An Exegetic Essay Concerning Niccolò Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’

Carven marble.
Carven marble.

A prince is not necessarily one of noble blood; a prince is one of power, often ignoble, and often bathed in the blood of those more deserving than he to wield it.

Nevertheless, a prince is not distinguished by worth, nor by wealthnot by high birth nor by good health; a prince is distinguished by that power which he holds over others: nothing more and nothing less.

And, a prince is wholly dependent upon the continuance of that power, by any means within his power to pursue.


Machiavelli prefaces his short, political treatise, ‘The Prince’, (published posthumously in 1532)[1], with a dedication to the Medici family, in particular to “The Magnificent Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici”[2]. This dedication to the powerful and newly reinstated Florentine family was, ostensibly, an attempt to ingratiate himself after having been torturously questioned about his involvement with the recently dismantled Florentine republic. (Machiavelli had served as commander of the militia for the city of Florence and was perceived as a possible threat to the Medici family in light of his very public involvement with key figures of the republic[3].) He was, however, released from custody, and went on to pen ‘The Prince’, which has served as a principle for ambitious, aspiring, and power hungry ‘Princes’ ever since.

It is perhaps important here to note the vocal minority opposing the traditional interpretation of ‘The Prince’ as a straightforward guide to the acquisition of power. This school of thought contends that it was written by Machiavelli as an intentionally over-the-top display of ruthlessness and inhumanity in order to expose the ridiculously violent situation that Renaissance Italy found itself in and, hopefully, to effect some change. Indeed, Rousseau himself tells us in his ‘Social Contract’ that “…he professed to teach kings, but it was the people he really taught. His Prince is the book of Republicans.”[4] There is strong support for this stance on the author’s private intentions in the way this text differs from his other works, which are written more in the tone of a republican than tyrannical philosophy. It is also of note that ‘The Prince’ was not published until 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death in 1527[5], meaning of course that he never did end up offering his teachings to the Medicis, (perhaps for fear of returning to his inquisitors’ torture chambers). I will dismiss this supposition; regardless of Machiavelli’s original intent, ‘The Prince’ has been used throughout history in exactly that manner with which it describes itself, by everyone from politicos the likes of Stalin, Hitler, Napoleon, and Mussolini[6] to respected, global leaders…in other words, by those very people that directly affect (for better or worse) the lives of their contemporaries.

Machiavelli’s actual method of discourse itself provides the reader with a remarkably modern style of inductive logic, reinforced with famous examples from both his own time, and from antiquity. By doing this he not only exhibits well documented evidences for his hypotheses, he also highlights the timelessness of his lessons. Machiavelli makes it very clear that, though social and political climates may change, the storms themselves that induce that change will never abate, and he who can weather the storm may himself remain steadfast throughout. By this same token does Machiavelli draw parallels between wildly different geopolitical situations and show that, despite their diversity in material construction, all are assembled according to similar, immaterial patterns; and understanding these patterns will permit manipulation of both people, and the patterns they imbue. ‘The Prince’ sets out not to identify definitive methods by which power may be acquired; instead, it attempts (very successfully) to identify general truths about human nature from which a wise ruler will be able to construe their own path.

Of these patterns I will make light of a few that I believe best encapsulate that mantle of attitude that must be assumed by a Prince desirous of furthering himself in this world, (as opposed to that ideal world championed by the moral philosophers). It is only natural that a Prince should demand loyalty from his subjects, and those subservient to him; but the manner of their loyalty must be such that it will never waver. For what reason then should a Prince deserve this loyalty? And how exactly will he guarantee that loyalty remains in spite of changing fortunes? To this Machiavelli answers that, “…because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.”[7] He makes that most astute observation that promises made out of love are as easily broken as the bonds of love themselves; but men are loath to incur the wrath of one whom they fear, and will more readily comply with the wishes of a prince with the power to punish them than with the wishes of one they adore.

Machiavelli also expounds the view that, though it is much better to be seen as liberal and genuine by one’s subjects, the actual implementation of liberalism itself can only lead to a prince’s ruin. To this end, the effective Prince must maintain the appearance of being an honest and generous ruler by dealing with kindness in smallnesses; he will give often, and sparingly, and in this way ensnare the dependence of his principality. In this same vein of thought, although diametrically opposed to it, will the ideal Prince deal with insubordination. Retaliation must be immediate, singular (in that it need not be repeated), and total…also, whenever it is possible to, a Prince must maintain a respectable distance from the necessary cruelty that will often accompany this retribution.

By way of example does Machiavelli reflect on the brilliant solution to social unrest (caused by the Romagna) with which Cesare Borgia both settles the threat of insurrection, and absolves himself of the guilt for the requisite suffering of numerous innocent people[8]. Borgia wisely promotes a respected military commander one known for being very effective, and inhumanly wicked in his brutality, Ramiro d’Orco, who proceeds to terminate all sign of disturbance by the Romagna in such a way that they become an example to all others. When public outcry over the barbarity with which the Romagna were dealt with begins to seep back to Borgia, he simply orders the visible execution of Ramiro in the piazza at Cesena, citing the commander’s natural cruelty for the horrors he has committed, and thereby causing Borgia himself to escape the blame of the people, blinded by layers of bureaucracy[9].

