"The Prince", one of the many writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, is the definitive work on how to be a complete socio-political weasel. Evil abounds in this delightful book that was banned by Pope Clement VIII. Truly, Pope Clement never anticipated the internet, and thus you too have access to the flowering genius of the world's first sucessful backstabbing political/military theorist and philosopher. On a side note, if anyone ever is stupid enough to claim to you that they are a follower of the machiavellian philosophy, do not under any circumstances let them watch your children or loan them a substantial amount of money.

Without further stalling, here it is:

The Prince
Chapter 1 - How Many Kinds of Principalities There Are, and by what Means They are Acquired
Chapter 2 - Concerning Hereditary Principalities
Chapter 3 - Concerning Mixed Principalities
Chapter 4 - Why the Kingdom of Darius, Conquered by Alexander, Did Not Rebel Against the Successors of Alexander at his Death
Chapter 5 - Concerning the Way to Govern Cities or Principalities which Lived Under Their Own Laws Before They Were Annexed
Chapter 6 - Concerning New Principalities Which Are Acquired by One's Own Arms and Ability
Chatper 7 - Concerning New Principalities Which Are Acquired Either By the Arms of Others or By Good Fortune
Chapter 8 - Concerning Those Who Have Obtained a Principality by Wickedness
Chapter 9 - Concerning a Civil Principality
Chapter 10 - Concerning the Way in which the Strength of All Principalities ought to be Measured
Chapter 11 - Concerning Ecclesiastical Principalities
Chapter 12 - How many kinds of Soldiery there are, and Concerning Mercenaries
Chapter 13 - Concerning Auxiliaries, Mixed Soldiery, and One’s Own
Chapter 14 - That which Concerns a Prince on the Subject of the Art of War
Chapter 15 - Concerning Things for which Men, and Especially Princes, are Praised or Blamed
Chapter 16 - Concerning Liberality and Meanness
Chapter 17 - Concerning Cruelty and Clemency, and whether it is Better to be Loved then Feared
Chapter 18 - Concerning the Way in which Princes should keep Faith
Chapter 19 - That One should avoid being Despised and Hated
Chapter 20 - Are Fortresses, and many other Things to which Princes often resort, Advantageous or Hurtful?
Chapter 21 - How a Prince should Conduct himself so as to gain Renown
Chapter 22 - Concerning the Secretaries of Princes
Chapter 23 - How Flatterers should be Avoided
Chapter 24 - Why the Princes of Italy have Lost their States

--- Under Construction ---

Chapter 25 - What Fortune can effect in Human Affairs and how to withstand Her
Chapter 26 - An Exhortation to Liberate Italy from the Barbarians

There is also an excellent, though old, Microprose game by the same name. You are a Venetian merchant prince, and you have to explore the world, trade goods, wage wars, and build stuff. You can then use hordes of gold you rake in to buy Senators (and use your political influence to reward your friends and punish your enemies) or Cardinals (and use your ecclesiastical influence to get a corrupt Venetian of your choosing eventually elected Pope). Occasionally bad things happen: nasty rumours, assasinations, and that pesky Black Plague. Not quite as detrimental to your GPA as the Civilization series, but still good for hours of solitary or play-by-mail (like I said, it's an old game) fun.

The Prince


To the Magnificent Lorenzo Di Piero De' Medici:

Those who strive to obtain the good graces of a prince are accustomed to come before him with such things as they hold most precious, or in which they see him take most delight; whence one often sees horses, arms, cloth of gold, precious stones, and similar ornaments presented to princes, worthy of their greatness.

Desiring therefore to present myself to your Magnificence with some testimony of my devotion towards you, I have not found among my possessions anything which I hold more dear than, or value so much as, the knowledge of the actions of great men, acquired by long experience in contemporary affairs, and a continual study of antiquity; which, having reflected upon it with great and prolonged diligence, I now send, digested into a little volume, to your Magnificence.

And although I may consider this work unworthy of your countenance, nevertheless I trust much to your benignity that it may be acceptable, seeing that it is not possible for me to make a better gift than to offer you the opportunity of understanding in the shortest time all that I have learnt in so many years, and with so many troubles and dangers; which work I have not embellished with swelling or magnificent words, nor stuffed with rounded periods, nor with any extrinsic allurements or adornments whatever, with which so many are accustomed to embellish their works; for I have wished either that no honour should be given it, or else that the truth of the matter and the weightiness of the theme shall make it acceptable.

