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Literature: The Prince
"And here comes in the question whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved. It might perhaps be answered that we should wish to be both; but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved."
What everyone remembers from The Prince

"Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated."
What he says right afterward, but what nobody seems to remember

Written by Italian statesman Niccolò Machiavelli in 1513, The Prince (Il Principe) is the single most famous political treatise and the first entirely secular work of The Renaissance. At the time it was first published, The Prince was seen as extremely scandalous for its endorsement of ruthlessness and amorality. Nevertheless, it quickly became popular with politicians and remains highly influential in Western politics today. If there's any Magnificent Bastard in anything set after the Renaissance, it's very probable he's taken cues from this book note .

Most people are familiar with Machiavelli as the man who said, "it is better to be feared than loved". Over the years Machiavelli's name has become associated with dishonesty, duplicity, and ruthlessness, so much that they even made his name an adjective most often used for unsavoury characters. However, Machiavelli repeats that while it is better for one to inspire fear, one must also remember not to inspire hatred. Machiavelli's original message was to stress the importance of pragmatism in politics, one of the attributes of modern politics. The Prince should be regarded as a guidebook to maintaining power for the good of the prince and ultimately the state, not how to kick puppies left and right. (Truth be told, if you need a book to tell you how to kick puppies left and right, you're probably not cut out to be the sort of nasty, tyrannical overlord Machiavelli predicts will be rewarded with his own head on a spike.)

Also, he wrote this book when Italy was in a very chaotic state: to ensure order the prince had to rule with an iron fist. Finally, one must remember that Machiavelli was attempting to ingratiate himself with the Medici, who had just taken over Florence (and promptly ignored his advice: they chose to be universally loved, and ended up massively in debt for it), and that most of his work was about supporting (small-r) republican regimes with an emphasis on freedom (although the means he recommended for operating and preserving them were rather, well, Machiavellian); more educated political theorists tend to regard him as something of a Deep Cover Agent for what eventually became modern liberal democracy. Though if so that would be an ironically Machievellian plan in itself.

note 

An English translation, now in the public domain, is available here.

Compare The Book of Lord Shang, whose traditional author actually was that big a prick. See also Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli's other book, and Hobbes Was Right.

(It's worth noting that the English translation of The Prince came out several years after the English rebuttal book was published. Good news travels fast, it seems.)

This work provides examples of:

