Machiavelli's The Prince a summary with quotations

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The book to get if you want to understand personality and only text to include Machiavelli's view of  personality


Historical Background

       Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence on May 3, 1469 and died on June 21, 1527. In 1498, when Florence became a republic, he obtained a position in the government as a clerk and quickly rose through the government ranks, soon being made head of the second chancery. A chancery is a public office, consisting of a committee in charge of some the city-state's policies. The second chancery was in charge of internal affairs, but soon merged with the executive council, i Dieci.
       Machiavelli was also secretary of the magistracy which directed foreign and defensive affairs. In 1500, Machiavelli was sent on his first diplomatic mission, to arrange different matters with the French court. While in France, Machiavelli observed the effect of having one prince ruling a united country.
       When Machiavelli came home to Florence, he found it on the verge of collapse as Cesare Borgia attempted to create a principality for himself south of Florence in central Italy. Machiavelli twice paid visits to Cesare Borgia for the Florentine government during this time. When Borgia avenged himself by killing his captains in Sinigaglia, Machiavelli was a witness and wrote an account of it titled On the Manner Adopted by the Duke Valentino to Kill Vitellozzo. The actions of Cesare Borgia were admired by Machiavelli who believed Borgia's different qualities should be found in the perfect prince that would someday unite all of the city-states in Italy. Though, Machiavelli admired Cesare Borgia, he was glad when Borgia was imprisoned by the Pope Julius II, about which Machiavelli said "he deserved as a rebel against Christ."
       When Piero Soderini was elected chief magistrate of Florence, Machiavelli quickly earned his favor, and was able to achieve his military goals with his influence over the leader of Florence. One goal Machiavelli pushed for was the formation of a state militia because he believed that troops from your own land serve you better than common mercenary troops. A council in charge of the militia was formed, with Machiavelli as its head.
       In 1508, Machiavelli got an opportunity to test his new militia. Florence decided to recapture Pisa and Machiavelli went to the front lines to command his troops. In June 1509, the city of Pisa was recaptured with success primarily owed to Machiavelli's militia.
       In 1512, Pope Julius II attacked Florence, because of events going on in Pisa. After the war, Soderini was removed from office and the prominent Medici family took control of Florence. Machiavelli was removed from his offices when this happened. In early 1513, an anti-Medici conspiracy was found and Machiavelli was accused of being an accomplice. He claimed innocence throughout prison and eventually he was released though restrictions were imposed upon him. Machiavelli then went to live outside of Florence at the house he had inherited from his father. During this time Machiavelli wrote The Prince (Il Principe) and another famous work, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy.
       Machiavelli intended The Prince to serve as a guide to creating and holding on to a principality, in ways that often benefited the people, though perhaps indirectly. Machiavelli remembered how well off the French were because they were one principality united under one prince, and he wanted the same for Italy for he was patriotic and prized his freedom.
       Machiavelli also intended the book to bring him back into favor with the Medici family, so he might regain his government posts and begin to enact some of his ideas. The Prince is dedicated to Lorenzo de' Medici, who was called "il Maginifico". When Duke Lorenzo de' Medici, who did not favor him died, and Cardinal Giulio de' Medici came to rule Florence, the Cardinal had Machiavelli elected official historian of Florence, after five years he presented the now-Pope Giulio de' Medici with his eight-volume work Istorie fiorentine, for which he received 120 florins. In 1526, he joined the Pope's army in the attack of the Holy Roman empire until its end in 1527. He then returned to Florence where he found the republic formed again, after failing to gain his old post in the government, he fell ill and died.
       Today we know him as one of the founders of philosophy of history and one of the first to create a political science based on the studying of historical actions. Machiavelli is also remembered for his historical and political writings, short stories, and comedies. Today we describe those who do bad deeds for the sake of political power as Machiavellian and their views as Machiavellianism, both words coming originally from the French.

