“The Prince” wasn’t written just for the readers’ amusement. It is a clear and understandable instruction manual about growing your political persona, gaining power and holding this power when your enemies try to wrestle it out. This book, written by Niccolo Machiavelli for his friend named Lorenzo di Medici (an actual prince at that time) contains such a good advice that, despite all the centuries that passed, it is still popular amongst the modern politicians and statements of “The Prince” became the basement for the politics as we know it.
In the introduction Machiavelli states that he is going to present the complicated and vast analysis of politics and power in plain words, so one should not be a philosopher or an already skilled politician to understand and use this information. Indeed, the book is written in such a simple yet brilliantly precise language that nowadays almost everyone can read it, understand and find parallels and ways to use the advice in their own life. The book doesn’t need any preparations for reading: it provides some practical examples to illustrate the major points. Though some of them (especially those about castles and lands) are outdated and some are very, very unfortunately not outdated (we are talking about propaganda and human rights now), the book provides the reader with a clear view of the basics of the political process in any country.
The book consists of twenty-six chapters that are also grouped. The Chapters 1-5 tell the reader about the types of states that existed at that time and the ways to get one. Machiavelli states that there are two main types of states: principalities and republics, but he will omit republics (bad news for us here if we want to use his book!) and will focus on the principalities. The principalities also can be divided to the four types: newly created, inherited, mixed and ecclesiastical.
According to Machiavelli there is one main difference between them: hereditary principalities usually already have some stable government mechanisms, economics and are loyal to the royal family, so they are easy to rule from the very beginning. Even if the ruler is not brilliant, everything they should do is not to interfere too much and not to make people hate them. But if you are not the only heir of some king, it will be hard to incredible to get one. Creating a new principality is (relatively) easier: the methods Machiavelli offers include extreme cruelty to threaten the people, winning the people’s heart so they will proclaim you the King (civic principalities), committing a crime against the existing country to break it, using the power of allies or gathering one’s own power. But the new principality won’t have any tradition and inertia that hold the royal family on the throne, so, despite they are easier to acquire, they will be much harder to maintain. Mixed principalities are a mix of the first two, when a significant part of the realm is annexed to already existing country and their classification heavily depends on the situation. Ecclesiastical principalities are the one controlled by the church like Papal States and they are also not observed in the book (it is not about becoming a new Pope after all).
Disregarding of the type, new principalities are always a problem, because people wait for the immediate improvement of their quality of life. But the new ruler usually can’t raise the level of comfort of average citizen right here and now: they have the global task to undo the harm caused by conquering of the land or to provide necessary reforms after inheriting the power. Also, if the ruler used someone else’s help to get the new lands they are now in debt and have to pay it using that very new lands: raising taxes and all. Here Machiavelli gives one of the most cruel pieces of advice: if the new ruler has to inevitably injure some people, they must injure them so severely that these people will never be able to take revenge, like eliminating the family of the previous ruler completely. Also if there is a choice whom to harm, the ruler must choose the least powerful ones with the smallest influence, so that they won’t be a threat.
Later Machiavelli explains the differences between annexed territories. If a new land has the similar cultural background as the main one it will be easier to keep, because there is no need to change their lifestyle and adjust it to the traditions of the rest of the land. But if the people on the new territories are used to different life (especially if the territory was a republic before and they had much more rights and freedom) things get complicated. Machiavelli advises to go to that land and live there for a while, studying the local customs, strong and weak political forces. The main goal is to disrupt the existing remains of previous political powers, supporting the minor ones against the dominating ones. Also the new rulers shall beware of the neighboring countries that may take advantage and try to conquer the land for themselves. Another way to avoid the fierce resistance is just change the government of the republic to the loyal one and let people live under their own laws, formally preserving their freedom. Machiavelli emphasises that it is very important to deal with political problems right after the ruler notices them. Wars, according to him, can’t be avoided, only postponed.
Another point he pays attention to is the different types of local administration. If the administration is appointed by the ruler, it will be easier to control, but also easier to lose in case of war, because people of the land don’t have personal loyalty to their lords and the administration members also know that the land they rule isn’t theirs. The feudal lords, from the other hand, are more prone to rebel if they are dissatisfied with the ruler, but if the war starts they will fight for their land as for their own.
