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Book Review: The Prince by Machiavelli

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    Questions of Morality and Politics

    Abstract: This essay considers the contradictory interpretations of Machiavelli’s (1532) The Prince. While it is commonly read as a treatise on political science, it is also regarded as a “handbook” for tyranny. The foundation of these conflicts is in the distinctions Machiavelli draws between political leadership and morality. This essay reviews the Prince with particular interest in the differences between politics and morality, and how these are relevant to issues of leadership in current political contexts.


    Niccolò Machiavelli was born in 1469, and wrote The Prince during 1513 while living in political exile at his country house outside of Florence. There are contradictory views on the text, where some critics have praised Machiavelli for his sophistication, clarity, realism, subtlety, irony (Skinner, Kahn).Machiavelli’s work is regarded as supporting a republican form of government by exposing the faults of princedoms; and he is praised for his ability to separate political from moral issues.

    Other critics condemn him for being naive, promoting fraud, force, and immorality in politics, using beneficial ends to justify evil means, and for betraying republican ideals (Kain). This essay considers the issue of separating political and moral issues in State-based leadership as a key structure to Machiavelli’s thesis.

    Leadership and Morality

    Machiavelli wrote his text during the Renaissance. As this was a time when theory was contingent upon a thorough historical analysis of events and previous writings, Machiavelli’s The Prince proposes new ideas about leadership on the basis of past examples of state rulers.

    For example, he expresses great respect for Latin classical authors such as Cicero and Seneca; however, Machiavelli takes a critical stance towards these sources at the same time that he is emulating their style. According to Machiavelli, then, Cicero and Seneca advise rulers to always tell the truth, be generous, and honor their promises These are moral virtues that determine a ruler’s character (Skinner, 113)

    Machiavelli, however, assumes a different position, and points out the negative consequences for the state when rulers adhere, without exception to these moral standards (Kahn, 198). Machiavelli argues that rulers should be truthful, keep promises, and the like when doing so will not harm the state, and that they should generally appear to have the traditional virtues.

    By the same token, since the goal of the ruler is to conquer and preserve the state, he should be prepared to accept responsibility for wrongdoing when the preservation of the state requires this.

    In this significant argument of The Prince, Machiavelli turns from the classical concept of civic virtue, which is a moral code applicable to rulers and subjects, and transforms it to a different concept of virtú (Machiavelli, 98). Virtú describes how rulers of states and can be at odds with moral virtue, and how this is, inevitably, for the good of the state.

    This is where the characteristics of the Lion and the Fox become relevant metaphors for the character of a rule, moved from human virtue and situated in more allegorical contexts for manipulating morals from a virtue, towards a strategy of leadership (Kain, 114)

    Foxes and Lions

    When Machiavelli urges rulers to take on the characteristics of animals (the fox and the lion), he is indicating the contextual basis for using cunning (fox) and/or force (lion) when the situation requires. Both characteristics inspire a kind of fear-based leadership, since one would never truly know when virtuous deeds were being applied with cunning, or in the guise of force.

    Machiavelli has indeed made it clear that when considering whether it is better to be loved or feared, it is desirable, though not easy, to be both loved and feared (Machiavelli, 87; Skinner, Kahn).

    One example Machiavelli offers concerns the virtue of generosity. If a ruler seems to be generous, then the people will love him. The ruler does not need to be generous to the citizens, but can instead be generous to support in his military sectors. Therefore, he is not generous to the citizens, but he appears generous in his responsibility to maintain a properly trained and equipped military force. Should the state ever require a defensive campaign, the citizens are assured of their safety. This is a strategy of cunning, where generosity is not a moral virtue, but a manipulative sleight of hand, convincing one group of one thing, while committing the same to another.

    Here, the ruler has succeeded in using his cunning by convincing the citizens that he is generous, without actually being generous at all. It is a necessary deception, one that appeals to the citizens, and one that protects the state’s interests in maintaining power.

    If a war campaign requires further financing, the contexts of the former strategy have changed. This means the ruler, too, must change his strategy. The former appearance of generosity is replaced by the more forceful appearance of being a fearsome military leader. The needs for income now can be placed upon the citizens, for it is in their own interests that the ruler wins military battles. (Machiavelli, 93). If the ruler is the sole provider of his kingdom’s pleasures, the withdrawal of these, as a method for developing the military strength, must be achieved through unapologetic force. This is an example of Machiavelli’s virtú, which is effectively a strategy for maintaining complete control over the resources.

    Morals and Politics in Government

    While the American government commits a large amount of its resources to military development, the American rulers, in particular since the resignation of Richard Nixon, have been subjected to greater moral inspection by the citizens than in any other time in history (Kain, 115).

    How a ruler leads, thus, becomes irrelevant to the leader’s conduct as a moral representative of the people. Virtue is the primary criteria, and any American ruler is now subjected to moral scrutiny with much greater zeal than other qualities of leadership, and other resources such as military spending, and international loans and development. As a result, with morality being placed in such high regard, the politics of leadership have been replaced with by the qualities of morality and virtue in the individual.

    Whether this makes for effective leadership has yet to be determined, however, it does suggest that Machiavelli was able to foresee the complexities involved when civic virtues are applied to a ruler’s character, and the false assumptions that can result from this social scrutiny.


    The basic lessons that Machiavelli offers to princes are, really, best understood as lessons in critical thinking (Kahn, 181). Rulers must learn how to make distinctions, how to consider alternative courses of action and evaluate their consequences, how to assess critically conflicting advice from various sources. If they are to preserve and maintain their states, they need to know how to apply general information about human nature to the particular circumstances that they face before taking any action. You can also order your book review at our site

    If a ruler is able to apply these critical skills in understanding how to effectively lead any “kingdom” or nation, the criteria of political intelligence becomes the dominant focus of the ruler. Machiavelli, while advocating an oligarchy in leadership and not a democracy, provides the Prince as a handbook for leadership, not for the faint of heart, and not for the morally virtuous.

    Political intelligence is quite distinct from morality, and in this way, it is possible to agree with Machiavelli’s distinction of virtú in contexts of leadership. Click here to order your dissertation


    • Kahn, Victoria, Machiavellian Rhetoric: From the Counter-Reformation to Milton. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994
    • Kain, Philip, “Niccolò Machiavelli: Adviser of princes,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 25,1, pp. 33-55, 1995
    • Macchiavelli, Niccolò, The Prince, edited by Quentin Skinner and Russell Price. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1532/1994
    • Skinner, Quentin, Macchiavelli. New York: Hill and Wang, 1988

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