Book Review of The Prince by Nicolo Machiavelli

This Book Review of The Prince by Nicolo Machiavelli is brought to you from Arjun Mohan from the Titans of Investing.

Genre: Philosophy
Author: Nicolo Machiavelli
Title: The Prince (Buy the Book)

Summary

The Prince is a “how-to” for aspiring rulers. The book disregards republics and hereditary principalities to focus on mixed and new principalities. A mixed principality is one that has previously existed but has been taken over, and a new principality is one that requires a new form of government.

When ruling a mixed principality, Machiavelli highlights the importance of befriending the weak and destroying anyone who may become powerful enough to revolt. To accomplish this, a prince must have tremendous foresight. He needs to recognize problems and evils before they become too visible, and he must swiftly destroy them.

Lords, powerful men, and aides all must be watched carefully. As previously mentioned, anyone who may be powerful or ambitious enough to lead a revolt must be crushed.

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In starting a new principality, a prince will have been installed through virtue, fortune, or wickedness. To take power through virtue is to take it through force. A prince must quickly establish himself and lay a strong foundation of leadership.

When a prince takes power through fortune or the work of others, he is in a dangerous position because others may question his power. Therefore, he must quickly instill love and fear into the people.

Machiavelli does not condemn wickedness as a means to power. He instead suggests immoral acts be done quickly and in one stroke. A prince also needs to find ways to make the people always dependent on the state.

The strength of a principality, according to Machiavelli, is measured by its military. A principality should always have a strong military and be able to defend itself. Mercenaries are not to be trusted as their only incentive is money.

Machiavelli does not promote princes to be moral, virtuous people. What is most important, however, is the appearance of greatness. Put simply, he believes nice guys finish last and that princes should act immorally when needed to promote their agenda and maintain power.

Fortune and God are not to be relied upon. A prince should create his own path and be a risk taker. A prince should not worry about being viewed as mean but should be loved when possible. Cruelty may be necessary to instill the correct amount of fear in the people. Machiavelli closes his book with a discussion of Italian politics and failed rulers.

Introduction

“Upon this, one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed.”

Written in the early 1500s, The Prince is one of the most discussed and scrutinized books on political philosophy. The book has been highly debated and criticized, but one must acknowledge the tremendous impact the book has had on political thought. The book gave rise to the term Machiavellianism that has ubiquitously been used to describe politicians for centuries.

Machiavelli’s most famous work advises aspiring rulers on how to maintain and exert power, and despite the potential accuracy of the advice, Machiavelli directs rulers to the wrong goal. The definition of success Machiavelli seeks for his readers is power alone, but instead the true goal Machiavelli should have promoted is leading and truly serving people.

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The Prince is structured as a “how-to” guide for rulers of principalities. Machiavelli disregards the republic form of a government and focuses solely on principalities.

Each chapter discusses a different aspect of ruling, ranging from acquiring a principality, to maintaining it, to whether it is better to be loved or feared. In this brief, I will first summarize the book and Machiavelli’s messages, and then I will provide my own commentary and analysis.

On Mixed Principalities

Machiavelli quickly dismisses hereditary principalities, for they require little effort to maintain. He delves into the “mixed principality,” one that has existed for some time but has been acquired by a new prince. He highlights the importance of befriending the weak and “crushing” anyone who could possibly injure the ruler.

The goodwill of the natives is imperative, and Machiavelli recommends avoiding attempting to overtake provinces that have different languages and cultures. These provinces are more difficult to win over, and the people may revolt. Instead, one should colonize these areas and defend them against strong foreign invaders.

By defending the weaker colonies, the prince is able to win the affections of the locals, and he prevents foreign countries from gaining too large a kingdom.

The Prince also highlights the importance of foresight on the part of a ruler.

A prince must be able to quickly recognize any uprisings or factions within his kingdom that have the potential to revolt. If the “evil” goes unrecognized until the problem becomes public, it will be too late because more people may join in the uprising. Therefore, a problem must be destroyed before it gains any traction with the common people.

