The Prince

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The Prince
Niccoló Machiavelli

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study


Niccoló Machiavelli's The Prince is arguably the most popular book about politics ever written. Its observations about human behavior are as true today as they were five hundred years ago. In this book, Machiavelli offers advice to politicians regarding how to gain power and how to keep it.

Although modern readers think that a "prince" is someone who is destined to inherit control of his country, the princes of Machiavelli's time were by no means that secure: the prince had to be careful to keep the support of his citizens if he wanted to remain in power. The methods that Machiavelli suggests for leaders to keep public support are just as relevant for today's elected officials as they were for leaders of the sixteenth century.

Although The Prince is taught in many schools, there are few reputable teachers who would recommend actually following the advice that Machiavelli offers; it is meant to serve the prince's selfish interests, not to serve society in general. The ideas in the book are stated so harshly and bluntly that the term Machiavellian has now commonly used to describe the process of being cunning and ruthless in the pursuit of power.

Previous political writers, from Plato and Aristotle in ancient times to the sixteenth-century humanists, treated politics as a branch of the area of philosophy that dealt with morals. Machiavelli's chief innovation was to break with this long tradition and present the study of politics as political science.

Author Biography

Niccoló Machiavelli was born in Florence on May 3, 1469. He is notable for his essays on politics, particularly his infamous treatise on power entitled The Prince.

Not much is known about Machiavelli's early life except that he came from a political family. His father was a lawyer and represented Florentine nobles of high social standing. However, even with this privileged position, he had to struggle to make enough money to support his wife and sixteen children.

In 1494 Machiavelli became a clerk at the chancery at Adrian. In 1498 the ruling family of Florence was forced out of power and a republican government assumed control. Machiavelli became a secretary to the Council of Ten, which was the governing body in charge of diplomacy and military organization for the new Florentine republican government.

In his work for the executive council he had the opportunity to observe the workings of foreign affairs firsthand. In addition, he got to meet with other political leaders to see how their countries were ruled. He carried out several diplomatic missions to Germany, Spain, and other Italian city-states.

One of the political rulers he came to know was Cesare Borgia, of the powerful Borgia family; in fact, The Prince often refers to the Cesare Borgia as the model for an ideal ruler.

In 1512 the Medici family regained power in Florence, putting an end to republican rule. As a result, Machiavelli was forced out of his job and temporarily imprisoned. He returned to his country estate near San Casciano after his release and wrote several books on politics, including: On the Art of War, History of Florence, Discourses on Livy, and The Prince, which was dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici in an attempt to gain favor with the ruling family.

In 1527 the republic was restored, but Machiavelli was not appointed to his old position because many in the new government felt that he was too closely associated with the Medici family. Machiavelli died later that same year. His most famous work, The Prince, was published in 1532—five years after his death.

Plot Summary

Dedicatory Letter

The cover letter that opens The Prince is addressed to Lorenzo de Medici, a member of the ruling family in Florence. The letter introduces the book as an attempt to gain Lorenzo's favor, referring to the work as "a gift" and promising to show him—through examples of how powerful men have behaved throughout history—the most proven way to govern his people.

Much of language of the "Dedicatory Letter" is meant to assure the prince that Machiavelli is indeed humble; he wants the prince to benefit from his experience while at the same time avoiding the appearance that he knows more than him. These two ideas are contradictory, and so Machiavelli makes a point of downplaying his own qualifications. Historically, this has been read as an attempt to secure a job within Medici's government, although the letter itself emphasizes the point that he was trying to be helpful with no personal gain.

Chapters 1-11

Although there are no formal divisions between the twenty-six chapters that comprise The Prince, it is easy to see that Machiavelli's work has been arranged in four distinct sections. The first eleven chapters discuss the various kinds of principalities that are possible, introducing readers to the strengths and weaknesses of each type.

The beginning of this section of the book starts with discussions of contemporary Italian politics, a subject that will be dropped by the end of this section. Machiavelli looks at examples from antiquity, which is meant to underscore the scholarly aspect of The Prince.

One of the central themes of the book is that a ruler should never leave anything to chance; rulers cannot rely on fate or on the support of others, for it will usually end up proving unreliable. Machiavelli then explores possible ways for a prince to come to power.

Chapters 12-14

In this section, Machiavelli discusses ways for a political leader to organize his military—the most important function of a ruler. First, he examines the use of mercenary soldiers—men who are hired to fight, usually from a different country—and explores the problems with this method. For instance, he contends that history shows that mercenaries are motivated only by money; therefore, if there is a disruption in payment, the mercenaries will not fight. Also, soldiers from other countries might lack the nationalistic fervor to fight hard for a certain cause or ruler.

Moreover, he offers direct, specific advice for how political leaders should handle their armies. They should, for instance, always have an enemy. He recommends that steps be taken so that the soldiers do not get bored, for then they will get themselves into trouble.

Chapters 15-23

Like the first section of the book, the third spans the length of several chapters. The focus in this section is the prince's subordinates and associates.

It is in this section that the book's famous rejection of conventional morality can be found. Machiavelli proposes the idea that one who is a leader does not need to return loyalty with loyalty; the only thing the prince owes his subjects is military success.

If the rest of the book functions as a textbook, teaching old stories and traditional wisdom to young rulers who are curious about rulers from the past, this third section functions as a political tract, suggesting changes that need to come about if the prince is to rule effectively.

The first half of this section examines examples from history, while the second half emphasizes the present and the future.

Chapters 24-26

This final section has been viewed as a patriotic call to arms, as Machiavelli encourages the prince to take good care of Italy, act prudently, and leave nothing about his country or his subjects to chance.

As with the second section, the rhetoric rises throughout the course of these few chapters. The book ends as it began: examining contemporary Italy, leaving examples from history in the past.


Agathocles the Sicilian

Machiavelli cites Agathocles as an example of someone who attained his political control through crime. Agathocles lived from 361 to 289 BC and came from humble origins—his father was a potter. He rose up through the military ranks in Syracuse to become the praetor.

One morning, he assembled the members of the Senate of Syracuse and with one signal had all of the Senators and the town's richest people killed, leaving no one to oppose his political control. Machiavelli credits him for taking control of his own destiny.

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great was a Macedonian ruler in the fourth century BC. He is used as an example by Machiavelli on how to divide and rule conquered territory.

Alexander VI

The father of Cesare Borgia, Rodrigo became Pope Alexander VI in 1492. Machiavelli notes that it was Alexander who helped propel his son into power. While Machiavelli acknowledges Alexander's role in Cesare's career, he credits Cesare with making the political decisions that accounted for his rise to power.

Cesare Borgia

Many of Machiavelli's examples of the effective ways for a prince to gain and retain power refer to practices he observed in his acquaintance with Cesare Borgia. He recounts that after being given the opportunity to rule Romagna, Borgia secured his position by following a set of standards that should be followed by any new ruler.

Media Adaptations

  • The Prince is available in a four-audiocassette version from Penguin Audiobooks, read by Fritz Weaver.
  • An examination of Machiavelli's life and writings entitled The Prince: Niccoló Machiavelli, is available on an audiocassette from Knowledge Products of Nashville, Tennessee.

In particular, Machiavelli attributes four key ruling strategies to Cesare Borgia: eliminating all challengers to the throne; gaining the favor of the powers in Rome, especially the Pope; winning the support of the College of Cardinals; and defeating his enemies quickly and efficiently.

Rodrigo Borgia

See Alexander VI

Charles VIII

Charles VIII was the French king who led the successful invasion against Italy in 1494. This invasion forced the Medici family to relinquish their control of Florence (which they later regained in 1512).

Liverotto da Fermo

Machiavelli uses Liverotto as an example of a prince who gained political power due to criminal means. An orphan, Liverotto was raised by his maternal uncle. After serving in the army, he returned to his uncle's home, asking if he could bring his entire army with him to impress his uncle's associates. After dinner, Liverotto took the powerful men aside, pretending that he had some secret to tell them. On his command they all were slaughtered. In the end, Liverotto's reign was stopped by one who could match him in deception and cru-elty—Cesare Borgia.

Antonio da Venafro

Da Venafro was a professor of law in Sienna and minister of Pandolfo Petrucci, prince of Sienna. Machiavelli deems him a respected, intelligent advisor. His discussion about Antonio's good qualities and how they reflect on his prince represent a thinly-veiled attempt to stress how much Machi-avelli's own good reputation and wise counsel would help the reputation of the prince who would hire him.

Remirro de Orco

De Orca is Cesare Borgia's minister in Ro-magna. He ruled with ruthless power and was much hated. When he had outlived his purpose—that is, when the people threatened to rise up and kill him—Borgia had him killed. His body was left in the public square one morning, cut in half. In this way, Borgia was able to claim that the cruelty perpetrated against the people had come from Remirro, and not from him.

Ferdinand of Aragon

Ferdinand of Aragon was the king of Spain at the time that Machiavelli was writing The Prince. He was considered to be a new prince because he abruptly changed his style of ruling, becoming more aggressive later in his reign. His reputation grew by attacking Granada and by waging religious war against the Muslims that lived in Spain.

Louis XII

Louis was the French ruler from 1498 to 1515. Louis was an ally of the Venetians, and he is used as an example of how such alliances hurt city-states.

