The Prince- Machiavelli

Throughout Time reading list

How obtained: free kindle version


I was pleasantly surprised by The Prince. A 16th century treatise on politics and ethics of war and diplomacy, I expected it to be a bit dry or hard to get through, but it really wasn’t. It took maybe four hours to read the version I had (estimating here as I read it in bits and pieces in between doing other things), which included an introduction and a couple chapters at the end on Duke Valentino and the life of Castruccio Castracani.

I was intrigued to find out in the introduction that this work was the origin of the term Machiavellianism- which refers to both “the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct” (in a very negative way), and in psychology “a duplicitous interpersonal style, a cynical disregard for morality and a focus on self-interest and personal gain” (kind of like a psychopath). The author of the introduction thinks that the associations and connotations of the term over time were much strongly negative than the original work warrents. And I would agree-the advice outlined in this book is self serving and based on utalitarianism at the expense of other ethical principles. (Or in other words, most of what Machiavelli is advocating is to choose the method with the best outcome regardless of whether or not it is a good/kind/honest etc method.) But it makes a lot of sense, and he often shows why the way he is advocating is better- the harm that comes from the alternatives.


There were lots of quotes that show his style of reasoning and ethics- it was hard to choose just a few:

because [men] are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them.

it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them.

A prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people, whilst those executions which originate with a prince offend the individual only.

severities … may be called properly used,  that are applied at one blow and are necessary to one’s security, and that are not persisted in afterwards unless they can be turned to the advantage of the subjects. The badly employed are those which, notwithstanding they may be few in the commencement, multiply with time rather than decrease.

In seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily; and thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by benefits…For injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; benefits ought to be given little by little, so that the flavour of them may last longer.

Either a prince spends that which is his own or his subjects’ or else that of others. In the first case he ought to be sparing, in the second he ought not to neglect any opportunity for liberality.

Truth bombs:

The innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

He who believes that new benefits will cause great personages to forget old injuries is deceived

And there is nothing wastes so rapidly as liberality, for even whilst you exercise it you lose the power to do so, and so become either poor or despised, or else, in avoiding poverty, rapacious and hated.

Nevertheless he ought to be slow to believe and to act, nor should he himself show fear, but proceed in a temperate manner with prudence and humanity, so that too much confidence may not make him incautious and too much distrust render him intolerable.

Upon 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, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.

Amazingly there are some deontological type ethics he believes in: while it is ok to kill all your opponents after you have won a principality by war or by political back stabbing, it is not ok to trick them into coming to dinner (or something similar) and kill them all in order to take over. 😛

Yet it cannot be called talent to slay fellow-citizens, to deceive friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; such methods may gain empire, but not glory.








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