In developing The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote either a small booklet of kindly advice on leadership for princes and other regional leaders, or he mocked those same leaders through the most deceptive satire ever written. Hundreds of years later, experts still can’t decide which it is.
This review contains spoilers. But Machiavelli would tell me, the ruler of this web site, not to worry about it, since it is more important to be feared by readers than loved.
Machiavelli wrote his book in the early sixteenth century, a time of complex politics in Italy. Some of the most infamous leaders in history ruled in this era, including the Medici and Borgia families. The Protestant Reformation was still a few years away, and the church was actively mixing its ecclesiastical and temporal authority, much to the frustration of civil servant Niccolo Machiavelli. He worked in government, including advising the King of France for a time, and had plenty of opportunities to see the highs and lows of political life.
The Prince is written to princes, those who rule principalities, either by birthright, by appointment, or through usurpation and force. For Machiavelli, it doesn’t matter how you, as a prince, obtained your power. All that matters is that you keep that power. The book’s 26 chapters give blunt directions on how to accomplish that: “Men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries; of more serious injuries they cannot.”
And so it goes, all throughout the text. The author’s recommendations are, at times, gentle, advising princes to keep the populace happy. But underneath is a sinister foundation, with all instructions aimed at keeping the prince in power, no matter the cost. He also says that a prince can engage in any type of moral evil he wants, as long as the citizens are satisfied that he is holy enough. Need to kill someone? Make sure you provide culturally-sensitive justifications. Want to live the rich life? That’s fine, as long as the population still feels it is getting its tax-money’s worth of life and happiness. But don’t take their property, for “men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.”
One reason that the book is deemed satire stems from the constant references to the then-current pontiff, Pope Alexander VI, and his son Duke Valentino, both of whom sought the power of the state. Machiavelli brings them up over and over again, both in terms of their successes and their failures. It all reads like an MBA-program case study series, with additional examples from the lives of Hannibal, Alexander the Great, and even Moses. But it all comes with a hint of mocking that just barely keeps you wondering if the author is serious or not.
The book also provides details on how to maintain an army, when to build alliances with foreign states, and how intelligent your advisers should be. Most of the advice would still work today, and in fact, does. One statement from Chapter 9 especially moved me: “A wise prince ought to adopt such a course that his citizens will always in every sort and kind of circumstance have the need of the state and of him, and then he will always find them faithful.” In today’s divisive arguments over government largess and entitlements, such advice seems fresh and relevant.
If you are looking for insight into sixteenth century European politics, or you need to know how to control your own little fiefdom at work, spend a few hours with The Prince.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.