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Summary of the Argument

Machiavelli wrote The Prince in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the Medici princes who had recently taken over the government of his native city, Florence, in the early sixteenth century (see the rather overstated flattery in the prefatory letter to Lorenzo de'Medici). He intended this book to be a kind of "how-to:" a short, pithy handbook for princes who have gained power and wish to keep it. Accordingly, it begins by dividing all governments into two kinds: republics and "principalities" (those ruled by a "prince," or single ruler). Machiavelli swiftly dismisses the first kind of government as being outside the scope of his argument. He then goes on to subdivide the latter kind. Principalities, he writes, are of two kinds: there are those which have been ruled by a family for a long time, and those which are newly conquered. It is this last kind, obviously, that concerns Machiavelli most, and he spends the rest of The Prince sketching ways in which the "new prince" can acquire and maintain the greatest amount of power.

Machiavelli first considers "mixed principalities," or new territories annexed to older ones. The new prince of such a state, he writes, should wipe out the family of his predecessors in the, and should take care not to change the old laws -if need be, he should live there himself, and learn the customs of his new subjects, so they won't consider him a "stranger." He should also set up colonies of his own men in the new lands, and should weaken any strong neighboring enemies so that he will have no rival conquerors. In all things, Machiavelli writes (as he does many times in the book), the new prince should not only keep an eye on present dangers, but on possible future dangers - a good example of this is the Roman rule of new provinces.

When a new prince takes over a state governed by an absolute ruler, the process of acquiring power is that much more difficult. However, once such a kingdom is conquered, it is much easier to rule, since its subjects are used to oppression. Darius, for instance, took over lands from Alexander the Great, and was able to rule them without fear of revolt, since his new subjects were accustomed to having no voice in government. Republics, by contrast, are very easy for a new prince to conquer, but almost impossible for him to rule. Once a new prince has gained control over a former republic, Machiavelli implies that he really has no choice but to destroy it entirely and rebuild it.

Machiavelli then proceeds to consider relationship between luck and skill in the gaining and keeping of power. He introduces two key terms: fortuna, which means "luck," "chance," "accident," or "fortune," and virtu, which means, literally, "manliness," and which can also be defined as "skill," "cunning," "power," "ability," or "strength." Which is more important for a prince to have on his side? Machiavelli suggests, over and over, that a prince is better off relying on virtu than on fortuna. However, one of the key advantages of virtu is that it enables a prince better to exploit and master fortuna.. He will say later that fortuna e una donna ("fortune is a woman") and must be dominated. Here, though, he stresses the connections between fortuna and virtu as necessary for successful rule. A prince must be able to seize opportunities through skill in what Machiavelli calls a "lucky shrewdness."

What kind of actions should a virtuoso (skillful) prince take? Well, he avoids using other princes' troops or hiring mercenaries to do his dirty work - such a reliance on outside help makes a prince the helpless victim of fortune . He does not come into power through overt crime, nor does he allow himself to gain a reputation for cruelty - but he is able to use crime and cruelty when he needs to, carefully concealing his guilt. A virtuoso prince will not alienate the people he governs, but he will not let the need to be loved by them take precedence over the necessity of being feared by them. In order to maintain his power, a prince must earn the loyalty of his subjects, and he can best do this by protecting them. And any prince who shows himself to be strong enough to protect his subjects must also show himself to be strong enough to be feared by them - though, of course, never gratuitously cruel to them. Above all (and here's where Machiavelli got a little shocking for his Renaissance readers), a virtuoso prince must acknowledge the fact that he does not live in an ideal world. He should therefore "learn not to be good" when a particular occasion (fortuna again!) renders it more advantageous to be bad. In subsequent chapters, Machiavelli describes how a prince can break promises, commit crimes, and generally behave nastily for political advantage. But he also insists that a prince should learn to avoid the hatred that would result from exposure of his bad behavior. He should instead cultivate a reputation for "goodness," even if that reputation is false. In other words, for Machiavelli's prince, it's better to look good than to be good.

According to Machiavelli, a prince learns such virtu by particular kinds of study: first, and most importantly, the study of warfare. He should spend lots of time strategizing, exercising, and preparing himself for battle. Such training makes a man more likely to achieve power through conquest, and less likely to succumb to laziness once he achieves it. In addition, any prince who wishes to be powerful should also study histories of successful princes, in order to understand what has worked for men in the past and model his behavior on them. In a sense, The Prince itself is a kind of history book, compiling short examples of good (and bad) rulers throughout history for the edification of its princely readers.

Browse all book notes

Historical Context
Important Persons
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Summary of the Argument
Prefatory Letter
Chapters 1 and 2
Chapter 3
Chapters 4 and 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapters 9 and 10
Chapters 11 and 12
Chapters 13 and 14
Chapters 15 and 16
Chapters 17 and 18
Chapters 19 and 20
Chapters 21, 22, and 23
Chapters 24, 25, and 26



 






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