Machiavelli’s Prince After 500 Years

by James JOHNSON

Niccolò Machiavelli’s Prince is perhaps the purest anatomy of power ever written. The book follows its declared intent in stark terms without fear or hesitation: to show rulers how to succeed in the world as it is, not as it should be. Its only criterion is success. If goodness, justice, and honesty help you succeed, use them. If not, neglect them. It is more important to appear good, just, or honest than to be so. One should not hesitate to lie, deceive, and if need be kill in order to maintain power.

Il Principe

Cultivate enemies, Machiavelli advises, so you can intimidate others by crushing them publicly. Do not avoid cruelty: just be sure it is well-used. If you need to injure someone, don’t do it in a minor way, which risks revenge. Do it in a way that cannot be answered. The Prince, written 500 years ago, has been called the first modern view of politics. It teaches that power underlies human relations and that the state and its laws are human fabrications for human ends. It is relentlessly secular. Depending on your point of view, Machiavelli is either a cynic or a realist. “Anyone who ignores everyday reality in order to live up to an ideal,” he writes, “will soon discover he has been taught how to destroy himself, not how to preserve himself.” It is “normal and natural,” The Prince teaches, to take what does not belong to you. Its view of human nature is unqualified. Humans are ungrateful, fickle, deceptive, cowardly, and greedy.

A common reading is to dismiss the book as a handbook for tyrants. An effigy of Machiavelli was burned by the Jesuits in 1559, the same year the Pope included it on the Index of Prohibited Books. The English Cardinal Reginald Pole said The Prince was written “by Satan’s hand.” In the twentieth century, Machiavelli was called a teacher of evil and associated with the Nazis.

Yet careful readers have noted critical silences in The Prince. It is wholly absent of moral evaluation, for instance. Must we read it as endorsing such techniques or merely listing what should be done if a ruler wishes to keep power? Must we read Machiavelli’s own convictions into his recommendations or can we judge the work strictly on the effectiveness of its strategies? The Prince is silent about whether there are moral laws that transcend the naked pursuit of power or the laws of particular states. It is silent about the status of what we call universal rights.

Thinking through these silences takes us away from Renaissance Italy into today’s global politics. So-called realists in the field of International Relations argue that no law other than power governs the affairs of states. “At their worst,” states the writer David Fromkin in The Independence of Nations, “states are beasts that roam the jungles of world politics, killing when they are hungry, and obeying no laws but those of their own nature.” Reading The Prince today forces us to think seriously about the grounds for our own convictions – about whether rules of ethics apply in the jungle of world politics.

We may recall the means Slobodon Milosevic employed in the 1990s in the name of Greater Serbia, which included mass murder, deportations, rape as a weapon of war, and political assassination. We may think of things done in the name of national security: perhaps one hundred thousand killed in the Iraq invasion, water-boarding, the collateral damage of schools and homes incurred in drone strikes against terrorists. The Prince should force us to work out exactly why, if we truly believe it, the raw pursuit of power is not the only argument in questions of statecraft.

Seen in his own time, Machiavelli does not particularly resemble a “teacher of evil.” A voracious reader as a child, he grew up in a family that valued learning over wealth. He was a scholar, poet, and playwright. He walked with books by Dante, Petrarch and Ovid tucked under his arm. He engaged in imaginary conversations with the ancients. He was fiercely loyal to his city of Florence, as a member of its government for 14 years, an eloquent defender of the Republic, and an unwavering advocate of an independent and civically engaged citizenry. He wrote The Prince for a very particular reason. The Republic had just fallen, the Medici were restored to power, and Machiavelli was out of a job. He presented the book to the new ruler to recommend himself for employment. It is easily conceivable that he was offering a masterful work of strategy without actually endorsing it. If so, the gesture was exquisitely Machiavellian.

It would be wrong to say that The Prince is all things to all people, but over the past 500 years it has been many more things to many more kinds of people than its simple tone would suggest. It is now one of the most-assigned books of any taught in university. Those who have taught it know that it can still cause outrage, and scholars who write about it continue to find new aspects to explore. The dominant reading today, however, may be neither outrage nor original insight. It may be complacent acceptance, one that flatters itself for being so worldly and sophisticated. We’re not shocked, we tell ourselves, we can take it in stride, and – who knows? – we might find some useful tips. Here are titles of some recently published books: Management and Machiavelli: A Prescription for Success in Your Business; The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women; and A Child’s Machiavelli: A Primer on Power.

The truth is, we should not be so complacent about this book. After 500 years, it is still potent and possibly dangerous. It is still rich in its silences and deceptively simple. Most of all, it is unsparing in making us ask ourselves fundamental questions about the place of power in human relations and questions of right and wrong.

About the Author


James Johnson is Professor of History at Boston University, where he teaches courses on European Thought and Culture, the History of Boston, Music & Ideas, World War I, and Topics in Political and Social Thought. He is the author of two prize-winning books, Listening in Paris: A Cultural History (1995), and Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic (2011). As a pianist, he gives concert/lectures regularly in the Boston area on themes in the cultural history of music.