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Front cover of an edition of The Prince by Machiavelli.

The Prince (Italian: Il Principe), originally titled De Principatibus ("About Principalities"), is a treatise written by Niccolò Machiavelli on how one should be an effective leader. It was first distributed under its first name, "De Principatibus" when it was first written in 1513, and was later published as "Il Principe" in 1532, five years after the death of Machiavelli. The treatise is famous because of its frank and unapologetic approach towards leadership, advising cruelty, betrayal, and other immoral means to achieve power and glory. Though for centuries this writing was taken as at face value, more recently it has been suggested that the text was written as a satire, mainly due to the author's history of supporting free republics, his state of duress under the powerful Medici family at the time of the writing, and the almost exaggerated nature of the suggestions proposed by Machiavelli, among other reasons.

Chapter summaries

  1. The Various Kinds of Government and the Ways by Which they are Established: All governments are republics or monarchies. The monarchies have either always been monarchies, or were free states which have chosen monarchy or have been conquered. 
  2. Of Hereditary Monarchies: Hereditary monarchies are the easiest to rule; the longer a territory has belonged to a single family, the more likely the people will be to maintain the status quo and support the leader.
  3. Of Mixed Monarchies: Some monarchies are mixed; that is, part of a kingdom has traditionally belonged to a prince, and part of the kingdom is newly acquired and therefore is not accustomed to the rule of the prince. A prince must be careful with new territories, because people will gladly support an invader against an equally new prince if they think they would fare better under the invader. The newly established prince will not have the respect and authority that comes from multiple generations of loyalty to his family by his subjects, and is therefore vulnurable to being replaced by violent insurrection. Furthermore, if a prince acquires a new kingdom, he must be careful regarding those who put him in power. He is incapable of rewarding all his supporters as well as they feel they should be rewarded, yet he cannot be harsh against them because he is in their debt. If he does put down a rebellion, the prince must sieze the moment to punish the rebels harshly, because he can get away with more brutality than he would normally. It is easier to rule a land with the same language and customs than a foreign one. In a domestic takeover, the prince must only destroy the former prince's bloodline and keep the laws and taxes the same to not provoke unrest. If the prince is ruling a foreign land, he must settle it by colonialism rather than military occupation, he must live in the new territory to control it better and warn enemies against invasion, and put down any powerful people, and indulge those natives who are needed to run the country.
  4. Why the Kingdoms of Darius, Occupied by Alexander, Did Not Rebel Against the Successors of the Latter After His Death: There are two ways to govern a land; through a prince governing it through appointed ministers, or through a prince and a class of nobles beneath him. It is harder to conquer a country run by ministers, because they are all united under the prince and act as one against the invader, as they have nothing to gain and everything to lose if the invasion is successful. Then, this country is easy to rule, because all the loyalty in the country belonged to the prince, who has been replaced. A country run by nobles, on the other hand, is easier to conquer, because the nobles have their own agendas and the loyalty of their subjects, and will not sacrifice everything so willingly for their prince. It is harder to hold such a country, however, because killing the prince and his family is not enough; there are independently powerful nobles who are able to revolt. Darius ruled the Persian Empire through ministers rather than nobles, so when the Empire fell, it did not have the means to revolt.
  5. The Way to Govern Cities or Dominions That, Previous to Being Occupied, Lived Under Their Own Laws: There are three ways to rule a formerly free city: burn it to the ground and destroy it utterly, rebuilding from scratch; occupy it with military forces while starting your own colonies within the territory which has been conquered, or install a puppet regime which pays taxes towards the conquering prince. Machiavelli lists the third option as the best option, because the puppet regime will work hard to secure its newfound power, taking the burden off the conquering prince, yet this government will remain loyal to the prince because it owes its existance to the conqueror and could not maintain control with only a puppet regime without the prince's support.
