A Collection of Wisdom

Niccolo Machiavelli & The Prince

Italian Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) is among the most notable and influential political philosophers of all time. His theories not only concern government, but also analyze topics like human nature and behavior. Niccolo’s works are still studied today, and are noted for being valuable yet also controversial.

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Life & Works

Niccolo Machiavelli received a typical middle class education and then worked for a banker for many years. By age 29 in 1498, he was named head of the second chancellery of the Florentine Republic, and became a notable person in Italian politics and government.

However, his career as a statesman and diplomat came to an abrupt end in 1512 when the Medici family (who ruled right before Niccolo was initially appointed work with the government) regained power and dismissed Niccolo. Shortly later, he was accused of conspiring against the Medici government, and was jailed and tortured.

Although Niccolo was found innocent of the charges several weeks later, the Medici government continued to view him with suspicion. He was unable to secure any work with them, so he left Florence and went to a small town called Sant Andrea.

Reflecting on his career with the government and his dealings with various leaders, Niccolo turned to political advisory writing. By 1513, he came out with a brief book called The Prince, which is now considered one of the most notable literary works ever, and a classic of political philosophy.

His other works include The Life of Castruccio Castracani, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, The Art of War (not to be confused with another work of the same title by Sun Tzu),a history of Florence, and several other various writings.

Niccolo died in Florence in June of 1527.

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The Prince

Niccolo wrote The Prince at a time when Italian politics was marred with blackmail, violence, and conflict. In The Prince, Niccolo gives advice on how to be an effective and successful ruler, and how to stay in power. The book was written as a practical guide to ruling that uses simple and straightforward descriptions in order to provide easily understandable advice.

The Prince was groundbreaking because Niccolo described the world as he saw it. This was much unlike earlier political writers who treated politics as an extension of morals, and whose theories had little practical use.

Niccolo’s theories are based on the premise that a ruler must base policies on people’s true nature.

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Widespread Insights and Application of The Prince

Although The Prince is intended advice for a monarch, its informative value and application extends well beyond the realm of political governing. The Prince is not just a political essay, but also one on sociology, human nature, psychology, philosophy (including concepts such as free will and probability), and leadership.

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Human Nature

In The Prince, Niccolo went at great depthsto analyze human nature in order to formulate his advice for rulers. In the book, he points out a number of traits that he believes are common in people. Niccolo believes that in general, most people:

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Virtu and Fortuna

In The Prince, Niccolo acknowledges the existence of two factors that play a role in determining success:

Virtu, which can be described as skill, prowess, wisdom, strength, cunning, good decision making, and using one’s free will


Fortuna, which refers to chance, luck, random variations, probability, and external factors outside of one’s control

In The Prince, Niccolo attempts to determine how much of a role these two factors play in success or failure. He concludes that as they apply to the control of human actions and events, each factor carries nearly equal significance and controls approximately half of the outcome.

Niccolo then asserts that through foresight, one can hope to deal with random variations of fortuna, and thus maximize one’s success. Niccolo then emphasizes the importance of adapting behavior to suit the times, and making timely and appropriate adjustments to circumstances.

(Note that at Niccolo’s time period, any idea of free will was very uncommon. Most other writers and thinkers considered almost everything beyond the power of humans. They looked to religion and ancient ideas to explain most events, and believed almost exclusively in divine destiny.)

In The Prince, Niccolo wrote:

…I believe that fortuna is the settler of one half of our actions, but that she still leaves us [by virtu] to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.

I compare her [fortuna] to a raging river, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeps away trees and buildings, and moves the soil from place to place. Everything flies before it, and everything yields to its violence without being able in any way to withstand it.

But despite its nature, it can be said that when the weather becomes calmer, people can make provisions with defenses and barriers in such a way that if the waters rise again, they may pass away by canal, and their force will not be as out of control or as dangerous.

And in the same way it happens with fortuna, who shows her power only where overboldness has not prepared to resist her, and [shows her power] in that direction she directs her forces where she knows that barriers and defenses have not been raised to constrain her…

…I assert that a prince can be seen happy today and ruined tomorrow even without having shown any change of [his] mood or character. I believe this happens mainly because… the prince who relies exclusively on fortuna is lost when it [fortuna] changes. I also believe that he who suits his action to fit the times will prosper, but he whose actions do not accord with the times will not be successful.