Girolamo Savonarola

Savonarola was a Dominican monk who preached to the people of Florence about self-government. He was instrumental in ousting the Medici family from power in 1498.


See Cesare Borgia



The Prince is considered one of the more important and influential books about politics ever written. It is esteemed by generations of readers because it is thought to show how politics really works. The book presents itself as a handbook: it offers practical advice to a new prince or leader how to gain, consolidate, and keep political power.

Prior to Machiavelli, political theorists judged a prince's reign on how moral the prince was: did he go to church? Did he sin? Was he a good man? Yet with The Prince, Machiavelli contended that it wasn't how moral the prince actually was, but how he was perceived by his subjects. In other words, appearance was all that mattered; it didn't matter what a prince did in private, as long as he was upstanding, honest, and fair in public.

Fate and Chance

The concepts of fortune and virtue are recurring ones in The Prince. Although these words can mean a variety of things, in this book fortune refers to those events that are beyond human control, and virtue means the things people can do to control fate.

It would be counterproductive for a how-to manual of this type to use fortune to explain most of life's events. The point of Machiavelli's book is to recommend the most effective tactics to stay in power, not to put a damper on his activities. He estimates that half of our actions may be caused by fortune while free will controls the other half; but fortune has the greater significance because when it asserts itself it is like a raging flood, washing away all that is in its path.

Continuing with the flood metaphor, he notes that virtue can control the flow of fortune in the same way that dikes and dams control a flood. Rather than using the idea of fate or luck as an excuse—as a great many theorists do when things do not work out as expected—Machiavelli warns princes that they must prepare themselves against fortune and be ready to change their methods in order to accept what fortune brings. Yet because of this, he has more admiration for rulers who are reckless than those who are cautious—the cautious ones are fooling themselves about how much they really control their fate.


According to Machiavelli, political leaders should be allowed to deceive their subjects. The test of a politician is not how well he keeps his word, but whether he is perceived to be honest.

It is not Machiavelli's goal to uphold morality, but to advise political leaders on the best way to strengthen their power. For him, the best way to remain in power is to tell the people what they want to hear—whether it is true or not.

According to this theory, it would actually be detrimental for a prince to tell the truth all of the time. In fact, he explains that a "prudent" ruler "cannot observe faith, nor should he, when such observance turns against him, and the causes that make him promise have been eliminated." Later in the same paragraph, he adds, "Nor does a prince ever lack legitimate cause to color his failure to observe faith."

"Observing faith," like "keeping faith," means to remain true and honest. With these lines Machiavelli is telling readers that the prince should break his promises when circumstances change and then lie about why he broke his promise. This sort of moral relativism—changing one's ethical code from one situation to the next—is effective for retaining the prince's hold on power, even though it violates most systems of ethics.

War and Peace

In Machiavelli's time, countries were constantly at war with one another. Therefore, the ability to effectively lead during wartime was a much more important measurement of a politician than it is in contemporary times. Much of the political theory in The Prince is centered on a principality's ability to defend itself against attacks.

Machiavelli approves of a strong army, but he cautions a prince to create such a force from his own subjects and to not rely on mercenaries or on soldiers borrowed from other lands. He does approve of taking control of other countries through military aggression.

Topics for Further Study

  • Choose a candidate from a recent United States presidential election. Analyze this candidate from a Machiavellian perspective. Does this person adhere to the Machiavellian philosophy? Or do they break his rules? Provide specific examples.
  • Machiavelli makes no mention of the fact that during his lifetime some of history's greatest art was being produced in his hometown, Florence. Read about Florentine art during the Renaissance, and explain how the political situation contributed to the artistic situation at the time.
  • The adjective "Machiavellian" is often used to describe rulers who are ruthless and deceptive. Research Adolph Hitler's rise and fall as leader of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Write a letter from Machiavelli to Adolph Hitler explaining why he lost World War II.
  • Machiavelli almost never mentions women. Pick a novel that has female characters, and analyze the female characters in Machiavellian terms. They may not be leaders of countries, but do they act according to Machiavellian principles? Use specific examples from the novel.

His central message to princes is to keep their subjects happy; therefore, his subjects will stay loyal and fight off an invasion by a new ruler. As with most subjects, Machiavelli views war and peace as means to popularity, noting that the failure to stir up conflict in a relatively peaceful time will make rulers look weak.


Point of View

Most of The Prince is written from the first-person point of view. In other words, the speaker of the work refers to himself directly, using the word "I." In this case, the speaker is the same person as the book's author, Niccoló Machiavelli.

In the "Dedicatory Letter" that opens the book, Machiavelli openly addresses Lorenzo de Medici, a member of the Florence ruling family. In the letter, Machiavelli states that what is written there will illustrate "my extreme desire that you arrive at the greatness that your future and your other qualities promise you." He addresses Lorenzo again near the end of the book, speaking directly of the current situation in Italy.

Throughout the book, though, he wrote with the formal "you," referring to a plural, a general readership, as modern readers might use the word in a statement like, "you need to take vitamins if you are going to stay healthy." As the English language uses one word, "you," for both the direct (singular) and general (plural) forms of address, it can be difficult to follow the subtle changes of point of view used by Machiavelli.


In presenting The Prince as a guidebook for new princes, Machiavelli rejected a conventional narrative structure and instead divided his book by issues of leadership. The textbook structure is based on logic: it starts with general types of political situations and examines them each for a few chapters before going on to a few chapters about how princes come to acquire new principalities, following that with a few chapters about war, then princes' styles and reputations, finishing with advice about the people who they keep close to them.

Overall, the structure of the book moves from general issues to specific issues. This structure also disguises the fact that Machiavelli is using the book as a resume; he is obviously auditioning for a job with Lorenzo de Medici.


Critics often explore Machiavelli's pragmatic views by asserting that the Florentine author was a modernist born hundreds of years ahead of his time. In the late 1800s a movement within the Roman Catholic Church began to challenge the Church's teachings. Scholars who followed this movement—known as the modernist movement—sought to publish their own philosophical works without having to seek the approval of the church.

While Machiavelli did not directly question the authority of the church, the very fact that he talked about the church only as a political institution and did not claim that the Pope had absolute divine knowledge is enough to categorize him with the modern philosophers of the eighteenth century. In 1907 Pope Pius X issued a papal encyclical that deemed the movement a synthesis of all heresies, a charge reminiscent of those levied against Machiavelli, who was referred to as an agent of the devil when The Prince was published.

Although Machiavelli's style was familiar to readers of his day, the fact that he used a textbook on political education to cover broader ideas about morality might be considered a modernist technique, especially by those critics who assert that he was trying to be ironic in The Prince. Irony occurs when there is a distance between what a work says and what the author means, and it is common for modernist works to use old, familiar forms ironically.

Historical Context

The Medici Family

Lorenzo di Medici was a member of a family who ruled Florence for almost three centuries (1434–1737). They lost control of Florence for only a brief time (1494 to 1512) when a reform government was established to run Florence. Machiavelli was a member of the reform government, and he lost his government post when the Medici family regained power in 1512. The Prince was written as Machiavelli's way of gaining the Medici family's favor by offering advice based on his experience in government.

The first Medici came to Florence from the surrounding farmlands around the year 1200. At that time Italy was not a unified country, but a land scattered with separate, powerful, feudal cities. Florence was one of the most prominent of these city-states.

It is believed that the family prospered in Florence. The social class system was strict: the wealthy merchant class, known as the popolo grasso ("the fat people"), suppressed the lower class, known as the popolo minuto ("the lean people").

The Ordinances of Justice (1293) established the city as a republic to be ruled under democratic principles. Although true democracy was never achieved—political rights were reserved for members of higher political standing—it did much to change the political landscape. Florence was looked on by other Italian city-states as a model of progressive thinking.

Giovanni di Bicci de Medici (1360–1429) was the first real politician of the family. He was a banker and a powerful member of the popular political party. Though he considered himself a businessman only dabbling in politics, Giovanni was elected prior of Florence three times.

It was his son Cosimo (1389–1464) who first established the family's control of the city, ruling Florence for thirty years. He was a brutal, aggressive leader. Yet he is also remembered as a financial supporter of some of the Renaissance's leading artists, including Donatello and Brunelleschi.

Cosimo's son, Piero (1414–1469), was a quiet, contemplative man. Yet Cosimo's grandson was one of the most powerful in Italian history: Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449–1492), who took control in 1469, the year of Machiavelli's birth.

Lorenzo was a strong-willed ruler and an outstanding patron of the arts. Among the great thinkers who stayed at his house were Leonardo di Vinci, Michelangelo, and Botticelli. Yet he was tyrannical and ruthless in his reign.

When he brought a Dominican friar named Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) to Florence in 1485, Savonarola quickly became a popular spiritual leader who raised public sentiment against the Medici family.

After Lorenzo's death, his son Piero (1471–1503) assumed leadership. Considered weak and foolish, Piero was very unpopular with his subjects. Savonarola and his supporters drove Piero from power in 1494. The Florentine Republic proved unstable, though, and the Medici family returned to power in 1512. They ruled the city until 1737.