  6. Of New Dominions Which Have Been Acquired by One's Own Arms and Power: A prince should set lofty goals modelled after previous kings who have been successful. It is far better for a prince to rely on his own abilities, rather than the fortune of his birth, family name, or title. A prince with well-developed skills and power will be able to deal with the changing realities of beginning to rule a new territory. A prince who relies solely on his royal blood will be able to rule his own territory, but this ability may not extend to the new territory he has conquered.
  7. Of New Dominions Acquired by the Power of Others or by Fortune: Coming into power by fortune is dangerous, because fortune and luck can often be reversed. The best way one can hope to keep power that has been given wtihout being earned is to wipe out one's enemies so that no rival may stand able to take power from the prince. Machiavelli cites Cesare Borgia (also named Duke Valentino) as an example. Borgia acquired his power due to the influence of his father, Pope Alexander VI. Although Borgia eliminated those disloyal soldiers in his army and replaced them with loyal ones, conquered foreign lands, and maintained good relations with his neighbors, none of this was enough so solidify his rule, and he did not stay in power long after his influential father died. Acquiring a territory through fortune rather than by bloodline or conquest is very difficult, and is never immune from failure.
  8. Of Those Who Have Attained the Position of Prince by Villainy: In this chapter, Machiavelli uses the example of King Agotholes of Sparta, who came to power by having his men assassinate the Spartan senate after he convened them. Though his rule faced problems, he was able to hold onto power. If one seizes rule through crime, he must strike out at all his enemies at once. Then, he must not use violence directed at his own people again during his rule, so that the people may begin to forgive his infamy and accept his rule. To drag out the violence against opponents will rob a prince of his validity and keep people from giving him their loyalty due to their fear and revulsion at such a leader.
  9. Of the Civic Principality: Kingdoms are made of two groups: the nobles and the people. The nobles attempt to control the people, and the people attempt to escape the grasp of the nobles. If the nobles lose power, they will seek to reclaim it by making one of their own a prince. If the people are losing power, they will likewise attempt to make one of their own a prince. If the nobles install a prince, he will have difficulty controlling them, as they consider themselves his equal and his royalty merely chosen by chance. However, the prince installed by the people will have no rival and be respected by the people, as they wish only to be left alone, whereas the nobles crave power of their own.
  10. How the Strength of Alll States Should be Measured: A prince must maintain an army equal to those of his enemies. He must also employ extensive defenses, so that if attacked, he will be seen as defending the people, and inspire them rather than lose their faith. 
  11. Of Ecclesiastical Principalities: Machiavelli points to the territories controlled by the Catholic Church, and notes that since they are not traditional kingdoms, they do not have to defend themselves or rule the people living under them. He notes that although violence and traditional means of power may have played a part in building the ecclesiastical principalities, they now stand a unique force capable of wielding great power and influence without resorting to the standard means of governing required other governments.
  12. The Different Kinds of Militia and Mercenery Soldiers: Merceneries are not to be trusted. Either they are unskilled, or they are skilled but more concerned with their own prestige. Instead of relying on merceneries or auxillaries, the prince should build his own army composed of citizens of his nation.
  13. Of Auxillary, Mixed, and Native Troops: Auxillary troops, in this case borrowed from an ally, are not useful to a prince. If they lose, the prince loses his kingdom. If they win, he is indebted to the country to which they belong, so in a sense his country is still not independent. 
  14. What the Duties of a Prince Are With Regard to the Militia: The most important thing a prince must do is be prepared for war. Machiavelli uses the example of an armed man and an unarmed man; the armed man has no reason to listen to the unarmed. The prince should spend time and effort learning the art of war, as well as preparing himself physically, through training at arms and strenuous activity such as hunting. 
  15. Of the Things For Which Men, and Especially Princes, Are Praised or Blamed: Courage and skill are admired by the people; cowardice, incompetence and cruelty are despised by the people. A prince who uses evil deeds and in the process hurts the state is flawed, but a prince who uses evil deeds for the good of the state should not be influenced by the condemnations of others.
  16. Of Liberality and Niggardliness (Parsimony): A prince who is generous in his spending will be loved at first but eventually hated because of the high taxes required to maintain the handouts given to the people. A frugal prince will be hated at first because of his frugal ways towards the people's needs, but will eventually be perceived as generous as the savings he obtains allows him to build what the people really need, all without raising taxes.
