Machiavelli limits himself to the “principality”, a state which is headed by a ruler, or prince. First there is the “mixed” or annexed state, which is difficult to hold unless the occupier personally lives there or the state is used to an authoritarian system. Next there is the principality gained through ability, which is difficult to gain but easy to keep, since a necessary precondition is superb ability. By contrast, there is the state gained through the use of others, which is easy to acquire, but unless the new ruler is very able, it will be quickly lost. There is the method of cruelty, which will work if the cruelty is limited to the very early rule (i.e. killing any competition) but not afterwards. Finally, there is the elected ruler, who must ensure that the nobles whose interests do not match the rulers must be hindered, and who must ensure that the people, who are ultimately his support, have a favorable opinion of him.
The military is presented as the primary means of measuring a state. Mercenaries were the usual force employed in Italy at this time, but Machiavelli asserts that they are useless, because they have no personal interest in the outcome and are therefore unwilling to risk much personally. Foreign troops, another common source, are worse than useless, because if they win, you are at their mercy. Rather, the strong state is one that has its own army. Since the native army must be led by the ruler, it follows that the ruler must be, above all, concerned with military matters and gaining military strategical insight.
There are certain character traits which are generally held to be admirable in a ruler and a ruler should cultivate the appearance of those traits. Very often, however, actually possessing those characteristics will undo a ruler, simply because “how men live is so different from how they should live”. For example, generosity is held to be a good characteristic. However, too much generosity will require the ruler to raise taxes to pay for the generosity. If he is more miserly, however, he will have ample funds for what is needed and the citizens will retain a larger portion of their income. Similarly, one would wish to be loved, but men will betray those they love when it proves to their advantage, whereas they will always obey the one they fear. So power is more easily retained by being feared, provided that the ruler is not hated (primarily caused by confiscation of property or dishonoring the womenfolk) or despised.
Finally, Machiavelli has a short section on Fortune, concluding that about half of our life is outside of our control. These effects can be mitigated, much like floods can be prevented by building dykes. Ultimately, however, he concludes that each man has a natural mode of operation (for example, impetuosity or caution) which he is rather powerless to change. So if circumstances favor your mode of operation, you will be successful, otherwise you will not.
The Prince is primarily a treatise on the retention of power. Most readers are struck by his unappologetically amoral approach to retaining power, but Machiavelli’s aim is a method of retaining power in this imperfect world, not a description of how government would ideally work. Indeed, it would be Machiavelli’s assertion that the ruler who prizes morality above retention of power will not fail to lose the latter, and in order to retain power, one must sacrifice flawless morality. The Prince is a summary of how Men react to governments and rulers; given these observed reactions, it advises certain courses of actions. It is cogently argued and illustrated with well-explained examples so that the reader cannot fail to understand the principles, which have a timeless practical wisdom. If the advice seems to disregard common moral practice, perhaps the flaw is not as much in Machiavelli’s advice as it is in the Men whose nature requires this departure in order to be governed.
Logically laid out, thorough, and well illustrated with examples. The writing is very frugal and sometimes further discussion might reveal more subtle points. The majority of his examples are contemporary and a larger window of time would also be illustrative (but then, it was the wide variety of contemporary successes and failures which led to this work). I would rate this as 9.5 because the examples and explanations could be expanded, but that was not his purpose, and the fact that it was still around for me to read almost 500 years later is prima facie evidence of its quality.
- Hereditary principalities: easy to maintain because it is sufficient to maintain the status quo, partly because “a natural ruler has fewer reasons and less need to harm others”. Furthermore, the continuity of the family strengthens people’s support and attackers must offer more than a mere change of governments. It is easy for a displaced ruler to reclaim the government.
- Newly acquired principalities:
- An annexed principality with different customs than the
annexing nation requires either relocating there (i.e. direct rule) or
colonies (cheaper than occupation and easier on the populace).
- Conquerors “welcomed” by the conquered nation are expected to improve conditions but the nature of armies is injury and political realities require more, so that the newly conquered are again discontented.
- Rulers should weaken those who are powerful within the country and protect (but not strengthen) minor neighboring powers.
- Problems must be detected early when they are solvable.
- There are two types of principalities
- King/ruler with hereditary nobles: easier to conquer (nobles have less allegience to the king) but harder to hold (nobles have memory of their former power)
- Hereditary king/ruler with appointed administrators: harder to conquer (administrators owe their position to the ruler and have no incentive to support another) but easier to maintain.
