The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

Apr 30, 2020 in Book Review

Book Review The Prince

The Prince is a dedicated to Lorenzo De Medici treatise on politics written by the Florentine philosopher and political leader Niccolo Machiavelli. Although the book was written in 1513, the ideas and issues it raises remain relevant today. The work describes the methods of seizure of power, gives advice for existence of the proper government, and outlines the qualities that make the ruler successful. Modern philosophers continue to argue whether to admit the fact that Machiavelli’s postulates are too tyrannical and support immoral actions or it is correct to justify his concepts and acceptance of criminal and sometimes cruel political views since The Prince was created during the times of the continuous wars and political instability.   

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The book consists of individual chapters dedicated to specific areas of either internal or external political activity. Machiavelli believed that ethical and political issues should be separated. According to his work, politics is a special form of human activity with its own laws that require the careful study. The rules of politics must not be withdrawn or based on the ideas of the Holy Scripture or any other ethical concept. Therefore, ethical principles of a private person and the ruler differ. Machiavelli states that it is worse for the Prince to lose or fail his plans than not to keep his word. Thus, to practice deceit is harmful (Machiavelli, 2003, p.97). Potentates are judged by their accomplishments and wins. Therefore, he is allowed to use any means to gain victories and sustain his supremacy over the state (Machiavelli, 2003, p. 97). Religion is an influential unifying idea for humans that provides for justifying the establishment of new laws, and supports the fear of the Prince regardless of how he lives and presides over the state (Machiavelli, 2003, p. 71). Thus, Machiavelli’s idea emphasizes the gap between the governing class and common people. The men of power own a number of privileges that explain their immoral deeds since they act for the benefit of the state.

According to Machiavelli, there is a number of main principles of successful regulation. It is important to remember that when choosing between the uncertainties, the Prince should weigh the qualities of each and find the best of the alternatives (Machiavelli, 2003, p.117). All political efforts should be directed to achieving realistic aims, not to the unreachable condition of the ideal good (Machiavelli, 2003, p.87). The performance of the sovereign must be based on his experience and understanding of the situation. A good monarch must be able to adjust his manner of governing to the time and circumstances, and not act the way he always used to – if times and conditions change it becomes possible to sustain a reverse by not reforming the manner of action (Machiavelli, 2003, p.128). The good ruler should be either a fox or a lion depending on the situation (Machiavelli, 2003, p.97). The state policy must guarantee that the property of citizens will not be seized, and encourage free trade without the fear of taxes (Machiavelli, 2003, p.117).

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Moreover, Machiavelli describes the qualities of the successful potentate and gives advice on the proper conduct of the respectful leader. The Prince must avoid such vices as ungrounded violence and such features as weakness, uncertainty and inconstancy – these characteristics may cause contempt and hatred of citizens (Machiavelli, 2003, p.90). The leader must be able to recognize the wise counsel, when he asks for one, but not listen to every counselor that wishes to guide him (Machiavelli, 2003, p.121). It is safer if the people fear the Prince and love him without any resentment at their own will, but the best option is the case when subjects are both devoted and apprehensive of him (Machiavelli, 2003, p.94). The head of the state should not keep his promise if it interferes with his goals or the circumstances have changed – the Prince will never lack reasons to break good faith (Machiavelli, 2003, p.96). At the same time, he must maintain the image of the person that owns such noble qualities as honesty, piety, charity, and truthfulness (Machiavelli, 2003, p.97).

Besides describing the essential features of the successful ruler, Machiavelli also used his work to discuss the current political situation in his homeland. He indicated the following causes of the regional fragmentation of Italy: the contemporary monarch, who was not able to win the recognition and support of the people and protect himself from the schemes of the aristocracy; political manipulations of the church and the loss of the authority of religion – the ambitions of cardinals spread discord and tumult (Machiavelli, 2003, p.72); the absence of the national militia and the use of the mercenary soldiers (Machiavelli, 2003, p.76). Machiavelli insisted on the need of unity and independence of Italy from other nations. He asserted that local sovereign harm the state by searching for the support of the Spanish or the French in their interregional wars since foreigners only robbed the country (Machiavelli, 2003, p.78). 

Based on the political views presented in the book it is possible to make a conclusion that Machiavelli corroborates only negative features of human character such as treachery, deceit, and craftiness. His belief that the aim justifies the means may sound inhumane and immoral. Stressing the need to develop a range of negative characteristics of the personality by the politicians may look like the cultivation of tyranny or despotism. However, it is important to emphasize that there is no direct reference to the necessity of violence or cruelty. Machiavelli stresses that it is a greater good to have honest enemies than scheming allies. The use of fierceness should be prudent and applicable only as the means to support the order. According to Machiavelli, the worst thing that the head of the state can do is to bring scorn and hatred of his subjects upon himself (Machiavelli, 2003, p.84). Thus, it is important to be or at least look like a wise, determined, majestic, and powerful ruler. Consequently, in Machiavelli’s philosophy morality itself as a phenomenon and the notion of it is significant for the society as a whole. The Prince must become the carrier of the image of rectitude and virtue.

The contradicting moral image and immoral actions united in the personality of the Prince do not describe Machiavelli as a deceitful philosopher who maintains double standards. On the contrary, it outlines him as a brave thinker in accordance with the norms of that time, who managed to discard the ideology of the Catholic Church and consider the problems of politics rationally and realistically. In The Prince, the author analyzes the contemporary methods of ruling. He tries to view the questions of leadership not as a politician, but as an unbiased and unprejudiced political scientist. The main purpose of The Prince is to teach leaders that their power lies within their minds and wisdom, as well as in their ability to analyze the circumstances, to set proper priorities, aims and to calculate the resources. Machiavelli’s philosophy emerges directly from his particular experience of life. Therefore, there are no concepts of ideal future with the triumph of the good or ideas of the perfect state administration in his work. His theory of government asserts that a successful monarch must be able to assess each specific situation and choose the corresponding methods of achieving the required results. He stresses no universal solution to all issues exists; however, there is always an option and a possibility to decide and make the best choice.

Machiavelli never stressed the need in tyranny or despotism, although he wanted Italy to become a united and stable state, without wars and regional strife. He was a loyal patriot and emphasized that in order to reach stability, Italy required a smart, powerful and courageous ruler, who would be able to govern wisely and provide the proper policy of the domain. Despite the fact that some pieces of advice may seem useful even for modern politicians, it is important to remember that The Prince primarily describes the perfect sovereign for Renaissance Italy.

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