History Thought

December 4, 2003


The Prince, written by Niccolo Machiavelli, is essentially a handbook of political advice for leaders. Its primary purpose is to explain the best ways to obtain and keep power. In it, Machiavelli discusses his ideas and rational explanations of both the successes and failures of leaders from the past and present. He goes into issues such as how a leader should present himself to how a leader (or as he refers to it, prince) should organize his militia. Over time, it has proven to be the source of guidance for many people in positions of power despite the fact that it was written almost 500 years ago.

One of Machiavelli’s main arguments in the work is the idea that a good prince must be a good military leader in order to maintain power. “A prince, therefore, must have no other object or thought, nor acquire skill in anything, except war, its organization, and its discipline” (Machiavelli 47). Machiavelli does not believe that a prince needs to have many skills to govern a state, and that his main purpose is to ensure the stability of the state that he governs. He talks about the importance of always being prepared for warfare, even during times of peace. He saw this as crucial to achieving supremacy, and even just to survive as a leader at all. He is in essence implying that a prince can never be without the thought of war and keeping himself in power.

Machiavelli uses numerous examples of how this principle has proved itself over and over again. One example of a success story using Machiavelli’s firm beliefs in strong military power is that of his idol, Cesare Borgia. Machiavelli praises Borgia’s insight in using his own military forces who he knew were loyal to him as opposed to mercenaries, whom Machiavelli saw as totally useless and disloyal. Another one of the things that Machiavelli admired about Borgia is that he destroyed those who did not join him. Machiavelli uses this as an example of laying a good foundation of dominance, which he saw as necessary to holding onto power for a long period of time.

An overwhelming concept throughout the guide is that Machiavelli believed to maintain order over a state, one must exercise cruelty to gain the respect, and more importantly the fear, of the people. He felt that a prince must be prepared to accept the charge of cruelty if it becomes necessary to maintain order and keep his people united and faithful (53). Again, he uses Borgia as an example: “Cesare Borgia was accounted cruel; nevertheless, this cruelty of his reformed the Romagna, brought it unity, and restored order and obedience” (53). Machiavelli felt that being too lenient could actually lead to more trouble than acts of cruelty. He concludes that it is good to be loved, if possible, but it is better to be feared if he had to choose between the two (55-56). This idea is reflected in many other pieces of advice and guidelines that he offers in the work as well.

To determine whether or not Machiavelli’s views were concurrent with the rest of the sixteenth century, I consulted Christopher Marlowe’s theatrical work, Doctor Faustus. Although they lived during the same time period, Marlowe and Machiavelli have very different views and beliefs, and would have been more likely to be enemies than friends. They both shared strong beliefs and stood by their ideas about life and how to make the best of it. Writing was a way for them to get their ideas out and to get others to follow their guidelines, living life how they saw that it should be lived.

In Doctor Faustus, a well-respected German scholar grows dissatisfied with the limits of traditional forms of knowledge and decides that he wants to learn to practice magic as a form of gaining more knowledge, which leads to power. The fictional character of Faustus is willing to sacrifice his soul to the devil himself in order to attain the power of magic for twenty-four years. His initial intentions are to attain great wealth, solve the mysteries of the universe, and remake the map of Europe, a quest for personal power. Yet after he has this great power his objectives change. He gets a strange