  • 0% Approval Rating: Something a prince must avoid at all costs or else the serfs will revolt.
  • 100% Adoration Rating: The safest position to be in.
  • Above Good and Evil: "The ends justify the means", after all.
    • Subverted. The actual lesson is that one must be willing to Shoot the Dog if the situation calls upon it as the leader.
  • Armies Are Evil: Once you wise up, stop using mercenaries or other nations' armies and create your own army. It's very important that you don't make your soldiers or officers too greedy or too ambitious, and that you don't get too soft on the discipline part. On the other hand, a balance between courage, rewards for their loyalty and A Father to His Men attitude, and hard discipline and harsh punishments if they don't listen to you, will make them a Badass Army.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: You shouldn't put too much trust in the social elite. There's a chance if they don't like your governing, they either rebel against you, try to overthrow you, try to assassinate you, or ally themselves with your enemies. And allowing them to commit corruption sure is gonna awake the people's wrath, and that is something a wise prince must not allow to happen. If they would commit treason against you then you must depose them immediately. That shouldn't be too difficult if you have the people's support and the army's loyalty, and if you don't have it then executing the traitors will help your popularity rise amongst the average people. If the prince is able to Take a Third Option and create a social and economic society that both the aristocrats and the people are satisfied with, he may not need to use violence (at least internally) to rule the country.
  • Bad Boss\Benevolent Boss: Machiavelli advises you to use both of this tropes: you should be harsh enough to keep your subordinates in order and fear, but you also must be benevolent to them, so they will love you. In short, Machiavelli advices you to be a pragmatic boss.
  • Badass Bookworm: The prince should be this, or a Genius Bruiser. "The prince needs to be both a fox to avoid the snares and a lion to scare away the wolves".
  • Batman Gambit: One of these, every once in a while, is instructive for your subjects. During times of peace, when you can afford it, relax your grip a bit, let the realm fall into a little bit of easily-repairable chaos. It reminds the people why they need you in charge.
  • Beneath the Mask: He speaks about social masks in detail in chapter XVIII
  • Bread and Circuses: Helps, but not a requisite.
  • The Chessmaster: Machiavelli acknowledges Pope Alexander VI as an expert manipulator of the political game, and indeed he was almost unbeatable in this regard.
  • Combat Pragmatist: one of the main points of the book.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Machiavelli advises the reader to prepare himself and anything else for war, and never to forget it, because you never know if The Empire, La Résistance or The Starscream is gonna pick a fight with you.
  • Cunning Like a Fox: Imitiating the lion alone is foolish.
    A prince, therefore, being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast, ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves. Those who rely simply on the lion do not understand what they are about.
  • Deadly Decadent Court: Machiavelli warns not to trust aristocrats and to avoid lavishness, as it would force the prince to raise taxes in order to support the court. And everyone knows that higher taxes lead to revolutions.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: If you want to make a good impression after you've conquered an enemy, pardon them and allow them to swear loyalty to you in exchange for their lives. If that doesn't work, you can always dispose of them anyway. Also if you're able to convince political rivals to join you and become loyal to you then it's a big plus for you.
  • Devil's Advocate: Useful to have as an advisor, since he can sometimes find legitimate and serious flaws in your plans that you will need to address.
  • Dirty Coward: Easy to force to join your side. If they are actually competent in military warfare or any other area, then you should force them to join you so that their abilities don't end up in the enemies' hands. It's really important that the prince himself isn't this, or even rumored to be this, or his popularity will fall.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: "Upon this, one has to remark that 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." (The Prince trans. W. K. Marriott, chp. III)
    • The book does point out that you should only reserve such treatment for people who are actually guilty of something though. Heaping a Fate Worse Than Death on someone who wronged you will teach others not to be so foolish. Doing it to an innocent bystander will just foster hatred of your despotism. Cruelty to your enemies is a good way to terrify them, but random acts of cruelty is right out.
  • The Dog Bites Back: This sure is gonna happen if you act like a monster for too long. In keeping with the theme of being pragmatic, Machiavelli stresses how far one should go when it comes to fear:
    Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: A few of his contemporary examples are noted as being effective, but so underhanded or bloodthirsty that you'd probably go straight to hell for them.
  • Follow the Leader: Machiavelli advises the reader to read the histories of great leaders, such as Cyrus the Great or Hiero II of Syracuse, and learn the ways they used to get and kept power, but also learn what mistakes they made, so that you don't makes them as well.
  • Full-Circle Revolution: Notes the tendency of people to expect better things after overthrowing their old ruler, then finding their new ruler to be not so different after all (or even worse).
  • Genre Deconstruction: The Prince belongs to a genre of literature known as the "mirrors for princes," essentially self-help books written by courtiers to provide useful advice to newly-installed rulers (and often also to flatter them so that said courtier would have a better shot at getting an actual assignment to a government post). While these books traditionally emphasized the importance of being a wise, valiant, and virtuous ruler, Machiavelli was one of the first to point out that holding the moral high ground over your subjects is useless if you don't also have actual power to back up your rule.
  • Great White Hunter: Hunting is an excellent way for the prince to exercise himself in his free time. It also will teach him the ways of nature and basic tactics on how to take down competitors.
  • Hired Guns: The prince is advised to avoid these as often as possible, as they're difficult to control.
    • The chapters on war might as well be called "Why one should never use mercenaries parts I, II, and III."
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: By the common pop cultural idea of the book, you'd think it was a guide on being the biggest monster you could be.