Chapters 6-9 are dedicated to the ways of getting the crown. The way that is suitable for a possible ruler depends on their abilities or virtu. The least reliable but still very useful is personal luck, then cunning and strength. Strength (especially military one) is the hardest to gather, but it is the best ability to keep the already conquered country. It is always better to rely on your own military strength than to ask for help, but in any case the military strength is essential at the beginning. Luck may make people believe into their new ruler, but after their mistakes people may lose their belief. Army is needed to force them to obey again. In a nutshell, lucky ones can obtain the crown easily and lose it equally easily, when strong one will cling to the hard-earned power.
The two other ways of obtaining the power, as it was told earlier, are criminal means and the free choice of the people. Talking about the first of these methods, Machiavelli warns the future rulers to cut short the cruel actions right after they get the crown, because this way can bring power but not the trust and love of the people. All the injuries shall be done at once, so the people will take them as one big act of cruelty. Then the benefits shall be gradually distributed, so the initial evil will slowly be substituted in their memory with casual and consistent good deeds. The other and the most exotic way (for the times of Machiavelli) is being elected that is called civil principality. One can achieve it by using one of the opposite forces of the country: the nobility or the commoners. Nobles want only to oppress people and the people want only to avoid the oppression. If the nobles are too pressured by the people, they can initiate the change of the ruler to protect them. If the commoners are the ones who can’t stand the pressure anymore, they can support a seemingly friendly candidate who, as they hope, will give them more freedom. The nobles can be impressed by effective deeds that gain them wealth and the commoners (what is quite ironically) by the noble deeds and immediate improvements of their condition.
Chapters 10-14 describe the sources of the military power of the country and their strong and weak sides. If the ruler has the army (as it was said before) he can do whatever he want, but if his army is insufficient, all they are capable of is fortifying the cities, collecting the supplies and doing anything to get the army as soon as possible. It is also very important to make people love their ruler, because their attitude defines their loyalty in case of the siege.
The possible types of soldiers are the prince’s own army, the mercenaries and auxiliaries (the second being the hired soldiers and the third are the troops sent to you by your allies). Almost every army is the mix of all the three types, but the mercenaries are dangerous, because they are unreliable, can demand more money in critical moments, knowing that their employer doesn’t have the luxury to refuse, and can outright turn on the prince who hired them, just because their enemy pays more. So, the wise ruler will use hired blades only as the last resort. Auxiliaries can be even more dangerous, because they never really obey you - they are the troops of another king and you don’t know what orders they got in their homeland. They can also turn on you, and, unlike the mercenaries who can be tricked into fighting each other, the auxiliaries are the strong unit used to work together.
Machiavelli emphasises that the art of war is one of the most important things to study. It can bring the crown to the commoner and the lack of it can make the refined noble prince lose everything. Even in the time of peace the prince shall find the time and ways to practices like hunting that strengthens the body and makes the ruler more familiar with the terrain of his country. The way to improve the theoretical knowledge is studying history books and learning about great battles won and lost.
The chapters 15-23 are dedicated to the ruling the country in the time of peace. Machiavelli is very sceptical towards the works of his predecessors, stating that they use utopian vision about imaginary society, while Machiavelli himself uses the real cases and evidences and finds that the real people rarely act like it is predicted in the textbooks. The prince also shall understand that they shouldn’t be Prince Charming as the previous guides often advise. To rule the country they must be guided by the different morals than the commoners. They must know how and when it is better to act immorally and do not have remorse. Some traits that are generally considered virtues can ruin the kingdom and some that are considered vices may save it.
The first seemingly positive trait that shall be used with extreme caution is generosity. The true generosity always comes with humility and is never seen. So, to build the reputation of the generous ruler one shouldn’t really do too much, but shall put to a lavish display every single act of generosity, even an insignificant one. The prince can allow themselves to be generous by giving away the property of the others, but exhausting their own resources will make them raise taxes to replenish these resources thus leading to hatred of the common folk.
