Stephen's Reviews > The Prince

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
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's review
Aug 20, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: easton-press, audiobook, 1500-1799, polly-sighs-and-pubic-policy, classics, classics-european, philosophy
Read from November 08 to 10, 2011

That single statement boys and girls is the crux at the heart of the matter resting at the bottom-line of Niccolo Machiavelli’s world-changing classic on the defining use of realpolitik in governance and foreign policy. Despite popular perception, Machiavelli, whose name has often been used as a synonym for political ASSHATery, was not arguing that it’s better to be immoral, cruel and evil than to be moral, just and good. Rather, Machiavelli was demonstrating, through reasoned analysis based on numerous historical examples, that the most effective way to govern a population is through decision-making based on the current situation without muddying up the waters with considerations of morality.

Holy snickerdoodles that's amoral!! Uh...yes, by definition it is.

However, Machiavelli, in his famous use of end justifying means, supports the rightness of his position by citing numerous examples of “princes” who, in acting "all just and proper like” in relation to their neighbors and subjects, led their people right into the waiting arms of bondage and slaughter at the hands of those who were less vituous in their thinking. Should such murdered and subjugated populations thank the princes for their unwaivering morality? Machiavelli says HELLS NO. He argues that the Prince’s #1 priority is to safeguard his holdings and maintain stability within his borders. Allowing other considerations to affect such judgements will only provide an advantage to third parties who will exploit it. In the end, Machiavelli argues, fewer lives will be lost and less suffering incurred by the Prince who can govern EFFECTIVELY.

Not necessarily warm and fuzzy Sesame Street thinking, but there is some serious power to the reasoning. I wish we lived in a world in which that was not the case. I wish Machiavelli’s insights were not needed and that we lived in a world where loftier morals could carry the day. However, until we do, Machiavelli’s words provide much ringing truth and thought food.


I don’t want to sound like a book report so let me just summarize briefly how the book is laid out.

Machiavelli wrote The Prince for Lorenzo de Medici, whose family ruled Florence at the time, as basically a job application. He wanted to get in good with the de Medici family secure a place at their court. The book, while jumping around a bit, can be divided into 3 or 4 sections, the last really being a summarizing “call to arms” to the Italian people that they need a wise prince to lead them back to the greatness of the Roman Empire.

Discounting the rah rah speech at the end, the other 3 sections deal with (1) the kinds of principalities and how they are acquired; (2) the proper organization of the military and the best kind of solider to comprise it; and (3) the internal make up of a princes court (i.e., associates and subordinates).

Section 1 is interesting and fun to read, but basically worthless for anything other than historical perspective. Machiavelli discusses territories won be conquest, inheritance or luck and talks about the various characteristics of each. While not exactly "awe-inspiring" in its perception, the narrative itself is interesting and Machiavelli’s “voice” is engaging.

Section 2 can be summarized as follows: Mercenaries well and truly SUCK and should not be used under any circumstances because their suckage will end up squandering your resources and giving squat in return. Therefore, the wise Prince keeps a standing army sufficient to protect the country’s interests.

Section 3 is the real meat of the work and contains the bulk of the advice that garnered Niccolo his much deserved reputation for suggesting the propriety of abandoning morality in governance. He speaks of the need of the Prince to be able to deceive and act against the "five" virtues of the righteous man when necessary for the betterment of his state and his people.
Therefore 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.
The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present.
Machiavelli discusses numerous examples of sovereigns who either benefitted from following such advice or, conversely, who suffered calamity for adhering to a sense of virtue.


Ground-breaking and brilliantly insightful, especially for its time. So much of what Machiavelli says is now an ingrained part of political thinking that it comes across as DUH when you read it. However, it was Niccolo who first put forth these concepts that have become the dogma and foundation of modern political thought. He put the “real” in realpolitk. I don’t think the contribution he made to political theory can be overstated. It was The Prince that called out the distinction between what men “say” and what they “do.” He did not invent political immorality, but he did recognize it as an effective, and at time crucial, aspect of rule. Something the famous rulers of history have always known…and practiced.

In addition, I was surprised at how much fun the book was to read. Machiavelli includes dozens and dozens of brief vignettes about world history in supporting his ideas and does a great job keeping the reader engaged with colorful descriptions of past events. The book is also chalk-full of wonderful quotes that just jumped out at me as I was reading. Here are a few that I thought were intriguing:
The new ruler must determine all the injuries that he will need to inflict. He must inflict them once and for all…People should either be caressed or crushed. If you do them minor damage they will get their revenge; but if you cripple them there is nothing they can do. If you need to injure someone, do it in such a way that you do not have to fear their vengeance.”
In addition to post-revolutionary purges and new government administrations, the above has also become a truism for business and is why corporations do “massive layoffs” rather than a series of smaller scale terminations. Gee, thanks Niccolo.

“My view is that it is desirable to be both loved and feared; but it is difficult to achieve both and, if one of them has to be lacking, it is much safer to be feared than loved.” Ah...just like the Godfather.

Oh…and lest the above not make it clear, for all his amazing contributions to world-history we should not lose sight of the fact that Machiavelli, for all his astuteness, was a bit of an asshole. While his work is engaging and wonderful reading and I give him full marks for “calling it like it is,” he is still not the kind of guy you want educating your children or providing life lessons. I admire his work, but the man comes across as quite a scummy, conniving douche.

You know, like a modern politician.

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Comments (showing 1-31 of 31) (31 new)

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Kaethe So, what do you think? Was the whole thing a satire demonstrating the value of the republic over tyranny?

message 2: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus He put the “real” in realpolitk. I don’t think the contribution he made to political theory can be overstated.