Summary

       The Prince is unique, not because it explains how to take control of other lands and how to control them, but because it gives advice that often disregards all moral and ethical rules. About this Machiavelli states that:

"Because how one ought to live is so far removed from how one lives that he who lets go of what is done for that which one ought to do sooner learns ruin than his own preservation: because a man who might want to make a show of goodness in all things necessarily comes to ruin among so many who are not good. Because of this it is necessary for a prince, wanting to maintain himself, to learn how to be able to be not good and to use this and not use it according to necessity."1
       The above advice is not the common advice given to mayors, senators, presidents, and others in public office. Still, we know that the above advice is practical and will best get the official more power or give the republic less problems.
       The Prince is different from other books about creating and controlling principalities because it doesn't tell you what an ideal prince or principality is, but Machiavelli explains through examples, which princes are the most successful in obtaining and maintaining power. Machiavelli draws his examples from personal observations made while he was on diplomatic missions for Florence and from his readings in ancient history. His writing has the mark of the Renaissance upon it because he sprinkles his text with Latin phrases and many examples are drawn from Classical sources.
       Machiavelli starts the book off explaining the different kinds of states, republics and principalities. He then goes on to explain the types of principalities, heredity, mixed, and what he calls "new". New principalities are principalities that have just been created and their leaders are not hereditary. Mixed principalities are like those of the Pope or the sultan, he explains, for they have been established for a long time (like a hereditary principality), but the leadership does not pass from father to son (like a new principality).
       Next, Machiavelli explains how to rule the different principalities and what challenges are presented to the ruler in each case. He says that hereditary leaders have an easier time than new princes because the people are already accustomed to their hereditary leaders and accept their power, but a new prince has to work hard to be accepted by his people.
       Machiavelli then goes into detail about how to acquire more land for your principality, about this he says:

"To desire to acquire is truly something very natural and ordinary and always, when men do it who can, they will be lauded, or not blamed; but when they cannot, and want to do it anyway, here is the error and the blame."2
       There are four ways that he discusses to acquire more land: 1) your own arms and virtue, 2) fortune, 3) others' arms, and 4) inequity. The first is the best way in his opinion because land acquired that way is the easiest to hang on to after you have conquered it, because you will still have your loyal militia, not mercenaries, and your own virtues to rule the principality wisely. To Machiavelli, the word virtues does not have the same meaning as it does to us, to him it means manliness and strength.
       Principalities that are acquired by fortune, either for money or as a gift, are one of the hardest to hang onto, because, as we see here, the new prince is not necessarily stable enough to rule:

"Such princes stand simply upon the will and fortune of whoever conceded it to them, which are two most voluble and unstable things: and they do not know how and they have not the power to hold that rank: they do not know, because, if he is not a man of great genius and virtue, it is not reasonable that, having always lived in private fortune, he knows how to command; they cannot, because they do not have forces that might be friendly and faithful to them. Moreover, the states that come right away, like all other things of nature that are born and grow fast, cannot have their roots and connections, so that the first adverse circumstances extinguish them..."3
       Machiavelli also advocates the use of evil to acquire a principality. He gives the example of Agathocles of Syracuse as proof that this works and will enable you to rule the land peaceably through fear:

"Born of a potter, this one always had an iniquitous life throughout his years: nonetheless, he accomplished his iniquities with such virtue of spirit and of body that, having joined the militia, he rose through its ranks to become praetor of Syracuse. Being established in rank, and having decided to become prince and to keep with violence and without obligation to others what had been conceded him by agreement... ...one morning he convened the people and the senate of Syracuse, as if he had had to deliberate things pertinent to the republic; and at a preordained nod he had all the senators and richest of the people killed by his soldiers. Once they were killed he occupied and held the principality of that city without any civil controversy."4
       Machiavelli then continues on to write about determining the strengths and weaknesses of other principalities and the ecclastical principalities of the Pope and church. He then discusses one of his main points of the book: mercenaries, to be used?, or not to be used? The topic of mercenaries being used in place of your own troops or not is often mentioned by him. A native militia was an ideal that he achieved while Florence was being ruled by Piero Soderini. Here we find out why Machiavelli is against the use of mercenaries:

"...if one holds his state on the basis of mercenary arms, he will never be firm or secure; because they are disunited, ambitious, without discipline, unfaithful; gallant among friends, vile among enemies; no fear of God, no faith with men; and one defers ruin insofar as one defers the attack; and in peace you are despoiled by them, in war by the enemy.5
       He then goes on to support this statement with examples of Roman and contemporary generals who did or did not use mercenaries in place of their own countrymen and what became of them. One of the most leaders often held up as an example to be followed is Cesare Borgia, who, though often quite brutal, Machiavelli states brought peace and order to the lands he conquered, and so his actions should be followed.

