The Prince

The Prince Summary and Analysis of Section 7: Chapters XX-XXVI

A new prince cannot disarm his subjects, which would cause a backlash; rather, he should arm them, thereby instilling loyalty. The opposite applies for a prince who has just acquired a new state and attached it to his old one. In this case the prince must disarm the new state, for all arms must be in the hands of the prince’s own soldiers - those who are used to his rule.

Machiavelli disagrees with the adage that encouraging factionalism (dividing and weakening the people) is a good way to keep power. Yes, this tactic may work in peacetime, but as soon as a foreign enemy comes along, the factionalized state is that much easier to conquer. Also, a faction can sometimes win out and overthrow the whole state, as has happened in Venice.

Machiavelli approves of the deliberate planting of obstacles to a prince’s rise and his power, in order for him to gain in reputation by overcoming them. “Many hold that a shrewd prince will, when he can, subtly encourage some enmity to himself, so that by overcoming it he can augment his own reputation,” he writes. Machiavelli then argues that men who are at first suspect to the prince can often be trusted more than those who seem immediately loyal to him; the former feel that they need to win the prince over, while the latter feel too secure in their positions. With a newly conquered state, “it is much easier to gain as friends those men who were satisfied with the earlier state, and therefore hostile to the conqueror, than those men who, because they were discontented in the earlier state, looked with fervor on the new prince and helped him take over.” The discontented often remain discontented.

Machiavelli concludes this chapter, entitled “Whether Building Fortresses and Other Defensive Policies Often Adapted By Princes Are Useful or Not,” with a mention of, suitably enough, fortresses: “the prince who fears his own people more than he does foreigners ought to build fortresses, but a prince who is more afraid of foreigners than of his own people can neglect them.” Why? Because the best fortress of all is the support of the people. Moreover, a prince should never rely entirely on fortresses and feel that they mean he need not worry about whether or not his people support him.

The next chapter, “How a Prince Should Act to Acquire Reputation,” presents Ferdinand of Spain as a key example. Ferdinand acquired his reputation through military projects, constantly following up one campaign with another – Granada, expelling the Moors, attacking Africa, campaigning in Italy, assaulting France – as a way of distracting from his more private machinations – unifying Aragon and Castille. Machiavelli refers to Ferdinand’s behavior as “despicable,” yet he argues that these policies, by preoccupying the king’s subjects and enthralling them, ultimately worked.

A prince should take a stand if neighbors come to blows. Neutrality is not the way to go. If the neighbors are powerful, then the victor will invariably hate you if you were neutral; if the neighbors are weak, then you find yourself in an ideal position to render a state indebted to you by taking its side. Internally, a prince should reward the talents and endeavors of his subjects. He should encourage their work, should not confiscate holdings (as Machiavelli has argued before), should entertain the people with “festivals and spectacles,” and should show himself attentive to their needs while never diminishing his dignity.

“On a Prince’s Private Counselors” makes a more straightforward claim: that it is crucial for a prince to pick good ministers, because they in turn reflect on the prince himself. A good minister should think only of what is good for his master; that said, a prince should be sure to keep a minister obedient by honoring him and respecting his welfare.

Next, Machiavelli turns to the subject of flatterers, in “How to Avoid Flatterers.” A prince should accept advice, but only when he has sought it out; uncalled-for advice is never welcome. A prudent prince will bring wise men into his council and give them alone “free license to speak the truth.” For his part, the prince should ask many questions, should seek opinions, and should hear out the views of others.

The final three chapters of The Prince – “Why the Princes of Italy Have Lost Their Dominions,” “The Influence of Luck on Human Affairs and the Ways to Counter It,” and “An Exhortation to Restore Italy to Liberty and Free Her From the Barbarians” – return the book to that idealized vision: a unified Italy, brimming with renewed strength and vigor, a single nation rising above its divisions, healing its wounds, and striding like a colossus upon the world’s stage. What has become of Italy’s glorious potential? The problem, as Machiavelli identifies it, is essentially laziness. The rulers of Italy have not maintained their armed forces, idly figuring that quiet times never go away. This “is a common failing of men,” Machiavelli writes. They “never think of storms so long as the sky is blue.” When trouble comes, such princes run away, hoping to be called back when their former subjects tire of their conquerors.

