The Prince Plot Summary
Niccolo Machiavelli, in dedicating his book to Lorenzo de' Medici, urges the young prince of Florence to read his work and follow its advice. He also asks the prince to consider his bad turn of fortune (his exile from Florentine politics). Having made his case, Machiavelli goes right to the main focus of his work-how principalities can be acquired, governed, and preserved. Machiavelli identifies three main types of principalities: hereditary, new, or mixed. The hereditary principality passes down power through the ruling family. It is not difficult to maintain as long as the hereditary prince continues to rule as before. New principalities are created through military or civil acquisition. Mixed principalities (new territories added to an existing one) are of two kinds. If the new territory shares the same language and customs as the old one, the prince must extinguish the former ruling line and rule as before. If the new territory does not share the language and customs, the prince should either reside in it or set up colonies consisting of his own citizens or soldiers. Whether he chooses to reside in it or set up colonies, he must protect weaker neighbors, weaken powerful ones, and not let powerful forces enter his territories.
There are four ways a new prince can acquire a principality: by one's own arms, by the arms of others, by evil means, and by civil means. A principality that is won by a prince by his own arms is most secure. Machiavelli lists great princes who came to power through their own abilities: Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, and Theseus. They ruled effectively because they were all armed, unlike Savaronola, a Dominican friar who lost power because he did not take up arms. A principality acquired by the arms of others needs a prince with both fortune and virtue. Cesare Borgia is an example of a prince who came to power through fortune, but lost his power through an unfavorable change in fortune, even though he was a great leader and did almost everything right. Princes who come to power through evil means may gain power but not glory because of their conduct. Those who come to power by civil means (election by the nobles or the people) must remember to win the support of the people because they are crucial in times of adversity. Machiavelli also mentions the ecclesiastical principality with the pope as the ecclesiastical prince. In describing how the position of pope has come to wield much power, Machiavelli does not make a great distinction between a religious prince and a territorial prince.
Machiavelli identifies three kinds of armies: mercenary, auxiliary, and native. Since mercenary forces are hired hands that fight for a wage, they are unreliable in the face of battle. Auxiliary forces, or forces borrowed from an ally, are dangerous if they are victorious because the prince who uses them is under their obligation. Machiavelli strongly encourages every prince to use his own native troops. History has shown that princes who accomplished great things always used their own troops. In fact, a prince's sole activity is the art of warfare. He must always engage himself in the physical and mental exercises of warfare, especially in times of peace.
Regarding how a prince should rule and act, Machiavelli states that in an ideal world, it is virtuous for a prince to be good. But in reality, princes who distance themselves from ethical concerns and do whatever it takes for the benefit of their states rule best. Therefore, it is better to be parsimonious than generous, cruel than loving, crafty than honest. Machiavelli's general rule is to be as good as circumstances allow, but be willing to resort to any means necessary for the good of the state. A feudal prince must be wise in controlling the nobles and keeping the people content. Even fortresses are useless if the prince does not have the support of his people.
A prince gains esteem and glory through his courage. He must undertake great enterprises that allow him to display his abilities. When two neighbors are at war, a prince must never be neutral; he must take sides. The prince must have the wisdom to choose the least risky venture and act on it courageously. Wisdom is also needed in picking and satisfying his closest advisors and avoiding flatterers.
Machiavelli laments the decline of the Italian city-states and attributes it to the use of mercenary and auxiliary armies instead of native forces. In concluding that virtue, or abilities and fortune must come together for success, Machiavelli implores Lorenzo de' Medici to be the leader Italy has been waiting for-a prince to unite the Italians, drive the barbarians out of Italy, and restore his beloved nation to her former glory.