The Prince, a 16th century political dissertation was written by Nicolo Machiavelli, an Italian diplomat, in hope that with the publication of this work, he would land a position in the Florentine government. Machiavelli is trying to advise Lorenzo de Medici on how to properly build up his principality and ultimately unite Italy under his rule. (SparkNotes Editors, context) Machiavelli differs from other theorists of his time; most of their works stressed the correct course of action that a ruler should take according to Christian morals.
Machiavelli does not allow his advice to be dictated by the confines of the church, and with brutal honesty he writes of the necessary actions and intentions of a ruler so he may rise to power. Following the civic humanistic style, Machiavelli writes forcefully and realistically, and fills his work with an abundance of examples to prove his arguments, including those of Cesare Borgia, Sforza, Alexander the great, among others. Machiavelli essentially creates a manual with step by step instructions on how to become a Prince who will reign productively and successfully.
The Prince is different from all other philosophical works written in the 16th century. Machiavelli’s work is pragmatic and realistic; he clearly maps out the correct path that a ruler must take to establish a powerful state and more importantly to maintain his rule. In each chapter he addresses a different aspect or challenge of ruling a state. In chapter three, he talks about the difference in handling a principality that had its own laws before it was annexed, versus a principality that didn’t.
In chapter nine, Machiavelli writes about the challenges of a principality acquired through the favor of fellow citizens. Other writers in this time period may have written that the rulers in both of the aforementioned situation should rule within the guidelines of Christian mores. Machiavelli advises what is best for the ruler even if it is contrary to the accepted Christian moral standards, for example, Machiavelli wrote with regard to keeping subjects loyal in times of adversity “…ought, above everything, to seek to win the people over to himself…” (Machiavelli, 45) Above all else, above the Christian moral guidelines, and above the expectations of society, that which will bring the ruler success and victory trumps everything else.
To be a successful monarch, Machiavelli insists that a series of steps and actions must be in place. Some of the main steps and actions listed in The Prince focus on planning for war, (Machiavelli, 67) maintaining a well trained army; prepared to fight a moment’s notice, (Machiavelli, 69) governing through strong laws, (Machiavelli, 55) but also ensuring that a monarch finds favor in his people.
Machiavelli writes about the importance of war and the direct link it has to the strength and establishment of a principality. “A prince must have no other objective, no other thought, nor take up any profession but that of war, its methods and its discipline, for that is the only art expected of a ruler. And it is of such great value that it not only keeps hereditary princes in power, but often raises men of lowly condition to that rank.” (Machiavelli, 67) Machiavelli brings the example of Francesco Sforza, who through martial arts, went from being a commoner to becoming the Duke of Milan. (Machiavelli, 67) The author makes it clear that a prince must always have the thought of war on his mind. In times of peace a prince must devote himself completely to strategizing and planning for the advent of war for it will come to pass. It is told that Philopoemen, the prince of Acheans, was praised for always having the rules of war at the forefront of his mind. When he was in the country, he would stop and say, “If the enemy were to approach from that hill or that valley what is the best way to advance?” (Machiavelli, 69)
Machiavelli also writes that the chief foundation of all states is “good laws and good arms” (Machiavelli, 55) But there cannot be good laws if the state is not well armed. He goes on to explain the advantages and disadvantages of hiring mercenaries versus using a country’s own forces. He brings the example of Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Leo X, who after hiring and using mercenaries found them dangerous and unfaithful. He destroyed them and returned to fight with an army his own men. Borgia was never held in greater esteem than when everyone saw that he was the master of his own forces. (Machiavelli, 64)
In addition to martial arts being an integral part of a principality, Machiavelli focuses on the age old challenge of the relationship between a ruler and his subjects. He explores this idea of “Whether it is better to be loved than feared” (Machiavelli, 78) for Borgia was considered cruel yet his cruelty resulted in the reunification of Romagna, ushering in an era of relative peace. (Machiavelli, 78) In contrast, the Florentine people were seen to be more merciful than Borgia and ultimately allowed for the destruction of Pistoia. Machiavelli therefore concludes that a ruler should not mind the “accusation” of cruelty so long as he keeps his citizens unified and loyal , because in due time, when his subjects are enjoying security and stability under his rule, his actions deemed cruel, will appear merciful. However, those rulers who apparently acted graciously will allow for unrest and disorder to ultimately undermine their rule. (Machiavelli, 78)
Machiavelli therefore writes that a ruler should be both feared and loved, but since it is difficult to be both, it is safer to be feared than to be loved. For, people are fickle, false and ungrateful and the minute the reason for the love is gone, so is their loyalty. If a ruler is feared, the fear is preserved by the dread of punishment. This type of fear always prevails, and it increases the chances that the subjects will remain loyal. (Machiavelli, 81-82)
Machiavelli cautions that while it is okay for a ruler to be feared, he should ensure that he is not hated, for hatred will give rise to revolt. He advises that what brings hatred of a ruler is seizing property and violating the women of his subjects. If a prince abstains from these actions he will not be hated. (Machiavelli, 87) If a prince is not held in contempt, and is esteemed because of his treatment of his subjects, he is not easily conspired against. An example of this behavior was, the goodwill the house of Bentivoglio held in Bologna. When one of its descendants was murdered the people rose and murdered all the Canneschi (the conspirator). The power of good will can save the princes life. (Machiavelli, 90)
To avoid contempt, Machiavelli poses several suggestions. A prince should not directly discipline his subjects. That onerous task should be fielded by others. (Machiavelli, 91) In addition, Machiavelli writes that if a prince makes his subjects feel protected they will stand by his side in times of war and chaos. He also advises distributing arms in a new principality. Arming the citizens makes the subjects feel trusted and engenders loyalty. While forcing citizens to relinquish arms makes them more likely to rebel because they feel the monarch distrusts them. (Machiavelli, 101)
A recurring theme, and therefore one that bears repeating, is that a ruler should take care never to be hated or despised.. This advice is timeless; it was relevant to rulers of the 16th century, as was written above about the Bentivoglio family, and it is still relevant to our modern day leaders. The president of USA knows that a sure way to lose an election is through actions or speech that causes him to be despised or hated. An authority figure must always be feared and respected to ensure that his subjects will stand behind his decisions and policies. Hitler was revered by his subjects, who undoubtedly feared arousing his wrath, and therefore respected his every whim. Machiavelli’s advice applies to all rulers regardless of the type of government. It is essential to an absolutist ruler, a democratic president, a ruling oligarch, to apply this Machiavellian principal.
The timeless relevance of The Prince makes it a work that any student of history can appreciate. When reading The Prince the reader gleans a real picture of politics back in the 16th century. Through his many examples of successful and unsuccessful monarchies, the reader comes to appreciate the practices of early western civilizations. Machiavelli stresses that a ruler who is prepared to fight wars and win, will in fact earn the respect of his subjects. He supports his idea with the many examples of successful monarchies that students can research and read about. His work explains the human nature that led to the events that make up European history.
The Prince pushes the idea of civic humanism. Civic humanism is the study of humanities while living an active political life and dedicating oneself to one’s government. Civic humanists use their power of rhetoric to convince others of that which they gleaned through their studies of humanities. This describes Machiavelli’s philosophy. He was a political figure who dedicated his whole life to the study of politics. He dissected human nature and the forces that drive people to act. Then with his powerful rhetoric he wrote an extremely influential work that affected and continues to affect the way others view the establishment and existence of principalities. From this work the reader gains an understanding of the adjective still in use today, “Machiavellian”.