The Prince

22nd April 2011

“the gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done moves toward self-destruction rather than self-preservation. 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. ”
(Machiavelli, 2003, p. 50)

Machiavelli’s The Prince is described as the first in a number of fields; The first humanist works of the Renaissance, the first examination of politics and science from a purely scientific and rational perspective and one of the first works of modern philosophy, specifically modern political philosophy, which implies that effective truth is more important than abstract ideals. It is a work of art, a literary masterpiece.

First published in 1532, with permission of the Medici pope Clement VII, it is generally considered an innovative work because it was written in the Vernacular (Italian) rather than Latin. Il Principe, in Italian, is a political treatise by the Italian diplomat, historian and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli and is unique, not because it explains how to takeover and control other lands, but because it provides advice that disregards moral and ethical rules. It dictates that for princes, the ends such as glory and survival, can justify the use of immoral means used to achieve them. Machiavelli believes the ruling Prince should be the sole authority determining every aspect of the state and effecting policies that best serve his interests in gaining, maintaining, and expanding political power. His views on the governing a state are drastically different from that of humanists of his time. Departing from the orders of others who relied on intrinsic morality, he advocates that a prince conduct himself according to the truth of the matter rather than their perception of it. His understanding of human nature was a complete contradiction of what humanists believed and taught. Machiavelli promoted a secular society and felt morality unnecessary since it stood in the way of effectively governing the principality. Although in direct conflict with Catholic and scholastic doctrines of the time concerning politics and ethics The Prince is a direct response to the disunity and decay of the Italian state system caused by foreign domination.

The Prince begins with an overview of the two types of Princedoms, which, according to Machiavelli, are hereditary or new. (Machiavelli, 2003, p. 1) He describes the ways in which new principalities are acquired, either by good fortune or by superior ability. While a fortunate Prince may have an easier time becoming lord of his subjects, he finds it very difficult to keep them under his control. In contrast, a Prince who rises because of natural leadership qualities finds it harder to acquire his principality but easier to maintain it once conquered. He recommends that success in running and maintaining control of a mixed or wholly new Princedom requires the Prince’s consideration of several factors. (1) The method of attaining leadership: cruel or heroic. (2) Introduction of new laws and institutions. (3) Destruction as an alternative. “[I]ndeed there is no surer way of keeping possession than by devastation, Whoever becomes the master of a city accustomed to freedom, and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed himself” (Machiavelli, 2003, p. 18). Machievelli discusses the potential threats to power asserting that the Prince must always remain powerful and be wary of powerful outsiders who might try to overthrow him.

The second half of the book discusses military strategies for maintaining successful rule. Machiavelli stresses the importance of having good laws and good armies stressing the armies’ importance because of its dual role in order and protection. He continuously emphasizes the importance in sustaining the faith of those under the Princes rule. Recognizing that people are not always faithful followers, Machiavelli reminds the reader “that there are two ways of fighting: by law or by force” (Machiavelli, 2003, p. 56) the latter being used often since the former rarely works.

Machiavelli also considers the difficulties of a Prince in remaining virtuous concluding that with so many wretched men around, virtue is hard to create in oneself. “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.” (Machiavelli, 2003, p. 50) After examining people through history, Machiavelli feels that his conclusions about the wretchedness of men are correct. He writes that men are “wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you, you need not keep your word to them.” (Machiavelli, 2003, p. 57) With little respect for people, feeling that they had not earned much either, he uses this as justification for the use of fear in order to maintain control. He generalizes that men are, “…ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit; while you treat them well they are yours.” He characterizes men as being self centered and not willing to act in the best interest of the state,”[and when the prince] is in danger they turn away.” (Machiavelli, 2003, p. 54) Machiavelli’s view of human nature was in direct opposition to that of humanists who felt that individuals could contribute greatly to the prosperity of society. He felt that people generally worked toward their own agenda and felt little responsibility toward the well being of the state. Despite this, Machiavelli did not feel that a Prince should mistreat the citizens. (Machiavelli, 2003, pp. 58-59)