The Renaissance began in Italy in the fourteenth century and spread to the rest of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During the Renaissance, the agricultural-based economy and religious domination of the Middle Ages virtually disappeared and was replaced by a society gov-erned by centralized political institutions and urban-centered, commercial economies.

The Renaissance is also characterized by great strides in the fields of mathematics, philosophy, medicine, and astronomy. Yet the greatest legacy of the Renaissance period is found in the field of art—and the greatest Renaissance artists lived in Florence.

Artistic advances were numerous and significant during this period. Linear perspective—the mathematical ordering of the scene portrayed on a painter's canvas so that things are proportional to their distance from the viewer—was developed by Filippo Brunelleschi. Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, which remains the most recognized painting in the world. The sculptor Donatello as well as the painter Botticelli lived and worked in Florence. Even those artists who did not live there at least passed through Florence, eager to gain inspiration from the terrific artistic revolution that occurred during the period.

Critical Overview

Almost as soon as it was published in 1532, The Prince was derided as a controversial, heretical work. Sidney Angelo collected a handful of these early reviews that he found during his research:

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries we find Machiavelli depicted as the very hand of the devil; ad an "imp" of Satan; as "hell-bourne"; as a "damnable fiend" of the underworld; as the "gret monster-master of hell." John Donne once went so far as to describe a vision of the netherworld in which Machiavelli, attempting to gain a place in Lucifer's innermost sanctum, was out-argued by Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. And it was even possible for Samuel Butler to suggest, facetiously, that "Old Nick" himself took his name from "Nick Machiavel."

The Prince was placed on the Papal Index of Prohibited Books in 1559, but historians disagree to whether this was for religious or political reasons.

More telling is the scathing reaction to Machiavelli by English minister Richard Harvey in his treatise A Theological Discourse of the Lamb of God and His Enemies (1590). After discussing how much Machiavelli's anti-Christian philosophy sickened him, comparing him to a spider who has gathered his venom from "old philosophers and heathen authors," Harvey warns to his readers:

Compare & Contrast

  • 1500s: Renaissance thinkers, like Machiavelli, emphasize logic and rational pragmatism over religious ethics in political analysis.

    Today: Political campaigns are driven more and more by advertising and market research. This allows candidates to support only popular positions, often to the chagrin of voters who doubt the morality and ethics of political candidates.
  • 1534: Giulio de Medici becomes the first in a long succession of Italian popes.

    Today: Elected in 1978, Pope John Paul II remains the preeminent Roman Catholic leader. He was the first Polish priest to be chosen for the position, ending an uninterrupted line of Italian popes.
  • 1513: Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus begins writing his major work, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. Published after his death in 1543, it proposes that planets revolve around the sun.

    1633: Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei supports Copernicus' theories. As a result, he is jailed because the Roman Catholic Church teaches that Earth is the center of the universe.

    Today: It is accepted as fact the planets revolve around the sun.

Be not deceived, God is not mocked, for whatever a man soweth that he shall also reap: for he that soweth to the flesh, shall of the flesh reap corruption, but he that soweth to the spirit, shall of the spirit reap life everlasting.

Given that the purpose of The Prince was to raise revolutionary ideas—rejecting the old morality in favor of a new one—it is hardly surprising that early critics might find Machiavelli disturbing and heretical.

However, by the nineteenth century, critics became interested in Machiavelli's purposes for writing The Prince. His theories of moral relativism were no longer shocking. The ideas that Machiavelli had been condemned for were known all over the world. Critics began to praise him for his honesty and insight into the political arena.

For instance, Lord Macaulay Thomas Babington asserted in 1827 that ordinary readers could be expected to view Machiavelli as the most depraved and shameless of human beings, but that, in fact, "[h]is works prove, beyond all contradiction, that his understanding was strong, and his sense of the ridiculous exquisitely keen."

By the end of the 1800s, Machiavelli's ideas had become so commonly accepted that critics seldom felt the need to soften their praise of him. The introduction to the 1891 edition of The Prince contained glowing praise from the eminent sociologist Lord Acton John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton.

Dalberg-Acton rejected the moral objections to Machiavelli's work, maintaining that they may be legitimate but that his great contribution to the world of political discourse made them necessary. He praised Machiavelli as "the earliest conscious and articulate exponent of certain living forces in the present world," contending that the events that had occurred since the publication of the book had only served to make his ideas more relevant.

Twentieth-century students of Machiavelli have addressed his personal motives for writing The Prince. Critic Garrett Mattingly ridiculed the idea of the book as a serious guide. In fact, Mat-tingly made the case that the book's apparent attempt to aid and justify dictators contradicts everything else that Machiavelli wrote.

The book must be a satire of totalitarian rulers, Mattingly concluded, written at a time when its author would have been most hesitant to openly criticize political leaders—when he had just been freed from jail.

Many other recent critics have examined the specific question of what is meant by Virtu. Entire books have been written debating Machiavelli's meaning, while other critics have concluded that he had no set meaning for the word at all.

Interestingly, the word "Machiavellian" is still used as an insult—implying dishonesty and greed—but there is seldom a question of Machiavelli's historical importance.


David Kelly

Kelly is an instructor of literature and creative writing at College of Lake County, Illinois. In the following essay, he questions whether The Prince can be considered useful for the modern student.

Is it prudish of me to focus on the obvious antisocial element that most people notice first when they read The Prince? Is it naive to reject the version of reality that he was selling? Each time I read this book, I think of what a good movie it would make, filled as it is with tough, cynical lines giving those who hold high office advice that would be more appropriate in jail: that only suckers play by the rules. I wonder about our motives as a society, about what we hope to gain when we read this.

Like most good novels, its attraction to us is mixed—it can teach us something about the world, but it is also (and this is a facet too frequently ignored) a fine piece of entertainment. We shouldn't confuse the two and value it for what it is not. The Prince calls itself a primer for novice politicians, and it is full of iron-clad truths, but it does not really offer much advice that can be applied to life in any practical way.

We should have no problem admitting that we enjoy reading Machiavelli: we like the serious, efficient tone of his cutthroat attitude, even while pretending that we don't. It has been nearly five hundred years The Prince was written, and still we read it, analyze it, discuss it and assign it in schools. Ninety percent of books written are not in print five years after their initial publication, let alone fifty years or a hundred. There must be some reason for his popularity.

I think that there is an aspect of entertainment to be drawn from an idea like "cruelties badly or well used," that our culture is constantly trying to think up ways to fill that mysterious category of "cruelties well used" at the same time that it wants to tell us that cruelty has no place in the civilized world.

This ideal prince belongs to a long history of imaginary characters who make their own laws. Increasingly, as the world has gotten more crowded and laws more restrictive, we dream up do-gooders who transgress the conventional morality in their search for some higher good. There have always been, and always will be, the Zorros and Billy Jacks and Dirty Harrys and Buffy the Vampire Slayers, using bad means for good ends, and Machiavelli's ideal ruler falls right in with them.

The book explains that the prince must use cruelty sometimes, or else his subjects will quit their support of him and leave the government defenseless against anarchy and eventual overthrow by persons who would not use their cruelty so well. Our culture is brimming with antiheroes who are forced to step over to the dark side and engage in immoral behavior in order to preserve morality.

Their appeal may stem from a sense that the prevailing social order is absurd. It may come from an inherent sadism that, in a desire to watch somebody take advantage of somebody else, twists the rules of what is acceptable to make such bullying just. The important thing is that this rogue element is and always has been entertaining, a crowd-pleaser, and this is the category where I think The Prince belongs.

It is more problematic to consider The Prince an educational experience. It was written as a handbook—its only stated goal is to advise anyone who might come into control of a Renaissance city-state on how to maintain order. Compassion has no place except as a tool for keeping the people's support. Yet most of us are not princes, and we do not live in principalities. We have a right to wonder what this book has to offer beyond its entertainment value.

The book would be well worth serious attention if only because it has the educational value that any five-hundred-year-old artifact has. Curious Americans go to Colonial Williams burg and wonder what the seventeenth century must have been like; they visit Civil War battlefields that saw action less than a hundred and fifty years ago. The works of Shakespeare (almost a century after Machiavelli) are important to us today because of the writer's artistry, but a common person's diary from the same time is also important for telling us who we are and where we come from.

Simply, the value of The Prince becomes one of those unsolvable chicken-and-egg questions about which came first: is the book valuable because it is so old, or have we kept it around to reach this old age because it is so valuable? Either way, we all have to agree that there's something useful there.

Unlike the common person's diary, which might or might not provide a few interesting bits of information here and there, The Prince appeared at a transitional point in world history—when the past meets the future. The book can serve as a portal between our world and medieval society. We can generalize by saying that the world Machiavelli was rebelling against was one ruled by religious assumptions that supported political systems that had been handed down intact for centuries.

What Do I Read Next?

  • A seminal philosophical work on the nature of politics, Politics was written by the Greek philosopher Aristotle after 335 B.C.
  • Machiavelli's view of the world is applied to the modern political scene in Michael A. Ledeen's Machiavelli On Modern Leadership: Why Machiavelli's Iron Rules are as Timely and Important Today As Five Centuries Ago (1999).
  • Giorgio Vasari was a painter during the Renaissance. First published in 1550, his book Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Artists reminisces about his acquaintances with many of the key artists who lived in Florence during Machiavelli's time, including Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Brunnelleschi.
  • Jacob Burckhardt, a Swiss historian whose writings changed the way historians looked at the past, ushered in a new perspective on the Renaissance period. His 1860 book A History of Italy in the Renaissance is a groundbreaking work that introduces readers to Machiavelli, the Medici family, and many other key figures of the time.

