The Prince is a letter by Machiavelli to the Medici family summarizing his observations and experiences of Italy’s tumultuous 15th and early 16th centuries. It is a letter of advice on how to keep power (and presumably an unsuccessful attempt by Machiavelli to return to a position in the government) in which Machiavelli expounds a theory of government that constrasts sharply to that of his moralizing colleagues writing similar letters. Unlike his colleagues, who wrote advice based on how government ought to work, Machiavelli observed the fortunes of his contemporary leaders and analyzed the history of past leaders to create an empirical guideline. It is a testament to his thorough treatment that his analysis is still applicable to the modern State; the reader will be able to easily note some examples of modern history that corroborate his assertions.

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.
Review: 10
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.