Book Summary: The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

Book Cover for The Prince by Nicolo Machiavelli

This book summary sets out the key takeaways from Niccolo Machiavelli’s renowned work, The Prince. It turns out Machiavelli got a bit of a bad rap, as the book not nearly as “Machiavellian” as I’d expected.

There were two reasons why I decided to summarise The Prince. The first was that it was listed as one of the “truly great” books on Mortimer Adler’s reading list — and it looked like one of the shorter ones, so it felt less daunting to start there. The second reason was because I’d already done a summary of The 48 Laws of Power, and The Prince seemed like a good complement to it.

Get The Prince at: Amazon | Kobo (affiliate links)

Key Takeaways from The Prince

  1. Easy come, easy go. A principality that is hard-won is easier to keep, while a principality that was acquired easily is more difficult to maintain.
  2. Be prepared. Don’t be complacent or idle during peaceful times. Use that time to study war, build alliances, and strengthen your position. Pay attention to what’s going on, and squash small threats before they become big.
  3. Be proactive and decisive. Take control of your own fate. Don’t rely solely on fortune or on others. Maintain your own armed forces instead of using mercenaries or auxiliaries. Choose a side and commit to it rather than attempting to remain neutral.
  4. Balance virtue with pragmatism. It’s not always possible to be virtuous. Moreover, some virtues can end up becoming vices if taken too far. For example, excessive generosity can make people hate you if you then have to increase taxes to fund your “generosity”. If you have to injure someone, it’s better to injure the few and/or powerless than the many and the powerful, and it’s best to injure in one, quick blow. Aim to be feared rather than to be loved, but avoid being hated.
  5. Keep your subjects satisfied. Be accessible to your people, either by living among them or by sending colonies. Don’t touch your subjects’ property or their women. Provide them with occasional festivals and entertainment. Maintain contact with the guilds and societies.
  6. Keep wise counsel. Seek advice from knowledgeable and trustworthy advisors. Avoid flatterers and yes-men, but don’t let everyone criticise you freely as that will cause people to lose respect for you. Only allow a few trusted confidantes to give you frank advice, and only when you ask for it.

Detailed Summary of The Prince

Historical Background

To understand the book, it’s useful to briefly set out the historical context in which Machiavelli wrote it, in the 1500s during the Italian Renaissance.

Throughout most of Machiavelli’s life, Italy was a collection of independent city-states and territories, each with its own laws and leaders. These were subject to constant threat of invasion and conflict, such as from France, Spain, and other Italian powers.

In Machiavelli’s youth, Florence flourished under Lorenzo de’ Medici’s rule, and his influence likely impacted Machiavelli. After the Medici fell, during Florence’s republican period (1494 to 1512), Machiavelli served as a diplomat and statesman, learning about statecraft by observing various rulers.

When the Medici family regained power in 1512, Machiavelli lost his office. He wrote The Prince soon afterward, dedicating it to Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici (Lorenzo de’ Medici’s grandson) in an attempt to regain his position. But he died in 1527 without achieving his goal.

Purpose of the book

The Prince contains advice on how a wise prince should govern a “principality” (his territory or state). Throughout the book Machiavelli refers to various examples to illustrate his points.

Machiavelli focuses primarily on new (as opposed to hereditary) principalities, as they are much harder to hold. Since people under a hereditary principality are already used to being ruled by the prince’s family, even an average prince can usually maintain power just by not messing up. Whereas with a new principality, the prince will have to deal with:

  • enemies he’s made along the way in acquiring that principality; and
  • allies that helped him come to power, who will be expecting some reward.

1. Easy come, easy go

A recurring theme in The Prince is that things that are hard-won are easier to maintain.

For example, it’s much harder to gain a principality through one’s own ability or genius, but once you do it’s relatively easy to keep it. In contrast, a prince may easily acquire a principality through luck or another’s favour. But the prince’s position then depends on continued luck and others’ goodwill. To stabilise his power, such a prince should try to lay strong foundations and command forces loyal to himself. He should also strive to understand why those who favoured him did so. If they favoured him because they were unhappy with their previous government, the new prince may find it difficult to satisfy them.