Machiavelli asserts that those who aid others to power cannot be trusted because they either have brought about the power through “astuteness or else by force.”

If a prince is aided by others, he should seek to destroy those aides because they have the capability of creating power that could challenge the prince’s rule. A prince should also never aid others to power as those he has aided will destroy him for the same reasons.

A prince will face difficulty maintaining rule in a state that has many lords or other powerful men. These states may be easy to initially conquer because one only needs to identify one or two powerful discontent leaders to aid in the overthrow.

However, for the reasons mentioned previously, this can prove to be risky as the leaders who have aided the new ruler may easily start movements of their own to take over the state. Machiavelli contrasts these states with those that have a supreme ruler.

The supreme ruler chooses his aides and can easily remove them. These states are more difficult to conquer as the aides to the current ruler are more loyal. However, these states are easier to maintain because once conquered, the prince can install his own system of aides and servants.

The last aspect of mixed principalities Machiavelli discusses is governing principalities that previously had been free with their own laws and statutes before being acquired.

These states are accustomed to freedom and autonomy and may not take too kindly to losing that freedom. Machiavelli describes three options: destroying the city/state, living in the conquered area to watch it closely, or letting the principality continue under its current rule and installing an oligarchical government to remain friendly to the new ruler.

Previously free cities or principalities are very difficult to maintain though. Those who are not used to being ruled do not easily accept a prince and are more likely to revolt. Accordingly, Machiavelli suggests destruction or close rule may be the best options.

On New Principalities

After concluding his discussion of mixed principalities, Machiavelli offers his advice on ruling completely new principalities. A new principality is one that requires a completely new government and is uniting people under one rule that previously had not been united. He first distinguishes between those who have become rulers through “virtue” or by fortune.

To Machiavelli, virtue is defined as the ability and drive to conquer, so those that have become rulers through virtue have generally done so through conquering and defeating others.

These princes must install new forms of government and forcefully defend the new ways because some will be upset about the change, and the others will only demonstrate “lukewarm” support. To ensure there is no challenge to the prince’s rule, he must take up arms and rule by force.

Machiavelli also discusses those who have become rulers of principalities by fortune or by the force of others.

This is a dangerous position for a prince as he will not have proven himself to be worthy of his powerful role, and he may be dependent on someone else for his newly found power. The key is to quickly establish power and instill fear and love in the subjects. They should love the prince to remain loyal but fear him enough that they never seek their own power.

The next form of rule discussed is the prince that takes power through some of form of wicked or immoral act, such as murdering a political adversary. Controversially, Machiavelli does not condemn immoral acts but finds justification for them.

He claims evilness need only be swift and “necessary.” He recommends a prince should “examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict and to do them in one stroke so as to not have to repeat them daily.”

A prince can also come to rule through a civil manner such as through the will of the people or the nobles of the principality.

As previously stated, Machiavelli is particularly wary of nobles or anyone with power. He warns that an ambitious noble should be watched as an enemy. On the contrary, those nobles with little courage or those that bind themselves to the prince should be praised and used. If the prince comes to power through the will of the people, the prince is dependent on the goodwill of the people.

Machiavelli advises strongly against ever being dependent on others for power for those that give power can just as easily take it away. Instead, Machiavelli suggests a prince needs “adopt such a course that his citizens will always in every sort and kind of circumstance have need of the state and him.” If the people are dependent on him and not the other way around, the people will remain faithful.

On the Strength of a Principality

Machiavelli asserts that strength is measured by force. A strong principality would have such good defenses that they would never be tested and would not need any support from allies. The military should be far-reaching and powerful, and the people should be of high spirit to ensure they have no reason to revolt.

On Military

Mercenaries are not to be trusted, according to Machiavelli. Because their incentive is money instead of serving the principality, they will not be adequate soldiers. Machiavelli blamed many of Italy’s problems on an overreliance on hired foreign soldiers.

A strong state needs its own soldiers that will defend it vehemently.

