In the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, Italy was in an unfavorable position. It was divided into small parts. Rome, Florence, Genoa, Venice, and other parts of the country were all independent warring states. The country was at war with such powerful states as modern-time France and Spain.
In such conditions, the most topical question was: how to strengthen the country’s power? Great thinkers of the epoch tried to find the right answer. One of the most outstanding authors of his century was Niccolo Machiavelli. In his essay “The Prince,” he wrote down a strategy for the ruler to succeed.
Niccolo Machiavelli as a Diplomat & Thinker
Who was Machiavelli? He is famous as a diplomat, philosopher, and writer. His best-known masterpiece is The Prince that he wrote in 1513. Niccolo contributed to Western thinking through a number of other essential discourses, too. He wrote a lot about the principles of warfare and diplomacy.
For many years, he served as a high-ranking official in the Florentine Republic. For example, in the years 1498 – 1512, he worked as secretary of the second chancellor. At that time, the powerful dynasty of Medici was not in power in Florence. Machiavelli witnessed how Medici II re-gained power by helping the Spanish forces defeat Florence. Machiavelli was expelled from the citystate of Florence for a year. In 1513, he went to prison. He was released after three weeks. He was engaged in diplomatic and military affairs.
Apart from his “serious” theses, Machiavelli wrote some comedies, carnival songs, and poems. His personal letters are a valuable source of information for historians and scholars.
From the facts that we know, Machiavelli seemed never to consider himself a philosopher. He even denied some philosophical studies. Neither was he satisfied with the standard model of academic philosophy. His writings were not always systematic and consistent. Instead of pure logical analysis, he often turns to experience and examples.
However, Machiavelli is usually listed among political philosophers. He tried to emphasize a pure political pragmatism. He focused on existential questions, too. Philosophers all over the world are eager to study and discuss his ideas.
The existence of the term “Machiavellianism” proves the importance of the thinker’s ideas. The term is rather widespread in both political and business spheres. It challenges the entire tradition of political philosophy. It gives a different perspective on the motives and actions of rulers.
The Prince by Machiavelli: a Handbook for Rulers
As a diplomat and thinker, Machiavelli offers some advice to the new Prince Lorenzo de’ Medici. “The Prince” essay gives a set of practical solutions in a turbulent political environment. The principles written down by Machiavelli were meant to help the Prince become influential and respected.
Lorenzo was the nephew of Giovanni de’ Medici (also known as Leo X). In 1516, Lorenzo became the duke of Urbino. The new ruler needed to develop a specific strategy to build up Florence’s prosperity. Lorenzo did not appreciate Machiavelli’s suggestions.
By the time Lorenzo came into power, the previous rulers’ mistakes had led to Italy’s division. Machiavelli recommends learning from others’ mistakes. He develops a strategy for quite an authoritarian ruler. The thinker advises the Prince to modify his ruling style. He claims that combining different methods in ruling the state is more effective. This should help the Prince expand the empire and make people from all over the state loyal to him.
According to the author, there are two main ways to gain and keep power: “Either through fortune or through strength.” The view is a bit simplified and idealistic. However, at the time people achieved power either by overthrowing others or inheriting the throne. It was too early for moral and ethical considerations to play a crucial role. Democracy was not accessible at the epoch.
Let us consider the tips proposed by Machiavelli in more detail. Conquering power through wars implies cruelty. Despite innocent victims, Machiavelli claims that it is an appropriate means to gain and keep power. The thinker gives a horrible recommendation to make sure that the previous ruler has no heirs.
In his essay, Machiavelli reflects on how love and fear help a ruler preserve power. Any leader needs obedience and loyalty of their subordinates. According to the author, Lorenzo should know how to make people like him and be afraid of him at the same time. That is arguably the main objective of a new ruler.
While everyone is unique, Machiavelli does not focus on their differences. For a ruler, it is not necessary to view their subjects as individuals. Instead, Machiavelli refers to a group of subordinates.