- (This is why Persia did not rebel after Alexander’s death, even though he ruled it for only a few years)
- Principalities that were formerly free before you conquered them can only be held by you living there or by destroying the cities/institutions of freedom.
- A citizen who becomes a ruler by his skill (and luck of being the right type of person in the right time) has a harder time succeeding (people have little incentive to help him) but their ability ensures they maintain their position.
- Those who become ruler through luck or favor of others come to power easily but cannot maintain it because their position depends on favor of others (which is notoriously undependable) and they do not have an innate skill.
- A citizen who becomes ruler by murdering and replacing the elite will succeed ony if all the evil deeds are done early and no more. This way the populace will fear him, otherwise they are disgusted by him.
- Citizens who become rulers by support of nobles have difficulty maintaining rule because the nobles feel they are equal to him. Citizens who become rulers by popular support need only keep the people well disposed.
- It is problematic for a civil ruler to try to become absolute because the people are accustomed to obeying the officials and may not obey him in a crisis.
- Honor and esteem nobles who “conduct themselves in a way that links your success with theirs”. Nobles who do not “commit themselves to you” are fine if it is from lack of ambition, but if from ambition you should fear them.
- The strength of a principality is the ability of the ruler to defend himself from siege.
- “For so many unexpected things can happen in this world that it is virtually impossible to keep an army encamped idly in a siege for a whole year.”
- The German states [were] fairly independent of the German Emperor because they each had their own defense.
- Ecclesiastical principalities are acquired through luck and maintained with little effort because their authority comes from God (i.e. a widely accepted spiritual source).
- Mercenaries are useless: they have little incentive to die on your behalf (thus they do not fight valiantly), if they are very capable they are likely to aspire to greater things, and “if they are mediocre, you will be ruined as a matter of course”. Machiavelli attributes Italy’s turmoil to the use of mercenaries.
- Auxiliaries (foreign troops) are extremely dangerous because you are at their mercy if they are victorious.
- The Roman Empire began to decline only when it began to use the Goths as mercenaries “because that policy began to sap the strength of the Roman Empire; and all the vigor that was drained from it was received by the Goths”
- “...any principality that does not have its own army cannot be secure”
- “A ruler, then, should have no other objective and no other concern, nor occupy himself with anything else except war and its methods and practices, for this pertains only to those who rule.”
- Military ability makes rulers from citizens and the lack of it makes citizens of rulers.
- Hunt frequently (physical exertion and familiarization with the terrain), read historical works to discover lessons and pitfalls of other great men.
- “How men live is so different from how they should live that a ruler who does not do what is generally done, but persists in doing what ought to be done, will undermine his power rather than maintain it. If a ruler who wants always to at honorably is surrounded by many unscrupulous men his downfall is inevitable. Therefore, a ruler who wishes to maintain his power must be prepared to act immorally [i.e. break promises, murder, etc.] when this because necessary. ... because it is not possible to have [every admirable virtue] and because circumstances do not permit living a completely virtuous life, one must be sufficiently prudent to know how to avoid becoming notorious for those vices which would destroy one’s power ... yet one should not be troubled about becoming notorious for those vices without which it is difficult to preserve one’s power” (p. 55)
- Generosity is one of those power-destroying vices, because generosity comes at the expense of taxing the people, which eventually becomes rapacious. Miserliness, generally considered a vice, is power enhancing because it enables low taxes but a full coffer for defense.
- It is best if you are both feared and loved, but if that is not possible, it is better to be feared [because of judicious cruelty to preserve order] than to be loved, because men are fickly—they are devoted to you only until it no longer benefits themselves, then they quickly abandon you. However, one should avoid being hated, which can be accomplished by execution only when proven necessary, restraint of seizing property and womenfolk.
- Avoid at all costs seizing property because it is a addicting habit and men forget the killing of a father more quickly than loss of property[/income]. The commentary notes that “In an almost contemporaneous piece, Machiavelli says that everyone knows that a change in regime will not bring relatives back to life, but it could well result in one’s property being restored.”