Beyond maintaining a strong and loyal military, “a prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline.” It is through battle and force that a prince shows his power. The prince must know his land well and be well- prepared to handle any attack, and he should study and imitate great military men.

On Virtues and Reputation

Machiavelli speaks to some of the ideal qualities of a prince including sincerity, bravery, and generosity, but ultimately concludes these are not completely necessary to the prince, “for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.”

Essentially, there is too much evil in the world for the prince to always be as virtuous as he may claim to be. “Hence, it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.” Ideally a prince would be virtuous and moral, but when deciding between morality and selfish desires, Machiavelli recommends selfish desires.

On reputation, Machiavelli advises the prince not to fear being viewed as mean. Being too liberal can lead to economic problems and dislike from the people as he takes from the powerful and gives to the powerless. Liberality can lead to hatred while meanness only leads to fear.

When deciding between being clement (merciful) or cruel, Machiavelli asserts that mercy is preferred but too much of it can lead to disorder.

A prince, therefore, should not fear cruelty such as executing a criminal. A prince also faces the dilemma of whether he should be feared or loved. It easier to unite men when they are fearful, but they are less likely to revolt against a beloved prince.

A prince then needs to strike the balance between the two. He should attempt to be loved and at very least, avoid hatred, for hatred can lead to revolt. A prince may be required to commit cruel acts in order to inspire fear, but this is necessary to maintain order. Above all else, the prince needs control.

In regard to faith and image, Machiavelli does not shy away from his stance that true morality is not necessary. He argues that maintaining true faith and acting in truly merciful and generous ways will cause harm to the prince. However, what is truly important is the appearance of faith and morality.

This appearance can be quite beneficial and easy to achieve as “he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who allows himself to be deceived.” Once many have allowed themselves to be deceived, the prince is safe because “everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose the opinion of the many.” In other words, once a reputation has been established, no one will dare challenge it, even if they know the truth.

On How a Prince Should Act

As previously mentioned, a prince should seek the image of a great man and avoid hatred. In foreign affairs, a prince should either be a “true friend or a downright enemy.” It is better to make it known where one stands on an issue than to be mistrusted as a doubtful friend to everyone.

The prince should also encourage his people to engage in peaceful agriculture and commerce and avoid causing fear of high taxes. Additionally, “he ought to entertain the people with festivals and spectacles.”

A prince needs counsel and advisors.

However, the prince should be in complete control of both who his advisors are and what type of counsel they offer. Advisors should be loyal servants and watched closely for any type of behavior that indicates selfish motives or ambition.

The prince also needs to be wary of flattery. He should invite his trusted counselors to speak truthfully because flattery may weaken the prince’s ability to foresee potential enemies.

Machiavelli also advises princes to control their own fates and not leave anything up to fortune or God. A prince should be adventurous and risk-taking because “fortune is a woman… and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous…She is, therefore, always, woman-like, and a lover of young men, because they are less cautious.” According to Machiavelli, a prince can create his own successful path instead of waiting for good fortune or for God to create a path.

Machiavelli closes The Prince with a description of the failures of past Italian rulers. He blames their failure to adhere to the rules he has laid out, and he implores the then current Pope to take over Italy using Machiavellian methods.

Parallels to Modern Society

The Prince recommends and, in many ways, celebrates immoral behavior. This in itself is upsetting and controversial, but what is truly disappointing is the obvious parallels between the behavior Machiavelli recommends and the behavior we see in some of the people who run our country.

Machiavelli may be responsible for the term Machiavellianism, but the underlying behavior would exist without him. As Machiavelli himself notes, the desire to conquer and rule has been innate in man for hundreds of years. Machiavelli just recognizes and celebrates that desire.

The dark side of politics reveals itself when elected officials adopt Machiavellian attitudes about morality and do what is “necessary” to stay in office.

