To the Most Illustrious Prince Charles, Grandson of the Invincible Emperor Maximilian, From Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam
Wisdom in itself is a wonderful thing, Charles greatest of princes, and no kind of wisdom is rated more excellent by Aristotle than that which teaches how to be a beneficent prince; for Xenophon in his Oeconomicus rightly considers that there is something beyond human nature, something wholly divine, in absolute rule over free and willing subjects. This naturally is the wisdom so much to be desired by princes, the one gift which the young Solomon, highly intelligent as he was, prayed for, despising all else, and wished to have seated continually beside his royal throne. This is that virtuous and beautiful Shunamite, in whose embraces David, wise father of a wise son, took his sole delight. She it is who says in Proverbs: ‘By me princes rule and nobles dispense justice.’ Whenever kings invite her to their councils and cast out those evil counsellors – ambition, anger, greed, and flattery – the commonwealth flourishes in every way and, knowing that it owes its felicity to the wisdom of its prince, says with well-earned satisfaction: ‘All good things together came to me with her.’ And so Plato is nowhere more meticulous than in the education of the guardians of his republic, whom he would have surpass all the rest not in riches and jewels and dress and ancestry and retainers, but in wisdom only, maintaining that no commonwealth can be happy unless either philosophers are put at the helm, or those to whose lot the rule happens to have fallen embrace philosophy – not that philosophy, I mean, which argues about elements and primal matter and motion and the infinite, but that which frees the mind from the false opinions of the multitude and from wrong desires and demonstrates the principles of right government by reference to the example set by the eternal powers. Something of the sort must have been, I think, in Homer’s mind, when Mercury arms Ulysses against Circe’s witchcraft with the herb called moly. And Plutarch has good reason for thinking that no man does the state a greater service than he who equips a prince’s mind, which must consider all men’s interests, with the highest principles, worthy of a prince; and that no one, on the other hand, brings such appalling disaster upon the affairs of mortal men as he who corrupts the prince’s heart with wrongful opinions or desires, just as a man might put deadly poison in the public spring from which all men draw water. A very famous remark of Alexander the Great points usefully in the same direction; he came away from talking with Diogenes the Cynic full of admiration for his lofty philosophic mind, unshakeable, invincible, and superior to all mortal things, and said: If I were not Alexander, I should desire to be Diogenes’; in fact, the more severe the storms that must be faced by great power, the more he well might wish for the mind of a Diogenes, which might be equal to the immense burden of events.
But you, noble Prince Charles, are more blessed than Alexander, and will, we hope, surpass him equally in wisdom too. He for his part had seized an immense empire, but not without bloodshed, nor was it destined to endure. You were born to a splendid empire and are destined to inherit one still greater, so that, while he had to expend great efforts on invasion, you will have perhaps to work to ensure that you can voluntarily hand over part of your dominions rather than seize more. You owe it to heaven that your empire came to you without the shedding of blood, and no one suffered for it; your wisdom must now ensure that you preserve it without bloodshed and at peace. And such is your good nature, your honesty of mind, and your ability, such the upbringing you have had under the most high-minded teachers, and above all so many are the examples which you see around you from among your ancestors, that we all expect with confidence to see Charles one day perform what the world lately looked for from your father Philip; nor would he have disappointed public expectation had not death carried him off before his time. And so, although I knew that your Highness had no need of any man’s advice, least of all mine, I had the idea of setting forth the ideal of a perfect prince for the general good, but under your name, so that those who are brought up to rule great empires may learn the principles of government through you and take from you their example. This serves a double purpose: under your name this useful work will penetrate everywhere, and by these first fruits I, who am already your servant, can give some kind of witness to my devotion to you. I have taken Isocrates’ work on the principles of government and translated it into Latin, and in competition with him I have added my own, arranged as it were in aphorisms for the reader’s convenience, but with considerable differences from what he laid down. For he was a sophist, instructing some petty king or rather tyrant, and both were pagans; I am a theologian addressing a renowned and upright prince, Christians both of us. Were I writing for an older prince, I might perhaps be suspected by some people of adulation or impertinence. As it is, this small book is dedicated to one who, great as are the hopes he inspires, is still very young and recently invested with government, and so has not yet had the opportunity to do very much that in other princes is matter for praise or blame. Consequently, I am free of both suspicions, and cannot be thought to have had any purpose but the common good, which should be the sole aim both of kings and of their friends and servants. Among the countless distinctions which under God your merit will win for you, it will be no small part of your reputation that Charles was a prince to whom a man need not hesitate to offer the picture of a true and upright Christian prince without any flattery, knowing that he would either gladly accept it as an excellent prince already, or wisely imitate it as a young man always in search of self-improvement. Farewell.
[Basel, about March 1516]
The Birth and Upbringing of a Christian Prince
Where it is the practice to select the prince by vote, it is quite inappropriate to have as much regard for ancestry/ physical appearance, or height (a very foolish method once used, we read, by some barbarians) as for calmness and equability of temperament and a sober disposition devoid of all rashness: a prince should be neither so excitable that there is a danger that with the sudden access of power he may break out as a tyrant and refuse to accept warning or advice nor, on the other hand, so pliant as to allow himself to be led this way and that by the opinion of anyone and everyone. His experience and age must also be taken into account, for he must be neither so old as to be at risk of senility, nor so immature as to be carried away by his feelings. Some thought should also perhaps be given to his state of health so that a new prince does not have to be found very soon after, which would amount to an imposition on the state.
On board ship, we do not give the helm to the one who has the noblest ancestry of the company, the greatest wealth, or the best looks, but to him who is most skilled in steering, most alert, and most reliable. Similarly, a kingdom is best entrusted to someone who is better endowed than the rest with the qualities of a king: namely wisdom, a sense of justice, personal restraint, foresight, and concern for the public well-being.
Family trees, gold, and jewels are no more relevant to governing a state than they are pertinent to a sea-captain in steering his ship.
The people must look to the same single object in selecting a prince as the prince should in his administration, which is of course the people’s well-being regardless of all personal feelings.
The harder it is to alter the person one has chosen the more carefully should the choice be made, lest the rashness of a moment cause long-lasting distress.
But when the prince is born to office, not elected, which was the custom among some barbarian peoples in the past (according to Aristotle) and is also the practice almost everywhere in our own times, then the main hope of getting a good prince hangs on his proper education, which should be managed all the more attentively, so that what has been lost with the right to vote is made up for by the care given to his upbringing. Accordingly, the mind of the future prince will have to be filled straight away, from the very cradle (as they say), with healthy thoughts while it is still open and undeveloped. And from then on the seeds of morality must be sown in the virgin soil of his infant soul so that, with age and experience, they may gradually germinate and mature and, once they are set, may be rooted in him throughout his whole life. For nothing makes so deep and indelible a mark as that which is impressed in those first years. And while what we take in at that time is of great importance for us all, it has the very greatest importance for the prince.
Where there is no power to select the prince, the man who is to educate the future prince must be selected with comparable care. It is a matter for prayer to the gods that the prince may be born of good character; but beyond this it is to some extent within our power to prevent degeneration in one who was born good and to improve by training someone born none too good.
The custom in the old days was to set up statues, arches, and plaques for those who had served the state well. But none are more worthy of such honours than those who have worked hard and conscientiously at the task of properly educating the prince and have paid attention to what would benefit their country rather than to their own personal profit.
A country owes everything to a good prince; but it owes the prince himself to the one whose right counsel has made him what he is.
No other time is so suitable for moulding and improving the prince as when he does not yet understand that he is the prince. This time will therefore have to be carefully employed, so that not only will he be kept away from evil influences for that period but he will also be imbued with some positively good principles.
Since any ordinarily sensible parents take great pains in bringing up a son who is to inherit only a few fields, then how right we are to exercise considerable effort and concern in bringing up one who is being set up, not over a mere cottage but over so many peoples, so many countries, and even over the world, either as a good man, to the great benefit of all, or as an evil one, to their general ruin!
It is a fine and glorious thing to govern well, but it is no less meritorious to ensure that one’s successor is not inferior: or rather, the chief responsibility of a good prince is this, to see to it that there cannot be a bad one.
Conduct your own rule as if you were striving to ensure that no successor could be your equal, but all the time prepare your children for their future reign as if to ensure that a better man would indeed succeed you.
There is no finer tribute to an excellent prince than when he bequeaths to the state someone by comparison with whom he himself seems little better than average, and his glory cannot be more truly illuminated than by being overshadowed in this way.
It is the most deplorable tribute when the succession of an inferior ruler turns his predecessor, who was intolerable while he lived, into someone whose integrity and goodness are sadly missed.
The good and wise prince should always bear in mind, in attending to his children’s upbringing, that those who are born to the state must be brought up for the state, and not to suit his own feelings; what is to the public advantage always takes precedence over the private feelings of a parent.
However many statues he may set up and however much he may toil over the constructions he erects, the prince can leave no finer monument to his good qualities than a son who is in every way of the same stock and who recreates his father’s excellence in his own excellent actions. He does not die who leaves a living likeness of himself.
For this task, therefore, he should pick out from the whole range of his subjects (or indeed recruit from anywhere else) men of integrity, purity, and dignity; men who have been taught by long practical experience and not just by petty maxims; men whose age will win them respect, whose unblemished lives will earn them obedience, and whose pleasant and friendly manner will bring them affection and good will. This is so that the tender young mind may neither take hurt from the harshness of its teachers and thus begin to hate virtue before he understands it, nor on the other hand degenerate in a way it ought not after being spoiled by a tutor’s over-indulgence.
As in all education, so indeed especially in that of the prince, moderation is to be exercised in such a way that while the tutor sternly restrains the frivolity of youth nevertheless the friendly manner in which he does so tempers and mollifies the severity of his control.
The future prince’s educator must, as Seneca elegantly puts it, be a man who knows how to reprimand without giving way to abuse and how to praise without giving way to flattery; let the prince at once respect him for his disciplined life and like him for his agreeable manner.
Some princes investigate very carefully who should be entrusted with the care of a special horse or bird or hound but think it of no importance to whose care they commit the training of a son, and he is very often put in the hands of the sort of teachers whom no ordinary citizen with a little intelligence would want for his children. But what was the point of begetting a son to govern if you do not take care over training him for government?
The child born to the throne is not to be entrusted to just anyone you please even in the case of his nurses, but to women of blameless character who have been prepared and instructed for the task; nor should he associate with unselected companions, but with boys of good and respectable character who have been brought up and trained in the ways of courtesy and decency.” You will have to keep at a distance from his sight and hearing the usual crowd of pleasure-seeking youngsters, drunkards, foul-mouthed people, and especially the flatterers, as long as his moral development is not yet firmly established.
Since for the most part the nature of man inclines towards evil, and furthermore no nature is so blessed at birth that it cannot be corrupted by perverse training, how can you expect anything but evil from a prince who, whatever his nature at birth (and a good lineage does not guarantee a mind as it does a kingdom), is subjected from the very cradle to the most stupid ideas and spends his boyhood among silly women and his youth among whores, degenerate comrades, the most shameless flatterers, buffoons, street-players, drinkers, gamblers, and pleasure-mongers as foolish as they are worthless. In this company he hears nothing, learns nothing, and takes in nothing except pleasure, amusement, pride, arrogance, greed, irascibility, and bullying; and from this schooling he is soon installed at the helm of the kingdom.
