Book Review – The Prince By Niccolo Machiavelli

Title: The Prince and The Discourses
Author: 
Niccolo Machiavelli, translated by Luigi Ricci, revised by E.R.P. Vincent, Intro by Max Lerner
Format: Paperback
Written: cir 1515 / 1532
Published: 
1950, Modern Library College Edition (Random House)

The Prince is a political discourse which follows a literary genre of advice to princes on how to govern their territories.  Machiavelli’s was distinctive by taking a harshly realistic rather than idealistic approach to the genre.  (The Discourses were included in this edition, but I did not read them.)

I believe I picked up this battered copy of The Prince from a free book shelf and would recommend this edition if you chance across it.  There’s a lengthy introduction at the beginning which provides some biographical information on Machiavelli.  I normally skip those, but this one held my attention longer than most.  And The Prince is the sort of book that makes a lot more sense in historical context as it’s largely a commentary on history and current politics (in the early 1500s).

Frankly, it’s one of the more boring books I’ve read.  But I suspect that has a lot to do with my lack of detailed knowledge of Italian political history.  Machiavelli is frequently pointing to specific rulers as examples of his points, and not being familiar with them, it’s hard to tell if he’s being dry or sly in his commentary.  Someone on Goodreads had insisted The Prince was really a satire, and I was hoping to be able to determine whether or not this is so.  But without the historical context it’s hard to say.

The book itself is historically significant and Machiavellian ideas have influenced a number of leaders.  It’s not nearly as dark or unfeeling as I had thought it might be given its most frequently quoted line (“It is better to be feared than loved” which is only part of the sentence).  Out of context, it does sound awful.  In context, it’s fairly pragmatic.  Machiavelli also goes to great lengths talking about how important it is to have fair laws and not abuse the common people.  So I do think he was more realist than sadist.  But the reality of history is that political change often came with a good deal of violence.

There’s plenty of room to debate how pragmatically “good” Machiavelli’s ideas are.  They’re often circular and contradictory (which leads credence to the satire theory).  But I believe the book has endured for how incredibly quotable many of its sentences and paragraphs are.  Just as the spews of names and dry text would lull me towards sleep, a brilliantly insightful and well phrased line would emerge.  So there was certainly wit and intelligence in the writer, and while I’m glad to have read the book, I wish I had better context knowledge to understand it.

I’m going to give it a solid 3 out of 5, because I would strongly recommend it to the intellectually, politically, or historically curious.  But I have a feeling it would bore and annoy many readers.  Certainly not a good pleasure reading.

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