Notes on The Prince

Some Machiavellian lessons on life

I recently read The Prince for a course. In the process, I noted principle ideas from most of the chapters. I’m recording them here for future reference. Important disclaimer: I don’t necessarily condone the ideas below, but I’m including them for completeness. Machiavelli’s overall lesson could be summarized as: “It depends.”

Page numbers from the Penguin Classics edition of The Prince published in 2014, translated by Tim Parks.

2: Hereditary monarchies

  • Change begets change.
  • Don’t give people reason to hate you.
  • Avoid upsetting inherited structures: once you do, prepare for trouble (which prompts yet more trouble).

3: Mixed monarchies

  • Get local buy-in, regardless of your clout. (9)
  • Shared customs or language make ruling and expansion easier. (10)
  • Eliminate previous rulers but retain their policies. (11)
  • People like direct access: physical presence greatly aids acclimatization of an unfamiliar population; it gives you greater on-the-ground knowledge, too. (11–12)
  • Moving into unfamiliar territory? Build support among weaker potential players there, building a local buttress against major opponents. (13)
  • But, don’t strengthen your allies too much: they could more easily turn against you. (14)
  • Look to the future, don’t procrastinate: if you see trouble coming, deal with it on your own terms as soon as possible, as opposed to delaying and leaving it to fortune. (14–15)
  • Don’t abandon your supporters in favour of the next big ruler; support your supporters. (17)
  • Don’t bring in external rulers strong enough to challenge you. (17)

4: Conquered by Alexander the Great, the Kingdom of Darius did not rebel against his successors after his death. Why not?

  • To conquer a leader may be insufficient, as the people may be just as loyal to their subordinates; in those cases, you need to overcome both the leader and their subordinates.
  • This is difficult to do, but once accomplished it is much easier to hold.

5: How to govern cities and states that were previously self-governing

  • A chapter documenting the “It depends” lesson.

6: States won by the new ruler’s own forces and abilities

  • There’s nothing harder than to introduce a new government or organization; people resist change. (29)
  • People are skeptical until they experience the benefits of change. (29–30)
  • The people’s opinion will always shift. (30)
  • It is much harder to implement new ideas, even the best ones, without your own resources. (30)

7: States won by lucky circumstances and someone else’s armed forces

  • Don’t count on the support of others, nor on the continuing success of either yourself or others. (33)
  • An excellent metaphor: “If you haven’t laid the foundations before becoming king, it takes very special qualities to do it afterwards, and even then it’ll be tough for the architect and risky for the building.” (34)
  • Plan for future events going badly; lay the foundations for them to go your way.
  • If you’ve wronged someone, don’t help them into a position of authority over you. (Pick your side and make your peace.) (42)

8: States won by crime

  • Cruelty is more acceptable when it is: a) quick, certain; b) in service of some general good. (47)
  • If cruelty is required, make it short; never make it normal. (48)
  • Favours, on the other hand, shouldn’t come quick. (49)

9: Monarchy with public support

  • The support of the people is more powerful than that of elites. (50)

13: Auxiliaries, combined forces and citizen armies

  • Don’t import external teams and expect them to be loyal to you, or to deviate from their established interests. (72)

14: A ruler and his army

  • Don’t procrastinate—prepare and work, even when the workload is light.
  • Consider alternatives and hypotheticals regularly.
  • Choose a role model and keep them always in mind (read history).
  • Study what will enable success (which depends, of course, on the situation).

15: What men and particularly rulers are praised and blamed for

  • Focus on reality as opposed to some ideal world.
  • Don’t worry about failure that doesn’t reduce your position.
  • Sometimes you have to act “badly.”

16: Generosity and meanness

  • Be wary of generosity for the sake of being noticed (public generosity); it’ll quickly deplete your wealth.
  • Generosity is required for becoming a ruler, but dangerous once in power.
  • Meanness is fine if the people are content.

17: Cruelty and compassion. Whether it’s better to be feared or loved

  • Don’t become hated.
  • Don’t overreact; stay cool. (88)
  • You’re most vulnerable when newly in power. (87–88)
  • Don’t mess with what people hold most dear. (89)

18: A ruler and his promises

  • Don’t fret breaking your word if it achieves a good result.
  • Don’t need to be virtuous, but you must appear it.
  • Be ready to change and break promises if circumstances demand.
  • People judge mostly on appearances.

19: Avoiding contempt and hatred

  • Avoid being hated or held in contempt.
    • You become hated by interfering with what people hold most dear. (97)
    • You are held in contempt when seen as “changeable, superficial, effeminate, fearful or indecisive.” (97)
  • Being well-regarded stops conspiracies.
  • Be aware of the nobles, but ensure the people’s happiness above all.
  • Get others to do unfavourable policy. (101)

20: Whether fortresses and other strategies rulers frequently adopt are useful

  • Taking power and distributing “arms” [responsibility?] makes recipients loyal, but not if at the expense of others with existing arms. (111–12)
  • If supported internally in a takeover, question why they supported you: if it was because they didn’t like life under the previous ruler, there’s a risk you won’t be able to change the situation. (114–15)

21: What a ruler should do to win respect

  • Keep internal threats busy with constant work. (118)
  • Always pick a side: neutrality inevitably hurts you most, even if you side with the loser. (118–19)
  • Siding with the loser makes you “companions in misfortune.” (120)
  • Avoid indebting yourself to the more powerful, unless absolutely necessary. (120)
  • Never assume that a decision is safe: evaluate the potential danger of all situations. (120)
  • “Admire achievement in others, giving work to men of ability and rewarding people who excel in this or that craft.” (121)

22: A ruler’s ministers

  • Choice of ministers the earliest test for a new ruler. (123)
  • Machiavelli presents a typology of critical thinkers. (123)
  • Avoid ministers with only their own interest in mind.
  • Share wealth, honours, and office with ministers, to ensure their loyalty.

23: Avoiding flatterers

  • Ensure people aren’t afraid to tell you the truth of their opinions. But, don’t permit it too much or too publicly, or you’ll lose respect. (125)
  • Restrict the right to give truthful advice to your chosen, intelligent ministers, and only when you permit. (125)
  • Regardless, take your decisions independently, and don’t waver after committing. (125–26)
  • Uncertainty or wavering prevents others from planning (depending) on you—that’s bad. (126)
  • Genuinely listen to truthful advice. (126)

24: Why Italian rulers have lost their states

  • People focus on their present conditions most: keep them content. (129)
  • Prepare for bad times, especially when things are going well. (130)
  • Don’t rely on others to prop you up in time of need—prepare to support yourself. (130–31)

25: The role of luck in human affairs, and how to defend against it

  • Prepare for fortune changing while it still favours you.
  • Two people with different approaches can both succeed: circumstances are everything.
  • Successful rulers adapt to the inevitable change of fortune. But, it’s very hard (maybe impossible) to change your ways once set.