Great Ideas Collection: Niccolò Machiavelli

In the tenth of our series exploring the books of Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, Sophie Kingham reviews Niccolò Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’.

The Prince is part of a genre of works known as “mirror-for-princes”, which refers to political writings that directly instruct kings or rulers on their behaviour. This book was originally written in 1513, at a time when Niccolò Machiavelli’s home country of Italy was in political unrest, but was not officially published until 1532, five years after the death of Machiavelli.

It was considered innovative but was also surrounded by controversy. In The Social Contract, Jean Jacques Rousseau says that The Prince “is a handbook for republicans”; Bertrand Russell described it as “a handbook for gangsters”.

The book discusses how a new ruler needs to act in order to maintain his power and gain everlasting glory; it is a how-to-guide, using examples from history to establish the best way to behave as a ruler and conqueror of a country. In the first instance:

If the ruler wants to keep hold of his new possessions, he must bear two things in mind: first, that the family of the old prince must be destroyed; next, that he must change neither their laws nor their taxes. In this way, in a very short space of time the new principality will be rolled into one with the old.

Thereby establishing a new leadership quickly, and with little opposition from the people.

Machiavelli states throughout that a new ruler needs to learn from the actions of historical figures who have succeeded or failed: “a prudent man must always follow in the footsteps of great men and imitate those who have been outstanding.”

He also takes into account how princes should deal with their fortune, their aides, and their people. Machiavelli states that when it comes to money, it would be nice to be generous but “if you do earn a reputation for generosity you will come to grief.”

He suggests that people are vultures and will take the fortune of a generous man should they be given an opportunity, spoiling a cornerstone of principality; fortune, after all, is a necessity to princes. A prince’s advisers are also a vital part of successful leadership. When a ruler steps into power:

The first opinion that is formed of a ruler’s intelligence is based on the quality of the men he has around him. When they are competent and loyal he can be considered wise… but when they are otherwise, the prince is always open to adverse criticism; because his first mistake has been in the choice of his ministers.

If a prince is to maintain his rule and keep citizens from opposing him, he needs to appear as if he is a wise man in all choices; pacifying his citizens and ensuring that they “are all slaves bound in loyalty to their master.” Machiavelli continues, “a wise prince must devise ways by which his citizens are always and in all circumstances dependent on him and his authority” – almost brainwashing them in order to minimise opposition and trouble, ensuring a long and great leadership that will go down in history.

The act of war is often mentioned throughout this book as well: “The main foundations of every state, new states as well as ancient or composite ones, are good laws and good arms” in order to defend that state from other would-be conquerors. Machiavelli suggests that a prince should “have no other object or thought, nor acquire skill in anything, except war, its organization, and its discipline. The art of war is all that is expected of a ruler”.

He encourages princes and leaders to become well versed in the history of war, to learn from the great leaders of the past to “see how they conducted themselves… and to discover the reasons for their victories or their defeats”

All of this is done in the name of maintaining a country as one’s own, in order to go down in the record books as a great prince. Some of Machiavelli’s suggestions are immoral, harsh, and downright selfish, but we should remember that The Prince was written at a time when Machiavelli’s Italy was involved in intense political conflict.

The cities of Florence, Milan, Venice, and Naples tried to fight for control of Italy, as did the papacy, France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire; all after the Medici family were expelled from power. And all influencing how Niccolò Machiavelli perceived the world.


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