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"The Prince" by Niccolò Machiavelli

Turning Tradition Upside Down


The Prince is the most read work by Florentine author Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) and one of the masterpieces of Western political thought. It is a small treatise composed of twenty-six chapters and aiming to educate a young adult about how to maintain power in a princedom regardless of the situation. Machiavelli's precepts subverted Aristotelian ethics, turning what was the most regarded theory upside town.

1. Composition
The bulk of The Prince was written in 1513, during Machiavelli's first year of exile in San Casciano, although it was published only posthumously in 1532. The Medici family had just restored their political power over the Florentine State, which explains why Machiavelli dedicated a book on princedoms to a young member of the Medici family - Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici - who was destined to be in power one day. Machiavelli had served the Republic of Florence for nearly fifteen years as diplomatic between 1498 and 1512. During this time he had direct experience of the major political events of his times. Machiavelli, indeed, considered himself first and foremost a diplomat by profession and a writer by passion. The original of the treatise is in Latin, De Principatibus, which literally means "On Princedoms".

2. Structure and Style
Composed of twenty-six chapters, The Prince has a short and clear structure:
- chapters 1 and 2 contain the dedication and anticipate the structure of the treatise;
- chapters 3 to 5 discuss the manners within which a prince should run those States that are mixed, that is partly newly acquired and part inherited;
- chapters 6-9 discuss how to maintain power in princedoms that have been acquired completely anew;
- chapters 10-14 instruct the prince on how to organize the defense of the State, depending on whether it is an ecclesiastical State or not, and whether it has an internal army or not (Machiavelli strongly advises to develop an internal army);
- chapters 15-19: these are some of the most significant chapters, discussing the qualities that a prince ought to cultivate in opposition to the Aristotelian precepts;
- chapters 20-25: these chapters show the prince how to have virtù in bad and good times;
- chapter 26, finally, is an exhortation to resurrect the fates of Italy.
Modeled on the style of so-called "mirror of princes" pamphlet that had much fortune during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, The Prince instructs a young pupil of the Medici family on how to acquire and maintain political power. Machiavelli's cynical perspective on worldly affairs is drawn through a writing style that is dry and exact, down to earth and elegant, bringing forth a novel language infused of new Italian terms derived from Latin or Greek. These features makes of Machiavelli one of the most remarkable Italian writers of all times.

3. Virtù and Fortuna
In chapters 20-25 Machiavelli encourages the prince to take risks: his success is due half to his virtù, that is his skills broadly conceived, including the capacity to organize the State in a favorable way; the other half is left to fortuna. Still - says Machiavelli in one of the most debated passages of the volume - "it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because fortune is a woman; and it is necessary, if one wants to hold her down, to beat her and strike her down." (25)

4. Critique of Aristotelian Ethics
At the outset of chapter 15, Machiavelli writes: "Men have imagined republics and principalities that never really existed at all. Yet the way men live is so far removed from the way they ought to live that anyone who abandons what is for what should be pursues his downfall rather than his preservation; for a man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many men who are not good." Every author that preceded Machiavelli instructed rulers to do what would be advisable only in ideal situations; but in real life rulers face all imperfections of human nature and - according to Machiavelli - a valuable political theory should reflect this. Chapters 15 to 19 contain a series of precepts that directly contradict the traditional theory of virtue as exposed in Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics as well as in Cicero's On Duties. Thus, the prince should give the appearance of generosity while being parsimonious (16); should prefer to be feared (but never to the point of being hated) than loved - in almost literal contrast with Cicero's precepts (17); should appear to be compassionate and trustworthy, but should refrain from being so when opportune (18). Only these five chapters would be enough to make of Machiavelli one of the foremost political theorists of all times.

5. Influence
By the end of fifteen hundreds The Prince had been repeatedly printed in the major European languages. It soon became the most discussed book in the courts of modern Europe, spurring bitter criticisms which tried to caricature its central theses. It still stands as one of the most controversial texts in political philosophy and one of the hardest to interpret. Still, looking at his lifestyle and political conduct, Machiavelli strikes as a moderate; if The Prince contains the precepts he cultivated on the field, it is arguable that the most suiting interpretation of the treatise is a moderate one.

6. Further Online Sources
Full text of The Prince in English:

Full text of The Prince in Italian:

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