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The Prince | Study Guide

Niccolò Machiavelli

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Brief Plot Summary

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the plot summary of Niccolò Machiavelli's philosophical text The Prince.

The Prince | Summary



The Prince is a manual for how to effectively govern. Machiavelli is addressing this advice to the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici, a member of a noble family of Renaissance Italy. To support his argument for how an effective prince should govern, Machiavelli points to successful rulers from history whose behavior followed the suggestions in The Prince.

Before giving his advice, Machiavelli carefully outlines numerous distinctions. These deal with the ways a prince's domain may be structured and the ways a prince may acquire his domain. The distinctions feature prominently in Machiavelli's explanation of the success or failure of historical rulers, which in turn determine what he judges to be good advice for a prince. Machiavelli argues that all governments are either principalities (domains ruled by one person) or republics (domains ruled jointly by citizens). By his own admission, none of the advice is meant to explain how a republic can be successfully ruled. Anything he states about republics relates to how a prince should deal with them as the ruler of a principality.

Generally, Machiavelli's suggested rules are simple: an effective prince does what is necessary to ensure the prosperity and security of the state, even when what is necessary involves acting in ways that are usually viewed as immoral. Machiavelli counsels the prince not to flinch from the path of effective governance. Machiavelli's rules cover legislative, executive, military, and diplomatic activities. There is no mention of how a prince should conduct his personal life. Indeed, Machiavelli gives the impression that there is no such thing for a prince. Instead, Machiavelli states that all of a prince's time should be devoted to winning glory for himself by expanding his domain and ruling it prosperously.

The range of historical examples in The Prince stretches from ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome to other areas of Europe in Machiavelli's own time. Machiavelli provides examples of both effective and ineffective behavior from each of these time periods. He makes an effort to deal with examples that might give reasons to doubt the universality of his advice.

Toward the end of The Prince, Machiavelli focuses his observations and advice on the rulers of Florence. He claims that Italian princes have not succeeded in ruling with stability and prosperity, because they have acted contrary to the best practices outlined in his book. They have not followed the examples set by the great rulers throughout history. Addressing Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici and his family, Machiavelli claims that Italy can be made great again if the rulers would only follow the lessons in The Prince.

Machiavelli considered himself to be a politician and a historian, not a philosopher. However, The Prince presents a basic philosophical position: that the function of a principality is to perpetuate and defend itself. Everything Machiavelli advises is based on that assumption.

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