Since in all skills the highest are the most difficult, none is finer or more difficult than to rule well; why is it then that for this one skill alone we do not see the need for training but think a birthright is enough?
If as boys they did nothing but play at tyrants, what (I ask you) are they to work at as adults except tyranny?
It is scarcely possible even to hope that all men should be good; but it is not hard to pick out from so many thousands of them one or two who stand out in virtue and wisdom, through whom in a short while a great many others could be made good.
In his youth the prince should for quite some time be distrustful of his years, partly because of his inexperience and partly because of his impetuous spirit, and he should beware of tackling anything of great importance except with the advice of wise counsellors, especially that of the older ones, whose company he must cultivate so that the impetuosity of youth may be tempered by respect for his elders.
Let whoever takes on the office of educating a prince reflect time and again on this, that the job he is doing is in no way an ordinary one: it is both by far the greatest and by far the most hazardous of all. And let him first of all approach it in a spirit worthy of the task, considering not how many benefices he can get out of it but in what way he can give back to the country, which is entrusting its hopes to his good faith, a beneficent prince.
Bear in mind, you who are the tutor, how much you owe to your country, which has entrusted to you the consummation of its happiness. It is in your hands whether you prefer to provide your country with someone who will be a benign influence or to visit it with the destruction of a deadly plague.
Therefore the man into whose arms the state has put its son would be wise to take notice in the first place of what inclinations the boy already has at the time, because even at this age it is possible to recognize by certain signs whether he is more prone to arrogance and fits of temper, or to ambition and a thirst for fame, or to pleasures of the flesh, gambling, and the pursuit of wealth, or to revenge and war, or to impulsiveness and tyranny. Then at those points where he feels the boy is inclined to go wrong let him especially fortify the young mind with healthy precepts and relevant principles and try to guide its nature, while still responsive, in a different direction. Again, where his nature is found to be rightly disposed, or at any rate to have only such faults as are easily turned to a good use (ambition and prodigality are perhaps examples of this), let him concentrate all the more on these positive qualities and actively cultivate them.
But it is not enough just to hand out the sort of maxims which warn him off evil things and summon him to the good. No, they must be fixed in his mind, pressed in, and rammed home. And they must be kept fresh in the memory in all sorts of ways: sometimes in a moral maxim, sometimes in a parable, sometimes by an analogy, sometimes by a live example, an epigram, or a proverb; they must be carved on rings/ painted in pictures, inscribed on prizes, and presented in any other way that a child of his age enjoys, so that they are always before his mind even when he is doing something else.
The examples set by famous men vividly inspire a noble youth’s imagination, but the ideas with which it is imbued are of much the greatest importance, for they are the source from which the whole character of his life develops. Consequently, if it is an untutored boy we have in our charge, we must make every effort to have him drink, from the start, from the purest and healthiest sources and to protect him in advance, as if by an antidote, against the poison of what the common people think. But if it turns out that he has already been somewhat contaminated by popular opinions, then we shall have to take the greatest care to release him from them gradually and to implant wholesome ones in place of the diseased ones that have been eradicated. For, as Aristo puts it in Seneca/ it is fruitless to show a madman how he ought to speak, or go about things, or conduct himself in company and in private, unless you have first rid him of the underlying disease. It is similarly fruitless to give advice on the principles of government without previously setting a prince’s mind free from those popular opinions which are at once most widely held and yet most fallacious.
There is no reason for the tutor to withdraw or lose confidence if he happens to encounter a rather wild and intractable spirit in his pupil. For, given that there is no wild animal so fierce and savage that it cannot be controlled by the persistent attention of a trainer, why should he think that any human spirit is so hopelessly crude that it will not respond to painstaking education?
Equally, he has no reason to think of letting up if his pupil presents a more fortunate nature. For the richer the soil is by nature, the more readily the ground is invaded and taken over by useless grasses and weeds unless the farmer is on the alert. So it is with a man’s character: the more promising, the more noble, the more upright it is, the more it is at the mercy of many shameful vices unless it is nourished by wholesome teachings.
We usually take the most care in reinforcing those shores most severely pounded by the waves. Now there are innumerable things which can distract a prince’s mind from its proper course: great good fortune, abundant material wealth, the pleasures of extravagant luxury, freedom to do as he likes, the precedents of famous but foolish rulers, the very tides and tempest of human affairs, and (above all else) flattery disguised as sincerity and frankness. For this reason, the prince must be carefully prepared against all these by the best principles and by taking praiseworthy princes as his models.
Just as someone who poisons the public fountain from which everybody drinks deserves the severest punishment, so someone who implants in a prince’s mind perverted ideas, which will eventually be the ruin of a great many people, is the most vicious of men.
Given that anyone who debases the prince’s coinage is punished with death, how much more deserving of that punishment is someone who corrupts his mind?
The teacher should make a start on his duties at once so as to sow the seeds of right conduct while the prince’s understanding is still sensitive, while his mind is furthest removed from all vices and plastic enough to take on any form from the hand that moulds it. Wisdom has its period of infancy, as does piety. The teacher’s objective is always the same, but he must use different methods at different times. While his pupil is still a little child, he can introduce into entertaining stories, amusing fables, and clever parables the things he will teach directly when the boy is older.
When the little pupil has enjoyed hearing Aesop’s fable of the lion being saved in his turn by the good offices of the mouse, or of the dove protected by the industry of the ant, and when he has had a good laugh, then the teacher should spell it out: the fable applies to the prince, telling him never to look down on anybody but to try assiduously to win over by kindness the heart of even the humblest of the common people, for no one is so weak but that he may at some time be a friend who can help you or an enemy who can harm you, however powerful you may be yourself.
When he has had his fun out of the eagle, queen of the birds, who was almost totally destroyed by that very lowliest of insects the beetle, the teacher should again point out the meaning: not even the most powerful prince can afford to provoke or disregard even the humblest enemy. Often those who can do no harm physically can do so by guile.
When he has learned with pleasure the story of Phaethon, the teacher should show that he represents a prince who seized the reins of government in the headstrong enthusiasm of youth but with no supporting wisdom and brought ruin upon himself and the entire world.
When he has recounted the story of Cyclops, whose eye was put out by Ulysses, the teacher should say in conclusion that the prince who has great physical, but not mental, strength is like Polyphemus.
Who has not been glad to hear about how the bees and ants govern themselves? When the prince’s childish mind has digested these tasty morsels, then his tutor should bring out whatever feature is educationally relevant, such as that the king never flies far afield since his wings are too small in proportion to his body, and that he alone has no sting. From this the lesson is drawn that it is the part of a good prince always to confine his activities within the limits of his realm and that clemency should be the quality for which he is particularly praised. The same procedure should be carried on throughout. This treatise is not concerned to provide a long list of examples, but merely to point out the principles and the general direction.
Where the material seems rather harsh, the tutor should smooth and soften it with an agreeable style of speech. The teacher should give his praise in the presence of others, but with sincerity and on valid grounds. His rebukes should be delivered in private and in such a way that the severity of his admonition is toned down by a touch of pleasantness in manner. This should be particularly observed when the prince is a little older.
What must be implanted deeply and before all else in the mind of the prince is the best possible understanding of Christ; he should be constantly absorbing his teachings, gathered together in some convenient form drawn from the original sources themselves, from which the teaching is imbibed not only more purely but also more effectively. Let him become convinced of this, that what Christ teaches applies to no one more than to the prince.
A large section of the masses are swayed by false opinions, just like those people trussed up in Plato’s cave, who regarded the empty shadows of things as the things themselves. But it is the role of the good prince not to be impressed by the things that the common people consider of great consequence, but to weigh all things, considering whether they are really good or bad. But nothing is truly bad unless it is bound up with depravity, and nothing really good unless associated with moral worth.
Therefore the tutor should first see that his pupil loves and honours virtue as the most beautiful thing of all, the greatest source of happiness, and especially fitting for a prince, and that he loathes and shrinks from depravity as being the most appalling and wretched of things.
Lest the boy who is destined for the throne should get into the habit of regarding wealth as something of exceptional value, to be gained by fair means or foul, he should learn that true honours are not those commonly acclaimed as such; true honour is the spontaneous consequence of virtue and right action, and the less sought after it is the brighter it shines.
The pleasures of the common people are so far beneath a prince, especially a Christian prince, that they are hardly worthy of mankind at all. Let it be shown that there is another kind of pleasure, which will last, pure and unchanging, all through a man’s life.
Teach the young prince that nobility, statues, wax masks, family trees, and all the heraldic pomp which makes the common people swell with girlish pride, are only empty gestures, except in so far as they have been the consequence of honourable acts.
A prince’s prestige, his greatness, his regal dignity must not be established and preserved by noisy displays of privileged rank but by wisdom, integrity, and right action.
Death is not to be feared, nor should we bemoan that of others, unless it was a dishonourable death. For the man who has lived the longer is not the most fortunate, but the one whose life had greater merit; length of life should be measured not by the number of years but by the number of right actions. It is not how long he lives, but how well, that bears upon a man’s happiness.
Surely virtue is its own great reward. A good prince has the obligation of looking to the welfare of his people even at the cost of his own life if need be. But when a prince loses his life in such a cause, he does not really die. All those things the common people hold fast to as a source of pleasure, or respect as excellent, or adopt as useful are to be evaluated by the single criterion of their moral worth. On the other hand, whatever things the common people shrink from as being disagreeable, or despise as lowly, or avoid as pernicious should not be avoided unless they really do have shameful implications.
These principles should be fixed in the mind of the future prince and be engraved on his tender young heart as the most sacred and immutable laws. Let him hear many people being praised for observing these principles and others being rebuked for not doing so, so that he gets used already at that stage to expecting praise as a result of good actions and to detesting the disgrace that comes from what is truly bad.
But at this point some idiot courtier, who is both more stupid and more misguided than any woman ever was, will protest: ‘You are making a philosopher for us, not a prince.’ ‘I am indeed making a prince,’ I reply, ‘although you would prefer a loafer like yourself to a prince. Unless you are a philosopher you cannot be a prince, only a tyrant. There is nothing better than a good prince, but a tyrant is such a bizarre beast that there is nothing as destructive, nothing more hateful to all.
‘Do not think that it was an ill-considered thesis of Plato’s, praised by the most laudable men, that the state will eventually be blessed if and when either the rulers take up philosophy or the philosophers take over the government. Further, you must realize that “philosopher” does not mean someone who is clever at dialectics or science but someone who rejects illusory appearance and undauntedly seeks out and follows what is true and good. Being a philosopher is in practice the same as being a Christian; only the terminology is different.’
