- The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

Historical Context 

In addition to the ideas of humanism, the Italian Renaissance was a flowering moment for the arts. This was made possible by the patronage of wealthy Florentines, in particular the Medici family. They had political interests and used their patronage of the arts to legitimize their power in the city. Like other wealthy people, the family commissioned works of art to increase their status and strengthen their political power in Florence.

The Medici also had a real interest in painting, sculpture, architecture, and literature. Cosimo di Medici was an expert in architecture and sponsored Bruneschelli, who built the great sacristy in the family church of San Lorenzo and, in 1436, completed the dome of the cathedral that had been left uncovered for several years due to lack of architectural knowledge. Cosimo had the Medici Palace built, the family home, and sponsored the bronze statue of David by Donatello.

Lorenzo di Medici was knowledgeable in architecture, painting and sculpture. He commissioned works from Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio and welcomed the young Michelangelo into his home. Lorenzo treated artists as creators when society viewed them as mere artisans. They lived in an environment where they had freedom of expression and came to produce excellent works of art.

Due to the ironies of history, the Medicis fell into financial trouble from 1480, partly due to their spending on art, and that this contributed to their expulsion from the city in 1494.

In the Florence of the Renaissance the patrons of painting, sculpture and architecture were the rulers. Their motivations were a mix of aestheticism, civic pride, and propaganda.

The Italy of the time was divided into many city-states that were in competition. This fragmentation, which had been its weakness, contributed in the Renaissance to its cultural supremacy through the same rivalry. The Vatican also played a role, particularly when Pope Nicholas V teamed up with humanism to construct buildings to demonstrate the power of the Holy See.

Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican friar in Florence. He became a Catholic prophet against the sinful apostasy that he saw in the renewed humanistic interest of art and literature. In 1493 the Pope appointed him Vicar General and Savonarola proclaimed a political revolution, ordered by God, according to him, for religious and moral regeneration. He welcomed the French King Charles VIII when he invaded the city to install that divine order. When the French troops retired, the Republic was proclaimed and his party Llorones (The Whiners) was booming. He became a spiritual guide to the city. He wanted to install a religious policy in which Florence would be a Christian commune with God as sovereign and his gospel as law: a theocracy. There was repression against frivolity and vice. Gambling was prohibited and fashionable dressing.

There were many bonfires of Renaissance clothing, jewellery, and even works of art. (Botticelli had to participate by throwing a painting on the fire in the Plaza Mayor.) A second 'bonfire of the vanities', in 1498, caused a stir in the city. In the new elections the Medici returned to power. The same year Savonarola was tried, hanged, and burnt at the stake.

After the fall of Savonarola and the rise to power of the Medici family, Nicholas Machiavelli was appointed secretary of Foreign Affairs and War for the city, a position he held until 1512 and which led him to carry out diplomatic missions to the King of France, Emperor Maximilian I of Habsburg and Caesar Borgia, among others. His main work, The Prince, dedicated to Lorenzo di Medici, was inspired by Caesar Borgia. In it Machiavelli describes different State models according to their origin (force, perversion, chance) and analyses the most appropriate policies for their survival. From this perspective, the psychological profile that a prince should have is analysed and he comments on what human virtues must prevail in his task of government. Machiavelli concludes that the prince must appear to possess certain qualities: be able to fake and dissimulate well, and subordinate all moral values ​​to the National interest, embodied in his person. (This fitted very well with the ideology of his mentors, the Medici.)

Philosophical context

The Prince was published in 1532 but had been circulating since 1513. It was a guide for rulers on how to grab and hold on to power. In the main themes he describes how to manipulate the population for his aims, even in immoral ways.

The most innovative aspect of the book is its separation of politics and ethics. Traditional political thinking linked political and moral law but Machiavelli promoted pragmatism over ideals. Together with this practical approach the book offers examples grounded in historical situations, not ideal hypotheses. It is also dedicated to the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo di Medici.

The Prince also deals with the problem of free will. Traditional medieval thought that plagues and other natural disasters were unavoidable due to human helplessness. On the contrary Machiavelli argues that humans can self-determine and insists on free will against divine fate.

The book was intended for a specific ruler, Lorenzo di Medici, as a way to inveigle the author back into the political elite.  

Plot Summary

Chapters 1-3 The content of the book is outlined through descriptions of the different types of regimes and princes. The interest is in autocratic, not republican regimes. There are details about how to maintain new or annexed principalities whose people don't know the prince. The themes of power, goodwill and war are also introduced.

Chapters 4-14 offer advice on the ways to gain power, annex and retain new states, deal with internal revolt, form alliances and maintain a standing army.

Chapters 15-23 deal with the characteristics of the prince himself. High ideals are bad for good government is the message and this extends to personal morality:  virtue is not a reference for a governor. Machiavelli underlines that maintaining the good will of the populace is the golden rule of government. In this sense to appear virtuous is more important than to be virtuous.