Nor do I hold with those who regard it as a presumption if a man of low and humble condition dare to discuss and settle the concerns of princes; because, just as those who draw landscapes place themselves below in the plain to contemplate the nature of the mountains and of lofty places, and in order to contemplate the plains place themselves upon high mountains, even so to understand the nature of the people it needs to be a prince, and to understand that if princes it needs to be of the people.

Take then, your Magnificence, this little gift in the spirit in which I send it; wherein, if it be diligently read and considered by you, you will learn my extreme desire that you should attain that greatness which fortune and your other attributes promise. And if your Magnificence from the summit of your greatness will sometimes turn your eyes to these lower regions, you will see how unmeritedly I suffer a great and continued malignity of fortune.

Table of Contents (The titles here are supposed to be all uppercase, but E2ers don't like this. So, who am I to stand in the way of the mob? I am slowly normal-casing these titles.)

  1. How Many Kinds of Principalities There Are, and By What Means They are Acquired
  2. Concerning Hereditary Principalities
  3. Concerning Mixed Principalities
  4. Why the Kingdom of Darius, Conquered by Alexander, Did Not Rebel Against the Successors of Alexander at his Death
  5. Concerning The Way To Govern Cities Or Principalities Which Lived Under Their Own Laws Before They Were Annexed
  6. Concerning New Principalities Which Are Acquired by One's Own Arms and Ability
  7. Concerning New Principalities Which Are Acquired Either By the Arms of Others or By Good Fortune

The conventional wisdom is that Machiavelli, a career diplomat, wrote The Prince in an effort to gain employment with the Medici, who in 1513 were just coming back into power in his native Florence. However, I believe that it is actually the earliest published trolling in existence - a precursor to A Modest Proposal and similar works.

Consider: Florence was a traditionally republican city-state throughout much of its early history. Machiavelli's experience in diplomacy occurred during an interval (1494-1512) between successive periods of Medici rule, when democratic leanings were at their most pronounced, and he thrived under this form of government. He was an advocate of raising a citizens' militia to free Florence from dependence on foreigners, and even attempted to raise such a militia himself. However, the intellectual Florentines may not have been cut out for warfare, and the militia was ineffective.

When the Medici came back into power, with the aid of a pope friendly to their interests and the foreign power of Spain, and despite the disorganized embryo of the aforementioned militia, Machiavelli was considered enough of a threat to be imprisoned and tortured. When he was released and allowed to retire to the countryside, he wrote The Prince, dedicating it first to Giuliano de Medici, and later to his succesor, "the magnificent Lorenzo de Medici."

If he was aiming for a job with the new regime (and I don't deny that he was) he had too much pride to get his nose sufficiently browned. In this chapter, Machiavelli states (according to my translation, the Norton Critical Edition by Robert M. Adams) that a ruler taking over a city accustomed to republican government (here he has Florence in mind) must either destroy it or be destroyed by it. Citizens of such a city, he advises the Medici, "can always call on the name of liberty and its ancient ordinances, which no passage of time or bestowal of gifts can ever cause to be forgotten...if one does not divide or disperse the inhabitants, they will never forget that name or those ordinances; and, at the slightest incident, they will instantly have recourse to them." If that doesn't sound like a taunt, I don't know what does - especially since the Medici were in no position to destroy their seat of power.

The new pope in Rome (Leo X) was Giovanni de Medici, brother of Giuliano. In writing about the papacy, Machiavelli states that "we may hope that as his predecessors made it great by force of arms, he by his generosity and countless other virtu will make it even greater and more to be revered." This appears to be a case of damning with faint praise. If Niccolo was as eager to get a job with the Medici as is supposed, I think he would have been on his proverbial knees, singing the virtu of the new pope far and wide; he would not have merely hoped that Leo possesed sufficient virtu.

So, after thriving for years under a fairly democratic government, attempting and failing to raise an army to defend it, and being imprisoned and tortured by the new monarchical government, we are to believe that Machiavelli, in true Machiavellian fashion, threw out his long-held democratic beliefs in an attempt to curry favor with the regime; but that despite his well-earned reputation for rhetorical virtu, he was unable to do so with Giuliano - who was not widely regarded as a great intellect. I don't buy it. I think that The Prince is a classic double feint. Everyone knows the old axiom that a ruler who squeezes onto power too tightly will feel it slip out between his fingers. This seems to me a more reasonable explanation for The Prince - he was giving the Medici intentionally bad advice. Although it did not succeed in ridding Florence of the Medici (remember that, at least on the face of it, they did not heed Machiavelli's manifesto) countless rulers - from Napoleon to Mussolini to Peron to Pinochet - have lost their empires, small and large, while acting similarly to those who, like Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli holds up as examples for the aspiring prince.