What could be more foolish than to judge the prince by accomplishments like these: dancing gracefully, playing dice expertly, drinking liberally, giving himself airs, plundering the people on a regal scale, and doing all the other things which I am ashamed to mention but which some people are not ashamed to do?
The true prince should avoid the degrading opinions and interests of the common folk to the same extent that the common run of princes are keen to avoid the dress and life-style of the lower classes. The one thing which he should consider degrading, low, and unbecoming to him is to think like the common people, who are never pleased by the best things.
Consider, I beg you, how ridiculous it is to be so much superior to everyone in that you are decked out with jewels, with gold, with the royal purple, with a train of courtiers, with the rest of the physical decorations, wax images, and statues, and with riches that clearly are not your own, and yet as regards real riches of the spirit to be seen to be inferior to many from the very dregs of the people.
What else does the prince do, when he displays jewels, gold, the royal purple, and all the rest of his privileged pomp in the eyes of his subjects, except teach them to envy and admire that which gives rise to the filthy sludge of nearly all the crimes that are punishable by the prince’s own legislation?
In other people, frugality and a simple way of life can always be maliciously interpreted as due to poverty or to parsimony, but in a prince these same qualities are clear evidence of moderation, since he uses sparingly the unlimited resources which he possesses.
How can it be right for the same man to incite criminality and then punish criminal acts? And would it not be very disgraceful to allow himself to do what he forbids to others?
If you want to show that you are an excellent prince, see that no one outdoes you in the necessary qualities of wisdom, magnanimity, restraint, and integrity. If you want to compete with other princes, do not consider yourself superior to them if you take away part of their realm or rout their troops, but only if you have been less corrupt than they, less greedy, less arrogant, less irascible, and less impulsive.
We can take it as read that the highest nobility is becoming for a prince. Since, however, there are three kinds of nobility – the first derived from virtue and good actions, the second from having experienced the best training, and the third as judged by ancestral portraits and family trees or by wealth – consider how inappropriate it is for a prince to pride himself on this third and lowest sort of nobility, which is so low that it is no sort at all unless it has itself sprung from virtue, to the neglect of that highest sort, which is so far the highest that it alone can strictly speaking be regarded as nobility at all.
If you are eager for the recognition of fame, do not make a display of statues or portraits, for if there is really anything to praise in them, it is due to the artist whose talent and effort they represent; it is far better to create in your character a monument to virtue.
If all else fails, the very trappings of your high rank can serve to remind you of your duty. What does the anointing mean, if not great mildness and civilized restraint on the part of the prince, since cruelty tends to go along with great power? What does the gold signify, except outstanding wisdom; and what the bright sparkle of the gems, except extraordinary virtues as different as can be from the common run? What does the warm, rich purple mean, if not the essence of love for the state? And why the sceptre, except as a mark of a spirit which grasps hold of justice and is diverted from the right by no tempting distraction? But if someone conspicuously lacks these qualities, then for him these symbols are not decorations but reproaches for his defects.
If all that makes a king is a chain, a sceptre, robes of royal purple, and a train of attendants, what after all is to prevent the actors in a drama who come on the stage decked with all the pomp of state from being regarded as real kings?
Do you want to know what distinguishes a real king from the actor? It is the spirit that is right for a prince: being like a father to the state. It is on this understanding that the people have sworn allegiance to him.
The crown, the sceptre, the royal robes, the chain, and the sword-belt are all tokens or symbols of the good qualities of a good prince; in a bad one they are the stigmata of vice.
The poorer the prince’s character is the more alert you must be that he does not become the sort we read about as having been numerous in the past and would that there were none to be seen today! If you take away their regal ornaments and strip them to the skin, divesting them of the goods they have acquired, you will find nothing left except an expert dice-player, a champion tippler, a ruthless destroyer of decency, a most cunning deceiver, an insatiable plunderer, a man covered with perjury, sacrilege, treachery, and all kinds of crime.
Whenever you think of yourself as a prince, always remember the fact that you are a Christian prince! You should be as different from even the noble pagan princes as a Christian is from a pagan.
Do not think, indeed, that the life of a professing Christian is carefree and elegant, unless, of course, you think nothing of the oath which you, along with everyone else, swore at your baptism: that you renounce once and for all everything that pleases Satan and displeases Christ. Whatever conflicts with the teachings of the Gospel displeases him.
You share the Christian sacraments with others, and do you refuse to share the teachings too? Having sworn the oath of Christ, will you turn aside to the behaviour of Julius or Alexander the Great? You expect the same reward as the others, yet you think his precepts do not apply to you?
But, on the other hand, do not think that Christ is found in mere ceremonies, that is, in precepts no longer seriously observed, and in the institutions of the church. Who is a true Christian? Not just someone who is baptized or confirmed or who goes to mass: rather it is someone who has embraced Christ in the depths of his heart and who expresses this by acting in a Christian spirit.
Guard against such inner thoughts as these: ‘Why are you piping me this tune? I am not a mere subject; I am not a priest; I am not a monk.’ Think rather in this way: ‘I am a Christian and a prince.’ It is up to a true Christian to keep well away from all depravity, and it is the province of a prince to surpass all in blameless character and wisdom. You compel your subjects to know and obey your laws; so how much more energetically should you exact from yourself knowledge of and obedience to the laws of Christ who is king over you!
You judge it an infamous crime, for which no punishment can be severe enough, for someone who has sworn allegiance to his king to revolt from him. On what grounds, then, do you exonerate yourself and treat as a laughing matter the innumerable times you have broken the laws of Christ, to whom you yourself swore allegiance in your baptism, with whose cause you identified, and by whose sacraments you are bound and pledged?
If this was all done in earnest, why do we treat it as a game? But if it is only a game, why do we glory in the name of Christ? There is but one death for all, beggars and kings alike. But the judgment after death is not the same for all: none are treated more sternly then than those who were powerful.
Do not think that you have done your duty by Christ well enough if you have sent a fleet against the Turks or built a shrine or a little monastery somewhere. No other achievement will better enable you to win God’s favour than if you show yourself to be a beneficial prince to your people.
Guard against the deceit of flatterers who declare that precepts of this kind do not apply to princes but only to that class which they call ecclesiastics. Admittedly, the prince is not a priest, and therefore does not consecrate the body of Christ; nor is he a bishop, and so he does not preach to the people on the mysteries of Christianity and does not administer the sacraments; he has not made his profession in the order of St Benedict, and therefore does not wear the cowl. But, more than all this, he is a Christian. The order in which he has made his profession is not that of Francis but of Christ himself, and he has received the white robe from him. The prince must strive along with other Christians if he hopes for rewards just as great. You too take your cross, or else Christ will not acknowledge you. ‘What then is my cross?’ you may ask. I will tell you. So long as you follow what is right, do violence to no one, extort from no one, sell no public office, and are corrupted by no bribes, then, to be sure, your treasury will have far less in it than otherwise. But disregard the impoverishment of the treasury, so long as you are showing a profit in justice. Again, so long as you take pains to consider the interests of the state in every way you will be leading a life of anxiety, depriving your youthful spirit of its pleasures, and wearing yourself down with sleepless nights and work. Forget that, and enjoy your awareness that you are in the right. Similarly, if you choose to tolerate injuries rather than avenge them at great cost to the state, your empire is likely to be reduced to some extent. Put up with it, and consider that you have gained an enormous amount by bringing harm to fewer people than you would otherwise have done. Do your personal feelings as a man (such as anger provoked by insults, love for your wife, hatred of an enemy, shame) urge you to do what is not right and what is not to the advantage of the state? Let your regard for what is honourable win, and let your concern for the public welfare conquer your private emotions. Finally, if you cannot defend your kingdom without violating justice, without much human bloodshed, or without great damage to the cause of religion, then abdicate rather than that, and yield to the realities of the situation. If you cannot look after the possessions of your subjects without danger to your own life, set the safety of the people before your own. But while you are acting in this way, which is that of a true Christian prince, there will probably be those who call you a fool and not a prince at all. Stand fast in your resolve and prefer to be a just man rather than an unjust prince. You can see, that even the greatest kings are not without their crosses if they want to follow the right course at all times, as they should.
With ordinary people, allowances are made for youth and for old age: a mistake is tolerated in the former; leisure and retirement are granted to the latter. But the man who takes on the duties of the prince is not free to be either a young man or an old one, since he is managing everyone’s affairs. He cannot make a mistake without a great loss to many people; he cannot let up in his duties without the most terrible disasters.
The ancients said that it is a wretched sort of wisdom which is acquired by experience, because each person reaches it through his own misfortune. This wisdom should therefore be kept well away from the prince, for in so far as it comes too late it has depended upon the whole people suffering great misfortune.
If Africanus was right in saying that ‘I didn’t think’ is not a fit expression for any wise man, how much more unsuited is it to a prince, when it not only costs him dear but costs the state too much as well? A war once started on impulse by a young prince with no military experience may last for twenty years. What a vast tide of misfortune rises from this! Eventually, when it is too late, he comes to his senses and says, ‘I didn’t think.’ Another time, at his own inclination or at some people’s insistent request, he appoints public officials who wreck the orderly functioning of the whole state. After a while he sees his mistake and says ‘I didn’t think.’ That sort of wisdom is too expensive for the state, if everything else has to be bought at the same high price.
Hence the prince’s mind will be educated in the first instance by established principles and ideas, in such a way that he gains his knowledge from theory and not practice. Beyond this, the practical experience which his youth denies him will be supplied by that of older men.
Do not think you may do anything you please, as foolish women and flatterers are in the habit of twittering to princes. Train yourself in such a way that nothing pleases you which is not permissible, and remember that what is quite in order for private citizens is not necessarily suitable for you. What is a mistake in other people is a crime in the prince.
The more others allow you the less you should permit yourself, and the more others indulge you the more strict you must be with yourself. Even when everyone applauds you, you should be your own severest critic.
Your life is open to view: you cannot hide. The fact is that either you are a good man to the great benefit to all, or a bad one bringing great disaster to all.
As more honours are accorded to you by everyone, so you must strive the harder to see that you are not unworthy of them. Just as no adequate honours or gratitude can ever be shown a good prince, so conversely no punishment is enough for what a bad one deserves.
Just as there is nothing more beneficial in life than a wise and good monarch, so, on the other hand, there can be no greater plague than a foolish or wicked one.
The corruption of an evil prince spreads more quickly and widely than the contagion of any plague. Conversely, there is no other quicker and effective way of improving public morals than for the prince to lead a blameless life.
The common people imitate nothing with more pleasure than what they see their prince do. Under a gambler, gambling is rife; under a fighter, everyone gets into fights; under a gourmandizer, they wallow in extravagance; under a voluptuary, they become promiscuous; under a cruel man, they bring charges and false accusations against each other. Turn the pages of history and you will always find the morality of an age reflecting the life of its prince.
No comet, no fateful power affects the progress of human affairs in the way that the life of the prince grips and transforms the moral attitudes and character of his subjects.