  17. Of Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether it is Better to be Loved or Feared: Compassion is a good thing for a prince to have, but if he has too much, lawlessness will abound, and the entire people will suffer. On the question of whether it is better to be loved or feared, Machiavelli answers that while both are ideal, when choosing between one it is better to be feared. People are flawed, and while most may act honestly out of respect for their prince, all will act honestly out of fear of their prince.
  18. In What Way Princes Must Keep Faith: A prince should keep his word when possible, but since he also gets equal praise when people only think he kept his word even if he didn't, he must not be afraid to be cunning and use deceit in order to win the favor of others.
  19. That We Must Avoid Being Despised and Hated: Men are content as long as nobody tries to take their property or their women. A prince must avoid taking these things from anyone. A prince must avoid looking weak. There are two types of threats; internal and external. A good army is a solid measure against both dangers.
  20. Whether Fortresses and Other Things Which Princes Often Make Are Useful or Injurious: Putting fortresses in conquered territories can work to control them, but is often disastrous, because the prince trusts in them too much and therefore neglects to concern himself with the attitude of the conquered people, and they inevitably rise up against him.
  21. How a Prince Must Act in Order to Gain Reputation: A prince gains a reputation through great deeds. Machiavelli uses King Ferdinand of Spain as a good example, who conquered territories in the name of religion and kept his people too busy to rebel. If two states are at war, it is better to choose a side than to remain neutral, because if your allies win, you benefit, if your allies lose, you still have an ally, and regardless of which of you is more powerful, your ally will feel a certain dependency on you.
  22. Of the Secretaries of Princes: It is important to choose good servants and ministers so as to appear wise. A prince should have a good understanding of the workings of the world, or, failing that, at least a good understanding of people. Knowledge outside these two categories is worthless.
  23. How Flatterers Must Be Shunned: A prince must avoid flatterers. They will lead him into poor decisions. However, he should not avoid advice altogether, as this will also result in poor decisions. A prince who frequently changes his mind when given advice after already haven made a decision is seen as weak.
  24. Why the Princes of Italy Have Lost Their States: The Italian princes relied too heavily on mercenery soldiers, as discussed previously, and had a people who had no love for them. This lead to their falling from power.
  25. How Much Fortune Can Do In Human Affairs And How It May Be Opposed: Fortune is like a flood; one cannot withstand it directly, but during the calm they can build dams and levees. When fortune comes, whether good or bad, it is impossible to stop, so the prince must take advantage of the times of peace and calm to prepare for good or evil.
  26. Exhortation to Liberate Italy From the Barbarians: Machiavelli begs the powerful Medici family to retake Italy from foreigners using Italian armies with support of the Church.

Critical analysis

Although the treatise became famous through its dramatic endorsement of unethical means to take power, in more recent times, the writing has been more often interpreted as satirical, or at the very least not the true reflections of the author.

Satire

Machiavelli had traditionally been a proponent of free republics. Machiavelli had worked for the Florentine Republic. The Medici family invaded, overthrew the government, replacing it with a dictatorship, and tortured Machiavelli. He wrote the work in exile. Under this context, the treatise can be read as dripping with sarcasm. Given this context and the fact that every single work by Machiavelli other than "The Prince" has been one promoting the notion of free republics, it is incredibly unlikely that Machiavelli intended the work to be taken literally. Since the writing is so overtly sinister, those who do take it literally would be seen as cruel, evil tyrants by their contemporaries. 

Mary Dietz theory

Mary Dietz, one commentator, suggested that instead of satire, Machiavelli intended to give faulty advice to the princes of Italy, so that they would fall and the Republic of Florence could be reestablished. Machiavelli discourages liberality, even though the prince's liberality had been instrumental in keeping the people from revolting. He supports arming the populace, contrary to the Medici's traditional practice. Lastly, he suggests the prince live in the conquered city, making him much more vulnurable to be eliminated through a revolt.

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