Just as Renaissance artists made their marks by cutting through tradition and organizing their works according to their own innate sense of rationality, so too Machiavelli and Renaissance political scientists evaluated ideas based on their effectiveness. Unlike most progressives who have no patience for quaint, old-fashioned ideas, he treated such ideas as threats to the security of the principality.

When studying history, it is always enlightening to look at the examples that connect two different eras, and shows one way of life at the moment it evolves into the next. The Prince represents a moment of political transition, and for that, it is worth the modern reader's attention.

The advice the book offers, though, is hardly any more useful to us today than a medieval broadsword would be. No one can deny that his rules work, but why should we be impressed with that? There has never been any mystery about winning a fight by being the first one to throw the rules aside and resort to eye gouging and punching below the belt: it is the problem of playing within the rules that makes winning difficult. Manners go stale right out of the box. When the rules are ridiculous (which happens much less than they seem), then it is easy to agree with the suggestion that we crumple them up and start again.

Yet The Prince doesn't simply suggest that we give up obscure niceties like helping old women across streets: it tells political leaders they should lie to their subjects, and then lie about why they lied when they are caught; it tells them they should lure others into positions of trust, and then kill them; it tells them to hide behind others when their crimes are found; and to start wars even when there is no reason to, just for the sake of keeping the troops sharp.

Scholars since the Renaissance have been scandalized by The Prince—and for good reason. Machiavelli's rules do not make sense, and would only lead to disastrous policy. They rip out any hope that social order could be based on cooperation and replace it with sham cooperation. Do politicians need to be trained to act in their own self-interest? A power-mad, would-be dictator would look to Machiavelli to justify his or her actions, but ruthlessness flourishes enough without teaching it in schools.

If life is a jammed freeway, Machiavelli is the one who tells certain self-important people that they deserve to pull of onto the shoulder of the road and drive past everyone else. That sort of advice wasn't even good for society when there actually were royal personages around.

Yet we still endure generations of historians who praise Machiavelli for telling it like it is, for having the guts to stand up against a society that tries to suppress his frankness, as if from fear. They treat him like the lone honest voice in the wilderness.

By necessity, this stance requires one to look at the advocates of honesty and peace as dreamers, as pie-in-the-sky idealists. There really is no reason to think that believing a "hit them before they hit you" attitude is any more "realistic" than cooperation, although the less aggressive approach would, with no other evidence, be the sort of thing people would like to imagine.

There's no reason to equate backstabbing with reality. Idealizing treachery does not do anyone good except the treacherous, and the point of having a society is to minimize—if not eliminate—treachery. Lying and killing are not good for the general public, no matter how much Machiavelli dresses them up as the lesser evils when stood beside anarchy and social unrest.

If lying and killing are not for the public good, then it seems strange we would treat these guidelines as pearls of wisdom dropped at our feet. We wouldn't accept bank robbery or drug running as "effective" methods of raising money, although they can be—Machiavelli's recommendations to the prince are irrelevant when they are applied within a moral system, and they are blandly obvious in a place where morality is left out of the equation.

We have enough trouble getting politicians to do the things they say they will—who needs them reading books that tell them that honesty is irrelevant? If Machiavelli is "telling a truth that nobody else dared to tell" (a courageous line that graces the posters advertising movies about those antiheroes mentioned before), we might want to think about why no one has told it before.

A recent news article about the leader of a nationwide crime gang that made billions of dollars in drugs and extortion each year describes him as "smart and manipulative, a reader of Machiavelli who tried to project a positive image through food giveaways to the poor." This is the sort of "prince" who might use Machiavelli's advice, although it seems more likely that he already knew which opponents to kill, which underlings to threaten, before he had the time in prison to catch up on his reading.

It's more likely that he bought a copy of The Prince once and left it around unread, and the mag-azine writer picked up on it as a neat way to contrast the thuggishness of gang members with a methodical political education. It is no contrast.

The Prince can feed our imaginations about people claiming rights over and above those granted to ordinary people, and it can teach us history, but its advice has always been more ornamental than useful.

Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.

Harvey C. Mansfield Jr.

In the following essay, Mansfield provides an overview of The Prince, describing the work as "the most famous book on politics when politics is thought to be carried on for its own sake, unlimited by anything above it."

Anyone who picks up Machiavelli's The Prince holds in his hands the most famous book on politics ever written. Its closest rival might be Plato's Republic, but that book discusses politics in the context of things above politics, and politics turns out to have a limited and subordinate place. In The Prince Machiavelli also discusses politics in relation to things outside politics, as we shall see, but his conclusion is very different. Politics according to him is not limited by things above it, and things normally taken to be outside politics—the "givers" in any political situation—turn out to be much more under the control of politics than politicians, peoples, and philosophers have hitherto assumed. Machiavelli's The Prince, then, is the most famous book on politics when politics is thought to be carried on for its own sake, unlimited by anything above it. The renown of The Prince is precisely to have been the first and the best book to argue that politics has and should have its own rules and should not accept rules of any kind or from any source where the object is not to win or prevail over others. The Prince is briefer and pithier than Machiavelli's other major work, Discourses on Livy, for The Prince is addressed to Lorenzo de' Medici, a prince like the busy executive of our day who has little time for reading. So The Prince with its political advice to an active politician that politics should not be limited by anything not political, is by far more famous than the Discourses on Livy.

We cannot, however, agree that The Prince is the most famous book on politics without immediately correcting this to say that it is the most infamous. It is famous for its infamy, for recommending the kind of politics that ever since has been called Machiavellian. The essence of this politics is that "you can get away with murder": that no divine sanction, or degradation of soul, or twinge of conscience will come to punish you. If you succeed, you will not even have to face the infamy of murder, because when "men acquire who can acquire, they will be praised or not blamed" (Chapter 3). Those criminals who are infamous have merely been on the losing side. Machiavelli and Machiavellian politics are famous or infamous for their willingness to brave infamy.

Yet it must be reported that the prevailing view among scholars of Machiavelli is that he was not an evil man who taught evil doctrines, and that he does not deserve his infamy. With a view to his preference for republics over principalities (more evident in the Discourses on Livy than in The Prince, but not absent in the latter), they cannot believe he was an apologist for tyranny; or, impressed by the sudden burst of Italian patriotism in the last chapter of The Prince, they forgive him for the sardonic observations which are not fully consistent with this generous feeling but are thought to give it a certain piquancy (this is the opinion of an earlier generation of scholars); or, on the basis of Machiavelli's saying in Chapter 15 that we should take our bearings from "what is done" rather than from "what should be done," they conclude that he was a forerunner of modern political science, which is not an evil thing because it merely tells us what happens without passing judgment. In sum, the prevailing view of the scholars offers excuses for Machiavelli: he was a republican, a patriot, or a scientist, and therefore, in explicit contradiction to the reaction of most people to Machiavelli as soon as they hear of his doctrines, Machiavelli was not "Machiavellian."

The reader can form his own judgment of these excuses for Machiavelli. I do not recommend them, chiefly because they make Machiavelli less interesting. They transform him into a herald of the future who had the luck to sound the tunes we hear so often today—democracy, nationalism or self-determination, and science. Instead of challenging our favorite beliefs and forcing us to think, Machiavelli is enlisted into a chorus of self-congratulation. There is, of course, evidence for the excuses supplied on behalf of Machiavelli, and that evidence consists of the excuses offered by Machiavelli himself. If someone were to accuse him of being an apologist for tyranny, he can indeed point to a passage in the Discourses on Livy (II 2) where he says (rather carefully) that the common good is not observed unless in republics; but if someone else were to accuse him of supporting republicanism, he could point to the same chapter, where he says that the hardest slavery of all is to be conquered by a republic. And, while he shows his Italian patriotism in Chapter 26 of The Prince by exhorting someone to seize Italy in order to free it from the barbarians, he also shows his fairmindedness by advising a French king in Chapter 3 how he might better invade Italy the next time. Lastly, it is true that he sometimes merely reports the evil that he sees, while (unnecessarily) deploring it; but at other times he urges us to share in that evil and he virtuously condemns halfhearted immoralists. Although he was an exceedingly bold writer who seems to have deliberately courted an evil reputation, he was nonetheless not so bold as to fail to provide excuses, or prudent reservations, for his boldest statements. Since I have spoken at length on this point in another place, and will not hesitate to mention the work of Leo Strauss, it is not necessary to explain it further here.

