Machiavelli was suspected of being part of a conspiracy – he was tortured and placed under house arrest. That was when he wrote the Prince. This short book does not try to derive from first principles the nature of the ideal state and the qualities of a good ruler.
He draws on the recent history of the Italian city-states, and examples from Roman and Greek history. He describes how provinces are won and lost, and how they are kept under control. Cesare Borgia was held in high esteem by Machiavelli, who said of him,
Upon the return of the Medici, Machiavelli was suspected of participation in
‘Reviewing thus all the actions of the Duke, I find nothing to blame: on the
contrary, I feel bound, as I have done, to hold him as an example to be imitated.’
The cool cynicism of the prince makes it an impressive work, and it usually divides people – some are shocked by its immorality, while others are satisfied with its lack of nonsense. The constant theme is that the prince should strive to appear, rather than be virtuous.
Machiavelli told us what we already know but are usually afraid to admit. It is never the character of a person that matters, but simply what kind of character they display to others.
The opposite of this is the truly virtuous person who outwardly appears hostile, that is the anti-Machiavellian – the person who is engaged in self-sabotage, and the creation of unnecessary difficulties.