Much as it is of dire importance to appear trustworthy to one’s subjects, it is of an equal importance that a Prince must never wholeheartedly trust another. Machiavelli maintains the deep seated belief that men are wily and conniving by nature; ties of friendship or kinship are merely guidelines for our alliances, and subject to disintegration should a Prince find it so necessary, as are any other human relationships. A wise Prince will observe that to place his trust in any one individual or group is an obscenely irresponsible enterprise; a prince can, however, place a fair amount of trust in the nature of men…a wise Prince will realize that all ambitious men have princely designs. From the meanest serf to the most powerful barons, all men share in their hunger for power over others; they vary only in their abilities to consolidate that power…because of this men can never be governed simply as numbers, as we do sheep. While it is undeniably true that many men are of a sheep-like demeanour, it is just as true that many men reveal themselves to be vipers and must be governed accordingly.

Finally, the Prince must attend to the calls of Lady Fortune. No plan is ever complete until the event for which it is planned has passed. To be anything other than a flash in the pan a Prince must account for the changing of the tides. He must prepare for unforeseen circumstances that potentiate the befuddlement of even the most tactically sound ploys. Machiavelli is of the opinion that (although, as he claims, Lady Fortune is responsible for at least half of those influences, which may conspire either for or against us), it is still up to us to decide for ourselves the rest of our individual fortunes. As to that manner by which we should comport ourselves in order to achieve our desires, “…it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her…”[10]. A Prince must be willing to be as curt with himself as his subjects; what use is a Prince who acts as one petrified in the presence of ill fortune?

As both a philosopher, and as one who has identified within himself certain Machiavellian traits, I cannot help but admire the frankness and ingenuity with which Niccolò Machiavelli identifies, and interprets, his subject. ‘The Prince’ strikes me as such a remarkable text since many of Machiavelli’s conclusions are actually very far removed from what reason or intuition would tell me. This is because Machiavelli’s observations are naturalistic; he regards politics as a scientific endeavour and, hence, must analyze all of the possible variables in any specific case study. In the precarious balance of world affairs, a well-placed feather-weight becomes immeasurably heavy, and can topple even the most secure mountains; Machiavelli’s attention to detail ensures though that, he, at least, was not to be surprised by devastating trivialities.

Perhaps ‘respect’ is not exactly the correct word to ascribe to my feelings towards Machiavelli (especially in the context in which his teachings have been used to justify terrible deeds); but I will use the word anyways. I use the word in the same way that I would describe my respect towards a venom in my veins. I respect it for the undeniable truth I see in it; rushing towards death, I glory in the reality and finality of it. I respect his teachings in the same way that I respect my hand, which wields the power to kill; the same way that I respect my mind for the power to choose to kill: both myself and anyone else I so choose to. I respect the cold appraisal of heated situations and I respect that, in all of this, I am not alone. Perhaps the most potent piece of wisdom I was able to extract from ‘The Prince’ was not any sort of grand personal insight as I have experienced studying other philosophers; indeed, it is perhaps a very strange nugget of wisdom considering its source. I found that, at its very heart, ‘The Prince’ teaches us to respect others. This is not to say ‘we must treat others with respect’ or ‘we must be respectful in our dealings with others’; instead we must fear and respect the potential every single human being embodies to deter us in our respective pursuits. This may seem a tad harsh and conducive to paranoia but it is, unfortunately, the world that we live in. Contrary to popular belief, I am not totally devoid of morals (actually, I would consider myself one of the least morally corrupt people I know)[11]; nevertheless, I am surrounded by others of whose good intentions I can be less assured.

I must, too, call attention to the environment in which ‘The Prince’ was written; the courts of Renaissance Italy can be imagined as little more than vicious gladiatorial bouts with theatrical and political overtones. Examples raised from the depths of history’s most depraved moments are meant to serve exactly that purpose: they are examples, only. It is up to each individual Prince to take the lessons Machiavelli has taught us and to make our own way in this world. It would hardly be fitting for an aspiring Prince in a modern setting to set about torturing people; a Prince must be exactly that, princely in his demeanour. Win the people, power over them will ensue.

Such is the path of the King.


Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. London: Arcturus Publishing Ltd., 2008.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. 1761.

[1] Information taken from introduction to The Prince by Dr. Anne Rooney, pg. 12.

[2] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, (London: Arcturus Publishing Ltd., 2008), pg. 13.

[3] Information taken from introduction to The Prince by Dr. Anne Rooney, pg. 12.

[4] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, (1761), pg. 36.

[5] Information taken from introduction to The Prince by Dr. Anne Rooney, pg. 12.

[6] Information taken from introduction to The Prince by Dr. Anne Rooney, pg. 7.

[7] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, (London: Arcturus Publishing Ltd., 2008), pg. 80.

[8] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, (London: Arcturus Publishing Ltd., 2008), pg. 40.

[9] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, (London: Arcturus Publishing Ltd., 2008), pg. 40.

[10] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, (London: Arcturus Publishing Ltd., 2008), pg. 120.

[11] But wouldn’t everyone? Psychopaths aside of course.


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