Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 759
The Prince is considered one of the more important and influential books about politics ever written. It is esteemed by generations of readers because it is thought to show how politics really works. The book presents itself as a handbook offering practical advice to a new prince or leader how to gain, consolidate, and keep political power.
Prior to Machiavelli, political theorists judged a prince's reign on how moral the prince was: did he go to church? Did he sin? Was he a good man? Yet with The Prince, Machiavelli contended that it wasn't how moral the prince actually was, but how he was perceived by his subjects. In other words, appearance was all that mattered; it didn't matter what a prince did in private, as long as he was upstanding, honest, and fair in public.
Fate and Chance
The concepts of fortune and virtue are recurring ones in The Prince. Although these words can mean a variety of things, in this book fortune refers to those events that are beyond human control, and virtue means the things people can do to control fate.
It would be counterproductive for a how-to manual of this type to use fortune to explain most of life's events. The point of Machiavelli's book is to recommend the most effective tactics to stay in power, not to put a damper on his activities. He estimates that half of our actions may be caused by fortune while free will controls the other half; but fortune has the greater significance because when it asserts itself it is like a raging flood, washing away all that is in its path.
Continuing with the flood metaphor, he notes that virtue can control the flow of fortune in the same way that dikes and dams control a flood. Rather than using the idea of fate or luck as an excuse—as a great many theorists do when things do not work out as expected—Machiavelli warns princes that they must prepare themselves against fortune and be ready to change their methods in order to accept what fortune brings. Yet because of this, he has more admiration for rulers who are reckless than those who are cautious—the cautious ones are fooling themselves about how much they really control their fate.
According to Machiavelli, political leaders should be allowed to deceive their subjects The test of a politician is not how well he keeps his word, but whether he is perceived to be honest.
It is not Machiavelli's goal to uphold morality, but to advise political leaders on the best way to strengthen their power. For him, the best way to remain in power is to tell the people what they want to hear—whether it is true or not.
According to this theory, it would actually be detrimental for a prince to tell the truth all of the time. In fact, he explains that a "prudent" ruler "cannot observe faith, nor should he, when such observance turns against him, and the causes that make him promise have been eliminated." Later in the same paragraph, he adds, "Nor does a prince ever lack legitimate cause to color his failure to observe faith."
"Observing faith," like "keeping faith," means to remain true and honest. With these lines Machiavelli is telling readers that the prince should break his promises when circumstances change and then lie about why he broke his promise. This sort of moral relativism—changing one's ethical code from one situation to the next—is effective for retaining the prince's hold on power, even though it violates most systems of ethics.
War and Peace
In Machiavelli's time, countries were constantly at war with one another. Therefore, the ability to effectively lead during wartime was a much more important measurement of a politician than it is in contemporary times. Much of the political theory in The Prince is centered on a principality's ability to defend itself against attacks.
Machiavelli approves of a strong army, but he cautions a prince to create such a force from his own subjects and to not rely on mercenaries or on soldiers borrowed from other lands. He does approve of taking control of other countries through military aggression.
His central message to princes is to keep their subjects happy; therefore, his subjects will stay loyal and fight off an invasion by a new ruler. As with most subjects, Machiavelli views war and peace as means to popularity, noting that the failure to stir up conflict in a relatively peaceful time will make rulers look weak.