The Prince

The Prince Summary and Analysis of Section 4: Chapters X-XI

Chapter X is entitled “How to Measure the Strength of Any Prince’s State.” Here Machiavelli adopts a decidedly militaristic tone. Princes, he writes, are better off when they can assemble an army and stand up against attackers; once again, Cesare Borgia is cited as a perfect example. Machiavelli addresses the majority of this chapter to the other class of princes: “those who can’t take the field against their foes, but have to hide behind their walls and defend themselves there.” What should these more vulnerable princes do? They should keep their cities well-fortified; they should ignore the rural areas and focus their defense efforts on the urban centers; and they should be careful not to earn the people’s hatred. A prudent prince is able to keep his subjects loyal to him and in good spirits during a siege. The burden during a siege is often on the besieger; he can almost never afford to wage a siege and do nothing else for a year. Defense, therefore, can consist of slowing the attacker down, wearing him out. Machiavelli cites the cities in Germany as examples of good fortification. These cities have moats, walls, artillery, public warehouses of food, drink, and fuel, and large supplies of raw materials in reserve to keep workers busy and economies going during a siege.

Chapter XI, “Of Ecclesiastical States,” primarily concerns the Papal States. Religious bodies politic are, in general, easy to hold onto; religion itself sustains them, and they hardly need to be defended or governed. Still, the Church had a hard time securing power in Italy, largely because popes tended to only live for ten years or so - not enough time to exact any lasting change. Moreover, Rome was divided by hostile factions, most prominently the Orsini and Colonna families. Today, Machiavelli notes, the papacy awes France, and was able to kick King Louis out of Italy and “ruin the Venetians at the same time.”

How did this happen? It really began, Machiavelli argues, with Pope Alexander VI. Alexander strategically used his son Cesare Borgia to strengthen his own power. Admittedly, Alexander likely intended only to give his son more power; but the moves wound up strengthening the papacy, and as a result Rome emerged as more united, and less threatened by factions.

Pope Julius continued Alexander’s efforts. He took Bologna, crushed the Venetians, ran the French out of Italy, and kept Orsini and Colonna weak. Machiavelli concludes his chapter by mentioning the current pope, Leo. “These are the reasons,” he writes, “why his present holiness Pope Leo has found the papacy so strong; and we may hope that as his predecessors made it great by force of arms, he by his generosity and countless other talents will make it even greater and more to be revered.”


Leo was a Medici, and Machiavelli’s compliment of him is obviously half-hearted; it seems to barely disguise Machiavelli’s contempt for the Church. It is not for nothing that Machiavelli is so often dubbed a “secular” humanist: his focus on the free will of princes, the ways in which their own characters and decisions dictate the success or failure of their reigns, implicitly rejects any notion of divine rule. But The Prince was written for a Medici, in part as a way of currying favor with the family, and Machiavelli therefore had to be sure to refer to Pope Leo only in glowing terms. And yet, when one compares his praise of the pope to his praise of other political leaders, the former pales in comparison. The “countless other talents” are not enumerated, and there is more emphasis on the greatness of “predecessors” than on that of the Pope himself.

It is also intriguing that Machiavelli should follow a chapter explicitly devoted to fortifying cities and other such military matters with one on ecclesiastical states – which, he notes, find such strength in religion that they hardly need to be unified or defended by force. “These are the only princes,” Machiavelli notes, “who have states that they do not defend and subjects that they do not govern; the states, though undefended, are never taken from them, and the subjects, though ungoverned, neither protest, not try to break away, nor could revolt if they had a mind to.” Machiavelli continues with a dismissal of such states, though admittedly “happy and safe governments,” as undeserving of his interest: “But since they are ruled by a heavenly providence to which human reason cannot reach, I shall say nothing of them. Instituted as they are by God, and sustained by him, it would be a rash and imprudent man who ventured to discuss them.”

Machiavelli is drawing a clear distinction between that which men can control and that which they cannot - a topic that he delves into at greater length later in The Prince. For now, there is much to be considered in his assertion that the subjects of an ecclesiastical state could not “revolt if they had a mind to.” Why not? On the one hand, Machiavelli implicitly accepts the Church as a purveyor of divinity; these states are indeed “instituted” by God, and are thus beyond analysis. On the other hand, his earlier examination of various popes’ political maneuvers and the machinations at play within the Church (for example, his detailed treatment of Pope Alexander and Julius, and their respective rises to power) belies such an uncritical view. There also remains the following question: does Machiavelli distance himself from the Church as a subject of analysis and critique because it is divine and therefore beyond fault, or because he is uninterested in it?

The focus of so much of The Prince - and a prevalent theme throughout the Renaissance - is reason. Machiavelli continually refers to the “prudent” prince; he outlines the choices that face a prince, and addresses decisions as if he were speaking of medicine – even going so far as to compare pre-emptive war to a doctor treating a malady before it has time to grow and worsen. Power, for Machiavelli, can be attained purely through the faculties of the mind. Yes, armies are necessary, friends in high places can help, and luck plays a role, but it takes reason to determine what kind of army to use, to know when and when not to rely on friends, to know who to trust, and to know how to harness the vicissitudes of fortune. When Machiavelli writes that “human reason” cannot reach a certain state or kingdom, he therefore may be delivering a not-so-veiled insult not to religion itself, but to the state.

These hints are buttressed by Machiavelli’s other writings. In his famous Discorsi, for example, Machiavelli lambasts the Church’s role in politics, bemoaning its decadence and writing, “And certainly, if the Christian religion had from the beginning been maintained according to the principles of its founder, the Christian states and republics would be much more united and happy than in fact they are.” At the same time, Machiavelli does argue that religion deserves an importance place in society. To his mind, however, the Church abuses its status, and is guilty moreover of what is to him a cardinal sin: keeping Italy divided and stalling her unification.