Similarly, a principality that is governed by a prince and his servants is harder to take than one governed by a prince and barons. The former is more united, so an invader has to rely on their own strength rather than on revolts. But once a prince has taken it, it’s easier to hold. Whereas it’s relatively easy to gain a foothold in a principality governed by a prince and his barons (like France was), because there’ll always be some unhappy barons eager for a change. Once you’ve seized it, however, you’ll have to deal with those who helped you and those you crushed. Just as it was easier for you to undermine the previous ruler, a new contender will find it easy to undermine you, too.

2. Be prepared

A prince should study war and strengthen his position during peaceful times. He should also pay attention to what’s going on, and squash small threats before they become big.

Study war

Machiavelli advocates becoming proficient in war and its rules and discipline, because an armed person is superior to an unarmed one. Soldiers do not respect unarmed leaders.

Machiavelli also emphasises the importance of learning. He should about his country and how to defend it, how to surprise the enemy, lead armies, and besiege towns. He can also learn from history and study what has caused other men to succeed or fail.

Keep an eye on neighbours and foreigners

Defend less powerful neighbours and weaken the more powerful ones. If a powerful foreigner enters your country, make sure they do not gain too much power and authority.

Don’t just react to threats as they emerge — you should also anticipate them. It is much easier to fix a problem when it starts out than when it has grown incurable. Maladies start out easy to cure and difficult to detect; they later become easy to detect but difficult to cure.

3. Be proactive and decisive

Machiavelli emphasises the importance of taking your fate into your own hands. He argues that many Italian princes have lost their states by waiting around, hoping that others may fail or restore them.

Keep your own forces

Machiavelli talks about the different types of forces with which a prince may defend his state:

  • His own forces;
  • Mercenaries (hired soldiers fighting for money); and
  • Auxiliaries (soldiers provided by an ally).

Machiavelli argues that a prince’s own forces are the most reliable and effective for defending his state, so a prince should always prioritise building and maintaining his own strong, loyal forces.

I conclude, therefore, that no principality is secure without having its own forces; on the contrary, it is entirely dependent on good fortune, not having the valour which in adversity would defend it.

Mercenaries are disloyal and undependable — they’re happy to take your money when there’s little fighting, but you can never pay someone enough to make them willing to die for you. Italy’s excessive reliance on mercenaries is what Machiavelli blames for its failure to defend against French and Spanish invaders.

Machiavelli doesn’t think auxiliaries are any better. They may be more disciplined than mercenaries but are ultimately loyal to their own ruler, not to you. An auxiliary army’s discipline can actually be a downside as they can stand united — against you. Even if you win with them, you become their captive.

Overall, Machiavelli thinks it’s better to lose with your own forces than to try and conquer with mercenaries or auxiliaries.

Don’t stay neutral

Princes that try to follow the neutral path are generally met with ruin. If you side with the party that ends up winning, the victor will be indebted to you and you can share in the victory. And if you side with the loser, he may still shelter and help you — and there is a chance that your fortunes can change later. But if youstay in the middle, then the side that wins will not want you and the side that loses will not harbour you.

You’ll get more respect if you take a side than if you stayed neutral. Those who tell you to be neutral are not your friends — if they were, they’d ask you to side with them.

That said, don’t be someone’s pawn. Unless forced to, don’t make an alliance with someone more powerful than you in order to attack another, because then you’ll be at your more powerful ally’s mercy.

Don’t rely too much on fortune

Machiavelli acknowledges the significant role fortune plays, and estimates that it accounts for roughly half of our actions. He also thinks that fortune favours the bold and adventurous, and suggests that you have to be forceful in your actions, likening fortune to an “unruly woman” who needs to be “beaten” into submission.

If a prince relies entirely on fortune for his success, he’ll be lost when his fortunes change. To mitigate this risk, Machiavelli recommends making provisions and building up defences during good times of prosperity, to better weather the unpredictable shifts of fortune.

