Book Summaries Decision Making Philosophy Psychology

The Prince Summary (7/10)

The Prince by Machiavelli is an introduction to realpolitik. It’s important to understand that Machiavelli’s audience is a prince. Few can consider themselves princes in the modern world, and many of insights in this book involve warfare, how to successfully build and maintain an empire, and how to treat your subjects – none of these are practical matters that most people think about. However, there are parts of the book that relate to human psychology in general and these are the parts that caught my attention.

Machiavelli is not evil or sinister; while his name is synonymous with deception in popular culture, the context underlying his philosophy explains his motivations. His philosophy is a pragmatic one; essentially, it involves weighing two bad options and determining which one is less bad. For a prince, the priority isn’t to be loved by everyone, but preserving order so that the state doesn’t disintegrate into chaos.

It is not that aggression is always good or always bad, it is that in some cases, aggression is less bad than no aggression.

If you are interested in human nature as it is, and not what you hope for it to be, then you will see a lot value in Machiavelli’s ideas.


The Will to Power

Machiavelli advises the prince he is writing for to discern what to do depending on the situation. The default behavior is to be good, and Machiavelli is not nihilistic or relativistic, ethically. He acknowledges that some actions are objectively worse than others, but that deceitful, tough, or aggressive behavior is sometimes necessary to avoid greater catastrophes in the future.

The wish to acquire is in truth very natural and common, and men always do so when they can, and for this they will be praised not blamed; but when they cannot do so, yet wish to do so by any means, then there is folly and blame.

Machiavelli warns about introducing a radical new order. People are used to the status quo and dislike change. This is standard advice. if you have new ideas, you should be patient. Start-ups take years before gaining traction, politicians spend months on political campaigns repeating the same ideas many times before they gain widespread appeal, music that is unfamiliar and strange is unlikely to reach mainstream audiences.

And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, then to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

You would think that a deceitful philosophy would call on you to take advantage of other people, but Machiavelli doesn’t advise this. According to him, it is better to have your own army, and your own weapons. The wisdom here is that you gain control when you have your own army. In business, as well as in war, when you hire an army to fight for you, or a different business to handle your work, you save yourself from doing everything yourself, but you also expose yourself to vulnerabilities.

I wish also to recall to memory an instance from the Old Testament applicable to this subject. David offered himself to Saul to fight with Goliath, the Philistine champion, and, to give him courage, Saul armed him with his own weapons; which David rejected as soon as he had them on his back, saying he could make no use of them, and that he wished to meet the enemy with his sling and his knife. In conclusion, the arms of others either fall from your back, or they weigh you down, or they bind you fast.

Love or Fear

And on the famous question of whether it is better to loved or feared, Machiavelli says:

It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails. Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women


Machiavelli stresses the importance of appearances. People do not judge you according to who you are, but based on how they perceive you. And for that reason, it is better to represent the qualities that will get them to respect you, even if you do not have them yourself. This appears to be duplicitous, but Machiavelli’s point is that human nature is duplicitous.

People do not act the way they are, and no person has only one way of being. We are amalgamations of many different ideas. It is pedantic and simplistic to assume that people are either this or that, rather, we are a combination of many often-conflicting natures. To that end, while it is important to possess virtuous qualities, it is more important to appear to possess virtuous qualities. To see the logic behind this, imagine someone who is virtuous but doesn’t try to appear so in public, and imagine another person who is not virtuous but appears virtuous in public. Who do you think will be treated with more respect, love, admiration?

It is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.Therefore it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.

Good Politics

We are also warned from refusing to take sides. You would think the politically savvy thing to do would be to abstain from siding with one party at the expense of the other to avoid making enemies, but Machiavelli believes that this behavior is harmful since you lose the respect of both parties.

A prince is also respected when he is either a true friend or a downright enemy, that is to say, when, without any reservation, he declares himself in favour of one party against the other; which course will always be more advantageous than standing neutral; because if two of your powerful neighbours come to blows, they are of such a character that, if one of them conquers, you have either to fear him or not. In either case it will always be more advantageous for you to declare yourself and to make war strenuously; because, in the first case, if you do not declare yourself, you will in variably fall a prey to the conqueror, to the pleasure and satisfaction of him who has been conquered, and you will have no reasons to offer, nor anything to protect or to shelter you. Because he who conquers does not want doubtful friends who will not aid him in the time of trial; and he who loses will not harbour you because you did not willingly, sword in hand, court his fate.


Most importantly, Machiavelli believes in the importance of being dynamic. If you crave consistency and order, and are unable to re-invent yourself, or change the way you think when the time calls for it, you will suffer the most when circumstances are no longer the same.

I say that a prince may be seen happy to-day and ruined to-morrow without having shown any change of disposition or character. This, I believe, arises firstly from causes that have already been discussed at length, namely, that the prince who relies entirely on fortune is lost when it changes. I believe also that he will be successful who directs his actions according to the spirit of the times, and that he whose actions do not accord with the times will not be successful. Because men are seen, in affairs that lead to the end which every man has before him, namely, glory and riches, to get there by various methods; one with caution, another with haste; one by force, another by skill; one by patience, another by its opposite; and each one succeeds in reaching the goal by a different method. One can also see of two cautious men the one attain his end, the other fail; and similarly, two men by different observances are equally successful, the one being cautious, the other impetuous; all this arises from nothing else than whether or not they conform in their methods to the spirit of the times. This follows from what I have said, that two men working differently bring about the same effect, and of two working similarly, one attains his object and the other does not. Changes in estate also issue from this, for if, to one who governs himself with caution and patience, times and affairs converge in such a way that his administration is successful, his fortune is made; but if times and affairs change, he is ruined if he does not change his course of action. But a man is not often found sufficiently circumspect to know how to accommodate himself to the change, both because he cannot deviate from what nature inclines him to do, and also because, having always prospered by acting in one way, he cannot be persuaded that it is well to leave it; and, therefore, the cautious man, when it is time to turn adventurous, does not know how to do it, hence he is ruined; but had he changed his conduct with the times fortune would not have changed.

‘Fortune favors the brave’ according to Machiavelli, and in a world where the status quo is constantly being disrupted, those who have the advantage are the ones who are willing to take risks that others aren’t. This entails changing one’s own nature, as mentioned above, and embarking on adventures and paths that are not well-known or well-understood.

I conclude, therefore that, fortune being changeful and mankind steadfast in their ways, so long as the two are in agreement men are successful, but unsuccessful when they fall out. For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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