The Prince

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Disease Symbol Icon
Machiavelli uses disease as a metaphor for the problems and pitfalls that plague princes and their states. Throughout The Prince, Machiavelli refers to political disorders as a "wasting disease," a pestilence that at first is "easy to cure but difficult to diagnose" and, if untreated, becomes "easy to diagnose but difficult to cure." In other words, Machiavelli cautions a ruler to detect problems in his state "well in advance" so that the troubles may be treated and cured before they become too widespread to remedy. If diagnosed early and accurately, then political disorders "can be quickly healed." Nonetheless, Machiavelli states that many rulers lack this skill of early detection, arguing, "Only a prudent ruler has such foresight." Similarly, Machiavelli refers to rulers who fall prey to flattery as "victims" of the "plague" of self-deception. In short, wise rulers must use their prowess to guard their states – the "body politic," so to speak – against diseases that result from political disorder and other internal and external threats.

Disease Quotes in The Prince

The The Prince quotes below all refer to the symbol of Disease. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Laws and Arms Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of The Prince published in 2003.
Chapter 3 Quotes

The Romans did what all wise rulers must: cope not only with present troubles but also with ones likely to arise in the future, and assiduously forestall them. When trouble is sensed well in advance it can be easily remedied; if you wait for it to show itself any medicine will be too late because the disease will have become incurable. As the doctors say of a wasting disease, to start with it is easy to cure but difficult to diagnose; after a time . . . it becomes easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. So it is in politics.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Ancient World, Disease
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Machiavelli praises the Roman politicians of antiquity for their attention to the details of society. By studying society carefully, the Roman leaders gave themselves a huge advantage: they could spot a potential problem early on and nip it in the bud.

The passage is important for a number of reasons. First, it exemplifies the Renaissance's emphasis on antiquity. During Machiavelli's lifetime, Italy rose to cultural prominence by reviving the spirit of the pre-Christian era; the era of Rome and Greece (and, in Machiavelli's opinion, a time before the vanilla rules of mercy and love were celebrated). Second, the passage establishes Machiavelli as one of the founders of modern political science. Machiavelli recognizes the importance of careful observation and study for governors and rulers. By understanding historical precedents and also getting the most current information about their subjects, rulers can use these tools to maintain power. In short, Machiavelli wants rulers to treat governing like a science--political science.


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Disease Symbol Timeline in The Prince

The timeline below shows where the symbol Disease appears in The Prince. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 3
Laws and Arms Theme Icon
Fortune and Prowess Theme Icon remedy it before it became too widespread. Machiavelli compares political disorders to a " wasting disease ," which at the start is "easy to cure but difficult to diagnose" and, if... (full context)
Chapter 13
Laws and Arms Theme Icon purely mercenary or auxiliary troops, this reliance on outside arms is "poisonous" and will plague the state like a wasting fever. (full context)
Chapter 19
Fortune and Prowess Theme Icon
Goodwill and Hatred Theme Icon
Virtue vs. Vice Theme Icon
The Masses and The Elite Theme Icon
...being fickle, frivolous, effeminate, cowardly, [and] irresolute." A ruler must avoid these behaviors "like the plague." A prince must demonstrate "grandeur, courage, sobriety, [and] strength" and act in such a way... (full context)
Chapter 23
Fortune and Prowess Theme Icon
Goodwill and Hatred Theme Icon
Virtue vs. Vice Theme Icon
The Masses and The Elite Theme Icon are "so happily self-absorbed" and "indulge in .... self-deception," many "fall victim" to the "plague" of flattery. Equally dangerous, Machiavelli states, "Some efforts to protect oneself from flatterers involve the... (full context)