The Prince Summary

In The Prince, Machiavelli examines the different ways that people acquire and maintain power. He points to famous military leaders like Alexander the Great as he argues that prince should be in control of their own military forces and think of nothing but war. Machiavelli has often been called ruthless because of this.

  • Machiavelli begins by examining the different types of principates or principalities that can be governed by a prince. He says that the only way to truly conquer another prince's territory is to extinguish that prince's hereditary line.

  • Machiavelli argues that princes who don't rely on their own political and military forces are weaker and more vulnerable. He points to rulers like Alexander the Great and Cyrus the great to demonstrate why princes must also be military leaders.

  • In Machiavelli's point of view, Prince's should think of nothing but war and should be in a constant state of vigilance, strategizing both to maintain their own lands and to conquer those of others.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 great conquerors. One who inherits a position of political authority will often lose that political power; the same is true for one who gains power through others’ military assistance. These rulers may gain power easily, but this authority is also lost easily.

Chapter 11 focuses on “ecclesiastical principates,” Machiavelli’s term for the authority exercised by the Catholic Church. Machiavelli treats the Church as a temporal power, like all other political orders. He says the Church has “subjects which they do not govern.”

Chapters 12 through 14 discuss how a political leader should deal with enemies. Enemies must be treated with military power; nothing else is effective. If a political leader has a strong military, there will be no need to concern oneself with laws. Machiavelli makes the distinction between the different types of arms (or military forces) available to a leader. Some arms are the prince’s own, some are mercenary, and some belong to others. Mercenary arms are the worst because “those arms are disunited, ambitious, without discipline, unfaithful; valorous among friends, cowardly among enemies.” When one uses mercenary arms, one depends upon the strength of others.

Using the arms of another political leader can also be harmful. Machiavelli cites Cesare Borgia, who briefly used mercenary and auxiliary arms but then stopped using them and depended on his own arms. Machiavelli also cites examples of ancient political leaders, including King David in the Old Testament, who depended on their own power. In chapter 14, the central chapter of the work, Machiavelli emphatically states that “a prince, then, ought to have no other object . . . nor take anything else for his art, but war,” and that “he ought . . . never to lift his thoughts from the exercise of war.”

Chapters 15 through 23 examine how a prince should treat his subjects. Machiavelli states that it might be useful for a prince to have the appearance of some traditional virtues, but it is not necessarily useful to truly exemplify those virtues. For example, Machiavelli asserts that it might be useful to have a reputation for generosity, but it certainly is not necessary to have that reputation. Being truly generous might lead one to deplete one’s resources. However, one can be generous with the things one takes from others. He cites Cyrus, Julius Caesar, and Alexander the Great as military leaders who rewarded citizens with possessions taken from others.

This section includes the famous passage in which Machiavelli states that if the prince must choose between being loved and being feared, the prince should choose to be feared. Importantly, the prince should be feared in such a way that he will avoid being hated. According to Machiavelli, “being feared and not hated can go very well together.” One cannot depend on being loved, but Machiavelli believes subjects will be loyal to their leaders. Machiavelli also suggests the use of “pious cruelty,” a term for the use of religion to gain political support. He cautions political leaders about those who are close to them; a leader needs a few people close to him who will speak the truth to him, but flatterers should be avoided.

Machiavelli treats fortune in chapters 24 and 25. He does not sympathize with political leaders who lose power because of fortune. Instead, he maintains that leaders should be prepared for what might happen and should seek to overcome the results of fortune through impetuous action. In another famous line from The Prince, he states that, “it is better to be impetuous than cautious, for fortune is a woman, and if one wishes to keep her down, it is necessary to beat her and knock her down.”

The final chapter is different than the other chapters in the book. It is a patriotic appeal to Italians to expel foreign armies from the region.

The Prince Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 XII, Julius II, Maximilian, and Borgia, he also used his time to advantage, noting political tricks that actually worked and building up his store of psychological truths.

It is doubtful that any ruler or rebel ever succeeded simply by following Machiavelli to the letter, but it may well be that some political coups have been the result of inspiration from The Prince. (Shortly after Fidel Castro’s overthrow of the government in Cuba in 1959, a newspaper account reported that among the books on Castro’s revolutionary reading list was The Prince.)

What is inspiring for the politically ambitious in The Prince is not the substance but the attitude, not the prescription but the unabashed, calculating, and aggressive air with which the author analyzes the means to power. For the reader without political ambition, The Prince is a sometimes amusing and sometimes frightening reminder of the realities of political fortune. For example, Machiavelli writes that one who helps a prince to power is bound to fall him- or herself, because he (or she) has contributed to the success either by his cleverness or by his power, and no prince can tolerate the existence of either in another person close to him.