Is The Prince moral, immoral or amoral?

Most people who have heard of Niccolò Machiavelli would associate the Florentine with unscrupulousness and deceitfulness, which they feel, is epitomised in his 1513 pamphlet, The Prince. However, Machiavelli’s writings revolved primarily around practicality and pragmatism and it can be seen in The Prince that he was a great student of human nature finding examples to back up his points in both contemporary and classical society.

As a result of his obsession with politics, Machiavelli wrote The Prince, a handbook containing practical advice for someone seeking success in sixteenth century Italian politics. There has been much debate among historians as to how The Prince ought to be interpreted, with some claiming that it is a satire and others adhering to the view that it was written for the purpose of regaining political favour. Currently, however, the most widely accepted view is that Machiavelli intended this work to be an illustration and a warning to the merchant class of what they might expect if they were ruled by a prince. Machiavelli’s prince must possess the attributes necessary to maintain his hold on power such as calculation, prudence, decisiveness and strength. Without the ability to act as "a fox and a lion", the prince will lose power. This advice would obviously be inappropriate in a modern context not because of its lack of Christian morality but because most modern politicians are further constrained by laws and the accountability of democracy.

Many people throughout the centuries since The Prince was written have attacked it for being immoral. However, these antagonists have ignored much of what is said in the text and have failed to notice that Machiavelli never advocates immorality but rather states that a prince must do what is necessary to maintain power rather than adhere to Christian virtues. The Prince is ostensibly a handbook on how a ruler should hold onto power and we should not expect it to adhere to a strict moral code just as we would not expect a modern book discussing politics to.

Instead of adhering to any moral code, Machiavelli arrives at many conclusions about human nature from his observations, and these explain some of the more drastic measures he recommends at times. If Machiavelli’s prince seems at times harsh and cruel, deceitful or hypocritical, it is because this is how he must be in order to govern men as they are. In his Discourses, Machiavelli outlines what we might call a socialist utopia and like many modern socialists, he believed in the necessity of strong leadership to create a republic in which people worked for the common good. The Prince, although written about an authoritarian state, merely contains advice on how to keep the position of the strong leader.

Machiavelli’s enthusiasm for freedom and self-rule show through in The Prince, especially in the section in which he urges princes to utilise armies comprised of their own citizens since their patriotic ardour will make them fight harder and they will never turn on their ruler.

On the other hand, Machiavelli, himself religiously apathetic, never argues in favour of Christian morals in The Prince, unless these coincide with what a prince must do to consolidate his grasp on power. The arguments and suggestions contained in The Prince provide guidance that is effective in a political context and allow the reader to apply their own moral code. Many of the suggestions that it presents, such as lying and murder, are unacceptable under almost all moral codes and so it is difficult if not impossible to view The Prince as a moral text.

Experience taught Machiavelli that often the most successful outcomes are a result of actions which may seem unscrupulous, at the beginning of Chapter XVIII on “The way princes should keep their word” he says, “How praiseworthy it is for a prince to keep his word and live with integrity rather than by craftiness, everyone understands; yet we see from recent experience that those princes have accomplished most who paid little heed to keeping their promises, but who knew how to manipulate the minds of men craftily. In the end, they won out over those who tried to act honestly.” Such behaviour would be the antithesis of Christian teaching and accepted morality.

Machiavelli often writes of the amoral utility of an action as opposed to its morality, and his focus is on whether an action is useful rather than good in itself. If we look at Machiavelli’s choice of words, quite often the concept of goodness is linked to or even replaced by words such as effectiveness, usefulness, or necessity, whereas a bad or inappropriate action is often described as useless or harmful. This terminology underlines the fact that in The Prince Machiavelli was not thinking in terms of morality, although he undoubtedly had his own moral code, because morality, and especially the absolute moral notions of good and evil, does not impinge upon the subject matter of the book. Machiavelli recognises that in practical politics, good and evil cannot exist as absolutes but must vary according to the situation and an estimation of likely success and failure.

In the end, The Prince makes recommendations that are based not on any code of morality but merely on Machiavelli’s pragmatic and occasionally utilitarian system of logic designed to maximise an individual’s political lifetime. The book can only be viewed as amoral since its political theme is one independent of morality but based merely on a scientific observation of what has proven effective and necessary for a prince to gain and maintain political power.

In The Prince, is Machiavelli simply describing what happens in fact in politics; or is he recommending how one ought to behave in politics?