"I will never fear to cite Cesare Borgia and his actions. The duke entered Romagna with auxiliary arms, leading wholly French troops, and with these he took Imola and Forlì. But, such arms not seeming secure to him, he turned to the mercenary ones, judging that there be less danger in them, and engaged both the Orsini and the Vitelli. Later, managing and finding them doubtful, unfaithful, and dangerous, he extinguished them and turned to his own. And one can easily see the difference between these arms, considering the difference between the duke's reputation, when he had only the French and when he had Orsini and Vitelli, and when he was left with his own soldiers and on his own: and always one will find it increased; never was he so esteemed as when everyone saw that he was the total owner of his arms.6
       Machiavelli also cites a Biblical reference to David and Saul about the problems of using someone else's armor:

"When David offered himself to Saul to go fight with the Philistine challenger Goliath, Saul, to give him spirit, armed with his arms: which David, as soon as he put them on, refused, saying that with he could not make use of himself well, and therefore that he wanted to meet the enemy with his sling and his knife. In the end the arms of others either fall off you, or weigh you down or squeeze you."7
       The next topic Machiavelli discusses is what qualities apply to a prince so that he can maintain the best control. He discusses military knowledge, liberality and parsimony, to be loved or to be feared, trustworthiness, good and bad reputations. Military knowledge is one of the most important qualities a prince can have for:

"...among the causes of evil which being unarmed brings you, it makes you contemptible, which is one of those infamies against which the prince must guard himself..."8

and

"...a prince must not have any objective nor any thought, nor take up any art, other than the art of war and its ordering and discipline; because it is the only art that pertains to him who commands. And it is of such virtue that not only does it maintain those who were born princes, but many times makes men rise to that rank from private station; and conversely one sees that when princes have thought more of delicacies than of arms, they have lost their state."9
       The conclusion Machiavelli draws as to whether it is better to have good qualities or evil qualities, is normally considered unethical or immoral for most often he supports the evil over the good, for the sake of political power. About evil qualities being better to have and more natural he states:

"Et etiam let him not care about incurring infamy for those vices without which he might hardly save the state; because, if one considers everything well, one will find that something that appears a virtue, if followed, would be his ruin, and that some other thing that appears a vice, if followed, results in his security and well-being."10
       Machiavelli next deals with how to handle money in his chapter titled Of liberality and parsimony. He states that it is best to be parsimonious because you should spend your money on the country's defense and because eventually you will run out of money. To continue being generous you will have to tax your people heavily to gain more money, defeating the purpose of being generous. In Machiavelli's view, the purpose is to increase the populations love for you, which he later discusses. He then goes on to explain the reasons behind his thinking:

"...I say that it would be well to be considered liberal: nonetheless, liberality, used so that you may be so considered, hurts you; because, if it is used virtuously and as it should be used, it would not be known and you will not shed the infamy of its opposite. And consequently, if you want to maintain the name of liberal among men, it is necessary not to spare any sumptuousness; so that, always, a prince who does this will consume all of his resources in such works; and in the end, if he wants to retain the name of liberal, he will be required to weigh down the people extraordinarily and to be taxy and to do all the things that can be done to have money."11
       Machiavelli also writes about whether it is better to be loved or feared, coming up with the conclusion that is best to be both, but since usually one can only have one of those qualities, it is best to be feared, but not hated. This conclusion seems very unethical, but Machiavelli defends it, saying:

"...a prince must not care about the infamy of cruelty in order to keep his subjects united and faithful; because with very few examples he will be more merciful than those who, because of too much mercy, allow disorders to go on, from which spring killings or depredations: because these normally offend a whole collectivity, while those executions which come from the prince offend an individual.12
Machiavelli then backs this up with an example from Cesare Borgia:

"Cesare Borgia was considered cruel; nonetheless, that cruelty of his had fixed up Romagna, united it, reduced it to peace and reliability. Which, if were to be well considered, would be seen to have been much more merciful than the Florentine people, which, in order to escape the name of cruel, let Pistoia be destroyed."13
       Another common ethical law that Machiavelli feels princes do not need to abide by is that people should be trustworthy. At the beginning of Chapter 18, we find his reasons for this opinion:

"How laudable it is for a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not guile, everyone perceives: nonetheless, in our times one sees by experience that the princes who have done great things are the ones who have taken little account of faith, and who have known to turn men's brains with guile: and in the end have surpassed those who grounded themselves on loyalty."14
       Machiavelli next deals with how to keep from being hated by your people. To keep from being hated (but feared) he recommends the following things to a prince:

"...he keeps himself from his citizens' and his subjects' possessions, and from their women: and even when he might have need to proceed against someone's blood, he should do it when there might be convenient justification and manifest cause; but, above all, [he should] abstain from other people's things; because men sooner forget the death of the father than they do the loss of patrimony."15

and

"It makes one contemptible to be held variable, light, effeminate, pusillanimous, irresolute: which a prince must avoid as he would a shoal, and to scheme so that greatness, spiritedness, gravity, strength might be recognized from his actions, and to insist that his word be irrevocable concerning the private dealings of the subjects; and that he maintain himself in such repute that no one might think either of deceiving him or of getting around him.16

In this section, Machiavelli also mentions:

"...that hatred is acquired through good works as well as by nasty ones..."
       He also mentions which class of people it is best to be kind to and to listen to the needs and wants of: the peasants, the aristocracy, or the soldiers. He states that the people are the best to listen to because they will offer you the best protection in times of war and will best keep you in power if you do what they need and want. He does mention that this varies and sometimes, as in the case of the Roman leaders, one needs to listen to the army:

"...as were the armies of the Roman empire. And so, if at that time it was necessary to satisfy the soldiers more than the peoples, it was because soldiers could do more than the peoples; now it is necessary to all princes, except for the Turk and the sultan, to satisfy the people rather than the soldiers, because the former people can do more than the latter."17
       Machiavelli goes so far to say that a prince does not need fortresses if your people really love you and would give you safe refuge in times of war. He then shows this in an example of a countess whose people did not give her refuge:

"In our times, one does not see that they [fortresses] have profited any prince, if not the countess of Forlì, when count Girolamo, her consort, was killed; because by means of it she was able to flee the people's attack and wait for help from Milan, and take back the state. And the circumstances then were such that the foreigner could not help the people; but later, when Cesare Borgia attacked, the fortresses were worth little to her, and her hostile people joined with the foreigner. Therefore, then and before, it would have been more secure for her not to be hated by the people than to have had a fortress.18
       The reputation of a prince and the methods of gaining a good reputation, are the next subjects of The Prince. Some ways Machiavelli lists to obtain a favorable reputation are:

"...above all a prince must scheme to give himself the fame of a great man and of excellent judgment in every action. A prince is also esteemed when he is a true friend and a true enemy, that is to say, when he comes out in favor of one against another without hesitation."19
       Machiavelli also stresses the importance of having good secretaries and ministers for you can tell the intelligence of a prince by the friends and secretaries he has. To find good ministers he says:

"But how a prince may recognize the minister, there is a mode which never fails. When you see the minister think more of himself than of you, and that he seeks what is useful to him in all actions, someone made that way will never be a good minister, never will you be able to trust him: because whoever has another's state in his hand must never think of himself but always of the prince..."20
       Machiavelli also recommends to princes to keep away from flatters because you shall never know when they (or anyone else) is telling the truth and you will lose a good source of information. Instead, you should not listen to just anyone, but only to the very few that you can be sure of.
       The Prince is concluded with a call by Machiavelli for Italy to be united under one prince, as that is how God wants it to be, he claims. He asks for the help of the Medici family in this task, though we know he did not succeed. It would be another 354 years before Italy would be finally united under Garibaldi.