It can't, for sure and true. It's one book that really deserves the epithet "timeless." Enjoyed your review, as always.

message 3: by Sesana (new)

Sesana Great review! I read this years ago, but I should probably read it again. I think I'd get more out of it now.

message 4: by Kate (new)

Kate I agree Sensana. I too need to re-read it now that it's no longer 'required' for school purposes.

Stephen Richard wrote: "It's one book that really deserves the epithet "timeless." Enjoyed your review, as always."

"Timeless" is very appropriate description.

Stephen Sesana wrote: "Great review! I read this years ago, but I should probably read it again. I think I'd get more out of it now."

Thank you, Sesana. I just re-read it after reading it years ago. I felt the second time around was very worthwhile.

Petra Eggs This is a 100 times longer and a 1,000 times better than my paltry review. Its a really great review.

Stephen Thanks, Petra. That is nice of you to say. I was surprised how engaging Machiavelli was in his writing. He really knew how to keep the reader's attention.

Stephen If it's the one narrated by Ian Richardson, that's the same one I just listened to and it is very worthwhile.

Karla I remember loving this when I had to read it for high school European History class.

Stephen Karla (Mossy Love Grotto) wrote: "I remember loving this when I had to read it for high school European History class."

For me, it was similar to "The Art of War" in that the it was short, non-pretentious and very engaging while still conveying a lot of information. Machiavelli had a good editor.

message 12: by Kay (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kay For a long time, I admired Machiavelli because he ripped apart the classical and Christian philosophers. It took me a long time appreciate Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas because initially their vision of the “ideal” government was so out there and so unreachable for us flawed beings. What’s the point of sprouting the ideal, when we by nature are not ideal beings? But, at the same time, it’s sadly telling that we hail Machiavelli for pointing out our flaws and our hypocrisy, and that we praise him—albeit grudgingly—for making us aware our fallacies.

Great review, Stephen. The Prince is definitely something that should be read and talked about.

Stephen Thanks, Kay, and I agree with everything you said. Well put.

message 14: by Erika (new)

Erika Hey I've been wanting to read this one since a long time ago! Think i forgot it, because i wasn't on Goodreads then.. thanks for the reminder :P

Stephen Your welcome, Erika. It is certainly a worthwhille read.

message 16: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus Stephen, I realize that it's rather late to talk to you about this review, but I know that the translation you read will color your impression of the book. The Sonnino translation that I read in conjunction with the George Bull translation, perhaps the Gold Standard among translations because it offers no challenge to the understanding of the book as a propitiatory offering to Lorenzo il Magnifico to place Machiavelli among the Florentine's inner circle, where Sonnino's translation does NOT presuppose this as the single desideratum of the book.

Hell. Why should you care? The message for today is: DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE ROLE OF SELF-INTEREST IN ANY AND I MEAN ANY TRANSACTION. Machiavelli and Adam Smith would've loved each other. Louis XV, that IDIOT, would've fallen for all of it, too.

message 17: by Britt (new) - added it

Britt you have made me passionately anxious to want to read this book!! thank you so much for a thorough and invested review. even if i end up disagreeing with you on this book's value or intelligence, i still think this book is well worth the trial

message 18: by Anna (new) - added it

Anna Johnstone Definitely going to give this a go.

message 19: by Steven (new) - added it

Steven D Read this book ten years ago, must read again. I believe that we are reflecting Machiavelli politic more and more in the post 911 world, and the harsh reality that liberty has become the idea of going along with what the masses follow. Maybe I'm being cynic, but we must view the world for what it is; a power struggle for whatever motives: religion, economics, idealism, fear the list goes on.

Jenners This review had me laughing out loud. Brilliant.

message 21: by [deleted user] (new)

Excellent review. But the idea of The Prince being dramatised IN SESAME STREET has just got to happen. Can't you just see Kermit the frog as Machiavelli?

Samir Baz Great Review. I look forward to reading through more of your posts

message 23: by Oliver (new) - added it

Oliver Bomba excellent review.may God bless

message 24: by Luis (new) - rated it 3 stars

Luis Flores The prince is a guide on how to be a successful leader. I recommend this book for 12th graders and college students. I believe the author was trying to pass on to the audience his opinion on a good leader and how to achieve excellent ruling. The book is educational as well because it shows examples of famous historical figures' achievements and failures . I enjoyed how some of the details he explained were so relatable and applicable to real life. I disliked how it was hard to understand some of the things it was trying to reach to you, made it confusing at time other than that it was a good book.

Jannik Great review of an even greater book.

message 26: by Alexander (new) - added it

Alexander Livingston Which single statement?

message 27: by Alexander (new) - added it

Alexander Livingston *chock-full

message 28: by Alexander (new) - added it

Alexander Livingston Not just like the godfather, but also like "God"*. Well, perhaps not quite. "God" demands – by inciting fear – to be loved as well as feared. What did Christopher Hitchens call it? Abjection.

* Those who contrive to be his enforcers, but who in fact, wittingly or unwittingly, constitute him, that is.

message 29: by Alexander (new) - added it

Alexander Livingston Oh, the "single statement" image doesn't appear in the iPhone app.

Aykan This review really helped me to comprehend the book properly. 5 stars to that...

message 31: by Kitty (new) - rated it 1 star

Kitty Love this! I now feel the need to stalk your other reviews to help prioritize my to-read list. Thanks for both the insight and the humor.

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