What is at issue in the question of whether Machiavelli was "Machiavellian"? To see that a matter of the highest importance is involved we must not rest satisfied with either scholarly excuses or moral frowns. For the matter at issue is the character of the rules by which we reward human beings with fame or condemn them with infamy, the very status of morality. Machiavelli does not make it clear at first that this grave question is his subject. In the Dedicatory Letter he approaches Lorenzo de' Medici with hat in one hand and The Prince in the other. Since, he says, one must be a prince to know the nature of peoples and a man of the people to know the nature of princes, he seems to offer Lorenzo the knowledge of princes he does not have but needs. In accordance with this half-serious promise, Machiavelli speaks about the kinds of principalities in the first part of The Prince (Chapters 1-2) and, as we learn of the necessity of conquest, about the kinds of armies in the second part (Chapters 12-14). But at the same time (to make a long story short), we learn that the prince must or may lay his foundations on the people (Chapter 9) and that while his only object should be the art of war, he must in time of peace pay attention to moral qualities in such manner as to be able to use them in time of war (Chapter 14, end).

Thus are we prepared for Machiavelli's clarion call in Chapter 15, where he proclaims that he "departs from the orders of others" and says why. For moral qualities are qualities "held good" by the people; so, if the prince must conquer, and wants, like the Medici, to lay his foundation on the people, who are the keepers of morality, then a new morality consistent with the necessity of conquest must be found, and the prince has to be taught anew about the nature of peoples by Machiavelli. In departing from the orders of others, it appears more fitting to Machiavelli "to go directly to the effectual truth of the thing than to the imagination of it." Many have imagined republics and principalities, but one cannot "let go of what is done for what should be done," because a man who "makes a profession of good in all regards" comes to ruin among so many who are not good. The prince must learn to be able not to be good, and use this ability or not according to necessity.

This concise statement is most efficacious. It contains a fundamental assault on all morality and political science, both Christian and classical, as understood in Machiavelli's time. Morality had meant not only doing the right action, but also doing it for the right reason or for the love of God. Thus, to be good was thought to require "a profession of good" in which the motive for doing good was explained; otherwise, morality would go no deeper than outward conformity to law, or even to superior force, and could not be distinguished from it. But professions of good could not accompany moral actions in isolation from each other; they would have to be elaborated so that moral actions would be consistent with each other and the life of a moral person would form a whole. Such elaboration requires an effort of imagination, since the consistency we see tells us only of the presence of outward conformity, and the elaboration extends over a society, because it is difficult to live a moral life by oneself; hence morality requires the construction of an imagined republic or principality, such as Plato's Republic or St. Augustine's City of God.

When Machiavelli denies that imagined republics and principalities "exist in truth," and declares that the truth in these or all matters is the effectual truth, he says that no moral rules exist, not made by men, which men must abide by. The rules or laws that exist are those made by governments or other powers acting under necessity, and they must be obeyed out of the same necessity. Whatever is necessary may be called just and reasonable, but justice is no more reasonable than what a person's prudence tells him he must acquire for himself, or must submit to, because men cannot afford justice in any sense that transcends their own preservation. Machiavelli did not attempt (as did Hobbes) to formulate a new definition of justice based on self-preservation. Instead, he showed what he meant by not including justice among the eleven pairs of moral qualities that he lists in Chapter 15. He does mention justice in Chapter 21 as a calculation of what a weaker party might expect from a prince whom it has supported in war, but even this little is contradicted by what Machiavelli says about keeping faith in Chapter 18 and about betraying one's old supporters in Chapter 20. He also brings up justice as something identical with necessity in Chapter 26. But, what is most striking, he never mentions—not in The Prince, or in any of his works—natural justice or natural law, the two conceptions of justice in the classical and medieval tradition that had been handed down to his time and that could be found in the writings on this subject of all his contemporaries. The grave issue raised by the dispute whether Machiavelli was truly "Machiavellian" is this: does justice exist by nature or by God, or is it the convenience of the prince (government)? "So let a prince win and maintain a state: the means will always be judged honorable, and will be praised by everyone" (Chapter 18). Reputation, then, is outward conformity to successful human force and has no reference to moral rules that the government might find inconvenient.

If there is no natural justice, perhaps Machiavelli can teach the prince how to rule in its absence—but with a view to the fact that men "profess" it. It does not follow of necessity that because no natural justice exists, princes can rule successfully without it. Governments might be as unsuccessful in making and keeping conquests as in living up to natural justice; indeed, the traditional proponents of natural justice, when less confident of their own cause, had pointed to the uncertainty of gain, to the happy inconstancy of fortune, as an argument against determined wickedness. But Machiavelli thinks it possible to "learn" to be able not to be good. For each of the difficulties of gaining and keeping, even and especially for the fickleness of fortune, he has a "remedy," to use his frequent expression. Since nature or God does not support human justice, men are in need of a remedy; and the remedy is the prince, especially the new prince. Why must the new prince be preferred?

In the heading to the first chapter of The Prince we see that the kinds of principalities are to be discussed together with the ways in which they are acquired, and then in the chapter itself we find more than this, that principalities are classified into kinds by the ways in which they are acquired. "Acquisition," an economic term, is Machiavelli's word for "conquest"; and acquisition determines the classifications of governments, not their ends or structures, as Plato and Aristotle had thought. How is acquisition related to the problem of justice?

Justice requires a modest complement of external goods, the equipment of virtue in Aristotle's phrase, to keep the wolf from the door and to provide for moral persons a certain decent distance from necessities in the face of which morality might falter or even fail. For how can one distribute justly without something to distribute? But, then, where is one to get this modest complement? The easy way is by inheritance. In Chapter 2, Machiavelli considers hereditary principalities, in which a person falls heir to everything he needs, especially the political power to protect what he has. The hereditary prince, the man who has everything, is called the "natural prince," as if to suggest that our grandest and most comprehensive inheritance is what we get from nature. But when the hereditary prince looks upon his inheritance—and when we, generalizing from his case, add up everything we inherit—is it adequate?

The difficulty with hereditary principalities is indicated at the end of Chapter 2, where Machiavelli admits that hereditary princes will have to change but claims that change will not be disruptive because it can be gradual and continuous. He compares each prince's own construction to building a house that is added on to a row of houses: you may not inherit all you need, but you inherit a firm support and an easy start in what you must acquire. But clearly a row of houses so built over generations presupposes that the first house was built without existing support and without an easy start. Inheritance presupposes an original acquisition made without a previous inheritance. And in the original acquisition, full attention to the niceties of justice may unfortunately not be possible. One may congratulate an American citizen for all the advantages to which he is born; but what of the nasty necessities that prepared this inheritance—the British expelled, Indians defrauded, blacks enslaved?

Machiavelli informs us in the third chapter, accordingly, that "truly it is a very natural and ordinary thing to desire to acquire." In the space of a few pages, "natural" has shifted in meaning from hereditary to acquisitive. Or can we be consoled by reference to Machiavelli's republicanism, not so prominent in The Prince with the thought that acquisitiveness may be natural to princes but is not natural to republics? But in Chapter 3 Machiavelli praises the successful acquisitiveness of the "Romans," that is, the Roman republic, by comparison to the imprudence of the king of France. At the time Machiavelli is referring to, the Romans were not weak and vulnerable as they were at their inception, they had grown powerful and were still expanding. Even when they had enough empire to provide an inheritance for their citizens, they went on acquiring. Was this reasonable? It was, because the haves of this world cannot quietly inherit what is coming to them; lest they be treated now as they once treated others, they must keep an eye on the have-nots. To keep a step ahead of the have-nots the haves must think and behave like have-nots. They certainly cannot afford justice to the have-nots, nor can they waste time or money on sympathy.

In the Dedicatory Letter Machiavelli presents himself to Lorenzo as a have-not, "from a low and mean state"; and one thing he lacks besides honorable employment, we learn, is a unified fatherland. Italy is weak and divided. Then should we say that acquisitiveness is justified for Italians of Machiavelli's time, including him? As we have noted, Machiavelli does not seem to accept this justification because, still in Chapter 3, he advises a French king how to correct the errors he had made in his invasion of Italy. Besides, was Machiavelli's fatherland Italy or was it Florence? In Chapter 15 he refers to "our language," meaning Tuscan, and in Chapter 20 to "our ancients," meaning Florentines. But does it matter whether Machiavelli was essentially an Italian or a Florentine patriot? Anyone's fatherland is defined by an original acquisition, a conquest, and hence is always subject to redefinition of the same kind. To be devoted to one's native country at the expense of foreigners is no more justified than to be devoted to one's city at the expense of fellow countrymen, or to one's family at the expense of fellow city-dwellers, or, to adapt a Machiavellian remark in Chapter 17, to one's patrimony at the expense of one's father. So to "unify" one's fatherland means to treat it as a conquered territory—conquered by a king or republic from within; and Machiavelli's advice to the French king on how to hold his conquests in Italy was also advice to Lorenzo on how to unify Italy. It appears that, in acquiring, the new prince acquires for himself.

