The Prince

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Laws and Arms Theme Icon
Fortune and Prowess Theme Icon
Goodwill and Hatred Theme Icon
Virtue vs. Vice Theme Icon
The Masses and The Elite Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Prince, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Laws and Arms Theme Icon

Machiavelli asserts that the "main foundations" of every state are "good laws and good arms," meaning that a ruler must anchor his state to sound legal and military codes if he wishes to maintain his power. Without this two-fold foundation, Machiavelli argues that the state and its prince are "bound to come to grief." Yet while Machiavelli states that both laws and military might are necessary for the survival of the prince and his state, he nonetheless places an emphasis on martial strength, arguing that one cannot have "good laws without good arms" and that "good laws inevitably follow" from good arms.

The Prince consistently trumpets the overriding importance of military prowess in the maintenance of principalities, discussing armed troops, fortifications, and strategies of warfare at length throughout the book. Machiavelli advises his royal reader to focus first and foremost on "war, its organizations, and its discipline," cautioning, "The first way to lose your state is to neglect the art of war." Lacking a robust understanding of warfare and preparation for its "physical and mental" challenges, even a state with the best laws will fall prey to internal or external foes. Machiavelli advises a ruler to study warfare in times of peace, so that he may "reap the profit" when war inevitably comes.

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Laws and Arms Quotes in The Prince

Below you will find the important quotes in The Prince related to the theme of Laws and Arms.
Chapter 3 Quotes

For always, no matter how powerful one's armies, in order to enter a country one needs the goodwill of the inhabitants.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 8-9
Explanation and Analysis:

Machiavelli describes two basic ways for a prince to stay in power: hard and soft power. A prince has the huge advantage of controlling a large army--he can always use "hard power" of this kind to dominate his people, arrest disloyal subjects, intimidate people into submission, etc. Yet it's not enough for a prince to use hard power--even the largest army in the world can't quell every potential rebellion. Instead, a prince needs to appeal to his people's positive desires and needs: he has to convince his people that he is a likable person, and that it's in his people's own best interest to accept him as a ruler. By using "soft power" in such a way, the prince can count on the longstanding loyalty of his people, eliminating the possibilities of civil war and rebellion.


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If the ruler wants to keep hold of his new possessions, he must bear two things in mind: first, that the family of the old prince must be destroyed; next, that he must change neither their laws nor their taxes.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 9-10
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Machiavelli draws a distinction between the vast changes that sometimes take place at the highest levels of government (i.e., when a prince defeats his opponents and gains control of new territory) and the banality of the average citizen's life. The point is that a new prince stands the best chance of keeping his new territories when he interferes with his new subjects' lives as little as possible; i.e., when he doesn't increase taxes or laws in any substantial way.

There's an old adage in politics: as long as there's no draft and no depression, the people will obey. In this passage, Machiavelli makes a similar point: people will willingly accept any new leaders, provided that their day-to-day lives stay the same. The best way to avoid a rebellion? Don't give the people a reason to rebel.

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.

The Romans . . . never, to avoid a war, allowed them [their troubles] to go unchecked, because they knew that there is no avoiding war; it can only be postponed to the advantage of others.

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

Here Machiavelli praises the Roman rulers of antiquity for their willingness to fight to the death to maintain power. Machiavelli proposes a rule for politics: once war becomes a possibility, it is inevitable.

Why is war inevitable? Machiavelli implies that it's the natural instinct of all rulers to maintain and expand their power--thus, when two sides become locked in a conflict for power, neither side will ever really back down. The only way to settle the conflict is to fight to the death.

Machiavelli's analysis of war is surprising because it's so amoral. Machiavelli never brings up concepts like right and wrong, good and evil, or justice and mercy--whatever one believes about love, Christianity, etc., violence is inevitable. Critics debate over whether Machiavelli is being prescriptive or descriptive here; i.e., whether he believes that the world really is an amoral, unmerciful place, or whether he thinks there's a place for religion, love, and affection, but it's outside the scope of politics.

Chapter 5 Quotes

Indeed, there is no surer way of keeping possession than by devastation. Whoever becomes the master of a city accustomed to freedom, and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed himself.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Machiavelli describes how to control a new territory that was previously a republic. The danger here, Machiavelli notes, is that the people have become accustomed to being free and self-determining; therefore, the presence of a new ruler is seen as a hateful thing. The only sensible thing for the new ruler to do in such a situation is to wipe out all traces of republicanism in the territory--otherwise, the people will inevitably rise up against the leader.

The passage is remarkable because it makes it clear that the people are dangerous--indeed, they're always more powerful than their leader. (Strangely, Machiavelli might be a democrat at heart--unlike his contemporaries, he's perfectly willing to admit that the masses are more powerful than the monarchy.) A tyrant is no match for a republican territory, full of thousands of people accustomed to freedom. Therefore, the ruler's only hope is to kill his subjects before they kill him.

Chapter 6 Quotes

Men who become rulers by prowess . . . acquire their principalities with difficulty but hold them with ease. The difficulties they encounter in acquiring their principalities arise partly because of the new institutions and laws they are forced to introduce in founding the state and making themselves secure. It should be borne in mind that there is nothing more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes in a state's constitution.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 20-21
Explanation and Analysis:

So far, Machiavelli has been talking about hereditary rulers and conquerors of new territories that were previously controlled by a different ruler. Here, though, Machiavelli begins talking about a different situation: a ruler who conquers a territory in which there's no tradition of law and government in place.

