The Prince | Study Guide

Niccolò Machiavelli

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The Prince | Themes



Class is primarily an issue of a person's birth. Nobles are born noble, and commoners are born common. The interests of these two classes are and always will be in conflict. A prince has to avoid the hatred of both as much as possible.

A prince must concern himself primarily with the commoners. Because commoners are more numerous than nobles, their hatred is more dangerous to the stability of the state than the hatred of the nobles. This constraint features heavily in all of Machiavelli's arguments regarding the behavior of an effective prince.


The Prince does not describe a political utopia. Machiavelli argues that the effective prince faces the world as it is and adapts his behavior to it, rather than trying to force the world to fit any idealistic principles.

Part of this practicality involves a picture of human beings as being primarily motivated to maximize benefit to themselves and minimize harm to themselves. This theory of human nature directs how the effective prince can avoid his subjects' hatred and ensure their obedience.

Lessons of History

Effective princes should model their behavior after those leaders in history who have achieved greatness and ruled stable and prosperous domains. Machiavelli states that every detail, from the movement of troops in battle to the conduct of political affairs, ought to be modeled in this way.

Machiavelli warns that new methods untested by others have an uncertain chance of success and are likely to be viewed with suspicion by a prince's subjects. Human nature makes people hesitant to support actions that they are not sure will benefit them. They are likely to defend actions that have benefited them (or at least not harmed them) in the past.

Necessary Evil

A necessary evil is an action that is immoral but must be done for practical reasons. Machiavelli frequently advises that the effective prince should not be worried about doing evil things that are necessary to preserve his state. The sorts of evil Machiavelli refers to are primarily acts of cruelty and deceit. Throughout The Prince, Cesare Borgia and his father, Pope Alexander VI, are given as examples of how cruelty and deceit can be used appropriately to gain and maintain territory.

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