The Prince

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The Masses and The Elite Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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.
The Masses and The Elite Theme Icon

Machiavelli regularly juxtaposes the masses, or "common people," against the ruling elite in The Prince. To justify his decision to write the book, Machiavelli invokes this class-based contrast, stating, "To comprehend fully the nature of princes one must be an ordinary citizen." As with other opposing pairs described in The Prince, Machiavelli argues that the two entities, while vastly different, rely on each other for mutual survival and understanding. The "friendship" of the people forms a central component of the prince's power, since the goodwill of the people guards the prince against conspiracies and allows the prince to raise formidable citizen armies. In return, the prudent prince protects the property and honor of his subjects, which also ensures his own survival. The people and the prince share a symbiotic relationship, although the masses hold the unique ability to crown and dethrone princes in certain circumstances.

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The Masses and The Elite Quotes in The Prince

Below you will find the important quotes in The Prince related to the theme of The Masses and The Elite.
Preface Quotes

Nor I hope will it be considered presumptuous for a man of low and humble status to dare discuss and lay down the law about how princes should rule; because, just as men who are sketching the landscape put themselves down in the plain to study the nature of the mountains and the highlands, and to study the low-lying land they put themselves high on the mountain, so, to comprehend fully the nature of people, one must be a prince, and to comprehend fully the nature of princes one must be an ordinary citizen.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 3-4
Explanation and Analysis:

In the preface to his book, Machiavelli lays out his "plan" to explain the ways of Italian royalty. Machiavelli aims to tell his audience, Lorenzo de Medici, how to rule his people successfully. Right away, Machiavelli's project seems a little odd--why does Lorenzo need someone to tell him how to rule, and furthermore, why should Machiavelli, an ordinary citizen, be the one to teach Lorenzo?

Machiavelli claims that he is the ideal teacher for Lorenzo, precisely because he is an ordinary citizen. Someone like Machiavelli can describe how successful princes rule, because he has the advantage of witnessing the effects of a ruler's actions on the masses. Since The Prince is largely about how to create the perception of majesty and grandeur, Machiavelli's argument makes sense: he will show Lorenzo how to act in such a way that Lorenzo will shock and awe his subjects.

It's crucial to notice how transgressive Machiavelli's project is. Machiavelli's arguments contradict hundreds of years of European tradition, in which ordinary people were expressly forbidden to talk about their rulers or understand how they conducted their lives. It's even been suggested (by the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci) that The Prince is a work of satire, designed to poke holes in the illusions of majesty that all rulers try to create, exposing the true pettiness and ugliness of the monarchy. 


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And if, from your lofty peak, Your Magnificence will sometimes glance down to these low-lying regions, you will realize the extent to which, undeservedly, I have to endure the great and unremitting malice of fortune.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker), Lorenzo dé Medici
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

In real life, Machiavelli had fallen on hard times when he wrote The Prince--there had been a civil war in Florence, and Machiavelli had backed the wrong leaders against the Medici family. After the Medicis rose to power, Machiavelli was in serious danger of losing his life. In order to save his life, Machiavelli tried to make a peace offering to Lorenzo de Medici, writing him a book in which he praised Lorenzo for his greatness. Here, Machiavelli insists that his low position isn't the result of disloyalty of any kind--he's just been "unlucky."

The passage is important because it lends a certain amount of urgency and self-interest to The Prince. The author of the book, we can see, is just as selfish and cunning as the ideal prince he's trying to create--one could say that Machiavelli is performing the very qualities that he supports in Lorenzo de Medici.

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.

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.

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 9 Quotes

I shall only conclude that it is necessary for a prince to have the friendship of the people; otherwise he has no remedy in times of adversity.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, in one sentence, is the basic message of The Prince: a successful ruler needs to convince his people to like him, by any means necessary. The reason is simple: there will come a day when a prince's position is insecure, and in such situations, the prince will need to rely on his people's support. By convincing (or conning) his people to love him when he is powerful, a good prince will buy some "insurance" for the future.

Machiavelli's point is both deeply cynical and strangely optimistic. On one hand, Machiavelli treats government like an amoral activity with only one goal: maintaining power at any cost. And yet the unspoken message of the passage is fundamentally democratic: Machiavelli acknowledges that the people are powerful and dangerous--that's why a good prince needs to get the people on his side.

Chapter 17 Quotes

The prince must none the less make himself feared in such a way that, if he is not loved, at least he escapes being hated. For fear is quite compatible with an absence of hatred; and the prince can always avoid hatred if he abstains from the property of his subjects and citizens and from their women.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 54-55
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Machiavelli clarifies his controversial argument that a leader must be both loved and feared. While it's more important for a leader to be feared than loved, Machiavelli argues, it's important for a leader to refrain from complete tyranny. A leader should ensure that he's feared, but he should never try to be hated. Leaders who are hated run the risk of stirring their people into rebellion. The combination of love and fear in a leader, on the other hand, is powerful because the people will never rebel against such a leader: love acts as a check against real hatred.

Many think of Machiavelli as advocating outright tyranny and total deviousness in leaders. Such an interpretation of The Prince is a caricature of Machiavelli's beliefs. Instead, Machiavelli argues that princes should try to engender some goodwill in their people (who, it should be noted, are all assumed to be men), if only to avoid outright rebellion.

But above all a prince must abstain from the property of others; because men sooner forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Machiavelli argues that princes must never steal their people's property. Property is the most sacred right of the people; therefore, to infringe upon it is a surefire way to provoke the people into rising up against their ruler.

Although Machiavelli is often interpreted as an opponent of democracy, the passage shows that Machiavelli has considerable respect for certain democratic values, even if his respect is purely pragmatic. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Machiavelli doesn't believe that a monarch has automatic ownership of his people's possessions. Rather, he acknowledges that the prince's power is greatly limited--a prince can't just seize his people's property at the drop of a hat. So even if Machiavelli is writing The Prince to ensure the supremacy of tyrants and dictators for years to come, his arguments presuppose a certain amount of respect for people's natural rights, reflecting the fledgling democratic values in Italian society at the time. (The right to property would later form the core of the arguments of important political thinkers like Rousseau and John Locke, who openly criticized the kinds of rulers Machiavelli supported.)

Chapter 19 Quotes

Princes cannot help arousing hatred in some quarters; so first they must strive not to be hated by all and every class of subject; and when this proves impossible, they should strive assiduously to escape the hated of the most powerful classes.

Related Characters: Niccolò Machiavelli (speaker)
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Machiavelli warns Lorenzo of alienating the most powerful classes in society. As always, a prince should avoid the people's hatred, but if necessary, it's better for a prince to be hated by the lower classes than by the middle and upper classes.

The passage is interesting because it draws a clear distinction between the different strata of society. Early on, Machiavelli has drawn a rough distinction between a prince and his people. Here, though, Machiavelli's account of society is much more complicated: there are poor, weak people; wealthy, somewhat powerful people; and one wealthy, powerful prince presiding over everything.

The passage reflects the rise of the middle classes in Italian society in the centuries leading up to Machiavelli's life. Middle-class people in Italy enjoyed an unusual amount of independence and economic clout--indeed, some middle-class people eventually rose to become rulers (including Lorenzo's family, the Medicis!). In short, Machiavelli recognizes that all commoners aren't created equal--some are more powerful, and therefore more dangerous, than others. So it's always best to have the middle and upper classes on your side, even if it means sacrificing the loyalty of the lower classes.