Major Themes of The Prince
Statesmanship and War
Machiavelli firmly believes that the soundness of the state is derived from a powerful military. He is not an advocate of democracy. The ruler derives his authority and power entirely from his ability to conquer and destroy all enemies—even potential enemies. He sums this up when he says that “the presence of sound military forces indicates the presence of sound laws.”
While the wisdom and virtue of the ruler are important, these are secondary considerations after the establishment of a military power. Everything from the need to conquer new territory to the protection of the principate, to the process of demanding loyalty from his subjects is a function of military force.
Goodwill and Hatred
Machiavelli is at great pains to demonstrate the careful balance a prince must maintain between being loved and feared. While it is dangerous for a ruler to be hated by his subjects, too much generosity and benevolence creates the impression that he is weak and lacks authority. While he does advocate cruelty in the service of the state, he is careful to point out that cruelty must be used with restraint. It is better for the ruler to be feared than loved, but he must not be a despotic tyrant who is purely cruel.
It is good for his enemies to hate him, but he must also show them that he is rightfully in power. Again, the ruler must strike fear in the people he conquers and he must destroy all those who compete with him for power, but he must also demonstrate the proper restraint for the conquered people. The force of rule is one of balance between fear and hatred, and goodwill.
One of the most controversial aspects of The Prince in its time is the implication that rulers derive their power and authority through the exertion of their own will. This is in contradistinction with the prevailing belief at the time which is the rulers derive their power and authority by divine right alone.
While kings and princes claim the divine right of kings, Machiavelli demonstrates that their rights and privileges derive more form their ability to manipulate others, destroy enemies, and engender loyalty from the people. These qualities are the manifestations of free will rather than the will of God.
The book was listed by the pope at the time as one of the most important books to avoid. Considered evil for many years, The Prince nevertheless held a fascination for contemporary readers.
During Shakespeare’s time, Machiavelli and The Prince were often synonymous with the Devil. For example, Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote his play The Jew of Malta with a prologue containing a character by the name of “”Machiavel.” He is easily identifiable with Niccolo Machiavelli and he operates as a demonic presence in the play.
In the course of introducing the setting and action, Machiavel says “I count religion but a childish toy,/And hold there is no sin but ignorance.” This sums up Elizabethan attitudes toward Machiavelli. The whole of the book is unethical, immoral, and a rejection of religion.
Readers at the time came to these conclusions because The Prince introduces the idea of free will in the exercise of state power. The right to rule as a monarch was held to be derived solely from God. To suggest that kings and monarchs wielded power and state authority through vengeful manipulation, murder, and psychological games was considered blasphemy.
As modern readers, we may see some truth to Machiavelli’s ideas in the forms of political rhetoric and international diplomacy. It remains an open question. In any case, the case for rhetoric and manipulation over divine right would seem to be settled. That The Prince still begs difficult and troubling ethical questions is testimony to the power of the book.