Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

The Prince
Niccolò Machiavelli
Translated by George Bull
Published 1532
The Well-Educated Mind Histories, The Classic Club II
The Manly Reading List

Readers, this book is amazing. 

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading it. It is under 100 pages, but that is not why I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it because it was clear, concise, relevant, as well as intriguing and fascinating.

Elsewhere I read that Machiavelli wrote The Prince (and dedicated it to Giuliano de' Medici of Florence) in hopes of gaining political favor and getting a job in Medici's government. Apparently, he had served under a previous ruling official, but when that official was removed from office, Machiavelli was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy and exiled to his little hometown. While secluded, he wrote down what he believed to be the perfect mandate for a most successful political leader, to maintain the fragile political order in Italy. Hence, The Prince. 

The ironic thing is that he was not very believable, and his plan to get his government job back failed.

Machiavelli wrote difficult truths about political leaders. He deviated from the traditional, moralistic approach to leadership and government, and he presented historical examples from the Bible, Greece, the Roman Empire, and the Italian states, to support his claims.

People were shocked by these ideas. But let us be honest: not every leader, even ecclesiastical leaders of Machiavelli's time, were righteous or morally upright. They only wanted to appear as such. But that is besides the point.

Here are some of his outrageous ideas:
Well-organized states and wise princes have always taken great pains not to make the nobles despair, and to satisfy the people and keep them content; this is one of the most important tasks a prince must undertake.
How about this:
. . . that princes should delegate to others the enactment of unpopular measures and keep in their own hands the means of winning favors. Again, I conclude that a prince should value the nobles, but not make himself hated by the people.  
Look at this little tip:
. . . he should know how to do evil, if that is necessary. A prince, then must be very careful not to say a word which does not seem inspired by the five qualities I mentioned earlier. To those seeing and hearing, he should appear a man of compassion, a man of good faith, a man of integrity, a kind and religious man. And there is nothing so important to seem to have this last quality. Men in general judge by their eyes rather than by their hands; because everyone is in a position to watch, few are in a position to come in close touch with you. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are. 
How true is that?

Another obvious suggestion Machiavelli made is that a prince must read history, "studying the actions of eminent men to see how they conducted themselves during war and to discover the reasons for their victories or their defeats, so that he can avoid the latter and imitate the former."

He also explained that the art of war should be a prince's primary focus: "The art of war is all that is expected of a ruler . . ." and "The first way to lose your state is to neglect the art of war; the first way to win a state is to be skilled in the art of war."

Maybe these ideas are not shocking to the 21st century because we have seen it all. And Machiavelli demonstrates that this was commonplace even then.

The shock, though, was that he exposed these practices and went (sort of) public with it, though not intentionally (maybe). Whether he was mocking or sticking a finger in their eyes, I am not sure if we will ever know.

But I think it is good enough to look at it as a political leader's handbook on how to run a successful government, if you have the nerve, because Machiavelli made it clear that if you do not have the nerve, the people will violently reject you.

A personal example of how much fun I had reading this.

Is this book for you?

If you appreciate history, political science, and the like, yes, of course you should read this. It is super short, but teeming with critical ideas. I found myself relating modern leaders, like Hitler, to some of his political examples. It really is like a behind-the-scenes exposé on political leadership and governance. "Ah-ha! Now we know how it is."

But really, we already knew this. 


  1. I think you identified a key point when you said Machiavelli was "relevant". Even in the twenty-first century his ideas are worth considering. This is especially true regarding developing an understanding of history, something that the better among our current leaders have done. Certainly a sufficient amount of nerve is necessary and there is no better place to get a taste of what it takes than in the words of Machiavelli.

    1. Well said, James. It takes guts and thick skin to be a leader of men, and Machiavelli makes a great case.

  2. I'm usually rather daunted by very old books, but this one is short and sounds interesting, so will add it to tbr list.

    1. I'm intimidated by old books, too, however, they are so well written and translated, they really are worth it. I used The Well-Educated Mind to get started. Now I cannot stop.