The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli Analysis


Machiavellism, or just Machiavelli in general, often has a negative connotation. He is often seen as a sneaky, slimy, underhanded teacher of tyrants. However, not everyone sees him in this light. In a real sense, Machiavelli is just a pragmatist. He is critical of idealism, advocating for the studying of republics/regimes for what they really are, not ideal republics. He takes what he has to work with and goes from there, and often times, that means he must subscribe to the thought process of the ends justifying the means. The Prince might be seen as some type of handbook on tyranny, however, it was written for rulers, so obviously it is going to talk about less than favorable actions occasionally. 

One of the overarching ideas of The Prince, seems to be that it is a handbook on how to become a ruler, and stay a ruler. Because there are many different ways to rule, Machiavelli explains and explores all avenues. Some of these avenues are tyrannical, but most are not. Just because he includes and explains tyrannical ways to lead does not mean that the entire work is tyrannical. Once again, he is simply exploring different ways to lead. Most of what Machiavelli talks about is not strictly limited to tyranny, but can be confused and taken that way. This is due to the fact that not everything a ruler is going to do is going to be liked. Sometimes, rulers have to explore the idea that they might need to do bad things for a greater good. It is obviously difficult to rule, and one has to consider a lot of things when they are in a position of leadership. Many people may not be in favor of this ‘the ends justify the means’ way of thinking, but one could argue that this is what Machiavelli had in mind when writing The Prince. 

A principality, or a princely state, is governed by a single, strong ruler, usually a prince. A prince is often thought of, or defined as a, “first man, alpha, top leader” (notes). A principate can either be hereditary or new. Hereditary principalities rely on fortune, whereas new principalities rely on fortune or virtue. New principalities can be broken down a step further, as they can either be wholly or mixed. This way of classifying principates is known as regime typology. 

A tyranny is a cruel and oppressive government or rule. Chapter nine, “Concerning a Civil Principality” supports the non-tyrannical view of the book. “When a private citizen becomes the prince of his fatherland, not through crime or other intolerable violence, but with the support of his fellow citizens” (Machiavelli, 38). This chapter is not explaining how to be a tyrant, but rather, the opposite. Machiavelli explains that as long as the prince keeps the people friendly, he has security in adversity. He can easily keep the people friendly, as they ask only to not be oppressed by him. It is not possible to have a civil principality where the prince is an oppressor, which means it cannot be tyrannical. 

Princes in ecclesiastical principalities have states they do not defend, subjects they do not rule, states, although unguarded, are not taken away from them, and subjects, although not ruled, do not care and have neither the desire or ability to alienate themselves. “Thus, only these principalities are secure and happy” (Machiavelli, 45). Once again this does not sound like a tyranny, and that is because it is not. Machiavelli is simply explaining how ecclesiastical principalities work. 

When it comes to leadership, there is a common misconception that violence is equivalent to tyranny. However, these terms do not always go hand in hand. Chapter six details new principalities which are acquired by one’s own arms and ability. “And it should be considered that nothing is more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than to put oneself at the head of introducing new orders” (Machiavelli, 23). Therefore, a man who wishes to become, and stay, a prince in this manner must be armed as, “from this it arises that all the armed prophets conquered and the unarmed ones were ruined” (Machiavelli, 24). These arms will lead to violence, but this violence is only necessary to obtain the principality, not maintain it. So as long as the prince is not maintaining the principality through oppressive violence, it is not a tyranny. 

Where it gets dicey for me is in chapter eight, which talks about obtaining a principality through wickedness. Agathocles seized princedom of the city without any civil commotion by ruthlessly slaughtering the senators and richest people. Slaying fellow citizens is not talent, and  “his savage cruelty and inhumanity, together with his infinite crimes, do not permit him to be celebrated among the most excellent men” (Machiavelli, 35). He did awful things to obtain the principality, but despite this, it is not entirely convincing that this was an act of tyranny. Because Machiavelli does not tell of how he maintained the principality, one might refuse to label Agathocles as a tyrant. His actions were indeed wicked, but after he had control, he might have been a really great ruler to his people. This could be an example of cruelty well-used. Considering that Machiavelli deems these actions as wicked, it sounds like he is not promoting it, but is simply providing an explanation on how it worked. 

The reality is that some rulers, sometimes, need to be cruel. Ideally rulers would want to be loved and feared, but if it comes down to it, they need to choose fear. This does not equate to being a tyrant, as one can be feared while not being hated. As stated in the beginning, it is difficult to rule, and being in a position of leadership means making tough decisions. This is how people become good leaders though, by making tough calls in the hope that it will lead to the prosperity of their kingdom. The ends need to justify the means. One could argue that this was Machiavelli’s idea behind The Prince. He wanted leaders, or potential leaders, to read this, form their own opinions, and make an informed decision on how they could best rule. 

Machiavelli is not the only famous modern political theorist who severs the connection between politics and human happiness, either. In 1640, Thomas Hobbes flew to Paris, it is there that he wrote, Leviathan. In terms of modern political thought, Hobbes can be seen, and is often called, a founder of liberalism and modernity. Similar to Machiavelli, we do not find much mention of the soul in Hobbes. Rather for Hobbes, institutions replace the soul. He drops the idea of telos, and instead, power takes the place of happiness. For Hobbes, this is what drives men, “a perpetuall [sic] and restlesse [sic] desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely [sic] in Death” (Hobbes, 70). 

Hobbes has a very primal view, for him, everything boils down to preserving one’s life. Machiavelli may have had a one dimension view of human nature, but Hobbes seriously lowers the idea of the standard of nature. Without a society, there is the, “continuall feare, [sic] and danger of a violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, [sic] nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes, 89). The social contract becomes a means of peace that people are willing to enter because they cannot defend themselves. This is not enough, however. Hobbes says that human beings do not just become self-regulating in this social contract. It is because of this lack of social homeostasis, that we need the LEVIATHAN. His book, Leviathan, begins to lay the groundwork for the idea of consensual politics. The only time consent plays a part in the book, is with the original consent to the LEVIATHAN. Other than that, tacit consent replaces active consent for Hobbes. This brings up the idea that if you attack the sovereign, you are really attacking yourself, because of tacit consent. “You agreed to this, so why are you fighting it?”

Another main point of Hobbes is the power of the sovereign. The sovereign should be a representative for all the people, expressing their will, even those who did not support him. However, the sovereign is not bound by law, but by expediency as, “to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their peace and common defense” (Hobbes, 121). It is in this idea that we get legal positivism, or positive law; the idea that the law is whatever the sovereign says it is. That sounds like it could get tyrannical quickly, however, Hobbes takes the stance of absolute sovereignty in theory, and limited sovereignty in practice. In other words, be authoritarian, not totalitarian. 

Hobbes can easily be classified as the first modern liberal. Liberalism can be loosely defined as, “You have rights as an individual, and government is meant to protect them.”Leviathan is a work that focuses mainly on the idea of the right of preservation of life. There is no notion of overall human happiness and it has a reduced conception of human reason, but for Hobbes, anything that is contrary to peace and concord is false. The author of the sovereign is the people, and it is their will that should, ideally, be expressed. References 

Hobbes, Thomas. 2019. Leviathan. Cambridge University Press. 

Machiavelli, Niccolò. 1998. The Prince. The University of Chicago Press.

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