So the prince who is schooled in the doctrine of Christ and in the precepts of wisdom will hold nothing more dear than the happiness of his people: indeed, he will hold nothing else dear, and must both love and cherish them as one body with himself. He will devote all his thoughts, all his actions, all his energies to a single purpose, that of ruling the province entrusted to him in such a way that on the day of reckoning he will satisfy Christ and will leave a most honourable memory of himself among mortals.
Even if he is at home or in retreat the Prince should imitate the worthy Scipio, who used to say that he was never less alone than when he was on his own and never less idle than when he had time to spare; for whenever he was free of public business, he would always be pondering some idea concerning the security or dignity of the state. Let the prince imitate Virgil’s Aeneas, whom the excellent poet often portrays turning over in his mind throughout the night, while others sleep, some way of helping his people. Then there is this thought of Homer’s, which should be inscribed on every wall of the palace, but most of all in the prince’s heart; the sense of the verses, more or less, is: The man entrusted with a nation and its heavy business ‘Should not expect to enjoy a full night’s sleep.’ Or, if he is out in public, he should always be contributing something to the common weal; in other words, he should never cease to be the prince.
It is better for the prince to be engaged in public duties than to spend his life hidden from sight. But whenever he goes out, he should take care that his face, his bearing, and above all his speech are such that they will set his people an example, bearing in mind that whatever he says or does will be seen by all and known to all. Wise men have criticized the custom of the Persian kings who spent their lives hidden away in their palaces. They sought the esteem of their subjects simply by never being seen in public, and by very rarely giving the people access to them. But if ever they did go out, it was to flaunt their barbaric arrogance and their immoderate wealth at the expense of the people. They used to fritter away the rest of their time in games or mad military adventures, as if the noble prince had nothing to do in time of peace, when in fact a whole crop of good works lies open to him, if only he thinks like a prince.
Some people today think that it is not very regal to be engaged in public duties, whereas in fact this is the only worthwhile occupation for a king. Similarly, some bishops consider that instructing the people, the one occupation worthy of a bishop, is the last of their duties, and for some strange reason they delegate to others the special duties of a bishop as unworthy of them and claim as their own all the most worldly affairs. But Mithridates, a king ennobled no less by his learning than by his empire, was not ashamed to dispense justice to his people from his own lips, with no interpreter: we read that he learned twenty-two languages thoroughly for the purpose. Again, Philip of Macedon thought it no disgrace for a king to sit and listen to cases every day, and they say that his son Alexander the Great, though ambitious to the point of madness in other ways, had a custom of covering one ear with his hand while hearing cases, saying that he was keeping it free for the other party.
The fact that some princes take no part in these duties can be explained by their perverse upbringing. As the old proverb says, every man likes to practise the skill he has learned but avoids those for which he knows he has no aptitude. When a man has spent his early years among toadies and women, gambling, dancing, and hunting, corrupted first by perverse ideas and then by debauchery, how can he be expected afterwards to enjoy carrying out duties whose performance requires very careful consideration?
Homer says that a prince hasn’t time to sleep all night; but this kind have only one aim, to cheat the boredom of their lives by constantly finding new pleasures, as if the prince had absolutely nothing else to do. How can a prince, with his vast domains, find nothing to do, when the head of a family is kept busy enough by just one household?
There are bad customs to be counteracted by good laws, corrupted laws to be amended and bad ones repealed, honest magistrates to be sought out and corrupt ones punished or restrained. The prince has to find ways to lighten the burden of the weakest classes, to rid his domain of robbery and crime with the least possible bloodshed, and to establish and secure lasting concord among his people. There are other tasks, less pressing but not unworthy of a prince, however great: he can inspect his cities, so long as his object is to see how they can be improved; he can fortify those which are vulnerable, enhance them with public buildings, such as bridges, colonnades, churches, embankments, and aqueducts, and clean up plague-spots, either by rebuilding or by draining swamps. He can divert rivers whose course is inconvenient, and let in or keep out the sea according to the needs of the town. He can ensure that abandoned fields are tilled to increase the food supply, and he can direct that those producing useless crops be used differently, for example prohibiting vineyards where the wine is not worth making and where corn can be grown. There are a thousand similar tasks, whose supervision is an admirable job for the prince, and even a pleasant one for the good prince, so that he will never feel the need, bored by inactivity, to seek war or to waste the night gambling.
In his public acts, for example in public building or the games, or in receiving embassies if they involve the people’s welfare, the prince should aim at a certain splendour, but without ostentation or extravagance. In his private life he will be more frugal and restrained, partly to avoid appearing to live at the public expense, and partly to avoid teaching his subjects extravagance, the father of many ills.
There was one error, I see, into which a great many of the Ancients fell – and I wish that there were none of our contemporaries doing the same – namely, that they directed all their efforts, not to improving the realm, but to increasing it; we can see that it often turned out that in striving to extend their power they lost even what they already had. Not without reason have Theopompus’ words been much praised; he said that he was not interested in how large a kingdom he left to his sons, only in how much better and more secure it was. It seems to me that that Laconic proverb ‘You have drawn Sparta, now enhance it’ might be inscribed on the arms of every prince.
The good prince will be fully convinced that he can have no more worthwhile task than that of increasing the prosperity of the realm which fate gave him, and of enhancing it in every way. The conduct of General Epaminondas has been praised by learned men; when he was appointed, through envy, to a lowly office, one held in public contempt, he carried out its duties so well that it was regarded afterwards as one of the most honourable of positions and the greatest men vied for it; thus he showed that it is not the office that brings honour to the man, but the man to the office.
It follows that if, as we have tried to show, the prince gives particular attention to things which strengthen and ennoble the state, he will thereby drive out and keep out things which weaken the state. All this will be much assisted by the example, wisdom, and vigilance of the good prince, the integrity of magistrates and officials, the piety of priests, the choice of schoolmasters, by just laws, and devotion to the pursuit of virtue. Therefore the good prince should devote all his attention to increasing and supporting these things. But the state is harmed by their opposites, which can be eliminated more easily if we try first to remove the roots and sources from which we know that they spring. The philosophy of the Christian prince involves dealing with things of this kind carefully and intelligently. It is entirely fitting for Christian princes to conspire, in a good sense, and to make common plans, against such things as these.
If the heavenly bodies are disturbed even for a short while or deflected from their true courses, it brings grave dangers to the world, as is obvious from eclipses of sun and moon. In the same way, if great princes stray from the path of honour, or sin through ambition, anger, or foolishness, they at once cause enormous trouble throughout the world. No eclipse ever afflicted mankind so gravely as the dispute between Pope Julius and King Louis of France, which we have witnessed and wept over only recently.