The diligence and moral standards of the priests and bishops are admittedly an important factor here, but not nearly so much so as are those of princes. Men are more ready to criticize the clergy if they happen to be bad than they are to emulate them when they are good. So it is that monks who really are pious do not stimulate people to follow their example because they seem only to be practising what they preach, whereas if they are not everyone is terribly shocked. But there is no one who does not feel the urge to be like his prince!
For this very reason the prince should take special care not to fall into wrongdoing, so as not to turn innumerable people to wrongdoing by his example; and for the same reason he will rather devote himself to setting a good example, so that so many more good people may result.
A beneficent prince, as Plutarch said with all his learning, is a kind of living likeness of God, who is at once good and powerful. His goodness makes him want to help all; his power makes him able to do so.
By contrast, an evil plague of a prince presents the image of the devil, who combines great power with the greatest malevolence. Whatever resources he has he devotes entirely to the destruction of the human race. Was not Nero just this sort of evil spirit in the world? And Caligula, and Heliogabalus? Not only were they plagues to the world during their lives, but even their very memory is open to the general curse of mankind.
When you who are a prince, a Christian prince, hear and read that you are the likeness of God and his vicar, do not swell with pride on this account, but rather let the fact make you all the more concerned to live up to that wonderful archetype of yours; and remember that, though following him is hard, not following him is a sin.
Christian theology attributes three principal qualities to God: total power, total wisdom, total goodness. You should master these three things so far as you can. Power without goodness is unmitigated tyranny, and without wisdom it is destruction, not government. First, therefore, inasmuch as fortune gave you power, make it your business to acquire for yourself the greatest possible store of wisdom so that you, alone of all men, may best be able to see what should be striven for and what should be avoided; and so that, in the next place, you may try to provide for everyone as far as possible, for that is the province of goodness. Make your power serve you to this end, that you can be of as much assistance as you want to be; indeed, you should want to achieve more than you actually can. On the other hand, the more harm you are able to do, the less you should want to.
God is loved by all good men. Only the wicked fear him, and even then it is the sort of fear which anyone has of getting hurt. In the same way a good prince must be an object of fear to none but the evildoers and criminals, but here again, in such a way that even they retain some hope of leniency, if only they are capable of reform. On the other hand, the Prince of Darkness is loved by none and feared by all, especially by good people, for the wicked are on his side. Likewise a tyrant is greatly hated by every good man, and none are closer to him than the very worst people.
This was clearly seen by St Denis, who divided the world into three hierarchies: what God is in the ranks of heaven the bishop should be in the church and the prince in the state. He is supreme in goodness, and all his goodness flows from him to other men as from a spring. Therefore it would obviously be quite absurd for the greatest proportion of all the state’s misfortunes to arise from him who is supposed to be the source of goodness.
The people are unruly by nature, and magistrates are easily corrupted by avarice or ambition. The blameless character of the prince remains, as it were, the sheet-anchor for the ship of the state. If he, too, is overcome by depraved desires and foolish ideas, what last hope is there for that ship?
As God is universally beneficent and does not need the services of anyone or ask for any favours, so it is the part of a prince who is truly great (in that he reflects the image of the Eternal Prince) to earn everyone’s good will freely and without regard to compensation or glory.
As God set up a beautiful likeness of himself in the heavens, the sun, so he established among men a tangible and living image of himself, the king. But nothing is more communal than the sun, which imparts its light to the rest of the heavenly bodies. In the same way the prince must be readily accessible for the needs of his people, and have his own personal light of wisdom in himself, so that even if everyone else is in some respect blind, yet his own vision is never at fault.
Although God is swayed by no emotions, he nevertheless orders the world with the greatest good judgment. Following his example in all his actions, the prince must disregard emotional reactions and use only reason and judgment.
Nothing is higher than God, and similarly the prince should be removed as far as possible from the low concerns and sordid emotions of the common people.
Just as nobody sees God, although he is regulating everything, but only feels him when affected by His kindness, so the prince’s native land should not feel his powers except when getting some relief through his wisdom and goodness. The hand of the tyrant, by contrast, is felt nowhere except to the misfortune of all.
When the sun is highest in the zodiac, then its motion is slowest; so in your case, the higher fortune carries you, the more lenient and less severe you should be.
True high-mindedness is displayed not in intolerance of the slightest insult or in resenting any empire greater than your own, but rather in scorning any unprincely action.
All slavery is pitiable and dishonourable, but the most pitiable and dishonourable form of slavery is to be a slave to vice and shameful desires.
What is more abject and disgraceful, I ask you, than for him who claims dominion over free men to be himself a slave to lust, anger, greed, ambition, and all the rest of that band of unseemly masters?
Given that among the pagans there were some who preferred to kill themselves rather than preserve their power with great waste of life (that is, who set the welfare of the state above their own lives), would it not be absurd for a Christian prince to be concerned with his pleasures and base desires to the great detriment of the state?
When you assume the office of prince, do not think how much honour is bestowed upon you, but rather how great a burden and how much anxiety you have taken on. Do not consider only the income and revenues, but also the pains you must take; and do not think that you have acquired an opportunity for plunder, but for service.
According to Plato, only someone who has assumed the office unwillingly and not without persuasion is fit to be a ruler. For whoever covets the position of a prince must necessarily either be a fool who does not realize how stressful and dangerous a task it is to carry out a ruler’s duties properly; or he must be so wicked a man that he plans to use the royal power for his own benefit, not for that of the state; or so irresponsible a man that he does not think at all about the burden he is taking on. To be fit to rule, a man needs to be at the same time responsible, good, and wise.
Take care not to regard yourself as the more fortunate according as the realm you take over is more extensive. Remember that you are thereby shouldering greater cares and responsibilities and that you are bound to give less and less to your leisures and pleasures.
Only those who dedicate themselves to the state, and not the state to themselves, deserve the title ‘prince.’ For if someone rules to suit himself and assesses everything by how it affects his own convenience, then it does not matter what titles he bears: in practice he is certainly a tyrant, not a prince. Just as there is no more honourable title than ‘prince,’ so there is no term more detested and cursed on every score than ‘tyrant.’
There is the same difference between a prince and a tyrant as there is between a benevolent father and a cruel master. The former is willing to give even his life for his children; the latter thinks of nothing else than his own gain, or conducts his life to suit himself without considering the welfare of his people.
Do not be satisfied with being called ‘king’ or ‘prince,’ for even those plagues of the earth Phalaris and Dionysius had those titles, but weigh up in your own mind what you are. If Seneca was right in what he said, the difference between a tyrant and a king is in their actions, not in their title.
To put it in a nutshell, Aristotle differentiates in his Politics between a prince and a tyrant by the criterion that the latter is concerned for his own interests and the former for the state. No matter what the prince is deliberating about, he always bears in mind whether it is to the advantage of all his subjects; a tyrant considers whether it will serve his own purpose. A prince is chiefly concerned with the needs of his subjects, even while engaged in his personal business. On the other hand, if a tyrant does ever do well by his subjects, he turns this very fact to his private benefit all the same.
Those who look out for their people only in so far as it redounds to their personal advantage are treating their subjects on the same level as the common people treat their horses and donkeys. For the latter do indeed take care of their animals, but they measure their attention by the advantage it brings to themselves. But those who despoil people in their greed and torture them with their cruelty or expose them to all sorts of perils to satisfy their ambition are giving free citizens a lower status than the common folk give to the cattle they buy or the gladiator-master gives to the gladiators he owns.
The prince’s tutor shall see that a hatred of the very words ‘despotism’ and ‘tyranny’ are implanted in the future prince by frequent diatribes against those names which are an abomination to the whole human race – Phalaris, Mezentius, Dionysius of Syracuse, Nero, Caligula, and Domitian, who wanted to be called ‘God’ and ‘Lord.’
On the other hand, any examples of good princes which make a strong contrast with the image of a tyrant should be eagerly put forward with frequent praise and commendation. Then let him paint as it were a picture of each type, king and tyrant, and impress them as far as he can on the mind’s eye, so that the prince may be all the more enthusiastic about the one and recoil more sharply from the other.
Let the teacher therefore depict a sort of celestial creature, more like a divinity than a mortal: complete with every single virtue; born for the common good, sent indeed by the powers to alleviate the human condition by looking out for and caring for everyone; to whom nothing is more important or more dear than the state; who has more than a fatherly disposition toward everyone; who holds the life of each individual dearer than his own; who works and strives night and day for nothing else than that conditions should be the best possible for everyone; with whom rewards are ready for all good men and pardon for the wicked if only they will mend their ways, for he wants so much to do well by his people of his own free will that if necessary he would not hesitate to attend to their well-being at great risk to himself; who considers that his own wealth consists in the welfare of his country; who is always on the watch so that everyone else may sleep soundly; who leaves himself no leisure so that his country has the chance to live in peace; who torments himself with constant anxieties so that his subjects may enjoy peace of mind. Let the happiness of the whole people depend upon the moral quality of this one man; let the tutor point this out as the picture of a true prince!
On the other side, let him thrust before his pupil’s eyes a terrible, loathsome beast: formed of a dragon, wolf, lion, viper, bear, and similar monsters; having hundreds of eyes all over it, teeth everywhere, fearsome from all angles, and with hooked claws; having a hunger that is never satisfied, fattened on human entrails and intoxicated with human blood; an unsleeping menace to the fortunes and lives of all men, dangerous to everyone especially to the good, a sort of fateful blight on the whole world, which everyone who has the interests of the state at heart curses and hates; intolerable in its monstrousness and yet incapable of being removed without great destruction to the world, because its malevolence is supported by armed forces and wealth. This is the picture of a tyrant, unless something even more hateful can be depicted. Claudius and Caligula were this sort of monster; and so, as represented in the stories of the poets, were Busiris, Pentheus, and Midas. All these names are now objects of hatred to the whole human race.
A tyrant’s aim is to follow whatever takes his fancy; a king’s on the other hand, is to follow what is right and honourable. For a tyrant, reward is wealth; to a king, it is the honour which follows from virtue. A tyrant governs by fear, deceit, and evil cunning; a king through wisdom, integrity, and goodwill. The tyrant wields his power for himself; the king for the state. The tyrant guards his security with a gang of foreign attendants and with hired brigands, the king considers himself safe enough in his good will toward his subjects and their good will towards him. Those citizens who are distinguished for their moral quality, judgment, and prestige are held in suspicion and distrust by the tyrant, whereas the king holds fast to them as his helpers and friends. The tyrant is pleased either with fools on whom he imposes or with wicked men whom he puts to evil use in protecting his tyrannical position or with flatterers from whom he hears what he enjoys hearing. To a king, by contrast, every wise man by whose advice he can be helped is very welcome; the better each man is the more he values him, because he can safely rely on his loyalty; he likes friends who speak frankly, for their companionship improves him. Both kings and tyrants have many hands and many eyes/ but these parts are very different. A tyrant acts in such a way as to get the wealth of his subjects in the hands of a few, and those the most wicked people, and to bolster up his own power by diminishing the strength of his subjects; the king considers that his own greatest asset is the wealth of his subjects. The tyrant brings it about that everyone is under his thumb, either in law or through informers; the king delights in the freedom of his people. The tyrant strives to be feared, the king to be loved. The tyrant looks upon nothing with greater suspicion than co-operation between good men and between cities, but this is something in which good princes especially rejoice. Tyrants are happy to stir up party conflicts and disputes between their subjects and carefully feed and foster such animosities as happen to arise, improperly trading on these situations to reinforce their tyranny. But a king has the one interest of fostering harmony among his subjects and of resolving straight away such dissensions as happen to grow up among them – not surprisingly, because he understands that they are a most serious disease in the state. When a tyrant sees that affairs of state are flourishing he stirs up a war, having invented some pretext or even invited an enemy in, so as to reduce thereby the strength of his own people. By contrast, a king does everything and allows everything that will conduce to continuous peace in his country, for he realizes that war is the single source of all sorts of misfortunes to the state. The tyrant either sets up laws, constitutions, edicts, treaties, and all things sacred and profane for his own personal protection or else he twists them to that end. The king judges all these things by their value to the state.
