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The Prince Summary

by Niccolo Machiavelli

The Prince Summary

The Prince begins with an address to Lorenzo de Medici, in which Machiavelli explains that he is seeking favor with the prince by offering him some of his knowledge. He then proceeds to classify the various kinds of states: republics, hereditary princedoms, brand-new princedoms, and mixed principalities. New states are his primary focus, for those are the hardest to deal with. A conquered state whose original prince was its sole ruler is difficult to conquer, but easy to maintain; a conquered state in which the prince shared power with the barons is easy to conquer, but difficult to maintain.

When possible, a prince should strive to rise to power on his own merits and with his own arms. Relying on friends, good luck, or other people’s arms may make the rise easier, but holding onto his newfound power will prove a difficult task. Machiavelli devotes almost an entire chapter to Cesare Borgia, who rose to prominence largely through connections and his father’s help, but was crafty enough to carve out his own niche – though he wound up failing in the end. Princes who rise to the throne through crime are another matter altogether: Machiavelli condemns them as wicked, and yet his words betray his admiration for their cleverness. Cruelty, when well-used, can be justified.

According to Machiavelli, reliance on mercenaries and auxiliaries for troops is a grave mistake. A prince must lay strong foundations – good laws and good arms – and if the latter is lacking, the former is rendered irrelevant. A state needs both to survive. Mercenaries are disloyal and divided; foreign auxiliaries come already united under another master, and so are in a way even more dangerous. The prince himself should be a student of war and an avid reader of military history.

Reputation is another important element to consider. The front princes put on to appeal to the populace is often a lie, as Machiavelli notes; the better the liar, the better the prince. That said, giving out money when it is fiscally irresponsible, just to appear generous, is a mistake; displaying excessive mercy in order to garner affection can prove fatal. Better safe than sorry; better to be feared than to be loved.

Machiavelli closes The Prince with a meditation on luck and its role in human affairs, and a call to unite Italy. He addresses much of this last argument to Lorenzo de Medici, thereby imposing some semblance of symmetry on his book’s structure and honing his theoretical musings into a direct exhortation.

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