The Prince is one of the most important political texts ever written. The importance of the book can be signified by the fact that the presented in the book are referred to as Machiavellian, after the author, Niccolo Machiavelli.
Machiavelli looks at how political power can be won and maintained. Despite writing the book in the 16th century, his words are as relevant today as they were all those years ago.
The book was written in a politically fragmented environment in Italy. This was before the country was unified and constituted countless kingdoms that were at threat of external threats.
As such, The Prince focuses on how a leader can acquire power in this environment and hold on to it in the face of challenges. Although it may seem outdated in places when reading it, there are still a lot of valuable lessons to be learned.
There’s a reason the book is still popular amongst businesses, politicians and strategists.
I learnt a lot from this book and the strategies discussed explain a lot of the actions politicians make to this day. If you’re interested in politics or want to learn more about strategies, The Prince is an essential book to read.
The Prince summary
Takeaway 1 – The behaviour of a leader is important
Power, by its very nature, is hard to acquire and even harder to maintain. A lot of people want to be in a position that only one can occupy.
This means that there are a lot of people scheming to take power away from a leader, while he is scrambling to maintain it.
One of the best ways for a leader to maintain their power is through their behaviour.
Machiavelli uses the example of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor who inscribed his thoughts into a journal every which became known as Meditations.
Aurelius was a popular leader whom the people and his contemporaries loved. This made his position secure. The people had no wish to revolt and nor did anyone in and outside of his immediate circle.
The goodwill of the people is a better defence than any fortress. It’s the people who are the true power in society if they rise up, a leader is in danger and can fall.
Keeping the people happy and on your side is essential to maintaining power. This is even truer nowadays, with liberal democracies the most common form of government.
Machiavelli’s view is that lofty ideals may translate into bad government. This is troubling as it could encourage leaders to play up to the people instead of actually delivering for them.
This is a situation we see wit the rise of Trump and Brexit. With Machiavelli’s suggestion that the goodwill of the people is essential to maintaining power, the appearance of virtue rather than the possession of true virtue is more important to consolidating power.
Takeaway 2 – No leader has free will
A concept that Machiavelli refers to again and again in The Prince is the concept of free will.
In this regard, he is referring to the ability of a leader to do as he or she pleases. A leader’s failures often come down to their own actions or their nature and environment they live in.
Leaders can be brought down by events that are out of their control. The 2008 financial crash did not help the incumbent Labour government in the UK and led their opposition to label them fiscally incompetent.
In the subsequent election in 2010, they won enough seats to form a coalition with another party, the Liberal Democrats, to remove Labour from office.
Very few people predicted the financial crash, so it would have been crazy to think a government could prepare for it.
But as Labour were the ones in power when it happened, they took the brunt of the blame and were punished by the electorate.
Great leaders have foresight. They can pick their way through the fog to see how they can navigate the troubles ahead.
However, even the best leaders struggle with this from time to time. If a Black Swan event hits, then there isn’t much a leader can do.
Free will can only help or hinder a leader so much. Circumstances that are out of their control are more deadly to the leader, even if they have great foresight.
Takeaway 3 – Realism trumps idealism
In politics, you have realists and idealists. Realists see the world for what it is and try to improve within those confines.
Idealists, on the other hand, see the world as they would like it to be. They want to construct in the image of their ideology and often ignore realities that make this difficult or unfeasible.
Machiavelli’s philosophy was based around realism. The Prince is seen as the bible of realpolitik, politics which is based on the considerations of the circumstances at the time and not ideological notions or moral and ethical premises.
This can be considered to be the pragmatic approach. In regard to Machiavelli, it concerns what it’s necessary to do to gain power and maintain it.
In an ideal world, we would all be living peacefully with common goals, but that’s not how humanity works.
We wage war against each other, we hoard gains and seek power over others. Idealists fail to acknowledge the nature of humanity when it comes to some of their political beliefs.
However, taken to the extreme, Machiavelli’s rationale can lead to dangerous consequences. A leader could gain power through pragmatic means and then act in the same manner to consolidate at the expense of the people and those around him.
This is the crux of Machiavelli’s writings. They can be interpreted in a way that promotes realpolitik, or they can be interpreted in a manner that encourages a leader to preserve power at all costs.
Either way, there is no doubt that Machiavelli advocates a realist approach over an idealist one.
People are more likely to agree with policies that affect them rather than promises rooted in ideological beliefs that may not work in practice.
- “Political disorders can be quickly healed if they are seen well in advance (and only a prudent ruler has such foresight); when, for lack of a diagnosis, they are allowed to grow in such a way that everyone can recognise them, remedies are too late.”
- “Time sweeps everything along and can bring good as well as evil, evil as well as good.”
- “The common people are always impressed by appearances and results.”
- “There are three kinds of intelligence: one kind understands things for itself, the second appreciates what others understand, the third understands neither for itself nor through others. This first kind is excellent, the second good, and the third kind useless.”
- “I also believe that the one who adapts his policy to the times prospers, and likewise that the one whose policy clashes with the demands of the times does not.”
The Prince review
This The Prince summary has looked at one of the most famous books on realpolitik in the world. The success of Machiavelli’s book is that it’s still relevant today.
The book has stood the test of time and is worth reading for anyone who wants to get into politics or understand how power works.
It’s worth combining the book with Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, which will go into more detail about the machinations around the subject.
Machiavelli’s writings were intended for Lorenzo de Medici, the Duke of Urbino. They were to be a guide on how to maintain power.
Today, to be Machiavellian is to be seen to be cunning and crafty. It’s seen to be working in the shadows with an ulterior motive.
While this is part of what Machiavelli writes about in The Prince, the book is more of a guide on how to be a pragmatic ruler.
That’s why it’s still relevant today because the lessons are still applicable despite the changes that have occurred.
The book applies to anyone who is in a position of power and wishes to maintain it and strengthen their position. Machiavelli’s lessons will intrigue you and make you see the world in a different light.
Who should read The Prince?
Anyone who ins interested in politics or business will find this book fascinating. It’s seen as the guide to acquiring and maintaining power for a reason and it doesn’t disappoint.
The book has its uses for the general person, but unless you’re interested in the subject matter or philosophy, you might not find it interesting.