The Prince (Niccolò Macchiavelli)

A book from which anyone interested in history and political philosophy should refer in order to receive an overview of the political system of that time and consider its similarities with many ways of governing countries today.

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (3 May 1469 – 21 June 1527) was a diplomat, philosopher and writer of the Italian Renaissance, best known for “The Prince”, written in 1513. Defined as the father of modern political philosophy and political science, Machiavelli for many years played the role of high official of the Florentine Republic with responsibilities in diplomatic and military affairs. His personal correspondence is of great importance for historians and scholars, he was secretary of the Second Chancellery of the Republic of Florence from 1498 to 1512, when the Medici were no longer in power.

Machiavelli referred in his treatise to the use of sometimes immoral behaviors, such as the use of deception and the killing of enemies, considering it the only way a head of state of his time had to ensure effective government. Although Machiavelli became famous above all for this work addressed to his friend of the Medici, there are also other works of great importance, both for philosophy, history and political philosophy, among all of them we remember the Discourses on Livy that are believed to have helped pave the way for modern republicanism.

Relationship with religion

Machiavelli repeatedly demonstrates that he sees religion as an institution created by man, and that its value lies in its contribution to the social order and the rules of morality. In the Prince, “Discorsi”, and in the Life of Castruccio Castracani, he describes the “prophets” like Moses, Romulus, Cyrus the Great, and Theseus as the greatest of the new princes, the glorious but also brutal in their ways of conquest, founders of the most current political innovations.

Machiavelli repeatedly demonstrates that he sees religion as an institution created by man, and that its value lies in its contribution to the social order and the rules of morality. In the Prince, the Discourses, and in the Life of Castruccio Castracani, he describes the “prophets” like Moses, Romulus, Cyrus the Great, and Theseus as the greatest of the new princes, the glorious but also brutal in their ways of conquest, founders of the most current political innovations.

Machiavelli’s concern for Christianity as a sect was that it makes men weak and inactive and idle, delivering politics into the hands of cruel and evil men without fighting. He believes that the fear of GOD can be replaced by the fear of the reigning Prince, but this only if it proves to be strong enough, in the sense mainly of feared. Machiavelli believes in every way that having a religion is in any case essential to keep a state in order, a judgment particularly widespread among the supporters of the republics until the times of the French Revolution.

Machiavelli and Savonarola

In the end of the 15th century there was a period of about eight years in which Niccolò Machiavelli and Girolamo Savonarola both lived in Florence. The history of the friar gave several food for thought to the genius of the secretary of the Republic, and although the judgment on the monk in Machiavelli’s work remains rather negative, the overall view of Savonarola’s work changed with time, as did the reasons behind these ideas.

Machiavelli was forced into exile and expelled from Florence fifteen years after Savonarola’s death. The Florentine put him, in the Prince, among the modern examples of the sixth chapter, next to Moses, Theseus and Romulus, and in opposition to the so-called armed prophets, the only ones who, once the illusion of the belief and trust of the population vanished, managed to maintain power. According to Machiavelli, it was precisely the will not to arm himself that condemned the monk, because just when the trust of his supporters staggered due to the pressure of the stronger and less transcendental (earthly) powers, he was unable to regain it with weapons and armies.

Structure

The book’s 26 chapters can be divided into four sections:

  • Chapters 1-11 discuss the different types of principalities or states
  • Chapters 12-14 discuss the different types of armies and the proper conduct of a prince as military leader
  • Chapters 15-23 discuss the character and behavior of the prince
  • Chapters 24-26 discuss Italy’s desperate political situation.

The types of principalities

Machiavelli lists four types of principalities:

  • Hereditary principalities, which are inherited by the ruler
  • Mixed principalities, territories that are annexed to the ruler’s existing territories
  • New principalities, which may be acquired by several methods: by one’s own power, by the power of others, by criminal acts or extreme cruelty, or by the will of the people (civic principalities)
  • Ecclesiastical principalities, namely the Papal States belonging to the Catholic church

The types of armies

A prince must always pay close attention to military affairs if he wants to remain in power. Machiavelli lists four types of armies:

  • Mercenaries or hired soldiers, which are dangerous and unreliable
  • Auxiliaries, troops that are loaned to you by other rulers—also dangerous and unreliable
  • Native troops, composed of one’s own citizens or subjects—by far the most desirable kind
  • Mixed troops, a combination of native troops and mercenaries or auxiliaries—still less desirable than a completely native army

The character and behavior of the prince

Machiavelli recommends the following character and behavior for princes:

  • It is better to be stingy than generous.
  • It is better to be cruel than merciful.
  • It is better to break promises if keeping them would be against one’s interests.
  • Princes must avoid making themselves hated and despised; the goodwill of the people is a better defense than any fortress.
  • Princes should undertake great projects to enhance their reputation.
  • Princes should choose wise advisors and avoid flatterers.

Italy’s political situation

Machiavelli outlines and recommends the following:

  • The rulers of Italy have lost their states by ignoring the political and military principles Machiavelli enumerates.
  • Fortune controls half of human affairs, but free will controls the rest, leaving the prince free to act.
  • The final chapter is an exhortation to the Medici family to follow Machiavelli’s principles and thereby free Italy from foreign domination.

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