4. Balance virtue with pragmatism

Machiavelli doesn’t glorify deception, but he recognises that men are not entirely good. In such a world, always being honourable would hurt you. Machiavelli argues that a wise prince can adapt to the circumstances and understand when to act with deceit. And even if you do have to break your word, you should still try to maintain the appearance of being upright and virtuous.

He also points out that some actions that appear virtuous — such as excessive generosity and clemency (forgiveness) — can be taken too far and become vices.

While you might have to deceive others, make sure to avoid being hated

Everyone thinks it is admirable for a prince to keep their word and conduct themselves with integrity, never deceiving others. However, Machiavelli advises that a prince should know when to break their word and deceive others, while looking like a man of integrity, honour and religion.

If you have to injure people, do it quick and in one go. (On the other hand, when conferring benefits, parcel them out little by little.) Don’t cause more injury than is necessary, but don’t leave the person in a position to get revenge on you, either.

[M]en ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.

Make sure others don’t consider you to be fickle or mean-spirited. If you can’t avoid being hated by everyone, then avoid being hated by the most powerful. For example, Roman emperors frequently had to balance the interests of the soldiers with those of the people. The people wanted peace, but soldiers were rapacious and wanted war so as to increase their own pay. Since the soldiers were veterans and more powerful, emperors had to prefer them. That won’t always be the case though, and Machiavelli mentions how the people had become more powerful in his time (with a few exceptions).

Generosity and miserliness

Although generosity is normally a good trait, you shouldn’t worry about having a reputation for being miserly. If you are so generous that you end up having to increase taxes to fund that spending, people will hate you. It’s more important that you can defend yourself without robbing your subjects than to have a reputation as “generous”.

And a prince should guard himself, above all things, against being despised and hated; and liberality leads you to both. Therefore it is wiser to have a reputation for meanness which brings reproach without hatred, than to be compelled through seeking a reputation for liberality to incur a name for rapacity which begets reproach with hatred.

Machiavelli argues that although Julius Caesar got where he did by spending liberally, if he hadn’t moderated his spending, he would’ve eventually destroyed his government.

One way to balance generosity and miserliness is first to be generous towards the many and miserly towards the few. Another way is to be generous with the money of those you pillage, sack and extort, rather than with the money of your subjects.

Cruelty and clemency

Although a prince should want to be considered clement/merciful, too much clemency can be bad. Allowing murders and robberies to go unpunished can result in disorder. In such cases, cruelty towards the few who caused such injuries can end up being more “merciful” for the wider public.

In perhaps the most famous passage in The Prince, Machiavelli questions whether it is better to be loved or to be feared and comes down firmly on the side of “feared”:

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

He argues this is because men are generally ungrateful, fickle and deceitful — they’ll support you when you’re succeeding but will desert you when you need them. And it’s easier to turn on a beloved prince than one who is feared, because love is preserved by the link of “obligation”, which men are too happy to break, but fear is preserved by a dread of “punishment”, which never fails.

However, Machiavelli warns again that you should inspire fear in ways that avoid hatred.

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, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women.

5. Keep your people satisfied

Machiavelli emphasises the importance of keeping your subjects happy. He argues that the best possible fortress is for people to not hate you. Conspiracy attempts are common, but most won’t succeed unless people hate you.

… a prince ought to reckon conspiracies of little account when his people hold him in esteem; but when it is hostile to him, and bears hatred towards him, he ought to fear everything and everybody.

It’s also important to ensure that your subjects need you and the state in troubled times as well as in peaceful times, to ensure that they are always loyal. Troubled times are likely to be when you’ll need to call on your people.

Be present or send colonies

To a prince that has acquired a new principality with different language, customs or laws to his existing ones, Machiavelli makes two suggestions:

  • First, you can go and live there. That way, you can spot and remedy problems as they arise, and can also ensure that your officials don’t pillage the country. It also allows your subjects to have recourse to you if they want.
  • Even better, you could send colonies (i.e. settlements of people loyal to you) to one or two strategic locations in the new principality. Such colonies are not expensive because they can support themselves. While the colonies will cause some harm to the local people (because the colonies will displace some of them), the displaced peoples will be poor and scattered, so won’t pose much of a threat. And colonies cause less harm than sending a military garrison because colonies integrate into the society so won’t feel as oppressive to the people.
Balance the interests of the nobles and the common people

Keeping the common people happy is not too hard. Most men will be content if you don’t touch their property, honour, or women. Machiavelli also suggests entertaining the people with festivals and spectacles throughout the year, and to maintain associations with the guilds and societies in your principality.