Tyranny has very many characteristics and methods of this sort, and Aristotle has expounded them at length in his Politics, but he summarizes them all under three heads. First, he says, the tyrant is concerned to see that his subjects neither wish nor dare to rise against his tyrannical rule; next, that they do not trust one another; and thirdly, that they have no means of working to change the system. He achieves the first objective by doing everything to prevent his subjects from developing any spirit at all or any wisdom, and by keeping them like slaves and either accustomed to a degraded status or vulnerable to informers or debilitated by self-indulgence. For he knows that noble and confident spirits do not tolerate despotism with good grace. He achieves the second aim by stirring up dissension and mutual hatred among his subjects, so that one accuses the other and he himself meanwhile becomes more powerful as a result of his people’s troubles. The third he attains by using every means to reduce the wealth and prestige of any of his subjects, and especially that of the good men; and no sensible person would be inclined to resist him in this, because he would not think there was any hope of success.
A prince should keep as far as possible from all such considerations, indeed he must take his stand poles apart from them, as the saying goes, especially when he is a Christian prince. If Aristotle, who was a pagan and a philosopher too (and not as holy as he was learned even by their standards), painted such a picture, how much more is it necessary for one who is Christ’s representative to do so?
The counterparts of king and tyrant can be found even among the dumb animals themselves. The king bee has the largest room, but it is in the centre, as if in the safest place for the king. And indeed he has no work to do, but is the one who supervises the work of the others. If he is lost, the whole swarm disintegrates. Moreover the king has a distinctive appearance, being different from the rest in both the size and the sheen of his body. But this feature, as Seneca said, most reliably distinguishes him from the rest: although bees are very angry creatures, so much so that they leave their stings in the wound, the king alone has no sting. Nature did not want him to be fierce and seek a revenge which would cost him so dear, and she deprived him of a weapon, leaving his anger ineffective. This is an important example for powerful kings.
Now if you are looking for what corresponds to the tyrant, think of the lion, the bear, the wolf, or the eagle, who live by mutilation and plundering, and, since they realize that they are vulnerable to the hatred of all and that everyone seeks to ambush them, confine themselves to steep crags or hide away in caves and deserts – except that the tyrant outdoes even these creatures in savagery. Dragon-like snakes, leopards, lions, and the rest of the creatures who are condemned for savage cruelty do at least refrain from attacking their own species and there is safety in similarity of nature among wild animals. But the tyrant, a man, directs his animal ferocity against men and, although a citizen himself, against citizens.
Indeed, even in the Holy Scriptures God has painted a likeness of the despot in these words: This will be the power of the king who shall rule over you. He will take your sons and put them in his chariots, and he will make them his horsemen and men to run in front of his chariots; in order to provide himself with tribunes and centurions, with ploughmen for his fields and harvesters for his crops, and with forgers of weapons and builders of chariots. Your daughters also he will make into perfume-makers and cooks and bakers. He will take your fields, too, and your vineyards and your best olive groves, and will give them to his servants. But he will take a tenth of your corn crops and of the produce of your vineyards, and will give it to his eunuchs and his attendants. He will take away also your servants, male and female, and your best young men as well as your donkeys, and will put them to his own use. He will also take a tenth of your herds, and you shall be servants to him. And you will cry out in that day because of the nature of the king you have chosen for yourselves, and the Lord will not hear you/ And let it not disturb anyone that he calls this man a king and not a tyrant, since the title of ‘king’ was in the past no less hated than that of ‘tyrant/ And, seeing that nothing is more beneficial than a good king, why should God in anger have ordered this picture to be put before the people, apparently in order to deter them from looking for a king? He said, in the same vein, that the power of kings was the power of tyrants. Besides, Samuel himself had ruled as a true king, administering the people’s affairs for so many years in sanctity and purity. But they, not understanding their good fortune, were demanding a king in the pagan mould, who should rule arrogantly and forcibly. And yet how large a part is there in this picture of the evils which we have seen within living memory even in some Christian princes, to the great misfortune of the whole world?
Let me give you now a picture of the good prince, which God himself has drawn in the book of Deuteronomy in the following way: ‘And when the king has been established, he will not increase the number of his horses, nor will he lead the people back into Egypt with the aid of his numerous horsemen. He will not have several wives who would distract his attention, nor huge quantities of silver and gold. But after he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he will write out for himself another copy of the law in a book, borrowing the original from the priests of the tribe of Levi; and he shall have it with him all the days of his life so as to learn to fear the Lord his God, and to guard his words and ceremonies which have been laid down in the law. And let him not lift his heart in pride over his brothers, nor turn aside to the left hand or the right, so that he and his sons may reign for a long time over Israel.’ If a Hebrew king is instructed to learn a body of the law which provided only sketches and images of justice, how much more is it appropriate for a Christian prince to observe and follow the teachings of the Gospel? If God does not want a Jewish king to be elevated above his people, and calls them not servants but brothers, how much less ought a Christian king to do that to Christians, whom Christ himself also calls his brothers even though he is King over all princes?
Now hear how Ezekiel has described the tyrant. There are princes in her midst,’ he says, ‘like wolves savaging their prey to the shedding of blood/ Plato calls princes the guardians of the state, in that they are to the nation what sheep dogs are to the flock; but if the sheep dogs turn into wolves, what hope is there then for the flock?
In another place he calls a cruel and rapacious prince a lion, and elsewhere he attacks such shepherds as look after themselves but take no care of the flock, thinking of princes who exercise their power for their own ends. And Paul said, referring to Nero, ‘I was set free from the mouth of a lion.’ And see how the wise Solomon depicted the tyrant with almost the same sentiment; he said, ‘A wicked prince over a wretched people is a roaring lion and a ravening bear.’ And again in another place, ‘When the wicked assume princely power, the people groan,’ as if they had been taken off into slavery. And again elsewhere, ‘When the wicked rise up, men hide themselves away.’
What about the passage in Isaiah when the Lord takes offence at the people’s misdeeds and threatens them with the words ‘I will give them children to be their princes, and girlish weaklings shall rule over them’; is he not clearly asserting that no more bitter disaster can overtake a country than to have a foolish and wicked prince?
But why do we persist in this vein, when Christ himself, who is the one Prince and Lord of all, has marked very clearly the distinction between Christian and pagan princes? The princes of the gentiles/ he says, ‘hold sway over them, and those that have power exercise it among them. But it shall not be so among you.’ If it is the part of pagan princes to dominate, domination is not the way for a Christian to rule. For what can he mean by ‘It shall not be so among you/ except that a different practice must obtain among Christians, among whom the office of prince means orderly control, not imperial power, and kingship means helpful supervision, not tyranny?
Nor should the prince soothe himself with the thought, These things apply to bishops, not to me.’ They do indeed apply to you; if, that is, you are a Christian! If you are not a Christian, they do not apply to you at all. Nor should you be indignant if you have perhaps seen a number of bishops who fall far short of this ideal. Let them look to what they are doing, and do you concentrate on what is right for you.
Do not regard yourself as a good prince if, in comparison to others, you appear to be less bad. And do not think that you are allowed to do whatever princes in general do. Discipline yourself according to the rule of honour, and judge yourself by that; and if there is nobody left for you to outdo, then compete with yourself, since the finest contest of all, and one truly worthy of an invincible prince, is to struggle daily to improve upon oneself.
If the name of despotism is vile, or rather if its aims are, they will not become more honourable by many men having them in common; in so far as moral value is a property of actions themselves, the number of people is irrevelant.
Seneca has wisely written that kings who have the spirit of robbers and pirates should be put in the same class as robbers and pirates. For it is this alone, the spirit, that distinguishes king from tyrant, not his title.
Aristotle tells us in his Politics that in some oligarchies it was the custom that those who were about to enter office would swear a set oath along these lines: ‘I will persecute the people with hatred and will strive vigorously to make it go ill with them/ But the prince who is about to take up office swears a very different oath to his people, and yet we hear of some who treat their people as if they had sworn according to that barbarian usage that they would in every way be an enemy to the people’s affairs.
Obviously it smells of tyranny if whenever things go well for the prince it is worse for the people, and if the good fortune of the one grows out of the other’s disaster; as if a head of household were to contrive that he himself become richer and more powerful from the miseries of his family.
Whoever wants to bestow on himself the title of prince and wants to escape the hated name of tyrant must win it for himself by benevolent actions and not through fear and threats. For it means nothing for someone to be called prince by flatterers or by victims of oppression, or to be called father of the country if he has in fact been a tyrant, or even to be worshipped by his own age if posterity disagrees. You can see with how much hatred posterity records the malpractices of once-dreaded kings whom nobody dared to offend with so much as a nod when they were alive, and you see how readily even their very names are detested.”
The good prince must have the same attitude towards his subjects as a good paterfamilias has towards his household; for what else is a kingdom but a large family, and what is a king but the father of very many people? For he is set above them and yet he is of the same kind: a man ruling men, a free man ruling free men and not wild beasts, as Aristotle rightly put it. Which is indeed what the ancient poets also seem to have had in mind when they accordingly denoted Jupiter, to whom they attributed dominion over the whole world and all the gods (in their way of speaking), with the words ‘father of gods and men/ And we who have learned from our teacher Christ similiarly call God, who is undoubtedly the Prince over all, by the name of ‘Father.’
But what could be more repulsive and accursed than that expression with which Achilles (I think), in Homer, brands the prince who rules for himself and not for his people: ‘a king who consumes his subjects.’ For he found nothing more offensive to say, for all his anger, against one whom he judged unworthy to rule than that he devoured his own people. And when this same Homer uses the term ‘king’ out of respect for honour, he usually calls him ‘shepherd of the people.’ There is a great deal of difference between a pastor and a predator. On what specious grounds, therefore, can people appropriate the title of ‘prince’ to themselves if they pick out from the mass of their subjects a wicked few who use cunningly chosen pretexts and constantly changing excuses to drain off both the strength and the wealth of the people and then convert it to their own account? Or if they squander corruptly in pleasure-seeking or consume in cruel wars what they have ruthlessly extorted? And anyone who can play the hardened villain in this business is held in high esteem. It is as if the prince were the enemy of his people, not the father, and the prince’s best minister the man who most effectively thwarts the well-being of the people.