What are the qualities of the new prince? What must he do? First, as we have seen, he should rise from private or unprivileged status; he should not have an inheritance, or if he has, he should not rely on it. He should owe nothing to anyone or anything, for having debts of gratitude would make him dependent on others, in the widest sense dependent on fortune. It might seem that the new prince depends at least on the character of the country he conquers, and Machiavelli says at the end of Chapter 4 that Alexander had no trouble in holding Asia because it had been accustomed to the government of one lord. But then in Chapter 5 he shows how this limitation can be overcome. A prince who conquers a city used to living in freedom need not respect its inherited liberties; he can and should destroy such cities or else rule them personally. Fortune supplies the prince with nothing more than opportunity, as when Moses found the people of Israel enslaved by the Egyptians, Romulus found himself exposed at birth, Cyrus found the Persians discontented with the empire of the Medes, and Theseus found the Athenians dispersed (Chapter 6). These famous founders had the virtue to recognize the opportunity that fortune offered to them—opportunity for them, harsh necessity to their peoples. Instead of dispersing the inhabitants of a free city (Chapter 5), the prince is lucky enough to find them dispersed (Chapter 6). This suggests that the prince could go so far as to make his own opportunity by creating a situation of necessity in which no one's inherited goods remain to him and everything is owed to you, the new prince. When a new prince comes to power, should he be grateful to those who helped him get power and rely on them? Indeed not. A new prince has "lukewarm defenders" in his friends and allies, because they expect benefits from him; as we have seen, it is much better to conciliate his former enemies who feared losing everything (compare Chapters 6 and 20).

Thus, the new prince has virtue that enables him to overcome his dependence on inheritance in the widest sense, including custom, nature, and fortune, and that shows him how to arrange it that others depend on him and his virtue (Chapters 9, 24). But if virtue is to do all this, it must have a new meaning. Instead of cooperating with nature or God, as in the various classical and Christian conceptions, virtue must be taught to be acquisitive on its own. Machiavelli teaches the new meaning of virtue by showing us both the new and the old meanings. In a famous passage on the successful criminal Agathocles in Chapter 8, he says "one cannot call it virtue to kill one's fellow citizens, betray one's friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion." Yet in the very next sentence Machiavelli proceeds to speak of "the virtue of Agathocles."

The prince, we have seen in Chapter 15, must "learn to be able not to be good, and to use this and not use it according to necessity." Machiavelli sup-plies this knowledge in Chapters 16 to 18. First, with superb calm, he delivers home-truths concerning the moral virtue of liberality. It is no use being liberal (or generous) unless it is noticed, so that you are "held liberal" or get a name for liberality. But a prince cannot be held liberal by being liberal, because he would have to be liberal to a few by burdening the many with taxes; the many would be offended, the prince would have to retrench, and he would soon get a name for stinginess. The right way to get a reputation for liberality is to begin by not caring about having a reputation for stinginess. When the people see that the prince gets the job done without burdening them, they will in time consider him liberal to them and stingy only to the few to whom he gives nothing. In the event, "liberality" comes to mean taking little rather than giving much.

As regards cruelty and mercy, in Chapter 8 Machiavelli made a distinction between cruelties well used and badly used; well-used cruelties are done once, for self-defense, and not continued but turned to the benefit of one's subjects, and badly used ones continue and increase. In Chapter 17, however, he does not mention this distinction but rather speaks only of using mercy badly. Mercy is badly used when, like the Florentine people in a certain instance, one seeks to avoid a reputation for cruelty and thus allows disorders to continue which might be stopped with a very few examples of cruelty. Disorders harm everybody; executions harm only the few or the one who is executed. As the prince may gain a name for liberality by taking little, so he may be held merciful by not being cruel too often.

Machiavelli's new prince arranges the obligation of his subjects to himself in a manner rather like that of the Christian God, in the eye of whom all are guilty by original sin; hence God's mercy appears less as the granting of benefits than as the remission of punishment. With this thought in mind, the reader will not be surprised that Machiavelli goes on to discuss whether it is better for the prince to be loved or feared. It would be best to be both loved and feared, but, when necessity forces a choice, it is better to be feared, because men love at their convenience but they fear at the convenience of the prince. Friends may fail you, but the dread of punishment will never forsake you. If the prince avoids making himself hated, which he can do by abstaining from the property of others, "because men forget the death of a father more quickly than the loss of a patrimony," he will again have subjects obligated to him for what he does not do to them rather than for benefits he provides.

It is laudable for a prince to keep faith, Machiavelli says in Chapter 18, but princes who have done great things have done them by deceit and betrayal. The prince must learn how to use the beast in man, or rather the beasts: for man is an animal who can be many animals, and he must know how to be a fox as well as a lion. Men will not keep faith with you; how can you keep it with them? Politics, Machiavelli seems to say, as much as consists in breaking promises, for circumstances change and new necessities arise that make it impossible to hold to one's word. The only question is, can one get away with breaking one's promises? Machiavelli's answer is a confident yes. He broadens the discussion, speaking of five moral qualities, especially religion; he says that men judge by appearances and that when one judges by appearances, "one looks to the end." The end is the outcome or the effect, and if a prince wins and maintains a state, the means will always be judged honorable. Since Machiavelli has just emphasized the prince's need to appear religious, we may compare the people's attitude toward a successful prince with their belief in divine providence. As people assume that the outcome of events in the world is determined by God's providence, so they conclude that the means chosen by God cannot have been unworthy. Machiavelli's thought here is both a subtle attack on the notion of divine providence and a subtle appreciation of it, insofar as the prince can appropriate it to his own use.

It is not easy to state exactly what virtue is, according to Machiavelli. Clearly he does not leave virtue as it was in the classical or Christian tradition, nor does he imitate any other writer of his time. Virtue in his new meaning seems to be a prudent or well-taught combination of vice and virtue in the old meaning. Virtue for him is not a mean between two extremes of vice, as is moral virtue for Aristotle. As we have seen, in Chapter 15 eleven virtues (the same number as Aristotle's, though not all of them the same virtues) are paired with eleven vices. From this we might conclude that virtue does not shine of itself, as when it is done for its own sake. Rather, virtue is as it takes effect, its truth is its effectual truth; and it is effectual only when it is seen in contrast to its opposite. Liberality, mercy, and love are impressive only when one expects stinginess (or rapacity), cruelty, and fear. This contrast makes virtue apparent and enables the prince to gain a reputation for virtue. If this is so, then the new meaning Machiavelli gives to virtue, a mean-ing which makes use of vice, must not entirely replace but somehow continue to coexist with the old meaning, according to which virtue is shocked by vice.

A third quality of the new prince is that he must make his own foundations. Although to be acquisitive means to be acquisitive for oneself, the prince cannot do everything with his own hands: he needs help from others. But in seeking help he must take account of the "two diverse humors" to be found in every city—the people, who desire not to be commanded or oppressed by the great, and the great, who desire to command and oppress the people (Chapter 9). Of these two humors, the prince should choose the people. The people are easier to satisfy, too inert to move against him, and too numerous to kill, whereas the great regard themselves as his equals, are ready and able to conspire against him, and are replaceable.

The prince, then, should ally with the people against the aristocracy; but how should he get their support? Machiavelli gives an example in the conduct of Cesare Borgia, whom he praises for the foundations he laid (Chapter 73). When Cesare had conquered the province of Romagna, he installed "Remirro de Orco" (actually a Spaniard, Don Remiro de Lorqua) to carry out a purge of the unruly lords there. Then, because Cesare thought Remirro's authority might be excessive, and his exercise of it might become hateful—in short, because Remirro had served his purpose—he purged the purger and one day had Remirro displayed in the piazza at Cesena in two pieces. This spectacle left the people "at the same time satisfied and stupefied"; and Cesare set up a more constitutional government in Romagna. The lesson: constitutional government is possible but only after an unconstitutional beginning. In Chapter 9 Machiavelli discusses the "civil principality," which is gained through the favor of the people, and gives as example Nabis, "prince" of the Spartans, whom he calls a tyrant in the Discourses on Livy because of the crimes Nabis committed against his rivals. In Chapter 8 Machiavelli considers the principality that is attained through crimes, and cites Agathocles and Oliverotto, both of whom were very popular despite their crimes. As one ponders these two chapters, it becomes more and more difficult to find a difference between gaining a principality through crimes and through the favor of the people. Surely Cesare Borgia, Agathocles, and Nabis seemed to have followed the same policy of pleasing the people by cutting up the great. Finally, in Chapter 19, Machiavelli reveals that the prince need not have the support of the people after all. Even if he is hated by the people (since in fact he cannot fail to be hated by someone), he can, like the Roman emperor Severus, make his foundation with his soldiers (see also Chapter 20). Severus had such virtue, Machiavelli says, with an unobstrusive comparison to Cesare Borgia in Chapter 7, that he "stupefied" the people and "satisfied" the soldiers.

Fourth, the new prince has his own arms, and does not rely on mercenary or auxiliary armies. Machiavelli omits a discussion of the laws a prince should establish, in contrast to the tradition of political science, because, he says, "there cannot be good laws where there are not good arms, and where there are good arms there must be good laws" (Chapter 12). He speaks of the prince's arms in Chapters 12 to 14, and in Chapter 14 he proclaims that the prince should have no other object or thought but the art of war. He must be armed, since it is quite unreasonable for one who is armed to obey one who is disarmed. With this short remark Machiavelli seems to dismiss the fundamental principle of classical political science, the rule of the wise, not to mention the Christian promise that the meek shall inherit the earth.

