45 pages 1 hour read

Niccolò Machiavelli

The Prince

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1532

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Prince is a 16th-century political treatise of the Renaissance period written by Italian diplomat and philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli. The work, which was likely distributed for years prior to its official publication in 1532, is one of the most influential works of political philosophy in human history. Machiavelli wrote The Prince as a guide for new and future rulers, instructing them on how to seize and hold onto power, frequently citing specific examples from history as lessons. Each of the book’s primary themes focus on ways in which a ruler can and should manipulate the citizenry, often through the use of immoral means for a desired result. As such, The Prince and Machiavelli spawned the pejorative term “Machiavellian” to represent this type of manipulation in politics.

Plot Summary

Although The Prince eventually found widespread circulation and fame, its original intent was to serve as a handbook for one specific ruler and to ingratiate Machiavelli back into the political elite. He begins the book with a dedication to Lorenzo de Medici, a member of the ruling Medici family which had previously imprisoned, tortured, and banished Machiavelli following its rise to power. Early in his work, Machiavelli lays out two disclaimers important to his philosophy of how princes should seize and maintain power. The first is to explain his usage of the word state to refer to any distinct sovereign region and to clarify that all states are either republics, in which the people hold power through electing a representative, or principalities, which are monarchies. The second disclaimer explains that his discussions will concern only principalities because he has written of republics at length in other works.

Each of the book’s 26 chapters explains Machiavelli’s vision as to what actions that a prince should take in order to maintain power. The chapters can be divided into four basic sections: types of principalities, defense and military, the qualities and behavior of a prince, and prudence and fate. Chapters 1 through 11 discuss the several different types of principalities, such as those inherited by the ruler through family, those which are a mixture of inherited and newly annexed territories, those which are entirely new and have been acquired through force, and those which are Ecclesiastical in nature and under the direct sovereign rule of the Pope. Chapters 12 through 14 discuss the prince as military leader and the different types of armies, including those consisting entirely of native troops, those consisting entirely of hired mercenary soldiers, those consisting of auxiliary troops borrowed from other rules, and those which consist of a mixture of native, mercenary, or auxiliary troops. Chapters 15-23 discuss the behavior of a prince in regard to characteristics such as generosity, cruelty, faithfulness, and reputation. Over the final three chapters Machiavelli discusses Italy’s current political state and how the issues of prudence, chance, and free will contributed to it being under the control of foreign powers. 

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Related Titles

By Niccolò Machiavelli