Chapters 23-26 describe the historical context of disunity among the pre-Italian states. The author explains how past rulers failed to maintain independence through imprudence or bad luck or misuse of free will and makes a plea to future governors. In a rather toadying finale he asserts that only Lorenzo di Medici can restore pride and honour in Florence.


Governance and war

Machiavelli believed that a sound military was an indication of sound laws. Traditionally war was a necessary but not a final part of the development of a state, but Machiavelli insists that military conflict is the foundation stone of all states. He develops this concept by dedicating much of the book to how to conduct a good war: through fortification of the city, good treatment of new subjects and prevention of local insurrection. He also deals with larger issues such as diplomacy, internal politics, fighting tactics, geography and historical lessons of war. His vision was a practical way of conducting affairs of state in the context of Renaissance pre-Italy where principalities constantly rivalled for power.

Treatment of subjects

The avoidance of rejection by the populace is an important element in retaining power. The prince does not need to be loved and in fact fear is often a better tool for governing. Stirring hatred of his subjects, though, can be a cause of downfall. In fact Machiavelli favours the use of cruelty as long as it doesn't affect the people's goodwill towards him.

Hatred is to be avoided at all costs so confiscation of property or banning traditional institutions is inadvisable for a prince. Garnering the goodwill of the populace, though, has nothing to do with their happiness. It is a political ploy to ensure the prince remains in power.

"Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails." (Chapter 17)

Free will

The two expressions Machiavelli uses to describe the dual ways a prince can come to power are "prowess" and "fortune". The first refers to talent, the second to luck.

The Prince investigates how much of the governor's success or failure is due to free will or dictated by the historical environment. His argument is that good fortune affects half of human activity and free will the other half. However, he advises that through foresight we can protect ourselves from changing fortunes. Machiavelli confides in the power of humans to decide their own destinies to some degree but also that full control over events is never complete.



It is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such ways governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them; and because of this they would have us believe that it is not necessary to labour much in affairs, but to let chance govern them. This opinion has been more credited in our times because of the great changes in affairs which have been seen, and may still be seen, every day, beyond all human conjecture. Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her."


For Machiavelli virtues are those characteristics in a person which are praised by others. As examples he gives generosity, empathy and piety. He advises princes to always appear virtuous but warns that acting virtuously for its own sake can have negative effects on government. The benefit of the state is the main criterion so that acting with this aim in mind cruelty or dishonesty should not be avoided. Virtue and vices are not ends in themselves but means to an end. The effects on the state are what matter, not moral values in themselves. Later the 19th century described this approach to governing as realpolitik which means foreign policy determined by expediency, not by ideals, ethics or world opinion.


Nothing makes a prince so much esteemed as great enterprises and setting a fine example. We have in our time Ferdinand of Aragon, the present King of Spain. He can almost be called a new prince, because he has risen, by fame and glory, from being an insignificant king to be the foremost king in Christendom; and if you will consider his deeds you will find them all great and some of them extraordinary. In the beginning of his reign he attacked Granada, and this enterprise was the foundation of his dominions. He did this quietly at first and without any fear of hindrance, for he held the minds of the barons of Castile occupied in thinking of the war and not anticipating any innovations; thus they did not perceive that by these means he was acquiring power and authority over them. He was able with the money of the Church and of the people to sustain his armies, and by that long war to lay the foundation for the military skill which has since distinguished him. Further, always using religion as a plea, so as to undertake greater schemes, he devoted himself with pious cruelty to driving out and clearing his kingdom of the Moors; nor could there be a more admirable example, nor one more rare. Under this same cloak he assailed Africa, he came down on Italy, he has finally attacked France; and thus his achievements and designs have always been great, and have kept the minds of his people in suspense and admiration and occupied with the issue of them. And his actions have arisen in such a way, one out of the other, that men have never been given time to work steadily against him." (excerpt from Chapter 21)

Human nature

According to the author of The Prince human nature has several traits. Self-interest is one although affection for others can vary. People are content unless something terrible happens to them. When times are prosperous they are trustworthy but selfishness, deceitfulness and avarice will come to the fore in adversity. 

People tend to admire virtues in others such as generosity, courage and piety, but do not practise these virtues themselves. Those who have some power are ambitious but the majority feel satisfied with their status and so do not aspire to more. People feel obliged after receiving a favour and this sensation is long-lasting. However, goodwill is never eternal and loyalty is won and lost.

“People are by nature changeable. It is easy to persuade them about some particular matter, but it is hard to hold them to that persuasion. Hence it is necessary to provide that when they no longer believe, they can be forced to believe.”

Machiavelli offers these concepts on human nature as a justification for the advice given to princes. Although he gives historical evidence for his political views his analyses on human characteristics are subjective points of view, not behavioural observations.

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