Machiavelli does not mean that those with the most bodily force always win, for he broadens the art of war to include the acquisition as well as the use of arms. A prince who has no army but has the art of war will prevail over one with an army but without the art. Thus, to be armed means to know the art of war, to exercise it in time of peace, and to have read histories about great captains of the past. In this regard Machiavelli mentions Xenophon's "Life of Cyrus," as he calls it (actually "The Education of Cyrus"), the first and best work in the literature of "mirrors of princes" to which The Prince belongs. But he calls it a history, not a mirror of princes, and says that it inspired the Roman general Scipio, whom he criticizes in Chapter 17 for excessive mercy. Not books of imaginary republics and principalities, or treatises on law, but histories of war, are recommended reading for the prince.

Last, the new prince with his own arms is his own master. The deeper meaning of Machiavelli's slogan, "one's own arms," is religious, or rather, antireligious. If man is obligated to God as his creature, then man's own necessities are subordinate or even irrelevant to his most pressing duties. It would not matter if he could not afford justice: God commands it! Thus Machiavelli must look at the new prince who is also a prophet, above all at Moses. Moses was a "mere executor of things that had been ordered by God" (Chapter 6); hence he should be admired for the grace that made him worthy of speaking with God. Or should it be said, as Machiavelli says in Chapter 26, that Moses had "virtue," the virtue that makes a prince dependent on no one but himself? In Chapter 13 Machiavelli retells the biblical story of David and Goliath to illustrate the necessity of one's own arms. When Saul offered his arms to David, David refused them, saying, according to Machiavelli, that with them he could not give a good account of himself, and according to the Bible, that the Lord "will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine." Machiavelli also gives David a knife to go with his sling, the knife which according to the Bible he took from the fallen Goliath and used to cut off his head.

Must the new prince—the truly new prince—then be his own prophet and make a new religion so as to be his own master? The great power of religion can be seen in what Moses and David founded, and in what Savonarola nearly accomplished in Machiavelli's own time and city. The unarmed prince whom he disparages in Chapter 6 actually disposes of formidable weapons necessary to the art of war. The unarmed prophet becomes armed if he uses religion for his own purposes rather than God's; and because the prince cannot acquire glory for himself without bringing order to his principality, using religion for himself is using it to answer human necessities generally.

The last three chapters of The Prince take up the question of how far man can make his own world. What are the limits set on Machiavelli's political science (or the "art of war") by fortune? At the end of Chapter 24 he blames "these princes of ours" who accuse fortune for their troubles and not their own indolence. In quiet times they do not take account of the storm to come. But they should—they can. They believe that the people will be disgusted by the arrogance of the foreign conquerors and will call them back. But "one should never fall in the belief you can find someone to pick you up." Whether successful or not, such a defense is base, because it does not depend on you and your virtue.

With this high promise of human capability, Machiavelli introduces his famous Chapter 25 on fortune. He begins it by asking how much of the world is governed by fortune and God, and how much by man. He then supposes that half is governed by fortune (forgetting God) and half by man, and he compares fortune to a violent river that can be contained with dikes and dams. Turning to particular men, he shows that the difficulty in containing fortunes lies in the inability of one who is impetuous to succeed in quiet times or of one who is cautious to succeed in stormy times. Men, with their fixed natures and habits, do not vary as the times vary, and so they fall under the control of the times, of fortune. Men's fixed natures are the special problem Machiavelli indicates; so the problem of overcoming the influence of fortune reduces to the problem of overcoming the fixity of different human natures. Having a fixed nature is what makes one liable to changes of fortune. Pope Julius II succeeded because the times were in accord with his impetuous nature; if he had lived longer, he would have come to grief. Machiavelli blames him for his inflexibility, and so implies that neither he nor the rest of us need respect the natures or natural inclinations we have been given.

What is the new meaning of virtue that Machiavelli has developed but flexibility according to the times or situation? Yet, though one should learn to be both impetuous and cautious (these stand for all the other contrary qualities), on the whole one should be impetuous. Fortune is a woman who "lets herself be won more by the impetuous than by those who proceed coldly"; hence she is a friend of the young. He makes the politics of the new prince appear in the image of rape; impetuous himself, Machiavelli forces us to see the question he has raised about the status of morality. Whether he says what he appears to say about the status of women may be doubted, however. The young men who master Lady Fortune come with audacity and leave exhausted, but she remains ageless, waiting for the next ones. One might go so far as to wonder who is raping whom, cautiously as it were, and whether Machiavelli, who has personified fortune, can impersonate her in the world of modern politics he attempted to create.

Source: Harvey C. Mansfield Jr., in an introduction to The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli, translated by Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., The University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. vii-xxiv.

Garrett Mattingly

In the following excerpt, Mattingly proposes that The Prince be interpreted as a satire.

The notion that this little book [The Prince] was meant as a serious, scientific treatise on government contradicts everything we know about Machiavelli's life, about his writings, and about the history of his time.

In the first place, this proposition asks us to believe that Niccolo Machiavelli deliberately wrote a handbook meant to help a tyrant rule the once free people of Florence….

He has left proof of his devotion in the record of his activities and in the state papers in which he spun endless schemes for the defense and aggrandizement of the republic, and constantly preached the same to his superiors. One characteristic quotation is irresistible. The subject is an increase in the defense budget that Machiavelli's masters were reluctant to vote. He reminds them with mounting impatience that only strong states are respected by their neighbors and that their neglect of military strength in the recent past has cost them dear, and he ends with anything but detached calm:

Other people learn from the perils of their neighbors, you will not even learn from your own, nor trust yourselves, nor recognize the time you are losing and have lost. I tell you fortune will not alter the sentence it has pronounced unless you alter your behavior. Heaven will not and cannot preserve those bent on their own ruin. But I cannot believe it will come to this, seeing that you are free Florentines and have your liberty in your own hands. In the end I believe you will have the same regard for your freedom that men always have who are born free and desire to live free.

Only a man who cared deeply for the independence of his city would use language like this to his employers. But Machiavelli gave an even more impressive proof of his disinterested patriotism. After fourteen years in high office, in a place where the opportunities for dipping into the public purse and into the pockets of his compatriots and of those foreigners he did business with were practically unlimited (among other duties he acted as paymaster-general of the army), Machiavelli retired from public life as poor as when he had entered it. Later he was to refer to this record with pride, but also with a kind of rueful astonishment; and, indeed, if this was not a unique feat in his day, it was a very rare one….

Machiavelli emerged from prison in mid-March, 1513. Most people believe that The Prince was finished by December. I suppose it is possible to imagine that a man who has seen his country enslaved, his life's work wrecked and his own career with it, and has, for good measure, been tortured within an inch of his life should thereupon go home and write a book intended to teach his enemies the proper way to maintain themselves, writing all the time, remember, with the passionless objectivity of a scientist in a laboratory. It must be possible to imagine such behavior, because Machiavelli scholars do imagine it and accept it without a visible tremor. But it is a little difficult for the ordinary mind to compass.

The difficulty is increased by the fact that this acceptance of tyranny seems to have been a passing phase. Throughout the rest of his life Machiavelli wrote as a republican and moved mainly in republican circles….

The notion that The Prince is what it pretends to be, a scientific manual for tyrants, has to contend not only against Machiavelli's life but against his writings, as, of course, everyone who wants to use The Prince as a centerpiece in an exposition of Machiavelli's political thought has recognized. Ever since Herder, the standard explanation has been that in the corrupt conditions of sixteenth-century Italy only a prince could create a strong state capable of expansion. The trouble with this is that it was chiefly because they widened their boundaries that Machiavelli preferred republics. In the Discorsi he wrote,

We know by experience that states have never signally increased either in territory or in riches except under a free government. The cause is not far to seek, since it is the well-being not of individuals but of the community which makes the state great, and without question this universal well-being is nowhere secured save in a republic…. Popular rule is always better than the rule of princes.

This is not just a casual remark. It is the main theme of the Discorsi and the basic assumption of all but one of Machiavelli's writings, as it was the basic assumption of his political career.

There is another way in which The Prince is a puzzling anomaly. In practically everything else Machiavelli wrote, he displayed the sensitivity and tact of the developed literary temperament. He was delicately aware of the tastes and probable reactions of his public. No one could have written that magnificent satiric soliloquy of Fra Timotheo in Mandragola, for instance, who had not an instinctive feeling for the response of an audience. But the effect of the publication of The Prince on the first several generations of its readers in Italy (outside of Florence) and in the rest of Europe was shock. It horrified, repelled and fascinated like a Medusa's head. A large part of the shock was caused, of course, by the cynical immorality of some of the proposals, but instead of appeasing revulsion and insinuating his new proposals as delicately as possible, Machiavelli seems to delight in intensifying the shock and deliberately employing devices to heighten it. Of these not the least effec-tive is the way The Prince imitates, almost parodies, one of the best known and most respected literary forms of the three preceding centuries, the handbook of advice to princes. This literary type was enormously popular. Its exemplars ran into the hundreds of titles of which a few, like St. Thomas' De Regno and Erasmus' Institutio principis christiani are not quite unknown today. In some ways, Machiavelli's little treatise was just like all the other "Mirrors of Princes"; in other ways it was a diabolical burlesque of all of them, like a political Black Mass.

