Monday, 18 December 2017

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli.

I think it's hard to overestimate the influence of Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince (Il Principe), which seemed to be around on the scene from 1513 but not actually published until 1532. It's a political treatise on how to be powerful and how to maintain it at all costs.

The discussion is limited to autocratic regimes - absolute monarchies, as we see in Saudi Arabia for example, or dictatorships such as North Korea - as opposed to republics, democracies, or indeed democratic republics. The first few chapters are concerned with definitions of principalities, inherited for example, or ecclesiastical, or newly acquired, for Machiavelli's advice is tailored to each circumstance. He also looks at types of army for warfare, the most desirable being those native to their country, and the least desirable being mercenaries or auxiliaries (loaned by other countries).  Following this comes what I think is the most interesting part: the qualities of a prince.

This section, I'd say, had a great influence on Elizabethan and Jacobean writers such as Christopher Marlowe (Machiavelli is even a character in The Jew of Malta) and William Shakespeare with his English histories and tragedies. I could name a few but the one that particularly jumps out is Richard III as portrayed in Henry VI Part I, Henry VI Part II, Henry VI Part III, and Richard III. Machiavelli outlines his thoughts on what makes a good prince. One of the key elements of this is the art of warfare; the ability to protect a realm or even expand it makes the people love their ruler. Virtue is another important part of being a prince, but, and this is crucial, it is not essential at all times. A prince must be willing to abandon virtuous behaviour if it will further his own ends. Generosity is another key consideration, and, as Aristotle also noted in Politics, it must be accompanied by temperance: an excess of generosity will lead to greed in people and even financial ruin, but too little generosity will also lead to the prince being thought of as a miser (this conclusion departs somewhat from Aristotle's point of view). Another departure from Aristotle's ideas is the idea of mercy: 'tis better to be cruel and feared, Machiavelli writes, than to be merciful. In a similar vein, it is also better to be a liar than to doggedly keep one's word if it will ultimately bring about harm. He then warns about keeping a fine balance: maintain one's power and reputation without causing discontent, and, importantly, to avoid flatterers. Discontent will lead to the downfall of the prince. All of this we see in Shakespeare's Richard III: his desire for power and a willingness to do whatever it takes to seize it and maintain it, until the point he loses his self-control and surpasses Machiavelli in his lack of consistency: a 'good' Machiavellian leader would not have done so. Iago of Othello was ultimately more successful in his aims.

In the final section Machiavelli writes on Italy and how it lost its states and came to be less powerful. He then implores that future leaders take heed of his advice, and writes that he believes only  Lorenzo de’ Medici, to whom the book is dedicated, can return Italy to her former glory.

The Prince is an absolutely fascinating work and very easy to read. Aside from writing about the importance of war and maintaining power, he also has some interesting comments on free will, arguing that whilst Fortune plays a part in life (as the Medievalists firmly believed), free will and choice also have a crucial role. It was a very interesting read, especially after Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics. I have read this work before but it's always good to revisit it and be reminded of some of its key points.

Further Reading 


  1. very interesting... i've never read it and i should, i know... right after, i... never mind... i always wondered, tho, if M's precepts were ever carried out successfully, or do they usually end up in disaster... just wondering... i guess i actually feel that people aren't smart enough to follow M's recommendations without missing some of them... thereby being hoist on their own petard, as it were...

    1. I can't help but feel that those manipulative enough to try it will always be found out in the end. For that I can see theoretically how it would work, but not in practice and certainly not in our day and age when every move is watched! Still no doubt certain "Princes" will think they're very clever in giving it a go I have no doubt... :)


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