The Prince

The Prince Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Does Machiavelli believe in free will?

    Possible Answer:

    The fact that Machiavelli's work is written as a sort of guidebook suggests his belief in free will; were man unable to choose his path, he would have no use for a tome like The Prince. Machiavelli believes that the choices that a man - or, specifically, a prince - makes over the course of his life have a significant impact not only on the man himself, but on all those around him.

  2. 2

    Machiavelli argues for the importance of history throughout The Prince, weaving examples from the past throughout his treatise. Does he acknowledge his own place in history? How does he think he will be viewed in the years after his passing? Can we even find answers, or is this a futile line of inquiry? If the latter -- why?

    Possible Answer:

    The fact that Machiavelli addresses parts of The Prince to historical figures with whom he had direct contact suggests that he was acutely aware of his own place in history. However, the ambiguity of his references to contemporary leaders speaks to his uncertainty about how later generations would view him, as well.

  3. 3

    Offer an interpretation of The Prince as personal text. What biographical details from Machiavelli's life are relevant to the text? In what ways does the first-person intrude on the omniscient narrator-as-philosopher?

    Possible Answer:

    Machiavelli wrote The Prince as a gift to Lorenzo de Medici, after suffering through years of exile and torture. It is impossible to imagine that the horrors that he experienced did not to some extent inform the views that he voices in the work. His past seems particularly to bubble to the surface during his discussion of cruelty: how can a man who has suffered so be willing to commend cruelty in any form? And yet Machiavelli is willing to endorse cruelty nonetheless, holding that in many cases the ends justify the means.

  4. 4

    Analyze Chapter XVII: "On Cruelty and Clemency: Whether It Is Better to Be Feared or Loved".

    Possible Answer:

    Machiavelli is acutely aware of mankind's failings, and seems to feel that the safer approach to life is to embrace these flaws. If a man behaves in accordance with his "rotten" nature he is likely to be feared, but it is safer to rule in this manner than to encourage love amongst one's subjects. Love, Machiavelli seems to believe, is far too fickle and fleeting to be useful to rulers.

  5. 5

    Machiavelli was a republican; yet The Prince has often been criticized as a manual for and justification of absolutist/totalitarian tactics. Discuss.

    Possible Answer:

    Many critics have argued that Machiavelli's text has been largely misinterpreted, and that its totalitarian tactics have been emphasized while its more politically moderate viewpoints have been largely ignored. Machiavelli's work is in fact an intricately layered, infinitely complex analysis of the human condition as much as it is a treatise on the acquisition of power.

  6. 6

    Discuss the use of Cesare Borgia in The Prince - as character, example, model, warning sign, narrative cog.

    Possible Answer:

    Throughout The Prince, Machiavelli cites Cesare Borgia, son of Alexander VI, as an example of an individual who was prudent and clever in his quest to attain power. Borgia, Machiavelli feels, is someone who did everything right, only to lose all that he had gained through a stroke of bad luck. This suggests Machiavelli's belief that though man may certainly exercise free will in his actions, he is ultimately not the master of his own fate, and must leave some things up to the grace of God.

  7. 7

    Machiavelli was often openly contemptuous of the Church, but these feelings are sublimated to a certain degree in The Prince. Examine the instances in which Machiavelli explicitly analyzes or describes the Church. What does his position seem to be?

    Possible Answer:

    Machiavelli seems aware in this work of his audience - indeed, The Prince is positioned as a gift to Lorenzo de Medici - and thus must have been conscious of the need to temper his animosity towards the Church. However, the entire text directly refutes traditional religious values, arguing that a truly successful political leader simply cannot be a perfect Christian. Religion, Machiavelli seems to believe, has very little place in the political realm.

  8. 8

    Why is Machiavelli so often called a "secular" humanist? Do you agree with the appellation?

    Possible Answer:

    Machiavelli's approach to humanism represents a dramatic shift from traditional, Christian ideas of virtue to a belief in the importance of self-interest, as justified by secularism. He expresses the opinion that virtue is not a black-and-white concept, and holds that actions should be judged as "right" or "wrong" based on their utility.

  9. 9

    Does Machiavelli favor cruelty in government?

    Possible Answer:

    Machiavelli does not decry the use of cruelty by governments, but believes that it has a place only when it is useful. While kindness is favorable, cruelty should be employed when failing to do so would lead to greater harm (e.g. a civil uprising).

  10. 10

    Explicate the Petrarch verse that closes The Prince in relation to the rest of the book.

    Possible Answer:

    The Prince ends with the following quote: “Then virtue boldly shall engage/And swiftly vanquish barbarous rage,/Proving that ancient and heroic pride/In true Italian hearts has never died." Machiavelli's ultimate goal in this work is to provide present and future rulers with the tools with which to uplift the Italian state and return it to its former splendor. By closing the work with these words, Machiavelli reveals his deep-seated passion for Italy and determination to inspire pride in the hearts of all who read his tome.