Bill Clinton lied to the people about his immoral acts to try to preserve his position of power. Richard Nixon attempted to cover up the illegal activities of the Republican Party during the 1972 presidential election. These are just two of the most public immoral activities of American politicians; many more immoral acts have possibly been committed that everyday people like myself know nothing about.

I do not believe that Presidents Clinton or Nixon were truly bad or immoral people, and they could have entered politics for the right reason; but at some point, both of them compromised their morals in order to maintain power. They decided that the ends justified the means.

Machiavelli strongly believed in the importance of maintaining the image of a great man.

Politicians today seem to also place great importance on image. In the 2012 presidential election, over one billion dollars was spent on advertising (The Washington Post). Quite commonly, we would see ads focused on portraying political adversaries as out of touch or generally just bad people.

Politicians would not spend so much on attacking others’ reputations if they did not believe that image is vital. They are trying to create a positive image of themselves, or at least an image that is better than their opponents. Due to the numerous public political scandals we have seen, I am doubtful that all politicians are as virtuous as they would have us believe.

Machiavelli stresses the importance of keeping elders and lords happy. While we do not have elders or lords in this country, we do have very wealthy campaign contributors. Individual contributions to campaigns may be capped at $2,500, but corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals can donate millions to Super PACs.

Politicians are dependent on campaign contributions to win elections, so the incentive is there to keep special interests happy to keep the donations coming.

Machiavelli also advises princes to keep the people dependent on the state.

There are multiple sides to this argument, but one could argue that the American leaders have attempted to make the people more dependent on the state. We have seen an enormous increase in government reach through programs such as Social Security and Obamacare, and the cynic could argue that these entitlement programs are designed to win the goodwill and votes of the people. Whether this expansion of government is a good thing or not can be argued, but the expansion exists nonetheless.

Machiavelli’s Moral Position

Machiavelli promotes a selfish and consequential view of morality. The ends can always be used to justify the means. He argues that nice guys finish last and that maintaining true virtue and honor will not lead to power. I strongly disagree with Machiavelli’s stance.

I do not believe we are very good judges of what means are justified by what ends. When adopting a consequential view, it is far too easy to start justifying all means and losing all touch with principles and virtues.

Machiavelli may be correct that maintaining virtues and principles may not always lead to power or material reward, but his view is too short-sighted. I would ask what use is power if you’ve had to sell your soul to get it.

I believe we will be much happier and more fulfilled in the long run if we maintain our morality. A guilt-free conscience is worth much more than power.

Accepted Machiavellian Norms

Despite my overall objections and disgust with the tactics suggested by the book, I must acknowledge that some of Machiavelli’s ideas are fundamental to the way our country runs. Machiavelli is credited as creating the political philosophy of realism.

He noted that “how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin other than his preservation.” While on a personal level, I disagree with this moral standpoint and do believe we should focus on what ought to be done, realism is an accepted part of how governments run.

We expect our government to make tough moral decisions that sometimes involve consequential thinking.

Dropping an atomic bomb that can kill thousands and cause vast destruction would be nearly impossible to justify using any other moral standpoint other than realism. Traditional philosophical and Christian thought would never support a decision to kill thousands in wars.

Killing is never what ought to be done by traditional moral frameworks. But the fact remains, we justify war and killing with the ends it creates: safety and world order. Ideally, this would not be the case, but Machiavelli recognized that we do not live in an ideal world.

Machiavelli also wrote of the importance of a strong military. The U.S. follows this idea to a great extent. We spend more on our military than any country in the world, and our position as a superpower can largely be attributed to our military successes. As T. Boone Pickens noted in a TED Talk last year, we rely on our military to protect oil and trade routes around the world. Machiavelli would praise our military policy.

What We can Learn from Machiavelli

There are some positive lessons to be learned from The Prince. Machiavelli insisted leaders should take strong stances on issues. This may not always be the best option, but I believe there is value in not being too mercurial in one’s views. It is impossible to please everyone, and Machiavelli recognized this.