What regards the laws, taxes, and so on, Machiavelli argues that the new ruler should not change anything. He recommends preserving the old way of life that people are used to. Most people should be OK with it. People do not like changes. Keeping things as-is is said to be the best way for new rulers to establish hereditary possessions.
Those who served in the previous ruler’s military should become loyal to the new leader. That is a vital component of preserving the gained power. Machiavelli looks at those people as “subjects.” The function of the subjects was to help the ruler keep powerful. To accomplish this objective, military people need to protect the borders of the kingdom. The diplomat supports the use of military methods to strengthen power. Naturally, this can also protect the country.
The concept mentioned above implies that the ruler should be more artful and astute than his subjects. Otherwise, those who should obey might rebel. Meanwhile, subjects must protect the strong leader, fear his power, and avoid any confrontation with him.
Machiavelli comes up with animal metaphors to illustrate his suggestions.
When people describe someone cunning and sly, they compare that person to a fox. He believes that a ruler should possess the qualities of a fox in order to succeed. A good and wise prince should know how to win, even if the methods are not direct and just. Honesty and sincerity are not the essential qualities for a ruler, according to the thinker.
In the meantime, foxes are not the strongest animals. A lion is way more imposing and seems to have more power. Lions are often called the kings of all animals. When it comes to inspiring fear and respect, a lion is a better example for a prince.
What Should a Prince Be an Expert at?
What is the best motive for the subjects to keep loyal to the rule? Should it be love or fear? Machiavelli claims that the ruler must inspire both fear and love. This might be challenging, of course. But the wisdom of any ruler is in finding that balance.
According to Machiavelli, those who cannot secure their position through both love and fear should choose the one they are more confident about. In the meantime, choosing one does not exclude the other. While using fear as the main source of power, the Prince should strive to win sympathy. If a ruler cannot make people love him, he will at least need to ensure he is not hated.
Another thing a prince should be an expert at is controlling the quality of the army. The soldiers should be organized and should know the rules well. Machiavelli claims that a good army reflects good laws. Sometimes fidelity of subjects is better protection for the state than a new fortress.
He notes that leaders must consider the interests of the state first. Being an expert at prioritizing is very beneficial for a ruler. He claims that a great leader aims at their state’s prosperity. The ultimate goal for Florence of that time was uniting different Italian states. Accordingly, any methods were acceptable on the way to this. But personal gains could not become the objective.
While Machiavelli emphasizes the role of a strong leader, he also recommends having wise advisors. Lorenzo di Medici was not experienced enough to run the state just on his own. That was especially true for the tough period and the crisis that Florence was going through.
Niccolo Machiavelli suggests how to run a state in a volatile political situation. Many recommendations imply perceiving the subjects as instruments for gaining prosperity. Some points justify cruelty as long as it takes place for a “sacred” purpose. In Machiavellianism, gaining power (victory) is the ultimate goal. Any means to reach the goal are acceptable.
A present-day reader might be unpleasantly surprised at that perception. However, Machiavelli lived in a different epoch. He did not even realize how many moral and ethical topics he touched upon. Years after The Prince essay appeared, ruthless rulers and representatives of business abused Machiavelli’s concepts to justify their actions.
The Prince by Machiavelli: FAQ
❓ What is The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli about?
❓ According to Machiavelli, what was his purpose in writing The Prince?
❓ What advice does Machiavelli offer to a prince?
❓ When did Machiavelli write The Prince?
❓ Why did Machiavelli advocate the use of force by a ruler?
- Niccolò Machiavelli and “The Prince”: Carson-Newman University
- Machiavelli’s The Prince: Still Relevant after All These Years (Boston University)
- Niccolò Machiavelli: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- War and Politics in the Thought of Machiavelli (Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History)
- Niccolo Machiavelli: Kent State University
- What can you learn from Machiavelli? Yale Insights
- Niccolò Machiavelli: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy