Machiavelli prefaces The Prince with a letter to “the Magnificent Lorenzo de Medici.” In fact, the first edition of The Prince was dedicated to Guiliano de Medici, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Guiliano died in 1516, and so Machiavelli rededicated the book to one of Lorenzo’s grandsons, the Duke of Urbino, who was also named Lorenzo.
The opening letter is abstract enough to allow for these changes: Machiavelli admits that he is seeking favor with “a prince” and is offering his book as a gift. “I…would like to commend myself to your Magnificence with some token of my readiness to serve you,” he writes.
In the first chapter, entitled “Different Kinds of States, and the Different Ways to Get Them,” Machiavelli proceeds to map out a classification of states. In short, we have princely states and republics. Princely states are either hereditary or new. The new states are either brand new or freshly joined to an established hereditary state. Of the latter, the conquered territories are accustomed to either living free or living under a prince.
The second chapter focuses on hereditary principates. These are easier to rule than new states, as tradition provides a basis for stable government. Machiavelli argues a key point here in regards to a people’s desire for change: “And in the antiquity and continuity of the government,” he writes, “people forget not only the reasons for innovations but their very existence, because every new change provides a footing to build on another.”
Chapter III, “On Mixed Principalities,” is a longer, more involved consideration of the problematic states: those states that are new and are “like a graft freshly joined to an old kingdom (so that the two bodies together may be considered mixed).” What we have here is, simply put, the conquest of territory. Machiavelli meditates on what exactly makes such a conquest successful, using two prime examples: the Roman Empire, which succeeded, and King Louis of France, who failed.
What did the Romans do correctly? According to Machiavelli, they sent out colonies, a far better strategy than the use of standing armies (since the latter are a burden, whereas colonies only hurt the poor and scattered and do not touch anyone else). The Romans also indulged the less powerful, broke the more powerful, and didn’t allow foreigners to gain a stronghold. Never did they let a trouble remain just to avoid going to war over it. As Machiavelli argues, war is never entirely avoidable, but is merely postponed; one should therefore fight it sooner rather than later, attacking those ills that plague a society before they become incurable. Preemption, in other words, is the name of the game.
On the subject of colonies, Machiavelli goes one step further, noting that it is better to displace or disrupt the poor and powerless than the rich and powerful. Why? Because the poor cannot fight back. Moreover, “men ought either to be caressed or destroyed, since they will seek revenge for minor hurts but will not be able to revenge major ones.”
Turning to King Louis, Machiavelli lists his mistakes in an effort to explain his failure to conquer Italian states. Louis entered Italy through the ambition of the Venetians, who wanted to gain control of half of Lombardy. Granted this opportunity, Louis proceeded to squander it. He put down the weaker powers (smaller states), increased the strength of a major power (the Church), introduced a powerful foreigner into the fray (Spain), never took up residence in Italy, never set up colonies, and deprived the Venetians of their power. This last error proved fatal: if the Venetians had retained full power, no one would have taken Lombardy from France just to give it to Venice, and the Venetians would not have let others in.
Machiavelli’s methodology in these opening chapters is an intrinsically scientific one. He uses a classification system, treating states as varying species to be ordered in a form of political taxonomy. He also bolsters each claim with a historical example, flaunting his knowledge of past men and events, and unfolds his arguments in careful thesis-antithesis fashion, demonstrating the rights and the wrongs as absolute principles to be disregarded at one’s own peril.
His examples are by and large culled from Italian history. Machiavelli cites the case of the duke of Ferrara, “who did not yield under attacks either from the Venetians in 1484 or from Pope Julius in 1510” (an example of the relative ease with which hereditary principates may be ruled), and then discusses the Roman Empire, contrasting it with King Louis of France’s unsuccessful attempt to gain control of Italy.
What Machiavelli is beginning to build (subtly in these first chapters and then more overtly later on) is a vision of Italy that is grounded in historical specificity and a set of cardinal rules by which the science of politics operates. There is a curious dialectic between the abstract land Machiavelli seems to invoke when he writes of princes and princedoms as if they were variables in a mathematical equation, and the precision with which he fleshes out Italian history as well as the current events of his land. One can’t help but surmise that Italy is the abstract setting of all Machiavelli’s formulations, that he has his eye on improving the governance of his own country, and that his emphasis on conquered lands may point the way to a unified Italy, a dream that would not be realized for another three centuries.
At the same time, Machiavelli intersperses his layering of details and examples with bits of philosophy and ruminations on the human condition. Indeed, it is not for nothing that he is often referred to as a “secular humanist.” Though there are admittedly a few allusions to God, for the most part Machiavelli refers to humans as agents of free will – fickle, noble, full of flaws and merits - and the ultimate barometer of power. What causes princes to succeed or fail? Human nature.
Consider the following line: “men ought either to be caressed or destroyed, since they will seek revenge for minor hurts but will not be able to revenge minor ones.” Machiavelli bases his political conclusions on basic human impulses: like a great dramatist, he expounds on a set of particular human qualities and uses them to extrapolate broader meanings. He is a humanist insofar as he continually returns to these human impulses in his arguments, thereby positing the larger argument that power and the gain thereof are reflections of a universal human spirit. It is worth noting that Machiavelli never writes, “the French prefer to be caressed,” or “the English are rebellious,” or “the Germans are quick to avenge wrongs”; he is not a nationalist or even an ethnographist, but rather a believer in the universality of man. He writes in categorical terms, presaging Kant and the categorical imperative. Juxtaposed with his reliance on history as example and his emphasis on the comings and goings of his contemporaries is a vision of common man, united by certain fundamental qualities that have persisted since the dawn of civilization and that depend neither on nation nor on creed. In this way, he stands as a quintessential product of the Renaissance.