An Introduction to Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” Part 1

Note: References below are to Harvey Mansfield’s translation of The Prince,  Second Edition, University of Chicago Press. I am a student of Leo Paul de Alvarez and cannot recommend his (de Alvarez’s) work highly enough: if you can buy his edition of The Prince, do so, especially as the essay he has written introducing the work will be of enormous help for those interested in distinguishing political science today from its origins. If you feel that your acquaintance with political philosophy is extensive enough, you can try reading his The Machiavellian Enterprise, which is purposely too dense; the point of that seems to be to see the complete Machiavellian critique of ancient thought and anticipation/critique of modern thought.

I. In this blog we work with a simplified account of the history of political thought. It is purposely simplified so you can modify or reject it at your discretion later, if you wish. Once there were the Ancients, Plato and Aristotle primarily. They held that virtue and wisdom were important, and that the law of the city should perhaps promote the creation of virtuous men. Then came Christianity, and it was not clear what was to happen to the city itself: is not the Law written into Creation itself, as well as revealed by God Himself? There was virtue, there was Law, but strangely absent was politics.

We move to 15th c. Italy. Petty little rulers of various cities are pillaging, raping, murdering their own citizens, and their own citizens are standing idly, literally saying that God will punish eventually. The Pope himself has worldly ambitions; Pope Alexander has an illegitimate son, Cesare Borgia, whom he arms and allows to conquer otherwise peaceable areas. The absence of politics is the absence of security; if there is a natural law, it is completely overshadowed by the fact men are killing each other for the basest of reasons all the time. What Machiavelli rejects are both classical and Christian notions of politics; that part of the revolution in thought which becomes crucial to thinkers such as Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Descartes, Milton, Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza can be seen easily if one is willing. What is much harder to see is what Machiavelli stands for, in full.

II. The critique of “liberality” in The Prince is a good place to see where Machiavelli breaks from classical and Christian thought “in one stroke:”

I say that it would be good to be held liberal; nonetheless, liberality, when used so that you may be held liberal, hurts you. For if it is used virtuously and as it should be used, it may not be recognized, and you will not escape the infamy of its contrary. And so, if one wants to maintain a name for liberality among men, it is necessary not to leave our any kind of lavish display, so that a prince who has done this will always consume all his resources in such deeds. In the end it will be necessary, if he wants to maintain a name for liberality, to burden the people extraordinarily, to be rigorous with taxes, and to do all those things that can be done to get money. This will begin to make him hated by his subjects, and little esteemed by anyone as he becomes poor; so having offended the many and rewarded the few with this liberality of his, he feels every least hardship and runs into risk at every slight danger. When he recognizes this, and wants to draw back from it, he immediately incurs the infamy of meanness.

Thus, since a prince cannot, without damage to himself, use the virtue of liberality so that it is recognized, he should not, if he is prudent, care about a name for meanness. For with time he will always be held more and more liberal when it is seen that with his parsimony his income is enough for him, that he can defend himself from whoever makes war on him, and that he can undertake campaigns without burdening the people. (62-63, from XVI “Of Liberality and Parsimony”)

That this is a rejection of Christian thought is clear from the outset: to be liberal truly would mean to not let your left hand know what your right does. The truly good must hide their goodness; here, what is crucial is reputation alone. But if that fails to convince, there’s a whole argument showing that trying to do God’s own bidding only helps a few and makes the many angry. We are so used to the idea that the government which governs best governs least, i.e. the part of the second paragraph quoted above, that we do not realize how much of a secularization that is of the Law itself. This is the beginning of the modern separation of Church and State, with the dark consequence that once the Church is separated, it may not exist again. Part of what should bind us as Christians is the idea that the Word of God should apply to all of us, no? It is true that the City of God can only be known by God, but it also true that inasmuch as the Church is a community… well, you get the idea.

There is also a rejection of at least two of Aristotle’s virtues in the Ethics, generosity (private giving) and magnificence (public giving). These issues get very thorny, but the rough idea is that the basis for another sort of equality is being set down. If Aristotle is aiming for equality within a notion of politics where as many as possible can rule and be ruled in turn, we who are being trained as princes by Machiavelli are going to aim a bit lower. Perhaps what unites us isn’t that we want others to rule well, but that we want to tear someone apart equally should he seem a bit too powerful at a given moment (i.e. Hobbesian self-preservation in the state of nature).