Just as the paterfamilias thinks that whatever gain comes to any member of the family represents an increase in his own fortunes, so he who is really endowed with a princely spirit thinks of any possessions which his subjects have anywhere as being part of his own wealth; for he has them so devoted and dedicated to himself that they do not shrink from anything, even from laying down their lives, not just their money, for their prince.
It will be worth our while to notice what adjectives Julius Pollux used in designating kings and tyrants to the emperor Commodus, whose childhood tutor he was. For after putting the king next below the gods, as being close to them and very like them, he says this (although Latin cannot translate the words properly because it lacks the special qualities of Greek, I will give the following version all the same so that they may be understood): ‘Praise a king in these terms: father, mild, calm, lenient, far-sighted, fair-minded, humane, magnanimous, frank, disdainful of wealth, not at the mercy of his emotions, self-controlled, in command of his pleasures, rational, of keen judgment, perceptive, cautious, giving sound advice, just, restrained, attentive to both sacred and human affairs, stable, resolute, reliable, thinking on a grand scale, of independent mind, hard-working, a man of achievement, concerned for the people he governs, protective, ready to be helpful, slow to take revenge, decisive, constant, immovable, favouring justice, always attentive to what is said about the prince by way of keeping the balance, accessible, congenial in company with others, amiable with those who want to speak to him, charming, open to view, concerned for those subject to his rule, fond of his soldiers, vigorous in waging war but not looking for a fight, peace-loving, a peace-maker, a peace-keeper, fit to improve public morality, one who knows how to be a commander and a prince and to establish beneficial laws, born to deserve good will and having a godlike presence. And there are many qualities besides these which could be described, but for which there are no single words or phrases.’ So far we have been expounding the view of Pollux. Now if a pagan teacher designed such a prince for the pagans, how much more saintly should be the plan drawn up for a Christian prince?
Now see what colours he used to depict the tyrant. The sense of the passage is roughly as follows: ‘You will castigate an evil prince in this way: despotic, cruel, savage, violent, grasping of what is not his, money-grubber, in Plato’s phrase, greedy for wealth, rapacious, and as Homer said, consuming his subjects, haughty, proud, unapproachable, bad-tempered, unpleasant to meet, unbending in company, uncongenial to talk to, irritable, frightening, stormy, a slave to his desires, intemperate, unrestrained, tactless, unkind, unjust, thoughtless, unfair, immoral, stupid, shallow, fickle, easily taken in, disagreeable, callous, ruled by his feelings, intolerant of criticism, abusive, warmonger, oppressive, troublesome, intractable, unbearable.’
Since God is very far removed from such a despotic character, it is obviously true that he detests nothing more than a plague of a king; and since no wild beast is more harmful than a tyrant, it is indisputable that nothing is more detestable to humanity in general than an evil prince. But who would even wish to live hated and cursed by God and man alike? Thus, when Octavius Augustus realized that there were continual conspiracies against his life, so that when one was put down another followed in its wake, he did not think his life worth so much that he should preserve his own safety at the cost of so much bloodshed among the people, since everyone hated him.
So also a realm governed honourably and benevolently is not only more peaceful and pleasant but also more stable and long-lasting; this can easily be seen from ancient history. No tyrant was so well defended that he stayed in power very long, and whenever a state’s government degenerated into tyranny this clearly hastened its downfall.
He who is feared by all must himself be in fear of many, and he whom the majority of people want dead cannot be safe.
In the past the honours of divinity were accorded to those who had governed well; but there was a law about tyrants, which nowadays applies to wolves and bears, that a reward would be paid from public funds for doing away with a public enemy.
In early times, kings were appointed, by popular agreement, simply because of their exceptional qualities, which were called heroic to suggest that they were more than human and approaching the divine. Let princes therefore remember their origins, in the realization that they are not princes at all if they lack what it was that made princes in the first place.
Although there are many kinds of state, it is pretty well agreed among the philosophers that the most healthy form is monarchy; not surprisingly, for, by analogy with the deity, when the totality of things is in one person’s power, then indeed, in so far as he is in this respect in the image of God, he excels everyone else in wisdom and goodness, and, being quite independent, concentrates exclusively on helping the state. Anything different from this would have to be the worst type of state, since it would be in conflict with that which is the best.
If it happens that your prince is complete with all the virtues, then monarchy pure and simple is the thing. But since this would probably never happen, although it is a fine ideal to entertain, if no more than an ordinary man is presented (things being what they are nowadays), then monarchy should preferably be checked and diluted with a mixture of aristocracy and democracy to prevent it ever breaking out into tyranny; and just as the elements mutually balance each other, so let the state be stabilized with a similar control. For if the prince is well disposed to the state, he will conclude that under such a system his power is not restricted but sustained. But if he is not, it is all the more necessary as something to blunt and break the violence of one man.
Although there are many kinds of authority (man over animals, master over slaves, father over children, husband over wife), Aristotle pronounces a king’s authority to be the finest of all and calls it particularly godlike in that it seems to have something more than mortal about it. If then it is godlike to rule as a king, it follows that to be a tyrant must be to play the part of him who is the opposite of God.
One slave is preferable to another, as the proverb puts it, just as one master is more powerful than another, one art more distinguished than another art, or one service better than another. But the prince must excel in the best kind of wisdom, namely, an understanding of how to administer the state justly.
It is a master’s job to give orders, a servant’s to obey them. A tyrant gives what orders he pleases, a prince what he has judged to be best for the state. What sort of orders, then, will someone give who does not know what is best? Or even someone who mistakes the worst for the best when blinded either by ignorance or by emotion?
Just as it is the job of the eyes to see, of the ears to hear, and of the nostrils to smell, so it is the prince’s job to look to the people’s interests. But wisdom is the only means by which he can look to those interests, so that if a prince lacks it he will no more look to the state’s interests than a blind eye will see.
In his Oeconomicus, Xenophon writes that it is somewhat godlike, rather than human, to rule over free men with their consent. For ruling over dumb animals or people forcibly enslaved is menial. But man is a godlike animal, and free twice over: once by nature, and again by his laws. In the same way, it is a sign of the highest and clearly godlike virtue for a king so to moderate his rule that the people feel it as a benefaction and not as enslavement.
Beware of regarding as your own only those people whose efforts you make use of in your kitchens, on your hunts, or in domestic services, since very often no people are less yours; but think of the whole range of your subjects as belonging equally to you. And if anyone is to be picked out from them all, be sure to have as your closest and most intimate associate such a man as is of the highest character and who has the greatest love for the country and for the state. When you visit your cities, do not think to yourself like this: ‘I am the master of all these; they are at my disposal; I can do what I like with them.’ But if you want to think about it as a good prince should, do so along these lines: ‘Everything here has been put in my trust, and I must therefore keep a good watch over it so that I may hand it back in better condition than I received it.’
When you survey the countless multitude of your subjects, beware of thinking: These many servants I have.’ Think rather: ‘So many thousands of people depend on my watchfulness; to me alone they have entrusted themselves and their property for protection; they look upon me as a parent; I can be of help to so many thousands if I establish myself as a good prince over them, but if as an evil one I can harm even more. Must I not therefore take the greatest pains not to be wicked, and not to harm so many human beings?’
Always bear in mind that the words ‘dominion/ ‘imperial authority/ ‘kingdom/ ‘majesty/ and ‘power’ are pagan terms, not Christian; the ‘imperial authority’ of Christians is nothing other than administration, benefaction, and guardianship.
But if these words are still to your liking, be sure to remember how the pagan philosophers themselves understood and expounded them: that the prince’s authority over a people is the same as that of the mind over the body. The mind has control over the body because it is wiser than the body, but its control is exercised for the great advantage of the body rather than for its own, and the happiness of the body consists in the rule of the mind.
What the heart is in the living body the prince is in the state. Since it is the fount of the blood and of the spirits, it imparts life to the whole body, but if it is impaired, it debilitates every part of the body. Just as that organ in the living body is the last one of all to be affected by disease and is thought to retain the last vestiges of life, so the prince ought to remain quite uncontaminated by any taint of foolishness if that sort of condition overtakes his people.
As in man the most important part, which is of course the mind, is in control, and within the mind in turn the highest part, namely reason, presides, and what rules over the whole creation is the highest of all, namely God, just so whoever has, as it were, taken over the ruling part in the great body of the state must surpass the rest in integrity, wisdom, and watchfulness. And the prince must be as much superior in these qualities to his officials as they are to the common people.
If there is any evil in the mind, it arises from being in contact with the body, which is at the mercy of the emotions; and whatever good the body has springs from the mind as from a fountain. And just as it would be paradoxical and contrary to nature if harmful influences were to spread from the mind into the body and if the well-being of the body were vitiated by disease of the mind, so it would be utterly grotesque if wars, insurrections, corrupt behaviour, immoral legislation, corrupt officials, and other plagues of this kind upon the state were to proceed from princes themselves, when it is their wisdom which should have composed such unrest as arises from the foolishness of the common people. But we very often see flourishing states, which have been well established by the efforts of the people, overthrown by the malpractice of their princes.
How unchristian it is to rejoice in the title of ‘master’ when quite a few rulers who were foreign to Christ have shunned it and have refused, through fear of resentment, to be called what they actually wanted, in their ambition, to be. But will the same Christian prince think it right for himself to be styled ‘Magnificent’?
Despite having usurped imperial office by criminal acts, Octavius Augustus thought it offensive to be called ‘master’; and when an actor used that style in front of all the people, his facial expression and his comments disclaimed it as if it were a term of reproach for tyrants. And will not a Christian prince display the same humility as the pagan?
If you are the master of all your people, it follows that they must be your slaves; in which case you must look out lest, in line with the old proverb,I in every slave you may have an enemy.
Since nature created all men free and slavery was imposed upon nature (a fact which even the laws of the pagans concede), consider how inappropriate it is for a Christian to acquire mastery over fellow-Christians, whom the laws did not intend to be slaves and whom Christ redeemed from all slavery. Paul is a witness to this when he calls Onesimus, who had been born a slave, the brother of his former master Philemon once he had been baptized.
What a mockery it is to regard as slaves those whom Christ redeemed with the same blood as redeemed you, whom he set free into the same freedom as you, and whom he has called to inherit immortality along with you, and to impose the yoke of slavery on those who have the same Lord and Prince as you do in Jesus Christ!
Since Christians have only one Lord, why do those who carry out his functions prefer to take their pattern of government from anyone but him who alone is to be emulated in all things? It is quite proper to take over from others anything of virtue that they happen to have in their make-up, but in him is the perfect model of all virtue and wisdom. This does indeed seem a foolish idea, but only to unbelievers: for us, if we are true believers, he is the goodness of God and the wisdom of God.
