You thought that reading The Prince would turn you into an evil mastermind, didn't you? Well calm down a bit before you start buying a white cat to stroke and a pool full of laser sharks from eBay. It's not quite what you think it is.
The Prince began its life as a humble little present from Niccolò Machiavelli to Lorenzo de' Medici. When Machiavelli started writing the book in 1513, he had just been kicked out of his dream job as a Florentine diplomat, arrested, tortured, and was bored out of his mind in exile in the country.
So he made a plan to get his job back.
The Prince was a way over one-page resume in Italian that showcased Machiavelli's political skills to Lorenzo by giving him the secret sauce recipe for being a good ruler. It ends with Machiavelli asking Lorenzo to unify the country under his rule so that Italy would be peaceful and Machiavelli could become political advisor to the brand-new king of Italy.
Unfortunately, his plan didn't work.
Fast-forward twenty years. Machiavelli has already died (in 1527), but The Prince is only just being printed. Pope Clement VII immediately blacklists it as being written by the hand of Satan. Why? Maybe because Machiavelli was the first person ever not to bother with all that "morality" and "ethics" stuff in his discussion of serious politics.
The controversy that started way back then still surrounds Machiavelli and his little book. His name continues to be synonymous with crafty and dishonorable politics, even though he seemed like a pretty nice guy. He's still the model for all those sketchy, tall villains who plot out evil with cold precision. His name has been dragged through the mud for five hundred years, and he's not even around to defend himself.
The kicker to all this? The Prince is so different from the rest of Machiavelli's republic-loving works that we're not even sure if he was serious or not. That has to be some kind of world record for longest literary prank ever.
We were going to tell you all about how today's political leaders can still learn things from his wise message and his ageless wisdom. But, um, you know how many political leaders decided to follow Machiavelli's advice? None. That's right. Zero. So why bother?
Well, what's politics besides figuring out how to control people? It might sound shady, but knowing how to make people like you and do the things that you want them to do is a pretty important skill. We just have to tweak the words, and Machiavelli's little book becomes a plan for getting ahead in life, just like How to Win Friends and Influence People—only without the friends and with a lot more cold-blooded murder.
Take fear, for example. Of course you don't want people to be afraid of you, but what is awe except having a little bit of fear for how awesome and intense a person is at what they do? Wasn't everybody a little afraid of Steve Jobs?
Or what about Machiavelli's advice about ministers? Swap out "minister" for "friend," and you have some pretty good advice about how to surround yourself with honest people.
Still not convinced? We get it. Not everyone wants to approach life like they're going out to war every day. Fair enough. We still have something for you, though. At the very least, The Prince will teach you how to watch out for those guys who are trying to make you the latest corpse to display in one of their new colonies. How's that for handy?
Machiavelli wrote The Prince within two years after he was driven from office. A surviving letter indicates that the first title for it was “On Principalities.” The work was not published until 1532.
The first eleven chapters of The Prince examine types of principalities, or principates, with examples from both ancient and contemporary history, and strategies for governing these principates. These are not lengthy chapters; some of them are only a few paragraphs long.
Machiavelli asserts that hereditary principates can only be conquered when one who wishes to conquer lives in that principate or establishes a colony there. In the second chapter, Machiavelli speaks of adding territory to an existing principality, advising that one must do so with force and “extinguish the line of the prince” in that territory; by doing so, a conqueror will prevent a counterinsurgency. He cites the Romans as best exemplifying this strategy of conquest. Machiavelli does not criticize the desire to acquire new territories through conquest; instead, he calls it a “very natural and ordinary desire.”
Machiavelli particularly praises Alexander the Great and those leaders who followed him for their success in governing the territories they conquered. He makes a distinction between governing subjects who had previously been ruled despotically and subjects who had some practice of self-government. Those who had previously been ruled with absolute power will be harder to take over, but once they have been conquered, they will be easy to govern. Those who have been used to some degree of self-government will be harder to govern; a conqueror must “ruin” such a city, because if he “does not destroy it, he waits to be destroyed by it.”
In chapter 6, Machiavelli provides a list of great conquerors, who did so by their virtue, including Cyrus the Great of Persia, Romulus of Rome, Theseus of Greece, and Moses of Israel. Machiavelli presents them as gaining a political territory through their own skill and cunning; they win not because of divine assistance, but because they are armed. Here Machiavelli tells his readers that “all armed prophets conquer and unarmed ones are ruined.” In chapter 8, Machiavelli praises King Agothocles of Sicily, who is said to have “virtue,” even though he attained a position of rule through treachery and violence.
Machiavelli criticizes rulers who are the opposite of great conquerors. One who inherits a position of political authority will often lose that political power; the same is true for one who gains power through others’ military assistance. These rulers may gain power easily, but this authority is also lost easily.
Chapter 11 focuses on “ecclesiastical principates,” Machiavelli’s term for the authority exercised by the Catholic Church. Machiavelli treats the Church as a temporal power, like all other political orders. He says the Church has “subjects which they do not govern.”
Chapters 12 through 14 discuss how a political leader should deal with enemies. Enemies must be treated with military power; nothing else is effective. If a political leader has a strong military, there will be no need to concern oneself with laws. Machiavelli makes the distinction between the different types of arms (or military forces) available to a leader. Some arms are the prince’s own, some are mercenary, and some belong to others. Mercenary arms are the worst because “those arms are disunited, ambitious, without discipline, unfaithful; valorous among friends, cowardly among enemies.” When one uses mercenary arms, one depends upon the strength of others.
Using the arms of another political leader can also be harmful. Machiavelli cites Cesare Borgia, who briefly used mercenary and auxiliary arms but then stopped using them and depended on his own arms. Machiavelli also cites examples of ancient political leaders, including King David in the Old Testament, who depended on their own power. In chapter 14, the central chapter of the work, Machiavelli emphatically states that “a prince, then, ought to have no other object . . . nor take anything else for his art, but war,” and that “he ought . . . never to lift his thoughts from the exercise of war.”
Chapters 15 through 23 examine how a prince should treat his subjects. Machiavelli states that it might be useful for a prince to have the appearance of some traditional virtues, but it is not necessarily useful to truly exemplify those virtues. For example, Machiavelli asserts that it might be useful to have a reputation for generosity, but it certainly is not necessary to have that reputation. Being truly generous might lead one to deplete one’s resources. However, one can be generous with the things one takes from others. He cites Cyrus, Julius Caesar, and Alexander the Great as military leaders who rewarded citizens with possessions taken from others.
This section includes the famous passage in which Machiavelli states that if the prince must choose between being loved and being feared, the prince should choose to be feared. Importantly, the prince should be feared in such a way that he will avoid being hated. According to Machiavelli, “being feared and not hated can go very well together.” One cannot depend on being loved, but Machiavelli believes subjects will be loyal to their leaders. Machiavelli also suggests the use of “pious cruelty,” a term for the use of religion to gain political support. He cautions political leaders about those who are close to them; a leader needs a few people close to him who will speak the truth to him, but flatterers should be avoided.
Machiavelli treats fortune in chapters 24 and 25. He does not sympathize with political leaders who lose power because of fortune. Instead, he maintains that leaders should be prepared for what might happen and should seek to overcome the results of fortune through impetuous action. In another famous line from The Prince, he states that, “it is better to be impetuous than cautious, for fortune is a woman, and if one wishes to keep her down, it is necessary to beat her and knock her down.”
The final chapter is different than the other chapters in the book. It is a patriotic appeal to Italians to expel foreign armies from the region.