Il Principe (The Prince) by Niccolò Machiavelli
Published in 1532
H. Thomson translation (1910)
Genre: Political science, nonfiction
“All the States and Governments by which men are or ever have been ruled, have been and are either Republics or Princedoms.”
The Prince is arguably one of the most well known works of political literature ever written which is saying something for a pamphlet written almost 500 years ago. Written by Niccolò Machiavelli as a guidebook on how to successfully rule, this book has transcended the troubles of its period and holds advice that continues to be relevant today.
Most of the treatise gives instruction on how to avoid failure as a ruler. Examples of Princedoms that succeeded or failed abound and Machiavelli often refers to specific instances to drive his points home. As he notes when describing the problems with France’s ruling class, one prince with servants is better than a prince with nobles.
Machiavelli also covers the different types of military strength. He warns against using auxiliary forces (those lent by other rulers) because they will either be in a place of power after victory or will upset their ruler in defeat. He uses the example from the Old Testament of David and Goliath to illustrate the concept; specifically, David is offered armor and refuses it because it doesn’t fit. He equates this to using the military might of another ruler being an ill fit for a successful Prince.
Some controversy surrounds his comments on virtue and how a Prince should act. Machiavelli states that it is essential that a Prince learn to be more than good and know when to use his goodness. When asked whether it is better to be cruel or merciful, Machiavelli argues that a small cruelty may be a larger mercy; effectively, destroying small pockets of rebellion shortly after seizing power is better than being “merciful” in the short term and eventually having to lay waste to far more lives at a later time.
This cold and calculating ideology continues in the advice given throughout The Prince. He writes that it is better for a Prince to be feared than to be loved, but one must be sure avoid being hated. A Prince doesn’t need to have all of the good qualities; appearing to have them is enough.
Conviction is a large part of the philosophy within The Prince. When two factions go to war, it is best to choose a side rather than stay neutral because whoever wins will come after you for not helping and the loser will not come to your aid.
The writing isn’t objective in the least and Machiavelli shows bias toward and against his contemporaries, whether they be nations or individuals; many of the early subjects take shots at France and its system of nobles. He also defends the actions of Cesare Borgia, though he admits that Borgia came to power through criminal enterprise.
Though the treatise is short, it has densely packed paragraphs which tends to bog down the flow of the writing. However, I do realize that this is not a work of prose or fiction; it was written to be read by Lorenzo De Medici in order to convince him to unite Italy. Accordingly, the last chapter is a flattering call to rise to the occasion and use the knowledge from the pamphlet in order to do so, which is a bit ironic given the fact that another chapter says to do away with flatterers.
The Prince is a fascinating look at the political and martial arena in Italy in the 16th Century, as well as the philosophical ideas that were prevalent at the time. Machiavelli’s work deserves its place in history and this is a piece of writing that anyone interested in politics, whether professionally or for recreation, should add to their reading list.
As a bit of an aside, fans of the video games Assassin’s Creed II and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood will see some familiar names that were used for the fictionalized versions of historical figures who appear as characters in the games.
Verdict: 3 slowly paced political treatises out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of political science, burgeoning politicians, those who have played Assassin’s Creed II and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (if only to say, “Hey! That guy was in that video game I played!), and you!
Not recommended for: Fans of the music artist Prince (R.I.P.), people who have a difficult time seeing parallels to the political struggles of the world today, people who dislike turning the word “prince” into a proper noun, or those who fear long paragraphs.