I would not want you to think to yourself at this point, ‘But that is serving, not ruling.’ Far from it: it is the finest kind of ruling – unless perhaps you regard God as a servant because he has no recompense for regulating this universe, in which everything experiences his good will and no reward is paid to him; unless the mind appears to be a servant because it is so assiduous in looking after the body’s well-being even though it has no need of it; unless the eye is thought to be the servant of the other parts of the body because it is on the watch for them all.
You could well look at it in this way: if, by practising Circe’s art, someone were to turn all the people you call your subjects into pigs and donkeys, would you not say that your empire had been devalued? I think you would. And yet you can have more control over pigs and donkeys than you can over men, for you can drive them where you please or divide them up or even slaughter them. Consequently he who turns free citizens into slaves will have devalued his empire. The more prestigious that which is subject to your rule is, the more magnificent and glorious is your reign. Therefore he who protects the freedom and dignity of the subjects contributes to your regal grandeur.
To avoid ruling over subjects who are under duress, God himself bestowed free will upon both angels and men so as to make his power more splendid and majestic. And what man thinks highly of himself on the ground that he rules a people kept down by fear like a herd of cattle?
Do not let it escape you that what is said in the Gospels or in the apostolic writings about the need to endure masters, obey officials, do honour to the king, and pay taxes is to be taken as referring to pagan princes, since at that time there were not yet any Christian princes. The instruction is for non-Christian authorities to be obeyed lest any disturbance of the civil order should occur, provided only that they keep within their jurisdiction and do not give orders that offend God. A pagan prince requires to be honoured; Paul says honour is to be shown him. He levies a tax; Paul wants the tax to be paid. He exacts tribute; Paul instructs them to pay the tribute. For the Christian man is in no way diminished by these things, and these rulers do have some sort of rightful power and should not be provoked whenever occasion arises. But what does he go on to say about Christians? ‘You ought not/ he says, ‘to have any debts among yourselves, except to love one another/ Otherwise we should have to say that Christ really owed tribute to Caesar, just because it is on record that he paid up a didrachma?
In the Gospel, when he was schemingly asked whether a people which thought itself dedicated to God should pay dues to Caesar he asked for a coin to be shown him; and when it was shown he gave no sign of recognizing it but inquired, as if he did not know, whose image and legend it bore. When the answer came that they were Caesar’s, he replied equivocally to those who were trying to catch him out: ‘Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God those that are God’s/ Thus he at once evaded the questioner’s trap and also took the opportunity of exhorting devotion to God to whom we owe everything. Moreover, it was as if to say: ‘It is up to you to look to what you owe to Caesar, whom I have nothing to do with; consider rather what you owe to God, whose work (and not Caesar’s) I am carrying out.’
I hope that on this point such thoughts as these will not occur to anyone: ‘Why then do you take away the prince’s own rights and attribute more to the pagan than to the Christian?’ But I do not; I stand up for the rights of the Christian prince. It is the right of a pagan prince to oppress his people by fear, to compel them to do humiliating tasks, to dispossess them, to plunder their goods and finally make martyrs of them: that is a pagan prince’s right. You do not want the Christian prince to have the same, do you? Or will his rightful power seem to be reduced if these things are denied him?
Authority is not lost to him who rules in a Christian way; but he maintains it in other ways, and indeed much more gloriously and more securely. You will be able to grasp that this is so from the following considerations. First, people you oppress with servitude are not really yours because it takes general agreement to make a prince. But in the end those are truly yours who obey you voluntarily and of their own accord. Next, when your subjects are compelled through fear, you do not possess even the half of them: their bodies are in your power, but their spirit is estranged from you. But when Christian charity binds prince and people together, then everything is yours whenever occasion demands. For the good prince does not make demands except when the country’s interests demand it. Again, when there is domination and not good will, however much the prince exacts, he inevitably has less than when everything is his. He acquires most who requires nothing, but commands respect.
Moreover, the honour shown to the tyrant is not honour at all, but flattery or pretence; it is not obedience, but servitude; nor is the magnificence he displays genuine, but rather arrogance; he possesses not authority, but force. But he who acts as a Christian prince has all these things in their true form. He who does not demand respect receives more respect than anyone else; no one is more willingly obeyed than he who does not require obedience; for nobody do people pour out their wealth more readily than for him who they think will devote it to the public advantage and return it with interest.
There is a mutual interchange between the prince and the people. The people owe you their tribute, they owe you obedience and respect; but you in turn owe the people a good and vigilant prince. When you exact a tax, which is as it were owed by your people, be sure that you first put yourself to the test as to whether you have discharged the obligation of your office to them.
Aristotle says that the essence of mastery consists not in possessing slaves but rather in using them. But nevertheless the office of prince depends much less upon titles and statues and the collection of revenue than upon taking thought for the people.
Since the state is a kind of body composed of different parts, among whose number is the prince himself (even if he is exceptional), it will be important to maintain a balance that is for the good of them all, and does not result in one or other becoming plump and vigorous while the rest are weakened. For if the prince rejoices and prospers in the misfortunes of the state, he is neither a part of the state nor a prince, but a robber.
Aristotle put forward the idea that a slave is a living part of his master, if indeed he is a true master. There is at least both a friendly relationship between the part and the whole and some advantage to each from the other. If this is true between an owner and a slave bought under the hammer/ as they say, how much more should it be so between a Christian populace and a Christian prince?
If a prince’s thoughts and actions are concerned exclusively with extorting as much money as possible from the people, with gathering in the greatest possible revenue by his laws, and with selling magistracies and government offices to the highest bidder, then, I ask you, should he be called a prince rather than a merchant, or, as I would more accurately call him, a robber?
When Croesus, after the capture of his city, saw the soldiers of Cyrus rushing about with a great tumult, he asked what they were doing. When Cyrus replied that they were doing what a victorious army usually does, plundering the people’s goods, he said to him: ‘What is this I hear? Are not these things already yours, since you have conquered me? So why do your men plunder your own things?’ Cyrus took the point, and restrained his soldiers from their looting. The prince should always bear that same point in mind: these things which are being extorted are mine, these people who are being deprived and oppressed are mine, and what wrongs I do to them I do to myself.
Be sure to govern in such a way that you can easily give a justification for what you have done; and if nobody requires it, you are all the more obliged to require it of yourself. For the time will come, and that quite soon, when justification will be required of you by him to whom it will make no difference that you have been a prince, except that the greater the power that was entrusted to you, the stricter will be the judge with whom you are faced. Even if you alone are monarch of the whole world, this is a judge whom you will not be able to deceive or escape or intimidate or corrupt.
When once you have dedicated yourself to the state, you are no longer at liberty to live in your own way: you must maintain and cultivate the role you have undertaken.
Nobody enters an Olympic contest without first weighing up what the rules of that contest require. And he does not complain that the sun disturbs him or the dust or the sweat or anything else of this kind, because all these things are part and parcel of the very conditions of the event. In the same way, someone who undertakes to govern must first weigh up in his mind what the demands of the prince’s office are. He must take account of the other people’s interests and disregard his own; he must keep watch so that others are allowed to sleep; he must work so that others may take their leisure. He must show the highest integrity of character, although in others ordinary decency suffices. His mind must be drained of all personal feeling, and while he is engaged in public business he must think of nothing but the people. He must do good even to those who are ungrateful, even to those who do not understand, and even to those who resist him. If these things are not to your liking, why do you enter the office of government? Or why do you not give up to someone else what chance handed down to you? And if this is not possible, do at least delegate any executive authority to someone who has the qualities which you should have shown yourself.
It was very wisely said by one of the wise Greeks that what is excellent is also difficult. Consequently it must be remembered that to prove oneself a good prince is indeed by far the finest thing of all, but is at the same time much the most difficult of all. Nor must you be at all disturbed if at the present time you see some princes living in such a way as to make it seem that being the father of a family is harder than being a prince, and that there is some sense in the old proverb which says kings and fools are born, not made.
Therefore since all other men take pains to study in advance the skill which they aim to profess, how much more attentively ought the prince to learn beforehand about the principles of government? And indeed attainment in the other skills depends mainly upon four factors: natural aptitude, instruction, demonstration, and practice. Plato looks for a smooth and tranquil temperament in the prince. For while he admits that lively and excitable people are suitable for training, he denies that they are appropriate for administering the state. There are some temperamental defects which can be remedied by upbringing and special attention, but one can come up against a nature which is either so brainless or so wild and truculent that to try to train it would be a waste of effort. Nero’s nature was so corrupt that even that saintly teacher Seneca could not prevent his becoming a most pestilential ruler.
Instruction must be implanted, as I have said, from the start, and it must be worthy of a true prince, and unambiguous; which is why Plato wanted his guardians to come to dialectic at a later stage, because by giving arguments for both sides of a question it makes judgments about right and wrong less secure. The model for government is to be taken especially from God himself, and from Christ who is both God and man, whose teachings will also be a principal source for instruction. Practice, which is the last part, is rather more hazardous in the case of a prince: for although it is of no great consequence if someone who is practicing to become a good lutenist wears out a few lutes, it would indeed be a serious matter for the state to suffer while the prince learns how to administer it. By all means therefore let him get used to it from childhood onwards, by sitting in on consultations, by attending courts of law, by being present at the creation of magistrates, and by hearing the demands of kings; but this should all be after instruction in the principles involved, so that he may make a better appraisal. Let him not indeed decide anything without confirmation from the judgment of many others, until his age and experience have made his own judgment more reliable.
If Homer was right in saying that a prince cannot expect a full night’s sleep, when so many thousands of people and such a great burden of business have been entrusted to him, and if Virgil’s similar picture of his Aeneas is aptly drawn, then where does a prince find the leisure, I ask you, for wasting whole days on end, and indeed most of his life, in gambling, dancing, hunting, fooling about, and other even more trivial trivialities than these?
The state is being undermined by party rivalries and afflicted by wars, robbery is everywhere, the common people are reduced to starvation and the gallows by rampant extortion, the weak are oppressed by the injustice of those in high places, and corrupt magistrates do what they please instead of what the law says; and in the middle of this, is the prince playing dice as if he were on holiday?
The man at the helm cannot be a sleepyhead, so can the prince go snoring on in such perilous conditions? No sea ever has such severe storms as every kingdom constantly experiences. And the prince must therefore always be on his guard against going off course in some way, since he cannot go wrong without bringing disaster to thousands.
The size of his ship, the value of his cargo, or the number of his passengers are not the source of greater pride but of greater vigilance in a good ship’s captain. So the more subjects a good king has, the more alert he must be, not the more arrogant.
If you reflect upon how great a kingdom you support, there will always be something to do; and if you get into the habit of taking pleasure in the well-being of the people, you will never be without a source of pleasure, so that there will then be no scope for idle boredom to distract the good prince with improper diversions.
The prince must especially observe what has been laid down by the wisest men, that is, to choose that way of life which is the best, not the most attractive, because in the end familiarity generally makes what is best attractive too.
If an artist gets pleasure from a beautiful painting which he has done, and if a farmer, a market gardener, and a craftsmen enjoy their work, nothing should be more pleasurable for the prince than surveying a state which has been improved and made more prosperous by his own efforts.
