Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Machiavelli wrote The Prince within two years after he was driven from office. A surviving letter indicates that the first title for it was “On Principalities.” The work was not published until 1532.
The first eleven chapters of The Prince examine types of principalities, or principates, with examples from both ancient and contemporary history, and strategies for governing these principates. These are not lengthy chapters; some of them are only a few paragraphs long.
Machiavelli asserts that hereditary principates can only be conquered when one who wishes to conquer lives in that principate or establishes a colony there. In the second chapter, Machiavelli speaks of adding territory to an existing principality, advising that one must do so with force and “extinguish the line of the prince” in that territory; by doing so, a conqueror will prevent a counterinsurgency. He cites the Romans as best exemplifying this strategy of conquest. Machiavelli does not criticize the desire to acquire new territories through conquest; instead, he calls it a “very natural and ordinary desire.”
Machiavelli particularly praises Alexander the Great and those leaders who followed him for their success in governing the territories they conquered. He makes a distinction between governing subjects who had previously been ruled despotically and subjects who had some practice of self-government. Those who had previously been ruled with absolute power will be harder to take over, but once they have been conquered, they will be easy to govern. Those who have been used to some degree of self-government will be harder to govern; a conqueror must “ruin” such a city, because if he “does not destroy it, he waits to be destroyed by it.”
In chapter 6, Machiavelli provides a list of great conquerors, who did so by their virtue, including Cyrus the Great of Persia, Romulus of Rome, Theseus of Greece, and Moses of Israel. Machiavelli presents them as gaining a political territory through their own skill and cunning; they win not because of divine assistance, but because they are armed. Here Machiavelli tells his readers that “all armed prophets conquer and unarmed ones are ruined.” In chapter 8, Machiavelli praises King Agothocles of Sicily, who is said to have “virtue,” even though he attained a position of rule through treachery and violence.
Machiavelli criticizes rulers who are the opposite of...
(The entire section is 1007 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The Prince is the book that gives meaning to the adjective Machiavellian. The book is an ingenious and fascinating study of the art of practical politics, composed by a man who never rose higher than the position of secretary to the second chancery in Florence. The success of The Prince can be attributed partly to Niccolò Machiavelli’s wit and partly to his having known some of the most clever and powerful rogues of the Renaissance. His model for the “prince” was Cesare Borgia, who used all means of conquest, including murder, to achieve and hold political power.
Machiavelli never pretended that his book was a guide to the virtuous. On the other hand, he did not set out to prescribe the way to wickedness. He meant his account to be a practical guide to political power and, through a combination of experience, logic, and imagination, he constructed one of the most intriguing handbooks of Western civilization: a primer for princes.
In beginning a discussion concerned with the manners and attitudes of a prince—that is, a ruler of a state—Machiavelli writes, Since . . . it has been my intention to write something which may be of use to the understanding reader, it has seemed wiser to me to follow the real truth of the matter rather than what we imagine it to be. For imagination has created many principalities and republics that have never been seen or known to have any real existence, for how we live is so different from how we ought to live that he who studies what ought to be done rather than what is done will learn the way to his downfall rather than to his preservation.
This passage makes it clear that Machiavelli intends to explain how successful politicians really work rather than how they ought to work.
The Prince begins with a one-paragraph chapter that illustrates Machiavelli’s logical approach to the problem of advising prospective princes. He claims that all states are either republics or monarchies. Monarchies are either hereditary or new. New monarchies are either entirely new or acquired. Acquired states have either been dominated by a prince or been free; they are acquired either by a prince’s own arms or by those of others; and they fall to him either by fortune or because of his own character and ability. Having outlined this inclusive logical bifurcation, Machiavelli first discusses the problems connected with governing a hereditary monarchy, then discusses mixed monarchies.
In each case, as he develops his argument, Machiavelli considers the logical alternatives, and what should be done in each case if the prince is to acquire and hold power. In writing of mixed monarchies, for example, he points out that acquired states are either culturally similar to the conquering state or not, and then considers each possibility. If the acquired state is culturally similar, it is no problem to keep it; but if the acquired state is different in its customs, laws, or language, then there is a problem to be solved. One solution might be to have the ruler go to the acquired territory and live there. As an example, Machiavelli refers to the presence of the Turkish ruler in Greece.
Another possible solution to the problems resulting when an acquired territory differs culturally from the conquering state is the establishment of colonies. Colonies are inexpensive to acquire and maintain, he argues, because the land is acquired from a few landowners of the conquered territory, leading to few complaints. Such a plan is preferable to maintaining soldiers, for policing a new state not only is expensive but also offends the citizens being policed.
Thus, by the device of considering logical alternatives, Machiavelli uses his limited experience to build a guide to power. What he says, although refreshing in its direct approach to the hard facts of practical politics, is not entirely fanciful or naïve. Not only did Machiavelli, through his diplomatic missions, come to know intimately such leaders as Louis...
(The entire section is 1641 words.)