The Artist (of Power) Formerly Known As: The Prince Review

Blurb for The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

In this classic guide to acquiring and maintaining political power, Machiavelli used a rational approach to advise prospective rulers, developing logical arguments and alternatives for a number of potential problems, among them governing hereditary monarchies, dealing with colonies and the treatment of conquered peoples. Refreshing in its directness, yet often disturbing in its cold practicality, The Prince (1513) sets down a frighteningly pragmatic formula for political fortune. Starkly relevant to the political upheavals of the 20th century, this calculating prescription for power remains today, nearly 500 years after it was written, a timely and startling lesson in the practice of autocratic rule that continues to be much read and studied by students, scholars and general readers as well.

My Review

The winner of my first Classics Club Spin, I finally got to read a book that has been living in my consciousness for a long time. The Prince: On the Art of Power by Niccolò Machiavelli is not, as I once thought, a veiled political commentary disguised in a fictional account of a prince. But neither is it solely theoretical philosophizing about a hypothetical ideal state of human governance. Instead, Machiavelli systematically and critically evaluates historical and contemporary political events to logically demonstrate the effectiveness of various methods of gaining power and then, what is perhaps harder to achieve, retaining it.

Right off the bat, I realised that a working knowledge of Italian history, and more broadly European history, would contribute massively to my appreciation of Machiavelli’s argument as he often points to real life examples to provide illustrations. Alas, it has been a while since I’ve brushed up on my medieval European politics and it shows. I actually found the essays at the end of the edition I was reading, a beautiful clothbound illustrated version published in 2018 by Shelter Harbour Press, with introduction by J.W. Marriott and Cary J. Knederman, to be really helpful in understanding the context and immediate significance of this work.

That said, apart from some allusions to what are assumed to be well-known historical events for his readers, Machiavelli is extremely readable and easy to understand. He writes logically and progresses from one point to another, weaving in more detailed analyses as he goes into subsections of his topic. I’m not sure how much the translation of the text plays into that, as I obviously didn’t read it in medieval Latin, but it was accessible and entertaining enough that I’m definitely interested in reading other works of his, so I’d say that’s a translation well done.

The topic at hand

Machiavelli first isolates his topic, mentioning the various prominent types of government and then identifying which one his essay will treat on. He is discussing monarchy, but not exclusively the hereditary kind. He does talk about various cases of hereditary princes, but he also talks about princes who rise to power from among the people or military. Either way, there are dos and don’ts that must be followed to ensure holding power, both by preventing being conquered by other nations and by avoiding internal civil unrest.

Directed externally, a leader must be ruthless and decisive, not giving away power to other nations, even through apparent alliances. Doing this, Machiavelli argues, ends by becoming indebted or in the power of other nations. Instead, a country should develop its own military defense made up of its ordinary citizens who will fight for love of their country, not hiring mercenaries or utilizing the armies of allied nations. Not only are mercenaries and other nations not internally motivated to fight with conviction and desperation strong enough to win, but there is a risk of treachery or being turned on at any moment.

In conquering, a country needs to establish colonies and actually inhabit the land it has conquered otherwise there is a greater risk of uprising. In subduing either conquered people or rebellions, a prince is wiser to act with immediate and total destruction, rather than half-hearted measures that drag the conflict on in perpetuity. In the first case, the ruler may be despised but respected because he shows his willingness to do what is necessary, therefore be trusted to protect the people in event of an outside attack; in the second case, the ruler will certainly be despised and then also aggravate the subjects with his reprisals that nevertheless don’t end the conflict with decisive action, keeping the country in a continual state of unrest and oppression. Basically, Machiavelli argues, seeming ruthlessness right at the beginning is actually less cruel than the cruelty that must necessarily accumulate over time if you allow the conflict to drag on through an effort to show mercy.

Better to be feared?

