Summary: Chapter 1: The Kinds of Principalities and the Means by Which They Are Acquired

Machiavelli describes the different kinds of states, arguing that all states are either republics or principalities. Principalities can be divided into hereditary principalities and new principalities. New principalities are either completely new or new appendages to existing states. By fortune or strength, a prince can acquire a new principality with his own army or with the arms of others.

Summary: Chapter 2: Hereditary Principalities

Chapter 2 is the first of three chapters focusing on methods to govern and maintain principalities. Machiavelli dismisses any discussion of republics, explaining that he has “discussed them at length on another occasion”—a reference to Book 1 of his Discourses.

Machiavelli notes that it is easier to govern a hereditary state than a new principality for two main reasons. First, those under the rule of such states are familiar with the prince’s family and are therefore accustomed to their rule. The natural prince only has to keep past institutions intact, while adapting these institutions to current events. Second, the natural disposition of subjects in a hereditary state is to love the ruling family, unless the prince commits some horrible act against his people. Even if a strong outsider succeeds in conquering a prince’s hereditary state, any setback the outsider encounters will allow the prince to reconquer the state.

Summary: Chapter 3: Mixed Principalities

[M]en must be either pampered or annihilated.

See Important Quotations Explained

Machiavelli explains why maintaining a new principality is more difficult than maintaining a hereditary state. In the first place, people will willingly trade one recently arrived ruler for another, hoping that a new ruler will be better than the present one. This expectation of improvement will induce people to take up arms against any relatively unestablished prince. Although the people may quickly realize that their revolt is ineffective, they will still create great disorder. Furthermore, when a prince takes over another prince’s domain, he finds himself in a tricky situation with regard to the people who put him in power. He cannot maintain the support of these people because he cannot fulfill all of their expectations that their situation will improve. But he also cannot deal too harshly with them because he is in their debt. Immediately after taking power, the prince is in danger of losing his newly gained principality.

When a prince successfully suppresses a revolt, however, the ruler can easily prevent further revolt by harshly punishing the rebels and decimating his opposition. The ruler can deal more harshly with his subjects in response to the revolt than he would be able to normally.

It is much easier to maintain control over a new principality if the people share the same language and customs as the prince’s own country. If this is the case, the prince has to do only two things: destroy the family of the former prince, and maintain the principality’s laws and taxes. People will live quietly and peacefully so long as their old ways of life are undisturbed.

New states that have different languages and customs from those of the prince are more difficult to maintain. One of the prince’s most effective options is to take up residence in the new state. By living there, the prince can address problems quickly and efficiently. He can prevent the local officials from plundering his territory. The subjects will be in close contact with the prince. Therefore, those who are inclined to be good will have more reason to show their allegiance to the prince and those who are inclined to be bad will have more reason to fear him. Invaders will think twice before attempting to take over the state.

Another effective method of dealing with linguistic and cultural differences is to establish colonies in the new state. It is less expensive to establish colonies than to maintain military occupation, and colonialism only harms inhabitants who pose no threat to the prince because they are scattered and poor. As a general rule, men must be either pampered or crushed. A prince should injure people only if he knows there is no threat of revenge. Setting up military bases throughout the new state will not effectively keep order. Instead, it will upset the people, and these people may turn into hostile enemies capable of causing great harm to the prince’s regime.

A prince who has occupied a state in a foreign country should dominate the neighboring states. He should weaken the strong ones and ensure that no other strong foreign power invades a neighboring state. Weaker powers will naturally side with the strongest power as long as they cannot grow strong themselves. The prince must remain master of the whole country to keep control of the state he has conquered.

Princes should always act to solve problems before problems fully manifest themselves. Political disorders are easy to solve if the prince identifies them and acts early. If they are allowed to develop fully, it will be too late.

Men naturally want to acquire more. When they succeed in acquiring more they are always praised, not condemned. But rulers who lack the ability to acquire, yet still try at the cost of their current state, should be condemned.

