The Prince Brief Summary
Machiavelli begins ‘The Prince’ by explaining that people come to power in three ways. They gain dominion through the force of arms, fortune (heredity) or ingenuity. How one comes to power influences that must be done to keep power.
He then goes on to explain that of all of these, gaining a hereditary principality is the best situation because people are used to living under the rule of a prince. They are used to the laws and therefore it is easy for the prince to do things that make him loved by the people.
The problems start with what Machiavelli calls mixed principalities. These are taken by force or by some means where enemies are made in the process of gaining power. He gives examples from history where mixed principalities failed for various reasons. One is that the soldiers that helped you gain power become more and more demanding. Another is the supporters of the vanquished foe are willing to align with enemies in other principalities just to get back at you. For this reason, a mixed principality is a difficult domain to rule over.
Machiavelli further explains this principle by alluding to the kingdom of Darius that was conquered by Alexander the Great. He states that this kingdom was easy to rule because Darius had already conquered everyone and established order. All Alexander had to do was supplant Darius and keep things the same. But in places like France, Machiavelli says there are too many nobles that are malcontents. As soon as they see an opportunity, they seek to take advantage of expanding their own power and alliances. This makes places such as France, Spain, and Greece very hard to rule.
How to rule people that have previously lived by their own laws is the subject of chapter five. Machiavelli says that there are three ways to do this. First is to destroy them completely, second is to rule over them by living there in person, and third is to establish a government of few people that pays tribute. He makes it clear that the only sure way of holding on to a newly won principality is to destroy it. But a good second choice is to actually live there if the principality was once ruled by a prince and was not a republic. If it was once a republic, it is best to destroy it completely because the people will always remember the freedoms they once had.
Machiavelli states that the prince that gains power with his own arms and his own skill will have a difficult time coming to power, but an easy time ruling. That is because skills never go away and victorious soldiers will often remain faithful if they have always been faithful from the beginning. However, if you use someone else’s soldiers or fortune gives you the power you will gain power easily but it will be hard to maintain. You will be indebted to the other person for use of his arms and fortune is fickle and fleeting.
In chapter 8, Machiavelli states that if a prince is to use wickedness and cruelty to get and keep power, he must use it effectively. Cruelty is necessary to gain power. If that cruelty is used to satisfy the lusts of the prince, then it is wasted. But is the cruelty is focused on keeping peace in the state, then he will retain power and possibly be revered eventually.
Common citizens can rule principalities, but this is tricky. The two types of citizens are nobles and commoners. A commoner can never get the nobles on his side so he must gain the full support of the common citizenry. If he can do this all he needs to do to keep power is to not oppress the people. They will love him and support him. A city that has citizens that love the ruler is a city that will be strong against attack. When measuring the strength of a city, the most important measure is the love common citizens have for their leaders.
Machiavelli points out that the weaknesses of ecclesial leaders; hired troops and auxiliary soldiers are all essentially the same. They lack the ability or the will to withstand opposition for any length of time. When ruling or the battles become difficult, they abandon their employers or the groups that put them in positions of power. In essence, if you win you are a prisoner of those that got you there.
Because of the importance o having the right kinds of soldiers fighting for you, Machiavelli in Chapter 14 of The Prince makes it clear that the only profession appropriate for a prince is that of a military leader. In times of peace, he needs to train so that in times of war he will be ready.
The next several chapters are the most famous in the book. This is where Machiavelli explains the type of person a prince should be to keep power. This is where he clearly states that is it better to be miserly than giving. Because when the miser gives even a little, the people are happy. It is also where he states that being feared is better than being loved. Cruelty and the causation of fear is the only way to gain power. Being loved is available to only a few princes. It is better to be feared and in power than to be loved and out of power. He goes on to state that a price should not see to avoid hatred if that hatred serves the purposes of the state. The prince must also lie when necessary to keep his power.
It is not good for a prince to be loved but it is good for him to be esteemed. He does this by punishing his enemies in creative and effective ways. It also helps to show intellectual superiority.
In the final chapters, Machiavelli clearly states to his prince why he feels that the Italian princes have lost their cities and principalities. He states that they did not follow the rules he has outlined and they failed to prepare for the future. He told his prince not to worry about fate or God, because his experience told him that fate only ever caused ½ of an outcome. The other ½ was determined by the preparedness of the prince to take action.