, says Machiavelli, is that a prince should let a wise council – and no one else – give him honest advice, then come to his own decision and stick to it rigidly.

“A shrewd prince must, therefore, never lack advice. But he must take it when he wants to, not when others want him to.”

Good advice is not enough on its own: a prince must be capable enough to recognise it and act on it.

Chapter 24: Why the princes of Italy have lost their states

Men are more impressed by the present than the past, so a strong new ruler can gain more esteem and security than a hereditary ruler.

“States which are robust enough to keep an army in the field cannot be lost” unless the hostility of either the people or the nobles is incurred.

Chapter 25: The effects of fortune

“So as not to rule out free will, I believe that it is probably true that fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half or so to be controlled by ourselves.”

Just because of fortune’s power does not mean we shouldn’t bother to prepare ourselves against adversity: its potency can be limited in effect through conscientious work, and Machiavelli compares this to a floodable river on which dykes and embankments are built.

“Those princes who are utterly dependent on fortune come to grief when their fortune changes. I also believe that the one who adapts his policy to the time prospers, and likewise that the one whose policy clashes with the demands of the times does not.” However, in practice men are not able to shift their character when the times change. Sometimes prudence serves, sometimes impetuousness, etc, but in general, the bold are more likely to succeed.

“I conclude, therefore, that as fortune is changeable whereas men are obstinate in their ways, men prosper so long as fortune and policy are in accord, and when there is a clash they fail.”

Chapter 26: The liberation of Italy

Machiavelli ends with an exhortation to Lorenzo II de Medici to liberate Italy from the foreigners through the advice of The Prince, as now is the perfect opportunity for a great leader to emerge and set Italy to rights.

Machiavelli dedicated The Prince to Lorenzo II de Medici
Lorenzo II de Medici, by Raphael

Also on Randall Writing: Sun Tzu and The Art of War

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