Mercy is another trait that can harm the prince: though being merciful is self-satisfying, sometimes cruel actions are what saves the country. The people who are used to oppression may see mercy as sign of weakness and try to revolt. Cruel punishment for a few is always better than pardoning them and then harming hundreds while trying to end a full-fledged revolution. If a prince has to choose between love and fear, fear is more effective. People who love them will support them in the times of peace, but desert when the danger comes. People who fear their ruler will be obedient constantly, because they know that the prince they have also poses the danger, maybe even bigger than the enemy. But there is one very important addition: fear doesn’t equal hatred. The prince may be cruel but has to be just: they can’t just take whatever they want like the property or family of their subjects.
The third virtue that shall be avoided is honesty. Honesty can be useful to maintain a good image and no one has to lie constantly, but a wise prince has to be ready not to keep their word if said word doesn’t benefit his interests anymore. They should do this without any hesitation, because they can expect such a behaviour for everyone else. Lying to the common people can also be useful, because even if the lie is obvious but sweet, there will always be a lot of people who want to be deceived.
From the other side, vices aren’t so dangerous for a ruler, they can possess any that don’t cause either hatred or despise of the people. Taking property or families of your servants, will bring you hatred, while indecisive and weak behaviour will make you despised. The image of a perfect prince is an image of a serious no-nonsense person who is ready to act. Such image is the best protection against conspiracy, because the conspirators will know that by killing the ruler they will enrage people who love them.
A good ruler have to balance between nobles, commoners and (sometimes) army, whose interests are opposite. The soldiers want a warlike leader, while commoners desire peace. Aristocracy wants to exploit the peasants and the peasants want freedom. Obviously, no one can satisfy everyone, but it is better to have everyone content to slightly dissatisfied than one side happy and one enraged. Also the wise prince gives the others (e.g. the parliament) the unpleasant tasks, doing only what is looking good, concentrating on satisfying the most powerful side.
There are various tactics to maintain power: disarming the subjects, dividing them into factions, encouraging the enemies (seriously!), winning over the suspicious, building and destroying fortresses.
Disarming can seem a plausible tactics, because the disarmed subjects will have a hard time would they turn on prince. But the new prince should never use this tactics, because they are weakening their own new army and annoying their new vassals. Making factions eases the control over the state, but in the wartime they are much more vulnerable. Encouraging the possible enemies is useful later, because the prince can start a war at their own terms and earn a great reputation after the victory. Working with suspicious one is a tricky one, but sometimes the former suspects are the most loyal of all, because they always have an anxious part that reminds them to prove their faith to the ruler. They weren’t with them from the beginning, so they will always think that the ruler may distrust them. Fortresses are useful for defense, but if they are built not as a preparation for a war, they will show that the new ruler is afraid of their people and prepares a hideout for themselves.
Another thing that is important to maintain power is PR. The prince should never remain neutral: they should either commit outstanding actions by themselves, or, at least, personally reward or punish the outstanding actions of the others. It is important to show that the prince is interested in what their people are doing, reward them for their activities, throw feasts for them and even talk to them (but with all the royal dignity!). The prince is a celebrity and they should behave appropriately. The ruler should also have their own opinion about anything. If the neighboring countries start a war, they should choose the side, because otherwise both sides will despise them.
Good ministers and counselors are also essential to maintain power. If the prince knows that they aren’t good in some areas, they should care about having people around that can provide good ideas in that area and distinguish good decisions from bad ones. To make them tell the truth, the prince should show that they aren’t offended with the truth, even the most unpleasant one. Also the prince should make the ministers dependant on them with rewards that easily can be taken back. It won’t be wise to rely completely at one person, because such a counselor can usurp power later.
Chapters 24-26 tell the readers about the problems that existed in Italy at the times of Machiavelli, such as lack of military power, hatred of the people or too much independence for nobles. The unfortunate rulers blamed bad luck, but Machiavelli claims that his advice will help the ruler to adjust even to the worst of luck and still manage the country successfully. He urges the reader (the prince to whom this book is written for) to come and rule Italy wisely, avoiding the mistakes of his predecessors and using the Machiavelli’s guide to succeed