Machiavelli instructed the Medici how to acquire and maintain the power necessary to reunite Italy and began to affirm the ways the Medici must seek to arrive at this greatness. (Machiavelli, 2003, pp. 3-4)Expressing his desire that the Medici obtain the greatness that fortune and other qualities promised, Machiavelli claimed that it was his knowledge of history and the actions of great men that a Prince should utilize in securing the future. He provided numerous examples, stressing that “the prudent man must always follow in the footsteps of great men and imitate those who have been outstanding. If his own prowess fails to compare with theirs, at least it has an air of greatness about it.” (Machiavelli, 2003, p. 19)

Classifying Borgia as a great man, Machiavelli illustrates the virtues a Prince should use in his pursuit and maintenance of power. (Machiavelli, 2003, pp. 23-28) Showing how fortune denied Borgia the opportunity to unite Italy, Machiavelli asserted all who rise to empire through fortune should imitate him, because he made use of every deed and did everything that should be done by a prudent and virtuous man. Borgia, Machiavelli explains, used cruelty to achieve order and obedience in Romangna and that a number of visible executions were an effective means of controlling the people and preventing the outbreak of violence and murder. (Machiavelli, 2003, pp. 25-26 ) Machiavelli further concludes that it is difficult to be loved and feared simultaneously. (Machiavelli, 2003, pp. 53-56) Hence if a prince cannot be both feared and loved, Machiavelli suggests, it would be better for him to be feared. He reinforces this by stating that, “men worry less about doing an injury to one who makes himself loved than to one who makes himself feared. For love is secured by a bond of gratitude which men, wretched creatures they are, break when it is to their advantage to do so; but fear is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective.” (Machiavelli, 2003, p. 54) He also cautions that, excessive leniency will lead to ruin, because leniency is seen as a sign of weakness. Machiavelli exemplifies Borgia’s actions and failures in an attempt to convey the importance of effectively using fortune and virtue to recognize and cease opportunity. (Machiavelli, 2003, p. 27) He Used Borgias actions regarding the proper use of arms and showing Borgias prudence in choosing the less detestable acts as good cruelties well used.

Although Machiavelli’s suggestions seem ruthless and immoral it must be remembered that these views originated out of concern for Italy’s unstable political condition. Italy, at this time, was the center of intellectual, artistic and cultural development – qualities that Machiavelli did not consider assets in securing Italy’s political future. He felt Italy required a leader who asserted dominion over her citizens and institutions. To achieve this Machiavelli promoted a secular form of politics believing that a secular government would be more realistic, allowing the prince to govern effectively without being morally restricted. Machiavelli’s work survives as an early model of successful leadership and although the violent tactics employed during the 1500s are not relevant in today’s society, his views on leadership remain similar to many held today. Bass maintains that although most people would refuse to admit it, they closely associate leadership with power and “the use of Machiavellian tactics is probably more widespread than has been acknowledged.” (Bass, 2008, p. 166)


Baron, H., 2008, ‘Machiavelli the Republican Citizen and Author of The Prince,’ In Search of
Florentine Civic Humanism, vol. II, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, U.S.A., pp. 101-151.

Bass, B. and Bass, R., 2008, The Bass handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications, 4th Edn., Free Press, New York, New York, USA.

Berlin, I., 1971, ‘A Special Supplement: The Question of Machiavelli’, The New York Review of books, November 4th 1971, [Online] Accessed: April 4th 2011,

Johnston, I., 2002, Liberal Studies 302: Lecture notes, ‘Machiavelli’s The Prince’, Panel Presentation offering differing views on The Prince, Vancouver Island University, [Online] Accessed: April 2nd 2011,

Machiavelli, N., (1532) 2003, The Prince, Penguin Books, London, U.K.

Merriman, J., 2010, A History of Modern Europe: From the Renaissance to the Present, 3rd Edn., W.W. Norton & Company, New York, New York, U.S.A.

Skinner, Q., 2000, Chapter 2 ‘The Adviser to Princes’, Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K., pp. 23-53.

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