The shock was intensified again because Machiavelli deliberately addressed himself primarily to princes who have newly acquired their principalities and do not owe them either to inheritance or to the free choice of their countrymen. The short and ugly word for this kind of prince is "tyrant." Machiavelli never quite uses the word except in illustrations from classical antiquity, but he seems to delight in dancing all around it until even the dullest of his readers could not mistake his meaning. Opinions about the relative merits of republics and monarchies varied during the Renaissance, depending mainly upon where one lived, but about tyrants there was only one opinion. Cristoforo Landino, Lorenzo the Magnificent's teacher and client, stated the usual view in his commentary on Dante, written when Niccolo Machiavelli was a child. When he came to comment on Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of hell, Landino wrote:

Surely it was extraordinary cruelty to inflict such severe punishment on those who faced death to deliver their country from slavery, a deed for which, if they had been Christians, they would have merited the most honored seats in the highest heaven. If we consult the laws of any well-constituted republic, we shall find them to decree no greater reward to anyone than to the man who kills the tyrant.

So said the Italian Renaissance with almost unanimous voice. If Machiavelli's friends were meant to read the manuscript of The Prince and if they took it at face value—an objective study of how to be a successful tyrant offered as advice to a member of the species—they can hardly have failed to be deeply shocked. And if the manuscript was meant for the eye of young Giuliano de Medici alone, he can hardly have been pleased to find it blandly assumed that he was one of a class of whom his father's tutor had written that the highest duty of a good citizen was to kill them.

The literary fame of The Prince is due, precisely, to its shocking quality, so if the book was seriously meant as a scientific manual, it owes its literary reputation to an artistic blunder….

Perhaps nobody should be rash enough today to call The Prince a satire, not in the teeth of all the learned opinion to the contrary. But when one comes to think of it, what excellent sense the idea makes! However you define "satire"—and I understand that critics are still without a thoroughly satisfactory definition—it must include the intention to denounce, expose or deride someone or something, and it is to be distinguished from mere didactic condemnation and invective (when it can be distinguished at all) by the employment of such devices as irony, sarcasm and ridicule. It need not be provocative of laughter; I doubt whether many people ever laughed or even smiled at the adventures of Gulliver among the Yahoos. And though satire admits of, and in fact always employs, exaggeration and overemphasis, the author, to be effective, must not appear to be, and in fact need not be, conscious that this is so. When Dryden wrote, "The rest to some faint meaning make pretense/But Shadwell never deviates into sense," he may have been conscious of some overstatement, but he was conveying his considered criticism of Shad-well's poetry. And when Pope called "Lord Fanny" "this painted child of dirt that stinks and strings," the language may be violent, but who can doubt that this is how Pope felt? Indeed the satirist seems to put forth his greatest powers chiefly when goaded by anger, hatred and savage indignation. If Machiavelli wrote The Prince out of the fullness of these emotions rather than out of the dispassionate curiosity of the scientist or out of a base willingness to toady to the destroyers of his country's liberty, then one can understand why the sentences crack like a whip, why the words bite and bum like acid, and why the whole style has a density and impact unique among his writings.

To read The Prince as satire not only clears up puzzles and resolves contradictions; it gives a new dimension and meaning to passages unremarkable before. Take the place in the dedication that runs "just as those who paint landscapes must seat themselves below in the plains to see the mountains, and high in the mountains to see the plains, so to understand the nature of the people one must be a prince, and to understand the nature a prince, one must be one of the people." In the usual view, this is a mere rhetorical flourish, but the irony, once sought, is easy to discover, for Machiavelli, in fact, takes both positions. The people can only see the prince as, by nature and necessity, false, cruel, mean and hypocritical. The prince, from his lofty but precarious perch, dare not see the people as other than they are described in Chapter Seventeen: "ungrateful, fickle, treacherous, cowardly and greedy. As long as you succeed they are yours entirely. They will offer you their blood, property, lives and children when you do not need them. When you do need them, they will turn against you." Probably Machiavelli really believed that this, or something like it, happened to the human nature of a tyrant and his subjects. But the view, like its expression, is something less than objective and dispassionate, and the only lesson it has for princes would seem to be: "Run for your life!"

Considering the brevity of the book, the number of times its princely reader is reminded, as in the passage just quoted, that his people will overthrow him at last is quite remarkable. Cities ruled in the past by princes easily accustom themselves to a change of masters, Machiavelli says in Chapter Five, but "in republics there is more vitality, greater hatred and more desire for vengeance. They cannot forget their lost liberty, so that the safest way is to destroy them—or to live there." He does not say what makes that safe. And most notably, with savage irony, "the duke [Borgia] was so able and laid such firm foundations … that the Romagna [after Alexander VI's death] waited for him more than a month." This is as much as to put Leo X's brother on notice that without papal support he can expect short shrift. If the Romagna, accustomed to tyranny, waited only a month before it rose in revolt, how long will Florence wait? Tactlessness like this is unintelligible unless it is deliberate, unless these are not pedantic blunders but sarcastic ironies, taunts flung at the Medici, incitements to the Florentines.

Only in a satire can one understand the choice of Cesare Borgia as the model prince. The common people of Tuscany could not have had what they could expect of a prince's rule made clearer than by the example of this bloodstained buffoon whose vices, crimes and follies had been the scandal of Italy, and the conduct of whose brutal, undisciplined troops had so infuriated the Tuscans that when another band of them crossed their frontier, the peasants fell upon them and tore them to pieces. The Florentine aristocrats on whom Giovanni and cousin Giulio were relying to bridge the transition to despotism would have shared the people's revulsion to Cesare, and they may have been rendered somewhat more thoughtful by the logic of the assumption that nobles were more dangerous to a tyrant than commoners and should be dealt with as Cesare had dealt with the petty lords of the Romagna. Moreover, they could scarcely have avoided noticing the advice to use some faithful servant to terrorize the rest, and then to sacrifice him to escape the obloquy of his conduct, as Cesare had sacrificed Captain Ramiro. As for the gentle, mildmannered, indolent Giuliano de Medici himself, he was the last man to be attracted by the notion of imitating the Borgia. He wanted no more than to occupy the same social position in Florence that his magnificent father had held, and not even that if it was too much trouble.

Besides, in the days of the family's misfortunes, Giuliano had found shelter and hospitality at the court of Guidobaldo de Montrefeltre. Guiliano lived at Urbino for many years (there is a rather charming picture of him there in Castiglione's Il Cortegiano), and all his life he cherished deep gratitude and a strong affection for Duke Guidobaldo. He must have felt, then, a special loathing for the foreign ruffian who had betrayed and plundered his patron, and Machiavelli must have known that he did. Only a wish to draw the most odious comparison possible, only a compulsion to wound and insult, could have led Machiavelli to select the Borgia as the prime exemplar in his "Mirror of Princes."

There is one last famous passage that reads differently if we accept The Prince as satire. On any other hypothesis, the final exhortation to free Italy from the barbarians sounds at best like empty rhetoric, at worst like calculating but stupid flattery. Who could really believe that the lazy, insipid Giuliano or his petty, vicious successor were the liberators Italy awaited? But if we have heard the mordant irony and sarcasm of the preceding chapters and detected the overtones of hatred and despair, then this last chapter will be charged with an irony turned inward, the bitter mockery of misdirected optimism. For before the Florentine republic had been gored to death by Spanish pikes, Machiavelli had believed, as he was to believe again, that a free Florentine republic could play the liberator's role. Perhaps, since he was all his life a passionate idealist, blind to reality when his desires were strong, Machiavelli may not have given up that wild hope even when he wrote The Prince.

Source: Garrett Mattingly, "Machiavelli's Prince: Political Science or Political Satire?," in The American Scholar, Vol. 27, No. 4, Autumn, 1958, pp. 482-91.


Sidney Anglo, Machiavelli: A Dissertation, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969.

Lord Macaulay Thomas Babington, Critical, Historical and Miscellaneous Essays, Sheldon and Company, 1862, pp. 267-320.

Lord Acton John Emerich Dalberg-Acton, "Introduction," in Il Principo by Niccolo Machiavelli, edited by L. Arthur Burd, Clarenon Press, 1891, pp. xix-xi.

Richard Harvey, A Theological Discourse of the Lamb of God and His Enemies, n.p., 1590, pp. 93-9.

Garrett Mattingly, "Machiavelli's Prince: Political Science or Political Satire?" in The American Scholar, Vol. 27, No. 4, Autumn, 1958, pp. 482-91.

John McCormick, "Winning a Gang War," in Newsweek, November 1, 1999, 46-9.

Leo B. Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, University of Chicago Press, 1958, pp. 54-84.

For Further Study

Stanley Bing, What Would Machiavelli Do?, Harperbusi-ness, 2000, 160 p.

Bing satirically applies Machiavellian principles to contemporary corporate culture.

Sebastian de Grazia, Machiavelli in Hell, Princeton University Press, 1989, 497 p.

Biographical study that examines Machiavelli's life in terms of the ideas presented in The Prince.

Harvey C. Mansfield, Machiavelli's Virtue, The University of Chicago Press, 1996, 371 p.

Mansfield provides an insightful analysis of Machiavelli's concept of virtue.

Vespasiano, Renaissance Princes, Popes, and Prelates: The Vespasiano Memoirs, Harper and Row Torchbooks, 1963, 475 p.

These memoirs, which were kept in the Vatican library and studied only by scholars until the nineteenth century, provide readers with the background of Machiavelli's political career.

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