Consider that people are [often] observed using a variety of methods to reach possibilities they have before them such as glory and riches: one [reaches such goals] with caution, another with haste; one by force, another by skill; one by patience, another by its opposite; and each one succeeds in reaching the goal by a different method. One can also observe instances of where in a group of two cautious men, one attains his goal and the other fails; and similarly, [one can also observe] two men using different methods who become equally successful, [such as when] one is cautious and another is rash.

All this arises from… whether or not they conform in their actions to the spirit of the times. This all corresponds to what I have said: that two men working differently can bring about the same effect, and of two working similarly, one [can] attain his goal while the other does not.

Changes in prosperity also arise from this [principle], for if one governs himself with caution and patience, and [then] times and affairs move in such a way that his administration is successful, his wealth is made; but if times and affairs change, he is ruined if he does not change his course of action.

But a man is not often found to be prudent enough to know how to adapt himself to the change … [usually] because having always prospered by acting one way, he cannot be persuaded that it is a good idea to leave it. Thus a cautious man, when it is time to turn adventurous, does not know how to do it, hence he is ruined; but had he changed his conduct with the times, his fortune would not have changed…

[I conclude that]… since fortune is changeful, and mankind [is usually] steadfast in its ways, as long as the two [man’s actions and change / fortuna] are in agreement, men are successful, but when they fall out, [they are] unsuccessful.

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Lion and Fox

To develop one’s virtu, Niccolo recommends that a monarch should study other people and learn from their effective points. Additionally, Niccolo also recommends that a monarchshould study and learn from the effective points of certain animals, as well. In particular, Niccolo recommends that one should balance

the ways of a lion (strength, ferocity)


the ways of a fox (cunning, slyness, understanding, outmaneuvering of enemies)

In The Prince, Niccolo wrote:

…[Of the animals, a prince should be compelled to choose to emulate the effective points of] the fox and the lion, because the lion cannot defend himself against traps, and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the traps, and [to be] a lion to terrify the wolves. Those who rely simply on the [effective points of a] lion do not understand what they are about.

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Should a Leader be Loved, Feared, and/or Hated?

Niccolo is well known for his controversial assertion that it is better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.

In The Prince, he wrote:

Here arises the question: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or feared than loved. Obviously, it can be answered that one should choose to be both, but since the two rarely come together for one person… [anyone who must choose between the two] will find it safer to be feared than to be loved…

Love is preserved by an obligatory link in which men, being mean [/ scoundrels / dishonest] [especially when things are not going well for them], may break whenever it is advantageous for them to do so. But fear is preserved by the dread of punishment, which never fails.

…Men love according to their own will, and fear according to the will of the prince. [Thus,] A wise prince should establish himself on that which is in his own control, and not in that of others.

Despite his belief in the effectiveness of being feared, however, Niccolo feels that a leader should definitely avoid being hated.

In The Prince, he wrote:

Nevertheless, a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated.

To back up and further explain his theory on avoiding hatred, Niccolo describes the importance of having people’s goodwill and support, which in a monarch’s case can defend against both domestic revolutions (like widespread political activism) as well as foreign attacks.

Niccolo points out several ways to avoid people’s hatred:

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Showing Off “Praiseworthiness” and Hiding “Evilness”

In The Prince,Niccolo says that a ruler should prioritize doing what needs to be done to keep power, and should avoid doing things just for the sake of pursing certain morals or ideals. This theme turns out to be the source of much of the book’s controversy, and is based on Niccolo’s recommendation to adopt cunning foxlike qualities.

Niccolo says that a monarch should always attempt to appear good and praiseworthy, which he defines as having qualities such as being merciful, loyal / trustworthy, moral, humane, and religious.

But the key word in this equation is appear. Niccolo recommends that any of these good acts should be done strictly for a leader’s own benefit, and most of the time should be done to be noticed and to build goodwill and a good reputation with his subjects. (Niccolo also notes that while generosity is usually considered praiseworthy, a monarch still needs to be financially responsible and overall stingy. He feels that this will cause him to be considered generous through lower taxes levied on the people, especially in times of war.)

Niccolo believes that behavior should suit the occasion, and not ideals of propriety. Niccolo takes his theory a step further by saying that the leader should use deceit and similar vices when necessary as long as they remain unknown to the subjects, and they are done to aid the monarch’s power and contribute to the state. (He even recommends that rulers should calculatingly use violence whenever necessary.)