- Do not keep promises if the reasons for making are no longer
relevant. Always be sure to appear “merciful, trustworthy,
upright, human, and devout”, although be prepared to disregard these
- Avoid contempt and hatred:
- Hatred can be avoided by not seizing subjects’ women or property. (But implied is that if property of a few opponents is siezed, their ambitions can be kept under control)
- Contempt is avoided by “contriv[ing] hat his actions should display grandeur, courage, seriousness, and strength, and [that] his decisions about the private disputes of his subjects should be irrevocable ... so that no one should think of lying to him or scheming to trick him”
- Such an image will produce an excellent reputation that will prevent internal plots, because the people are satisfied.
- Roman emperors illustrate this: “For it was hard to satisfy both the soldiers and the people: the reason was that the people liked a peaceful life, and consequently wanted to have modrate rulers, whereas the soldiers wanted warlike rulers, who were arrogant, cruel, and rapacious. The soldiers wanted the people to be treated harshly by rulers, so that they could have [booty and regular pay] and give vent to their own rapacity and cruelty. The outcome was that those emperors who (either through natural deficiencies or lack of experience) did not acquire sufficient prestige to restrain both the soldiers and the people always failed. ... Consequently, the emperors who stood specially in need of support (because they were new rulers) favored the soldiers rather than the people. However, whether this profited them ... depended on whether they were capable of keeping the respect of the soldiers”
- Marcus Aurelius: moderate, just, kind. Only succeeded because the authority was hereditary.
- Pertinax: like Marcus in character, but the soldiers did not want him to be emperor and they disliked the discipline he imposed on them (i.e. they hated him [and despised him because of his age])
- Alexander: moderate, just. Killed because he was controlled by his mother (i.e. weak)
- Severus: cruel, rapacious, but very skillful. The people were amazed by his actions and the soldiers were satisfied. So he maintained power.
- Antonious: Disciplined soldier (thus admired by the army) but his wanton killing made everyone, even the army afraid of him.
- Commodus: Inherited power from Marcus Aurelius, but was cruel and barbaric, so was despised by the people. Diminished his dignity by fighting in the arena, so lost the respect of the army.
- In “modern” states, the people tend to have more power than the army, so it is most important to satisfy them. Some, though, like the Sultan of Turkey, depends on a large armed force, so he must satisfy them more.
- “If a ruler is more afraid of his own subjects than foreigners, he should build fortresses [this is not referring to normal defences like strong city walls but more like fortified refuges]; but a ruler who is more afraid of foreigners than of his own subjects should not build them ... [but] the best fortress a ruler can have is not to be hated by the people: for if you possess fortresses and the people hate you, having fortresses will not save you, since if the people rise up there will never be any lack of foreign powers ready to help them” (p. 75)
- Some rulers promote internal factions to avoid any one becoming powerful, but this does not permit a strong defense against another State.
- Do not disarm the people (as a new ruler) and arm them if they are not already. Disarming them offends them are requires the use of mercenaries.
- Vanquishing difficulties enhances a ruler’s prestige. Thus new rulers encourage enemies so that the can defeat them.
- Reputation is gained by “undertaking great campaigns and performing unusual deeds”.
- Dispense rewards or punishments in a way that “will be much talked about”.
- Be either an staunch enemy or ally; do not be neutral (depending on the outcome, you might be plundered by the winner or considered a doubtful ally)
- Always intervene:
- If those you are helping lose, they will at least be likely to show you gratitude in the future
- If those you are helping win, their honor will prevent them from attacking you and friendship will be formed. “Moreover, victories are never so decisive that the victor does not need to be careful, and especially about acting justly.”
- If none are a threat to you, you cause the downfall of one, and put the winner at your mercy (see notes on Auxiliaries). Never ally with one more powerful than you unless absolutely necessary.
- Be a patron of the arts, provide public entertainment during festivals, visit the guilds, but in such a manner as enhances “the prestige of [your] office, for this is something that should never be diminished”.
- An excellent ruler will have excellent ministers (and vice-versa); a ruler’s quality can be judged by his officials. Do not choose a man who thinks more of his interests than yours (he is not trustable); but a loyal servant should be given “golden shackles” so that he is dependent on you.
- Shun flatters. Make sure that everyone knows that “the truth does not offend you”, but only when you ask for it. If you allow anyone to speak frankly at any time, you diminish the augustness of your office. Do not waver about decisions.
- Vagueries of fortune can be minimized by wise policies. However, each of us has a certain temperament, which we cannot change,
either caution or impetuousity, and it is luck that determines whether
we are born to a time which matches our temperament. However, err
on the side of impetuousity.
- Machiavelli closes with requests that the (unnamed) Medici family
fix the problems of Italy through wise government.