The problem with acquiring a new territory without a tradition of government is that the people will be reluctant to submit to authority for the first time in their history. As Machiavelli says, "initiating" government is incredibly difficult. The implication is that government is unnatural and foreign to the human spirit--when it's introduced, humans' first impulse is to reject it immediately. It's precisely because humans' natural instinct is to reject government that Machiavelli writes The Prince--he needs to show Lorenzo how to con his subjects into accepting his authority.

Chapter 8 Quotes

So it should be noted that when he seizes a state the new ruler must determine all the injuries that he will need to inflict. He must inflict them once for all . . . and in that way . . . win them [his subjects] over to him when he confers benefits. Whoever acts otherwise . . . can never depend on his subjects because they . . . can never feel secure with regard to him. Violence must be inflicted once for all; people will then forget what it tastes like and so be less resentful. Benefits must be conferred gradually; and in that way they will taste better.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Machiavelli describes how a prince should inflict punishment on his people: quickly and decisively. By contrast, a good prince will offer benefits to his people very slowly, so that they're especially grateful to the ruler for providing them in the first place.

Machiavelli describes the ruler's subjects as if they're animals that need to be trained to be obedient. Like the owner of a naughty dog, the prince must punish his people immediately after they've disobeyed him, so that the lesson he teaches will be crystal-clear: disobey me and I'll hurt you. On the other hand, a prince must reward his people gradually, recognizing that he's trying to make his people grateful to him and dependent on his generosity. In short, Machiavelli shows that pain is a far better motivator than pleasure: pain's lessons are immediate and shocking, while pleasure's lessons are slow and gradual.

Chapter 12 Quotes

A prince must build on sound foundations; otherwise he is bound to come to grief. The main foundations of every state, new states as well as ancient or composite ones, are good laws and good arms; and because you cannot have good laws without good arms, and where there are good arms, good laws inevitably follow, I shall not discuss laws but give my attentions to arms.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Machiavelli describes the "skeleton" of a successful state. A good leader, he argues, will establish a state that is based on two kinds of authority: the authority of law and the authority of force. Strangely, Machiavelli refuses to discuss the law in any detail: as he sees it, the law can be understood by understanding force. It's worth thinking about what Machiavelli means in more detail.

As Machiavelli sees it, people have one and only one reason for obeying the laws: if they don't, they'll be severely punished by the state's forces (soldiers, police officers, etc.). At the time, Machiavelli's claim must have seemed pretty shocking in its bluntness--people still like to believe that they obey law (the laws of society, the laws of religion, etc.) because the laws themselves are "right." Machiavelli disagrees: if it weren't for force, he insists, nobody would obey the laws. Machiavelli's basic view of human nature, then, is chaotic--he thinks that humans are naturally disobedient creatures who will refuse to obey laws of any kind unless threatened with physical punishment. Thus, the only way to understand law is to understand physical punishment.

Chapter 13 Quotes

Wise princes, therefore, have always shunned auxiliaries and made use of their own forces. They have preferred to lose battles with their own forces than win them with others, in the belief that no true victory is possible with alien arms. . . . In short, armor belonging to someone else either drops off you or weighs you down or is too tight.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Machiavelli synthesizes several of his most important points (see quotes above) to argue that a prince should never make use of someone else's army. Although Machiavelli doesn't go into much detail about why a prince should maintain his own army, the reasons should be clear to anyone who's been reading the book so far. First, the passage presupposes that force is the most important part of a state's stability, one of the clearest points Machiavelli has made so far. If the army isn't totally loyal to the prince, the prince's subjects probably aren't, either. Second, Machiavelli has already argued that the state is too small for two leaders. By hiring someone else's army, a prince runs the risk of empowering a group that's loyal to another commander--if the commander's army is successful in maintaining order, the commander poses a threat to the prince's power. (It's also worth noting that Machiavelli bases his argument on Roman history--Gaius Marius's establishment of an auxiliary army is often credited with catalyzing the fall of the Roman Republic.)

Chapter 14 Quotes

A prince, therefore, must have no other object or thought, nor acquire skill in anything, except war, its organization, and its discipline. The art of war is all that is expected of a ruler. . . . The first way to lose your state is to neglect the art of war.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Machiavelli reduces the prince's responsibilities to military prowess. No prince can succeed for long without knowledge of the art of war, he insists. The best way to avoid a literal war is to be prepared for it at all times.

Machiavelli's point might seem like a bit of an oversimplification--Machiavelli has described plenty of duties a prince must fulfill, not all of which are concerned with literal war. Yet in another sense, one could argue that the passage sums up the entirety of The Prince. Machiavelli argues that a prince's various duties are just different forms of war, waged in many different capacities. As Foucault said, governments wage war on their own people. Machiavelli shows the prince fighting a constant war with his subjects: negotiating with them for power; executing them for disobedience; wiping out traitors, rewarding loyalty, etc. In short, governing is all about the effective use of force--the waging of war.

Chapter 18 Quotes

So, as a prince is forced to know how to act like a beast, he must learn from the fox and the lion; because the lion is defenseless against traps and a fox is defenseless against wolves. Therefore one must be a fox in order to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten off wolves.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Fox and The Lion
Page Number: 56-57
Explanation and Analysis:

In one of the most famous passages in The Prince, Machiavelli argues that a good leader must be both clever and powerful. Throughout history, leaders have ruled because of the strength of their armies; other leaders have stayed in power because of their cleverness and wiliness. The ideal ruler, however, will use every resource at his disposal--i.e., he'll be both strong and clever.

The passage sums up the argument about war and force that Machiavelli has been making throughout his book. The ideal prince, we've seen, mustn't be afraid to use his army to crush his opponents. And yet too many princes are too quick to use their armies--they're too much like a lion and not enough like a fox. It's better for a ruler to be perpetually prepared to go to war, while using his charisma and "soft power" to prevent such a possibility.