The Prince - Critical summary review - Niccolò Machiavelli

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The Prince - critical summary review

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Society & Politics and History & Philosophy

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: 

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ISBN: 0486272745

Publisher: Dover Publications

Critical summary review

Have you ever wondered about the mechanisms that allow certain people to acquire political power and keep it, and about those that condemn others to doom and failure? Have you ever wondered about how much the political climate has changed during the past half millennia? Are you familiar with the word “Machiavellian” and the phrase “the end justifies the means?” 

That’s right: we’re about to talk about “The Prince,” one of the most controversial books ever written.

Written by the Italian polymath Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, in its bare essence, this 16th-century political treatise is a cold, hard look at political power and all the devious ways to attain it. Machiavelli’s messages are clear: brief and memorable, but also disturbing and controversial. Moreover, the foundation of something we refer to as Realpolitik nowadays (you know, what Henry Kissinger did throughout the 20th century).

Though primarily intended for his patron, Lorenzo de’ Medici – de facto ruler of the Florentine Republic at the time and the original recipient of the work – and though controversial even before publication, “The Prince,” strangely, hasn’t aged into oblivion. 

On the contrary: it is still and quite often consulted by many of today’s leaders, managers, and directors – basically by everyone who has earned a decision-making role in the society of today. 

One way or another, it seems that Machiavelli’s treatise helps these people to overcome their difficulties by teaching them to take drastic and radical measures whenever necessary – or whenever other methods don’t do the work. Time to see how!

Machiavelli’s inspiration for “The Prince”

Machiavelli lived most of his life through some of the most tumultuous times in the history of his birth city, Florence.

In 1494, when he was 25 years old, the Medici were expelled from Florence, and the city-state restored the republic. Three years later, he received an offer from the new republican regime to work as secretary to the Second Chancery of the Republic of Florence. He remained at that position until 1512, when the Medici, backed by Pope Julius II, seized power.

During this time, Machiavelli was responsible, at different times, for the production of government documents and had responsibilities in both diplomatic and military affairs. This allowed him to better see and understand the enormous social and class differences that existed at the time. Though the government neglected the needs of the ordinary folks, somehow these poor and downtrodden people remained obedient to their rulers.

“The Prince” was conceived when Machiavelli started wondering why.

It wasn’t that difficult for him to see that, no matter what the Bible or the Roman Catholic Church said, immoral behavior was awarded in politics. Killing innocents and being dishonest to the submissive was, in reality, effective. 

So, why should any ruler hesitate to oppress the working people and kill political opponents if the goal is the long-term stability and peace of the state? Machiavelli says: well, the ruler shouldn’t. The end, in this case, justifies the means.

And as brutal as this may sound, at the time, many rulers sincerely believed that Machiavelli’s analysis was pretty accurate and commonsensical and that his suggestions were pretty much the only way of maintaining prosperity and financial stability. Unfortunately, some people still do. Even worse, many of them rule about half of the world.

How to conquer a country in three steps

OK, we live at a time when not many people burdens are objectives such as conquering the world, but for Machiavelli’s contemporaries, the title probably sounded as appealing as “how to get rich in 10 days” sounds nowadays.

And, unlike military strategists before him, Machiavelli was interested much more in the part that follows after a city or a state opens its doors for you. Because, after all, conquering is not only about how to defeat your opponents but also about how to win the admiration of the conquered subjects.

As far as Machiavelli is concerned, this is exceptionally important and is the first step toward enforcing control upon a newly subjugated kingdom. A great way to achieve it is by moving to the domain yourself. The proximity to their new ruler will make the local population feel appreciated and should discourage beaten rulers from trying to retrieve the area.

Speaking of which, the second step encompasses a very smart measure of protection against rivals: defending weak rulers. If you, as a king, did this, for example, protecting the weak rulers around your newly conquered kingdom from other, more powerful sovereigns, then you’ll get yourself a powerful ally against the forces that could threaten your power as well.

And, as many rulers learned the hard way, these forces can arise within your kingdom. So, be attentive and don’t allow any of the local leaders to grow substantially more powerful than the others; if that happens, you’ve got yourself a rival.

Machiavelli offers examples. “When the Romans occupied Greece,” he writes, “they didn’t waste a single second enforcing these rules. They especially took heed of the last one, never allowing any single local leader to grow more powerful than the bunch, regardless of how loyal he was to them.”

The result? Well, they remained in power for more than a millennium.

On the other side of the spectrum, Louis XII of France couldn’t keep hold of Northern Italy, although winning control of the Kingdom of Naples and the Duchy of Milan and practically invading Northern Italy. However, he refused to encroach on the privileges of the nobility or the power of local governments, and, as a result, he rapidly lost control of the region.

The easier you can conquer a country, the more difficult it is to rule it

Five centuries later, things are pretty much the same: the more despotic the ruler, the more stable and powerful the country. This, of course, doesn’t mean anything but that most of these stable and powerful countries are also undemocratic and ruthless toward the opposition.

Think of Russia, China, or, say, Turkey. All of these countries ruled by one and only one supreme leader – and for decades. And not only all the power lies in the hands of one person and his family, but also the elections there are landslides and the winner is usually known a few years in advance.

