Il Principe, or The Prince, is a short book of 26 chapters, and roughly 30,000 words. Most modern editions are fewer than 100 pages, including an introduction and perhaps a glossary. It’s elegantly written, although the author used run-on sentences a lot. Newer editions break up those long pieces into more digestible portions.
It was written by Niccolò Machiavelli not long after he was dismissed from office, when the Florentine Republic collapsed and the Medici family returned to power, in 1512. Machiavelli also wrote his longer Discourses on Livy around the same time.
Although copies of The Prince circulated among his friends as early as 1513, it was not actually published until 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death. Most scholars date it from 1513.
Initially ignored, a few years after its publication, both the Catholic and Protestant churches condemned The Prince. It was even banned in Elizabethan England (we have Cardinal Pole to thank for this). The Pope placed it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Banned Books) in 1559. Because he presented politics as being outside religious control and influence, both churches believed Machiavelli’s works fostered political and moral corruption.
In more recent times, the philosopher Jean Jacque Rousseau called The Prince a “handbook for Republicans” (The Social Contract, Penguin edition). Bertrand Russell called it a, “handbook for gangsters.” Others, however, have called The Prince a handbook for statesmen. Leo Straus called Machiavelli a “teacher of evil” because of The Prince.
The book was dedicated to Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, grandson of “Lorenzo the Magnificent”, the Medici ruler who, before his death in 1492, had raised Florence to the height of its power. It is doubtful that the latter Lorenzo – a vain and inept ruler – ever read it, however.
“And through this study of mine, were it to be read, it would be evident that during the fifteen years I have been studying the art of the state I have neither slept nor fooled around, and anybody ought to be happy to utilize someone who has had so much experience at the expense of others.”
Machiavelli’s letter to Francesco Vettori, 1513 from Machiavelli and his Friends
In his introduction to The Prince, Machiavelli wrote that his knowledge of politics, gleaned from years of observation and study, was his most prized possession:
“I have not found among my possessions anything which I hold more dear than, or value so much as, my knowledge of the actions of great men, acquired by long experience in contemporary affairs, and a continual study of antiquity. Having reflected upon it with great and prolonged diligence, I now send, digested into this little volume, to your Magnificence.”
The Prince is arguably the earliest work of modern political philosophy, and the first book of the realism-versus-idealism school of thought. It’s not meant as a universal moral philosophy for the general public, but rather a narrowly directed guide for politicians.
The Prince is a practical guide to teach rulers how to take and maintain control of power in a state. Machiavelli urges the rulers of the state to direct their own destiny, and not depend on what fate or chance brings.
The Prince contrasted with other contemporary guides called “mirrors for princes” – popular gifts given to princes and other rulers at the time. These guides exhorted them to act with Christian morality: behave well, be kind, and do good deeds in order to prosper.
The Prince, instead, told them to act good or bad as circumstances demanded.
Machiavelli’s book has two main focal points: how the ruler should govern, and how the ruler should behave, although the distinction between the two may be subtle at times.
Machiavelli had great respect for bold, ambitious and decisive leaders who took risks, and little patience for those who dithered or waited for fortune to intervene. He had watched his own Florentine government procrastinate and prevaricate disastrously until it was overthrown.
A republican at heart (although sometimes in secret), he urged princes to mitigate their cruelty, and to embrace innovation and new ideas to reform their state and help their people. He also recommended rulers appear unwavering and resolute, while actually being flexible. Appearances and acts were sometimes disparate entities in his writing.
In a letter to his friend, Francesco Vettori, Machiavelli encouraged him to act decisively, writing,
“It is better to act and repent, than not to act and regret.”
Quoted in Viroli: Niccolò’s Smile, Ch. 16
Today we might say, “It is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.”
While Machiavelli understood that leaders naturally aimed to garner glory and honour for themselves, he did not hector them with the popular Christian ideals of ethical or moral goals. Instead, he encouraged leaders to use “virtu” and prudence in their politics, and to always bend their goals to the common good. Towards this end, he believed how they achieved that common good was not as important as the resulting good itself.
Several key words appear frequently throughout The Prince:
- principe, and
The first four are similar to their English counterparts, and usually translated as glory, necessity, honour, and fortune (or fate), respectively.
Necessity and fortune sometimes appear as polar opposites in The Prince.
Spegnere is often translated as “execute” in the sense of killing, but it can also mean to eliminate, render powerless or neutralize. How bloodthirsty Machiavelli appears in The Prince depends on how the translator chose to handle spegnere.
Another difficult word for translators is in the title: principe. While loosely translated as ‘prince’ it really suggests ruler, boss, leader, chief, mayor or governor. It’s like the Spanish term, ‘El jefe.’ Machiavelli seldom means prince as a hereditary son of a monarch. It certainly doesn’t mean anything like the fairy tale ‘Prince Charming.’
The last word, virtu, is the most difficult for translators, because it can mean, variously, prowess, ability, skill, strength, wisdom, courage, audacity, willpower, efficiency, spirit, virility, valour and even moral virtue, depending on context. It derives from the same Latin root as virility, which suggests manliness or potency. The closest term I can think that parallels it is the Yiddish word, chutzpah.
