The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli remains one of the most extreme and controversial works of political philosophy. The book was finished in 1532 and dedicated to Lorenzo de’Medici, the governor of Florence at the time of the book’s writing. Machiavelli wrote the book in the belief that it could and should be used as practical advice for the ruler to ensure the preservation of the Florentine state.
Central to the book is an idea that can be summarised as ‘the end justifies the means.’ Machiavelli stood out from his contemporaries because he believed that politics and morality should be separated. Classical political theory had argued that the two were linked, that political law was connected to a higher moral law. Machiavelli, whether through realism or calculated cynicism, rubbished this idea and argued that political action must be judged purely on its practical consequences.
The book is direct and avoids abstract hypothesis, much like the politics it advocates. From its start it is transparent about its concerns. The author makes it abundantly clear that he is interested with autocracies rather than republics. The third chapter then introduces the topics the book will focus on, power politics, war craft, and the popular good will.
Over the following chapters Machiavelli goes on to offer advice for a host of different scenarios. He starts by comparing the difficulties encountered with certain routes to power. He then moves on to discuss how to acquire and maintain new territories. The book then discusses the importance of building and keeping a strong military, and the considerations that need to be made when forming alliances.
Chapters fifteen to twenty three focus on the nature of the ‘Prince’ himself. This is one of the most inflammatory sections of the book. Machiavelli argues that high minded ideals lead to bad government. Personal virtue in leaders comes under particular scrutiny. The author suggests that a prince who acts with virtuous qualities is likely to be harmful to the state as a whole. On the other hand, controversial or even belligerent actions might be crucial to the well being of the state. Machiavelli then dabbles in PR, suggesting that the impression of virtue is more important than actual virtue in gaining the support of a population.
The closing chapters deal specifically with the situation in 1523. Machiavelli analyses Italy’s disunity, and the failure of past rulers. He issues a plea for future rulers to restore the nation’s honour and pride.
Context is crucial to understanding The Prince. Sixteenth century Italy was divided up into feuding city states, such as Florence, Naples, Milan and Venice. These city states fought for control of the region, amongst themselves, but also with outside powers such as the Papacy, France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. After working in Rome for seven years, Machiavelli returned to Florence in 1494, the same year Charles VIII’s French Empire invaded Italy. Political upheaval and foreign invasion would occur frequently throughout Machiavelli’s life. The arguments in The Prince could be viewed as a blueprint of how to liberate and unify Italy in such a complex and hostile climate.
The book was heavily criticised on its publication, inspiring particular vitriol from the clergy. Its arguments were largely ignored until 1782, when Machiavelli’s works began to be republished.
Nowadays, Machiavelli, and The Prince in particular, are associated with advocating a ruthless, devious and largely undemocratic form of politics. This conclusion is an over simplification of the writer’s work. The Prince makes a pioneering argument for the role of free will. A central idea throughout the work is that humans play a defining role in their own destinies. He makes allowances for determinism in human history, but only as a force working alongside human action, not directing it. The book makes a host of unsettling arguments, but it remains a crucial text in the formation of modern political philosophy.
The Art of War; The Prince
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by Niccolr Machiavelli