III. I speak of Machiavelli’s notion that property is more important to many of us than our own families often, and it is probably best to quote that now:

The prince should nonetheless make himself feared in such a mode that if he does not acquire love, he escapes hatred, because being feared and not being hated can go together very well. This he will always do if he abstains from the property of his citizens and his subjects, and from their women; and if he also needs to proceed against someone’s life, he must do it when there is suitable justification and manifest cause for it. But above all, he must abstain from the property of others, because men forget the death of a father more quickly than the loss of a patrimony. Furthermore, causes for taking away property are never lacking, and he who begins to live by rapine always finds cause to seize others’ property; and, on the contrary, causes for taking life are rarer and disappear more quickly. (67, from XVII “Of Cruelty and Mercy, and Whether It Is Better to Be Loved Than Feared, or the Contrary”)

It’s hard to get more blasphemous than this: in fact, I think it’s impossible. Notice how that in this passage which casually justifies the worst sort of nihilism – theft is more dangerous for a prince’s behavior than murder, because he’ll do the former more often – we find not only a tacit separation between executive and judicial (the justification is separate from the action), but also the emphasis on the sanctity of private property which marks our current order, all bound up within an appeal to the self-interest of the prince. Again, to be clear: Socrates a good portion of his time wondered aloud what virtue and justice were, and taught it within the limits of his power. We are told to love justice and walk humbly with our God.

IV. One more passage about what separation of powers/checks and balances may really be meant to resolve:

Among the well-ordered and governed kingdoms in our times is that of France; and in it are infinite good institutions on which the liberty and security of the king depend. The first of these is the parlement and its authority. For the one who ordered that kingdom, knowing the ambition of the powerful and their insolence, and judging it necessary for them to have a bit in their mouths to correct them, and on the other side, knowing the hatred of the generality of people against the great, which is founded in its fear, and wanting to secure them, intended this not to be the particular concern of the king, so as to take from him the blame he would have from the great when he favored the great; and so he constituted a third judge to be the one who would beat down the great and favor the lesser side without blame for the king. This order could not be better, or more prudent, or a greater cause of the security of the king and the kingdom. From this one can infer another notable thing: that princes should have anything blameable administered by others, favors by themselves. Again I conclude that a prince should esteem the great, but not make himself hated by the people. (74-75, from XIX, “Of Avoiding Contempt and Hatred”)

I have purposely chosen to end with an ambiguous passage. This is obviously not separation of powers as we know it in the American system. Rather, it’s an accounting of considerations for an end, and you can pick the end: how secure do you want the king to be? Here, the key is that the “kingdom” is secure; this may be an end Machiavelli wants us to consider, given that we were told earlier certain parts of France (read: the few) would gladly invite foreign powers in if it served their purpose. I think for now, I’ll just say this: between a nation torn by ambition (few) and fear (many), the executive – upon which protection from invasion depends – is actually a pretty delicate institution. His ability to secure loyalty is the cornerstone upon which everything depends; perhaps we should rethink the vast amount of Bush-bashing still going on and the Obama-bashing getting much nastier in some circles, luxuries, you will note, that the military – for reasons that again trace deeply to Machiavellian thought – does not partake in. The “one” is tied to the “many,” always, and that will set up my future posts; a lot of being able to read The Prince depends on seeing the One in the text who does rule the Many.

I’m not quite sure when the next post will be, or how many of these considerations I’ve put forth I will have to take back. Machiavelli was a devoted reader of Xenophon, but my work is on Xenophon’s Socrates, and I avoid a good chunk of the Xenophon Machiavelli talks about. I’m not even sure that would help me get through The Prince, in any case; this is my umpeenth time through the book and it finds newer and newer ways of going over my head each time. If some of you start writing in the comments that you’re reading The Prince, I’ll probably postpone publishing the next post a bit longer.


Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. tr. Harvey Mansfield. Chicago: University of Chiacgo Press, 1998.


  1. Unfortunately, at this very present moment, no access to my copy of the book (which I skimmed through after getting it as a ‘must-buy’ when I was younger, but never properly read, let alone studied).