  • Hobbes Was Right: One of the most familiar examples ever. This book made the name "Niccolo Machiavelli" basically a synonym to "Thomas Hobbes", although in real life, Machiavelli might have also criticized Hobbes' theories if he had read about them.
  • Honest Advisor: To be preferred over the Yes-Man for advice. However, they should only give advice when they are solicited to, and be properly respectful of the prince himself. After all, it just wouldn't do for a subject to insult his prince to his face or speak out of turn.
  • Hot-Blooded: Machiavelli makes note that Pope Julius II was incredibly quick-tempered, which was both his greatest asset and his greatest flaw.
  • Humans Are Bastards: The prince is advised to assume this from the start, and govern accordingly. Your subjects are fickle, greedy cowards, who will profess their love and loyalty as long as things are good in the kingdom. But when things are not so good, they will most likely turn on you, and you have to be prepared to deal with that eventuality. Maybe they'll surprise you, and show genuine loyalty in times of crisis, but you can't run a country on "maybes". It's a safer bet to make sure they're simply too afraid to disobey you.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: The prince's morals should not get in the way of governing his state. After all, don't expect that the other nations will be ruled by paragons of virtue.
  • Idiot Ball: Cited as something not to hold onto. Louis XII of France is cited as a prime example of how to not screw with another country effectively, and in Chapter 3 Machiavelli calls out Louis on his idiocy, and shows how his treatment of the lesser powerful states would lead to them pushing the French back out of Italy, and tells us that for all the force used to take down Naples, he would lose it as quickly as he'd gained it. Machiavelli says that had Louis taken a pragmatic approach in Italy, not shared power with the Spanish, and aided those less powerful than he, he may well have held onto Italy for quite some time.
  • It's All About Me: The Prince takes the healthy individualism of the Renaissance to the extreme.
    • Possibly, though also can be seen as a subversion. It's less about doing it for oneself but doing it for the common good as well. See Pragmatic Hero.
  • Jerk Justifications: Type 1.
  • Kansas City Shuffle: Just like Sun Tzu once said in his book The Art of War, deception is a very useful tool in both the military and the political game.
  • King of Beasts: Not the only thing to emulate.
  • Kingpin in His Gym: Keeping your body physically fit is just as important as keeping your mind sharp and your army strong. Hunting is Machiavelli's personal recommendation of physical activity.
  • Let no Crisis Go to Waste: Crises brings opportunities for men who want to become a prince. Use them, it's a great first step in your way to power. With them, you can gather the support of the people for whatever action you plan to do to end the crisis, and then it's hard work, strength, intelligence and determination which determine the results. If you succeed, you'll be seen as a great leader by the people.
  • Moral Event Horizon: invoked Actually, you're supposed to avoid this one. At least, if you're going to Kick the Dog, do it in a way that makes people too afraid to do anything about it.
  • Necessarily Evil: The reason why someone should be willing to do something cruel. Machaivelli doesn't speak for cruelty for it's own sake or deny that something is a cruel act. He only says that it's sometimes necessary to not be nice to others.
  • Nostalgia Filter: Machiavelli acknowledges that old ideals or rules usually have more followers who are more fierce and loyal to them. It's why it's important for the leader of new ideals or rules to have a greater sense of discipline, or soon all his followers will be dead or turned traitors in less than a year.
  • Playing Both Sides: Subverted. It's effective during peace times, when the Prince has some time to weaken his conquered subjects will to fight him and instead strengthen their will to fight each other, but it's a risky tactic during war times, because the weaker faction will likely ally with the enemy.
  • Poe's Law: It's still an unresolved question whether Machivaelli was even being entirely serious. After all, it is dedicated to the ruling family who arrested, tortured, and banished him.
  • The Power of Friendship/A Friend in Need/Gondor Calls for Aid: If your friends/allies are in trouble, the first thing you shall do is to help them, not to stand outside and declare "neutral". It just makes you look weak in the eyes of the enemy, and unreliable in the eyes of your allies.
  • Power of Trust: Newly conquered people should be left their weapons. They will, after all, need to defend themselves, and while disarming them will slow rebellion, it will not stop it since they will be able to get arms somehow, and the good will generated by this trust is better against rebellion than the delay.
  • Pragmatic Hero: What being a prince ultimately should be. Though Machiavelli suggests ruthless thing, all of it is to the end of protecting one's people and ensuring their prosperity instead of being a self-centered tyrant.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: "The prince can always avoid hatred if he abstains from the property of his subjects and citizens and from their women."
    • Hell, this is the whole book's point. There are plenty of examples where Machiavelli stresses the importance of pragmatism in politics.
  • The Purge: If you must do this then you should only do this during your first years as a ruler, and only on your political enemies. If you do this on the civilians, or continue with purges every single year then you'll lose popularity points.
    • Bear in mind—this means actual political enemies. Purging potential political enemies is extremely risky, especially if the potential that they'll challenge you is something that only you see. If you go after people who've declared their loyalty to you and have never actually done anything to wrong you, you may lose all-important supporters on account of your capriciousness.
      • It's important to note that Renaissance thinkers like Machiavelli were very big fans of the Greeks and it's likely that he had heard the story of the Thirty Tyrants: a coterie of young aristocrats (some of them students of Socrates) who (with the support of 700 Spartan hoplites) took control of Athens after The Peloponnesian War. They proceded to execute all the leaders of the democratic tendency in Athens...and then all the potential leaders...and then all the suspected potential leaders. Naturally, the Athenians revolted and reinstated the democracy shortly thereafter. No doubt Machiavelli took note.
  • Realpolitik: Trope Codifier. Machiavelli himself affirms in the opening that where most books on politics have chronicled some imagined ideal state and imagined ideal ruler, he wanted to show how politics worked based on his first-time experience and knowledge showing what people actually do to maintain power, popularity and make things happen. This in some senses made him a prototypical Enlightenment man.
