The Prince

The Prince Themes

Free Will

The Prince is one of the quintessential Renaissance manuscripts, and as such it is often associated with individualism, humanism, and a sense of personal agency. Nonetheless, the extent to which Machiavelli meditates explicitly on free will is notable. He writes: “rather than give up on our free will altogether, I think it may be true that Fortune governs half of our actions, but that even so she leaves the other half more or less in our power to control.” To Machiavelli, Fortune is a “woman” who can be countered, but who must be defied with boldness and brashness. In many ways, The Prince can be read as an exploration of the convergence between luck and agency in human affairs. How can a prince use luck to his advantage? How can he, in turn, surmount the obstacles Fortune places in his way? In this regard, Machiavelli presents a profoundly secular view, one in which men may carve out their own destinies through shrewdness and prudence, in which ecclesiastical states are of less analytical interest than non-theocracies, and in which Fortune must either be exploited or battled.


In one of The Prince’s key chapters, “On Cruelty and Clemency,” Machiavelli argues that it is safer for a prince to be feared than it is for him to be loved. Men dread punishment, and this fear can be used to a prince’s benefit. Love can lie, but fear knows no such mendacity; it is a primitive emotion that will not change at the tip of a hat, that will not give way to greed or dissolve amidst a flurry of developments. A prudent prince will therefore use cruelty to his advantage – though only when necessary. This last point is not a minor one. Though Machiavelli’s reputation may suggest otherwise, he argues explicitly in The Prince that cruelty is well-used when it preserves a prince’s safety or secures the state; gratuitous cruelty is to be condemned. That said, there is a hint of admiration in Machiavelli’s tone when he writes of criminal princes such as Agathocles and Oliverotto da Fermo.


Military force is of great importance to Machiavelli. He writes that princes should be both men and animals, intellectuals and warriors. When it comes to animals, they should be both lions and foxes, with the lion representing sheer force and the fox representing wiliness. Machiavelli devotes many pages to an argument in favor of using one’s own troops and railing against the reliance on mercenaries and auxiliaries – which he blames for the weakening of Italy. The Prince is full of conquests and conquerors; it is a vision of politics as bathed, necessarily, in blood.


“As for exercising the mind,” Machiavelli writes, “a prince should read history and reflect on the actions of great men.” Machiavelli was, above all, a student of the past, and he peppers The Prince will numerous scholarly examples: from Cyrus to Cesare Borgia, from the ancient Romans to King Louis of France, from Carthage to German city-states, the art of the telling example is crucial to The Prince’s rhetorical strategy. That strategy is, in turn, recommended for princes: Machiavelli argues that in order to be great, one must study the greats of the past, and in order to avoid pitfalls, one must examine the mistakes of failed predecessors. This may seem like common sense, but it is also a view grounded in the thinking of Machiavelli’s time, when Renaissance scholars were reshaping history, looking to the past for inspiration, and calling attention to the giants of long ago.


Machiavelli writes warily of generosity in a prince. Better for a prince to be thought a miser if it means he is able to keep his state financially secure, and to reserve money for when it is most needed. Interestingly, relatively little of The Prince is devoted to economics per se; for the most part, the book is focused on military matters and the kind of courtly intrigue through which a citizen can rise to princedom. When the subject of generosity rears its head, it is in the context of a distinction between a prince’s effectiveness and his reputation. Machiavelli argues that generosity is often exhibited in the presence of ulterior motives; if a prince showers his subjects with gifts in order to curry favor, he winds up depleting his own resources, so that in the end he must take back from the people that which is theirs in order to keep the state afloat. This, of course, is not a good thing. Generosity is, therefore, often but a sham to begin with – and not a particularly useful one at that.

The Church

Although Machiavelli never directly voices his disdain for the Church, he is clearly contemptuous of many of the Church’s policies. In his explanation of Italy’s decline, he not-so-subtly blames the papacy for some of his country’s ills: After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Pope actively supported rebellions in the cities in which citizens took up arms against nobles, for these conflicts helped buttress the Church’s power. The result was a scattering of small states, with the Church’s holdings at the center. Unfortunately, even the Pope knew little of military matters, and wound up relying on foreign troops – a dependency that has cost Italy much of her former strength and squandered much of her potential, according to Machiavelli. All this said, Machiavelli does write admiringly of Pope Alexander VI (father of Cesare Borgia), who in his own way was a shrewd and, yes, Machiavellian politician.

The Unification of Italy

Machiavelli concludes The Prince with “An Exhortation to Restore Italy to Liberty and Free Her From the Barbarians.” In other words, he puts out a call to unify Italy. It is a dream that would not materialize until the 19th century, but one which seems to have been dear to Machiavelli’s heart. He even explicitly addresses Lorenzo de Medici as the potential savior Italy has been yearning for: “There is no figure presently in sight,” he writes, “in whom [Italy] can better place her trust than your illustrious house, which, with its fortune and its merits, favored by God and the Church of which it is now the head, can take the lead in this process of redemption.” Thus unifying Italy is a way of redeeming it – for the sins of its rulers, for the failings of its myriad city-states, the mistakes of its armies, and the flaws and foibles of its citizenry. Unification is invoked in almost biblical terms, a mass salvation, with the unifier as messiah – a strangely fitting finale to so “secular” a book.