The Prince by Machiavelli: Quotes & Explanations

Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

Niccolo Machiavelli dedicates 'The Prince' to Lorenzo de' Medici, and he offers this book of advice in an effort to gain favor with the ruler. Machiavelli offers logical, but often ruthless, advice on politics in this fascinating work from the 16th century.

The Dedication

As is common in Renaissance literature, Niccolò Machiavelli begins by dedicating his writing of The Prince to a powerful person. The powerful person in this case is Florence Governor Lorenzo de' Medici, to whom Machiavelli writes in an attempt to get back into the good graces of the Medici rulers following his loss of position during the political turbulence of sixteenth century Italy.

Machiavelli makes no attempt to hide his intentions in writing the book. Many attempted to gain the favor of rulers by presenting them with gifts; Machiavelli acknowledges that his skill lies in the political arena, so his gift to the prince is his advice about gaining and keeping political power. In the final sentence of the dedication, Machiavelli openly begs for Lorenzo de' Medici to restore his position in government: 'And if, my lord, from the mountain top of your greatness, you will sometimes turn your eyes to these lower regions, you will see how undeservedly I suffer great and continued bad fortune.'

The Prince has had a profound influence on political philosophy. The great classical political works often offered a set of morals and goals a public servant should strive to achieve; Machiavelli instead offered a more practical (and cynical) view of power. Several passages of the The Prince were powerful enough to coin 'Machiavellian' as an adjective to describe political deceit and deception.

War

Machiavelli expounds on the importance of war to the ruler in chapter 14. 'A prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline,' he says. Machiavelli implies that the study of war has many benefits beyond its intended purpose of seizing and maintaining power. For example, by carrying out field exercises, the prince will get used to hardship and learn 'something of the nature of the land.' Even in peace, war should be the Prince's focus, he says.

The Generosity Paradox

In addition to the practical matter of war, Machiavelli is also concerned with appearances. He is at all times concerned with the way the prince will appear to others, so he devotes a passage in chapter 16 to generosity. Obviously, nothing will make the prince more popular than sharing some of his wealth, but Machiavelli warns about the paradox or contradiction inherent in giving things away.

'Nothing disappears so rapidly as generosity. Even while you exercise it, you lose the power to do so, and so become either poor or despised, or else, in avoiding poverty, you exploit the people and become hated. A prince should guard himself, above all things, against being despised and hated. Generosity leads you to both.'

Like much of The Prince, Machiavelli offers practical advice to those in power, rather than the lofty moral guidance of classical political works.

Better Feared Than Loved

In a rather well-known passage from The Prince, Machiavelli writes, 'Related to this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person it is much safer to be feared than loved, when only one is possible' (Chapter 17).

Again, this seems like cold, pure logic. If a ruler is to remain in power, he must be ready for war. Still, if the ruler is feared, he is less likely to face a challenge on the battlefield or in the political arena.

Machiavelli expands on this idea a bit in chapter 19 when he writes, 'For this reason I consider that a prince ought not to worry about conspiracies when his people have love and respect him. But when the people are hostile to him, and bear hatred towards him, he ought to fear everything and everybody.'

Machiavelli believes that if people hate the ruler, then it's a good idea for the ruler to be a bit paranoid. On the other hand, Machiavelli says, if the ruler is well-loved he should try to avoid obsessing over possible conspiracies.

Political Expediency

Machiavelli addresses the idea of ethical behavior in The Prince, even if it is only to advise the ruler not to let ethical considerations stand in the way.

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