In The Prince, he wrote:

Therefore 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. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful—to appear to be merciful, loyal [/ trustworthy], moral, humane, and religious—and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

Hence, it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.

Everyone admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word.

Therefore a wise lord cannot and should not remain loyal when doing so may be used against him, and when the reasons that caused him to pledge it [loyalness] do not exist anymore.

Niccolo attempts to justify the use of deceit and other vices by pointing out that other people are often dishonest and evil, and thus it is a prince’s only choice to also be dishonest and not adhere to strict codes of propriety.

In The Prince, he wrote:

This principle [I have just outlined about being foxlike and deceptive] would not hold if men were all good [/ having integrity / honest], but because they are [generally] bad [/ lacking integrity / dishonest] and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them…

But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this [foxlike deceptive] characteristic, and to be a great pretender and concealer…

[And also observe that due to principles of human nature], anyone who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.

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Employing the Right People, Getting Advice, and Dealing with Opinions

Niccolo feels that that rulers should hire quality ministers and servants who will be dependent on and look out for and the well being and interest of the state and the ruler. He also recommends that rulers should study servants and ministers, and do things to make them feel encouraged.

In The Prince, he wrote:

As for the ways a prince can form an opinion of his servant, there is one test that never fails. When you see the servant thinking more of his own interests than of yours, and seeking inwardly his own profit in everything, such a man will never make a good servant, nor will you ever be able to trust him. He who has the state of another in his hands ought never to think of himself, but always of his prince, and never pay any attention to matters in which the prince is not concerned.

On the other hand, to keep his servant honest, the prince ought to study him, honoring him, enriching him, doing him kindnesses, sharing with him the honors and cares; and at the same time let him see that he cannot stand alone, so that many honors not make him desire more, many riches make him wish for more, and that many cares may make him dread changes. When, therefore, servants and princes are this way, they can trust each other; but when it is otherwise, the end will always be disastrous for either one or the other.

Niccolo also points out that employing quality people will make the prince look wise to his subjects.

As far as taking advice from others goes, Niccolo recommends that the prince should take advice from only a small and trusted group of advisors, and only on matters the prince inquires about. However, he emphasizes that it is the prince who should use his own brain, and make the final decisions of importance.

In The Prince, he wrote:

…[The only way to guard oneself from flatterers is by] letting men understand that telling you the truth doesn’t offend you. However, when every one is allowed to tell you the truth, the respect for you lessens.

Therefore, a wise prince should hold a third course by choosing the wise men in his state, and giving only them the freedom of speaking the truth to him, and only on those things that he inquires of, and of none others. But he [the prince] should question them upon everything, listen to their opinions, and then form his own conclusions.

With these councilors… [the prince] should carry himself in a way that will let each one of them understand that the more freely he [the councilor] speaks, the more he will be preferred. Outside of these [councilors], he [the prince] should listen to no one, and pursue what is resolved on, and be firm in his resolutions. He who does otherwise is either overthrown by flatterers, or is so frequently changed by varying opinions that he falls into being disrespected [by the people].

A prince, therefore, ought always to seek guidance, but only when he wishes and not when others wish; he ought rather to discourage every one from offering advice unless he asks it. However, he ought to be a constant inquirer, and afterwards a patient listener concerning the things of which he inquired. And additionally, on learning that any one, on any consideration, has not told him the truth, he should let his anger be felt.

In his information-getting advice in The Prince, Niccolo also wrote:

There are three kinds of intelligence: one understands things for itself, the second appreciates what others can understand, and the third understands neither for itself nor through others. This first kind is excellent, the second is good, and the third is useless.

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Other Themes of The Prince

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Legacy, and the Word “Machiavellian”

Since the publication of The Prince, the term Machiavellian has been used both in and out of politics to denote a cunning, deceptive, and deceitful kind of resourcefulness. This stems from many of the controversial recommendations outlined in The Prince.

The term Machiavellian has become so commonly used, that my computer spell check program recognizes the word Machiavellian, but it doesn’t recognize the word Machiavelli or Niccolo!

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Niccolo Machiavelli is not Totally Machiavellian

Although Niccolo Machiavelli is associated with The Prince and so-called Machiavellian tactics, it is interesting to note, however, that other political works written by him have different messages.

Most notably is Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, which is aimed at republics (states controlled by politically active citizenry), not monarchies, and preaches themes of patriotism and civic excellence, as well as the use of open political participation and debate.

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