Niccolò Machiavelliís The Prince (1513) is a treatise on the art of acquiring and maintaining political power. Machiavelli describes what a prince should do in order to maintain political power, and describes how the power of a prince may be judged or evaluated. Machiavelli explains why a prince should be prudent in the selection of advisers, and why a prince should be careful in the appointment of ministers to assist in the administration of government. Machiavelli also describes how advisers and ministers may be used by a prince to maintain sovereign authority over a dominion. Machiavelli explains why a prince should study the art of war and why the power of a prince may depend on the ability to command an army or militia. He also describes how a prince should act in order to gain the support and approval of the people of a dominion, and describes the actions which a prince must take in order to avoid losing military or political power.
Machiavelli argues that if a prince gains sovereignty over a dominion which has previously been governed by its own laws, then the prince may use various strategies to retain sovereignty. The prince may despoil the dominion of its wealth and resources, thereby rendering it powerless to resist his control. The prince may appoint his own friends as leaders of the government, so that the new government will be friendly toward him. The prince may develop friendships and alliances with those who were opposed to the previous government. The prince may develop private sources of information as to which individuals profited from the previous government and which individuals may profit from the new government, and may thereby gain insight into the motives which these individuals may have for opposing or supporting his own sovereignty. The prince may encourage rivalries between competing individuals or groups within the dominion, so that no individual or group can become strong enough to challenge his sovereignty. The prince may try to pacify the people of a dominion by offering them economic rewards, or may offer them limited self-government. The prince may allow the people of a dominion to elect a government which is without real power or political autonomy, so that the people of the dominion have the illusion of ruling themselves.
Machiavelli argues that in order to maintain control over a newly-acquired dominion, a prince must acquire control over the military forces. The prince may disband the existing army, and may create a new army under his own control. The prince may then use the army to prevent any possible threats to his sovereignty. The prince may provide the people of a dominion with a good government in order to encourage their submission to his power. The prince may develop international alliances in order to achieve his own military and political aims. The prince may also use the resources of government to defend himself against any political opposition.
According to Machiavelli, it is more important for a prince to be practical than it is for him to be morally good. Machiavelli argues that if moral goodness is a hindrance to maintaining political power, then a prince must learn how not to be morally good (Chapter XV). A prince must always be concerned with what is expedient if he is to maintain his political power. For a prince to maintain his political power, he must appear to be virtuous and honorable, but he does not actually have to be virtuous or honorable. It is more important to the power of a prince that he appear to be virtuous and honorable than that he actually be virtuous or honorable.
Machiavelli argues that a reputation for being miserly may be useful to a prince and that it may allow the prince to manage revenues and expenses more efficiently. If a prince has a reputation for being miserly, then the people of a dominion may be more disposed to praise him when he does not increase their taxes or try to extract more money from them. Thus, the reputation for miserliness or parsimony may in some cases be more useful to a prince than the actual practice of miserliness or parsimony. Similarly, if munificence or generosity is in some cases a hindrance to maintaining political power, then the reputation for munificence or generosity may be more useful to a prince than the actual practice of munificence or generosity.
According to Machiavelli, it is better (or safer) for a prince to be feared than to be loved, because a prince who is feared may be less likely to be confronted by any challenge to his authority (Chapter XVII). The people of a dominion may be less likely to challenge the authority of a prince whom they fear than they will be to challenge the authority of a prince whom they love, because they know that they will suffer harsh punishment if they challenge the authority of a prince whom they fear, but that they may not suffer any punishment if they challenge the authority of a prince whom they love. Machiavelli argues that a skillful prince will make himself both feared and loved, but if this is not possible, a skillful prince will try to make himself feared without making himself hated by those who are forced to submit to his power. Thus, a prince should avoid appearing to be rapacious, greedy, corrupt, unscrupulous, or arbitrary. However, the reputation for being either merciful or cruel, generous or miserly, honest or deceitful, trustworthy or untrustworthy is only important to a prince if it is useful to maintain his political power.
For Machiavelli, power is an end in itself, and whatever means are necessary for a prince to acquire and maintain political power are justified. If the aim of a prince is to maintain sovereign authority over a dominion, then that prince may consider power to be an end in itself. To be a prince is to hold political power, and if a prince fails to do whatever is necessary to maintain his power, then that prince may be forced to surrender his sovereignty.
Machiavelli also argues that a prince may have to be cunning and deceitful in order to maintain political power. A prince may be obliged to be honest and truthful only if honesty and truthfulness are politically advantageous or expedient. A prince should try to act in good faith if possible, but should be capable of acting in bad faith, if acting in bad faith is necessary to maintain his political power.
Machiavelli describes the advantages to a prince of being like both a fox and a lion (Chapter XVIII). The fox is clever and cunning, but the lion is powerful and frightening. Thus, the political strategy which is advocated by Machiavelli (and which is known as "Machiavellianism") is a strategy of cunning, deceitfulness, mercilessness, and ruthlessness. The defects of this strategy are that it may be used to try to justify unscrupulous and unethical conduct, and that it may be used as a strategy to achieve a kind of absolute power over others, leading to tyranny and dictatorship.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince and The Discourses. New York: Random House, 1950.