The Prince Summary

The Prince is a novel by Niccolo Machiavelli that examines the different ways that people acquire and maintain power, as well as the strategies and mentalities necessary to be a successful prince.

  • Machiavelli examines the different types of territories that can be governed by a prince and asserts that the only way to truly conquer another prince's territory is to extinguish his hereditary line.

  • Machiavelli uses rulers like Alexander the Great and Cyrus the Great to exemplify why princes must also be military leaders.

  • Prince's should remain constantly vigilant, strategizing both to maintain their own lands and to conquer those of others.

Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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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...

(The entire section is 1,007 words.)