Review of The Prince (1513/1532)


Niccolò Machiavelli (writer).

Read in 2023.

Advice, in plain vernacular and with recent historical examples, of how you should seek to take and preserve power over other people.

The material is interesting partly because it illustrates the life of the upper classes at the time and partly because of Machiavelli’s pragmatism. He occasionally performs lip service to some Christian god and is similarly credulous in repeating legends from antiquity, including that of Moses as an exemplary lord, but for the most part, Machiavelli is a complete toad, encouraging the ruling elite to follow its lust for power without regard for religion. He also says, comically often, that a lord should abstain from looting and raping their own subjects, but he motivates that advice on practical grounds, as would a moral nihilist. There are no high-minded thought experiments or ideals involved; quite a change from the Divine Comedy (1320), the success of which enabled Machiavelli to write in Italian.

The writer notes “the baseness of men”, showing contempt for all humans. He encourages lords to renege on their promises because, he says, other people are wicked anyway. It’s not clear, however, whether this negative view of humanity is what led the writer to support the constant warring and intimidation that made Renaissance Italy such a bad place for a game of the prisoner’s dilemma. He doesn’t say it here, but supposedly, Machiavelli preferred republican government over despotism, so I assume that he wrote The Prince partly as a descriptive treatise on political science, partly as a vicarious fantasy, partly to instruct what he hoped would be a saviour of Italy from foreign invaders, and partly to earn his living and his freedom from prison, which indeed he did, becoming an advisor to the Medici.

text non-fiction