The Prince – Book Notes and Summary

Machiavelli's The Prince is an overhyped disappointment
The Prince leaves much to be desired as a strategy text

One-sentence summary: Machiavelli’s The Prince is a guidebook for anyone hoping to gain power and influence.

Rating: 4/10

Author: Niccolo Machiavelli

Date Completed: 2020

Tags: Strategy, War, Philosophy, Power

Hot take: I do not understand why The Prince is a classic strategy text. Unless you’re trying to take over a town outside Florence in the late 1400s, much of this will feel dated and useless. Many have built on Machiavelli’s ideas since then, and I’d recommend reading their work instead.

Big Ideas

Learn from history to emulate its great leaders.

  • “Above all, he must read history so that he can do when eminent men have done before him: taken as their model some historical figure who has been praised and honoured; and always kept his deeds and actions before them.”
  • This is the model of nearly every politician who runs for any highly visible office. There are a few leadership touchpoints they point to and keep reminding voters of throughout their campaigns or times in office.

It’s better to win popular support than elite support – the former is more stable.

  • If you win popular support, your base is more secure, and your power is unquestioned. But if you have the support of only a few peers, they’ll believe they are your equals and be unwilling to listen to you.
  • Popular support also protects you against conspiracy – if the conspirator thinks your ouster will upset the people, they’ll be less likely to act.
  • “The best fortress that exists is to avoid being hated by the people.”

Use cruelty sparingly.

  • Macchiavelli famously said that since you can’t be both loved and feared, you should prefer to be feared by those you lead. Still, the cruelty that inspires fear must be used infrequently – ideally only once.
  • If you’re in a bad strategic position, you can fight your way out using cruelty. But this must be a decisive move.
  • If you use cruelty repeatedly and with growing intensity, you’ll eventually be booted from power.

Your friends in good times won’t necessarily be there for you in bad times.

  • “When things are quiet, everyone dances attendance, everyone makes promises, and everybody would die for him so long as death is far off. But in times of adversity, when the state has need of its citizens, there are few to be found.”

Prepare for bad times during good times.

  • “A wise prince must observe these rules; he must never take things easy in times of peace, but rather use the latter assiduously, in order to be able to reap the profit in times of adversity. Then, when his fortunes change, he will be found ready to resist adversity.”

Bits and Pieces

  • To lead, be there in person. On the spot, you can detect trouble right away. If you’re removed from the action, you’ll struggle to keep your finger on the pulse.
  • “Men must be either pampered or crushed, because they can get revenge for small injuries but not for grievous ones.”
  • Delegate unpopular work; keep the popular things for yourself.
  • “Whoever is responsible for another’s becoming powerful ruins himself, because this power is brought into being either by ingenuity or force, and both of these are suspect to the one who has become powerful.”

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Related reading:

The Art of Worldly Wisdom – Baltasar Gracian

The 48 Laws of Power – Robert Greene (Book notes coming soon!)

Mastery – Robert Greene (Book notes coming soon!)

The Book of Five Rings – Miyamoto Musashi (Book notes coming soon!)

The Art of War – Sun Tzu (Book notes coming soon!)