Book Review: The Prince

Chayanika Saxena

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Book: The Prince

Author: Niccolò Machiavelli

 SAU Electronic Resource:

Prince 1

Forming a precursor to Realism, Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’, which in fact marks the beginning of my dabbling in the canonical texts in International Relations, provides a systematic account on how nations should approach their relations and associations with others such that their interests are aggrandized.

And, which as such involves an intricate understanding of ‘art’ of Statecraft, diplomacy, creation and maintenance of one’s own military, apart from the requisite domestic order and peace within, without which, as Machiavelli points , the nation would be left open to “molestation”.

Thus, following in the succinct description of how a State’s power can be aggrandized, which is the central theme of the book, there lay layers of understanding of the behavior of the human nature, the importance of ensuring domestic order, alliance building and the requisite of a nationalized military for maintaining the security of the State; almost all of which resonates in the present day versions of Realism.

Prince 2

Beginning with the human nature, whose reflection is seen in ‘Classical Realism’, Machiavelli’s emphasis on the wicked and fickle human nature is a point that cannot be missed. Particularly as his understanding of the selfish, wicked and fickle human nature, as captured in his famous quotes: “For people are fickle by nature: it is easy to convince them, but difficult to hold them in that conviction”; “For men forgive the death of their fathers more quickly, than the loss of their patrimony”, called for the tailoring of laws, whether at the domestic or international level, which suited the perversity of the human nature. For caught up as it is in such unholy features, striving for an idealistic world would be foolhardy.

An aspect that also made Classical Realists of the modern times, like Morgenthau comments on the absurdity of manufacturing a world of eternal harmony, for the human nature, which is faulty in many ways, could never achieve so. Thus, as pointed Machiavelli,

“ … that since it is neither possible to have or observe laws completely, for the human condition does not permit so, a prince must be prudent enough to know how to escape problems, even if it requires the repudiation of commitments made.”

An aspect, which also has an intricate linkage to the Realist strand, which does not hesitate either in retracting from the alliances made or treaties concluded if it hampers ‘National Interests’. The State follows next, which being an amalgam of selfish, wicked human beings is seen as bearing in it features that seek the same goals as humans do: furtherance of its interests.

In fact, much like what the Neo- Realists opined about the overarching structure of the International semblance, the ordering principle and the characteristics of the units, Machiavelli too talked about the State as an organized force, having control of its domestic and foreign affairs, working as it does under the umbrella of anarchy, to aggrandize her interests through conquests of other territories, and at the same time preserve the liberties of her people from foreign attacks.

The preservation of States in an anarchical international system is one of Machiavelli’s predominant occupation, particularly as he suggests that while the domestic order can be structured orderly with the use of an overarching authority of the State, the possible threat from external forces, is however, a fundamental aspect of foreign affairs.

Yet, even as he holds anarchy as a major determinant of foreign affairs, Machiavelli, nonetheless hints at what he believes would be a natural impetus to achieving equilibrium in this ungoverned order, for quelling the fear of losing sovereignty. An impetus, which he believes brings the States together to eliminate the possibility of the rise of a hegemonic power, reflective of the modern day Balance of Power. Diplomacy here comes to play a vital role, especially as it is seen as essential to build and maintain international reputation on.

And, which is also reflective of the true Machiavellian style of shrewdness and prudence, whose essence have been captured quite famously in the “lion- fox” metaphor, in which he talks about the need of adapting the State to the needs of time, such that it protects itself like a lion and avoid falling into traps like a fox.

National Security and Defense as protected by nationalized army, as also perceived by the Realists, is of great significance for Machiavelli, especially as he sees the protection of a State’s sovereignty in the security of its interests.

And, which as such requires that it be enabled enough to defend itself from foreign attacks, and at the same time be offensively armed so as to wage wars to aggrandize itself.

Armed forces, especially those that are nationalized are hence of the greatest necessity in the protection and enhancement of State’s interest, particularly, as he believes that more would be the reputation of the State (as built on power), the greater are the chances of it not being attacked. Use of mercenaries and dependence of foreign armies, are conversely the last resort for any State, in light of what he sums up as: “that anyone who is the cause of another becoming powerful comes to ruin himself”.

Thus, following from his analysis that hinges on the flawed character of human beings, resulting into its impact on the nature of the State and the actions it should take to protect itself and promote self- aggrandizement, Machiavelli’s account of International Relations in The Prince is cogent even in the present times; as has been reflected in Realism for so long.

It is also logically coherent, and thus, in my opinion lacking any ‘immanent’ criticism, for the analysis of human nature, the State’s nature and its actions cascades into another. Although, it cannot be denied that it has been subject to criticism from outside, where the very fundamental premise of human nature being flawed being trashed, and its consequences also being junked.

In all, thus, for me, Machiavelli’s The Prince has been a systematic account and a neat lens to judge foreign affairs from, as is also spoken by its present relevance in the school of thought- Realism, which is still preponderant and impacts upon international decisions heavily.

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Chayanika Saxena is studying  M.A (International Relations) in South Asian University, New Delhi, India.


N.B: The review has already been submitted as term paper.


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