The Morals of the Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

Intention: In this essay, Machiavelli discusses the personality traits that help make a ruler likable and trusted by their people. He insists that it is necessary to have all of these admirable traits (or at least pretend that you have all of these traits). It is difficult since many of these qualities can contradict themselves. A ruler must know the situations in which they must behave a certain way in order to maintain the trust and loyalty of their people.

Tone: This essay is a sort of “DIY/Guidebook” for a prince. The tone is respectful and resembles the relationship between a teacher and their student.

After describing the admirable qualities of a prince, Machiavelli emphasizes that it is not good to actually possess all of the aforementioned qualities. It is beneficial to appear to have them when necessary. In actuality, it is better for a prince to have a flexible and swift mind. That way, he can change his behavior or morals at a moments notice in order to compliment whatever circumstances life may bring.

–Sierra Houser

Intention: Machiavelli’s intention is to advise future princes and comment on effective leadership in Italy. The possibility of the work being a satire is debated, but Machiavelli otherwise intended to give practical advice to bring about political stability.

Machiavelli uses extensive ancient world references to lend support to his arguments, adding ethos through establishing himself as a knowledgeable author. He also draws upon famous examples. The lack of textual context for many of his examples illustrates the audience Machiavelli was writing for: highly educated, prestigious men. A prince or other high-ranking nobility would be interested in success stories from other leaders in similar positions to emulate.

Machiavelli structures his main topics (goodness, money, and cruelty) around complex syllogisms. On top of the historical references, this further convolutes Machiavelli’s writing, making it less and less accessible.

An example of a syllogism revolves around one of his main points: “It is better to be feared than loved.” The major premise is stated with the line “For of men it may generally be affirmed, that they are thankless, fickle, false, studious to avoid danger, greedy of gain…in the hour of need they turn against you.” The minor premise is “Love… is broken on every whisper of private interest, but fear is bound by the apprehension of punishment which never relaxes its grasp.” These two statements logically lead to the conclusion that it is better to be feared than loved. So basically, the logic to the question of whether it is better to be feared or loved is as follows:

  • People are evil are evil and will stab you in the back at first opportunity. However, people do not stab you in the back if you inspire fear in them.
  • You want to avoid being stabbed in the back.
  • Therefore, you should inspire fear in your subjects so you’ll never have to worry about getting stabbed in the back and getting blood all over your doublet. Yikes.

–Rachel Meyer

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