Machiavelli considers this question: Why did the kingdom of Darius, occupied by Alexander the Great, not rebel after Alexander’s death? The answer is that monarchies are governed either by a prince and his staff, or by a prince and a number of barons. A monarchy controlled by the prince through his representatives is difficult to conquer, because the entire staff owes its existence to the prince and is, consequently, loyal. Once such a monarchy is captured, however, power is easily maintained. So it was in Alexander’s case. On the other hand, a nation like the France of Machiavelli’s day is ruled by a king and barons. The barons are princes of a sort over their portions of the state, and they maintain control over their subjects. It is easier to conquer such a state, because there are always unhappy barons willing to join a movement to overthrow the king. Once conquered, however, such a state is difficult to hold because the barons may regroup and overthrow the new prince.

Sometimes power is acquired through crime, Machiavelli admits, and he cites a violent example: the murder of Giovanni Fogliani of Fermo by his nephew, Oliverotto. Machiavelli advises that the cruelty necessary to attain power be kept to a minimum and not be continued, for the purely practical reason that the prince will lose power otherwise. The best thing to do, Machiavelli says, is to commit one’s acts of cruelty all at once, not over an extended period.

This cold practicality is echoed in such injunctions as those to the effect that if one cannot afford to be generous, then one must accept with indifference the name of miser; it is safer to be feared than to be loved, if one must choose; a prince need not have a morally worthwhile character, but he must appear to have it; if a prince’s military support is good, he will always have good friends; to keep power one must be careful not to be hated by the people; it is always wiser for a prince to be a true friend or a true enemy than to be neutral; a prince should never listen to advice unless he asks for it; and it is better to be bold than cautious.

Machiavelli’s prime examples are Francesco Sforza and Borgia, particularly the latter. The author writes that he is always able to find examples for his points by referring to the deeds of Borgia. Considering the value of using auxiliary arms, the military force of another state, Machiavelli refers to Borgia’s unfortunate experience with auxiliaries in the capture of Romagna. Finding the auxiliaries untrustworthy, Borgia turned to mercenaries, but they were no better, so he finally used only his own troops. Machiavelli’s conclusion in regard to auxiliary troops is that “If any one . . . wants to make sure of not winning he will avail himself of troops such as these.”

After reviewing Borgia’s rise to power (with the remark that “I could not suggest better precepts to a new prince than the examples of Cesare’s actions”), Machiavelli concludes that I can find nothing with which to reproach him, rather it seems that I ought to point him out as an example . . . to all those who have risen to power by fortune or by the arms of others.

This praise follows a description of such acts as Borgia’s killing of as many of the hapless lords he had despoiled “as he could lay hands on.”

Machiavelli praises the actions of other leaders, such as Sforza and Popes Alexander VI and Julius II, but only Borgia wins unqualified praise. Sforza, for example, is recognized as having become duke of Milan “by the proper means and through his own ability,” but later on he is criticized because of a castle he built when he should have been trying to win the goodwill of the people.

The Prince concludes with a plea to the Medici family to free Italy from the “barbarians” who ruled the republic of Florence and kept Italy in bondage. Machiavelli makes a plea for liberation, expresses his disappointment that Borgia is not available because of a turn of fortune, and closes with the capitalized cry that “this barbarian occupation stinks in the nostrils of all of us.” Unfortunately for the author, his plea to the Medici family did him no good, and he died with the republic still in power. Perhaps he himself was not bold enough; perhaps he was not cruel enough. In any case, he left behind a work to be used by any leader who is willing to be both.

The Prince Summary

The Prince Chapters 1-11 and Dedicatory Letter Summary

The Prince cover image

Dedicatory Letter
The cover letter that opens The Prince is addressed to Lorenzo de Medici, a member of the...

(The entire section is 303 words.)

The Prince Chapters 12-14 Summary

Chapters 12-14
In this section, Machiavelli discusses ways for a political leader to organize his military—the most...

(The entire section is 139 words.)

The Prince Chapters 15-23 Summary

Chapters 15-23
Like the first section of the book, the third spans the length of several chapters. The focus in this...

(The entire section is 142 words.)

The Prince Chapters 24-26 Summary

Chapters 24-26
This final section has been viewed as a patriotic call to arms, as Machiavelli encourages the prince to...

(The entire section is 69 words.)