We can all benefit from not always trying to be people pleasers and making tough decisions. We often see politicians try desperately to cater to every movement in public opinion, and they end up losing credibility as people do not believe the candidate’s campaign promises will ever actually be fulfilled.

This was one of the biggest criticisms of John Kerry in the 2004 election; in fact, “Kerry’s Top Ten Flip-Flops” is the fourth result on Google for the search “flip flopper.” Machiavelli knew a strong leader needed to be comfortable being the bad guy, if it meant a greater goal would be achieved. He just had the wrong goals in mind.

The business person could learn some lessons from Machiavelli.

A merger could be paralleled with a new principality and an acquisition with a mixed principality. During a merger, the leader needs to quickly establish a foundation and culture, as Machiavelli recommends. Acquiring a new company could cause some of the same problems for a leader that Machiavelli speaks of when acquiring an existing principality.

The employees of the acquired company will have been used to their own standards and operating procedures, and they may be tepid about the new management. In this instance, it may be smart for the acquirer to follow Machiavelli’s advice of putting in a lot of face-time with the new employees. This way, he/she could effectively communicate new policies and goals, and the leader could also gain a better understanding of the morale and values of the new employees.

The Wrong Definition of Success

The Prince describes success simply as power, but power has no goal other than itself. As George Orwell noted in 1984, “power is not a means; it is an end.” Machiavelli does not promote the use of power for good. He makes power the ultimate end. I believe this is the wrong end.

Instead of seeking power for power’s sake, politicians and leaders should seek to serve the people well. Machiavelli’s only concern for the people is maintaining their happiness in order to keep power. I argue that societies will be much better off if we have leaders that enter politics in order to enact positive change and not to serve their own ends.

To contrast Machiavelli, look to George Washington. George Washington did not seek the presidency. In fact, some say he actively avoided it. He did not look at the presidency as an avenue to power but instead, as a tremendous responsibility. The people wanted him though (he received 100% of the electoral votes), and he believed the government should represent the people.

Washington was a great leader as president. However, the most significant act of his presidency may have been his decision to step down, a decision that would utterly perplex Machiavelli. There were no term limits at the time, but Washington voluntarily stepped down after two terms. He did not want to form another monarchy.

The presidency does not exist to boost the power of an individual; it exists to represent and serve the people, and Washington knew one man could not continually be that representative and servant (CATO Institute “The Man Who Would Not Be King”). George Washington did not follow Machiavellian principles, but he still, in many ways, shaped what has become the most powerful country in the world.

In the business world, it would be best to avoid Machiavellian thinking.

I strongly feel that those who are strictly seeking power and advancement are quickly and easily weeded out of organizations. Instead, we would be better off seeking to produce quality work, and the promotions will come in due time. As previously asserted, Machiavelli’s view is too short-term.

A worker who adopts Machiavellian tactics may be able to achieve a few short-term successes, but the worker who maintains morality and virtue will be much happier and successful in the long-run. If there is a company that rewards Machiavellian behavior, it is probably not a company a decent person would want to work at. Even if there is no material reward for virtue, the moral person will still maintain their conscience, and that is invaluable.

The Prince and Titans

The ideals and lessons written by Machiavelli contradict almost everything about morality and ethics we have learned as Aggies and as Titans. We do not learn that Aggies do not lie, cheat, or steal, unless they have a really good reason. We are expected to maintain our principles, even in the most trying of times.

In Titans, Britt Harris has not taught us to seek power and material reward. Instead, he promotes “vision, courage, honesty, and concern for others” (Titans Handbook). These ideals differ greatly from those espoused by Machiavelli. Controlling others will never lead to the happiness or fulfillment that morality and kindness will bring.

HookedtoBooks.com would like to thank the Titans of Investing for allowing us to publish this content.  Titans is a student organization founded by Britt Harris. Learn more about the organization and the man behind it by clicking either of these links.

Britt always taught us Titans that Wisdom is Cheap, and principal can find treasure troves of the good stuff in books.  We hope only will also express their thanks to the Titans if the book review brought wisdom into their lives.

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