In the second of these three last chapters, Machiavelli discusses luck and its impact on political affairs. Italy is in trouble today, he argues, because of bad luck, but also because she has not guarded against it sufficiently. “I think it may be true that Fortune governs half of our actions,” Machiavelli writes, “but that even so she leaves the other half more or less in our power to control.” Machiavelli then closes The Prince with, as he puts it, an “exhortation”: he directly addresses Lorenzo de Medici, as he did in the book’s prefatory letter, arguing that he could be the prince who unites Italy. This hope for unification is echoed again in his mention of Cesare Borgia, who, “at the zenith of his career [was] deserted by Fortune.” Machiavelli reminds Lorenzo to look at the examples of the past and restates the necessity of building one’s own armies. “The occasion must not be allowed to slip away,” he argues. “Italy has been waiting too long for a glimpse of her redeemer.”

Finally, Machiavelli concludes with a verse from Petrarch, translated as follows: “Then virtue boldly shall engage/And swiftly vanquish barbarous rage,/Proving that ancient and heroic pride/In true Italian hearts has never died.”


Once again, Machiavelli’s slippery, flip-flopping view of human nature is on full display. In Chapter XXI, he writes: “Men are never so dishonest that they will show gross ingratitude by turning immediately on their helpers. Besides, victories are never so decisive that the victor does not have to maintain some moderation, some show of justice.” Did he not, only a number of pages earlier, argue that men are intrinsically “rotten,” liars and hypocrites of the highest magnitude, ready to turn against a helping hand as soon as it suits their needs? And what of justice? What became of keeping the end in sight, of wielding cruelty when necessary, of aiming for the decisive victory, whatever the cost?

No, Machiavelli reasons: moderation is the way to proceed. Far more than is generally assumed, The Prince adopts an almost thesis-antithesis approach to politics and human nature, arguing in near-dialectical fashion through the thickets of human behavior. Machiavelli, despite his occasional categorical assertion and broad generalization, tends to acknowledge the complexity of mankind, of social structures, and of civilization. The apparent contradictions that riddle The Prince are arguably indicative of an actively searching mind; this is a restless book, replete with gaps and back-tracks, obfuscations and impasses, that in its entirety seeks to offer a vision of man as a political animal, groping for power but continually off-set by his own contrary impulses. It is almost a study in psychology, teasing out the aforementioned contradictions in an effort to arrive at some synthesis.

Indeed, man as agent of his own destiny is a central theme for Machiavelli. In his chapter on luck, he writes that “a prince who depends entirely on Fortune comes to grief immediately she changes.” That said, a prince should adjust his behavior “to the temper of the times.” It is all about finding the happy medium, that precise balance between absolute individualism and an ability to adapt to the winds of change and to the mood of the era. Luck does play a major role in politics. Men have natural inclinations that are not easily adjusted, and in this case it is a matter of chance whether such temperaments fit the times or not.

But even here, in the heart of this argument, Machiavelli invokes the importance of the self, of man's capacity to introduce change and to mold the times. He writes that it is “better to be rash than timid, for Fortune is a woman, and the man who wants to hold her down must beat and bully her.” This statement assumes that Fortune can be held down – which was far from a universal belief in Machiavelli’s time. He goes on: “Like a woman, too, [Fortune] is always a friend of the young, because they are less timid, more brutal, and take charge of her more recklessly.” For all his prior emphasis on prudence and calculation, Machiavelli here prizes recklessness, boldness, and brutality.

Therein lies perhaps the central struggle in The Prince: that between the need for bold, speedy maneuvers, the necessity of action, and the treatment of politics as a science, full of rules and conditions. A prince must be both human and beast, and as beast he must be both lion and fox. He must embrace the contradictions of humanity; he must rely on both thought and action; he must look to the past as he heads toward the future. Machiavelli’s treatise is more than a prolonged letter intended to curry favor with the Medici or a how-to manual for power-grabbing; it is, fundamentally, an inquiry into the nature of man, and the ways in which that nature can be harnessed and used both for and against other men. The “Prince” of the title is neither hero nor villain. He is, quite simply, human.