What I Learned About Political Theory From Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’

Posted by Basanta Nirola in Books
September 27, 2017

Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Florence (Italy) in 1469. He was regarded as the first modern political thinker. In fact, he was more of a practical politician rather than a political philosopher, who set a new phase in the development of political philosophy. In the 1500s, Machiavelli produced his masterpiece “The Prince”.

Machiavelli was a modern thinker only in the sense that he ceased to be a medieval thinker and ushered in certain new ideas which are symbolic in the modern age. He considered the State as the highest association to which the subjects must completely surrender. He added that the success or the failure of a State could be judged by the prosperity of the people. He also gave the suggestions to the ‘prince’ (the ruler of a State) regarding the retention of power. Here we include that, without extensive knowledge of ancient civilizations and emperors this book is tough to get through. Machiavelli references several old empires to corroborate his arguments as to what makes a “good” Prince.

The Prince is a “must-read” for all social science students. Machiavelli’s political views are, however, far too complex to be summed up in a few quick sentences.  You are much better served by reading his work and forming your own opinion. Machiavelli is frequently cryptic and self-contradictory, and so understanding him means entering into a dialogue with him and attempting to tease out the reasoning behind the apparent contradictions.

Here are the core things I have learned from “The Prince”-

  1. To sustain his new principality, a prince must make his subjects feel valued while guarding against rivals.
  2. Principalities can either be easy to conquer but hard to rule, or hard to conquer but easy to rule.
  3. Acquiring new principalities depends on both fortune and virtue.
  4. Both wickedness and popular support are ways to become a prince.
  5. Every prince must master the art of war.
  6. To protect your principality, you need your own army, not mercenaries or auxiliary troops.
  7. A prince must balance generosity with miserliness.
  8. A successful prince can use cruelty to his advantage but should avoid being hated.
    The best way to keep people from uniting against you is to keep them content, but to an extent fearful.
  9. A successful prince knows when to use deceit and how to cover it up.
  10. A prince must assemble good advisors and know how to seek their advice.
  11. Take action – never leave your fate in the hands of fortune alone

Machiavelli’s contribution to the political thought are highly recognised and people regard him as the chief exponent of modern political thought. He completely rejected the feudal conception of a hierarchy of autonomous entities and envisaged a territorial, national and sovereign state which enjoyed supreme power over all the institutions in the society.

He deserves the credit for freeing politics from the clutches of ethics. However, Karl Marx also learnt from him that there is no divine order of things designed by God in accordance with his plan for man and universe. Machiavelli was also the first exponent of the principle of “Power Politics”. Machiavelli’s historical method was another important contribution to the history of the political thought and has been discussed in the foregoing pages. Lastly, it is worthless to put that as a first modern political thinker Machiavelli ends the medieval era in the field of political philosophy and begins the ease of modern political concepts.

Machiavelli does not take the cycle of regimes (anacyclosis) for granted. Instead, he argues that the state can temporize; adopting new modes and orders to maintain itself, so long as the state maintains sufficient virtue. If the highest political good is to retain the possibility of politics, then the particular type of regime is only relevant insofar as it sets limits on the kinds of modes and orders one can adopt. In this sense, political theory must transcend political views (or preferences) in the narrower sense.

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