- Curious Peoples
- The Prince by Machiavelli
The Prince by Machiavelli
The Genesis of Modern Political Thought
The Prince stands as a pivotal yet controversial masterpiece in Western literature. Its true nature sparks endless debate: is it a biting satire or, as Bertrand Russell suggests, “a handbook for gangsters”? The true intent of Machiavelli remains shrouded in mystery. However, its enduring legacy is clear: a profound exploration of the lengths to which some will go to acquire and retain power.
Born on May 3, 1469, in Florence, Italy, Niccolò Machiavelli emerged during a period marked by the division of Italy into four competing city-states, leaving the region vulnerable to Europe’s more dominant powers.
During the Medici family’s exile, Machiavelli served as a diplomat for 14 years within the Florentine Republic. His fortunes shifted dramatically in 1512 with the Medici’s return to power, resulting in his dismissal, imprisonment, and weeks of torture. Freed yet broken, Machiavelli withdrew to his farm in exile. It was here, amidst solitude, that he penned The Prince. This groundbreaking treatise on political power—advocating ruthless and self-serving tactics—not only coined the term “Machiavellian” but also crowned Machiavelli as the father of modern political theory.
Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito, c. 1550–1600
Witnessing the rapid ascent and downfall of leaders, Machiavelli pinpointed traits he deemed crucial for acquiring and sustaining power. His groundbreaking book diverged from idealized views of leadership, instead detailing the actual strategies of the powerful. The ends, he asserted, always justify the means, no matter how harsh, deceitful, or unethical.
Prior to Machiavelli, political philosophers generally viewed good leadership as embodying humility, morality, and honesty. Machiavelli challenged this, bluntly stating, “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot have both.” His depiction of a successful ruler was not the noble prince of fairy tales, but a figure who could be brutal, manipulative, and immoral when needed.
According to Machiavelli, leaders must hide their true intentions, strive for consistency, and, at times, act “against mercy, against faith, against humanity, against frankness, against religion,” all in the pursuit of preserving the state. He also stressed the importance of appearing moral, even when not being so, to maintain public image. In his words, “A prince must always seem to be very moral, even if he is not.”
Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.
Arguing for the effectiveness of cruelty over kindness in certain situations, he explained, “Making an example of one or two offenders is kinder than being too compassionate, and allowing disorders to develop into murder and chaos which affects the whole community.” Furthermore, Machiavelli cautioned that keeping one’s word could be dangerous, as “experience shows that those who do not keep their word get the better of those who do.”
On the topic of destiny, Machiavelli urged leaders not to rely on luck but to actively shape their fortunes through charisma, cunning, and strength. He saw life as governed by two key elements: fortune and virtù, with virtù representing bravery, power, and the exertion of will. In his perspective, an effective leader maximizes virtù and minimizes dependence on fortune, embodying the principle that “fortune favors the brave.”
Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.
Cesare Borgia, a ruthless and shrewd prince of the Papal States, was a key inspiration for Machiavelli’s The Prince. Machiavelli personally observed Borgia during a visit to discuss Florentine relations, where Borgia cunningly assassinated his enemies after luring them with gifts and false promises of friendship. Machiavelli saw Borgia’s decisive leadership as a model for what Florence needed to rejuvenate its morale, unify its people, and restore its historic prominence.
However, Machiavelli’s insights failed to reach a wide audience during his lifetime, and Florence didn’t return to its former glory. Italy, fragmented into warring city-states, fell prey to invasions by France, Spain, and Austria, leading to a prolonged period of foreign domination that lasted nearly four centuries.
Front cover of the 1550 edition of The Prince
The Prince was eventually published in 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death, sparking a mix of outrage and admiration over the following centuries. This positioned Machiavelli as a revolutionary, albeit controversial, political thinker. By 1559, the Catholic Church had listed all his works on its Index of Prohibited Books.
Yet, some saw the book as a candid reflection of actual statecraft. 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed Machiavelli was exposing, rather than celebrating, the misuse of power, calling him “an honest man and a good citizen.”
Machiavelli’s influence was far-reaching. He was blamed for inspiring Henry VIII’s defiance against the Pope and his seizure of religious authority. William Shakespeare referred to him as “the murderous Machiavel” in Henry VI, with many Shakespearean characters displaying Machiavellian traits. In the 20th century, Machiavelli’s ideas were linked to dictators like Adolf Hitler, who kept a copy of The Prince by his bedside, and Joseph Stalin, who was known to have read and annotated his own copy.
Words of wisdom
“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.” —Niccolò Machiavelli
“Never was anything great achieved without danger.” —Niccolo Machiavelli
“Men are driven by two principal impulses, either by love or by fear.” —Niccolò Machiavelli
“Everyone who wants to know what will happen ought to examine what has happened: everything in this world in any epoch has their replicas in antiquity.” —Niccolò Machiavelli
Spread the Curiosity
Enjoying Curious Peoples? Share it with your friends and let them experience the thrill of new discoveries too!