Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince” is considered to be one of the seminal works of the Renaissance. In it, Machiavelli lays out his thoughts on how he believed a Prince should rule his kingdom. He differentiates between “Principalities” (those lands ruled by a prince) and “Republics” (those lands that are “free”) and concerns himself primarily with the former.
The book is divided into a series of “chapters,” some of which are only a few sentences long, wherein he expounds on various aspects of governance. He begins by describing various types of principalities, such as those that are acquired through conquest, and those that are handed down by heredity, and explains that different types of principalities have different concerns. The first type, for example, may present the new Prince with the challenge of imposing a new set of social rules and customs, whereas the latter may simply require the maintenance of long-established rules and norms.
He then goes on to describe various circumstances a Prince might face while ruling, such as the establishment and maintenance of armies. Following that, he describes the various personal traits that a Prince should, and should not, exhibit in an effort to rule effectively; it is here that the book is perhaps most interesting, as Machiavelli highlights the seeming paradoxes a successful ruler must confront. He sets up a series of dichotomies, such as the way in which a leader who is too lenient is, in the end, visiting cruelty upon his people by possibly allowing them to be conquered. He concludes the book with an “exhortation” to the Medici family, wherein he attempts to persuade them of the wisdom in conquering Italy.
While a chapter-by-chapter analysis of “The Prince” could in itself fill an entire book, there are several key points about effective leadership that Machiavelli puts forth, often repeating and reiterating them in different ways. As noted, he uses a thematic device throughout the book of describing the paradoxes and seemingly contradictory issues a Prince will face in the acquisition and maintenance of leadership. These dichotomies arise largely in the middle and end of the book, after he first describes the various types of principalities he sees, such as those newly acquired through power, those handed down through heredity, and so on.
Machiavelli asserts that different types of principalities require different approaches to effective leadership. In some cases, a new Prince must concern himself with understanding established local customs, rather than with imposing new customs. He suggests that, in some cases, a Prince should go and reside among his newly-conquered or acquired peoples, thus establishing himself as a powerful and trustworthy leader. Barring that, he suggest the establishment of “colonies,” where groups of people from the Prince’s homeland go and live among the newly-acquired peoples, bringing with them the “new” laws and customs the Prince wishes to establish. As with all of his suggestions, Machiavelli stresses pragmatism, and the wisdom to understand what methods are best suited to a particular situation.
In most chapters, Machiavelli uses examples of various historical and contemporary (to him) leaders, to demonstrate both what to do and what not to do in a given situation. The central chapters in the book, wherein he concerns himself with the art and science of war, make the best use of these historical figures. One name that crops up throughout the book is that of Alexander the Great; Machiavelli uses him as an example of both successful and unsuccessful leadership (successful because he conquered may lands; unsuccessful because, in the end, his own people turned on him).
The discussion of war is central to the entire book, as Machiavelli considers it to be the most important concern a Prince should have. “A prince ought to have no other aim or thought,” he writes in Chapter XIV, “than war.” Even in times of pace, an effective leader will focus on the rules of war, and always be preparing for what may lie ahead for his kingdom.