The Prince is not without its contradictions: sometimes Machiavelli’s republican leanings seem confusingly interwoven with his instructions to autocrats. His chapter topics were not systematic; he mixed ideas and repeated advice, and he jumped around quite a bit from topic to topic.
But, as Viroli suggests (see below), perhaps that was merely a rhetorical technique used according to the teachings set down in Cicero’s work, On the Orator:
“Who indeed does not know that the orator’s virtue is pre-eminently manifested either in rousing men’s hearts to anger, hatred, or indignation, or in recalling them from these same passions to mildness and mercy ? Wherefore the speaker will not be able to achieve what he wants by his words, unless he has gained profound insight into the characters of men, and the whole range of human nature, and those motives whereby our souls are spurred on or turned back.”
Cicero: De Oratore, Book I: XII:53
None of this detracts from the book’s overall usefulness or its inherent truths.
The Rules of Governance
The Prince is still relevant because it deals with founding and pacifying and then governing a state, a condition with parallels to our current municipalities where our ‘states’ are overthrown every three or four years in democratic elections.
While he is best remembered for The Prince, Machiavelli’s writing also includes numerous works on politics and history, including The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy (The Discourses); The Art of War; A Description of the Methods Adopted by the Duke Valentino When Murdering Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo, the Signor Pagolo, and the Duke di Gravina Orsini; a discourse about money; an essay about the politics in Germany; another about reforming Florence; an essay on the city of Lucca; a short biography of Vita di Castruccio Castracani da Lucca; and an eight-volume history of his home city-state, Florence.
Of these, The Discourses is the most relevant to this book, and was Machiavelli’s most intellectual effort. It was written around the same time as The Prince, and expands many of the ideas presented in The Prince, but usually from the republican perspective – a viewpoint that would not have pleased the Medici to whom he dedicated The Prince.
The Prince stands today beside other great literary works of politics and war, but time and distance have made it somewhat obscure and often difficult for today’s generation of politicians without a guide. I hope to be Virgil to your Dante on this journey into the depths of The Prince.
There are other ways of looking at The Prince, of course. Ian Johnston suggested in a lecture that it was written as a satire:
“…the book is, first and foremost, a satire, so that many of the things we find in it which are contradictory, morally absurd, and specious are there quite deliberately in order to ridicule two things—first, the Medici family itself and, second, the very notion of tyrannical rule embodied in the government of the Prince (hence, the satire has a firm moral purpose—to expose tyranny and promote republican government).”
Lecture on Machiavelli’s The Prince by Ian Johnston, Liberal Studies, Vancouver Island University, February, 2002
Johnston’s views may depend on the reading of a specific translation, however. I am always hesitant to base any conclusion on a single translation of any work in another language, let alone one of this age. But one cannot help but notice a certain tongue-in-cheek irony in The Prince.
Viroli, on the other hand, suggests that Machiavelli has to be read in light of the classical rhetorical laws laid out by Cicero and other authors:
“It would be mistaken to consider Machiavelli’s examples as particular cases of general laws of human behaviour… They are ornaments, in the technical sense, rhetorical devices that serve the orator to attain his goal – that is, to persuade. They pursue the truth.”
Maurizio Viroli, Machiavelli, Oxford University Press, 1998
The Prince as a job application has often been suggested by scholars, but several of Machiavelli’s critics went even further. They suggested that the book was written to fool the Medici into believing it was valid advice, and by following it, fail. Thus would Machiavelli get his revenge on the Medici.
“(Machiavelli) had the occasion to say, among his friends, that… if the (Medici) observed his methods (in The Prince), they would see that conspiracies resulted from it, as if he meant to say that his book would get him his revenge.”
Riccardo Riccardi, letter c. 1515, from The Prince with related Documents, ed. Connell
Cardinal Reginald Pole, one of Machiavelli’s earliest critics, had a similar belief in why Machiavelli wrote The Prince:
“Nevertheless, (Machiavelli) judged, as have all of the other writers who have written concerning how to make a man into a king or a prince, and as experience teaches, that if the prince did put these things into effect, his rule would be brief. This he greatly hoped for, since inwardly he burned with hatred toward that prince for whom he wrote. Nor did he expect from that book anything other than, by writing for the tyrant the things that please a tyrant, to give him, if he could, a ruinous downfall by his own action.”
Reginald Pole, Apology to Charles V, 1539, from The Prince with related Documents, ed. Connell
Given the animosity towards Machiavelli’s works by the church, these words have to be taken with a grain of salt. Some of his contemporary defenders had a very different view:
“In this (On Principalities) you will find written down, with the greatest transparency and brevity, all of the qualities of principalities, all of the ways to preserve them, all of the harms they suffer, with an exact account of the ancient and modern histories… so that if you read with that same attention you devote to other things, I am certain that you will draw from it no small utility. Receive it… and prepare yourself to be its keenest defender against all those who, out of malignity or envy, might wish, according to the practice of these times, to bite and to lacerate it.”
Biagio Buonaccorsi, letter, c.1516-17, from The Prince with related Documents, ed. Connell