The Prince

This The Prince article is about the book. The Prince is also an alias used by Osama Bin Laden

The fame of Niccolo Machiavelli rests mainly on his political treatise Il Principe (The Prince), written probably about 1513, but not published until 1532, five years after the death of the author. It is not actually representative of his published work during his lifetime, but it is certainly the work that is best remembered, and which caused such terms as "machiavellian intelligence" to be coined later.

The great question with which the work is concerned is: how a ruling or aspiring prince may establish and maintain the strongest possible government, i.e. how they gain and maintain power. According to Machiavelli moral principles must yield entirely to the dictates of pure expediency, and it follows that the world regarded by the prince must be always the same; the men in it growing neither better nor worse. The prince's duty is to achieve the best result with those men, and not to seek their education nor enlightenment - an early form of utilitarianism.

First, he discussed the effective methods of governing several types of principalities. He informed the reader, assumed to be a member of a ruling aristocracy, of the best ways to acquire, maintain, and protect their state - consisting now as them of a monopoly on violence and war.

Then Machiavelli explained the qualities the ideal prince should possess, still cited in modern texts on leadership. The traits of an effective political leader are presented as:

  • a willingness to imitate the behavior of great men, e.g. those of Ancient Rome in particular, this being written in the Renaissance
  • the ability to illustrate how government is necessary to the well-being of the populace, e.g. perhaps by demonstrating the consequences of yielding to mob rule by temporarily relaxing one's grip
  • a dedication to the art of war - if only for the state's actual survival
  • an understanding that apparent cruelties and vice may be essential to maintaining stability and power
  • prudence with respect to disbursement of one's own wealth
  • the wisdom to seek advice and counsel only when it is needed

Machiavelli disregards any connection between ethics and politics, which disturbed many of his contemporaries. The prince should endeavor to be seen as merciful, religious, honest, and ethical. But in reality, the duties of the Prince don't allow him to actually possess any of these properties.

The last few chapters are concerned with the state of Italy at the time of writing (including "an exhortation to liberate Italy from the barbarians"). Machiavelli's name and the term machiavellian has long been used in terms of reproach, due largely to incomplete understanding of his method. But there is no division among the critics as to the precision of his thought and the clarity of his style. He is certainly credited with founding a school of thought in Europe that in Asia had stretched back to Sun Tzu and Confucius, the latter emphasizing in particular the value of emulation in forming habits.

Machiavelli, hoping for employment, dedicated The Prince to Lorenzo Di Piero De' Medici (grandson of Lorenzo de Medici). The Prince did not earn Machiavelli a position of power. The book has always been listed on the Catholic Church's index librorum prohibitorum (list of prohibited books), in part because it challenged the earlier Christian political theories of Aquinas and Augustine, to which the Church had long been dedicated.

Machiavelli's views on the ideal qualities of a Prince were the particularly controversial, and a particularly modern and relevant, section of the work. Later political philosophy would echo these themes over and over again, especially in the 20th century when his views were more or less standard:

Bernard Crick for instance listed "prudence" as one of his political virtues. Jane Jacobs in her analysis of the moral syndrome of "guardianship" included ostentatious displays of power on the part of the ruler that seem to evoke Niccolo's "apparent cruelties and vice", in particular the flaunting of wealth as a demonstration of power. Nick Humphrey coined the term "machiavellian intelligence" to describe these traits operating in a smaller, "everyday politics" context, such as a business or family. Rushworth Kidder characterized ethics as a more politics-like tradeoff of multiple rights that could not all be upheld at once. The theory of realpolitik is largely based on a foundation Niccolo laid.

It is perhaps more reasonable to ask which 20th century theories are not ultimately "machiavellian" in their assumptions. Those of polity and political economy in particular seem to owe a particular debt to this Renaissance work. The moral justification of colonization of the Americas in the 16th century may also be due in part to his work, although certainly many colonists' and empire building activities proceeded over a good deal of moral objection.

The Prince challenged Roman Catholic Scholastic philosophy to help found the secular thought of the Enlightenment and thus the modern era. It thus occupies a unique place in the evolution of thought in Europe. Its most famous maxims are widely cited today, usually in criticism of political leaders, among them:

  • "it is better to be feared than loved" although it is not better to be hated, nor to eschew virtue and justice when this poses no threat to power
  • the "end justifies the means"

Table of Contents

See also: Leonardo da Vinci

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Opening paragraph based on text from Outline of Great Books, Vol. I'' published 1937.''

copyright 2004