However, there’s always a tension between the nobles and the common people. The nobles want to rule and oppress the people, but the people don’t want that. It’s generally easier to gain power with the help of the nobles, but harder to maintain it as the nobles have their own ambitions and expectations. Winning the people’s favour can therefore provide a more stable foundation for rule. However, hostile nobles can be a bigger threat than hostile peoples. Hostile peoples will just abandon a prince while hostile nobles can rise up against him. So both are important, in different ways.

6. Keep wise counsel

You can judge a prince by the servants he keeps

A prince with capable and loyal servants is wise, as it shows he can recognise competent people and keep them faithful. An unwise prince will never take good advice, unless he happens to luck out by deferring entirely to a very good advisor. But even then, this cannot last long as the good advisor will eventually take the prince’s state away from him.

… [G]ood counsels, whencesoever they come, are born of the wisdom of the prince, and not the wisdom of the prince from good counsels.
Keep your servants loyal to you

A good servant is one that always thinks of his prince first. You can’t trust a servant that puts his own interests ahead of yours. To keep your servants honest, you should honour and reward them.

But you should also make it clear that they cannot stand alone, so that they won’t try to undermine you in order to gain even more honours and riches. This is the only way that princes and servants can trust each other.

Only allow a few people to tell you the truth

To guard yourself against flattery you must let people know that they can tell you the truth. However, if everyone can tell you the truth without repercussions, people can lose respect for you. Machiavelli therefore recommends only allowing a select few advisors to tell you the truth, and only when you ask. Make clear to these select advisors that you’ll reward them for speaking freely and punish them for withholding the truth.

Although you should listen to your selected advisors, you should also probe their advice and come to your own conclusions. Once you’ve made a decision, you should stick to it and ignore others’ advice. Otherwise, you may get overwhelmed by flattery, or end up changing your mind so often that people will think you’re fickle.

My Thoughts

The Prince is not an easy read, as the sentences are often long and unwieldy (this might depend on the translation — I used this version.) The language can also be unfamiliar at times, which is to be expected given how long ago Machiavelli wrote it. What I found more frustrating was the book’s structure. It’s not always clear how each chapter fits within the book as a whole and the book feels somewhat disjointed. Some chapters appear to fall into natural groupings, yet the Table of Contents doesn’t show any such groupings. But overall, it’s not too bad. Besides, at a mere 164 pages, a weak structure is easier to overlook.

As noted above, I was surprised to find that The Prince wasn’t nearly as “Machiavellian” as I’d expected. When I think “Machiavellian” I think of elaborate schemes full of deception — kinda like your stereotypical TV or movie villain. Although Machiavelli certainly holds a dim view of human nature, the advice in the book didn’t seem all that cunning. In fact, his advice seemed … oddly pragmatic?

The Prince wasn’t like The 48 Laws of Power, which arguably glorifies deception. To the contrary — Machiavelli explicitly denounces those who obtain a principality through “wickedness”. Even his famous quote about how it’s better to be feared than to be loved, comes with the important qualifier that one should still avoid being hated. I think this is because societal standards have changed since Machiavelli’s writing. At the time, most political writers had only described good leaders in virtuous, idealised terms. Machiavelli therefore caused quite a stir in suggesting that a good leader shouldn’t always make a “virtuous” decision, which most people today probably understand.

Get The Prince at: Amazon | Kobo <– These are affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase. I’d be grateful if you considered supporting the site in this way! 🙂

Have you read The Prince? How did it compare to your expectations going in? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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2 thoughts on “Book Summary: The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

  1. I haven’t read The Prince, but another book I highly recommend is Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer. I found it very insightful when I read it, and I think it has better/more relevant case studies than The Price/48 Laws.

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