At the time of Alexander the Great, for example, one such country was Persia. At the time Alexander fought to conquer it, the Persian king Darius had abolished all institutions and became a sovereign and absolute ruler.

The good part? The country was now more stable and stronger, more cohesive and more united, and extremely difficult to be defeated. The bad one? After being defeated, it was extremely susceptible to being easily ruled. 

Since King Darius was supreme leader, he only needed to be substituted: there were no local leaders with any power to challenge the rule of the conqueror, and there wasn’t going to be for a long time.

On the other hand, as is the case in many developing countries nowadays, the land is sometimes between numerous warlords of a country and defeating one of them doesn’t guarantee that you are the all-powerful master of the region. To do so, you must defeat all the nobles and power-hungry lords that will be, in the meantime, forging alliances to seize control of their lands again. And even then, you must be careful not to allow someone to become more powerful than the rest because he might turn against you. 

In other words, it is relatively easy to conquer a torn country: you just need to get a few local lords on your side and done. However, for the very same reason, it is pretty challenging to rule a divided country.

That’s why the United States had problems in Vietnam and Somalia. That is why it was difficult for both the USSR and the U.S. to conquer Afghanistan, and why, even though the U.S. funded Osama bin Laden when he fought against the Soviet Union, he turned against them just a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union. Divided countries are, simply put, highly unpredictable.

Never rely on mercenaries and auxiliary troops

The Spartans, the Romans, and the Swiss may be fairly different from each other, but they do have one thing in common: well-armed populations. This, according to Machiavelli, is what allowed them to remain independent and free for centuries. Because leaders who are dependent on mercenaries (independent troops who fight for money) face, by definition, possible betrayals and treacheries. Dishonest and disloyal, mercenaries are quite famous for switching sides during conflicts and leaving in times of crises.

And even if you find a good mercenary commandeer who’ll follow you to death in times of war, during peaceful times, they may become your rival. For the simple reason that it is only a matter of time before the commandeer  realizes that can overthrow you with their army. We italicized the word “their” for a reason: mercenaries have their own armies, and they will never be yours.

Machiavelli had the opportunity to experience this in person. Between 1503 and 1506, he was responsible for the Florentine militia. He noticed that mercenaries were unpatriotic, uninvested, and unreliable, so he banished them from the army. Instead, he staffed the army with local citizens imbued with patriotic fervor. It proved to be an effective policy: under Machiavelli’s command, Florentine citizen-soldiers defeated Pisa in 1509.

In his book, Machiavelli warns rulers to never count on another type of military forces: auxiliary troops. By “auxiliary troops,” expectedly, he means soldiers provided by allied princes to fight your wars.

Though not as bad as mercenaries, auxiliary troops are problematic due to their sheer numbers and the fickle nature of interstate contracts. What if there is a rebellion in the allied country and the auxiliary forces in the one under your rule side with their new leader? You’ve got yourself an invasion!

The Greeks, to prove this point, once allowed about ten thousand Turkish soldiers on their land, hoping that they would help protect Greece from neighbors. The Turkish did, but when the war in question was over, the soldiers refused to leave and, instead, started fighting against their hosts.

It ended up pretty bad for Greece: Turkey occupied and subsequently ruled it for a few centuries.

The traits of a prince

Caesar, Machiavelli informs, was pretty generous before he attained the position he wanted. He spent a lot of money on bread and circuses, and people loved him for it. 

However, when he came to power, he stopped being as generous. You’d expect this to have a negative effect, but, on the contrary, it made him even more popular (that is, of course, until he got killed).

Why? Because if you are generous as a ruler, it’s only a matter of time before your subjects get used to your generosity and your openhandedness becomes a problem for you. The more money you spend, the more taxes you’d have to impose upon your citizens; and the more taxes, the less love for you.

Speaking of love, time for that old Machiavellian (and “Michael Scottian”) dilemma: would you rather be feared or loved if you were a ruler? Machiavelli (well, just like Michael Scott) thinks that the answer is easy: loved to a certain point, but feared beyond it.

Promises given out of love – as practically every adult knows – are broken daily. However, fear keeps things safe: the fear of a harsh punishment should beat love 10 out of 10 times when it comes to deterring people from breaking the law. So, should you be cruel as a ruler?

Once again, if you want to live in a stable country and rule peacefully, you should. But only to an extent that doesn’t make people hate you, only fear you.

Final Notes

Just like many of his contemporaries, Niccolò Machiavelli excelled in quite a few disciplines, but nowadays he’s almost exclusively remembered as the author of “The Prince,” a brief tractate that is often considered to be one of the earliest works of political philosophy.

Read it to see what “Machiavellian” really means and why such advocates for human liberty such as Benjamin Franklin, Baruch Spinoza, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Denis Diderot were so profoundly interested in it. But, please, don’t use it in practice.

12min Tip

Machiavelli believed that when games of power are played, there are no rules, and everything is allowed. Our tip: don’t believe him. Not because it isn’t so – but because the future of humanity depends on you (and everyone else) not believing it is.

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Who wrote the book?

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a Renaissance diplomat, philosopher, and writer. He had formal training in grammar, rhetoric, and Latin and held different administrative posts in Florence while the city was a republic (as opposed to a... (Read more)

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