The Prince | Study Guide

Niccolò Machiavelli

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The Prince | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


According to Machiavelli In The Prince, what are the differences between principalities and republics, and why are they the only types of government he thinks exist?

In Chapter 1, Machiavelli states that the important difference between a principality and a republic is the structure of their leadership. A principality is ruled solely by one person, the prince, who possesses all authority to make and enforce policy. In contrast, in a republic, governing authority is distributed among representatives from the various classes of a city. Machiavelli states that anarchy is not a form of government but a lack of government. Thus, the tension between the interests of the two classes is resolved by either giving all authority over to a single person (a principality) or by distributing authority over many people (a republic or free city).

In The Prince, why does Machiavelli begin by discussing a variety of principalities?

In Chapter 1, these distinctions are made in order to account for the different events that have occurred in the history of government. Machiavelli wants to present a convincing account, so he frequently claims that an effective prince follows the historical examples of other great rulers. Machiavelli also provides accounts that seem to explain exceptions to his rules but depend on different situations. For example, Machiavelli discusses that the Roman emperor Severus ruled stably despite being hated by the people. Given that Machiavelli frequently states that no prince can rule when he is hated, an explanation is needed. The explanation given is that Severus had the favor of his armies, which were a significant force in the Roman Empire. The armies protected Severus from the hate of the people.

In The Prince, why does Machiavelli believe that a hereditary prince has an easier time maintaining his domain?

In Chapter 2, Machiavelli states that the hereditary prince has less reason and need to give offense because the dangerous work of establishing new laws has already been done by his predecessors. Assuming that his predecessors avoided earning hatred with these laws, a hereditary prince's task is easier because he can simply continue doing what was done before. As long as he continues this and adjusts to the needs of the time, the people's familiarity with his family's rule will keep the state stable. Not only is ruling a hereditary domain easier for the prince, but so too is retaking a domain. If a prince survives the overthrow of his rule, then his people can use the memory of his old rule as a rallying point against a usurper's new rule. Because the usurper will have to do more harm to the people when he takes over, they will have many reasons to want their old prince back.

In The Prince, why does Machiavelli claim that a prince should choose inspiring fear over love?

In Chapter 17, Machiavelli maintains that people are motivated by maximizing benefit to themselves and minimizing harm to themselves. He states that people are more reluctant to cause harm to those they fear than to those they love. Hence, by causing people to fear him, the prince better protects himself from harm. In addition, by relying on love to protect him, the prince is primarily relying on fortune, because whether people love him is beyond his control. However, by relying on fear, he is primarily relying on his own ability. Machiavelli claims that success through fortune is always inferior to success through ability; if both cannot be managed, he recommends choosing fear over love.

Throughout The Prince, Machiavelli stresses the importance of learning history. What makes history so important to Machiavelli's project?

Machiavelli argues that an effective prince should be concerned with what works given how things actually are. The proper way to govern is not to change things to some imagined, ideal state. To this end, Machiavelli scours history for examples of rulers who have been successful and draws lessons from their behavior. The fact that many of these successful figures used similar methods proves the effectiveness of those methods. Not only does Machiavelli himself study history, but he urges that a prince should do so also. While Machiavelli thinks that princes should heed his advice, he also believes that they should rely on their own intelligence when possible.

In The Prince, why does Machiavelli state that even the most effective prince depends to some extent on good fortune?

In Chapter 6, Machiavelli states that it is better for a prince to succeed through his abilities than through fortune, as it makes holding onto the fruits of success easier and more likely. However, Machiavelli does not believe that any prince can escape the effects of fortune. He states, "Without opportunity [the able princes'] prowess would have been extinguished, and without such prowess the opportunity would have come in vain." It does not matter how able a prince is if he is not presented with an opportunity; likewise, when that opportunity arrives, the prince must possess the prowess to seize upon it.

In The Prince, why does Machiavelli advise that a prince can prevent problems in a new domain by living there?

In Chapter 3, Machiavelli advises princes to live in new domains that they have conquered, especially in the case of conquering a republic, in which the people are used to living according to their own laws. There are two advantages of this strategy. First, he can quickly detect any dangerous situations that arise. He does not have to depend on his advisors' ability to detect trouble, nor does he have to wait for reports to reach him from the area. Second, the people will see that they can appeal directly to him when they are dissatisfied. This prevents problems from arising and prevents the people from hating the prince.

According to Machiavelli in The Prince, why should a prince avoid the hate of the commoners more than the hate of the nobles?

The hate of either the noble class or the common class poses a danger to a prince's rule. However, the danger posed by the commoners is greater than that posed by the nobles. While the nobles have more resources and knowledge than the commoners, the commoners are more numerous. If a few nobles wish to harm the prince, he can take measures to protect himself. But if many of the commoners wish to harm him, there is no way he can secure himself against so many enemies.

According to Machiavelli in The Prince, why might a prince's criminal behavior not be seen as prowess?

In Chapter 8, one of the central examples Machiavelli uses is Agathocles, a poor citizen of Sicily who became prince of Syracuse. Machiavelli notes that the act that brought Agathocles to power was the murder of the senate of Syracuse and many of its prominent citizens; Agathocles did this by tricking them into meeting with him. Those he murdered were all his fellow citizens, and Machiavelli says that no such treachery can be counted as prowess, because it is neither honorable nor glorious. Thus, prowess in Machiavelli's arguments is ability used in ways that are praised as honorable and glorious—and no criminal act will be praised in this way.

According to Machiavelli in The Prince, why should generosity bring harm to the prince who practices it?

In order to be seen as generous, Machiavelli claims, a prince must give large gifts to many people. However, to do this, a prince must spend tremendous amounts. Maintaining this habit forces a prince to either take a lot from his subjects (for example, in the form of taxes) or constantly attack and loot surrounding domains. Making a habit of either of these things causes the prince to be hated, which places the stability of his rule in danger.

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