Conclusions

       The Prince offers political instruction about conquering local competitors and maintaining control over them. He recommends employing any means possible as exemplified in some of the more violent passages like:

"And having taken this for his opportunity, he [Cesare Borgia] had him [Remora de Orco, a very loyal supporter of Borgia] placed in the square in Cesena, one morning, in two pieces with a piece of wood and a bloody knife beside him. The ferocity of which spectacle left those peoples at once satisfied and stupefied."21

and

"...he [Oliverotto de Fermo] made a most solemn banquet, where he invited Giovanni Fogliani and all the first men of Fermo. And once the foods were consumed and all the other entertainments which are customary in similar banquets, Oliverotto artfully moved certain grave arguments, speaking of the greatness of Pope Alexander and of his son Cesare, and of their enterprises. Giovanni and the others answering which arguments, he at once rose up, saying that these things [were] to be spoken of in a more secret place; and he retired to a chamber, whereinto Giovanni and all the other citizens followed. Neither had they seated themselves before soldiers came out from its secret places who killed Giovanni and all the others. After which homicide, Oliverotto mounted horse and ran the land..."22
       The Prince is also an extremely practical book because it does not tell the reader what the ideal prince and principality is, but it explains to the reader what actions and qualities have enabled a prince to best rule a certain principality. The book is also important because of Machiavelli's vision of a united Italy, an idea 350 years ahead of its time.
       Machiavelli's reasoning was right for his time because his time was a time of frequent war and advice on the art of war was needed.  An issue of debate is whether Machiavelli is still relevant or merely of historical interest.  This is answered by the 500 years of wars, treachery and genocide.  These traditions were disliked by Machiavelli, but he recognized them as inherent to human interaction.  People have not changed, and governments, although giving lip service to justice and rule of law continue to turn against their neighbors and their own people with regularity.  Machiavelli is just as relevant as ever, some details may need updating, but the essence remains vital/ 

Bibliography courtesy of Michael S. Abrams, Ph.D.


End Notes

  1. Pg. 57, Chapter 15 (Of those things for which men, and especially princes, are lauded or vilified)

  2. Pg. 13, Chapter 3 (Of mixed principalities)

  3. Pg. 24-25, Chapter 7 (Of new principalities that are acquired by means of the arms of others and by fortune)

  4. Pg. 32-33, Chapter 8 (Of those who have come to princedom by iniquity)

  5. Pg. 45-46, Chapter 12 (How many are the kinds of militia, and mercenary of soldiers)

  6. Pg. 51, Chapter 13 (Of auxilary soldiery, mixed and one's one)

  7. Pg, 52, Chapter 13 (Of auxilary soldiery, mixed and one's one)

  8. Pg, 54, Chapter 14 (What might pertain to a prince concerning the military)

  9. Pg. 54, Chapter 14 (What might pertain to a prince concerning the military)

  10. Pg. 58, Chapter 15 (Of those things for which men, and especially princes, are lauded or vilified)

  11. Pg. 59, Chapter 16 (Of liberality and parsimony)

  12. Pg. 61, Chapter 17 (Of cruelty and pity; and whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the contrary)

  13. Pg. 61, Chapter 17 (Of cruelty and pity; and whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the contrary)

  14. Pg. 65, Chapter 18 (In what way faith is to be kept by princes)

  15. Pg. 62, Chapter 17 (Of cruelty and pity; and whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the contrary)

  16. Pg. 68, Chapter 19 (On fleeing contempt and hatred)

  17. Pg. 75, Chapter 19 (On fleeing contempt and hatred)

  18. Pg. 80, Chapter 20 (Whether fortresses and many other things which everyday are done by princes are useful or useless)

  19. Pg. 82, Chapter 21 (What is convenient to a prince that he might be esteemed)

  20. Pg. 85, Chapter 22 (Of the secretaries which princes have by them)

  21. Pg. 28, Chapter 7 (Of new principalities that are acquired by means of the arms of others and by fortune)

  22. Pg. 34, Chapter 8 (Of those who have come to princedom by inequity)