I think it is clear that Machiavelli's purpose in The Prince is twofold. First, he is trying to describe how things actually work in politics. Secondly, he is arguing for specific types of action that princes should undertake. Leo Strauss has desribed this dual nature of The Prince by calling it a ’treatise’ on the one hand and a ’tract for the times’ on the other (Strauss, 1957: 13-14).

Obviously, Machiavelli is describing what he sees as the realities of politics. He notes that "Many have dreamed up republics and principalities which have never in truth been known to exist ..." (Machiavelli, 2003: 50) and points out that he is talking only about those things "which truly exist" (Machiavelli, 2003: 30). He presents a number of historical and contemporary examples of successful or not so successful princes, attempting to explain their victories or downfalls. His varied examples from both antiquity and Renaissance Italy and his application of similar principles to both shows, I think, that he is not only talking about the realities of Italian politics of his time, but rather what he sees as the realities of politics in all times.

Machiavelli offers general descriptions of such things as human nature and fortune. These from the context for the realities of politics. Thus, because human beings are "wretched creatures” according to Machiavelli, a successful prince is not good. His favourite example of a successful prince is Cesare Borgia, who employed deception and murder to great effect. Machiavelli does not seem to be concerned by the moral difficulties arising from such actions, judging princes merely on their success. Of Cesare Borgia he writes: “Cesare Borgia was accounted cruel; nevertheless, this cruelty of his reformed the Romagna, brought it unity, and restored order and obedience.” (Machiavelli, 2003: 53) I think this air of objectivity lends support to the idea that Machiavelli is indeed describing what actually happens in politics.

The second purpose is evident in Machiavelli's letter to Lorenzo de Medici, ruler of Florence at the time of the writing of the book. Machiavelli says: "... if you read and consider it (The Prince) diligently, you will discover in it my urgent wish that you reach the eminence that fortune and your other qualities promise you." (Machiavelli, 2003: 4) This, of course, implies that if Lorenzo de Medici were to read the book, he would succeed in his political ambitions, suggesting that the book not only describes the realities of politics but also tells princes how to act within those realities.

A clearer example of this is the book's final chapter, entitled Exhortation to liberate Italy from the barbarians. He writes: "... if your illustrious House wants to emulate those eminent men who saved their countries, before all else it is essential for it ... to raise a citizen army ... It is necessary ... to raise such an army, in order to base our defence against the invaders on Italian strength. ... you can develop a new type (of army), capable of withstanding cavalry and undaunted by other infantry." (Machiavelli, 2003: 84) This is obviously a description of how a certain prince, Lorenzo de Medici, should act. If Machiavelli's intention was simply to describe the realities of politics, it is difficult to explain why he has included this last chapter. Since the ending of the book is a call to action, surely it follows that the advice in the rest of the book is meant to be used as a tool in this action.

There have been many different interpretations of what Machiavelli tried to achieve with The Prince. Some, such as Rousseau, have argued that Machiavelli's intention in The Prince was to show republicans the means used by tyrants, and thus enable them to resist them. Some have argued that Machiavelli's purpose was to deceive Lorenzo de Medici and bring about his downfall and the restoration of the Florentine republic by giving him bad advice. Still others have adopted the position that the advice contained in the Prince was meant to be used by princes to consolidate their position and so that they could thereafter institute a more republican form of government as explained in the Discourses (Langton & Dietz, 1987).

I think it seems clear that Machiavelli was giving Lorenzo de Medici advice on how to achieve his political ambitions, and the notion that his intention was to help, not deceive, Lorenzo seems more credible. However, it is not possible to infer from this that he is describing how one should generally behave in politics, rather than just giving advice in the specific context of his own time. His admiration of the Romans suggests that his doctrine is not restricted to Renaissance Italy. One might also argue that the fact that he uses historical examples and formulates universal rules of politics implies that he thinks one should generally behave in politics in the way he describes in The Prince. But surely he would not have wanted the French or Spanish king to subdue Italy by adhering to the principles of the book, though he might have admired their political ability had they done so. Thus, I think the answer to my question is that Machiavelli not only describes what actually happens in politics in The Prince, but also gives advice at least to Lorenzo de Medici. Whether his description of how the prince should act applies to other rulers as well, seems unclear.


Langton, John & Deitz, Mary G. 'Machiavelli's Paradox: Trapping or Teaching the Prince' in The American Political Science Review, Vol. 81, No. 4 (Dec., 1987), pp. 1277-1288.

Machiavelli, Niccolo (2003) The Prince (London, Penguin Books)

Strauss, Leo 'Machiavelli's Intention: The Prince' in The American Political Science Review, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Mar., 1957), pp. 13-40.

This is a presentation for a seminar for a course on political philosophy I did at the University of York.

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