  • Revenge Before Reason: Machiavelli warns against being excessively cruel for prolonged periods of time so that the prince doesn't provoke his subjects into following this trope. The most dangerous enemies are the ones who feel like they have nothing left to lose because they've already been wronged so much.
  • Revenge by Proxy: To avoid this, when taking over a new country, the prince must kill off the deposed prince's family as well.
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: Subverted. If some dude or dudes decides that they should betray their king and country for you then you should reward them with exactly what they want; whatever it's money, power, influence, etc.
  • Screw Destiny: "I certainly think it is better to be impetuous than cautious, for fortune is a woman and it is necessary, if you wish to master her, to take her by force."
  • The Scrooge: While it's good for the wise prince to be seen as generous, he shouldn't make his name from overwhelming generosity. Instead, he should spend as little money as possible, and not worry too much about being seen as a miser - because if things go to hell, he'll have enough money to set things right again. That would've been impossible if the prince was overwhelmingly generous and so if things did go to hell, he wouldn't have any money left to set things right again.
    • You are also encouraged to avoid a lavish lifestyle, especially in times of financial crisis or turmoil, because we all know that being The Caligula might be fun, but it will lead to a sticky end.
  • Self-Made Man: If you plan to take power through your own guts, skills and will alone, and with minimal to no help from stronger factions, you'll have to fight long and hard to get it but if you succeed with it, you'll have it easy to rule, since your efforts more likely will inspire true and sincere loyalty and respect from your followers and subjects. If you got the power handed to you on a silver plate, you'll find it easy to gain it but hard to keep it, since the easy way in doesn't inspire any true loyalty or respect from your subjects, and there's a chance that those who gave it to you will take it back if they think you don't do well enough.
  • Shoot the Dog: The book's advice is that if you have to choose between doing the "right" thing and doing the "smart" thing, choose the intelligent option.
  • Shoot the Messenger: The term, "Machiavellian" is often used to describe dirty or corrupt politics, but Machiavelli wasn't a bad guy. All he did was write a history book and identified which leaders did certain things and stayed in power and which leaders did other things and lost power.
  • Slave to PR: You should take great interest in public relations and strive not to have bad PR. Subverted in that you should never put public relations before pragmatism.
  • The Starscream: These guys are something a ruler should be careful of, since they're more dangerous than foreign enemies. If you find out that someone is a Starscream, then you should dispose of him in order to teach the other Starscreams a lesson.
  • Take That: Machiavelli mocks the political philosophers that came before him for their refusal to look reality in the eye.
  • Treacherous Advisor: Similar to The Starscream, these guys are something a prince should be careful of. A backstabbing adviser is much more dangerous since they have more influence in the court, and if they grow too ambitious, they will gladly use this influence for their own needs. If a prince finds out that his adviser is much more concerned about himself than about the prince or the state, he should fire him at once.
  • The Unfettered
  • Vetinari Job Security: Suggested as the best possible position to be in.
  • Villain Ball Magnet: "A new prince, of all rulers, finds it impossible to avoid a reputation of cruelty, because of the abundant dangers inherent in a newly won state."
  • Villains Never Lie: Machiavelli advises that a prince should maintain his word as honesty would earn him respect. However, he shouldn't be above breaking promises if necessary. The most pragmatic decision however is to not make any promises at all.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Good public relations are good, but not necessary.
  • Warrior Prince: Fighting on the front lines alongside with your troops is a great way to boost positive PR, especially among the soldiers.
  • We Are Struggling Together: The last few chapters of the book blame many of Italy's woes on this trope. He concludes by asking the Medicis to seize Italy and conquer it with Italian armies, thereby averting the problems that had cropped up with using mercenaries. His pleas would eventually be answered... 350 years later by Giuseppe Garibaldi.
  • What Would X Do?: Chapter XIV: To ensure his success, a prince must choose a model that he admires and follow his actions to be like him (but obviously, don’t follow his errors).
    But to exercise the intellect the prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have borne themselves in war, to examine the causes of their victories and defeat, so as to avoid the latter and imitate the former; and above all do as an illustrious man did, who took as an exemplar one who had been praised and famous before him, and whose achievements and deeds he always kept in his mind, as it is said Alexander the Great imitated Achilles, Caesar Alexander, Scipio Cyrus. And whoever reads the life of Cyrus, written by Xenophon, will recognize afterwards in the life of Scipio how that imitation was his glory, and how in chastity, affability, humanity, and liberality Scipio conformed to those things which have been written of Cyrus by Xenophon.
  • Wicked Cultured: Good publicity, again. And it doesn't hurt to know a bit of history, for when you feel like imitating Alexander the Great.
  • The Wise Prince: What this book wants you to be, though by wisdom, Machiavelli means Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!.
  • The Women Are Safe With Us: Rulers are encouraged to restrain themselves from taking any woman they want so as to build rapport with their subjects.
  • Won the War, Lost the Peace: A Prince who has won a war and wants to avoid being perceived as cruel will let the opposition live. (Machiavelli cites historic examples). This inevitably concludes in later war, disorders, and a lot of people dead. So, the paradox is that Prince who truly wants to win the peace must crush the opposition (but not the general populace) fast even when the war has already been won, so all their subjects cannot see any hope in opposing their new ruler, and don’t waste time and effort trying it and truly accepting the new peace.
  • Yes-Man: Advised against, since they would spend more time flattering the prince in order to improve their status than actually giving good advice.


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alternative title(s): The Prince
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