While there is no denying that being a good prince is a burden, it is much more of a burden to be a bad one. Natural and reasonable things take far less trouble than simulations and deceptions.
If you are really a prince, it will be surprising if you do not feel a great glow of satisfaction when you think to yourself: ‘I was wise to avoid that war, it was a good thing to stifle that uprising with the least possible bloodshed, and in approving that man as a magistrate I acted in the best interests of the state and of my reputation/ And this indeed is a pleasure worthy of the Christian prince; provide yourself with the raw material for it in your everyday acts of goodness and leave other vulgar little amusements to the worthless rabble.
Everybody praises Solomon because when he was in a position to ask for whatever he wanted and would have received at once whatever he asked, he did not ask for enormous wealth, or to rule the whole world, or for the destruction of his enemies, or for exceptional fame and glory, or for pleasure, but for wisdom; and not for just any wisdom, but for that which would enable him to govern creditably the kingdom entrusted to him. Midas, on the other hand, is condemned by everybody because he valued nothing more than gold. And why should there be one judgment for history and another for real life? We want happiness for the prince, victory, praise, long life, and wealth; but if we really are devoted to the prince, why do we not rather desire for him the one thing that Solomon wanted? And in order to prevent his request from seeming foolish, God commended the wisdom of it, on this basis. Why should we regard the only thing which is relevant to something as being least relevant? And yet there are plenty of people who believe that the one thing which obstructs the function of government is having a wise prince. They say that the strength of his character is dissipated and he becomes too cautious. But they are talking about rashness, not courage; to lack fear because you lack judgment is not strength of mind but stupidity. Bravery in the prince must be sought from other sources; for by that standard young men are very brave, but people in a rage are even more so. A sense of fear is useful when it points out danger and teaches one to avoid it and when it restrains one from a shameful and corrupting way of life.
Someone who is on watch for everybody by himself has to be especially watchful, and someone who looks after the interests of everybody on his own has to be especially wise. What God is in the universe, what the sun is to the world, and what the eye is in the body, that must the prince be in the state.
Wise men of ancient times, whose way it was to use hieroglyphics and sketch the significance of things in a lifelike symbol, used to represent the image of a king in this way: they would draw an eye and add a sceptre, signifying integrity of life and a mind which is not to be diverted for any reason from what is right and which is equipped with sound judgment and the greatest vigilance.
Others used to depict the royal sceptre in this way: at the top was a stork, the symbol of devotion to duty, and at the bottom a hippopotamus, a wild and dangerous animal. This was to imply, as you can see, that, if ever wild emotions such as anger, desire for revenge, greed, or violence are raging in the prince then devotion to his country conquers and suppresses those feelings. Arrogance is encouraged by taking advantage of good fortune and by material success, but love for one’s country should be stronger than these.
According to Plutarch, the Thebans in olden times used to have among their sacred images some seated figures without hands, and the chief of these also had no eyes. He tells us that the reason for their being seated is that magistrates and judges ought to have a calm temperament unruffled by any emotion. He suggests that they have no hands because they must be blameless and untouched by any corrupting bribe. Further, the fact that the chief one also has no eyes means that the king is so impervious to being bribed into dishonesty that he is not even affected by regard for any person’s appearance and takes in information only with his ears.
In the same vein, let the prince learn to take a philosophical interest in the very insignia with which he is adorned. What does the anointing of kings mean except great mildness of spirit? What does the crown on his head mean except a wisdom supreme among innumerable people? The interwoven chain put round his neck stands for the harmonious combination of all virtues; the jewels shining with multicoloured brilliance and beauty mean the perfection of virtue and that every kind of goodness must stand out in the prince; the glowing purple robes signify his intense affection towards his subjects; his official decorations indicate that he will either equal or surpass the achievements of his ancestors. The sword carried in front of him signifies that under his protection the country is to be safe, both from outside enemies and from crime within.
The first obligation of the good prince is to have the best possible intentions; the next is to be on the look-out for ways of avoiding or removing evils, and, on the other hand, of achieving, increasing, and reinforcing what is good. It is perhaps enough for a private individual to be well-intentioned, since he is guided by the law and the magistrates prescribe what is to be done. But in the prince it is not enough to be well-meaning and have the best intentions, unless they are accompanied by wisdom, which demonstrates by what means he may achieve what he desires.
How little difference there is between a marble statue inscribed with the name of Croesus or Cyrus and superbly decked out with crown and sceptre and a prince who has no heart! The only difference is that the blank stare of the former does nobody any harm, while the latter’s senselessness is very detrimental to the state.
Do not judge yourself by the qualities of your stature or your fortunate position but by those of the mind, and measure yourself not by the praises of other people but by your own actions.
Since you are the prince, see to it that you allow only such compliments as are worthy of a prince. If someone speaks highly of your appearance, reflect that that sort of praise is for a woman. If anyone admires your eloquence, remember that that is praise for sophists and orators. If anyone extols your strength and physical powers, bear in mind that that is how athletes are to be praised, not princes. If somebody praises your tall stature, think to yourself, ‘He would be right to compliment me on this if something had to be reached down from a high place/ When someone has praise for your wealth, be sure to think that that is the way for businessmen to be praised. Consider that you have still heard nothing suitable for a prince so long as you are hearing fanfares of this sort. What praise, then is proper for princes? Well, certainly if he has eyes at the back as well as at the front and can look forwards and backwards, as Homer says; that is, if he knows the most that is possible, looking back on what has happened and forward to the future, and then if he uses whatever he knows for his country’s good and not his own. And yet there is no other way of increasing his wisdom for himself than by using it for his country.
Suppose that someone praises a physician along these lines: ‘He is good-looking and well-built, he has good family connections, he is well off, he is good with the dice, he is an accomplished dancer, he sings beautifully and he is a skilful ball-player’; would you not immediately think to yourself, ‘What has this to do with being a physician?’ And when you hear the same things from foolish eulogizers, then reflect all the more, ‘What has this to do with being a prince?’
There are three principal requirements in a medical man: first, that he be skilled in the curative arts and familiar with the resources of the body, the powers of diseases, and the treatment to use for each illness; second, that he should be sincere and not have his eye on anything except the health of the patient, for many are led on by ambition or money to the point of administering poison instead of medicine; third, that he should pay close attention and take the necessary pains. But these things are of much greater importance for the prince.
Finally, what does Aristotle, a pagan, demand in the prince in his Politics? The beauty of Nereus? The strength of Milo?° The stature of Maximinus? The wealth of Tantalus? No, none of these. What then? He expects the highest and most complete integrity, even though he is content with a moderate standard in private individuals.
If you can be a prince and a good man at the same time, you will be performing a magnificent service; but if not, give up the position of prince rather than become a bad man for the sake of it. It is quite possible to find a good man who would not make a good prince, yet one cannot be a good prince without at the same time being a good man. However the standards of some princes have now reached the point where these two roles of good man and prince seem to be very much in conflict with each other, and it is regarded as patently foolish and ridiculous to speak of a good man and a prince in the same breath.
You will not be able to be a king unless reason is king over you; that is, unless you follow good sense and balanced judgment rather than personal desires in all things. Nor can you rule over others unless you yourself have previously obeyed what is right.
Let that more than tyrannical slogan ‘I desire this, I command this, let my will be the reason/ be far removed from the mind of the prince. And much more so the one which has already met with the general condemnation of mankind, ‘Let them hate me so long as they fear me.’ It is the mark of a tyrant, and indeed of a woman, to follow an emotional impulse, and fear is a very bad protector for any length of time.
Let it be the prince’s constant principle to harm nobody, to be of help to everybody, especially his own people/ and either to tolerate such faults as there are or to put them right according to his assessment of what is expedient for the common good. Anyone who does not have this attitude towards the state is a tyrant, not a prince.
If anyone were to call you not a prince but a tyrant and a robber, would you not be enraged and instigate terrible punishment for him? And rightly so: for it is a terrible insult, and one which should not be put up with in any circumstances. But I would like you to consider this point: how much more of an insult directed against himself is it for someone to choose to be the kind of man he is accused of being? For it is a more serious matter to be a thief than to be called one, and it is more brutal to violate a young girl than to be accused of the violation.
In order to be well spoken of, the most reliable course to follow is to show yourself to be the sort of person that you want men to call you. It is not genuine praise that is extracted by intimidation or offered by flatterers, and it is detrimental to the prince’s reputation if its protection depends upon silence induced by threats. Although your own age may keep very quiet at the moment, posterity will surely speak. Was there ever any tyrant so terrifying that he could seal the lips of absolutely everybody?
The Christian prince must take especial care on a point which Seneca has wisely discussed. Among those who are called kings, some can be found who, even in comparison with Phalaris, Dionysius, and Polycrates (whose very names have become objects of disgust in every century), do not deserve to be called so much as tyrants. For it is not a question of which road you are on, but in which direction you are going: he who looks to the common good is a king; he who looks to his own good is a tyrant. And yet what name shall we then assign to those who feather their own nests at their country’s expense, and who are in fact robbers although in name (but falsely so) princes?
In his laws, Plato forbids anyone to say that God is the source of any evil, because he is by nature good and beneficent. But the prince is a kind of representation of God,l° if he is a true prince. How far, then, do rulers fall short of this ideal if they act in such a way that whatever evils arise in the state arise from their own defects?
Pay no attention if some flatterer should object at this point that this amounts to reducing the prince to the ranks. Not at all: it is the one who wants to allow the prince to act disreputably who is reducing him to the ranks. For what else is reducing the prince to the ranks apart from turning him into the same sort of person as the man in the street, so that he is at the mercy of anger, desire, ambition, greed, and foolishness? Would it really be shameful and intolerable if what is not allowed to God is not allowed to the prince? God does not ask to be allowed to please himself so that he may ignore what good principles dictate: if he did this he would not then be God. Consequently, someone who wants to allow this to the prince when it conflicts with the nature and principles of being a prince is ultimately depriving him of princely status and making him just one of the common crowd. The prince should not be ashamed to obey what is good and right, for God himself obeys it; nor should he think himself any less a prince if he makes every effort to approach the image of the highest prince of all.
To produce a good prince, these and similar seeds should be sown from the start by parents, nurses, and tutor in the boy’s young mind; and let him learn them voluntarily and not under compulsion. For this is the way to bring up a prince who is destined to rule over free and willing subjects. Let him learn to love goodness, to shun depravity, and to keep away from corrupt influences out of decency and not out of fear. And although some hope of developing a good prince lies in changed behaviour and the control of feelings, nevertheless the chief hope is in correct beliefs. For sometimes even a bad conscience checks bad behaviour, and either maturity or reproach corrects debased inclinations. But when there is the conviction that something utterly dishonourable has its merits and that something more than tyrannical is an outstanding quality in the prince (that is, when the sources from which all life’s actions flow are contaminated), then the remedy is very difficult. Consequently the educator must be primarily and especially concerned, as has been said, on this point: to eradicate from his pupil’s mind whatever shameful and vulgar ideas may somehow have taken root, and to implant those that are healthy and worthy of the Christian prince.