Conceived and written at the height of the Italian Renaissance, Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince can best be described as a sort of pamphlet or theses that focuses on the political environment of Florence, Italy, during the time of the Medici dynasty. In this highly influential work first published in 1532, Machiavelli provides eight important tenets or principles that a prince or monarch should follow in order to become a good but strict ruler.
According to M.J. Cummings, the overall purpose of The Prince as a monarchical guidebook is to show “a ruler or would-be ruler how best to maintain a safe and prosperous state amid the political turmoil of early 16th century Italy” and how to “redeem himself in the eyes of the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici” (The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli, 2010). It should be pointed out that the opening quoted lines of each tenet that follows have been taken from The Portable Machiavelli (1979).
Tenet 1–“The leader should always wear a mask.”
This refers to a prince or monarch that should never reveal his true self in public, meaning that his inner personality should be hidden behind a mask or a facade as contrasted with his outer personality. At first, this tenet may appear to be hypocritical, but Machiavelli sees this as one of the primary traits of a prince in order to maintain the support of his people as a ruler. This mask must also conceal “his intentions, the motives behind his actions, and his true goals” (Gilmore & Reif, 2012) which will help him to achieve his desires by avoiding criticism and fulfill his role as a leader in the eyes of the lower classes and especially the nobles.
Tenet 2–“The prince must be prepared to act against charity, humanity, and religion.”
According to Machiavelli, a true leader will often find it necessary to go against
what is generally considered as good and proper in order to achieve his goals as a ruler. “In order to maintain the State,” as Machiavelli points out, a leader is “often obliged to act against his promises, against charity, against humanity, and against religion” when certain situation or “affairs of the State” take precedence over the beliefs and practices (especially regarding religion) of the people. Machiavelli adds that a leader must refrain from straying from what is good and morally proper, but he should also “know how to enter into evil when necessity commands” (Gilmore & Reif, 2012), such as waging war against a bitter enemy of the State and its citizens. In other words, a leader must be willing and able to forgo his own moral beliefs and ideals in order to accomplish his goals and maintain the safety and prosperity of his people.
Tenet 3–“The prince should always mask his acts and intentions concerning his basic morality.”
What this refers to is that a prince or ruler must never reveal to his people his true moral feelings and attitudes, much like maintaining a facade or mask related to his true personality. As Machiavelli explains it, “A prince must be very careful never to let anything slip from his lips” in the form of words or opinions that reveals his true thoughts and must maintain a bearing or image that reinforces his alleged mercy, faithfulness, integrity, kindness, and religious beliefs (Gilmore & Reif, 2012). In other words, a prince must present a false face to his people in order to retain their support which in some ways suggests that the ordinary citizen is not very intelligent and is easily manipulated.
Tenet 4–“The prince should avoid being despised or hated.”
Machiavelli reminds his readers of The Prince that a monarch becomes despised
or hated by his people and his enemies by exhibiting a “changeable, frivolous, effeminate, cowardly, (and) irresolute” personality or someone whose actions and behaviors demonstrate weaknesses in their character as a leader and ruler. Thus, a prince must “guard himself as if from a reef” which holds the potential to sink the ship and create doubts in the minds of others as to whether the prince is worthy of his title and social status. Conversely then, a prince “must strive to make everyone recognize in his actions greatness, spirit, dignity, and strength” (Gilmore & Reif, 2012), all of which are the key ingredients of a successful, feared, and respected ruler.
Tenet 5–“The prince should acquire esteem through the accomplishment of great undertakings and examples of his great talents (and) should strive in all his deeds to give the impression of a great man of superior intelligence.”
In other words, the successful and respected prince must present the image or idea that he is well-educated, knowledgeable in the affairs of the State, and knows how to use his God-given talents to advance his causes and those of his people. He must also do everything in his power to present the “impression” that he possesses intelligence that is superior to his people and his enemies. Thus, if this “impression” is successful, then the prince will possess not only the esteem of his friends but also of his admirers and enemies.
Tenet 6–“The prince should avoid inconsistency.”
This refers to being consistent with one’s ideas, opinions, actions, and behaviors, especially in a public place and when amid admirers and enemies. However, if a prince decides to be inconsistent, he must “do so in appropriate stages” (i.e., start out just a bit inconsistent and advance into total inconsistency) and in “such a way as to be governed by circumstances” or being inconsistent according to the current situation which may allow the prince to maintain the support of the people and create new supporters that will not question his authority as a ruler. However, if the monarch fails to adhere to Machiavelli’s suggestions, he will find himself “unmasked and without friends” and ruined as a respected ruler (Gilmore & Reif, 2012).
Tenet 7–Imitate the style and techniques of rulers of the past who successfully ruled their territories” (Cummings, 2010).
Certainly, many famous princes, kings, queens, and conquerors imitated the ways of great leaders from the historical past. The reason for this is due to the fact that specific actions and behaviors (i.e., being benevolent, thoughtful, strong-willed, determined, and greatly focused on the task at hand) almost always turned out in favor of the ruler and allowed him to remain in power. Overall, if a certain way of acting has proven to be successful in the past, then logic dictates that it will prove to be successful in the present and the future.
Tenet 8–“Limit the freedom of the citizens and thus minimize the risk of uprisings” (Cummings, 2010).
Of course, if a prince or monarch controls how much freedom his people have (especially the freedom to think as an individual), then uprisings against his reign will be small if not non-existent. For example, by limiting access to the truth, the common people will have no reason to revolt.
In essence, the thesis of Machiavelli’s tenets in The Prince when taken as a whole comes down to this simple observation–“It is necessary. . . to be a great hypocrite and liar. . . men are so simple-minded . . . (and) someone who deceives will always find another who will allow himself to be deceived” (Gilmore & Reif, 2012), or put another way, deception and cunning are the best friends of a prince, as well as realizing that most men are stupid and can easily be manipulated into believing and accepting almost anything.
Cummings, M.J. (2010). The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527). Retrieved from http://www.cummingsstudyguides.net/Prince.html
Gilmore, D.L., and Reif, D. (2012). The modern Machiavelli. Retrieved from http://www.americanthinker.com/2012/07/the_modern_machiavelli.html