Lessons from Machiavelli’s The Prince


I wrote an article for theweek.com offering 11 lessons from Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince. I’ve added 6 additional lessons below.

A voracious reader, Machiavelli stripped out the ideals and drew examples from history. He believed that anyone who ignores reality in a misguided attempt to live up to an ideal will quickly destroy himself. He de-emphasized the importance of moral considerations, and focused instead on effectiveness. He believed that the ends justified the means.

Yes, the book can be ruthless. But there are still many surprisingly apt lessons. Here’s what I’ve learned from reading The Prince.

1. Be present
“… if one is on the spot, disorders are seen as they spring up, and one can quickly remedy them; but if one is not at hand, they are heard of only when they are great, and then one can no longer remedy them.”

2. Be careful who you trust
“… he who is the cause of another becoming powerful is ruined; because that predominancy has been brought about by astuteness or else by force, and both are distrusted by him who has been raised to power.”

Treat people well or crush them.

… men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.

Injure all at once and give benefits over time.

in seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have repeat them daily; and thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by benefits. He who does otherwise, either from timidity or evil advice, is always compelled to keep the knife in his hand; neither can he rely on his subjects, nor can they attach themselves to him, owing to their continued and repeated wrongs. For injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; benefits ought to be given little by little , so that the flavour of them may last longer.

Be leery of hired help.

The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain is not skilful, you are ruined the usual way.

Is it better to be loved than feared or feared than loved?

It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. … I come to the conclusion that, men loving according to their own will and fearing according to that of the price, a wise prince should establish himself on that which is in his own control and not in that of others; he much endeavour only to avoid hatred …

Create animosity.

A wise prince, when he has the opportunity, ought with craft to foster some animosity against himself, so that, having crushed it, his renown may rise higher.

Three classes of intellect.

one which comprehends by itself; another which appreciates what others comprehended; and a third which neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others; the first is the most excellent, the second is good, the third is useless.

Still curious? Read The Prince.

(#7 from the article is a bit more nuanced than it come across. If you read the book you’ll understand.)