Machiavelli and The Prince

In 1532 a philosopher poet diplomat named Machiavelli who lived during the Italian Renaissance published a little book called The Prince.  This was about 30 years before Shakespeare was born.  In it, he describes the arts by which a Prince, can retain control of his realm. He focuses primarily on what he calls the “new prince”, under the assumption that a hereditary prince has an easier task since the people are accustomed to him. All a hereditary prince needs to do is carefully maintain the institutions that the people are used to; a new prince has a much more difficult task since he must stabilize his newfound power and build a structure that will endure. This task requires the Prince to be publicly above reproach but privately may require him to do immoral things in order to achieve his goals.

Machiavelli explains through examples which princes are the most successful in obtaining and maintaining power. He draws his examples from personal observations made while he was on diplomatic missions for Florence and from his readings in ancient history


Machiavelli does not dispense entirely with morality, but he does outline a philosophy that doesn’t sound too concerned with goodness.  He knows quite well that good can come from evil actions, and since the Prince must maintain power to maintain order, evil is sometimes required.  The primary contribution of The Prince to the history of political thought is the philosophy of realism, as opposed to idealism.


The term “Machiavellian” is used today in a very negative way – to describe someone who deceives and manipulates others for gain. One can only judge their actions insofar as they get results.  But this isn’t what Machiavelli meant.  Machiavelli meant one should be practical and not dominated by ideals in leadership.He said king need not necessarily be good, or fair, or keep his word, but he must certainly appear to do so.


Machiavela character who sees morality as subordinate to their personal interests or the interests of the kingdom.  It is not necessarily a bad character, just – Prince Hal is a Machiavel – just not one that puts morals above their goals.  Anti-Machiavels do things for honor only.




Politics have no relation to morals.


Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.


A prince must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves. Those that wish to be only lions do not understand this. Therefore, a prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by so doing it would be against his interest, and when the reasons which made him bind himself no longer exist. If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as they are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them.


It is not titles that honor men, but men that honor titles.


And if, to be sure, sometimes you need to conceal a fact with words, do it in such a way that it does not become known, or, if it does become known, that you have a ready and quick defense”


Where the willingness is great, the difficulties cannot be great.


A wise ruler ought never to keep faith when by doing so it would be against his interests.


Men should be either treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries – for heavy ones they cannot.


He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command.


It is necessary for him who lays out a state and arranges laws for it to presuppose that all men are evil and that they are always going to act according to the wickedness of their spirits whenever they have free scope.


War is just when it is necessary; arms are permissible when there is no hope except in arms.


Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them.


The prince must consider how to avoid those things which will make him hated or contemptible, and as often he shall have succeeded he will have fulfilled his part, and he need not fear any danger in other reproaches.  It makes him hated above all things, to be rapacious and to be a violator of property and honor, and when neither their property nor honor touched, the majority of men live content, and he has only to contend with the ambition of a few, whom he can curb with easy in many ways.


There are three classes of intellects: One which comprehends by itself, another which appreciates what others comprehend; and a third which neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others; the first is the most excellent; the second is good; and the third is useless.


There is not other way of guarding oneself against flattery than by letting men understand that they will not offend you by speaking the truth; but when everyone can tell you the truth, you lose their respect.

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