The Prince


Niccolò Machiavelli

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The Prince: Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Machiavelli turns to the ancient empire of Alexander the Great, addressing how it was that Alexander's successors "ruled securely" after Alexander died "with his conquest scarcely completed." How was a "general uprising" averted in the newly formed composite principality? Machiavelli states that all principalities are ruled in one of two ways, either by a prince and his ministers or by a prince and by nobles. While ministers are subservient to the prince and do not have subjects of their own, nobles derive power from their "ancient lineage" and inspire the love of their subjects. Thus in a state governed by a prince and his appointed ministers, as was the case with Alexander's empire, the ruler holds "greater authority."
Distinguishing between states ruled by a prince and his ministers versus those ruled by a prince and nobles, Machiavelli describes the independence that nobles derive from their hereditary status. According to Machiavelli, nobles pose a greater threat to sovereign rulers than ministers because they rely less on the benevolence and favor of a ruler. Nobles, supported by the goodwill of their own subjects, can undermine a prince's status and security.
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Machiavelli employs contemporary examples to illustrate the distinctions between the two types of principalities. The Turkish empire is ruled by one prince and his ministers, who are "all slaves bound in loyalty to their master." Since these ministers derive their positions from the prince, they are more loyal to him and less likely to be corrupted and bribed by foreign powers. Therefore, it is "difficult to win control of the Turkish empire but, once …. conquered, it can be held with ease." Conversely, a king and a "long-established order of nobles," which derive their status from birth and possess their own subjects, rule France. Nobles are not dependent on the king for their position; thus, foreign foes can easily find and bribe disgruntled and disloyal nobles. Therefore, France "can be more easily seized" but can be held "only with great difficulty," because there remain nobles "to raise insurrections."
Machiavelli elaborates on his argument, describing the way in which nobles, working with foreign foes, can pose both internal and external threats to a prince's position and state. Machiavelli contrasts the two types of government, highlighting their inverse advantages and disadvantages. While disloyal nobles can aid aspiring conquerors, Machiavelli urges established rulers to be wary of these inconstant nobles, who will not hesitate to turn on former friends when it benefits their own interests.
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According to Machiavelli, Alexander conquered Darius's state, which resembled the Turkish empire, by defeating Darius on the battlefield. With Darius dead, Alexander had secured the state with difficulty but consequently held it with ease. On the other hand, the Romans, who conquered states that resembled France, won their possessions easily but encountered great difficulties in securing their control. Machiavelli concludes by stating that "this contrast" does not depend as much on the prowess of the conquerors as on "the kind of state they conquer."
Discussing the inverse advantages and disadvantages of the two states, Machiavelli emphasizes the importance of fortune in determining the course of warfare and politics. In certain situations fortune plays a larger role in deciding the outcome of events than the prowess of individual rulers. Machiavelli highlights the ways in which the two forces may work independently or in tandem.
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