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The Prince Summary

The Prince Summary

The Prince by Niccoló Machiavelli

Setting

The Prince is the product of the political turmoil that ravaged Italy during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Main Characters

Niccolo Machiavelli - Machiavelli serves as both the narrator and a protagonist of The Prince. When released from prison in 1513, Machiavelli retreated to private life and wrote The Prince in an effort both to gain the favor of the ruling Medici family, which had accused Machiavelli of conspiracy and to help enable Lorenzo de Medici to unify Italy.

Lorenzo de Medici - The ruler of Florence from 1514 to 1519, Lorenzo de Medici was part of the influential Medici family and the dedicatee of The Prince.

Cesare Borgia – The illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, Cesare Borgia pursued military campaigns throughout Italy with the aid of his powerful father.

Alexander VI – elected pope in 1492, Alexander VI was a skilled politician and leader who considerably expanded the territorial power of the Catholic Church through diplomacy and warfare.

Ferdinand of Aragon – with his wife, Isabella I of Castile, Ferdinand of Aragon united Spain and funded the conquest of the New World.

Loe X – Elected pope in 1513, Leo X was a member of the Medici family of Florence. As pope, Leo continued the warring policies of his predecessor, Julius II, and engaged in costly campaigns throughout Italy.

Maximilian – As Holy Roman Emperor from 1508 to 1519, Maximilian was a perennial opponent of the French and Venetians.

Charles VIII - King of France from 1483 to 1498, Charles VIII invaded Italy in 1494, subduing Florence before marching to Naples.

Louis XII – The successor of Charles VIII of France, Louis XII continued the Italian campaigns pursued by his predecessor, conquering Milan in 1500 and Naples in 1501.

Francesco Sforza – A skilled mercenary who fought for Filippo Visconti, the Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza married Visconti’s daughter in 1441.

Ludovico Sforza - The son of Francesco Sforza, Ludovico ruled as Duke of Milan from 1489 to 1500. Known as II Moro, Ludovico was a ruthless ruler and a famous patron of the Italian Renaissance.

Hannibal – The commander of the army of Carthage, an enemy of Rome. Hannibal invaded the Roman Republic during the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.), marching into Italy through the Iberian Peninsula and the Alps.

Commodus – The son and heir of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus ruled Rome from 180 TO 193 A.D. The opposite of his father, Commodus "was of a cruel, bestial disposition” and was disposed of by the people.

L. Septimius Severus – A military under Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, Severus became emperor of Rome in 1193 A.D.

Plot Summary

In The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli shrewdly outlines the strategies that a ruler must follow to maintain his position and govern his state. With a clear and direct authorial voice, Machiavelli employs ancient and contemporary examples to illustrate the pragmatic tactics of successful leaders. Machiavelli draws heavily on his own political experience to support his exceedingly realistic views on human nature and the techniques of able rulers while dedicating his book to the Florentine ruler Lorenzo de Medici. Machiavelli contradicts conventional morality and advises wise princes to use violence and cunning to safeguard their states. The Prince explores the careful balance between contrasts, comparing virtue and vice, prowess and fortune, and subjects and rulers.

At the beginning of the treatise, Machiavelli asks Lorenzo to accept The Prince as a "token of my devotion,” stating that his "long acquaintance” with political affairs and "continuous study of the ancient world” inform of his writing. Machiavelli outlines the scope of The Prince in the first chapters, declaring his focus on the various types of princes and principalities. He argues that new principalities pose greater difficulties than hereditary states and segues into a discussion of composite principalities, in which new states form an "appendage to an old state.” Within this context, Machiavelli raises the guiding principles of The Prince, encouraging rulers to cultivate the "goodwill" of the people and to study the art of warfare. Machiavelli urges princes to approach political disorders like "a wasting disease," taking care to diagnose and treat them quickly and resolutely.

Machiavelli cites Cyrus and Romulus and turns to a discussion of prowess, imploring "prudent” rulers to follow the examples of "great men.” He writes that men who become rulers by prowess "gain their principalities with difficulty but hold them with ease.” Conversely, those who gain power through fortune become rulers easily but maintain their position "only by considerable exertion.”  Naming Cesare Borgia as a contemporary ruler who gained his status through fortune, Machiavelli praises the "strong foundations" that Borgia laid for his future but laments "the extraordinary and inordinate malice of fortune" that eventually ruined the unlucky duke.

Machiavelli declares that every stable state shares the same foundations, "good laws and good arms.” However, he places an emphasis on good arms, explaining that good laws "inevitably follow” from military might. He also warns rulers on the use of mercenary and auxiliary troops, on which he blames "the present ruin of Italy” and the earlier downfall of the Roman Empire. According to Machiavelli, "The first way to lose your state is to neglect the art of war,” and encourages princes to study warfare in peacetime so that they may "reap the profit in times of adversity.”

Machiavelli while addressing the distinction between prowess and fortune, Machiavelli contends that fortune controls half of the human affairs, leaving the other half to free will. Machiavelli advises princes to "take precautions" against the "malice of fortune," using prowess to prepare for unpredictability. Turning to contemporary Italy, Machiavelli blames the weakness of its states on the political shortcomings of its rulers. Machiavelli concludes by imploring Lorenzo to use the lessons of The Prince to unify war-torn Italy and thus reclaim the grandeur of Ancient Rome.

Themes

  1. Laws and Arms

Machiavelli asserts that the "main foundations" of every state are "good laws and good arms," meaning that a ruler must anchor his state to sound legal and military codes if he wishes to maintain his power. Without this two-fold foundation, Machiavelli argues that the state and its prince are "bound to come to grief."

  1. Fortune and Prowess

According to Machiavelli, the twin forces of fortune and prowess conspire to determine the outcome of history and, therefore, the success or failure of all princes and states. With the term "fortune," Machiavelli refers to the unpredictability of fate, meaning the ways in which chance, opportunity, and pure luck often influence the course of life.

  1. Goodwill and Hatred

Machiavelli is probably most famous for his opinion concerning "whether it is better to be loved than feared." But according to Machiavelli, a wise prince may be better served by focusing on the distinction between goodwill and hatred. Above all else, a ruler "must only endeavor to escape being hated," for the "best fortress that exists is to avoid being hated by the people."

  1. Virtue Vs. Vice

Machiavelli blurs the line between virtue and vice, arguing that, for princes, the value of an action rests solely on the context and end result of its performance. Virtue and vice are not fixed terms, and Machiavelli states that a prince "will find that some of the things that appear to be virtues will, if he practices them, ruin him, and some of the things that appear to be vices will bring him security and prosperity."

  1. The Masses and The Elite

Machiavelli regularly juxtaposes the masses, or "common people," against the ruling elite in The Prince. To justify his decision to write the book, Machiavelli invokes this class-based contrast, stating, "To comprehend fully the nature of princes one must be an ordinary citizen." As with other opposing pairs described in The Prince, Machiavelli argues that the two entities, while vastly different, rely on each other for mutual survival and understanding.