The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli

October 17, 2010 at 17:01 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Renaissance)


It is a simple fact that the word “Machiavellian” is one of the most delightful and flexible adjectives in the English language, capable of being applied to subjects and persons as disparate as foreign dictators, games of Risk, the children of friends, the actions of one’s employers and the latest corporate actions of Apple. It is maybe a little disappointing to find the actual man a little more pragmatic and a little less scheming and manipulative than his reputation (and his eponomy) suggests. He also seems a lot less creepy than Santi di Tito’s painting (see left) would lead us to believe.

Honestly his book feels less like a demonically-inspired treatise on how to dominate people and murther (sic) them in their beds than a rather patronising strategy guide for Settlers of Catan. The discerning and non-criminally insane reader will probably agree with much of what Machiavelli has to say, and even admit that the remainder makes good sense, though is morally questionable and would quite likely lead to problems down the road.

For a renaissance tract dealing in political philosophy it is surprisingly accessible (much more so than Leviathan, for instance) and Machiavelli does everyone a service by providing his ideas in short and persuasive sentences without piles of flowery clauses cluttering the place up. His allusions and references to classical writers are usually appropriate rather than showy, and the examples that he pulls out of his contemporary Italy are usually such that even passing familiarity with the period is sufficient to understand his points. In all, this is an excellent book for the casual reader looking for some heavily compressed and concise summaries of Renaissance politics, and an absolutely essential stop for any serious historian.

1 Comment

  1. David said,

    This was one of the few books I had to read in high school that I actually quite enjoyed (I was in the minority for this). From a moral and Christian standpoint, of course, I had to ultimately disagree with many of his conclusions, but I appreciated his clarity of thought, his logic, and his practicality. In a world without God, Machiavelli’s way would almost certainly be the most sensible for running a government of his time. I was delighted when a university course allowed me to write an essay criticizing Hamlet from Machiavelli’s perspective — it married my love for creative writing with history, philosophy, and footnotes. At any rate, I do think that the ideas of Machiavelli that have a moral component are ultimately quite ruthless and selfish, and not good ones to follow. But it is still a worthwhile and fascinating book, and one that does have some good pieces of advice.

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