Today we look at the first chapter of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. This is an extremely short chapter (even by the standards of “The Prince”) that simply lays out “The Various Kinds of Government and the Ways by Which They Are Established” as N.M. sees them.
N.M. divides the governments of the world into republics and monarchies. (He will, of course, be interested exclusively in the latter). Monarchies he further sub-divides into those ruled by a prince who inherited his crown, and those ruled by their founders.
It’s important to pause for a moment to clarify something: when N.M. writes of “founding”, he refers to founding a government, as opposed to a state. He cites, for instance, Francesco Sforza as an example of a founding prince: Sforza took power as Duke in Milan from the Golden Ambrosian Republic, which, in turn, had existed only 3 years; prior to its founding, Milan had been ruled by another Duke.
N.M. goes on to subdivide newly-founded monarchies into those which are entirely new (e.g. Sforza in Milan) and those which are annexed to the possessions of an existing prince. (N.M. cites the annexation of Naples by the King of Spain as an example of this latter situation.) Again, I think it is interesting to see how N.M. models things; in his view, when a prince annexes a new kingdom, he is not extending his monarchy to a new place, rather he is founding a new government, of which he is also the head.
Finally, N.M. notes that new possessions must fall into two categories: those already accustomed to monarchy, and those that were formerly republics, and that such possessions may have been acquired by four means:
- The prince’s own arms
- The arms of others
- Good fortune
- Special ability
This chapter, like almost all others in “The Prince”, is very brief. N.M. makes his point (here, some basic political taxonomy) and moves on. Fortunately, he usually packs something thought-provoking into the few words he spends.
Aside from the rather weak enumeration at the end, this chapter is an interesting look into the political organization of a pre-national world. We are used to thinking of peoples as the basic element of political geography, and it is eye-opening to realize that it need not be, and was not always so. 500 years ago, the Italian political world was made up of cities and princes.
Ronald Reagan famously said of the United States that “[w]e are a nation that has a government — not the other way around”. In Machiavelli’s time: not so much.