Summary of the Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli



THE fame of Niccolo Machiavelli rests mainly on his II Principe, written probably about 1514, but not published until 1532, five years after the death of the author. The great question with which the work is concerned is: how a prince may establish and maintain the strongest possible government. According to Machiavelli moral principles must yield entirely to the dictates of pure expediency, and it follows that the world regarded by the prince must be always the same; the men in it growing neither better nor worse. Machiavelli's name has long been used in terms of reproach, due largely to incomplete understanding of his method. But there is no division among the critics as to the precision of his thought and the clarity of his style.

[OF PRINCEDOMS WON BY MERIT - MACHIAVELLI - FROM THE PRINCE]

ALL states and governments are either republics or princedoms. Princedoms are either hereditary or new. Hereditary states are maintained with far less difficulty than new states, but in new princedoms difficulties abound.

And first if the princedom be joined on to ancient dominions of the prince, so as to form a mixed princedom, rebellion is a danger, for men are always ready to change masters. When a state rebels and is again got under it will not afterwards be lost so easily; for the prince will use the rebellion as a pretext to make himself more secure.

Such new states, when they are of the same province and tongue as the ancient dominions of the prince, are easily retained. It is enough to have rooted out the line of the reigning prince. But where the language and usages differ the difficulty is multiplied. One expedient is for the prince himself to dwell in the new state, as the Turk has done in Greece. Another is to send colonies into one or two places which may become keys to the province; for the cost of troops is far greater.

In such provinces, moreover, the prince should always make himself the protector of his weaker neighbours, without adding to their strength; but should humble the great, and never suffer a formidable stranger to acquire influence, as was the rule with the Romans. Whereas King Louis of France has in Italy done the direct opposite in every single respect. In especial we may draw from the French king's actions the general axiom, which never or rarely errs, that 'he who is the cause of another's greatness is himself undone.'

Now, all princedoms are governed in one of two ways: either by a sole prince served by ministers, or by a prince with barons who hold their rank not by favour but by right of descent. The Turk is an example of the first, the French king of the second. A state of the first kind is difficult to win, but when won is easily held, since the prince's family may be easily rooted out; but in such a state as France you may gain an entry, but to hold your ground afterwards is difficult since you cannot root out the barons.

Hence we need not wonder at the ease where-with Alexander was able to lay a firm hold on Asia; albeit he died before he had well entered on possession; since the dominion of Darius was of the same character as that of the Turk.

When the newly acquired state has hitherto lived under its own laws and in freedom there are three ways of holding it. The first is to destroy it; the second to reside in it; the third to leave it under its own laws, choosing for its governors from the inhabitants such as will be friendly to you. But the safest course is either to destroy it or to go and live in it.

Where the prince himself is new, either merit or good fortune is implied, and if we consider the most excellent examples, such as Moses, Cyrus, Romulus and the like, we shall see that they owed to fortune nothing beyond the opportunity which they seized. Those who, like these, come to the princedom by virtuous paths acquire with difficulty, but keep with ease. Their difficulties arise because they are of necessity innovators. If, then, they have force of their own to employ, they seldom fail. Hence it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed; as was the case with Savonarola.

[OF PRINCEDOMS WON OTHERWISE THAN BY MERIT]

THOSE who rise to princedom by mere good fortune have much trouble to maintain themselves; some lack both knowledge and the power to do so. Yet even if such a one be of great parts, he may lose what he has won, like Cesare Borgia.

It was impossible for the duke to aggrandise himself unless the states of Italy were thrown into confusion so that he might safely make himself master of some part of them. This was made easy for him as concerned Romagna by the conduct of the French and Venetians. The next step was to weaken the factions of the Orsini and the Colonnesi. Having scattered the Colonnesi, the Orsini were so won over as to be drawn in their simplicity into his hands at Sinigaglia. Having thus disposed of the leaders, he set about ingratiating himself with the population of Romagna and Urbino. He first set over the country a stern ruler to restore order. This end being accomplished, that stern but unpopular ruler was beheaded.

Next, as a new pope might be dangerous, he set himself to exterminate the kindred of those lords whom he had despoiled of their possessions, to win over the Roman nobility, and to secure a majority among the cardinals. But before the duke had completely consolidated his power his father, Pope Alexander VI, died. Even so, the skill with which he had laid the foundations of his power must have resulted in success had he not himself been almost at death's door at that critical moment. The one mistake he made was in the choice of the new pope, Julius II, and this error was the cause of his ultimate downfall.

A man may rise, however, to a princedom by paths of wickedness and crime; that is, not precisely by either merit or fortune. We may take as example first Agathocles the Sicilian. To slaughter fellow citizens, to betray friends, to be devoid of honour, pity and religion cannot be counted as merit. But the achievements of Agathocles can certainly not be ascribed to fortune. We cannot, therefore, attribute either to fortune or to merit what he accomplished without either.

For a modern instance we may consider Oliverotto of Fermo, who seized upon that town by a piece of monstrous treachery and merciless butchery; yet he established himself so firmly that he could not have been unseated had he not let himself be over-reached by Cesare Borgia.

Our lesson from these examples is that on seizing a state the usurper should make haste to inflict what injuries he must at one stroke, and afterwards win men over by benefits.

NEXT is the case of those who are made princes by the favour of their countrymen, which they owe to what may be termed a fortunate astuteness. If he be established by the favour of the people, to secure them against the oppression of the nobles, his position is stronger than if he owe it to the nobles; but in either case it is the people whom he must conciliate, and this I affirm in spite of the old saw, 'He who builds on the people builds on mire.'

Merit, or good fortune, is needed to acquire ecclesiastical princedoms, but not to maintain them, for they are upheld by the authority of religion. It is due to the policy of the Popes Alexander VI and Julius II that the temporal power of the pope has become so great; and from his holiness Pope Leo we may hope that as his predecessors made the papacy great with arms he will render it still greater and more venerable by his benignity and other countless virtues.





Return to Outline of Great Books Volume I