    But that’s made this introduction a lot more interesting, if only because the simplification helps gives some context to a non-polisci-student.

  2. I tried to read this book recently (translated by W.K. Marriott). Perhaps it was the translation, but I didn’t get very far into it. I did, however, read your entire post! Progress.

  3. Hi Ashok,

    What is your opinion of Strauss’ Thoughts on Machiavelli ?

    I have just finished reading the Prince (Peter Bondanella, “The Portable Machiavelli”), and I’m interested in various interpretations of Machiavelli.

    Or do you think I should start with Alvarez’ Machiavellian Enterprise ? How does Strauss relate to it ? Are they opposing schools ?

    To summarize, where to next ?


  4. @ Ahsan – When the next blogpost on this topic is written, it will probably owe a lot to Strauss’ “Thoughts on Machiavelli” – I think the book is awesome, but dense.

    de Alvarez, Harvey Mansfield, Nathan Tarcov, and a host of others are in the “Strauss” camp. The opposing camp is composed of the “New Historicists” – J.G.A. Pocock (“The Machiavellian Moment”) & Quentin Skinner, with some others. The Strauss camp holds that Machiavelli is a decisive break with classical and Christian thought; the New Historicists see Machiavelli as more or less resurrecting the classics.

    My own thought is that the next logical places could be one of many:

    – de Alvarez’s Introductory Essay to his edition of “The Prince” (here he talks about “lo stato,” Machiavelli’s notion of “the state,” of decisive importance for political science today)

    – Mansfield’s Introductory Essay to his edition of the “The Prince” (here he ends with the comment about “beating Fortuna” being a dark joke, inasmuch Fortuna is immortal)

    – Strauss’ “Thoughts on Machiavelli,” just the chapter on “The Prince”

    – the essay on Machiavelli in the Strauss/Cropsey History of Political Philosophy

  5. Thanks Ashok.

    I have also found a copy of Machiavelli’s Virtue by Mansfield. Reading the preface, I’m blown by the idea of Machiavelli himself being the Prince !

    Excited :)

  6. Having read Strauss’ chapter on The Prince, I’m wondering if someone has attempted a straightforward ‘translation’ or interpretation of the Prince’s “revolutionary interior” ?

    Or is the presence of its traditional exterior necessary for its revolutionary interior to function ?

  7. @ Ahsan – yeah, the traditional exterior is necessary. Recall that Strauss says it has the form of a scholastic treatise, and when the argumentation becomes scholastic in that 3rd part he delineates, it becomes what I laid out: property is more valuable than parents, etc.

  8. See the book Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum, in the chapter entitled “Thoughts on Machiavelli,” which is a review of Strauss’s book of that name, in which Kendall says this:

    “The Strauss revolution in the interpretation of modern political philosophy is the decisive development in modern political philosophy since Machiavelli himself.”
    .-= Augustine´s last blog ..The pitiful gods of neopagan emptiness: Celebri… =-.

  9. In light of your suggestion that Machiavelli breaks with classical and Christian politics, why does it seem that he many times looks to the Romans as a high example? And what is to be made of Ch. XI, which holds up Moses, Theseus, Cyrus, and Romulus (all prophets), with the brazen distiction between the success of “armed” and calamity of “unarmed” prophets thereafter?

    This problem seems serious. The modern example of an unarmed prophet is Brother Girolamo Savonarola (p. 24 in Mansfield), who was “ruined in his new orders as soon as the multitude began not to believe in them.” Mansfield notes that Savonarola met a terrible end, burning at the stake. Yet the story of Christ seems similar to this, and Christianity in its wild success seems to be the political problem of the day for NM. Is it because the papacy smartened up?

  10. Your brilliant Ashok, i enjoyed it I can’t believe that I read the whole thing :)
    The whole separation of the church and politics were based on the act of people who used religion as a source of authority ,people trusted them because they supposed to be the the icons…they put things into religion God didn’t put ,they want to control people they almost prevented them to think .  For example, they made it full of superstitions… They work their way through domination and intervention  in the followers  personal matters….so on order for Europ to move on is to  have their freedom  from this ideology of myths and heresies to a world depend on science logics  and  from this the whole idea of separating the state came …

    Thanks can’t wait to read part 2

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