Because Machiavelli does not recommend cruelty as a defining mode of governance. It doesn’t keep people on your side, and people on your side is what’s really important if you want to stay in power long-term. Instead, it’s a better strategy to let other people take out your enemies or do things that would seem cruel, then, when there’s an outcry against that action, you can appear virtuous and not condoning that behaviour by then publicly executing the person who did what needed to be done to keep you in power.

Because when there is anything apparently virtuous or moral to be done, it doesn’t benefit you as a ruler unless you are seen to be doing it. None of this biblical “give your alms in secret” stuff. When you’re a ruler and want a reputation that keeps you in the people’s good graces, you bet you trot that virtue out “to be seen by men.” Unless the virtue is generosity. Machiavelli has a thing or two to say about the fine balance that must be maintained in regard to generosity. Basically, you don’t want to run your country into bankruptcy trying to buy public regard with gifts and liberality, because the public may like you in the moment, but they won’t respect you in the long term when you’re trying to face an enemy and have no funds with which to defend them. Reasonable, on the whole.


Over all, I may have only gleaned a fraction of the interesting arguments and practical recommendations for rulership, but I was impressed with Machiavelli’s logic and general understanding of human nature as it emerges in a group. I wasn’t quite as clear on how he thought one was to reconcile individual morality and social collaborative good. Because he is by no means an unscrupulous opportunist with no moral awareness or respect for ethics. He just consciously puts them aside in giving his advice to princes.

[H]ow one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely upon his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.

The Prince, Chapter XV (emphasis added)

One of the essays in the edition I read addressed this seeming inconsistency that has been criticised in Machiavelli’s work by arguing that Machiavelli simultaneously held to two different ethical standards, one which was personal or individual, and one which was public or societal. In his work on the art of power, he is obviously dealing with the public ethics of a ruler, and in no way negating any individual moral compass that an individual, either as a subject or ruler, might have. Basically, he just seemed to advocate being able to put it aside for the good of the country: “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.”

And that’s the crux of the matter. I am by no means in agreement with all of Machiavelli’s view on this, but I understand it, from a purely logical, practical, and operational standpoint. Although, there was that one point about ensuring that those who surround you aren’t liars, because flatterers and people who won’t tell you what they genuinely think about you and your actions aren’t useful to learn from and can undermine you. Yet, he recommends manipulation and bald-faced lying as the right move in dealing with other nations, the better to stab them in the back. Which, okay, sounds a bit inconsistent. Although maybe if I think about it a bit longer, fits into that personal vs. public code of conduct thing.

Ruminations I’m left with

I guess my question is, if morality doesn’t hold in all circumstances and in all applications, how is it true morality? If ethics are only applicable in personal relationships on an individual level, but may be dispensed with for the good of the whole, how are ethics universal? I guess if Machiavelli’s case is true, then the answer is that they are not.

A point also brought up in one of the essays in this edition is that each generation has its own sins. Each generation thinks the morals of its previous generation reprehensible. What is praised in one time may be demonized in the next. I don’t think that’s hard to acknowledge in our time either. That is certainly true of Niccolò Machiavelli, who, though working with commonly accepted values of his time, was so (literally) demonized throughout subsequent history that he is the reason the devil has been referred to colloquially as “Old Nick,” and to be called “machiavellian” is almost exclusively a condemnation of self-serving, unscrupulous, manipulative behaviour.

I think there’s a lot to be learned from The Prince, even if only in being aware of how some people think and understanding this type of power, though there is much more he addresses, including productive societies and economics. It’s also unsurprising that I encountered a lot of familiar ideas in The Prince that I hadn’t realised originate from it. Despite it being generally decried as somehow immoral, the fact is that Machiavelli demonstrates an acute awareness of universal human nature, flaws and strengths, and, as per the blurb, is incredibly relevant to society at any time. So then my other question is, if you think the philosophy presented in The Prince is evil, what do you think human nature is?

This has been my fourth Classics Club book review! Check out the rest of my list here.

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