In order to hold a state, a prince must understand statecraft and warcraft. The two are intertwined. War can be avoided by suppressing disorder. However, one can never escape a war: war can only be postponed to the enemy’s advantage.

Summary: Chapter 4: Why Alexander’s Successors Were Able to Keep Possession of Darius’ Kingdom after Alexander’s Death

There are two ways to govern a principality. The first involves a prince and appointed ministers. While the ministers help govern, everyone remains subservient to the prince. The second way involves a prince and nobles. Nobles are not appointed by the prince, but they benefit from their ancient lineage and have subjects of their own. Of both these scenarios, the prince is regarded as being much stronger if he uses ministers, since he is the only ruler in the country.

It is much harder to take over a country if a prince uses ministers, because ministers have little incentive to be corrupted by foreign powers or to turn on their prince. Furthermore, even if they were to turn against the prince, they would not be able to muster support from any subjects because they hold no personal loyalties. It is easier to conquer a country governed with the cooperation of nobles, because finding a discontented noble eager for change is always possible. Moreover, nobles command the loyalty of their own subjects, so a corrupted noble will corrupt the support of his subjects.

Although it is easier to take over a state ruled by nobles, it is much harder to maintain control of that state. In a state ruled by nobles, it is not enough to kill the former ruler’s family, because the nobles will still be around to revolt. Holding onto a state with ministers is much easier, because it merely requires killing off the one prince and his family.

Machiavelli asserts that the rules he proposes are consistent with historical evidence, such as Alexander’s successful conquest of Asia and the rebellions against the Romans in Spain, France, and Greece.

Analysis: Chapters 1–4

Machiavelli builds his case through a combination of historical examples and methodical argument. The first step in his argument is to establish the terms and categories that he will use to make sense out of the multitude of different political situations that exist in the real world. The clear-cut distinctions Machiavelli makes between different kinds of states—beginning with principalities and republics—are very effective insofar as they enable him to present his ideas clearly and concisely. Whether his categories do justice to the complexity of political history is a different question. Machiavelli creates an impression of directness and practicality by presenting the world in simple, clearly defined terms.

At the same time, Machiavelli does not rely heavily on theory or abstract thought to make his points; these chapters illustrate his reliance on history as the basis for his theory of government. He sets out to answer the question “How best can a ruler maintain control of his state?” His response, a set of empirically verifiable rules and guidelines, is derived from a study of the conquests of the past, especially those of the French, the Romans, and the Greeks.

One important difference between Machiavelli’s philosophy and other philosophies of government lies in his description of the ordinary subject. Aristotle’s political writings describe a citizenry that is by nature political and very interested in the welfare of the community. Though Aristotle disregards the majority of people who live within the Greek city-state—women and slaves—he considers the free citizens to be the very reason for the state’s existence. Machiavelli, on the other hand, sees the ordinary citizen as a piddling, simpleminded creature. Such people will either love or hate their ruler, depending on whether they are harmed or injured, but as long as the prince can maintain control, he need have little concern for their welfare.

Thus, the purpose of government is not the good of the people but the stability of the state and the perpetuation of the established ruler’s control. Machiavelli does not concern himself with what goes on inside the state but what occurs externally. A successful prince must always be aware of foreign powers and the threat of invasion. A focus on power diplomacy and warcraft, at the expense of domestic affairs, is a distinctive element of Machiavelli’s project.

Finally, the guidelines set forth in The Prince have often been characterized as “amoral” because some of Machiavelli’s advice—killing off the family of the former ruler, the violent suppression of revolts and insurrections—seems cruel, brutal, and perhaps downright evil. Whereas the ancient Greeks conceived of a close relationship between ethics and politics, Machiavelli seems to separate these disciplines altogether. Nonetheless, to deny that Machiavelli’s political theory accommodates any form of morality and ethics would be inaccurate. For example, religion does play a role in Machiavelli’s state. Moreover, although Machiavelli does not use the words “ethical” or “moral” as such, later chapters of The Prince suggest that rulers have duties or obligations that could be considered ethical or moral.