The Prince | Study Guide

Niccolò Machiavelli

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The Prince | Symbols

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Lion

The lion is a symbol of courage and ferocity in many cultures and features often in the insignia of noble houses. In The Prince, it symbolizes the straightforward and warlike nature an effective prince must be able to exhibit in order to win glory and respect.

The lion is one of the two beasts a prince should emulate, according to Machiavelli. Its strength is that it can "frighten off wolves," or those that would threaten the lion's domain. The wolves in this case are the rival princes who also want glory. The lion's weakness is that it is "defenseless versus traps." Here, the traps refer to bad fortune and the deceptions of rival princes.

Fox

The fox symbolizes cleverness and deceit. Because of its small size, it must outwit its prey rather than overpower it. An effective prince, when dealing with enemies who are dangerous to face in straightforward combat, is advised to be like the fox. Where military might cannot prevail, the prince should be clever and deceptive.

The fox's strength is that it can "recognize traps"—or bad fortune and deceptions that a prince must be prepared for in order to preserve the stability of his domain. The weakness of the fox is that it is "defenseless against wolves," who will drive the fox from its home. The wolves are the rival princes who are always looking to expand their territories.

Centaur

Centaurs are Greek mythological creatures that are half horse and half human. In The Prince, Machiavelli uses this creature to observe that humans are part beast. An effective prince must realize this and be able to freely channel the human and bestial parts of his nature to deal with enemies and subjects.

Machiavelli points out the beast-like side of humans when he claims that they are "wretched creatures who [will] not keep their word to you" and will instead seek their own personal interests. This is a consistent theme throughout The Prince—the notion that humans are always out to benefit themselves.

The non-beast part of humans aspires to be moral and rational. Machiavelli does not make much mention of this part of human nature, except as an ideal not plausible given the way the world really works.

Questions for Symbols

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